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4 Years On November 25, 2013

Posted by craftlass in music, NASA.
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4 years ago today I was a space geek who had never been to any NASA center or seen any full-sized heading-away-from-Earth rocket launch. I’d yet to meet most of the friends I’d made via Twitter but was already feeling the positive effects of knowing people who shared a lot of interests with me. I’d just arrived in Florida for Thanksgiving. Atlantis was in the midst of her STS-129 mission and the first NASA launch tweetup had been held for that mission’s launch just about a week earlier. I had plans to make my first visit to Kennedy Space Center to watch the landing later that week, but was enjoying relaxing by my father’s pool with my family in the meantime.

A few months earlier I’d been watching the Augustine Commission hearings on human spaceflight while reading about lesser-known NASA projects that had resulted in excellent improvements to life on Earth, such as agricultural programs that have prevented a lot of starvation but are never hyped. I saw a joke on Twitter about how NASA was going to have to resort to bake sales if they wanted a decent budget and the idea captured my imagination. Visions of rocket-shaped cookies and moon pies danced in my head.

I turned to my computer as C-SPAN blared away in the background and found myself typing:

We sent men to the moon because of some lines

In a speech that inspires to this day

We learn more about Earth from orbit

Than we can in any other way

Yet we spend and we spend and we spend and we spend

On corporate welfare that will never end

Programs that waste more than they create

Yet we’re happy to let NASA deflate

So let’s hold a bake sale for NASA

Show our love for a program that actually works

The cookies are sure to be out of this world

We could even has astros as clerks

Give folks a chance to learn first-hand

Why we need these adventures in space

How it affects them directly at home

And elevates the whole human race

Yes, they just came out that way, no editing required. I picked up my guitar and the chords to complement my new melody just came together right away. As soon as I had a solid pattern going on guitar, the rest of the lyrics just flowed out. Later, I did a bunch of research to confirm my facts and was pleased to find that my statements were pretty accurate.

I wasn’t a musician, I didn’t want to be and had made that decision years earlier. I can’t help writing songs by the dozen, but I was way over-the-hill for a female musician already (33 years old at the time, over-the-hill is usually age 28 for women) and had spent enough time on the road to know it was a hard life with little chance to make a living or maintain the other parts of your life (paying jobs, relationships, etc.). But this song was special. This one had to be heard. It had an important message that wasn’t getting to people and there was no way I’d be getting someone else to perform something so quirky. My friend Stephen Bailey practically ordered me to play it at an open mic before I’d even memorized it, after I showed him my lyric sheet. It got the biggest response I’d ever received from the audience. I’d tweeted about the title and people wanted to hear it. When I published the lyrics online the clamor grew.

My background is in audio engineering but I strongly believe that a musician should not be her/his own engineer and producer if possible, especially for someone like me who writes in a vacuum, without collaborators. It’s easy to get tunnel-visioned about your own music and a fresh perspective is key to making a good song great. Dave Entwistle, a new friend I’d made through his open mic nights, was also an engineer who had been through some terrible music business experiences that gave him recording sensibilities very similar to mine. It was a perfect match. We recorded it over a couple of days and had a blast doing it, the best recording session I’d ever been part of. He elevated the song and my performance in a way that felt more like magic than effort and brought my vision to life.

Most of life requires a lot of hard work. This song never did. Everything just kept coming together.

I joined TuneCore and set the song up to release as a single while packing for Florida. The site said it could take 2-3 weeks to get it to the stores (that time has shrunk over the years) so I sort of pushed it out of my head and took off for the airport.

4 years ago today I got a tweet from @txflygirl saying that she’d just bought “Bake Sale for NASA” at Amazon. It had only been one day and it was up! Next thing I knew, I was on the Amazon charts just above Carly Simon, not in a high position but on the list and climbing. It was the biggest shock of my life. No promotion, no record label, I hadn’t done any of the things I knew I should do to spread the word. It was selling anyway.

Walking onto KSC grounds as an accidental musician with a song about NASA was quite the experience. I’ve never felt so proud. I got to meet Jen and Andy Scheer for the first time, Jen had done the beautiful cover for the song and it was just perfect that we’d already planned to meet that day. I had no idea how all of these things would change my life forever.

We make plans, we set goals, we try so hard to control our lives. It never works. The great things happen when you least expect them and weren’t looking at all.

