If It Isn't Beautiful We'll Make It Beautiful

Today is release day for my "solo" album, "Inside Voices"

If It Isn't Beautiful We'll Make It Beautiful

Listen/buy on: Bandcamp | Apple | Spotify

My favorite pastime when I was a kid was, without a doubt, building things with Legos. Oh, I had other pastimes and other toys - action figures and robots in disguise, but Legos were a constant favorite. By the time I aged out of Legos, I had amassed dozens of sets, totaling thousands of pieces (which I passed down to my sons; Legos are a durable toy). I’d spend hours, sometimes an entire Saturday, listening to music and sifting through a massive pile of Lego spread out on my bedroom carpet, looking for the exact right piece, building all manner of imaginary buildings, vehicles and machines.

I use the word building but of course I also mean designing, because, of course, the fun in Lego is not in following the little instruction pamphlet to build the item displayed on the box, but rather, to conceptualize and then build one’s own invention. Indeed, my buddy Scott and I had criteria for buying a new set when shopping (and when browsing without any money, wishing, planning, scheming for the day when we could afford the set in question) which was not about the company-designed item, but rather about examining the picture on the front of the box for new, interesting and useful pieces (“That one is a hinge! Look at that brick with a slope on one side!”) or just more of the truly rare pieces, because in the economics of Lego, having (or, as it often turned out, not having) enough of a certain piece had a very material effect on your day’s masterpiece.

Designing, though, is maybe not the right term either, because of course I was not drawing out a blueprint prior to building; it was designing in real time, letting circumstances like what bricks were available, and also if Scott was over and we were building together (by which I mean building separate things simultaneously, me with my pile of Lego, and Scott with his (and yes, we had a way to distinguish our bricks - all of mine had a small blue dot on the underside, made with a paint marker, and Scott’s had a corresponding silver dot which meant among other things that we could loan each other rare pieces when the need was desperate)) then inspiration often struck watching the other’s in-process construction. If designing can be understood as a recursive, exploratory process that wavered between invention, discovery and revision, then it was designing, happening in concert with building, or maybe they were the same act. (In my web developer career this is called “designing in the browser”, i.e. as-you-go, making decisions as the code is written, and it is frowned upon in that industry, but that is more or less how I designed most of my personal sites - www.johnpauldavis.org and dayofthemountain.com for example).

Need I say the real joy in Lego was the building itself? Of course, a completed project meant holding the new creation in one’s hands, turning it around and over, admiring it, like a sculpture, from all angles, and then showing it off to whoever might be around to show it off to (often Scott and I were each other’s only audience - C.S. Lewis says this is the stuff of friendships - in The Four Loves he observes “Friendship arises out of mere Companionship when two or more of the companions discover that they have in common some insight or interest or even taste which the others do not share and which, till that moment, each believed to be his own unique treasure (or burden).” Lego was that treasure for Scott and I when we were kids. Also, not for nothing, am I here, as the kids say, for Lewis’s Arbitrary capitalization of certain Nouns.)

The showing-off, the sharing of the completed work did bring a short-lived satisfaction - showing it to Mom for her to admire for a couple of minutes felt good; showing it to another builder of Lego and getting a good reaction (that’s so cool!) felt even better, as the respect of one’s peers only can, but any and all accolades, praise, congratulations, admiration burn bright and bring little warmth. Meanwhile the act, or dare I say state of building itself didn’t so much feel good as it did transport the builder to a mode in which feeling good didn’t matter in the first place; what mattered was the creative act itself, the building, the sorting through pieces, the many sudden bursts of inspiration, the joy that is less a feeling and more a way of being, so, yes, a state.

I suppose plenty of people, adult or child, might find building Lego a chore, or they might only get pleasure out of building what was laid out in the instruction pamphlet (I see you, recipe-followers and rule-abiders!), or they’d just rather do something else (I see you, athletes!), so the above might not ring true for them, but everyone has something they do that they get lost in, and it’s that, the getting-lost-in-ness that’s the source of the joy. Athletes experience this; musicians, actors, people who really really like to clean. For all of them the end product, the trophy, the completed performance, the spic-and-span room are all satisfying of course, but that satisfaction is just a wholly different kind of thing as the doing itself.

What writerly process I have I owe to countless hours of Lego building; my entire philosophy of writing (and, really, any creative process at all) was born and matured in my Lego years. I make poems, for example, much the same way I made objet d’Lego, not knowing when I start much more than that these two pieces (words! Or even just sounds) go together in an interesting way and I want to see what happens next. For most of the 35 years I’ve been writing poetry, the writing has been the fun part, and the part where I try to get other people to pay attention to the poem for a moment is a chore with little reward. Lately I am lucky to be able to say that people who aren’t me or my Mom seem to be enjoying some of poems and are interested in them, which is an immense source of gratitude, and I still desire the respect of my peers, but 35 years is a long-enough time of just doing it without any (or very much) of that respect that, were it, the peer-respect, my motive, I’d have given up poetry long ago. It’s the writing itself that I love (and, it is sometimes the occasion for friendship).

