Words Without Song: A Musician's Blog

Songwriter Spotlight: Dan Jones 

If I have a favorite kind of musician, it's the type with huge amounts of talent packed into a humble and understated personality. That would also be the way I describe Dan Jones. 

I met Dan while I was a student at Henry Ford Community College. He was a bass player that performed with the vocal jazz group I was in at the time. We got along musically and had a blast playing charts along with Kevin Dewey, the music director of the group. Dan read music well and played with clear tone and tasty style. 

He was also in a band that played original music, but had recently been booked for a few cover band gigs that one member was not interested in playing, so I was asked to sub. Though we called ourselves "The Motor City Seven," we were effectively Dan's group "Penumbrae" minus their guitarist and plus me. It was there I met several fantastic musicians including their drummer Randy Nelson, keyboardist Greg Drelinski, lead singer Lish. They were all very welcoming, friendly, and talented. The way they worked together influenced me to this day. I never saw any ego despite talent that could warrant it.  

...I had to have a copy...

When it came time to record my first album, I brought in Dan, Randy, and Greg for the sessions. And after such a great experience with the band, I had to have a copy of the Penumbrae album One Way Drive. There were so many great tunes and standout lyrics. Lish's vocal harmony choices captured my ear as well. The entire album was written by the one guy in the band I hadn't met because I had replaced him for that gig. The entire album except for the song that stood out the most: "She'll Never Know" written by Dan Jones.

I still don't even know what this song is about. The cryptic lyrics paint a picture that is somehow so detailed and so vague at the same time. In that regard, it shares a quality that I love about Anthony Kedis' work with the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The song was the one on the album that always gave me "the feels"-- that emotion that is neither happy nor sad, but still felt so strongly.

...my goal was to bring out even more of everything...

When I recorded my version of the song, my goal was to bring out even more of everything I loved about the song. It has a fantastic build over the course of the song, so I start even quieter to build even more. The harmony was great, so I highlight it throughout. A bed of Mellotron flutes add more of that same "something" emotion. 

If you enjoy my cover, be sure to check out Penumbrae's entire album. Unfortunately the band is no longer together, but you can catch Randy and Lish performing locally with The Bus Stop Poets. Dan toured for several years with The Ragbirds, and has been working on some orchestral music lately as well. Rumor has it the members of the band have plans to write together again. I personally hope so.

 

 

 

Songwriter Spotlight: Todd Alsup 

I was in college when I got a call to perform with Todd to promote his upcoming release. When I listened to the demos to learn the music I was immediately impressed with his songwriting and vocal talent. I was actually hoping I could somehow convince this Michigan native not to move to New York and to join my band instead. 

Once I met him, I took note of his professionalism, ambition, and focus. This kid was bound for New York, and I knew right away there was no stopping him. And by kid, I mean adult maybe five years more experienced than I was at this whole game. It is no surprise to me to find him continuing to work successfully in the Big Apple, getting endorsed by Yamaha, getting a write-up in Billboard magazine, and achieving plenty of other fantastic career milestones.

"I knew my version couldn't match what his voice can do."

Of all the tunes we performed at that gig together, "Theory" was my favorite. It was a lyrically unique angle on the classic pining-for-love motif, and harmonically very interesting as well. There was just one problem with wanting to do my own version: What a vocal performance! With Todd influenced heavily by Stevie Wonder, Tina Tuner, and host of other top R&B singers, I knew my version couldn't match what his voice can do.

There's little point in covering a song that's just a subpar version of the original! To make this one a bit of my own, I had to lean on my own talents as an orchestrator and multi-instrumentalist. You'll notice a melodic bassline and more heavily orchestrated solo section complete with string runs and uplifting french horns at the climax. George Martin is a long way from Stevie Wonder, but it's a voice I can draw from far more readily.

If you enjoy this tune, be sure to check out Todd's full album Facts and Figures, as well as all the excellent music he has released since, including his latest single "Manhattan".

 

Hear the new song here!

 

Songwriter Spotlight: Eric Engblade 

I first heard Eric perform at a summer music festival some time around 2010. His entire band “The Northern Skies” were fantastic. They were a talented mix of aggressive Michigan folk musicians (including Nicholas Cole-Klaes, currently bassist and music director of Weekend Comeback).  

One particular song, “Michigan” really hit me. I had written and released an entire album called Home trying to capture elements of my homesickness for Michigan when I lived in Texas, as well as the joy of returning, and the bittersweet emotions of having to leave friends behind to come back home. But with one profoundly simple sentence, “And I miss you. I miss Michigan,” Eric better accomplished what I tried too hard to say. I was impressed. And jealous.  

"Again captured a certain romanticism about my home state." 

When they recorded part of their second album Thick As Thieves at Henry Ford Studio, I had an early look at some of their new material, and once again two of Eric’s songs jumped out at me: The Northern Islander and First Paved Street, two songs that again captured a certain romanticism about my home state.  

