Long white beard with a bald head and silver eyes. They got as hard as petrified stone when a homeless man walked by asking for donations. I looked down at my phone. I was writing poetry on it so I felt justified in ignoring him. As if my words were more important than his problems or something? I don’t know. When he got off the train at the West Oakland station I noticed he had glazed over, unfocused eyes as if he was looking at something way off in the distance. He was high. Any lingering guilt form ignoring him dissipated.
Most of the faces on the train were fair skinned. Some looked out the windows, others looked forward with blank, stone faces, most looked down at their hand held computers. It isn’t a place to make friends—although I did once—her name was Molly.
She saw my dolly full of sound equipment and immediately knew we were the same. She had a bike with a trailer attached to the back, filled with paints. With warm curious eyes she asked “What do you do?” I told her about my busking and she told me about painting murals and driving a petty cab (One of those bikes with a love seat on the back you see buzzing up and down Embarcadero by the Warf.). We chatted for about 15 minutes until she got off at the Embarcadero station. I was left feeling warm and energized. A genuine connection with a stranger, a rarity in a time where we are introduced to our potential mates through curated phone profiles.
I ran into Molly months later while I was playing on the streets. I was in the middle of “You Remind Me” by Usher when she cruised by on her peddy cab chauffeuring two women. They made her stop so that they could hear the rest of the song, proceeded to stand, dancing and singing along. As they got closer I noticed who it was. When I finished the song the ladies shouted my name out and Molly looked excited and a little embarrassed, probably because she told the women my name not expecting them to shout it out. I said hi to Molly and played another song that the ladies recognized, so they hung around for that one too.
The whole exchange was organic. We didn’t have to set it up or force it. I was filled with delight. We didn’t have to coerce it into happening. There was no winner or loser. We were all on the same level enjoying life together.
I had a migraine headache for a week before my trip down to LA to record Sadie. I had never had a migraine, so before we left I went into the hospital for a CAT scan because I was worried there might be a problem with my brain. It came back clear, but the headache persisted. The morning that we left for LA my headache wasn’t as bad but I was starting to get a sore throat and a pretty harsh pain in my lower left abdomen. Turns out that’s where your spleen is. After talking to a few people about my symptoms it seemed pretty clear that I had mono but I didn’t have time to go back to the hospital to check. So we hopped in the car and headed down to Hollywood, hoping for the best.
Fast forward two days. It’s 5 am on Saturday morning. Day two of the three day recording session. I have been writhing in pain all night because of a terrible sore throat. My girlfriend had suggested that I go to the emergency room hours before, but there is a full day or recording ahead of us and the song I’m recording is nowhere near complete. I really don’t want to be stuck in the hospital wasting precious (and expensive) studio time. I finally concede as the sun is rising.
By the time we arrive at the hospital my pain is almost unbearable. Miraculously, we get through to see a doctor within an hour, and soon after he has pumped me with some pain medication that takes enough of the edge off that I can relax a little bit. I describe my symptoms and he thinks its either mono or strep throat. They test for strep first because it is the scarier of the two. The test comes back negative so they test for mono. These results come back positive. I am relieved and I finally sleep.
We get back to the apartment in Hollywood and I force myself to get a few more hours of sleep before I decide whether or not to go to the studio. We have one more day and could possibly finish the rest of the song all in that day. But I wake up around noon and with the good pain medication and some rest I feel like it’s worth a shot to try and get some work done.
While I am in the hospital and resting Phil heads to the studio to work on drum tracks and makes progress where he can. When I arrive, we discuss the game plan and decide that we need to add a bridge to the song and we get right to it. Brett messes around with some chords on the electric keyboard until we find a progression that feels good. Phil goes into the drum room and he and Brett lay down the chords and the drum section at the same time. They nail it on the third take and we keep it moving. Next, I sit with Phil as he comes up with a bass line. This takes about 30 minutes. Once it’s recorded the new part is feeling groovy, but it feels empty still. We brainstorm for a few minutes about what to try next and, to my dismay, it occurs to me that what it is missing is vocals. Not only is my throat ripped to shreds, but I rarely write lyrics on the spot. This process usually takes me weeks, but pressed for time, sleep deprived, and hopped up on pain pills and Dayquil I head to an empty room and begin to piece some phrases together.
