Song 54 – Your Dark Side

First things first! My new album, Greene Street is out! It includes all 12 songs from last year, remixed and mastered, plus a bonus track (rounding the album out to a nice baker’s dozen). “Remixed and mastered” means the drums “pop” more than before, the vocals are clearer and there are lots of other fixes that make these the “final versions” of the songs. You can stream it or buy it – every penny (and then some) goes right back into the music.

Now onto this month’s song…

I actually wrote this song back in December, 2016 and intended it to kick off the 2017 cycle. Brian, Robert and I worked on it a few times in early January, but it was clearly not ready to be recorded. It needed something to change, but no one could put their finger on exactly what that was. To be honest, I didn’t understand it. Even though I wrote the song, I had no idea what the chorus meant.

The chorus was the first part of the song that I wrote. As always, I was in the shower. I remember singing the chorus over and over, even after I turned the water off, thinking, “Wow, this is fun!” Since it was fun, I didn’t worry too much about understanding the words – I just ran with them and quickly wrote the verses. But like I said, once we tried to play the song, it didn’t work. It needed something. I put this one on the back burner and recorded A New Song instead.

Here’s an iceberg floating away from a glacier I saw in Alaska with family.

Now fast forward five months to May, when I was recording The Sum of Regrets. That song describes an emotional struggle that I constantly fight and I had a lot of reservations about how graphic the lyrics were. But while I was working on that, I had this chorus,”Show me what you’ve got/I might like it might not/Don’t be afraid of your dark side”, running through my head. It was then that I realized what “Your Dark Side” was all about. The chorus was for me. It was encouraging me to open up about the feelings that I usually keep very well hidden. I was telling myself to just go for it, to let it all hang out. And I did, and in response a lot of people told me I’d recorded my best song yet. But I couldn’t have done it without this one.

Alaska was shockingly lush. Ferns grew taller than me.

Once I finally understood the chorus, recording it was easy. Actually, this song came together in record time (no pun intended). Probably because it had been with me for so long.

Folks, it’s been a great month! As you may have guessed from the pictures, I had a wonderful trip to Alaska (a place I’ve wanted to go to ever since I was in 3rd grade) with family and I celebrated the anniversary of my second hernia surgery with a new tenor guitar (featured in this song). If you’d like to sing or play along with the tune, here’s the song sheet.

Every post needs at least one cat picture!

Song 53 – The Sum of Regrets

I wrote this song, as you might guess, in the shower. But not my own, so let me back up a little bit to give you some context.

I thought I’d planned the perfect getaway. A short drive got me to a town I hadn’t visited before and I booked the perfect AirBnB apartment for two nights. It was right over a coffee house, so I could roll out of bed and get my morning tea without any hassle. And coffee houses are quiet, right? I didn’t think it would keep me awake at night. And I was right, the coffeehouse was quiet. But the four bars that surrounded the apartment (and that I had failed to notice when I booked it) were insanely loud.

Red didn’t have a good night’s sleep… (Photo by AMK)

When I first arrived, I saw the street lined with motorcycles and thought it was just a crew grabbing dinner on their way through town. Boy was I wrong. From 9pm until dawn, it sounded like a week long Harley-Davidson rally compressed into a single night. Coming from four sides, I heard engines roaring, men fighting, women laughing and the constant sound of shattering glass. When the sun came up, not having slept a wink, I was in a very strange mental state: half rage, half depression, and entirely exhausted. That’s when, instead of getting tea, I stepped into the shower and wrote this song.

The funny thing is that was my plan for the trip. I wanted to write a new song, just not this one and in these circumstances. I had originally imagined spending the morning enjoying a long walk and then gently strumming my guitar in the afternoon. Instead, I could barely move and thinking straight wasn’t an option. But, as you can hear, maybe that was for the best.

I have a love/hate relationship with this sort of extreme exhaustion. On the one hand, it’s miserable to be so tired. On the other hand, it’s my most creative time. Words, ideas, melodies and memories blend together in a random swirl, somehow linking together to form something new. Sometimes these songs are dark, like this one, but more often than not, they are bright. In either case, the act of creation is an intense stimulant. A second wind kicks in and the agony of fatigue evaporates. And that’s what happened with this song. In the period of about 30 minutes, I went from being miserably tired to satisfied that I had created something new.

With the new song written, I went for a short walk and then drove home, opting not to stay the extra night.

Poe was up all night, too! (Photo by AMK)

Folks! I had a wonderful May, and I hope yours was good, too. If you’d like to sing or play along with the new song, here is the song sheet.

Song 52 – Evil Genius

Over the years I’ve told a lot of stories about the moment a song came to me. Usually the story describes me in the shower, a special, private time that doesn’t lend itself to video. This song, however, was different. I came up with the chorus while sliding down the side of a hill over the winter holiday. And I have a video of it. The exact moment. Here’s the video – the bit right after I hoot – that’s when the song appeared in my head.

This song is related to “That Dude In The Movies“. Both songs are about how I get lost in the fantasy of movies and imagine what it would be like to be the hero (or, sometimes, the villain). But, inevitably, I have to come back to reality and admit that as cool as it would be to save the whole world from aliens, I’m just me, doing what I do.

 

Folks, I can’t thank Brain Risk and Robert Cantrell enough for helping me out with this tune. I gave them a vague plot line for a story, and they turned it into an epic movie with a cast of 1,000s. Their input can not be overstated, and I feel so lucky to have such talented collaborators. If you’d like to sing or play along with this tune, here’s the song sheet.

Song 51 – The Rainbow

Folks, that beautiful voice you hear is Miriam Chicurel-Bayard’s. I feel so fortunate to have had her sing with me on so many of my songs. Every time she records a part, I study everything she does in hopes that I can learn a trick or two to use myself. And those cute drawings in the video? Those were by Brian Risk. He brought a lot of magic to make the video work.

I’m a member of BMI, a company that collects royalties, some for themselves and some for songwriters should their songs be played in K-Mart or some other public space. BMI doesn’t make much money off of me. People don’t shop to the tune of Mr. Haddy. Instead, BMI makes its fortune from hit songwriters – the people that write the songs you shop to.

In order to collect more royalties, BMI sends out a newsletter every week with advice on how to write a hit song. With minor differences to keep it sounding fresh, the gist is always the same: Listen to the radio, learn the formula used by the current hit songs, follow that formula.

Strangely, this advice for success is the same for almost every occupation. Sage, expert guidance for writing a hit song is the same counseling my statistics teachers gave me: “look at how other people analyze the data, learn the formula, then follow it.”

As practical as this advice is, it has always chaffed me. It’s very good at producing more of the same stuff that people want, and I appreciate how valuable that is to so many people, myself included, but it doesn’t do much for creating something new. Following recipes won’t create a new statistical test (needed for a new experiment), nor will it capture the songs I hear in my head. On the other hand, there’s no sense in creating a new statistical test if a suitable one already exists, and there’s no sense in writing music, no matter how personal, if no one else will listen to it (after all, music is a form of communication.)

red_and_drawing

This song, like so many of my songs, started in the shower. This time it was the very last line that came to me first, “He must have found the rainbow’s end, this I’m sure”.

For a long while, I had no idea what that meant. The words alone described achievement and success, but the melody suggested that things hadn’t gone exactly as planed. It made me wonder about “success”. Was it following the recipe? Was it more personal? Was it writing a hit song? Or was it expressing the songs I hear in my head, even if they don’t lend themselves to radio play. Was it somewhere in between? With those questions in mind, the song wrote itself about the internal and external hallmarks of success that we desire.

poe_and_drawing.png

Folks! I hope you had a wonderful March. Mine was great. I shaved on the first day of spring, but I’m already letting the beard grow back. I enjoyed seeing my face for a few days but I certainly don’t need to see it every day. I also had a fun trip to visit my parents in The City of Plant City, Florida. If you’d like to sing or play along with this tune, here’s the song sheet!

Song 50 – Mr. Haddy

Here’s a curious song. It wrote itself in about 30 minutes while I was driving home from a canceled appointment. Instead of getting work done like I had expected, I ended up with this tune. But how does a song like this, with such a strange character, just pop out of thin air?

