Category Archives: Writing & recording original music

Blue Lotus Feet in the recording studio

Blue Lotus Feet in the studio, recording our first album!

Blue Lotus Feet in the studio, recording our first album!

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Q&A about “dots and dashes”

1) How did this album come about?
Like many independent musicians, I’ve been at this for awhile, saving, investing in new gear as I’ve been able, and writing/recording whenever the opportunity arises. In this case, I knew I had some vacation time coming up, and I just cleared my calendar, put my head down, and put in the hours in the studio. Got up early, made coffee, and went in to see what the writing/recording gods had in store. For me, no matter how exhausting, challenging, and sometimes frustrating the creative process can be, it’s always worth it in the end.

2) Tell us about your gear.
I run a PRS Custom 24 through a Mesa Boogie Mark V combo. The PRS is stock, except for the addition of a Tremol-No system I had installed, because I really wish it was a hardtail. But other than that, I love my PRS. It’s a ’96, and it plays like a dream. I also have an original CA (Composite Acoustics) Guitars “Legend” acoustic, from before the company was bought by Peavey.

My preamp is a FocusRite Saffire Pro 40, and I’m running Logic. I’ve basically been doing what I can to copy my heroes… Jim Matheos and Kevin Moore are two musicians I really look up to, so I’ve taken bits and pieces from their studios and gone with that. I’m very happy with the results.

3) I understand you got an endorsement deal with CA Guitars for the Legend?
Yes, that’s true. I was doing some work with Lance Keltner at his studio in Austin back in the early 90’s. He was on the phone with the guys from CA Guitars that particular morning, so I had to wait awhile. Of course, there I was, sitting in the studio of one of my heroes, playing his acoustic while he was in the other room. I was happy as could be. I would have gladly sat there all day.

I guess he was impressed that I didn’t cop an attitude… but honestly, how could I have? I was grinning from ear to ear, looking around, taking mental notes, and just trying to soak in the whole vibe while it lasted. He was incredibly down to earth, friendly, and patient. One thing led to another, and the CA Guitars folks were interested in supporting the arts-based diversity work I was doing at the time.

4) Let’s talk about the album. The song “dots and dashes” is 16:09… what inspired that, and what was your writing process for that song?
Well, I never actually planned to write a song that was so long. It just sort of unfolded. I guess I had a lot of pent-up creative energy, and I’ve just been bursting at the seams for the chance to have the time and space to focus completely on writing and recording.

This particular song just kept happening in little sections. I was sitting on the couch with my acoustic and a little hand-held digital voice recorder, capturing ideas. The night before, while walking into the dining room to eat supper, I had a brainstorm, and I told my wife I’d be just a few minutes while I jotted down some ideas. Next thing I knew, I’d written all the lyrics to “dots and dashes”, and it was an hour later. Thankfully, as a musician herself, she’s very understanding. She knows what it’s like when inspiration strikes.

So I was reading through the lyrics and just goofing around with different ideas and recording them in little bits and pieces as they came out. I would read a phrase from the lyrics and matching music would present itself. Later, I pieced it all together, recording it in sections since the instrumentation was so different between certain sections.

5) That song alone jumps from genre to genre, and everything from blues rock to prog metal to jazz is found on this album. When people ask you what genre of music you play, what do you tell them?

I’ve given up trying to fit myself into a box. When I first got some decent recording equipment and started getting serious about writing and recording, I was just in heaven, exploring all kinds of sounds and not worrying about genres or marketing or anything. Then, as I started to get a few albums done, I heard people tell me that in order to market myself properly, I had to have a target audience, choose a genre and stick with it, etc. And I tried to do that. But as time went on, I felt like I was trying to squeeze myself into a smaller and smaller box.

Finally, with this album, I just decided to forget all that and go back to what I love doing, which is writing and recording and exploring the endless world of sound. That’s why you’ll find so many different styles of music on this album. Things have come full circle, and I’m digging deep and setting aside the inner critic that likes to say, “Uh oh, you shouldn’t do that… it won’t be well received.” Maybe not. But I’m happy.

The biggest catch-22 I’ve run into is figuring out who I’m writing for. I’ve heard musicians getting criticized for being self-indulgent in their writing, like having obscure lyrics, or stories that aren’t readily understood by everyone. Steely Dan, one of my favorite bands, is a great example. On the other hand, you can write something very accessible and that can be seen as pandering to your audience. After awhile, I finally realized that no matter WHAT I did, there was no way to please everyone. So now I write what I love and roll with it.