After about 20 minutes the bridge is beginning to take shape – “floating or flying, is my bed on fire? Is my bed even a bed, am I dead or tired” – you can see where my state of mind was at this point. I think, “Ok, I’m definitely not going to finish this but I might get enough to put something rough in as a placeholder to build the rest of the arrangement around.” Minutes later something clicks and suddenly there is some life where there were just some rhyming phrases before. I resolve to finish the verse and track it all before our session that day is done.
Not 30 minutes later I’m in the vocal booth, phone in hand with my “notes” app open, spitting straight fire. Well, I’ll let you be the judge of that 😉 … but I got a performance I liked on my second take, got everyone else’s approval and called it a day.
In my time busking I have had a number of interesting encounters. Sometimes it feels a bit like a video game earning points as I do more tricks. And then there are the bonus rounds where points are doubled, tripled, or more.
Once a man tipped me an Iphone. When I charged it up it had a message that indicated it had been stolen and a request to call the owner to return it. I tried the number once and then forgot about it for a month, but I eventually got through to a lady who was overjoyed to be reunited with it.
+10 for helping out your fellow players.
Sometimes tips come in the form of directly useful items like the time a kid gave me a brand-new denim button up, and it was my size!
+25 for your arsenal of resources.
As for those bonus rounds, they’ve happened three times:
Once by an older lady who insisted on giving me a drug dealer handshake in the middle of playing “I’ll Follow You Into the Dark” by Death Cab For Cutie, completely ruining the vibe. I was annoyed, but only until I saw old Benjamin’s face peaking up at me. I got paranoid for a moment, looking around to make sure nobody was plotting to jump me, then I slipped the bill into my front pocket as slyly as possible. I played for the next few hours with a confidence and conviction that only comes after receiving a precious gift from a stranger. It was like she was saying “I see you, and you are worthy.”
+100 for teammates who value your expertise.
The second 100 dollar bill came from a teenager who had been watching me for about 30 minutes. As he left to continue on his way he casually dropped a bill in my tip jar. I could see the 100 printed on the back, but thought it was fake. It stressed me out because it was lying right at the top of my tip jar for everyone to see. As soon as I finished my song I fished it out. It turned out to be the real deal. It later occurred to me that he might of thought that it was a 10. I hope he knew it was a 100.
+100 for the younger generation showing you the trick to beat the level.
Most recently, a man approached me as I was packing up for the night to express that he appreciated my music. He encouraged me to keep doing what I was doing. Then, he place a folded-up bill into my hand, looked me in directly the eyes and proclaimed that this offering was from God. I believed him.
+100 for divine intervention.
“Hey man, is it cool if my friend sets his drums next to you and plays with you for a couple of hours? We could split the tips.” My immediate thought is, “No,” but then I look over at Rob’s car, which is packed to the brim with drums, and parked in the red zone and realize that he means business. I say yes instead. As his friend Aaron sets up his gigantic drum set, I play a couple more songs and ponder what’s about to happen.
I’ve gotten used to going with the flow out on the streets of San Francisco and more often than not I’m delighted by the outcome. A couple of weeks ago a man from Mexico City said that his dream was to do what I did. This seemed a bit dramatic but I sensed that it was genuine so I handed over my guitar and let him play a song. He sang a beautiful ballad in Spanish and a small crowd gathered. When he was done, he was brimming with excitement and satisfaction and he thanked me thoroughly. Another time this teenage boy arrogantly told me that if I let him sing a song the tips would come flying in. Although he was cocky, he seemed confident and not crazy, so I let him take the mic. His claims about the tips fell flat, but he did sing well. So today, I’m feeling optimistic about this collaboration with Aaron.
Once he’s set up he gives me a look indicating he’s ready to play and we get going on “Just Friends” by Musiq Soulchild. He seamlessly locks in with my rhythm and we jam out covers and a couple of my original songs. This goes on for the next half hour, at the end of which a crowd of about 15 people has formed. Aaron’s homie Rob sees an opportunity to use the momentum of this small crowd to create more engagement, asking if he can hop on the mic and freestyle.
