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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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Filed under Living a joyful life, Writing & recording original music

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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The “glamour” of being a recording musician

I’ll admit, when I decided that this was the week to make the transition from GarageBand to Apple Logic, I didn’t realize I’d be joining millions of others around the world. But with Apple’s highly-anticipated release of Logic 9.1.7 on Tuesday, that’s exactly what I’d done.

Initially, I’d suspected that the lengthy application download process, measured in days rather than hours, was somehow the result of a mistake or oversight on my part. (Wouldn’t be the first time, and certainly won’t be the last.) But once I started digging into the online forums of fellow musician/producer/Mac users, it began to dawn on me that I’d thrown myself into the equivalent of a worldwide historical (hysterical?) event.

Yet while the idea of helping to ‘make history’ (if joining hordes of fellow consumers in purchasing a downloaded product may be seen as making history) seems pretty sexy to me, the reality isn’t nearly as romantic.

And while the idea of being recording musician working on his 7th album may seem pretty sexy to the casual observer, the reality isn’t nearly as romantic.

I’ve been enamored of music and musicians since I was a toddler, moved by music from the beginning. I signed up to be suckered by my favorite rock stars as soon as I was old enough to hold a tennis racket. I shelled out my hard-earned teenage-wage cash as soon as I was tall enough to reach the record store counter. And for years (decades) I’d assumed that the images I’d seen on the covers of my favorite albums reflected the way my heroes actually looked in day-to-day life.

You know… Ace Frehley circa “Dynasty”, eating a bowl of cereal in the morning with silver cape flowing behind him, gently brushing up against the refrigerator. Steve Vai doing dishes. (Steve, honestly, do you ever have to do the dishes at your house?)

In the process of buying the whole ‘rock star’ shtick hook, line, and sinker, I was simultaneously accepting another unspoken un-truth: that if I am not larger than life like they are, then I’m less than. Which, in turn, lead to the whole mistake of believing that if I’m less than, then I must present myself to be greater than in order to fool others into thinking I’ve got my act together. The whole ‘public relations’ game, whereby good (that is, ‘sellable‘) albums are 75% cool packaging and 25% decent music. Until success ends up having nothing to do with music, and everything to do with promotion and sales.


A dear friend recently split my skies open the other day on the phone, when he related a story about John Lennon eating breakfast. Apparently some fan was outside his house, and a news crew was there, as well, just hanging out. So John and Yoko go outside, and John’s like, “Hey, what do you want?” And the fan is all, “Oh, your lyrics are amazing… and these lyrics meant this and those meant that,” and on and on. And John stopped the guy and said, “Don’t know what you’re talking about. I was having a snack and those words popped into my mind, so I wrote them down. It rhymed, so I used it. I’m just a guy. Are you hungry? Wanna join us for breakfast?”

Just a guy.

Though it goes against all the rules of “how to make it” as a musician in today’s hyper-saturated world of Logic-downloading freaks and geeks (currently slowing the internet down to a glacial pace), the truth is, he nailed it. I’m just another dude. Not supposed to admit that, I know. Supposed to have the kick-ass profile photo on every website that sells my music… so the kids will think I eat caviar in between takes. Because if being a musician is romantic, then the writing and recording process must be really glamorous.

Would that it were true.

I’m currently writing and recording my seventh album.” Translation: I’m currently going home after work and going into the spare bedroom where all my music gear is set up (“the studio”) and peeking at my laptop to see if Logic has finished downloading yet. I’m currently untangling my guitar cable and trying to move the bills and other paperwork off of my desk so I can open my guitar case and pull out my electric guitar. Better yet…

  • I’m currently turning on my guitar amplifier and wondering what those crackling sounds are and realizing with some trepidation that it might finally be time for me to actually learn how to change the tubes.
  • I’m currently erasing my 14th attempt to record a vocal track because, once again, it sounds like I’m trying too hard to sound like I’m not trying.
  • I’m currently searching for my phillips screwdriver so I can remove the backplate of my bass and replace the two (2) 9-volt batteries that power my active pickups… the same batteries that just died in the middle of a recording session.
  • I’m currently getting into my car to go to the grocery store to buy two (2) 9-volt batteries because I just realized the house is completely devoid of them.
  • I’m currently shopping online for an external hard drive that will easily store the 6 years worth of music on my computer so I can free up some space to continue recording.
  • I’m currently changing my guitar strings because I tried to fix my wife’s glasses and failed, and had to resort to cutting off part of my e-string to replace the teeny-tiny screw in her glasses until she can make it to the optometrist.

In the end, I think, not much of the creative process is nearly as sexy or glamorous as we (as observers) might initially believe. Most of the struggle for me seems to be in dealing with my own worst enemy: myself.

The swirling cloud of thoughts is often in the room, and no fun to deal with: Will I cave when my inner critic starts ranting about how these current efforts suck? Will I crumble when friends say they don’t care for a particular line? Will I be annihilated when no one buys my cd? Will I freeze when I try to play this song live?

What some may see as glamour is so much more often the dumping, quite literally, of old coffee grounds, the cursing of the grounds that miss the kitchen garbage can and land on the floor, and the search for the latest can of cat food as the cat cries with reckless abandon, eager to be fed after an insurmountable night between meals (“No night could be darker than this night, No cold so cold, As the blood snaps like a wire, And the heart’s sap stills, And the year seems defeated…”) as one tries in vain to satisfy those mundane, earthly requirements long enough to get back to the blank canvas.

If there’s a sexiness… if there’s ever been some sort of glamour, it lies in those tiny moments between ‘doings’, during playback, with headphones on, discovering that the vocal harmonies actually DID work, and sound like a choir. Or that the difficult passage that had to be “punched in” actually sounds very natural. Or that the previously ‘unplayable’ song is now quite withing one’s grasp for live performance.

Paradoxically, the only real glamour is that which is completely internal, having nothing to do with the perceptions and opinions of observers. Kinda funny, since the whole concept of glamour relies upon having an audience. No audience, no glamour. (If a woman gets out of a taxi and there’s no one there to see her diamonds and finery, is it still glamorous?) So maybe we’re talking ‘joy’ rather than ‘glamour’.

Either way, that spark of joy holds within it the fire to fuel a thousand galaxies. Or seven albums. Whichever comes first.


Filed under Writing & recording original music

Heavy Weather

Heavy Weather 2mp3 (click here to play)

Started with the Korg. Added vocals, and then guitar. Then harmony vocals.

This is another example of approaching songwriting as play in order to get results I’m proud of. I had the house to myself for six hours, so I was looking forward to writing/recording something new. But when I sat down, I realized I felt turned off by the idea of doing music. I felt tired and not up to the focus that the process demands. I got up and walked away a couple of times before I decided to forego the idea of “writing something good” and simply relax and jam and have fun. Of course, once I took that approach, good things started to happen and I found myself hitting the ‘record’ button to capture the joy.

The music came first. Then I found a sheet of paper with lyrics that I’d written earlier this week, out of the blue. I hadn’t known what to do with them at the time, so they were just lying there on the edge of the Korg. Once I spotted them, I realized they would be perfect for this song.

Thanks for checking it out!


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