6) I see that some of the songs on this album are brand new, and others are from 2004. How did that come about?
I have quite a back log of songs I’ve written over the past decade, but back then my equipment was comparatively crude, and the recordings I have from back then reflect that. Initially when I started this album, I set out to write new material and only record that. Then a dear friend happened to ask me about re-recording an old song from back in the day that he loved. I decided to go for it, just to see how it would sound, and I was really pleased with how it turned out. At that point I realized that I have a lot of really good songs that could finally receive the proper treatment they’ve deserved all this time. Bringing those songs back to life has been enormously rewarding.

7) Do you have fun recording?
Like Jim Matheos said in a recent interview, “‘fun’ is a strong word.” Writing and recording can be a very rewarding and satisfying journey, but it’s certainly not without its frustrations. Some of the most beautiful music I’ve ever made has been the result of days, weeks, sometimes months of effort to get things just right.

8) How long does it take you to record a song, once it’s written?
I’ve been following this pretty closely over the past six years, and the average for me is about two hours worth of recording time for each minute of music. The song “dots and dashes” is 16:09, and I can tell you that, yes, it did, quite literally, take me 32 to 35 hours to record and mix that song. Basically, four or five days straight of nothing but working on that song, for 8-10 hours at a time. Draining, but very satisfying in the end.

9) What is your dream?
I’m living my dream. I’m writing and recording my own music, on my own terms. I’m surrounded by people I love, I have food, clothing, and shelter… I have everything I need. Compared to so many people in the world who struggle just to eat every day, I’m the richest man in the world.

10) Any advice for musicians just getting started, or looking for their “big break”?
Just do what you love, and do it for the joy of it. Another one of my heroes, producer Ken Scott, says that if you do it for the money and you don’t get the money, you’ll be unhappy. But if you love what you’re doing, you’ll be happy either way. I agree with him. Whether I’m cutting a guitar solo or cutting the grass, if I’m doing it for the joy of it, then I’ve already won.

Check out “dots and dashes” and all of Tim’s music for free at www.timbirchard.bandcamp.com

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Writing. Recording. July. Murakami.

July 31st, and the leaves are turning on the aspen tree in the front yard. It’ll be an early winter.

A look back on this month leaves me feeling philosophical. Or maybe it’s because I just finished re-reading Murakami’s “A Wild Sheep Chase” for the umpteenth time. I could say that each of his novels is like the perfect pop song… verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus… but someone else has probably already said it, and I’d be simply rehashing. It’s frustrating to love someone’s writing so much, to connect with it so deeply, and not be able to adequately express it.

Expression. That’s what July has been about. Releasing three different albums… one, a collaboration with my brother Chris; one, a solo endeavor; (www.timbirchard.bandcamp.com) and one, Cheryl’s second volume of public domain hymns (www.cherylbirchard.bandcamp.com). Looking back at July is like looking out the window of a fast-moving car on a tree-lined street… nothing but a blur of colors and sounds.

Not that it felt that way in the moment. At times, the writing / tracking / mix down process, seemed like sitting in the dentist’s chair for an extended stay. A root canal, maybe. Especially when  the fatigue of multiple back-to-back 10-hour recording marathon sessions left me unable to determine what was wrong: my guitar sound, or my ears.

And yet it is all so satisfying. Can there be such a thing as a sexy root canal? For the dentist, maybe?

July will be over in about 15 hours, and it’ll be time to return to my “other” world. A world where writing, recording, and creating music happens in between other things, like alleyways between buildings on a city block. After spending a month tending sheep in the country.

But that’s okay. That’s good, in fact. Because without it, I might get permanently lost up in my head… wandering through maze within maze of concepts, colors, brush strokes, sounds that I lose myself completely and end up a hermit. At least this way I interact in some meaningful way with the outer world. And truly, it’s like a see-saw… without “down” there can be no “up”.

And even though it will all get swallowed up in the end, what a beautiful, fascinating, tragic, glorious thing to see those leaves change.

Like I said, it leaves me feeling philosophical. Murakami does that to me. Every single time.

