Sunday, November 30, 2014

Fun Escape - A Closer Look

The past couple of weeks have been a chance to get away, in more ways than one. I discovered that National Solo Album Month (NaSoAlMo) had started in November. In thirty days or less, participants are challenged to create an album from scratch with a minimum duration of thirty minutes. I figured it would be an excellent opportunity to work on an extended burst of creativity before settling on the obligations of my life. My compo experience probably prepped me for what I was about to do. I've made songs in an hour, so having a month to do about ten songs would be no sweat. Unlike the usual compo system, I was free to re-upload newer versions of my tracks as I saw fit via SoundCloud. Since the forum would be via Reddit, the social reach is potentially much wider than the usual compos I attended.

What tripped me up at first was the lack of something to unify the various compositions I would write. A week went by, and then another, but the launching point wasn't quite there. In the meantime I recorded riffs and things into my phone's voice memo app for later reference. Eventually I came across a 1947 anecdote about a bus operator who stole his own bus and drove off, escaping the grind. At that moment I remembered an older song I'd wrote called "Fun Escape" that carried the basic concept of that anecdote. A way to say goodbye to the drudgery of living -- and that happened to tie in to the fact that I was escaping life for a while by way of my creative outlets. All these things clicked together to become my concept album.

As a proof of concept, I re-produced the song "Fun Escape" and included it on the album as the launching point. After that is "Next Stop", in which the bus driver protagonist laments the futility of his existence. The stipulations of NaSoAlMo allow for one cover version of someone else’s song, so I used that opportunity to record "Mad World". Originally performed by Tears for Fears, the song complements the album concept I was going for. The minimal chord progression of "Mad World" also fit in with my style of pop songwriting. To nail the theme even further, I added a few lines to the existing lyrics. The accompanying brass and clarinet riff was originally part of an Optigan sample pack, which I chose to give the song a drunk-at-the-saloon vibe.

Breaking out of the doldrums is the turning point of the story, which is expressed in "Mile After Mile". The song's tone is intended to be optimistic and cheerful as the bus operator drives toward the setting sun with no particular destination. This continues with "Bus with Wings" as the protagonist imagines being able to fly around the world in his vehicle. In terms of arrangement, the idea was to get brighter and more fun in tone as the adventure goes on. The rock snare of the opening song gives way to sidestick action of the next, and later a brush kit. By the time the album reaches "Bus with Wings", the beat consists of a simple tambourine. Ideally this would create a sense of floating ever upward as the album progresses.

Eventually the narrative reaches the second turning point in "Lady Hitchhiker". I came up with the riff early in the month, and originally intended the song to be more of a subversive, sultry number. It wasn't until I was finalizing lyrics that I realized that the titular hitchhiker could serve as the catalyst for the bus driver's loneliness. To that end, I added Spanish guitar help give the track a more melancholy tone. The driver's turn of events causes him to want "To Go Home", as his initial road trip excitement has worn off. To make the singing sound as laid back as possible, I recorded at a slightly slower tempo, then time-squashed the vocals to the correct BPM. The unusual synth sound in this song came about as I was wracking my brain over what to add to the arrangement: somewhere outside my window a toy siren went off that swooped up and down in pitch. This inspired me add a Theremin-like instrument to the song.

Wrapping up the concept is a suite of tracks regarding the bus driver arriving home. "The Audience" shows the rush that comes with fame, as his fun escape made him a local celebrity. Soon afterward however, the protagonist realizes his fifteen minutes of fame are up in "Yesterday's News". The album ends with the bus driver reconciling with the people of his home town. "Passenger Stories" tells the tales of two characters: one is a generous elderly woman, the other a greedy politician. Both people end up as riders on the protagonist's bus. The song also reveals that if the driver had not returned to his everyday existence, he never would have ended up with the love of his life. As I look back at this completed album and head back to my day job, I wonder what may be waiting for me.

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