My two frustrating years in art school were frustrating because the faculty wanted me to have a Process that I could write critical theory about, and the Process needed to be visible to the institution, which meant gradable, trackable, with iterations and revisions easily-divided into increments, and that is just not how I work. The iterations happen all jumbled up with the initial making. I circle back in the middle of the first circuit, and then before that loop is closed, I circle back again. When I was in high school and the English teacher wanted me to hand in note cards showing the work I’d done to write the paper, I wrote the whole paper first, and then reverse-engineered the note cards because that is the only way I know how to do it.

All of this is also true of the music that I make, and though I am an amateur poet, I am even more an amateur musician (in the literal sense of amateur - i.e., as one who practices the craft as a lover of it). As much as I love poems, I love songs; I like songs so much, and thinking about songs occupies a large percentage of my thoughts. I am a promiscuous, gluttonous, hedonistic lover of songs. I have no use for taste, for instance; certainly at any given time, certain songs may not fascinate or move me, but no aesthetic principle really guides my attention - I just really really like songs. (I’ll note here that I automatically mistrust anyone who tries to get me to have “good taste,” whatever that is, and I mistrust people who believe (mistakenly, in my opinion) that “good” and “bad” are useful descriptors for art. Truly, “goodness” and “badness” are the most boring thoughts to think about something another human being made with nothing but their imagination, skill and time.)

Songs! I love them. This evening, because I had never listened to any of these artists before and was curious, I listened to Waylon Jennings (Honky Tonk Heroes is well worth 30 minutes of your time), Chet Baker (Chet Baker Sings is worth the next 30 minutes), and Brenton Wood (Oogum Boogum equals another well-spent half hour). There is a meme going around the internet which I learned about from my wife when she asked me if I thought about the Roman Empire, in which, apparently, men are asked by their partners when was the last time they thought about the Roman Empire, and it turns out a lot of men are very likely to think daily about the Roman Empire (for the record, the Roman Empire is like sports for me - I think about it when circumstances require it, but almost never otherwise). I do not have that much mental capacity to devote to the Roman Empire because I am usually thinking about songs. Sometimes we’ll be walking down the street and my wife will just ask me “what song are you thinking about?” or sometimes even “what song?” and I almost always am thinking about a song when she asks me, and it is always not the same song I was thinking about the last time she asked me.

I spent most of my life believing I could never be a musician because I do not really care for performing - or, rather, I like the making of the music so much, and as with poetry, find the whole business of getting other people to pay attention, either via live performance or promotion, much less rewarding. I really, really like the part where I make the song, because I make songs the way I make poems the way I made things with Lego, in that get-lost-in-it mishmash of designing and building. I can spend hours finding just the right sound on one of my synthesizers, or crafting a beat, or toying with an alternate tuning on a guitar, or trying different melodies to go with certain lyrics. My goal, as with poems and Lego, is to make the sort of thing I’ve always wanted to be in the world be, the thing that doesn’t yet exist but which I think should. My process is almost always some version of “that’s cool, what happens if I do x?” Producer and inventor of ambient music Brian Eno called this “being more of a gardener than an architect.”

During New York City’s COVID-19 lockdown, I spent a lot of time twiddling knobs, moving faders, tuning and retuning the guitar, hunched over my laptop refining beats, and writing lyrics. Back in 2018 I started a band (Love in the Ruins) with my friend Dana and we’d recorded two albums’ worth of music, with her singing and both of us composing and playing or programming beats. I brought the results of my lockdown endeavors to her as candidates for Love in the Ruins songs, but her reaction was that these seemed like songs I should sing myself.

I was, at first, bummed - my bandmate has a gorgeous voice and is a delight to collaborate with - but over time I found myself taking the idea seriously; what if, what if I made an album of songs I sang? Me? Yes, me!

I am not an especially talented singer; I can carry a tune if I work at it, and such ability as I have has served me well during the hymns at church or Christmas caroling and in working out melodies with Dana for Love in the Ruins songs. So I took singing lessons. I googled (hell no, I am not capitalizing google when I use it as a verb, especially because in this instance, I googled on DuckDuckGo) “singing lessons for people who can’t sing NYC” and one of the results was Sing A Secret, the web home of Jonathan Stancato, vocal coach, who advertises “I work with: singers from all genres and training backgrounds (from opera to death metal and everything in between) and self-professed ‘non-singers.’” He seemed like the guy for me, so I went in for a preliminary session and thought we spent the entire hour talking about singing and none of it singing, I knew by the end he was right for me, because the class felt like a great therapy session, the kind where you open some door of memory and see an old pain with new eyes and a little healing happens right there in the big chair. I went home from that session having done no singing and received no singing instruction and was singing along to Talking Heads while washing the dishes and Mahira came into the kitchen to say that she could already tell a difference in my singing after only one lesson. I signed up for the whole course.

