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Don’t Deny the Muse by Mike Turner

I recently responded to a post in one of the songwriter groups I’m in, and I wanted to share the gist of the exchange with you.

The poster, wrote, in essence (I’m paraphrasing here): ‘I set out to write a dark song, but it’s coming out much more positive and upbeat than I intended. Should I switch to a minor key to get back to the dark song that I intended?’ The poster went on to say that he seldom finished songs he’d started, and really wanted to make a go of this one.

My answer? “Don’t deny the muse. Many songs take on a life of their own as they develop, which is really your authentic self injecting whatever the music and lyrics are making you feel as you create them. Keep going and see what develops, and then polish it to be the final product that it wants to become. You can save your ‘dark’ instincts for the next one. If, as you say, you don’t seem to finish too many songs you start, maybe this is partly why – don’t fight what your heart and soul are telling you this particular song is supposed to be.”

Art and creation are wonderful things – and the very expression of them, can inspire us to even greater heights of creativity. Like an athlete, we can really get into the zone when we get into writing a song. Some describe it as a feeling that we are merely channeling some higher being who is providing us their words and music. I prefer to think that it’s the process energizing the art and creativity that’s within us.

Or, maybe they’re right. Maybe it’s the muse.

Don’t deny the muse.

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Victoria Vox – Colorful Heart Review by Nick Cody

Since Victoria Vox and Jack Maher dropped by last year to my house, I have been a fan of their work. Victoria Vox is, without doubt, one of the few artists I have seen in the ukulele world who has mass appeal to reach a much wider audience with her music. On this album that took a year to create, there is a real attention to detail and this comes over in both the performance and the production.

The album starts with the title track Colorful Heart which is a real earworm and in my view, would be a great single. There’s a rhythmic multi-layering to the sound and the production is excellent. There’s a lot going on musically and the vocal multi-layering brings the song to a climax. Crucially the sound never gets cluttered and this reminds me of the very best Madonna material while the material remains unmistakably all Victoria Vox.

Next is Out on the rails which starts with a great bassline and is more of a jazz shuffle feel. I could imagine hearing this at The Vanguard in New York. At 2.16 in length, this is a great example of how to edit a track and ensure that every second counts. It has a great feel and Victoria’s voice soars above a wonderful jazz groove.

Kick it back follows and this returns to a more pop feel but once again with a great groove. There’s a strong rhythmic feel once again that is hard to resist as a listener and this also in my view is a serious single contender.  Only time will tell is a bossa nova  and has a more folky feel with Victoria’s trademark mouth trumpet and some great harmonization’s around 2.45 which remind me very much of the Beatles. Same Dirt starts low key and then builds rhythmically and is the longest track so far at 4.06 minutes. There’s a strong melodic hook throughout the track I love the lyric “Give each other the space to breath” and it’s clear as I listen to this album that everything is very considered in both production and delivery.

Daytime Moon starts off like an Andrews Sisters track in terms of harmonies but again is very much Victoria’s sonic blueprint. The track twists and turns musically and is one of the highlights of this album. I would love to hear this live and you get the impression she’s singing just for you.

Sounds of Summer kicks off with a great bassline and reggae/pop groove with some excellent shuffle percussion. This is a great summer song and again has real commercial potential. Harmony is piano based and again features some great harmonies. Its clear to me that this album has strong melodies and well-considered arrangements. It’s extremely diverse but remains cohesive as a collection of songs. Tugboat returns to a jazz shuffle feel with Victoria’s mouth trumpet. I absolutely love the way this song swings with some wonderful vocal expression. This is Vox at her very best! Wildwood closes the album and is clearly a very personal song. This is Victoria singing to a piano and this stripped back closing track is a great closing track. I defy anyone who listens not to be moved by the emotion in this track.

Colorful Heart is a wonderful collection of tracks that showcase jazz, pop, folk themes that take the listener on a journey that is wonderfully musical but never predictable. What’s clear to me is that this is a very well-crafted album with strong musical ideas. The production is excellent, so every vocal inflection is perfectly positioned alongside some superb playing. There’s a big audience for such intelligent well-crafted music and Colorful Heart really plays to Victoria Vox’s strengths, great melodies, superb harmonies and well-crafted songs.