Mr Haddy, the character in the song, is a melding of the adult characters in the book and movie The Mosquito Coast – a story that’s never been far from my mind since I saw it in the theater in 1986. I’m not sure why, but it’s always lingering in the back of my thoughts. Clearly it was on my mind when I drove home from my non-appointment.

red_and_uke_smile.png

The Mosquito Coast is a story of a family, lead by a charismatic father, Allie Fox, that is told from the perspective of the oldest son. Mr. Fox believes that America, as a culture and society, is in rapid decline. He hated seeing the country’s virtues being replaced with greed, materialism and selfishness, saying, “We eat when we’re not hungry, drink when we’re not thirsty. We buy what we don’t need and throw away everything that’s useful.” He sensed that the end was near.

To save his family from a self-destructive culture and the potential of nuclear fallout, Mr. Fox moves them to the Mosquito Coast, a developing country in the tropics. There, he creates a rational utopia in the middle of a chaotic jungle. Taming the wilderness gives him a temporary happiness and confirms his belief that reason can conquer all. It is there that Mr. Fox meets an evangelical missionary and Mr. Haddy. Mr. Haddy ends up being the moderate in this story, flanked on both sides of the political spectrum by Mr. Fox and the missionary.

As the story progresses, things fall apart, as they always do. I can’t remember seeing a movie about a cultish-type leader that ended well for that man. Ultimately, Mr. Fox is killed by the missionary, but this tragedy liberates his family from the oppression of his singular world view. It is then that Mr. Fox’s oldest son says, “Once I had believed in father, and the world had seemed small, and old. Now he was gone, and I wasn’t afraid to love him any more. And the world seemed limitless.”

poe_and_uke.png

So this song is about the three main adult characters in The Mosquito Coast, as told from the son’s perspective. Anyone who’s taken a song writing class will tell you that’s no way to write a pop song – and they would be right. A pop song needs to have laser focus on its single subject and a chorus that hooks you in. This has neither, but it’s what popped in my head when I drove home that day.

I hope everyone had a great February. We had an early spring here in North Carolina. It makes me wonder what March will be like. If you’d like to play or sing along with my tune, here’s the song sheet. This month’s tune was a fun one for me. It’s been awhile since I pulled out the ukuleles and tapped out rhythms with chop-sticks, and it was fun to return to those older techniques.

Laparoscopic hernia repair – My story

I previously wrote about the “open” surgery I had for my hernia. Unfortunately, the hernia came back 3 months later. This is rare (occurring maybe 1 or 2% of the time). I have since had additional surgery. This time it was laparoscopic. The two methods are very different and the recoveries and related pain are very different. Here I’ll describe the new method and compare it to “open”.

In a nutshell, here are the major differences between the experiences of laparoscopic and open surgery for hernia repair:

  1. Laparoscopic surgery hurt more the first few days, but the pain dropped off fast and disappeared much faster compared to open surgery. With open surgery, the pain was never horrible, but took longer to fade away.
  2. I was able to comfortably sleep on my side sooner with open surgery than laparoscopic surgery.
  3. There were major reductions in pain five (5) days after the surgeries – both of them. That appears to be the magic number.

If you are planning having either type of surgery, I’d recommend reading the first part of the previous entry, because I list things I did to prepare. I did those again this time as well and still recommend them. I did 2 things differently, though. 1) I only ate soft foods (like soup or yogurt or smoothies) for the two days leading up to the surgery. 2) I also started to take laxatives starting two days before and for the first few days was pretty aggressive with the dosages. I would recommend both of these things whole heartedly.


Day 0: I went back to UNC Hospitals. Having done this before, I already new the drill and everything went very smoothly. Last time, the anesthetic left my brain scattered for weeks, so this time I asked if they could try something else. They did, this time putting all of it into me intravenously instead of mixing it with the oxygen, and my head is already much clearer than before.

Once the main pain killers wore off, I found the pain from the incisions – three 1-2 cm wide cuts – one in my belly button, one about three inches to left and one three inches to the right – pretty intense and acute. It made breathing, especially taking deep breaths, painful. It also made it harder to eat food. Last time I remember having a huge appetite. This time has been completely different. I’ve only ate two bowls of soup during the day and was completely full.

At night, laying in bed and breathing was very painful and I ended up taking two Percocet pills. Unlike the first time I tried this, I slept through the night. I also drank 2 Tbs. of milk of magnesia.


Day 1: My appetite was minimal and everything hurt. Breathing hurt. I felt incredibly bloated. I took another two Percocet pills to get to sleep. The one highlight, however, was taking a shower. It felt great.


Day 2: I reviewed my original “open surgery” post and saw that I took a good deal of ibuprofen and acetaminophen back then. Today I started the same regimen. I felt significantly better. Most of the day I moved about with relative ease and had no difficulty standing up or sitting down until the end of the day. My appetite returned and I ate a burger with fries. The burger was delicious.


Day 3: I continued to improve. I also had my first full bowel movement. One thing different about the laparoscopic surgery is that it’s much more difficult to sleep on my side. This makes it much harder to sleep through the night. I wake up around 3am with a strong desire to roll over, and I try to do this, but it hurts too much to fall back to sleep.


Days 4 and 5: I barely slept the night before and spent as much of the day laying down as possible. I watched a funny movie, and that made me laugh, and that was very, very painful. The good news, however, is that this time I have not developed the same, evil cough that I did last time. That cough was uncontrollable and hurt like crazy. This time I can control things better. If laughing hurts, I can stop watching the movie.


Days 6 and 7: The pain at the sites of the incisions decreased a lot. So much that I no longer felt like I was constantly looking forward to the next time I could take Advil. The change was sudden and a huge relief. If I were allowed to return to work, I would do so comfortably. Instead, I have another week of taking it easy, making sure I don’t have to do the surgery yet another time.


Days 8-10: Continued improvement. Mobility is a non-issue. I still haven’t performed any real stress tests yet, though.


Days 11 on: It’s almost a year after the surgery, so let me summarize – it’s a bit of a roller coaster, but ultimately, I’m doing really well. There are days that are very scary – it feels like the original pain is back – it hurts really bad. But, unlike before, the pain fades after a day. This happens every time I try something new. If I go jogging and decide I want to run a little faster than I did last time, the next day I’m in pain. If I go for a walk and want to walk a little further than next time, the next day I’m in pain. This is the same for everything. If it’s new, it hurts. But the pain always fades. And once I’ve done the new thing, I’m set – the pain only comes back when I walk a little further or run a little faster. At one point I got a cold and coughing brought on some really bad pain. I saw a doctor about this. He said, “you’ve got a lot of scar tissue and will always be adjusting to that, but it’s nothing to worry about”. This has proven to be true.

Health and fitness wise, I’m doing as well as I’ve ever done, and am contemplating running races again.


One year later: Like I said before, the last year has been a little bit of a roller coaster, but, in general, I’m feeling more and more comfortable as time goes by.

Song 49 – A New Song

Here we are again! We’re starting the 5th year of my song-of-the-month project – a new year’s resolution that barely survived its first month, but now rivals the Energizer Bunny in longevity.

Last month we wrapped up album #4, “Greene Street” – named after the street I live on because so much of it focused on me and my neighbors. This month we’re starting my fifth album, “Beauty Must Suffer” – named after an old saying that my friend’s grandmother was fond of. No matter how natural and easy someone projects beauty, it always comes at a cost. Some of those costs are obvious and immediate, and others I’m only discovering as I grow older.

poe_red_couch.png

Every day, when I come home from work, this is what I find on the couch…

This song, about the cost of falling in love, began with the chorus. I was sitting on the couch with my tenor guitar when the first two phrases just came out all at once. At the time, I had no idea why I referenced “The Sheltering Sky” (a book and movie), I just did – as if the idea had waited in the backstage of my mind for as long as it could before jumping out into the focus of the spotlight. So there it was, all proud of itself. Now what was I to do with it? Pull it off stage or go out and join it, building the whole performance around it. Thinking about the book, I choose the latter.