Jonathan helped me understand what my voice is, what it’s capable of, and also worked with me on knowing how to get to the interval I want to get to. Six sessions and I found myself suddenly confident and almost entirely without self-consciousness, and with singing, as it turns out, once you remove genetic factors like the sound of one’s voice and raw musical talent, the whole deal is pretty much about believing you can do the thing.

Being able to sing better meant rewriting the melodies (I had new pieces that did new things!) which meant rewriting the songs and writing new songs. Which I did. Once I had the lyrics and melodies more or less written I then turned to inviting collaborators into the project.

By this time lockdown was over in New York City (yes, that’s eighteen months in three paragraphs) and I started to envision the project as an album and the album as “a room with all my friends in it.” I wanted to invite as many friends as I could to contribute to the album. So I began sending out emails and texts, asking friends whose music and musicianship I admire to contribute. For the ones who are professional musicians, I paid them their standard rate for their contributions. For the other amateurs like myself I asked and more often than I expected, got an enthusiastic yes. I spent the next six months tracking musical and vocal contributions from over a dozen collaborators, and then another three letting those contributions impact the arrangements of the songs (more new pieces!), revising and revising until I had songs that I found myself wanting to listen to more than any other music in my very large music library (have I mentioned how much I love songs?)

I named the album Inside Voices, a phrase I plucked from a poem that wasn’t working, about my neighbor, Jerry, who, during the pandemic, had taken to just screaming, wordlessly, at the top of his lungs, for minutes at a time, during the middle of the day. (Inside Voice, is also the name of one of Jonathan’s singing courses, the synchronicity of which makes the title feel even more right). I chose for the artist name the phrase Day of the Mountain, which I heard environmentalist Allistair McIntosh use in a talk for one of Dougald Hine’s excellent online courses. You can’t avoid the day of the mountain, Allistair said. The mountain is there; it requires your attention. That also feels right - the day of the mountain could be a calamity. Or it could be a lesson. Or a trial. Or an adventure. Or all of the above.

Friends, this album is now available on all the digital everything - streaming, for purchase, and probably some venues I’m too out of touch and uncool to even know about. I did my diligence with it and sent an “electronic press kit” along with a press release I wrote to lots of music publications - more work than I have ever done to promote my music - and though I expect none of that effort to bear fruit, I did it anyway, because as with all lotteries, you never know.

Given my admission that I am pretty much an indiscriminate lover of songs, it may now not be persuasive to tell you that I love these songs, the fifteen that make up Inside Voices - I think they capture the deep domesticity of being in lockdown in a tiny New York City apartment with one’s romantic and life partner, but also the anxiety, the fear in the air, the vulnerability and also the joy, the rapture, the delight that arises, love’s labor and love’s reward. Though death surrounds us, we are alive.

This is me, hoping you’ll spend an hour of your life listening to these songs. I think it’ll be an hour well-spent. It’s probably the last I’ll have to say about the album for a good while; as always I’m much more interested in making things than in trying to persuade other people to pay attention to the made things. That said, it does feel good when something I make makes a home in someone else’s heart. So I do hope you’ll give the album a listen. Sometimes I have it on while doing some chores or walking in the park and some really beautiful section will arrest my attention and I’ll have to stop and allow myself to be moved by it. That keeps happening. Most of that is due to the many talented collaborators I worked with:

M.S. Borders - (guitars, bass)

Starina Catchatoorian - (backing vocals)

Paul Chamberlain - (piano)

Brian DeWeese - (backing vocals)

Levon Henry - (saxophone)

Ian Jesse - (upright and electric bass)

Maëry Lanahan - (backing vocals)

Caits Meissner - (backing vocals)

Shawn Randall - (backing vocals)

Patrick Shepard - (guitars, bass)

Jonathan Stancato - (backing vocals)

Dana Suchow - (backing vocals)

Jonny Taylor - (guitar, mixing, mastering)

Kuhoo Verma - (backing vocals)

If you’d like to listen on streaming services you can visit: Apple or Spotify

If you’d like to buy the album via Bandcamp, (which is the best option if you like artists actually getting your money) go here.

If you’d like to read/view a digital booklet with liner notes, lyrics and credits - click here.

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