#2 Empty (“Millennials Are Going Gray” track by track)

This is blog #2 of 7 in my track by track guide to my new DIY album, Millennials Are Going Gray. Track #2 is “Empty,” a song about the positive side of physical, emotional, and philosophical “emptiness” — that it gives you the space to fill up with something good.

For your convenience, you can stream the track on Spotify and YouTube and read the lyrics at the bottom of this post.
***

“Empty” was one of those ideas kicking around in my head (and ideas folder) for years and years. The basic idea behind it, partly inspired by a Bouncing Souls lyric (“Destruction leaves an empty space/ In emptiness again, I begin to create/ Feeling good again now, in some new kind of way/ Feeling good again now” –Apartment 5F), is that emptiness can’t be all bad because it creates space for new, positive things. From the first time I jotted it down, I always had the idea of one verse being more about an emotional emptiness or hopelessness and another verse being more about spiritual emptiness, of not believing in anything outside the natural, observable world.

I never got further than an outline because every time I came across the idea, it just didn’t inspire me. The only reason I finished it when I did is that it was one of my simpler ideas (if you know me at all, you know I’m not the best at keeping things simple — and no, that’s not a humblebrag, it’s absolutely a hindrance to everything I do). From time to time when I’m feeling uninspired and need a quick songwriting victory, I try to finish one or more of my simplest ideas that has been hanging around for a while and never inspired me. When it comes to ideas I LOVE, they tend to take forever because I’m more prone to overthinking and coming up with way too many ideas, whereas if I’m not as into it, I always know I can cobble together a lyric and melody fairly quickly. What’s interesting is that while sometimes they do come out mediocre as expected, many times they surprise me and become fan favorites, or even more surprising, I actually grow to love them.

I wrote the chorus first, standard for me since catchier and lyrically abstract lines come easier to me than more detailed/descriptive ones, which I’ve always found weird. Then it really started to come together when I started playing the strumming pattern over it. I’m not sure how to describe it music theory wise and I’m sure it’s fairly common, but I’m happy to admit that I stole it from Frank Turner’s “I Knew Prufrock Before He Got Famous.”

The chords and the rest of the melody came to me fairly logically (I won’t claim it’s a musically imaginative or innovative song in any way), and there you have it, I got a pretty catchy song out of an idea I only felt so-so about. Many people have told me it’s one of the catchiest songs I’ve written. My dad compared it to Taylor Swift, ha! (I’m not quite sure why since my style sounds nothing like hers in any way, but I’ll take it.)

P.S. The eagle-eyed (and those who watched my Facebook Live listening party) might catch my lowkey Marie Kondo reference. I got a bit swept up in that craze with everyone else… for about a day before I lost interest, though I did adopt some of her principles and, well, it made it into my song.

SPOTIFY

YOUTUBE

LYRICS

If you ever feel lost in your life when you think that you’ve failed
And it’s one thing after another like you’re sitting on a train that’s derailed
You can always escape with mindless TV and sweatshop sweeps
But what if you took the challenge to do something of value, to keep dreaming?

This is not a dark abyss, it’s a big empty pickup truck
And not every space needs some junk just to say it’s filled up
But if you’re gonna fill it up, if you’re gonna fill it up…
If it’s empty, then fill it with the things that you love
If you’re empty, give your best, don’t you know you’re enough?
Know you’re enough

What lies beyond this planet and this life is still mostly unknown
And it’s something that we all must come to terms with all on our own
And I know you’ll be tempted with tales of better places and higher plans
But sometimes the greatest beauty is to design it yourself
And live it out as best as you can

You can fill it up with trash someone told you you needed to have
Or you can fill it up with magical things that spark joy that will last

Empty, empty

#1 We Were Pioneers (“Millennials Are Going Gray” track by track)

Welcome to blog #1 of 7 in my track by track guide to my new DIY album, Millennials Are Going Gray! The first track is “We Were Pioneers,” a song that is musically on the acoustic punk side, and conceptually about a literal dream about being a 19th century American pioneer while actually being an underachieving 20-something in the 21st century.

For your convenience, you can stream the track on Spotify and YouTube and read the lyrics at the bottom of this post.
***
Like most singer-songwriters who wear their hearts on their sleeves, everything I write in a song is pretty much true. I do indeed dream of what I think about before bed (probably pretty normal, I guess) and I did once have a dream about braving the Old West with an old friend. I also did spend an entire day watching Ken Burns: The West (it’s still on Netflix! Come back in a couple of days when you’re finished, I’ll wait) and a different day staying up way too late playing classic Oregon Trail on Archive.org (sigh, okay, fine, I’ll wait for you to do this too). Those are all individually true. But I’ll confess that I don’t remember if the dream actually occurred on either of those days, so technically, the implication that one or both of those activities directly caused the dream may or may not be accurate.