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Cheryl’s new album: Favorite Hymns (Volume 2)

www.cherylbirchard.bandcamp.com

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Another new album: dots and dashes

If Santana went to a jazz barbecue, bumped into the guys from Fates Warning, and they all jumped up on the flatbed with the house string quartet to have a jam session, this is what it might sound like.

Listen for free: www.timbirchard.bandcamp.com.

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New Album: The Sacred and Profane

The latest album is ready in digital form (www.timbirchard.bandcamp.com). Aiming for an August release of the physical cd.

This album is about three questions:

What is sacred?
What is profane?
Who decides?
Words and music by Tim Birchard except “Eagle Pass to Torreon”, words by Chris Birchard; and “Hunger”, words by Chris and Tim Birchard.
Thanks to my friends and family who are always supportive.
Special thanks to Glenn Schindler, Jason Gabbard, and Scott Kadera for always being there.
Special thanks to my brother Chris for the collaborations.
Special thanks to David Kairis and Katie Kisiel for way huge support.
And, as always, deepest thanks to Cheryl for unwavering love and support.

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Regarding today’s outdoor gig: An open letter to the Universe

Dear Universe,

Thank you for today’s gig. Playing my bass and singing at an outdoor venue with my dear friends today offered lots of opportunities for growth for me. Here are some of your lessons that I recognize, just off the top of my head (I know this list is not exhaustive, by any means):

1) There will be windy days. Sometimes, when I’m stepping out and doing something new, something I believe in, something that requires working together as part of a team, it may be windy. The wind may start blowing wildly, out of nowhere. At it may blow so hard that I have to close my eyes and just hold on and do my best in the moment. I don’t get to be in charge of the wind. I’m only in charge of my response to the wind. Conditions are such: windy.

Photo by Jeremy Booth.

2) Sometimes I may not be able to hear myself. No monitor speakers means that I may not get immediate feedback about what I’m playing. What I’m singing. It may be difficult for me to tell just exactly what message is being perceived, regardless of what I feel like I’m sending. I may just have to focus on my heart and set my intention to be a channel for love; an amplifier for love.
3) Sometimes I may not be able to hear my band mates. No monitor speakers plus high winds may mean that I can’t always hear what my family, friends, and loved ones are saying, or playing. I may need to pause before responding to what I think I hear. I may need to give it just a moment and remain receptive to further incoming information. Drawing my attention down from my head and into my heart can help to reestablish my heart connection with them. My heart can hear better than my ears.

Photo by Jeremy Booth.

4) Sometimes I may not be able to tell what the audience is hearing. While I may desire complete control over the overall levels and mix of the music, the overall wind speed and direction; the overall temperature; the overall rate of the flow of time, actually there’s only a certain amount that I’m in charge of. I can work to establish and maintain open lines of communication with those who can offer feedback; I can ask questions. “Welcome, folks! Say, I need your help. Please tell me, can you hear us okay?” I can ask questions, welcome feedback, and make adjustments accordingly. Beyond that, I can turn the volume up on my heart.
5) Sometimes I may not be able to tell what the audience is feeling. They may be physically distant in such a way that I can’t see their faces or read their body language. I may need to return my focus back to my heart, again and again. “Was that a smile, or a grimace?”, I may wonder. In this instance, once again, loving detachment is my best course of action. While I may wish to affect people by causing them to smile, laugh, and feel happy, I need to be careful not to use these responses to gauge my success. The wind may be blowing for them, too. They may be thinking about other things. Or they may be experiencing a sense of inner peace and calm. They may feel happy; they may feel sad. They may feel indifferent. My best plan of action: return my focus to my heart. Play my bass. Step up to the microphone. Open up my heart and let the love flow through.

The whirlpools of Naruto.

And as I’m loading out and walking to my car, it’s entirely possible that I may hear someone call my name. I may look to see someone smiling and saying ‘thank you’. It may be someone I don’t recognize. Perhaps even someone I’ve never met. In this moment, I’m reminded that I often do not know the impact of my actions. By centering my attention in my heart and opening my channels as wide as I can, I increase the chances of vibrating as a broadcast antenna for love. In the face of many apparent roadblocks and hurdles, I make the active choice to pluck these bass strings with love in my heart, and a small pebble hits the surface of the atmosphere. The ripples spread outward. I refuse to become discouraged. Someone says ‘thank you’.
Today, in the face of these perceived challenges, I am blessed once again.
Thanks for the lessons, Universe.
Love, Tim

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