To date, I’ve been to 3 NASA centers and their headquarters in DC, I saw four of the last five shuttle launches and three of the last five landings, I spent a day at the European Astronaut Training Center in Cologne, I’ve gotten to perform at some of the best events I’ve even been to, and I’ve met amazing people from all over the world who are so smart, funny, and interesting that I still have trouble believing they exist. I may not have full access to that part of my life right now, but the memories are priceless and I can’t wait to get back to traveling again someday.

There even was an actual bake sale for NASA, not to raise money for NASA (that would be illegal) but to raise awareness and support for planetary sciences, created by Alan Stern. My song didn’t inspire it, but it did inspire participants and helped spread the word. That was thrilling for this huge fan of planetary science and unmanned missions. “Bake Sale” might focus on human spaceflight a bit, but it is really about growing all exploration programs, whether they are pointed out at the universe or back home, because all of the pieces to this puzzle are very important to our understanding of the universe we live in.

I wanted to do something special today, like maybe a broadcast of a new live version, but my mouth rebelled and half of it is swollen to where it feels like I have an Everlasting Gobstopper stuck between my molars. I have to go to the dentist and its filling me with so much dread that I’m nauseated and unsuccessfully trying to get work done and probably shouldn’t even be writing this. How do you let the anniversary of the best thing that’s ever happened in your life pass by without notice, though?

A lot of musicians get frustrated when people obsess over one of their songs. Some react by refusing to play their big hit, some play it without putting any heart or soul into it, and still others just rush through the song as quickly as they can (such as Blues Traveler, who managed to play “Runaround” with such speed that you could barely even attempt to sing along after it became a hit). It’s demoralizing and can even be a creativity-killer. Why be creative if your audience only cares about one song? Or will walk out if you play something new, even if it is a far better song, just because it’s new? Or will get angry at you for trying to improve your performance and branch out in new directions?

Playing the same song night after night is boring. I get it.

But I still love playing “Bake Sale” every bit as much as I did at that open mic where it was debuted. Even when I’m home alone rehearsing I can close my eyes and see hundreds of special people in a host of special places, singing and clapping along. I can hear the ghost of an audience chanting, “NASA! NASA! NASA!” like they did at a local pub that was decidedly not full of space geeks. If I ever start playing out again, feel free to request it. I won’t get upset.

“Bake Sale” is the closest thing I will ever have to a first-born. It was far from my first song, but it was the song that broke me out of the prison I’d built around myself. It was the first baby I’d sent out in the world and it managed to survive on its own. I’m a proud momma.

I wish there was a way to thank every single person who has purchased any of my music, shared the links to my music at various sites, written about my songs, invited me to play an event, came to the Endless BBQs and Yuri’s Nights and similar, supported my adventures, and paid insane amounts of money above the list price for Above the Sky at Bandcamp. Every one of you will be in my heart forever, even if I don’t know who you are.

Okay, time to conquer my fear of dentists, just like “Bake Sale” forced me to conquer my stage fright.

Meanwhile, I’d love to hear about how you discovered “Bake Sale” in the comments and if you have any special memories attached to it. I’ve heard quite a few from people but it would be fun to consolidate them and maybe even hear some new ones!

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Writing, My Agony and Ecstasy April 10, 2012

Posted by craftlass in music, writing.
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Oh, us writers just love to talk about writing, don’t we? There are so many books, websites, forums, blogs, and more about the topic that you could spend your whole life learning how to write more effectively without ever producing a line.

Then there’s the dreaded writer’s block. It’s hard to explain to anyone who has never dealt with it no matter how good your communication skills might be when not blocked. I’m learning that I have distinct phases of production that include times of terrible blockage, which has been the past year for me. In 2009-2010 I wrote at least a few songs a week and a lot of blog posts. In 2011 I found myself struggling to write any music even I wanted to hear, although a lot of my experiences did make it onto this blog, so at least I had an outlet for the first 3 quarters. Coming out of six months of full failure to write just now, I’m figuring out a lot of why creation of art is a cyclical endeavor.

I’ve written songs off and on since I was 20. An avid music fan all through childhood and adolescence who worshipped great songsmiths, I never thought I would write a song, let alone even one anybody would want to listen to or record. A songwriter I met at 19 told me, “You’re a songwriter, you just don’t know it yet,” and I laughed so hard I spilled my drink. Then one song just popped into my head and started this cycle that has affected not only my writing but every aspect of my life since. Many overdue apologies for laughing, John.

