2017 > 2016

Let’s face it, 2016 has been a big, festering wound of a year.

My personal stuff is well-covered territory: My mom died. My job changed dramatically. Really, when you think about it, those are really hefty things and the fact that I am sitting here at 12:15 am on December 27 in my sister’s living room and not a complete puddle of tears is an accomplishment in its own right.

Beyond the personal dramas, there’s a whole slew of collective world stuff that has been weighing on all of us. Syria. Brexit. Small-scale terrorist attacks that maimed and killed hundreds and threaten our daily routines. North Korea. A divisive and horrid U.S. election cycle. Donald Trump being elected. More celebrity deaths than any of us want to count (David Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen, and just yesterday, George Michael – are you kidding me?). Zika virus. It’s A LOT to handle.

But here we are, December 27, on the verge of a new year. Like everyone, I’ve got my goals for the year. Among them:

  • Train for and run my first half marathon in five years
  • Lose weight
  • Travel to Australia to see Shelia and Wales to visit Caroline and Lee
  • Go to Denver and see Red Rocks
  • My first Montana trip to see Libby
  • Send a letter or card a week
  • Write at least one blog post a week
  • Conduct a massive, soul-cleansing closet purge (trust me, this one is LONG overdue – there are clothes and shoes in there that just shouldn’t be)
  • Maybe go on date or two
  • Reduce the amount of Sugar Free Red Bull and Coke that I drink
  • Go to 125 concerts in a year
  • Get back into taking real photos

My list is probably too long and someone, somewhere will tell me that I should pick one or two of them and focus on small goals. But that’s not the way I want to do it. I either want to win big and revel in glory or fail just as spectacularly and learn from my mistakes. That’s a bit out of character for me, but something in me broke in 2016 (and it’s a good thing), and it’s time for me to stop living on the sidelines of my own life.

People say to me all the time, “You have the best life.” They say that because they see the world through the lens of my Facebook and Instagram pages. Pictures of concerts and cocktails and me out with friends, posts about bands that I love, and my adorable nephew, and things that bring smiles and happiness. And I do love all those parts of my life.

But I think that for a lot of people – including me – only show the world the highlight reel on social media. You see all the good stuff, and none of the bad stuff. Most of those people that tell me I have “the best life” don’t realize that I probably go to 75% of those shows by myself. That I see the staff and the bartenders at my favorite venues more than I see my friends. What most people don’t realize is that I am scared to death 99.9% of the time about what other people think of me. People don’t see that when I’m at home, I curl up in the corner of my couch wearing leggings and sweatshirts and eat salt and vinegar potato chips and watch endless reruns of The Big Bang Theory. I’m lonely, but I have built freaking fortresses around myself to keep from getting hurt (and that, my friends, keeps people out). Half the time, I’m sitting there berating myself that I should be doing something … running or cleaning my closet or reading or writing something. But I haven’t done ANY OF IT. Because I’m so frightened of winning or failing or anything other than things that keep me on an even keel.

And I’m tired of it. So, in 2017, I’m going to change it, and it starts with that great big list of things I want to do. Writing it down and putting it out there in the world is my version of Andy Dufresne’s “Get busy living or get busy dying.” It’s here now. For everyone to see. So there’s no turning back (because now you all know that I worry about what you think of me).

Maybe it’s hopeless optimism, stupidity, or perhaps even that Liz Gilbert book I’m reading, but I feel like even if that checklist above has zero checkmarks on December 31, 2017, 2017 is still going to be a good year. I feel it in my gut.

We’re all due for one, don’t you think?


Shake, Don’t Shatter

Quiet Hounds new record, Shake, Don't Shatter, is a conversation between musical brothers that you can't stop listening to.

Quiet Hounds new record, Shake, Don’t Shatter, is a conversation between musical brothers that I can’t stop listening to.

Every once in awhile, life throws you a huge curve ball. Yesterday, I found out that the company where I have worked for 17 years – the better part of my adult life – is being sold. The future, for right now, is up in the air. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t scared and apprehensive about what comes next.

So it seems almost cosmically divined that one of my favorite bands, Quiet Hounds, released their new record, Shake, Don’t Shatter, on the day all of this craziness in my life went down. Hollywood couldn’t have scored a soundtrack better. Why? Because this album is a journey of self-discovery. A collection of songs about realizing what those unbreakable threads are that tether you to the people you love most. It’s a record about learning the strength you have to keep it together when everything around you seems to be crumbling.