The Sheltering Sky ends with a fascinating bit that I’ll repeat here:

“Death is always on the way, but the fact that you don’t know when it will arrive seems to take away from the finiteness of life. It’s that terrible precision that we hate so much. But because we don’t know, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens a certain number of times, and a very small number, really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that’s so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more. Perhaps not even. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.” – Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky

Reflecting on that, the last two phrases in the final chorus came about quite naturally and the verses, a story about a short lived romance that nearly destroys the protagonist, quickly followed. It’s a harsh song, and, unfortunately, it’s something too many of us can relate to. But I guess that’s one reason they say, “beauty must suffer”.

poe_in_sink.png

… and each morning, when I wake up, this is what I find in the sink.

Folks! I hope you had a wonderful January and stayed warm (or cool, depending on your hemisphere). Mine was great and I wrote a whole lot of new songs that I can’t wait to share with you in the upcoming months. Until then, safe travels.

p.s.

As always, if you’d like to play or sing along, here are the chords and lyrics.

Song 48 – Psycho Killer

I end each year with a cover song and this is one of my all time favorites, “Psycho Killer” by Talking Heads. This live video is from my New Year’s Eve concert at the West End Wine Bar and was the last song in a short, but incredibly intense set. My voice was shot, and my cello was having all kinds of difficulties, but with Brian Risk on bass, Robert Cantrell on drums and special guest, John Gillespie, on guitar we had a super fun time. We also got to play with one of my favorite bands, The Drowning Lovers.

I hope everyone had a wonderful 2016 and I wish lots of luck for everyone who made a resolution this New Years! My goals for 2016 are to keep the music and the videos up and to produce more StatQuests! Can I do one StatQuest every month? I’m going to try!

Song 47 – The Coldest Day of the Year

 

Friends, this time of year is jam packed with holiday traditions, and this, being my 4th holiday song, is now part of them. It’s fun having a specific concept for at least one song a year. Because this one always has to be somewhat holiday themed, it forces me to approach songwriting in a new way and mix things up a little bit. I can’t just record whatever pops up in my head, but instead I have to guide my thoughts and filter through ideas until I find something that works.

kittens_on_bed

This year, as a way to focus my thoughts, I imagined the contrast between the winter solstice, which is typically cold and dark where I live, and the winter feasts that take place at around the same time. It is chilly and gloomy outside, but bright, warm and cheery inside.

With that in mind, it wasn’t long before I had a melody worked out. The words, however, went through a few drafts. The first version was focused entirely on the feasts themselves, and the wide variety of foods involved. I just listed all the traditional dishes and foodstuffs that people prepare each year – it ended up being a really long list!

But then it occurred to me that the magic of the feast isn’t the food, it’s the people. So I scratched out the version that just made my stomach grumble and focused on what really mattered – family and friends. Without them, a feast is a lonely affair. But with them, it’s a time to celebrate and be happy.

kittens_on_stool

Folks! I hope you all have a wonderful December and can enjoy time with your friends and family. If you’d like to sing or play along with this month’s song, here’s the song sheet.

 

Song 46 – I Love You

I pretty much take my ukulele everywhere I go. Actually, that’s one of the reasons I bought it in the first place. My cello is awesome, but it’s hardly portable. You can’t put it in an overhead compartment and checking it on a plane is like playing Russian roulette. Even just driving around town, my cello doesn’t make a good “toss in the back of car and go” instrument. The ukulele is the instrument of choice for travel. Compared to a cello, it’s absolutely tiny. It fits in my backpack so it doesn’t even count as a separate carry on when flying. When it came for me to head to Cold Spring Harbor for a conference last spring, I had my ukulele with me.

Usually when I go there, they put me up in a pretty nice dormitory style building. It’s not on campus, but there’s a shuttle van and I always enjoy getting to know the shuttle drivers. They’ve lived there their whole lives and usually have some interesting stories to tell about the place.

However, last time the put me up in run down motel in a strip-mall right next to a major highway. It was a terrible, dark place with unpredictable plumbing. But, regardless of the setting, I got to see a really, really beautiful sunset. It was one of those skies that goes from deep purple to a darkest blue without a cloud in the sky. Stars were just starting to shine through and looked like gems sprinkled on velvet. And that’s when this song came to me.

sunset_on_longisland.png

This is an approximation of what I saw out the window when I wrote this song. It was much cooler in person.

As soon as I got home, I wanted to record this tune – but I knew I wanted drums and bass on this song, so for logistical reasons, I’ve had to wait until now. But it was worth the wait! Robert Cantrell and local bass legend, FJ Ventre, and I spent an evening with Al out at Warrior Sound and made some amazing music. For the second time this year, I was lucky and Robert brought his collection of percussion instruments and, starting in the “solo” section you can hear a very distinct afro-cuban rhythm that has probably never been paired with a ukulele before. This song is a perfect example of how much more I can accomplish when such talented people bring their own style to a tune.

uku_and_electric_with_smiles.png

Lately, my songs haven’t had a lot of ukulele in them, but rest assured, I still play it all the time. It’s my go-to travel instrument.

Folks! I hope you had a wonderful October and have a great November. I’m already excited about recording my annual holiday tune and I can’t wait for you to hear it. If you’d like to sing or play along with “I Love You”, here’s the song sheet.

sutset_at_warrior.png

Here’s what the sunset looked like at Warrior Sound, right before we started to record this song.

Song 45 – Roses

Ack! I’ve had a few technical difficulties this month and have fallen behind for the first time in recent memory. Usually by this time I will have had everything done for days. The video will have been idling, the writeup will have been stowed in a “draft” folder, and all I need to do is click on the “Publish” button for everything to go live. This month… wow! I’m currently uploading the video to YouTube with my fingers crossed, hoping the audio sounds okay…

cats_in_boxes

As for the story of the song. This one is about a very close friend and I’m not sure I’m allowed to give away too many details. I hate to say that – it feels like I’m cheating you somehow, and I don’t want to do that at all. The lyrics aren’t very cryptic, so you should be able to figure it out. Needless to say, it’s been a rough couple of months. I had originally planned on recording a happy song in September, but it just wasn’t meant to be. Let’s hope I can record it in October! It’s a fun one.
red_in_box

So, in lieu of a story this month, I’m giving you lots of pictures of the kittens. They just do the things they do.

red_asleep

Friends, I hope you had a wonderful month and that you enjoy all that October has to bring to you. If you’d like to play or sing along with my new tune, here’s the song sheet.

Song 44 -Nasty Weather

I suppose there are a lot of ways to write a song. Some say you should start with the words, and find a melody that expresses those words, or the meaning underneath those words. Others say you should start with a melody and find words that capture its spirit. Of course, there is also everything in between. I definitely do a little bit of both, and sometimes the words and the melody come out at the same time. These bursts of creativity usually occur during or immediately after a shower.

iceland_hiking

Many people asked for pictures from Iceland. Here’s one of me at the start of a hike. That’s the Arctic Ocean to the right.

The melody, once created, suggests a handful of chords (or harmonies) that I can choose from. Often one progression (a sequence of chords) can enhance the mood that the melody implies, creating a bold statement of either joy or sorrow, and another can mask it somewhat, making a more subtle statement. Since I can’t take my guitar or cello into the shower to experiment with various chords, I usually make these decisions shortly after dressing.

iceland1

Here’s another picture of that same hike. It was fantastic. There were wild blueberries growing on the side of the trail. They tasted a little sour.

With a verse, or chorus, as well as a few chords in hand, the remaining parts of the song form a puzzle. If I have time, I’ll work on this puzzle as much as I can at that moment, but usually I try to solve it as I bike the work. Often, upon arriving at work, you can spot me in the furthest, most isolated corner in the lobby recording any additional ideas I came up with.

waterfall

Of course, you can’t show pictures of Iceland without a picture of waterfall. These things are all over the place.

At the end of the day, I try to remember the song I started in the morning. If so, that is usually a good sign that I should record it, or at least dedicate the time to completing it by filling in the missing pieces . If not, I’ll wait a few days and see if it comes back to me. Again, if it does, then it goes into the pile of tunes worth serious consideration. If not, I usually let it slip away. Sometimes songs sit in the “pile of songs worth serious consideration” for years before being finished. Some puzzles are harder to solve than others.

kitty_cats

Of course, I can’t just show you pictures of Iceland. The cats need to be given proper representation as well.