CHECK THE ALBUM OUT HERE

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What’s the story? Storytelling in songs

I’m increasingly noticing how songs which tell stories are some of my all time favorites. When you tell a story there is usually a beginning, middle and end, so often the listener is wonderfully engaged with what they hear. Below are some of the tracks I keep on my media player when travelling around the globe

Here Loudon wonderfully tells his tale and the music is perfectly arranged in relation to his wonderful lyrics

Below is another example from a master of storytelling Bob Dylan and from all time favorite album “Blood on the Tracks”

This is a nine minute track, but a wonderful example of storytelling with lots of wonderful descriptions to maintain listener interest

Another brilliant songwriter and storyteller is Tom Waits and here is a superb example of him in action

Bruce Springsteen is also a superb storyteller and songwriter and this is one of his best songs

Note, all these artists make great use of sensory language to capture audience attention and in my view many of the great songs tell stories. In my own band “The Small Change Diaries” and my new solo project “Tales of Dark and Light” I’m increasingly using the medium of storytelling in creating songs.

 

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Finding Just the Right Word by Mike Turner

There’s no question I’m my own worst critic. I write and re-write, edit and re-edit, to find just the right word to convey the story I’m trying to tell; get just the right timing and phrasing down to match the melodies I compose. In this essay, I invite you to a visit to my lyric-crafting world.

I’m envious of those who have the ability to pump out a fully-formed lyric on the first draft, in ten minutes flat. I know those people are out there – I’ve met a few. But I’ll never be one of them.

Let me give you an example. I spent months working on a 3-chord rocker, basically about a guy begging a girl to have sex (which, truth be told, is what about 80% of male-written rock songs are about). It’s intentionally what I like to call a, “lyrically challenged” song – that is, a song with minimal lyrics, relying heavily on the musical and performance elements to carry the song and convey the emotion. In fact, this is one of the few songs I’ve written, that started, not with lyrics, but with a chord progression and musical “hook”, with lyrics added later.

Anyway, I spent two days or so sweating over one word in a couplet and I thought showing the process to you would give you an idea of the warped levels my writing and editing can reach.

The couplet went through multiple versions until it came down to these two versions.

[version 1]
We’ll join our hearts and minds, let our spirits bind
Our souls will combine

[version 2]
We’ll join our hearts and minds, let our spirits bind
Our souls will entwine

Version 1 “sang” a bit better in the melody.

And yet, I’ve gone with version 2 in the final. Why, you may ask?

Well, if you go back to some of my earlier blogs on this site, I think it’s very important that we put something of our authentic selves, in everything we write. Part of that, for me, means that I make an effort NOT to write anything in my songs, that I don’t personally believe. Obviously that can’t be a hard and fast rule – I’ve written songs in which the protagonist murders someone, and I’m not a big believer in murder and violence (27 years in law enforcement will do that to you – and in those songs, I try to make sure the protagonist pays a price for their transgressions). But whenever I can, I try to write things that, in their underlying meaning, reflect my worldview.

And, while it’s a subtle distinction, that’s what’s happened here. It has to do with something I believe about relationships. We’ve all heard about two lives, hearts, souls becoming one, etc., etc. My wife and I, by contrast, believe that while as a loving couple we mutually support and encourage each other and work towards mutually beneficial ends, we should not and do not surrender our individuality by coming together in love and partnership.

Now, as I say, it’s subtle – but to me, the word “combine,” used here in the context of the song, infers a merging of two souls into one – in direct opposition to what I believe. The word “entwine” by contrast, to me expresses the joining of two souls, curling around each other in a mutually supportive way.

One my argue with my definitions – as I said, it’s a subtle (but to me, important) distinction – but what counts here is what the words mean to me. Why? Because they’re expressing what I believe. They’re part of my authentic self that I’m injecting into the song. Even if the words might not make a difference to my listeners reading them on the page, they would sense SOMETHING inauthentic if I chose to sing the word that I don’t really believe with – and they’ll sense SOMETHING authentic in my performance when I’m more invested in the word I do believe in. So, “entwine” it is.

I’d also point out that I just like the word “entwine” a little bit better – it’s not a word you hear every day, particularly in song; where “combine” is pretty common. I like the little extra “oomph” that the more unusual word gives.

Imagine going through this type of analysis for an entire song, and it becomes easier to understand why I can take weeks or even months to come to a “final” version of one of my creations. Clearly this isn’t the only way, or even a preferred way, to write lyrics – just ask the folks here who can turn out 10-minute masterpieces, or who can post 3 new lyrics a day, every day. My hat’s truly off to them. But that’s not the way I’m wired, that’s not the way I work, and I won’t “release” a song until the words I’m using, convey the message I’m trying to convey.