There’s no doubt that this record is personal. For the first time in the band’s four-year history, the relatively mysterious quartet has given listeners a peek behind the literal masks. For a month leading up to the album release, they teased the story behind these songs. When life circumstances relocated the band’s lead singer to California in 2013, leaving behind the rest of the band in Atlanta, the future of Quiet Hounds was uncertain. But, they persevered, recording melodies and vocals and sending them back and forth via Dropbox to one another, finding creative solutions for problems that might stymie other bands (like recording vocals in a Toyota Prius when no other alternatives were available). In a series of emotional videos and blog posts, individual band members told their pieces of the story, sharing their thoughts behind the separation, intimate glimpses into their songwriting process, and more.

“These songs mean more to me than any others we’ve created. They’re about us. About struggling in the dirt and the mud. About being afraid, but never doubting. About what it means to be an artist, one that can’t live without the songs and the people that you create them with,” M Hound says in one of the videos, a simple yet intensely powerful statement about the deep bonds of friendship and camaraderie that develop in making music together.

That sentiment is at the very heart of this record. The separation, which continues today, resulted in six songs that, through metaphor and analogy, are a conversation among friends, a catalog of a musical brotherhood. In reading their preambles to the album, it’s clear that there’s an incredible amount of respect not just for the craft of making music, but for what each of them bring to the table in the band.

In my imagination, I see the band working out songs, sans lyrics, and sending these blank canvases of music across cyberspace, waiting for them to come back with vocal paint, messages from their friend 3,000 miles away. It’s an incredible frame for these gorgeous songs, but it should be noted that it is my singular interpretation of the album, and in no way do I know the actual meanings behind these songs.

“Gentlemen, believe we’ll do what we must, we hunt at all costs. So my friends, take heed, my hunter we trust, my hunter we trust. Don’t don’t don’t don’t stop stop stop stop stop, every time you fall, I pick you up.”

The chorus of the album’s opening track, “Hunter Gatherer,” is what lead singer E Hound called “a letter to my friends back home” to express his homesickness, expressed through the imagery of earlier times and the struggle for survival. The melancholy is palpable.  It is a call to be heard, even across the miles. It is from here that the album takes off, and we watch the Hounds struggle with their new reality.

We hear E Hound roaming the California countryside, looking at estates and sprawling hills, but mocking the overindulgence in the Beatles-esque “Mansions.” He beckons his friends to “come and join me here someday, in artificial structures we can play.”

On the first single, “Magnolia,” the Hounds are truly at their best, with an almost orchestral number that illustrates their musical prowess that oscillates between gauzy, questioning verses and an upbeat, percussion-punctuated choruses that answer back, before closing with a bevy of strings that will make you swoon.

By now, you’re fully immersed in the Hounds story, and if you aren’t prepared, “Tidal Wave” will knock you off your feet. There’s an underlying current (pun intended) of complete defiance from E Hound, wrapped in the picturesque scene of California surf, as he seems to address the very real possibility that the band might not weather the distance between them. “You keep on talking bout the end…/These things I can’t even pretend…”

And then we come to my two favorite tracks of the record. The dreamy “Bright Matter” is the source of the album name, a celestial-themed number full of buzzy melody and animated drumming that uses the stars as a metaphor for connection. Given the way that these songs came to fruition, zipping across the miles through routers and servers and wires, it’s a particularly apt one, and as E Hound sings, “Hey, bright matter, you keep me safe, you keep me moving along/Shake, don’t shatter,” you get the feeling that the foundation that this band is built on is unbreakable.

The closing track, “Still Phantoms,” is like “Weathervane,” the final track on this album’s predecessor, both a message of resilience and a portending of what’s yet to come. Although sparse, it is arguably the richest track on the album, showcasing each of the band members individual musicianship in a way none of the other tracks do. (Don’t think I missed the double entendre in some of those lyrics, either.) As the song reaches a crescendo, layered vocals overlap and bleed into one another, and the four individual voices of the band come together as one.

Selfishly, I want this record to be longer than six songs. I want it to go on forever. But even in its brevity, Shake, Don’t Shatter is perfect because of the connection it inspires between the listener and the artist. If we are lucky, we’ve all felt these things: loss, homesickness, strong bonds with our friends, a “never-give-in” moment where we know for certain what it is we want to do.  In the end, that is what it is all about, isn’t it? Music – and all art, for that matter – is a reflection of what it is to be human. It can be a celebration of our hopes and dreams, a conduit for our sadness and grief, a confessional for our fears and guilt, a way for us to express our love and gratitude for others, and a vehicle for finding our strength to hold on when the ground we know seems to be falling out from under us.