This particular song, “Nasty Weather”, came to me in the form of a chorus, both words and melody at the same time. After singing it a few times, I realized that the line “we’re in for nasty weather” was a quote from an old Talking Heads song called “Burning Down the House”. Although I have no idea what that Talking Heads song is actually about, the reference reminded me that friend I once played in a band with was getting divorced. The news struck me pretty hard because the couple, at the time, were inseparable. It seemed like it was just a few years ago that I played my cello during their wedding ceremony. And from this memory, the backbone for the verses was formed. The rest of the song came together in the two days that followed.

kitty_cats2

Folks! I hope you had a great month. Mine was wonderful. I spent the first half of it in Iceland admiring the waterfalls (featured in the video) and enjoying the nature. If you’d like to sing or play along with my song, here’s the song sheet!

Song 43 – Maybe It’ll Go Away

I hope I don’t ruin this song by telling you that it’s about my hernia. I’m not sure how many rock songs are about hernias, but there can’t be many, and this might be a first. The story behind this song has two different sides – “before and after”. Let’s start with the “before”.

My general attitude towards health problems is to hope they will just go away. I know that sounds naive, but colds never last more than a few weeks; minor aches usually take care of themselves. Most burns, blisters, cuts and bruises, while painful, just need a bandaid and some patience. Thus, when I first felt hernia pain, my instinct was to think “maybe it’ll go away.” It didn’t.

It was a long time before I asked a doctor for help. Years. When I finally asked, I was relieved and hopeful that now, with professionals doing all that they could, the pain would finally go away. And it did, for a few months. When it came back, fiercer and meaner than before, I went through another, shorter “let’s wait and see – maybe it’ll go away” phase.

robert_on_conga.jpg Robert pulled double duty on this song – playing conga drums and a traditional drum kit.

When I asked for help the second time, the first test result came back negative – suggesting that there wasn’t anything wrong with me. This was depressing and confusing. Was everything in my head? Should I have waited longer and healed on my own?

Ultimately, you know how the story ends. I had surgery a second time and, fingers crossed, I’ve been cured.robert_on_drums_20160720.jpg

So that was the dark “before” part of the story. Now we’ve come to to fun part.

When I returned home to recover from the second surgery, I was flooded with love and support from so many friends and loved ones. People brought me food to eat, games to play and books to read. And I can’t remember how many times someone moved something heavy for me. It was touching and humbling to have so many people care for me in so many ways.

That spirit of helping me out was carried over to the recording of this song. Robert, Brian and Al (from Warrior Sound) went way above and beyond the call of duty to make this song a reality. Without them, well, let’s not even try to imagine what this would sound like without them. So, from rehearsals, to recording, to mixing – at each step – I was given an amazing amount of help to make this happen.

kitty_cats_201607

Since the kittens are not in the video, I’ve included a picture that I took right before my trip to Iceland. They grow larger and larger (and more lovable) each day! In fact, the black one, Poe, is sleeping in my lap, right now,as I type. The grey one is sleeping at my feet.

Even though this is a song about an unusual subject, I hope you enjoy it as much as I enjoyed making it with my friends. If you’d like to sing or play along, here’s the song sheet.

Song 42 – Another Day

This song is for my neighbor, and every bit of it is true. But there’s a lot that leads up to it, so let me tell that part here.

Just over 3 years ago I moved into a beautiful new house built by Paul Snow. One very pleasant, and unexpected bonus was my new neighbor; a retired professor. Although I feared he would be annoyed at me for the noise and bother from the construction, we hit it off immediately. Even though he was over twice my age, he was quick to smile and joke and we spent afternoons sipping wine on the front porch telling each other stories and discovering how much we had in common.

My neighbor turned out to be a living history book about all of my heroes. He told me about hearing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. give a speech in St. Louis. He told me about going to a classical music master class with Igor Stravinsky. And he told me about chance run ins with nobel prize winners.

So it was a big shock when, one evening, a police officer knocked on my door and asked if I had seen my neighbor recently. Someone reported that he was missing. After worrying for a week, we found him being treated for cancer. This came as another big shock. The good news is that the treatment has been very successful. He’s back home and just as friendly and funny as ever before.

bari_tenor_with_smile.png

Here’s the latest instrument to join the family. It the awkwardly named “Baritone Tenor”. It plays a relatively subtle role in this months song – it adds body and fullness and sits between the higher guitar line and the bass. You can hear what it does most clearly at the onset of the last chorus.

I hope everyone had a great month. Mine had it’s ups and downs. It started with surgery, but it is ending with me feeling very optimistic about my recovery. Today I walked for 40 minutes without any noticeable pain. If you’d like to sing or play along with this one, here’s the song sheet.

What’s up the cat videos? (or, What happened to SoundCloud?) When I started recording a song each month, 3 and a half years ago, I never thought I’d record more than a few songs, tops. At the time, SoundCloud was an easy way to share my music. It had some nice features (you could download the MP3, for example) but it also had a limit on the number of songs I could upload. Back when I started, I was pretty certain I’d never get close to 40 songs, but as time went by, I proved myself wrong (I’m up to song 42 and I’ve got at least 6 more floating around in the back of my head waiting to be recorded). So, having run out of SoundCloud space, I had to put my music somewhere else. YouTube will host as many song as I write, for the rest of my life, so that’s what I eventually settled on. The reason I use cat videos (for now) is that I usually spend all my spare time on the song, but I’d still like to have a little something for you to look at while it plays.

Song 41 – Say Your Goodbyes

This song is about pain. Specifically, the pain of rejection, which is just about the worst kind that I can imagine. I used this song to put my own physical pain in perspective.

Early in May, it became clear that the hernia surgery I had in February was a failure. Up until the recurrence, I had been feeling great. I had been pain free for 3 months. My jogging was stronger than it had been in years. The possibilities of what I could do, physically, seemed limitless, and I no longer feared getting out of bed each morning. I daydreamed about hiking to the tops of mountains and running races. But then, right after telling my friends I had recovered, I felt an intense ripping and stabbing sensation that brought everything to an end.

ultrasound_space_time.png

The ultrasound machine they used on me was so fancy it had a knob to control the space/time continuum.

To be honest, the pain was so intense and so different from what I felt before that it took days before I realized something was very wrong. I kept hoping it would go away on its own – that it could take care of itself somehow. But it just got worse; an ultrasound and physical exam confirmed the need for additional surgery.

This was a relief. My worst fear was of an inability to diagnose what was wrong. This happened early, when a CT-scan said there was nothing abnormal. But the final diagnoses made me optimistic for the first time in weeks. I knew there was something that could be done and that I might feel better sometime soon. In the meantime, I tried to keep things in perspective, and that’s what this month’s song did for me. It’s a sad one for sure, but it helped me through a hard time.

cats_in_the_window.png

Both Red and Poe enjoy the window seats around the house.

I’m looking forward to June. I’ll start recovering and I hope I’ll feel better. I hope you have a great June, too. If you’d like to sing or play along with this one, here’s the song sheet.

Song 40 – Deal With It

Ever have an exasperating day? One where the only release is to bang on drums (real or air*) as loud as you can until you’re completely exhausted? Well, that’s what this song is for.

A few months ago a friend had a terrible day. He’d gotten in trouble at work for, of all things, being friendly. Not too friendly, not creepy – just nice. That was enough to rub a co-worker the wrong way. My pop used to say, “some people eat nails for breakfast”, and I think that explains the situation.

Well, you can guess what happened next – within a few days I demoed this song for the band, a few weeks later we played it at Mystery brewing and now we’ve finally recorded it.

thumbnail_FullSizeRender.jpg

Photo by Carol Bales.

In this case, we went to our studio of choice, Warrior Sound, and knocked everything out in a very fun afternoon. As always, Al dialed in our sound super quickly and captured the energy that comes with a new song. The goal was to move fast and let our emotions carry the day, and I think that’s what we got.