Anybody else go through this type of inspired lunacy?

Oh, and for anyone interested, here’s a link to a work tape of the final version of “Come On”:

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How best to develop ukulele skills?

There are many reasons why people enjoy and play music. Some people are happy to learn to  strum a few chords and there’s definitely a place for that. Others like group strum alongs which can be terrific social events. Many ukulele and other niche festivals can be social meet ups and places where people would rather jam that actually listen to seasoned performers. A major ukulele social media site ran a poll where only 22.8 % of those polled would attend an event to see experienced performers v 52.9 % would prefer to jam with friends. Online there are lots of people asking questions about how to develop skills and the advice can be at times “questionable” at best although well intentioned. Phil Doleman wrote a great article on this very subject here 

In the UK there’s a great interest in promoting ukulele festivals and festival style events with one happening almost every 3 weeks, often with the same core artists. Some of these events have workshop opportunities for learning usually in a 60 minute or 90 minute format. In the past these snapshots have been a lot of fun, but of course there’s only so much you can do in this limited period of time. Memorable ones to date include a claw hammer introduction from Aaron Klein and a rhythm workshop by Phil Doleman. My observation in recent years is that many workshops are not fully sold out even though the actual festival is fully subscribed. This again reconfirms that the festival format is often focused on social interactions rather than learning.

The more intensive learning retreat model is in my view a much better way to develop skills for the following reasons. Firstly those attending have committed a period of time (usually a weekend) solely to musical learning. This makes such events a real immersion process. I have personal experience of attending two wonderful Martin Simpson workshops. This would typically be for a maximum group size of 30 attendees. During this time, we each have a unique opportunity to ask questions and learn a huge amount about the technical aspects of learning but also many other aspects of performing. The frame of the learning environment means students can really forget about worldly activities and only focus on music.

In the UK Sorefingers  have ab excellent reputations for providing excellent learning for students. Both Phil Doleman and Percy Copley are teachers with this group. In June this year Matt Stead is providing a very welcome new learning initiative with a residential ukulele retreat that looks very well organized with some really excellent teachers. See https://theukeroom.com/retreat/

OUS is all about creating NEW ORIGINAL MUSIC. Musical education is a key element in making this possible and in my view investment in developing such skills is time well spent. We never stop learning and being in the company of music professionals is only going to help with that process.

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Finding Your Muse by Jon Rissik

 In my experience there are three key components to writing an original song; the instrumental arrangement, the vocal melody and the lyrics. In order to create something that works as a coherent whole, these three elements need to have both an individual power and the capacity to work together to form something stronger.
Unsurprisingly, many of the songwriters I have spoken to feel comfortable with one of these components more than the other two. Personally I find that writing instrumental arrangements and vocal melodies come quite easily. My ukulele playing gets me by, but has its limits and although I am constantly trying to stretch myself, I find that putting together interesting chord progressions is a relatively simple task. The same goes for finding a melody. Although I am more confident in my singing than my playing, I really know the tones and range that suit the limitations of my voice. I also know the style of songs that I want to perform. That’s not to say I am constantly ‘playing it safe’, but that I know what I like and I am at that stage in my songwriting – and life in general – where I can write for myself first, and then hope that others like it. So, if arrangements and melodies are a relative box-tick, where do I struggle? You guessed it – I am lyrically challenged. How often do you really listen to the lyrics of a song? Others I am sure will disagree, but personally I find that the melody and overarching tone of a song are the components that excite me – or turn me off – to a piece of music.
Conversely, I am rarely either instantly put-off or attracted to a song because of its subject matter, lyrical wizardry or clichéd couplets. For me, if the arrangement and melody is the skin of the onion, the melody is the first layer beneath that, critical to the overall sensory experience, but not the first flavour to reach the mouth. So if they matter less, why do I find lyrics so darned hard? Why can I nail down a melody and arrangement in an hour, and yet find myself pouring over the accompanying lyrics for weeks! Well, I think it may have something to do with age and circumstance. Let me explain: Some of the most memorable popular lyrics ever written were born out of the passions of youth. Those years when love burns brightest, when pain cuts deepest, and when there is a naivety of the wider world. Stevie Wonder wrote ‘Uptight (Everything’s Alright)’ at the tender age of 15, Kate Bush penned the hauntingly beautiful ‘The Man With The Child In His Eyes’ when she was a mere 13 years of age, and George Michael famously wrote his most enduring song, ‘Careless Whisper’ – including that sax intro – as a 17 year old in Bushey, Hertfordshire.
Okay, so these three artists possess songwriting and performing abilities that sit beyond my wildest imaginings, but I reference them to illustrate the point that very often artists write their best material at a young age, when they feel emotions most acutely, when their well of creativity is at its most full and when they quite simply have lots of stories to tell. Fast forward over the careers of many successful artists and how often will you hear it said that although the body is willing and the raw talent remains undiminished, the creative juices have stopped following. I believe that one of the causes of this is security, be that financial or emotional. I am 48, and I consider myself to be very lucky. I am thankful to have a pretty good job and a loving family. I find writing about finding love, or losing love, or generally being down-on-your-luck to be challenging as a result. I just can’t fake it with any conviction. It feels false to me and therefore I think that any audience I play to will see it as such. The same goes for what could be described as ‘angry’ or rebellious songs. I might have written a song about the current US President (‘Ship Of Fools’) but that’s almost too easy a target. In general I struggle to write songs about ‘The Man’ because in many ways, I am The Man – privileged and middle-class. My life is far from perfect, but I am very content, and that’s not a condition that makes for dramatic, autobiographical storytelling. I need to find my muse – my source of inspiration. The well is pretty dry and I need to find a new source. It would be great to read other people’s thoughts in the comments section below. Am I alone in struggling to find lyrical inspiration in my late-forties?