As for me… I’m more uncertain than I’ve been in a long time about my future. My job, my company, are so much a part of who I am that the idea of losing them makes me feel like I’m going to be left with a big black hole in my center. I don’t know what’s coming around the corner, and probably won’t for a little while. That’s really scary for me. So I’m going to need you all to remind me – and need to remind myself – that it’s okay to be lost for a little while, because I’m strong enough to find a new path back to solid ground.

Shake, don’t shatter.

More Quiet Hounds:  Web | Facebook | Twitter | Buy Shake, Don’t Shatter direct from the band

More Matt McCloskey

I’m kind of obsessed with Matt McCloskey‘s music right now.  Some fella was nice enough to post a series of videos on YouTube that he shot last week at Matt’s show in Austin.  I just love the way he talks about his music – it’s so honest its painful.  “I thought I’d get better at being alive.”  Jesus – don’t we all?

Not Tonight/The Hard Rains

50 Cent Heart

Thanks to Lenny Sharp for posting the videos.

More Matt McCloskey:  Web | Facebook | Twitter | The Hard Rains on iTunes

What’s on Your Workout Playlist? Volume 3

After a long hiatus in which my weight grew almost as fast as my music collection, I’m back to working out regularly again. We’re less than six months away from The Rock Boat, and I am determined to love myself in the pictures from this cruise! Thanks are due to my roommate and general partner in crime, Shelia, for giving me a swift kick in the ass and making a workout chart that keeps me accountable to me. And, since I’ve lost 5 pounds in my first two weeks, I’m feeling mightily inspired.  Which, of course, has led to the need for a new heart-thumping, booty-moving workout playlist.

My music buys as of late have been leaning toward the mellower side – not exactly what one needs when doing the impressive overhead press weight of 10 lbs (hey, don’t judge!).  So I’m turning to my loyal readers to help me bulk up (get it?) my rad new workout playlist. I’ll share mine if you share yours – what gets you fired up to get your work out on?

Radioactive – Imagine Dragons (iTunes | Amazon)
Won’t Stop – Midnight Youth (iTunes | Amazon)
Anybody (Featuring Zeale) – The Soldier Thread (iTunes | Amazon)
One More – Jimmy Cliff (iTunes | Amazon)
Kids – Saints of Valory (iTunes | Amazon)
Anarchy Fire – Lovedrug (Bandcamp)
Howl – The Gaslight Anthem (iTunes | Amazon)
We Are What You Say – Dead Sara (iTunes | Amazon)
Turntable – Grace Potter & The Nocturnals (iTunes | Amazon)
Tightrope – Walk the Moon (iTunes | Amazon)
Let’s Go – Calvin Harris (featuring Ne-Yo) (iTunes | Amazon)
Tattoo Girl – The Hundred Days (iTunes | Amazon)
Six Shooter – The Rouge (iTunes | Amazon)
The World Is Over – Red Wanting Blue (iTunes | Amazon)

Here’s to whipping my butt (and yours) back into shape!

25 Creative Ways to Be A Better Music Fan

In a world full of music listeners, how do you stand out from the crowd?

The music industry today is tough.  There are more artists than ever competing for our ears… and the Internet has essentially made buying music an “if you want to” sort of thing (If you haven’t read David Lowery’s diatribe on why we should be buying more music instead of downloading for free, you should).

So, outside of buying our copies of their albums, how do those of us who want to support artists do so?  Yeah, social media.  I get it.  Beyond that.  What can we do?  I’m very lucky to have become part of an incredibly supportive community of music fans, and they’re always coming up with inventive new ways to help our favorite artists along. For those who want to do more but don’t know how, I thought I’d take some of the ideas I’ve used and seen over the years and compile a list of ways to be a better music fan.

What have you got to add?