You might notice a pattern in how I come up with ideas for songs. It’s not that I go out of my way to find poignant metaphors in every little thing that happens in my life; they just randomly pop into my head because to be honest, I’m a little bit emo. (I remember once in high school, a classmate asked if he could scroll through my iPod, and I let him, and he said, “I’ve never seen so much emo music on one iPod in my life!” I was obviously deeply wounded by this comment!)

In this case, the dream was about a friend I hadn’t seen since high school, not even on Facebook. Just remembering her got me thinking about my life and imagining hers potentially being similar in certain ways. I never imagined my life would be so unsettled in my late 20s. To be fair, I’m happier than I’ve ever been because the one thing I’ve gotten better at year after year is being true to myself and doing exactly what feels right to me every single day. That’s a good path to contentment, though, evidently, not really any kind of path to financial stability for most of us. I think I just imagined myself to be successful at something by this age, and to have at least some idea of what the rest of my life would look like. As it is, I have no idea. I know how I’d like it to look (and I’m pretty outspoken about it), and I like to be as optimistic as possible. But I’m still aware that a lot of my dreams are probably not that realistic, and I honestly just don’t know how things will turn out in the end.

Another part of it is, yes, I’m trying, hard (to the point where a lot of people tell me I inspire them, and I so appreciate that sentiment!), but deep down, I know I could be doing so much more. I have plenty of lazy, unmotivated days (usually caused by something small and frivolous causing me to lose confidence in myself). As the song alludes to, some days I waste hours playing games, some days I eat enough junk food to grow a “food baby,” and some (okay, many) days I stay in my pajamas all day. It bothers me especially because reliable people (read: people who work in music and aren’t that nice) are constantly telling me I’ve got potential, and typically when I set a goal I always achieve it. As I say, I’m someone who’s not supposed to lose. (Incidentally, because they sound pretty much the same, I can never decide if it should be “we’re people who are not supposed to lose” or “we’re people who were not supposed to lose.” The latter alludes nicely to being a teenager with big dreams, but the present tense tends to hit harder. So I still haven’t settled the matter yet and opinions are welcome.)

As these thoughts were inspired by a dream about being a pioneer, I felt a metaphor coming on. Faced with the image of my old friend and I minimizing our possessions, packing them up, and heading out on a dangerous adventure where pretty much anything could happen, I felt lazy and cowardly in my own life. Just like a pioneer, I have things I want to change about my life. But all too often, I take careful, safe baby steps, when sometimes a big leap is warranted. I have plenty of excuses like anyone else, but the more I actually examine them, the more I can see how obviously illusory they are.

My own songs are therapy for me (which is also common among songwriters), both as I write them and as I perform them and mull them over. In the case of this song, it helped inspire me to begin planning two DIY tours in the next year (one on the East Coast and one in Europe — and if you can help with a sofa or a performing opportunity of any kind, please fill out this form!). I have no idea if anything good will come of it, and while I probably won’t die (I hope), there’s a good chance I will be very uncomfortable and exhausted during most of my time on those tours. But of course, those are the nights when I sleep better than ever.

As far as the music goes, generally speaking, all of the songs on this album remain simple and, some might say, uninspired in terms of chord and melodic choices (and of course I didn’t use any fancy instrumentation or production to hide that fact). Occasionally I get feedback, from people who aren’t particularly invested in my music, that I need to go back to the drawing board and develop my musicianship rather than focusing on performing and releasing music. But by and large, a lot of the people who hear my music (and are the right audience for it) already enjoy it. This is who I am musically right now, and I’ve got an endless stream of things I want to say in song, so I’m going to keep doing it. Hopefully, I will always have some time and energy left over to develop that musicianship, learn new techniques, listen analytically to other music and see what I can glean from it. But if I run out of time and energy, so be it. Saying what I want to say as best I can while I still have it in me is more important to me than saying it in an impressive way. And that pretty much sums up my entire music career through the present moment.