 

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OUS Artists of the year- Victoria Vox and Jack Maher

The OUS platform is 2 years old with approaching 3000 members on FB and 92 artists with their own pages on the main site. Its a wonderful creative space for original songs.

Each year I have decided to announce an OUS artist/artists of the year and the winners for 2017 are Victoria Vox and Jack Maher.

This previously unreleased performance was done in one take in 2016 in my kitchen in the UK and this is what OUS is all about, smart, brilliant melodic music brilliantly performed. BRAVO Victoria and Jack and for those watching and listening here’s a clip that can now be enjoyed by everyone.

Also check out http://originalukulelesongs.com/victoria-vox/ and http://www.victoriavox.com/

If you get a chance to see these guys live, grab it.

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Some thoughts on learning to play the uke from the internet by Phil Doleman

First of all, I’ll come clean; people pay me for ukulele lessons, and they buy my book. I have a vested interest in persuading people that it is best to seek out tuition! Of course it is perfectly possible to learn how to play the uke for nothing, using nothing but the internet to guide you, but it is a minefield. Here are a few thoughts I’ve had when browsing the internet recently.

 If you choose to learn from the internet, you need to be very discerning. YouTube, Facebook, etc. has no quality control. There are indeed wonderful free lessons available, but I frequently watch or read ‘lessons’ which are disseminating bad advice or which are completely incorrect. Of course, if you are a beginner, how can you tell what is good and what is bad? The easiest way is to do your research, ask around of ukulele forums, seek out players that you know have a reputation. Another way, which is a lot more long-winded, is to compare lessons. Don’t just take the first search result as gospel, see what others have to say on the subject. The third way is to get a teacher and ask them!

 In the last week, I’ve seen people ask for advice on Facebook groups and be told completely the wrong answer, and have that poor information backed up by people saying things like, “do it your own way, there’s no wrong or right! It’s the ukulele, just play!”. Now I don’t mind how people play the ukulele or what they want out of it, but as far as music is concerned (and the music made on a uke follows the same rules as music made on any instrument) there is absolutely right and wrong! I’ve watched people told to miss out a hard chord, or substitute it with one that is in no way a suitable substitute. I’ve looked at sheets downloaded from the internet to find that they are completely wrong. The problem is not only when people take this at face value, it becomes and even bigger problem when, as the internet and social media encourages, that misinformation is then shared. The odd thing is that this doesn’t seem to be the case with other instruments as it is with the ukulele. As a player of the banjo, I rarely see banjo players telling other would-be banjo players to skip the hard bits, in fact it’s more often the opposite; practise and you’ll get it!

