Monday, June 30, 2008

What we sound like

"So, what kind of music do you guys play?"

"Um, pop rock."

"Oh ..."

End of conversation. Because if that's all we can offer as a description of our own sound, it must be pretty boring, right?

"What kind of music" should be an easy question to answer. We've spent the past five years rehearsing and performing and recording it. We're passionate about it. We're immersed in it. Maybe that's the problem. Maybe we're too close to it to easily devise an elevator pitch.

The issue has plagued us since we started playing out, and it rose to the surface again when I decided to design business cards for the band. We wanted to put a little tagline on the cards instead of our names, something that would make people intrigued enough to listen ... but what would the tagline say?

For fun, and for lack of any other ideas, I tried a description my boyfriend ad-libbed a few years ago:

As I guessed he would, Ron the Drummer vetoed "hard-driving soft rock" immediately. He thought it amusing, yes, but wanted to avoid any association of Cinder Bridge with soft rock, even as a joke. I couldn't really argue with his reasoning. Soft rock is what they play in grocery stores. Soft rock is safe. Our music might be largely acoustic, with a conspicuous absence of shredding guitars, but "safe" is not what we're going for.

I went to for inspiration. Derek Sivers is the founder of CD Baby, and his site is full of great advice for musicians who are trying to make it on their own. He writes:
Get yourself a magic key phrase that describes what you sound like. Try out a few different ones, until you see which one always gets the best reaction from strangers. Use it. Have it ready at a moment’s notice.

It doesn’t have to narrow what you do at all ... if you have a magic phrase that describes your music in curious but vague terms, you can make total strangers start wondering about you.
With that in mind ...

I tried "coffeehouse stadium rock" out on a couple of people who asked the dreaded question and got a laugh both times. Ron thought it was funny too. He did not, however, want to use it on our business cards. We've been trying to play bigger venues, he argued, trying not to limit ourselves to places where we're competing with the cappuccino machine. Why should we typecast ourselves?

So ... I'll throw the question out to you. Listen to a song or two if you haven't heard us before and tell us what you think. If you were Cinder Bridge, what would you tell people you sounded like?

If you come up with something Ron and I BOTH like enough to put on the card, we'll send you a free copy of our album, Highways and Hiking Shoes. If you've got the CD already, we'll send you the T-shirt. :)

Saturday, June 28, 2008

What we look like

Cinderfan Grant Hawman recently e-mailed me pictures he took of us at a coffeehouse gig in January. Looking through them, it occurred to me that those of you who know us only through this blog may have heard what we sound like, but have no idea what we look like.

So, without further ado (because we hate ado):

Here we are at Caffe Luce. On the off chance the "cinderkeys" handle didn't tip you off, that's me on the keyboard. Glancing my way, as if wondering what the heck I'm doing up there, is Ron the Drummer on drums.

Another shot. Notice how Caffe Luce's flame-effect lighting totally makes us look like rock stars.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Instant social life: just add music

Ron the Drummer and I decided to play hooky from rehearsal tonight so that we could go to a double-bill gig at the Casbah, a vegetarian restaurant/coffeehouse on the hippie-ish side of town. Scheduled to perform were a couple of people who had come to Old Town Artisans to see us. Ron didn't feel well by the time evening rolled around, so I ended up going by myself.

A few feet away from the entrance, I heard someone call my name. It was my friend Kevin. I used to run into him once every week or two at gigs or open mics. But he got busy, and I got busy, and the last time I'd seen him was before his now-eight-month-old son was born.

It felt like old times, and reminded me of what I liked about them. It wasn't simply being free enough to see live music when I felt like it. It was the fact that socializing at the spur of the moment could be so easy. That I could just go where the music was, and other people I knew and liked would be there for the same reason.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Chatting up

Most of what we play is atmosphere gigs. That is, we set up someplace where music isn't the reason people come (most often a coffeehouse), and we play while they hang out, talk to each other, do homework, whatever. We're there in the background to make the experience seem a little cooler.

When we're doing atmosphere, we don't interact much with the audience beyond saying who we are and occasionally announcing a song name. The people sipping coffee and talking to each other aren't there for us; it seems rude to interrupt their conversation.