I hope everyone has a great month. However, if you have a bad day, at least you’ve got a new song to sing and play along with (here’s the song sheet).

cats_on_stairs.png

Also, you may have noticed the new kittens in the video, Red and Poe! The’ve been non-stop entertainment and cuteness.

* Personally, I prefer my set of vintage air drums. I got them super cheap at a pawn shop a few years back.

Song 39 – Rachel’s Song

This one’s for my sister. She has always been the big reader in the family. For every book I read, I’d make a safe bet she reads a hundred. A long time ago she got into Flannery O’Connor and drew me into that strangely-familiar and strangely-strange depiction of the American south. Since then, I’ve read all of her books three or four times each. What brings me back are the characters. Each one seems so familiar, as if I’m reading about a not-so-distant relative.

uku_reading_a_book_smile

The ukulele enjoys reading books when he’s not making music.

Flannery O’Connor’s most famous character is Hazel Motes from her book Wise Blood. Hazel, who often went by “Haze”, was a mixture of extreme personality traits and easily spotted by his fierce hats. Here’s a quote that describes Haze’s hats and shows a little bit of who he was:

 

… [Haze] went to a dry-goods store to buy a new hat. He wanted one that was completely opposite to the old one. This time he was sold a white panama with a red and green and yellow band around it. The man said they were really the thing and particularly if he was going to Florida.

“I ain’t going to Florida,” he said. “This hat is opposite from the one I used to have is all.”

He went outside and took the red and green and yellow band off it and thumped out the crease in the top and turned down the brim. When he put it on, it looked just as fierce as the other one he had.

Hats aside, he was a drifter; looking for something with a uncommon intensity, even if he didn’t know what it was. The kind of man that throws himself, body and soul, into each new half-baked plan he comes up with, each one crazier than the last. Add to that an overwhelming innocence that rendered him child-like. He acted like he knew everything, but inside he was confused and overwhelmed by it all.


 

As for the song, it came to me at The Scientific Retreat at the Beach, 2015. We had the afternoon off from science and I’d just had a delicious superburger at El’s Drive-In. Satisfied with my meal, I had this idea: what if Hazel Motes was real and I knew him? I doubt I would know him well – I don’t think anyone would make that claim. Instead, he’d be one of those people I ran into from time to time, or heard a story about. Crazy Haze, what’s he gotten himself into to this time? What new scheme had he come up with?

Back at the hotel I pulled a chair onto a tiny balcony overlooking a parking lot, grabbed my ukulele and started to strum. The verses came easy, but the chorus didn’t show up until I put the ukulele down and walked on the beach for an hour. Like a rogue wave, it hit full force and I sang it all the way back to my room.

kitty_cat

Did I mention I’m getting a cat next week? Expect a lot of cat themed songs in the near future! Maybe something like “Hey cat, get off my keyboard…”

Folks, it’s one thing to write a song, and another thing to have it arranged by such talented musicians. I feel blessed to have Miriam Chicurel-Bayard, Mara Shea and Robert Cantrell helping me out with this one. They brought their own ideas to the studio and all I had to do was blend them together. And speaking of studios, the drums sound is perfect because we recorded at Warrior Sound. As always, Al skillfully captured the magic. I hope you like it – if so, please share it with your friends. And if you’d like to sing or play along with it, here’s the song sheet.

Oh, and if you missed the show at Mystery Brewing, here’s a video of the premiere of this song:

Song 38 – Now or Never

February was an interesting month – I had surgery for a hernia. Pretty much every person I talked to and every website I visited said I should plan on taking at least one week off from work to recover. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love my job, but part of me was pretty excited about having an excuse to stay at home for five days – I imagined myself sitting on the couch playing music all day, every day, for a week. The night before the surgery I moved all of my instruments downstairs so that I could get to them easily once I was recovering.

uku_on_couch_frown

The ukulele didn’t feel like playing much music for a week. Instead, it just rested on the couch.

Unfortunately, things didn’t go as planned. Sure, I stayed home all week, but playing music was one of the last things I wanted to do. Instead, I just laid around and tried not to move too much. When I did feel like doing something, playing music gave me an extremely painful coughing fit. In hindsight, I should have seen this coming. Everyone and every website said I would take a week off from work – none of them said I would spend that week jamming out.

The good news is that I recovered quickly and today I went jogging without much pain. It was a beautiful day and I got to go out and enjoy it – something my hernia used to get in the way of. It makes me wish I’d done this years ago, but, like the week I spent laying on the couch not playing music, sometimes you never know until you try it.

uku_on_rocking_chair_smile

However, once the ukulele felt a little better, it could spend nice days outside without worry!

As for this month’s song, back in December I decided 2016 would feature a lot of “story” songs. Songs where I try to tell someone else’s tale. This one was inspired by a trip to a rural North Carolina town. There wasn’t much there, which was charming, but also a little suffocating for the younger people. Some were intent on making their dreams happen in that town, but some didn’t really know what they wanted other than more options. They wanted more ways to define who they were and what they would dedicate their lives to. I wrote this song for those seekers.

I hope everyone had a wonderful February and will have a great March. My February might not have been the most comfortable month, but I’m glad I had the surgery and am looking forward to my new life without hernia pain! If you’d like to play or sing along with my tune, here’s the song sheet.

Open Inguinal Hernia Repair: My story of recovery

UPDATE: The hernia came back three months after the surgery. This is called a recurrent hernia and it is rare (maybe 1 or 2% of the time this happens). I have had additional surgery for this. It was laparoscopic (as opposed to the first one, which was “open”), so I can tell you the pros and cons of both methods and can also compare the recoveries. I’ll do this in a separate post, since I think this post remains valid for most people.

I recently had surgery for an inguinal hernia, and in hope of helping people who may need this to be done, I have written a diary of what I experienced. If you’re not planning on having hernia repair, feel free to skip this and go directly to the music!

Before the surgery, I searched for as much information about it as I could. I knew it was going to hurt, but how much pain would I feel and how quickly it would go away? Would it be bearable? I was scared of the unknown. Reading about it and learning more was comforting.

When I searched, I found a few “diaries” that people had written about their own experiences. These diaries helped me get a sense of what to expect because they were honest about the pain. It is in this vein that I am now describing my experiences.


Okay, before we talk about the surgery and the recovery, let’s talk about me. If you’ve visited this blog before you already know that I’m a musician and a scientist – neither of which has much bearing on how I might deal with hernia surgery – so let me give you a few other details.

  1. I am 41 years old.
  2. I am relatively “in shape” as they say. I bike three miles to work and back on weekdays. I also jog 20 to 25 miles a week. On days that I don’t jog, I do sit-ups for about five minutes.
  3. I eat relatively healthy foods.
  4. I am optimistic. Generally speaking, I think things will work out for the best.

Those details should help you translate my story into one that can help you understand what will happen to you.


One last thing before we get to the diary… Here is a list of things I am very glad I stocked up on before the surgery:

  1. Gatorade: I was dehydrated and taking medications that needed to be swallowed with lots of fluids. If you like Gatorade, I would recommend you stockpile it as well, however, water is just as good.
  2. Canned soup: Real cooking was out of the question for the first few days and canned soup was soft and easy to digest. I got a four-pack of the most basic Campbell’s chicken noodle soup. This was great for treating the initial sore throat caused by the breathing tube used during surgery.
  3. Cough medicine: Coughing after this surgery was both very painful and very stressful. It put a lot of pressure on the wound. I was lucky and already had a supply of medications (Mucinex and NyQuil). I didn’t expect to need them, but two days after surgery I developed an evil cough. It was strange in that it was isolated from any other cold, flu or fever symptoms; aside from the surgery, I felt healthy and could breathe fine. However, this cough meant business. Even though my breathing was regular, I had crud in my lungs that needed to come out.
  4. Ibuprofen and acetaminophen: Both of these helped relieve pain and swelling, and my surgeon said I could take them at the exact same time since they operate on different pathways. For the first week I took 600 mg of ibuprofen and 500 mg of acetaminophen four times a day (after meals and at bed time).
  5. Laxatives: I had milk of magnesia, in liquid form, and docusate sodium, in pill form. The drugs and the anesthetics caused constipation and the muscles that usually take care of these things were out of order for the first week during recovery.