 There’s something else at work here, too, though. Let’s take a little trip back in time to when I was a teenager learning to play guitar. If I wanted to play a song I had on record (vinyl!) I could either work it out myself, by ear, or go to the music shop and buy the score. The score was usually in the ‘piano/vocal/guitar’ style, which meant is was essentially a piano arrangement of the song with chord boxes over it. At best this served as a rough guide, as it didn’t show the guitarist how the guitar player on the record actually played the song, so even with the score (if indeed there was one available), there was still a certain amount of working out by ear, lifting the needle of the record over and over again to try and catch that tricky bit. It took time, it was laborious, and there was no way to check what you were doing as there was no internet. We frequently got it wrong, but then would play it in front of another player and they might correct us, or we might see the performer play it on video and see their hand go to a different place to us on the neck. This sounds awful compared to the world of instant gratification we see daily online, but it wasn’t. This was learning; this process was invaluable. As we worked out songs, we trained our ears, we learned new fingerboard patterns, and, yes, we learned theory as we started to see that certain chord patterns occurred over and over again. We were even training ourselves for the time when we would get up and play with others by playing along to the record. Recently, someone asked about coming to an intermediate workshop of mine. They told me that they were worried it would be too easy as they had been playing for a month. A month! People are constantly told that the uke is easy, and of course physically it is much, much easier to get a pleasing tone out of a uke on day one that a violin, trumpet, or flute, but once you get playing, well music is music! Yes, a three chord song on a uke is easy enough to learn, but so is a 3 chord song on the piano! What isn’t so easy is to understand what you are playing and why, to go beyond reading the little pictures of chords, to jam with others, to compose songs, to really play music.

 So what can a teacher offer that the internet can’t? Firstly, a teacher will find out where you are and where you want to be and plan a route to get you there. In doing this, they’ll also know what kind of things you need to know that you don’t know you need to know (I’m starting to sound like Donald Rumsfeld)! They can repeat, rephrase and re-explain anything as many times as you want, and can present you with learning materials that are suitable for you and correct (unlike so much of the material available for free online). On top of a that, a teacher offers a two-way learning environment, meaning that while you play, the teacher will listen and observe, and be able to correct poor technique or spot those tiny mistakes you didn’t notice. A teacher will stop you cherry picking the easy stuff, but will introduce the tougher aspects gradually at an achievable rate and will be able to adjust that difficulty to reflect how easy or hard the student finds it. Your teacher will also be there to answer any questions between lessons. Finally, having regular lessons gives you a deadline (the next lesson), and having a deadline is a great motivator for practice. Yes, you also have to be discerning when finding a teacher. Look for recommendations, look for reputation, and yes look online for free content that the teacher provides as well. Remember that anyone can call themselves a teacher (I witnessed someone go from non-player wanting lessons, to a ‘teacher’ with a professional-looking website in a matter of weeks).

 I understand that lessons cost money, and that one lesson can cost more than a beginner uke (the disadvantage of ukes being relatively cheap; the same price for cello lessons doesn’t seem like much of an outlay when you’ve spent thousands on a cello!) but it’s worth mentioning that, although we love our instruments, they are just boxes with strings on. The real value in an instrument is being able to play it well, and the real value in being able to play is boundless; a new and rewarding social life, the pleasure of being able to entertain yourself and others, the ability to express yourself in a new way, the ability to play with others, the appreciation of your audience, maybe even paid gigs! I know people with 20 or more ukes who tell me they don’t want to spend money on lessons. That’s like owning a Ferrari but begrudging paying for a driving instructor!

Check out www.phildoleman.co.uk

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Jake Shimabukuro – Pushing the ukulele boundaries

I spent some time in Nashville talking to Van Fletcher Jake Shimabukuro’s manager about the next Jake record after Nashville which was already a departure from what many uke folk might expect. Van and his wife were good enough to invite me to listen to some of the new tracks which are yet to be fully mixed and mastered. Its clear to me that Van is a 100% music lover and his basement is remarkably similar in some ways to my onw music listening room – serious high end hi fi with multi speaker set up and a collection of box sets, CDs and Vinyl that essentially tells the history of all great music.

Michael Ross who runs Guitar Moderne and who is a long time friend and our wives were in for a treat that was really quite something. I’m not going to go into detail about who is playing on the next album or the tracks, but let me say now, this is a whole new jump for ukulele playing. Like many folks I love Jake’s brilliant covers of Queen and The Beatles tracks that made him so famous. When I interviewed him literally two years ago I was amazed at his diverse musical interest and I now know where a lot of this came from. The Nashville album hinted at what Jake is capable of in terms of pushing the boundaries of the uke. The next album is a whole quantum leap that I think will amaze many folks and really show just how this mighty instrument can be used in a really exciting way.

I for one really welcome these explorations which will only help show that the uke can be used for a huge range of sonic expression far beyond what many folks might imagine. Keep an eye out for Jake in 2018 and prepare for something that will really rock your musical world.

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