All well and good. But when we finally find ourselves playing in front of people who are -- gasp -- actually listening, as in Friday's gig, it occurs to me that I need more practice chatting them up. Even if I'm a lot more comfortable with this than when Cinder Bridge first got started, I'm kind of introverted, and I have a tendency to trip over my words.

My first vocal coach told me that I should rehearse not only what I'm going to sing for a given set, but also whatever I want to say. I've never taken her advice. It's one thing to practice vocal technique, make sure I've got the lyrics down, work on challenging keyboard passages, etc. It's another thing to banter with a pretend audience and not feel absolutely ridiculous.

So, what's a nerdy singer/songwriter to do for chatting-up experience?

Dunno. Maybe I should try a little harder to connect with those coffeehouse patrons.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Gig went well

The Old Town Artisans gig went well. Really well. Around ten people came out to see us. A few random folks hanging out in the Spanish-style courtyard where we played seemed interested in the music, bopping along as they sipped their adult beverages. We were quite happy with our performance, and our audience seemed to be too.

After the set, a guy came up to Ron the Drummer to inquire if we play parties. He asked if $300 or $400 sounded about right. Cinder Bridge approves of any conversation in which we are asked if $300 or $400 is about right.

Man. After so many atmosphere gigs, it is exceptionally nice to play for people who are actually listening.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Wizard Rawk

DeppityBob sent this nugget along about bands who perform music inspired by the Harry Potter series:

I'd heard of wizard rock before. I happened to catch two different NPR shows that reported on the phenomenon and played the same clip from a song by Draco and the Malfoys, featuring these memorable lyrics:
My dad is rich
And your dad is dead
My dad is rich and your dad is dead
Okay, so, I love Harry Potter. And I love music. But I have to admit ... I just don't get it.

Oh well. I s'pose it's more wholesome than Harry/Draco slash.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Introducing Steven, the contralto

While ordering Chinese takeout over the phone tonight ...
Friendly waitress: "Okay, we have egg rolls, egg drop soup, broccoli chicken, and crab crowns! Could I get your name please?"

Me: "It's Susan."

Her: "Steven?"

Me: "Susan."

Her: "Steven?"

Me: "Susan."

Her [sounding a little embarrassed]: "Susan! I'm sorry! It must be my phone."

Me: "No, I get that all the time."
Y'know, maybe I should stop feeling chagrined for considering anything higher than F over middle C to be a "high note."

Saturday, June 14, 2008

The practice of practice

All the vocal practicing I do falls into one of two broad categories. The first of these is technique. Here, I attend to things like pitch control, articulation, projection, range, and generally not sucking. I focus intently on specific parts of songs that need work, repeating them over and over again until (hopefully) I start to hear improvement.

The second category is maintenance. Maintenance involves running songs from beginning to end, seeing if I can get through them without any big mistakes.

I tend to spend more time on maintenance. It's easier and more fun. There's also more of a need for it if a gig is coming up. Unfortunately, this tendency hinders improvement. The thing that separates masters from amateurs in any area, be it chess, tennis, music, or vintage Donkey Kong, is that masters attend mindfully to every facet of their performance as they practice, striving to make each one better.

So for the past couple weeks, I've resolved to spend more time on technique. In particular, I've been working on extending my upper range. (For all y'all who have never heard Cinder Bridge, I have an unusually low voice for a woman, and it's hard for me to reach "high notes" that most tenors can hit without difficulty.) We had a gig coming up on the 13th, but I figured I could get a lot of the maintenance-style work done during band rehearsal.

Well, stuff happened. Rehearsal was called due to illness -- drummer had to take care of an ailing kitty. Then other responsibilities (and horrible time management) got in the way of my doing the maintenance I needed to do. I feared that all my great attention to technique would result in me singing "na na na" really well as I struggled to remember the lyrics to my own songs.

As it turns out, last night's gig was cancelled. One of the proprietors of the coffeehouse in which we were to perform got sick, and they decided they'd probably close early.

I was not nearly as disappointed as I should have been.

Next Friday we have a gig at Old Town Artisans. Between then and now, I will find a way to balance these categories of practice.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The elusive safety net

Most of the people I know with CFIDS/ME, fibromyalgia, environmental injuries, or other invisible illnesses have some kind of support system. They might be suffering terribly, but they at least have enough of a safety net that they won't soon be homeless on top of everything else.