Now, without further ado….

Day 0: I was at UNC and everything was super smooth except for the very first step: checking in.

I was supposed to go the main hospital, but the front door was locked. So, after a cab driver yelled the directions from his car, I found a side entrance that worked. From there I had to figure out where the admissions waiting room was. This would have been obvious if I had entered from the front door, but seeing as I came in through the side, I had to look around for it. From there they gave me a map to another waiting room, but that was vague and included mis-located landmarks.

The surgical team itself, however, was great. Everything went as planned. I checked into the hospital at 6am and checked out at 11:30am. I was back home by 1pm. Awesome.

The pain medications from surgery took awhile to wear off. I felt good for most of the day. There was a little pain where my hernia had been – but it was minimal compared to actual hernia pain. I was sitting up, moving around the house, drinking, eating and could watch movies on TV. That said, I was also very cautious because my body was doped up and couldn’t tell me what really hurt; I didn’t push it.

I was also super thirsty with a touch of a sore throat. Presumably the breathing tube dried everything out. I drank a lot of liquids that day and had a double helping of Campbell’s chicken noodle soup. The soup worked wonders on the sore throat.

At around 6pm (six hours after returning home) I started to feel sharp pains on the left side of my abdomen, near the area around where the operation took place, but they were not centered on that location. The whole left side of my torso ached.

The surgeon also gave me a prescription for Percocet. I took two of these before trying to sleep. This drug was supposed to be a very strong pain killer and make me drowsy – which seemed ideal at bedtime. Unfortunately, the Percocet had no effect on me other than to make me feel groggy. It did not reduce the pain and I did not sleep. I looked on-line and this appears to be relatively common. For some people Percocet is amazing – so if you have it, try it to find out – I’m just not one of those people.

The good news was that the pain wasn’t unbearable. Even though I didn’t sleep, I was able to rest on my side, rather than lay on my back all night long. Because of this, I did not attempt to take Percocet again after the first night.


Day 1:  Today I moved around pretty slowly. But I moved. I went up and down stairs a few times without any problems. I walked to the end of the street and back and that seemed fine. I was constipated (even after taking laxatives), and that was irritating, but it wasn’t terrible. I took a shower, watched a movie, baked some bread, played the guitar and tried to figure out some of the insurance payments. Over all, things were OK.

The pain was interesting. Much of the left side of my abdomen was very sensitive. Even though the scar was quite low, I felt pain all the way up to my rib cage. Sometimes it was very acute and sharp – this could be very, very intense – other times it was dull and throbbing in a way comparable to mild hernia pain. It went back and forth between these two states – with most of the time being dull and throbbing. Transitions from laying to sitting or to standing and back were rough. I took these slowly. However, once I was up, or down, things calmed down and I wasn’t too uncomfortable.

In the morning I took a full dose of milk of magnesia without any results. Around dinner time I took docusate sodium and that didn’t have much of an effect either. Right before bed I took another full dose of milk of magnesia.

Another thing that happened on this day was my appetite tapered. The day before I was starving and ate quite a bit. This day I had difficulty finishing meals.


Day 2: I slept a lot better than I did the first night. I also defecated, so I no longer worried that was is going to be a problem for me.

The pain seemed more acute . It was sharp and intense. However, it only happened when I transitioned from sitting to standing, or standing to sitting.

My head seemed much clearer than it had felt the day before (and the day before that). I wasn’t as easily distracted as I had been.

My appetite was still off. I felt hungry and full at the same time. I guess “bloated” is the usual adjective for this, but it wasn’t quite that. My head said “eat” and my stomach said “don’t eat”. This might be due to the milk of magnesia and stool softener I took the day before. I’m not sure.

I went for a 30 minute walk. It was slow, and at times I had to stop because of a “gripping” type of pain that would come on strong but then fade relatively quickly. I made it to the nearest coffee shop and got a hot chocolate. This was delicious.

I’ve also developed a cough and this was very painful. I felt a strong burning sensation at the site of the incision every time I coughed. I saw on-line that women recovering from C-sections often pushed a pillow against their abdomens to help offset the pressure created by coughing. I tried this, but could never get the timing right.


Day 3: My appetite returned. The dull-throb pain was replaced with a very acute stabbing pain. It was very intense, but short lived. Coughing was still an issue. I went for an hour long walk and took a two hour long nap when it was over. Walking was much better this day than before. Yesterday, the whole left side of my abdomen would seize up and I’d have to stand for a bit until the sensation passed. Today there was none of that. Just the occasional sharp pain at the site of the incision.

I took Nyquil to go to sleep. I was coughing in bed and that made sleeping impossible without the drugs.


Day 4: The short, searing and stabbing pain that occurred when I transitioned to and from sitting, laying or standing was as bad as ever. In some ways it seemed worse simply because it didn’t seem to be letting up. Everything else had improved, but these were just as bad as before. It became harder and harder to tolerate this pain and say, “I expected this to be bad”, because sooner or later I couldn’t help but think, “I expected this to be better than yesterday”.

I googled the “searing” and “burning” pain that I was feeling and saw that it was a symptom of infection. However, I reasoned that if I had an infection, I would feel those sensations all of the time, not just when I sat down or stood up. Furthermore, I didn’t have any other symptoms of infection.

I was hungry, but easily filled – I ate less food than usual.

Walking was definitely better. I walked another two miles and it was much better than day before.

Coughing was still a problem, but seemed to be getting slightly better as the day went on.


Day 5: This was a breakthrough day for me. The short, stabbing pains finally started to let up. This was encouraging to no end. I was improving on all fronts. I took another two mile walk without any major pains. I attended a play in the evening and most of the friends that I met there had forgotten that I’d even had surgery.


Day 6: Everything continued improve. I moved about with very little hindrance. I still had pain – especially after standing up or sitting down – but it was so minor that, externally, I doubt that I showed that I was experiencing them. The incision also appeared to be healing very well. I was confident that I could go back to work without fear that I would be excessively tired or in pain.


Day 7-14:  Every day I continued to improve. I walked at least 30 minutes each day, and by by day 12 was walking over an hour without any significant pain. I still felt some mild discomfort, but so mild I could ignore it.

By day 14, the incision had pretty much healed and the glue that they used to seal it had peeled off. That area was still relatively sensitive to pressure, but coughing no longer hurt very much and no longer stressed me out (before, each time I coughed, I thought I was going to upset the mesh that was now part of me). The swelling had also gone down a lot. My lower abdomen was almost flat, although it was still a little raised where my hernia was, indicating that the swelling wasn’t 100% gone.


Day 15: Today I had my follow up appointment and was told I was healing well. I was also told I could start lifting heavier objects (up to 20 pounds), but I had to be smart about it and not lift by bending over. The bummer is that I was told I should hold off on jogging for another week, and hold off on biking for even longer (perhaps up to 6 weeks after the surgery). The doctor emphasized that the mesh takes 6 weeks to be fully incorporated into the muscles and that time is the only thing that makes that happen.


Week 3: I started jogging again, alternating five minutes of running with two minutes of walking for three miles. After 10 minutes of running, I felt a sharp pain in the area around the surgery like the pain I felt when I started to walk again. It went away while I walked. Later, the pain returned, but I was able to run through it. And that was the last I felt of it, and I’ve gone for three more jogs (the last of which was for 30 consecutive minutes).


Week 4: Although the scar is still quite bruised, it is only mildly tender. I can go for hours without thinking about it. I walk, run and do most everything without any thought of it. However, that said, I still can’t lift heavy objects, and singing and standing can become uncomfortable – but even these things are improving.


Week 6: The doctor said that after 6 weeks I would no longer have any restrictions on lifting, biking or anything else. In theory, the mesh is as strongly attached to me as it will ever be. There is no longer a significant risk that the internal (and permanent) stitches can be damaged.

