My Music Career (Part 4) The Songwriter

(This is the 10th chapter in my autobiographical series. This chapter was initially in the form of an email sent to my music fan email list on June 23, 2020. It has been edited and expanded for this blog. All the previous chapters in this series can be found on the column to the right. Go here to start at the beginning.)

I Become a Songwriter

In the previous chapter in this series, I said that I had quit the band Charon Blue in order to focus on becoming a songwriter.  I had been attending the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival in Lyons, Colorado since 1999. At the 2002 festival, during one of the many impromptu “song circles” that pop up at these festivals, I was amazed at all the people playing their own original songs. I was embarassed that I could only play cover songs. A guy next to me told me that that there was a “Song School” that took place the week before the Folks Festival and encouraged me to attend.  I think I brushed it off, saying something like “it won’t do me any good, I can’t write songs.”

Then, at the 2003 festival the following year, the same thing happened– somebody at a song circle encouraged me to attend the Song School the following year. This time I didn’t brush it off. I thought hard about it. But I was scared I would be the dunce at the school; everybody else would be writing songs and I would fail. I would be the object of ridicule. I would be embarassed and ashamed. I called up the Song School and was able to talk to Steve Syzmanski, who the director of the School. I asked him questions about what it would be like, and he said he would have one of the teachers call me. A few days later, Paul Reisler, one of the staff teachers called. I remember asking him, “will I be forced to write a song?” He said that while students are encouraged to write a song, no one is forced to. I was still scared, but I really wanted to learn songwriting. So I summoned all my courage and signed up. I told myself, even if I fail at songwriting, I can at least play lead guitar for the other songwriters there.

That first Song School in August, 2004 was a breakthrough experience for me.  I learned some of the craft of songwriting from the classes, and, during Paul Reisler’s class, actually did write a song. My fears of being ridiculed and embarassed were completely unjustified. I received support and encouragement from the other students.  I saw that others had the same insecurities as me. And even the more experienced ones were supportive of the beginners. It was a community of songwriters, and I became part of it.  I made a lot of new friends, many of whom are still good friends to this day.

Paul Reisler at the 2004 Song School

At Paul Reisler class, he paired us up with someone at random, and told us to tell our partner a story about our lives. I was paired up with Lori Grebe Cook from Chicago. I wrote “Daddy’s Little Girl” based on her story about moving from her hometown of Indianapolis to Chicago. Lori wrote “Little White Boy” for me, based on the story I told her about growing up in Mississippi in the 1950’s and 1960’s– as I explained in the first chapter of this blog series. I was so moved by her telling of my story, that I began singing “Little White Boy” at my gigs. I still sing it at gigs.

Vince and Lori Cook with me at the 2004 Song School

Over the next few years, I worked hard at writing songs.  I was introduced to a couple other students from Denver, and encouraged to start a songwriter group. We did, and began meeting monthly. (The group would grow over the years, and still exists today.) Songwriting was now my number one priority.  I continued playing gigs at whatever gig I could get, and my songs gradually replaced the cover songs I had been playing.  By 2007, I decided I needed a demo CD with my own songs. 

By this time I had upgraded from my 4-track cassette recorder to a 16-track digital recorder.  I recorded several of the songs that I had written, and selected 6 of them for the demo CD.  Since I was doing the recording myself, and playing all the instruments, I figured I’d go all the way with the Do-It-Yourself thing and do the CD artwork as well.  I took a photo of myself in the backyard, using the 10-second delay feature of the camera.  I created the CD cover and CD label, and sent the artwork and master recording off to a duplication company.  I decided on a simple, humble title:  Some Songs I Wrote.

All the songs were written between 2004 and 2006.  Most of the songs are acoustic guitar-based, although I couldn’t resist the temptation to add a few other instruments to the songs. 

At the time, I felt like I had finally discovered my true singing voice when writing “When They Go.”  The song is based on a story a friend told me about his sister.  I never play it at live shows, because I assume people will think it too slow and depressing.  Maybe that’s a mistake.  “A Special Request” is one of my personal favorites, but most of you have never heard it because I wrote it on piano, and I’m not a good enough piano player to play it live.  “The Screwup Song,” “Bipolar,” and “Invisible Prison” would be re-recorded and appear on my first full-length album, Misfit.  “Let it Go” would be re-recorded and appear on The Other Side of Nowhere.

Hidden tracks on CDs were something of a fad in those days.  So I included the original demo version of my spoken word piece “Wave the Flag and Give ’em God” as a hidden track.  It seemed appropriate to make it a hidden track because it didn’t fit the musical or lyrical style of the other other songs.  It would later re-appear in a remixed version on Word.

Playing with Julie at the Meadowlark Bar in Denver

I continued getting and playing gigs wherever I could get them.  And I continued writing songs and incorporating the new songs into the set lists.  A violinist named Julie Oxenford O’Brian began accompanying me at gigs.  That leads to my second recording, Me.

I wanted to record the new songs I had written, and also include Julie’s violin, so in 2009 I recorded a new CD. This time, I decided to use a professional studio. I choose Sawtelle Studio at Swallow Hill in Denver, with Brian Hunter as the engineer. It was my first time to record in a professional studio with a professional engineer.

The CD consisted of three songs I had written since Some Songs– “Me,” “You Could Have Had Me” and “Like a Child.”  It also included two songs written in the 2004-2006 timeframe and left off Some Songs– “I Miss Me” and the song I wrote for Lori Grebe Cook at the 2004 Song School, “Daddy’s Little Girl.”  I wrote “I Miss Me” on piano, and hired a studio pianist for the recording.

The title, Me, came from one of the new songs I had written.  And it just felt right as the album title.  I was now writing my own songs, expressing who I am.   As the final chorus of the song says:

So here I am
in this little bar
playing my guitar
This is Me.

I continued the tradition of a hidden track on Me by including the original home demo version of “Misfit.”  I wrote that song as a joke, not expecting anyone to like it.  But, along with “The Screwup Song,” it turned out to be one of my most popular songs.  It would provide me with my mission, purpose and identity.  And it would be come the title song of my third album.

I’m proud of these two recordings.  I would later make better recordings from a technical standpoint.  I would sing better on later recordings.  And I would write better songs– although some of these songs have stood the test of time and I still play them at gigs.  But these records announced to the world that I was a songwriter.  And for that reason they have sentimental value for me.

I only have a few CDs of each of these left.  You can order them on my Bandcamp site, or buy them at my live shows.  You can also download the individual songs or the full albums for both Some Songs and Me on my Bandcamp site.  Members of The Misfit Club can download them for free.  (Because of the demo nature of these recordings, they are not available to the general public on the streaming services.) The Misfit Club is my Fan Club, or supporters club.  It is one of the main ways I raise money to record new music.  Click on The Misfit Club to read about the benefits and how to join.

Coming next:  Misfit, my first full-length album, made with a producer.

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