1.  Write an iTunes/Amazon review of an album.  The algorithms that help an album chart and show up in Google searches are a closely held secret.  However, reviews are a key part of the formula.  Keep ’em short, sweet and punchy!
2.  Make an iTunes Ping playlist/Spotify playlist/Mix CD with your favorite artists. Use social media to talk about your playlist or send copies of the CD out to your friends!  For many people, playlists are a great way to find new music.
3.  Your favorite artist is in town? Buy them dinner!  Pick up the check if you see them at your favorite restaurant before the show.
4.  Write a blog post about the artist. Subjective reviews are the easiest; if you’re going to write something newsy, make sure to double and triple check all your facts!
5.  Fuel them up/buy an oil change with gift cards. A lot of artists wrack up 3,000 miles on their vehicle in a typical week.  With gas still above $3 a gallon most everywhere, fuel bills and car repairs can add up quick.  Gift cards for these things are gold!  National chains are best (so they’ll work no matter where they are), but if your band is only touring regionally, local chains can work, too.
6.  Make care packages for touring musicians!  Care packages are a super fun way to let your favorite artists know how much you appreciate their music and their touring effort.  Load up a bag or basket with goodies you know they’ll love – or be able to put to good use.  Some things I’ve used before: card games, cookies, candy, music, Fix-a-Flat, Silly Putty, frisbees, fruit, restaurant gift cards, books and magazines, trial size toiletries, and bottled water.
7.  Leave behind a CD in a rental car.  I’ve left mix CDs behind and actual purchased CDs.  Both can be effective. Caveat:  Rental car companies do clean cars out between uses.  Put a little sticky note on it asking the rental car cleaners to leave it there for the next renter.  No one ever has good music when they need it.
8.  Put those hotel rewards points to use and gift a night at a nice hotel.  If you’re a frequent traveler (or an infrequent one) and have rewards points you can part with, saving the band a few bucks will earn you big gratitude.
9.  Offer up your couch or guest room for the night.  Imagine you’re a touring musician.  Hotel rooms in not-so-scary parts of cities run $75 and up a night. You’re on tour for 5 weeks.  The cost of rooms along could break the bank.  A little hospitality goes a long way.
10. Send a random email to tell them what the music means to you.  The little things matter.
11. Buy extra copies of an album and give it away to friends for no good reason.  It puts money in your favorite artists’ pockets AND it makes other people feel good.  Win-win.
12. Post on Facebook/Twitter/Pinterest when a new album comes out…and include the link!  Don’t make your friends and family work to find the music…make it easy for them to buy. I usually post both the Amazon and iTunes links (hint:  to get an iTunes link for an album, click on the little arrow next to the album price and select “Copy Link.”)
13. Host a house party with your favorite musician as the musical entertainment. Lots of independent artists are more than happy to play at your home.  Negotiate a price with the artists and then ask your friends and family to pitch in a “cover charge” to cover the cost.
14. The tried and true bumper sticker works better today than ever before. Everyone’s on the hunt to find the next new “it” band before their friends do.  Help them out and promote your favorites on your car!
15. At a live show, thank them for coming to your city.  Let them know you appreciate the effort they took to come see you.  Bonus:  artists remember this kind of thing and it might be the difference between them picking your city over another on their next tour.
16. Buy an extra ticket for a show and leave it at the door.  Tell the door guy to give it to someone who doesn’t have a ticket or use social media to give it away to the first person to grab it (thanks for the idea, Riz!).
17. Clip restaurant coupons for their favorite places and give them to them when they play your city.  Saving money is ALWAYS a good thing.
18. Get your friends together for pre-show drinks/dinner and invite the artist to stop by.  It’s a great way for them to meet some of their fans (or soon to be fans) one-on-one!
19.  Check-in at a live show using Foursquare, Facebook, Twitter, or whatever your friends are using.  Make them want to be at that show with you!
20.  Use your birthday as a way to get your family and friends to contribute to a Kickstarter or PledgeMusic campaign.  You really don’t need another pair of running socks, anyway.
21.  Give the gift of Sharpies.  Yes, it’s true, I’m a Sharpie fanatic.  But for touring musicians, these perma-pens have a mysterious way of disappearing.  They can never have enough!  And…if you want to get really fancy, get them some customized ones.
22. Use lyrics to make artwork and graphics.  You don’t have to be DaVinci to make cool artwork these days.  All you need are some basic computer tools.  Make customized Facebook cover photos with lyrics (make sure you put the band’s name in there).  Take your digital photos and use Photoshop or Paint to add your favorite lyric to your favorite buddy photo.  Print it out and frame it as a gift.  You’re getting the word out there about the artist…and giving a unique, customized gift in the process.
23.  Ask the street team or artist about helping out with selling merch at a show.  Many artists tour without crew, so having an extra set of hands to help out is very appreciated (and many artists will offer you free entry into the show as thanks).  Caveat:  in some bigger venues, this could mean that you actually don’t get to see the show, so make sure to ask ahead of time if you have to staff the table during the show.
24.  Randomly give away a copy of an album on social media.  This is one of my favorites!  On the day an album is released, tweet, Facebook or whatever that you’ll give away a copy of the album to the first person to message you.  iTunes or Amazon gift the music to them.  You’ll put a smile on someone’s face, I guarantee it!
25.  Roadtrip for a show in another city.  Keep an eye on your favorite musicians touring schedules.  Know that a city won’t bring in a crowd for them?  Never seen them in their hometown?  Trust me, hometown shows are ALWAYS worth the trip.  Show up unexpectedly.  Get your friends together and make it a weekend adventure.  New cities often bring new setlists and surprises!