To test this theory, I have done pretty much everything – lifted heavy objects (my luggage when traveling), biked to work (up rather steep hills), done hard running workouts etc. Everything felt fine and there is no longer any pain whatsoever. When biking, my left side (where the surgery was performed) feels a little more rigid than my right, but this is not a painful in any way. Presumably this is because the “ridge of healing” is still present (although it, too, seems to be reducing – albeit slowly).

As far as I can tell, the symptoms (or lack there of) suggest that the surgery was a complete success. When people ask, I tell them that I am 100% healed.

You – Music Video

Just in time for Valentine’s Day!!! Star Maker bass player, Carol Bales, just put the finishing touches on a video for “You” available iTunes and Amazon. It’s melancholy, stuffed animal love at it’s best!

Song 37 – All I Ask

[soundcloud url=”https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/244815868″ params=”color=ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false” width=”100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]

Back in high school, the band teacher told a story about a woman singing so beautifully that a microphone caught on fire. “Her singing was that good!!!”, he exclaimed. Well, I always assumed that was a metaphor. It had to be, right? Microphones don’t just catch on fire for good singing.

At least, that’s what I thought up until two weeks ago. Miriam Chicurel-Bayard (of Mary Johnson Rockers and the Spark) came over to record a vocal track for my new song and, from the moment I pressed record, I thought my microphone was going to catch on fire. Her singing was that good!!! The harmonies and contrasting rhythms she had come up with were blowing my mind. The entire part mesmerized me. When it was over, I tried to play it cool. “That sounded nice…”, I said, immediately qualifying myself for the annual “understatement of the year” award.

A few days later I was at Warrior Sound recording Robert Cantrell’s drum parts. Like Miriam, Robert had clearly done his homework. He knew exactly what to play and the drums fit the song like a glove. As always, Al, the chief engineer at Warrior, had dialed in the perfect sound, putting just the right microphones in front of each piece of Robert’s drum kit. The kick drum was pumping and the cymbals were creating a glorious wash. Then, just when I didn’t think it could get any better, Robert played a drum roll on the snare that, for the second time in a week, made me think one of Al’s priceless microphones had surely caught on fire. It sounded that good!!! (you can spot this drum roll at the end of the last chorus).

guitars_with_smiles

From left to right, the normal guitar, the tenor guitar and the ukulele! The tenor has four strings tuned like a cello and, while it’s not the biggest instrument, has a huge sound!

Folks! I hope you enjoyed my first song for 2016. As you might have guessed, I wrote it on a night when I couldn’t sleep; I have voice memos recorded at 4am to prove it. Writing a song in the middle of the night can have a strong impact on how it sounds in the end. Even though I had the door closed, I didn’t want to wake anyone else up, so I sang as low and softly as I could. This vocal style, “low and soft”, was then carried all the way through to the final version. This song also features a tenor guitar that I received as a gift last month. Tenor guitars are tuned like cellos, making them the perfect “guitar” like instrument for me to play. They are a little smaller than normal guitars, and a little bigger than ukuleles, but they can make huge sounds, as you hear in this song.

I hope everyone has a great February! If you’d like to sing or play along with this song, here’s the song sheet.

Also, don’t forget to mark your calendars for Saturday, March 5th! The Starmakers will play an album release show at Mystery Brewing in Hillsborough starting at 8pm. Come on out to help celebrate!

Song 36 – Girl You Know It’s True

[soundcloud url=”https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/238809240″ params=”color=ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false” width=”100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]

That’s right! We just mashed up Milli Vanilli‘s “Girl You Know It’s True” and “Top That!” from Teen Witch – two things that were both the best and worst of 1989.

Recording the chorus. Photo taken by Johnathan Durlam

Recording the chorus. All photos taken by Dudatron.

If you’re new to Milli Vanilli, the short version of the story is this: after spending too much money on clothes and hairstyling they were forced to lip-sync a massive hit that won them a Grammy. Also, they had smooth moves, here are two of them:

  • The side-to-side flail:

  • The side-to-side foot swap:

And if you’re new to Teen Witch, it’s one of those “it’s so bad it’s good” type things, but really, it’s just bad. I mean unbelievably bad:

Folks, we’ve just wrapped up the third year and 36th song of a project that almost didn’t last a single month.

When I started, the goal was clear – 12 songs in 12 months. I thought that if I made it to the end, and that was a big IF, I’d be tired of writing music with a deadline. However, as I got close to the end of the year, I still had tunes I wanted to record. Rather than being at the end of my creativity, I was just starting up. So I pressed on, finishing a second year, and now a third.

Just like the end of the first year, I still have songs floating around in my head to record. Some are new and some have been floating around for years – some are completed and some are half written. It seems like it would be a shame to stop. So I’m going to “keep on keepin’ on” (as they say in the music biz). I’ll stick with the monthly deadline because, after three years, it’s clear that it works for me. It’s enough time to fuss over the little details, but not too much time to get lost in them forever.

Also, as much as this project has been about writing and recording songs, it has been about learning – learning about writing melodies and lyrics. Learning how to play new instruments. Learning how to sing and how to collaborate with other musicians. Learning how to record, edit, mix and master the sounds that make up the songs. I’ve come a long way at every stage, but I also feel like I’ve just begun. The more I learn, the more I realize how much there is to learn…. and this is exciting!

Happy New Year and I hope we all have a great 2016!

A mid-dinner party recording session.

A mid-dinner party recording session.

p.s. You may be wondering who’s making the ruckus at the start and end of this month’s song. It’s a group of friends who came over for a dinner party. Between the main course and dessert, I made everyone help me out with a little bit of silliness. And just so you don’t think I made it up myself, the dialogue at the start is quoted from the original release of “Girl You Know It’s True”.

Song 35 – Christmas In Rio!

Available on iTunes and Amazon and everywhere else great music is sold! Buy it as a gift for your friends and loved ones, or just buy it for yourself. You’ll be supporting my project and sharing a smile at the same time.

Folks, it wasn’t that long ago when this song came to me… I was waiting in a parking lot. I had my trusty ukulele with me and, after checking that there wasn’t anyone nearby, I pulled it out for a strum. The first words that came to me were, “The sun shines down on Rio”. I was strumming slowly, so I sang the words slowly. It was funny, in an ironic way; a sad song about how bright and sunny Rio de Janeiro is. Out of curiosity, I played and sang faster and, much to my surprise, the melody worked even better. “That’s it! That’s my holiday song!” I exclaimed before looking around the parking lot again to make sure I was alone. I wasn’t, and got a funny look from a guy parking a fancy sports car.

When Papai Noel shows up, the party begins!!!!

When Papai Noel shows up, the party begins!!!!

With the chorus in hand, the rest of the song wrote itself in the next few minutes. All that was left was a little research on what Christmas would be like in Rio (having never experienced it myself). Here’s what I found…

On the commercial side of things, Papai Noel and Bom Velhinho are both names for Santa Claus. It’s believed he lives in Greenland (which, incidentally, is where Fezzik is from – for all you fans of The Princess Bride). There is also a secret santa event called Amigo Secreto. More traditionally, the Brazilian version of Silent Night is Noite Feliz. The manger scene is called presépio, and a reenactment of the nativity is called Os Pastores. However, Brazilians add a dramatic twist to this story by having a gypsy try to kidnap the little baby Jesus while he’s learning about colors and shapes. (Note: only the iTunes / Amazon version has the bit about os pastores – we ran out of time making the video!) Lastly, there’s a midnight mass called Missa do Galo (the mass of the rooster). I added the bit about eating a feijoada just because that’s what I’d be doing.

Although I’d like to take credit for playing and recording everything, this song wouldn’t be the same without Brian Risk, who made this crazy awesome video and played all kinds of parts in the song, and Robert Cantrell, who add the amazing Brazilian percussion parts, helping me out every step of the way. I’m lucky to have these guys help bring my parking lot visions to reality!

Have a great December! Here’s the song sheet.