SPOTIFY

YOUTUBE

LYRICS

I dream of what I think about before bed
And I had a lazy Sunday marathon of Ken Burns on the West
So I had a dream we escaped all oppression
And we went somewhere, somewhere where no one could touch us
And there we were
Modest possessions packed up in our wagon
All to leave this behind for a better, freer life
And it’s a dangerous world out there
We could fail and we could die
But we’re itching for adventure, for a change and it’s our time

Why do we spend our days lazing around?
Talking a big talk and playing games
We don’t do what we want because we’re too afraid
And I know, I know, I know we could do better
There’s nothing we can’t do if we stick together
Because once, we were pioneers
Yeah, we were pioneers

I dream of what I think about before bed
And I played Oregon Trail last night until my eyes were red
Do you remember when we played it in school as kids?
Do you remember the dreams that we dreamed when we played it?
Back in our new home
More than a century and two thousand miles away
We plotted over drinks with the exciting friends we made
We’ve got a blank canvas here, this town is the edge of the earth
And we can make it anything we want it to be, it’s our turn

I had a dream that you and I were pioneers
I woke up wondering what had happened that we wound up here
We were the kids with the big dreams and the bright minds
And now we’re overgrown kids cramping our parents’ styles

And it doesn’t seem it’s going to work out how we wanted
You’ve got a food baby, I’m still in my pajamas
But the way I see it, life’s a game
Where you maximize its length, maximize the pleasure and minimize the pain
And you and I, we’re people who were not supposed to lose
And every day is a potential new beginning

We’ll leave everything behind, build a new life in a new place
If only in our minds
Because once, we were pioneers
Yeah, we were pioneers

On the DIY “Millennials Are Going Gray” EP – out July 19th

It’s been quite a year since I released Secrets I Told to a Sound Hole last March. I’ve been performing more than ever and finally made it to the Nick Alexander Stage at Lost Evenings, a big dream for me (at least for the past few years since the festival began, haha)!

I haven’t been as focused on writing and recording except in short bursts (as usual), most notably the period surrounding Frank Turner’s amazing songwriting camp last August, one of the best times of my entire life (so far). But I did end up with about 14 new songs in total, and 7 that I actually wanted to release.

Feedback has been mixed, but I like to think that this new batch of songs is musically and lyrically more interesting than what I’ve done before. I was going to wait to release until I had a larger batch of songs that I really loved, but I’ve been playing them out for so long and people keep asking when they’ll be on Spotify, so I thought I might as well get them out there sooner rather than later.

I did spend a few months agonizing over the best way to use my limited resources (classic DIY artist dilemma) – is it worth spending a chunk of cash on professional production, even if it means I might not then be able to afford to tour over the next year like I wanted to? Touring is important, but professionally recorded songs are also much more likely to win over fans and achieve something than ones that aren’t, so there would be a definite trade-off.

In the end I decided to do it myself. That would also let me take my time to get the best performance possible, which doesn’t always come easy for me. I’m still not sure I made the right decision (next time, I might work with a fellow amateur just to have an unbiased second pair of ears that I don’t have to go broke for). But part of following a dream is being decisive, committing to a course of action and then sticking to it, so that’s what I’m doing. And the good news is there will be many more batches of songs for me to throw money at if I choose to.

I learned a lot about myself and production from this recording, like I always do. I didn’t achieve perfection in the performance or production, but as in all things, I had to strike a balance between perfectionism and knowing when I’d achieved my best, not actually being a perfect person. I don’t want to bias other people’s listening by pointing out the specific flaws I can hear even after thinking I’d fixed them all. All I’ll say is that I hope I did an adequate job to allow everything I’m trying to express in these songs to shine through, and that’s all that matters right now.

I’ve got plans for this EP, including a track by track blog guide about the music and lyrics, and a Facebook Live listening party (Sat 7/20 at 12 pm ET) and virtual release show (Sun 7/21 at 2 pm ET) – if you know me, you know how much fun I have with Facebook Live! I also have a plan for finishing up a second batch of songs, which will be released in a second digital EP in November, and then I will combine the two EPs into a single physical release and maybe some cool merch to go along with it.

Finally, I’m hoping to tour the US East Coast in November (on my way to the Flogging Molly Cruise) and the UK/Western Europe in May (on my way to Lost Evenings Berlin). I’m still collecting contacts for those, so if you might have a sofa for me to crash on or a platform for me to perform (which could include your house), please fill out this form!

I’m so looking forward to the next year or so and I’m so grateful to everyone who’s been following my journey and supporting me along the way. Thank you and I hope to see you soon!