Well, today I found out that someone I've been corresponding with via e-mail is going to be out on the street soon. His family doesn't take his illness seriously, and they're not going to help him. The people who might be inclined to help him are as broke and sick as he is.

I don't know this guy well. Maybe his family is just particularly dysfunctional. But I suspect they wouldn't be treating him as badly if he had cancer, or AIDS, or multiple sclerosis. It's stories like these that made me want to write "Everybody Knows About Me." If the song can change one person's mind, it will have done a lot of good.

Still, my efforts feel horribly inadequate today. No song is going to ensure that somebody gets food and shelter.

Does anybody know of emergency resources for someone in a situation like this? I don't think a person with CFIDS/ME would do very well in a homeless shelter.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

More thoughts on Alanis from the anal-retentive songwriter

At some point I'll have to check out some clips from Flavors of Entanglement to see if it's worth buying. The whole 12-songs-in-12-days thing intrigues me almost enough to buy it sight unseen (sound unheard?). But then I remember one of the reasons I haven't been picking up Alanis Morissette albums since the first one.

Following Jagged Little Pill, AM honed a songwriting style in which rhyming and scanning were optional. For the uninitiated, scanning means lining up your lyrics with your music so that the right syllables are emphasized. For instance, from "You Oughta Know":
And EV'ry time you SPEAK her name
Does she KNOW how you TOLD me you'd HOLD me
UnTIL you died, till YOU died
But YOU'RE still aLIVE
See how the emphasized syllables fall on the emphasized beats?

Now, here's an excerpt from "Thank U":
Thank you INdia
Thank you TERror
(So far so good.)
Thank you disILluSIONment
(Still kinda works.)
Thank you FRAILty
Thank you CONsequence
Thank YOU thank YOU siLENCE
(Yeah, "siLENCE" is where she loses me.)

Occasionally AM uses unscanning to good effect. I thought it worked well for "Hands Clean." And as far as that goes, a whole lot of people like her just fine and couldn't care less about this issue. I'm probably being too anal-retentive for my own good. But since I bummed out some slower-moving creative types with my last post, I feel I should point out that songwriting probably goes a lot quicker when you don't have to worry about making the words and music fit together in some meaningful way.

Flavors of buh

Alanis Morissette is releasing her first new album in four years. Apparently Flavors of Entanglement is inspired by the breakup of her four-year relationship with Ryan Reynolds. Sez Morissette:
In the middle of my breakup, I went to London for 12 days, wrote 12 songs. It was all very immediate and visceral. Then I came back to LA and wrote 12 more songs with a gentleman named Guy Sigsworth, whom I adore. So the writing itself was very immediate.
Holy shmoly. 12 songs in 12 DAYS?

Mining the fields of misery can yield great creative results. I've done it many a time myself. But for me the mining generally occurs after the dust has at least started to settle. If I attempted to write a breakup song while in the middle of said breakup, the song would only have one word. That word would be: Buh?

(Thanks to Grey Wolf for passing this on.)

Sunday, June 8, 2008

New-arrangement dissonance

It's hard to describe how it feels when you listen to someone else's arrangement of your song for the first time. If the arrangement is good, it somehow makes the song sound more like itself, as if it has come into its own. At the same time, the unfamiliarity of it is insanely jarring. No matter how spot on everything is, your brain keeps screaming that the new stuff is not supposed to be there.

Here's a summary of what went through my head when, after much suspense, I finally heard "Everybody Knows About Me" with Producer Drew's new tracks:

Hmm, piano intro is still by itself. Drew said he'd laid down a Hammond B-3 organ and bass track ... guess they don't come in 'til later. Whoa, there's the organ! And bass! Freaky. The bass is doing something completely different than what was in my head. But it's giving the song so much power. Ooooh, the chorus has started, and it finally has the depth and intensity I'd hoped for. This is so weird. I think I like this. Do I like this? The bridge has enormous impact with the new instrumentation. I can't get over the fact that there is an organ in this song. There is no organ in this song, and yet I am hearing an organ. Wow, that's cool! But it's so weird! But it's cool!