The past 2 years of my life have been so inspiring that at first I couldn’t get the words and music out fast enough to capture it. I love the songs from that time, all of them. A few of them turned into Above the Sky, a few are partially-recorded, and a few are still in the maturing stage, but I’m proud of each and every one. As my travel increased the inspiration became overwhelming but my alone time was shrinking just as rapidly. Too many ideas with no time to mull them over was wearing me out. Unfortunately, this was discovered only through hindsight.

I’ve collaborated with a couple of writers but generally I write alone. Completely alone. I don’t even like having my windows open when I’m writing music because it takes an awful lot of ugly ideas to find the right construction. Since I generally write words, music, and melody together there are many ways that ideas won’t work at first. First drafts often barely resemble the final product and can be downright embarrassing.

When I write, I go a little crazy. I lose track of the mundane details of life, like eating, drinking, or thinking anything besides my songs. Luckily, these days my partner makes sure I take care of the basics, but I still feel a little ill when I’m in the throes of a really good spree and find the whole process both exhilarating and exhausting. I spend hours combing over every detail, trying to find ways to get complex notions into something under 5-6 minutes, checking any facts that I used as inspiration, and find words to describe the indescribable.

When I can’t write for more than a few weeks, I go a little crazy. Ideas push their way around in my brain, screaming at me to let them out, find them a home. My dreams become exhausting, negating any amount of sleep I get, if I can sleep at all. I get short with the people around me, try as I might to fight that behavior. If allowed to go on too long I hit the point where all I want is to be utterly alone and perfectly still, preferably somewhere quiet and pretty, just for a little while. Unfortunately, I don’t generally have the ability to find that oasis. The piles of ideas clog up and I find myself thoroughly blocked even when I do get the chance to be alone again. That’s the hardest part of all, and often leads to depression.

Perhaps the greatest struggle in the first world is finding balance, no matter what you do. My question is, in the realm of creativity, is this naturally unbalanced flow just a necessary part of life, or is there a way to find just the right balance to keep one’s edge? Is being aware of my best productive cycle a strong enough tool to help me find a way be both creative and able to maintain the other parts of my life?

Here’s the cycle, in case you are curious:

  • Gathering – Exploring places, meeting people, having long talks with people I’ll never see again, reading endless books and articles about things that interest me, and just taking in experiences alone and in groups. Since I started releasing music, this is also a promotion phase.
  • Writing – The intense release of new ideas.
  • Production – When the flow of original ideas slows down, it’s time to hunker down and polish songs up, play them live and see how they evolve, and then record the ones that feel appropriately mature. This is the one phase where I can have any semblance of a “normal” life.

When I look at this on paper it seems like the right way to do things, logically. When I look at the past few years of my life it seems fraught with complications.

I didn’t ask to be a writer, although I’ve always admired writers of all kinds. I’m still surprised when I read something I wrote or listen to one of my songs and think, “I like that.” I’m even more surprised when someone agrees, let alone pays for even one of my songs or comments on anything I write. I don’t understand where my ideas come from exactly, my best guess is that it’s a natural progression from my knack for seeing and hearing patterns in the world around me.

For once, though, I can say with certainty what broke down my writer’s block. I read this quote from an interview with The Clancys and Tommy Makem (the first musical act I can remember hearing as a child), “Someone said while talking about folk music as history. They said that written history was never any more than the propaganda of the victor, whereas folk songs were the true history of the people that were living through it.” I thought I was a folk singer/writer because I played an acoustic guitar, mostly solo, and I write some songs about current issues. This quote reminded me that folk music is something so much deeper than entertainment, it’s how we tell future generations what it is like to be alive around the turn of the second millennium. I have learned more history due to listening to and learning to play folk music of the past than I ever learned in a class. History books and classes teach us about the great events that shaped civilization while folk music tells us what it is to be human and often powerless. Without both we can never truly understand what brought us to where we are or how the actions of those in power affect everyday lives, not just statistics.

Whether or not my music or random musings here and there last through the ages I will keep telling the stories I’ve lived through and collected as thoughtfully and beautifully as I can. I don’t have a choice about writing, but I do have a choice to use that drive to simply entertain or to do my best to preserve the memories of some amazing events and people. I no longer question my genre or place in music, I am a folk singer and always will be, no matter how many genres I flirt with onstage or in the studio or how much success I do or don’t find.

Now, please excuse me while I go a little crazy.