I continue to play my guitar along with them and about 15 more people gather. They really start getting into it, dancing and taking videos for their Instagram stories. Rob leads the show with energy and charisma to spare, cleverly calling the improvised group “Curb Service” and being candid about the fact that he and Aaron just met me on the street. After about 10 minutes he wraps it up with a request for donations and a plug for all of our social media accounts. We receive stream of dollars and a couple requests for photographs. Then we take a break, letting the crowd disperse. We chill out for about 5 minutes, then Aaron and I begin playing again, restarting the cycle. We do 3 cycles in 2 hours then split the tips. My take is definitely more than I would have normally made playing by myself. It is a success to say the least!
It is instances like this one, where something completely unexpected and special happens, that make busking a really unique and rewarding experience. Though it is a lot of effort to load up my car, drive it down the hill, park, unload, wheel all my equipment to Bart, set up, play for a while, get asked by the police to leave because of noise complaints, find a new spot, set up again, play for a while, pack up, wheel my stuff back to Bart, reload my car, drive home, and finally unload my equipment into my garage, it hasn’t felt like work.
Aaron and Rob are playing music at Jack London Square at an event called Second Saturday this Saturday. Most other Saturdays you can catch them rocking out at Lake Merritt.
Andrew and I are setting up our sound system on this beautiful outdoor patio at the Mountain Winery in Saratoga, CA. The gig is a corporate party for Apple and we are stoked! We’ve played some corporate gigs for big companies, but Apple feels particularly special. And the venue is an indication of this. The Mountain Winery is more than just a winery, it also contains a beautiful amphitheater for concerts and a massive outdoor space for parties and weddings. It is a top-notch venue. It is an exceptionally clear day and the view all the way around us is super dope, filled with rolling hills, clusters of trees, and vineyards for miles and miles.
As we complete our setup we notice that people are beginning to arrive, but they’re not coming to the space where we are set up. We double check with the event coordinator that we are in the right spot. She says yes, so we begin to play as we are now on the clock. But no one comes into the space we are playing in. We play to nobody, literally nobody, for 45 minutes. We take our first break as food is beginning to be served. When we start our second set some people have made their way onto our patio to sit and eat. Still nobody claps when we finish a song and very few people even look at us. We are a live version of an acoustic Spotify playlist.
This has been the trend with the corporate parties we play. The bigger the companies, and paychecks that come with them, the less attention we get. In some ways this is great because the gigs are easy and predictable. We show up. The event coordinator tells us where to set up. We do our acoustic Spotify playlist thing for a while. Take a break while we put on an actual Spotify playlist. Play more background music. Get fed lunch or dinner (it’s almost always hella good). Play a little more. Pack up. Rinse and repeat.
At the end of it, the event coordinator gushes about how good we were and how much everyone loved and appreciated our music. Even though there was no outward indication of this love and appreciation, I believe her. But my soul still dies a little.
As a musician it hurts to play music in a way that doesn’t feed my soul, but as human being feeding my bank account often takes precedent. And when I’m keeping it real with myself, getting paid well to play any kind of music at a bougie winery is a pretty sweet deal.
I pull up to Andrew and Kara’s house at 3:30pm on a Thursday to pick up Andrew for our gig with Greenpeace on board their boat The Arctic Sunrise. Kara is on her way out to run a quick errand, but suggests that Andrew borrow one of her scarves because he’d been feeling under the weather and it will probably be cold and misty on the boat. He insists that he is not a scarf man, but he tries it on anyway and models it for himself in the mirror.
His eyes brighten as he realizes that not only is it comfy, but it also looks good. So good that he pleads with Kara to take a picture of him for Instagram. After dozens of shots and a couple location changes, he gets one that he is pleased with and immediately posts it. The picture looks great and 15 minutes later he delightfully announces that the picture already has racked up 20 likes. This prompts me to check a post that I made a few hours prior; an announcement that my new song will be coming out on Friday. It has 5 likes. Despite the fact that I only have 150 Instagram followers to Andrew’s 600, I can’t help but feel defeated. I don’t say anything, but my mind becomes restless as I consider that I have chosen to use Instagram as a primary method of marketing my music and I don’t really know how to use it.
I spend the next 10 minutes researching what kinds of post get the most traction on Instagram. And then the following 20 minutes taking awful selfies because the article I read says that good pictures of yourself tend to do well, something that Andrew apparently knew already. None of the pictures I take are remotely presentable and I just wind up feeling awkward and uneasy. But I am not ready to give up. The whole point of me using social media is to be vulnerable and put myself out there, so I ask Andrew if he will help me. He eagerly obliges. After a number of attempts, we wind up with this photo.