(Head explodes)

There is only one remedy for new-arrangement dissonance, and that is to listen to the song over and over and over again until you get used to it. Only then can you sort out how you really feel about the way it sounds.

In this case, it sounds great. Go Drew!

Friday, June 6, 2008

Work-life balance

Usually when people talk about work-life balance, the assumption is that work is getting more than its fair share of the pie. Every now and again, though, the tables are turned.

Like today, for instance. I got to the office, checked my e-mail, and found a message from Producer Drew in my inbox. For some reason, Drew had sent the newly arranged version of "Everybody Knows About Me" to my work address instead of the Cinder Bridge account.

I tried to be good. I really did. I read every piece of work-related e-mail I'd received before I even opened the one from Drew. I spent a good amount of time dealing with client requests. Made sure nobody would be left hanging.

Then I shut the door and listened.

Productivity didn't cease after that, but ... let's just say it slowed down a bit.

Oh, in case you were wondering, the song sounds REALLY good. More on that later.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Dream analysis

In my last post I mentioned that the guy who produced our album a few years back is now doing work on "Everybody Knows About Me." For those of you who tuned in after May 12, it's about someone living with undiagnosed CFIDS/ME, and I wrote it with the vague intention of using it to raise awareness about this illness. We recorded the demo here in Tucson, then sent it to Producer Drew in Philadelphia to let him know what we were up to. Down with the cause, Drew promptly offered to mix the song down and get more instrumentation together for it -- all for free.

On Monday we got word that we would have a first draft of the new arrangement Real Soon Now. I was psyched. And scared. There's something nerve-racking about people throwing down tracks for your song without you even being there. Still, this has worked for us before. It's the way we got our album produced, and that turned out pretty freakin' well. So I've done the best I can to keep my inner control freak under control, mostly by trying not to think about it.

Tuesday morning, I dreamed that the new recording arrived. The piano intro was different. It wasn't bad -- had an interesting Bruce Hornsby vibe to it -- but didn't sound remotely like what I'd written. Then the vocals began, and they weren't mine either. Some guy was singing. I surmised that this was all done for the good of the song. Before I decided whether I liked the results, I woke up.

Believe it or not, I really have been good about not dwelling on my little anxieties as the wait continues. If I can just avoid sleeping until the real recording arrives, I'll be fine.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

The acoustic guitar of happiness

A couple of years ago, toward the end of a coffeehouse gig, I asked the friends who'd come out to see us if they'd like to hear a sad song or a happy song next. One of them piped up, "You have happy songs?"

I've acquired a rep for musical angst. Though there are several reasons for this, my theory is that listeners' impressions would be different if I played guitar rather than keyboard. It's entirely possible to write cheerful songs on piano and depressing ones on guitar, of course. But all things equal, there's something so much more optimistic about the acoustic guitar sound.

Ron the Drummer has never been convinced. As far as he's concerned, you create the sound you want with whatever you have at your disposal -- period. And I have to admit, we've been able to pull off a lot of "guitar songs" without a guitar.

* * *

A year and a half ago we recorded a demo of "Everybody Knows About Me" to raise awareness about CFIDS/ME. The song is pretty damn depressing. Drew Raison, who produced our album a few years back, mixed it down for free, and he's been putting down other instruments to flesh it out, make it sound more professional, less demo-ish.

Last I heard, Drew had found a guitarist willing to help us out. The session had gone well. The guitar track was beautiful. Drew decided not to use it. Beautiful or not, the sound was just wrong. It was ... too happy.

For some reason this amuses me.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Things I think about when I don't monitor my thoughts

Something else occurred to me after reading about the study where they observed the neural activities of jazz musicians. For those of you who didn't bother to read the whole article, the way they observed said neural activities was to stick the musicians in an MRI scanner, then have them either improvise or perform something they knew. Which means the researchers had to fashion a device that allowed their subjects to play whilst inside.

If I ever need an MRI done, I want them to use THAT scanner. Being able to noodle around on a keyboard would provide a welcome distraction from whatever medical procedure they had to do. It also might yield some provocative creations.

"I love that new piece you composed. It's so full of passion and intensity."

"Thank you! I call it 'AGGGHHHHHH LET ME OUT LET ME OUT!!!'"