When I decided to start working on a few covers of other Michigan artists, Eric was an obvious choice. But what song to record? “Michigan” sounded so personal and intimate on the original recording that I felt it best to remain as is, and the original arrangement to “The Northern Islander,”—with its soaring fiddle part and half-time sections—was also too perfect to try to approach it differently. With “First Paved Street” I felt that by replacing the laid back guitar with ukulele, and the bluesy harmonica solo with a collage of electric slide guitar, mandolin, and electric 12-string, I could easily give a stamp of my own influences. (Notably for this song, solo George Harrison.)  

Though The Northern Skies have since broken up, Eric is still an active songwriter and solo artist here in Michigan. His 2020 release The Mystery Emporium and the rest of his discography can found at his website ericengblade.com. He also teaches music out of the Ada Conservatory near Grand Rapids.  

If you enjoy my rendition of First Paved Street, please be sure to check out the rest of Eric’s music and help us local independent artists support each other!

Sometimes I Am Wrong 

This particular post is for music directors.  Not just conductors, but all music directors.  If you're the MD of a band, the section leader of a choir, producer of an album, conductor of an orchestra, frontman of a local garage band, then this post is for you.  Whether seasoned veteran or aspiring music student, read on.  (If you're not in a position of music leadership, but make music under the direction of someone who is, I encourage you to continue with me as well). 

I am currently the director of the Seaway Chorale and Orchestra and bassist for The Phoenix Theory.  It is from these two very positive and current experiences that I reflect on past and present.

Music directors, I imagine you possess a base-line level of talent and musical knowledge to be in the position that you are.  I'd certainly like to believe that my opportunities to direct music groups from rock bands to pit orchestras to choirs are at least partially thanks to being musically capable.  As the captain of a ship, I put in a lot of effort to make sure that my vessel isn't headed straight toward killing Leonardo DiCaprio needlessly while Kate Winslet steals all the room on the floating door.

"I am a music director, and sometimes I am wrong."

Kate isn't the only one who is guilty of making a decision that was obviously a poor choice to anyone else watching.  As the leader of many a rehearsal and concert in my day, I have made mistakes.  I am a music director, and sometimes I am wrong.  

In a position of music leadership - like any position of leadership - we must show confidence and competence if we want a chance at being successful.  But where, oh where, is the line between confident, master-of-the-craft, and arrogant jackass?  It is a thin one, to be sure, but it is our job to find that line and stay on the right side of it. 

I have been the director or co-director of many different performance groups.  I would say that I can now look back with some degree of self-honesty and see when I was a strong leader (and when I was not).  I have also performed under many other directors, as pit musician, rock guitarist, orchestral percussionist, chorister, and as jazz bassist, to name a few.  Between directing and being directed, I think I've found some common threads that sew together a strong relationship between performers and their leader.

"Your level of talent is simply not analogous to your level of success." 

So maybe you're the best singer you know.  You were the top student in your music class.  You hear harmony in your head like a deaf Beethoven writing his greatest work.  You get frustrated that you operate at such a higher level than everyone around you.  That's really impressive, but you might be a terrible director.  When it comes to leading an ensemble of any kind, one principle seems to hold true: your level of talent is simply not analogous to your level of success. 

Yes, musical talent is needed for the job, but I've seen stunning talent take the wheel and hit the iceberg before even leaving port.  The quickest path to that failure?  Trying to hold onto an image of flawlessness in the eyes of your fellow performers.  After all, you'll quickly lose their trust if you admit it was you, the captain, that made a mistake that caused a problem in performance, right?  Sounds like solid logic, but in practice, nothing could be further from the truth. 

The problem with the "infallible maestro" method is that while you are insisting you didn't cause some kind of musical problem, the other capable musicians you're directing are simply aware that you have.  You can't easily fool another human being into thinking you're not also a human.  So when you don't own a mistake, or worse yet, deflect that ownership onto your players, bandmates, etc., the other musicians - if silent - have concluded one of two things: One, that you refuse to admit fault and you are therefore an arrogant little shit, or two, that you are genuinely unaware that you have made a mistake, and are therefore not fit to be the director.  Both conclusions are far worse for you than if you had simply "owned your oopsies."  I wish I could call this a rookie mistake, but I've seen it happen with beginners and long-time directors alike.  

"Every time we tag our own mistake onto someone else, we diminish the value of the times we are right."

A huge part of our job is to find flaws and fix them.  That has to include our own.  It's very important that musicians trust us and enjoy working with us, and every time we tag our own mistake onto someone else, we diminish the value of the times we are right.   If we tag ourselves instead, we're not above the crew, but we are part of it, sailing toward a common goal together.  As leaders, we must work hard to make as few mistakes as possible, but when those mistakes come, they are ours to own.   

Alternatively, you can try to insist that your ship is unsinkable, but the rest of us know how that movie ends.