A few of the failed attempts…
It’s weird and silly, but it feels right. I post it and wait. I give it 30 minutes until we’re on the road to San Francisco before I ask Andrew to check the likes for me. It already has 15 likes while the one from earlier about my song being released only has 7. My anxiety subsides and I can now focus on the performance ahead of us. It is still frustrating to me that the post I used specifically for marketing my music got so little traction, but I don’t feel defeated anymore.
To be completely honest I don’t really understand why a photo like the one I posted worked well. Part of me thinks it’s because it captured a genuine piece of my personality. Another part of me is aware that this genre of photo is popular these days. Why though? I’m drawn to these kinds of images too, but I’m not sure why.
I’m playing music on Market Street in front of Westfield Mall in San Francisco as I’ve been doing a few times a week for the past month. I had recently quit my full-time job to open up the space to do this music thing full-time. I wasn’t quite sure what that meant. I’m still not. The surreal thing about busking in the city is the intersection of people from all different sectors of society. The young, hip, wealthy people don’t stop for s*** as they make their way to their tech and finance jobs – on a mission to conquer the world. The starry-eyed tourists stare upwards in awe, trying to take the city in. I stand on the sidewalk next to a bus stop in competition with other street performers and people who are panhandling. All of us in the same space, yet with drastically different stories and circumstances. On this particular Wednesday afternoon, I have been out for about 2 hours and there has been steady foot traffic.
I feel exposed. Only about 1 in 50 people stop to listen, but with thousands of people passing by every hour those numbers are not bad. Most of the people who stop are tourists who have time to take in what’s actually around them. To them, I am a staple of the environment, so much so that some of them even ask to take pictures next to me. I start to play “Crazy” by Gnarls Barkley, which captures a few people at once, drawing others in with their energy. Soon I have a crowd of about a dozen folks listening and taking videos for their Instagram stories, connecting with my offering and validating this path I’ve chosen. In this moment there is a bit of magic in the air, and I see my tip jar quickly fill with 1s, 5s and 10s.
In the middle of belting out “I think you’re crazy, just like me,” a man rushes by and grabs my tip jar. It takes less than a second to process what is happening. I immediately stop the song as my body floods with adrenaline. For a half-second I consider letting him go. I haven’t been playing for very long and can still make a decent amount of money, but that thought passes as soon as it comes. It is replaced by the reality of my situation; this is my only income now and there’s a lot of money in that jar. I drop my guitar and sprint after him. He’s running pretty fast, and I’m afraid I won’t catch him. But after a block of chasing him he slows down almost as if guilt has taken hold of him. I catch up and grab him by the arm. He is a tall skinny man. He turns to look at me with wide, sunken, glazed over eyes. I see desperation. I reach for my tip jar, afraid I will have to yank it out of his hand, but to my surprise he lets it go immediately. Part of me has no compassion and thinks “f*** this guy.” Another part of me feels for him, and I wonder about his story.
I jog back to my spot and hear cheers as though I am Rocky Balboa in that famous scene in Rocky II where he’s running through Philly in preparation for his big fight. There are more people waiting for me to return – money in hand – than were listening to me before my tip jar got stolen. When I get back to my spot one man says, “I watched your guitar for you, you shouldn’t just leave it here.” Others say “that guy was an asshole” and “you should be more cautious with your money.” A flood of dollar bills flow into my tip jar and it occurs to me that these people care. Even though they hadn’t all stopped to listen to me, they were aware of my presence and appreciated what I was doing. I felt seen.
As I reflect on this experience now, I feel torn because on one hand I felt really great about successfully defending my resources and about the fact that people on the street rallied in my support. On the other hand everyone, myself included, was dismissive of the needs of this desperate man who obviously needed help. In other words, I was seen and elevated while this other man was essentially made invisible. I wonder about his story.
The initial phase of writing my music is almost always done in solitude and in the case of “Hard to Bare”, in a blanket fort. But every song that I have completed (written, recorded, mixed, mastered and released) has been the result of collaboration. Often times working by myself I come up with an idea and am excited for a moment, but am unable to bring it to life and I begin to question if it is good or not. To keep me motivated and focused I try to find a collaborator. This can be a struggle, however, because I can’t just show a rough draft to anybody. There is so much missing from it. Most people are used to seeing polished work, so even if my idea is cool, many people have trouble seeing potential, they only see that it is incomplete. Fortunately I have been able to find a couple of people who can see the potential in these early phases.
About a year and a half ago I was in a writing lull. I was in a band and we were playing lots of live shows, which meant more time rehearsing and playing music and less time writing it. I had a bunch of incomplete songs that I wanted to finish, so I decided to send six of them to my producer friend Max. Max is a videographer and a music producer I had worked with in the past who I respect and am inspired by as an artist. He decided to work on “Hard to Bare.” Over the next couple of months, we worked mainly through emailing drafts of the song back and forth.
Out of the six songs, “Hard to Bare” was the oldest, lowest quality recording. The four-year old song was very mellow and minimal with just guitars, vocals and light percussion. I figured we would just use it as a reference or demo and re-record everything. Max had other ideas and said that he liked the DIY quality of the lo-fi recordings, so I emailed him the stems (raw project recordings) and he got to work on a new draft.
This is the original demo I sent to Max:
In the first iteration, Max layered in different rhythms and melodic lines, and the song immediately became a whole new creation. He was able to take my stripped-down ideas and fill out the sound in a way that I couldn’t have done on my own. He found a structure that moved nicely, added some heavy bass sounds, and a funky electric keyboard line, and the song went from a really raw indie-acoustic sound to a more R&B/pop feel. However, there was still something missing.
We both liked the mellow and intimate nature of the song but thought the chorus could pop and stand out more. Max suggested that I stretch my voice and do some belting. This led me to re-write the melody and some of the lyrics. I recorded a dozen different vocal takes and layered them in. With this new chorus in place I heard the need for ambient background elements and added them as well. The final step in the collaborative process was to re-record the vocals for the verses. We decided to do this together at his house and it was one of only two times we collaborated in person.
At the time of this project I had a full-time job and Max was working as a videographer. We initially set a sort of arbitrary two-month timeframe for ourselves to finish the song, however, because of the back-and-fourth nature of our process it wound up taking six months.
When I first sent “Hard to Bare” to Max, the song was an interesting idea, but it really felt like a rough sketch. Through collaboration, the song gained complexity and soul and came alive with color, dimension, and contrast. We both had high expectations of each other, which helped me keep my focus and attention to detail sharper than I do when recording on my own. Together, we were able to keep the excitement alive and come up with something really unique that we were both proud of. It is important for me to collaborate with people that I admire, who are dedicated, hard-working, and also bring their artistic angle to the project. Max makes really cool shit and he works hard so he fit the bill perfectly. It has been a year and a half since we finished the song and its finally coming out this Friday!
The tension between creating for creativity’s sake and using creativity to create a product for other people to engage with is constantly present for me. The rigidity of setting deadlines and grinding to bring something to completion is at odds with the feeling of flow that exists when I am creating for fun.
I do a lot of my music writing alone. Oftentimes, I don’t have control over the moments when inspiration comes, but I will enter this out of body state where I see the world as art instead of a mundane experience. It can happen in my car, or when I am running—I will see the world around me like raw crystals and try to gather as many as possible. These days I usually only have time to do the gathering and storing for later processing, but there have been instances when I was able to begin the cutting and polishing process in the same time and space.
That’s what happened with a song called “Hard to Bare”. I made the initial recording of “Hard to Bare” when I was staying at my college roommate’s parents house in Pennsylvania for a month one summer about six years ago. I was home alone one day and felt the pull to create and do some recording. I had the time, but my resources were lacking. I only had my MacBook with no recording gear except for the built-in microphone and Garage Band. Most of the time when you record, it is done in a space with some sound proofing that keeps background sounds from leaking into the recording. Since I didn’t have the proper equipment, but felt myself entering this zone, I improvised.
I placed a comforter over the laptop and myself like a blanket fort. This transported me back to building forts out in the woods with my dad as a kid, allowing me to freely create without judgment. It lead to hitting drumsticks against pillows and books for percussion and incorporating a bird call that I learned from my father as a background noise.
Entering this fugue state/beginner’s mind, though I am not always in control of the process, is the easy part. Since the first recording of “Hard to Bare” I’ve written at least 50 songs. The tension remains even as I get ready to release that song, while I work on turning my music into products to share with others. My intention with this blog is to share my experience as I work through this tension to try and create not only completed songs, but a whole career, centered around my art, that can sustain me.