 

November Song Teaser – Garota De Ipanema

[soundcloud url=”https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/234330294″ params=”color=ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false” width=”100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]

rio.JPG

I know a lot of people are expecting a new tune today! I’ve got it ready, and it is awesome! One of my best. However, I’m also working on a video to go with it and it won’t be ready for a few more days. To tide you over, here’s a little something you might enjoy – Garota De Ipanema, aka, The Girl From Ipanema. I recorded my version of this classic song as a birthday present for a good friend from Rio. The percussion consists of “toys” people have brought me from Brazil over the years.

p.s. If you’re dying to hear the new tune, you can get a sneak peak at it on my soundcloud site.

 

Song 34 – October – Far and Wide

[soundcloud url=”https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/230725373″ params=”color=ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false” width=”100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]

Folks, I almost feel guilty about publishing this tune. We’d been having a good go with upbeat tunes, and this one is anything but. I feel like I’ve turned off the stereo during an awesome dance party. I would like to keep the festivities going, but I also want to get this tune out – I guess just a little bit more. It’s been swirling around my head for a few months – inspired by a friend’s recent experience. Once I’d heard their story, this song just wrote itself.

Sometimes we find ourselves all alone.

Sometimes we find ourselves all alone when we don’t want to be.

So yes, this is a sad song, but it’s also a song that makes me very happy for a few reasons. One is that I’ve wanted to record a duet with my niece, Danielle, for a long time. But how do we record a duet if my brother’s family is a 10 hour drive from where I live? Well, it turns out Danielle has a friend with a recording studio! So I sent her an early draft of the song and she recorded herself singing along with it. I feel so lucky to have Danielle sing with me. Her voice is amazing.

I’m also happy that I finally recorded my friend Mara Shea playing fiddle. I’ve been playing waltzes with her for a few years at the Senior Center on Thursday nights and always admired her lush, rich sound. I’m always inspired by the melodies that she improvises and I was lucky to finally capture them for one of my songs.

Lastly, I’m happy that my friends and fellow Star Makers, Brian and Robert, also played parts in this song. All told, this is the most collaborative song I’ve recorded in the three years since I started the project. As a result, “Far and Wide” is both a sad song about a couple separating, and a happy song about friends getting together, collaborating and making something beautiful.

When the going get's rough, it's a good time to get together with friends.

So, when that happens, it’s a good time to get together with friends!

Folks, I hope you had a great month! It’s starting to get cold here in North Carolina and winter is just around the corner. If you’d like to sing or play along with the tune, here’s the song sheet.

Song 33 – September – That’s Alright

Lately I’ve been having a lot of fun experimenting with my songs, and this new one is no exception. The past 32 songs I’ve recorded have all been one layer (or instrument) at a time. I’ll start by recording a single ukulele part. Then I’ll record another instrument. And then another. I just add sounds, one part at a time, until I’ve created a rich sonic space that’s deeply layered.

brian_and_carol_color

This time, however, I wanted to record as much as I could all at the same time. Not only that, I didn’t want the song to feel like each note had been precisely placed with tweezers; I wanted to capture the fun, energy and messiness of learning a new tune. So we (The Star Makers) only ran through this one a few times before recording it. In the end, we were able to capture almost everything live (including the energy and fun). After we had a good take, we added clapping and I doubled the mandolin solo to make it easier to hear in the mix.

robert_cajon_color

I hope everyone had a great September! I had a wonderful month. Recording this song, a playful spoof on my relationship with the folks that live across the street, was a highlight, but I also traveled to New York City to perform with a dance company. It was a blast getting to spend 5 days rehearsing and performing there. If you’d like to play or sing along with this tune, here’s the song sheet. And last, but certainly not least, all of the pictures and the video were taken by Kacy Jung.

01_full_band_bw

 

Recipe – S. P.’s Vinaigrette

This salad dressing is great on salads, but it's also great as a dip for bread.

This salad dressing is great on salads, but it’s also great as a dip for bread.

I know, I know, the salad days are almost gone, so it seems silly to be posting a dressing recipe this late in the season. This, one, however, is too good to hold back any longer. And once you dip some bread into this, you’ll be making it year round, just like me.

In a medium bowl (or jar, if you want to minimize dishes), combine:

1 small shallot, finely diced
1 Tbs. Dijon mustard
2 ½ Tbs. champagne vinegar
Fresh ground pepper to taste
¼ – ½ tsp. honey

Let the mixture marinate for 30 minutes and then whisk in:

½ cup olive oil

Serve over salads or as a dipping sauce for bread. Store in a sealed jar in the refrigerator. It will last a long time.

This picture is just to give you an idea of what a "small" shallot is.

This picture is just to give you an idea of what a “small” shallot is.

small_shallot_diced

Here’s what “finely diced” means.

August – Oceans

[soundcloud url=”https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/221775246″ params=”color=ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false” width=”100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]

Although this song sounds very personal, it’s not about me. It’s based on a cartoon a friend drew and posted on facebook a little over 5 years ago. It was a simple image of two stick figures standing outside of a house with a large television set. To the right were arrows pointing to and from the word “work”. It has haunted me and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. Then one day, not too long ago, it turned into a song. I was in the shower at the time – probably with soap in my eyes.

01_robert_on_shaker

When we play concerts, I’m terrible about giving credit to the band so I’m going to make up for it here. Robert is the amazing the drummer that keeps the whole thing together. Photo by KC Jung.

A few weeks after I came up with the basic idea – the first two verses, pre-chorus and chorus – I wrote the third verse to put a positive spin on the song. Our hero, lost in an ocean, sees clouds ahead, which suggests an island, and perhaps an opportunity to get closer to people.

Brian plays guitar and keyboards. His job is to fill out the sound and keep things interesting.

Brian plays guitar and keyboards. His job is to fill out the sound and keep things interesting. Photo by KC Jung.

This song is a significant milestone that I’m very excited about – it’s the first one that includes the whole band. I’ve been playing concerts with three very talented musicians since the spring, but only now have we all managed to add a part to a recording. Just like last month, we recorded drums at Warrior Sound, and, as always, the results are amazing. Everything else was done in our home studios.

Carol plays bass and keeps everything cool.

Carol plays bass and keeps everything cool. Photo by KC Jung.

I hope everyone had a great August! I know I did and I’m excited about the upcoming September. I’ve got big plans for a lot of things: 1) I’ll be playing my dance music for two nights in New York City, and 2) an exciting new song to record for you.

If you’d like to sing or play long with this month’s tune, here’s the song sheet.

Photo by KC Jung.

Photo by KC Jung.

Recipe – Pancakes from Dawn Till Dusk

pancakes_1

I love pancakes. They’re simple and they’re satisfying. I love them for breakfast and I love them for dinner. The one problem is that I always feel a little guilty just eating pancakes for dinner. Whenever I do something like that I can always imagine my mother asking me where my vegetables are. Pancakes and vegetables don’t mix, right? Or do they?

A few years ago, when I was making a crazy complicated vegetable fritter, I realized that, fundamentally, I was just making a pancake with vegetables in it. There was less sugar and more salt in the fritter than a pancake, but those were the only differences. The vegetable fritter turned out really well, but guess what? Two weeks later I made my standard pancake recipe (adjusting the sugar and salt) with vegetables and it tasted just as good, and the preparation was way, way easier. I was sold, and you will be too, once you try this recipe out.

Breakfast Pancakes:

In a medium bowl, combine 1 cup flour, 1 Tbs. sugar, 1 tsp. baking powder, 1/4 tsp. baking soda and 1/4 tsp. salt. Heat one or two large pans over medium heat. When the pan is evenly heated, use a fork to whisk 1 egg and 1 cup buttermilk into the dry ingredients. Add 1 tsp. of oil to each pan and swirl to coat. Pour in enough batter to make pancakes the size of your choosing. There should be enough batter to make two large, pan sized pancakes, or four smaller sized pancakes. Flip the pancakes when deep holes appear on their surface.

pancakes_cooking

Serve the breakfast pancakes with butter and maple syrup.

Dinner Pancakes:

In a medium bowl, combine 1 cup flour, 1 tsp. salt, 1 tsp. baking powder, 1/4 tsp. baking soda and 1/4 tsp. sugar. Heat one or two large pans over medium heat. When the pan is evenly heated, use a fork to whisk chopped veggies, crumbled feta cheese, 1 egg and 1 cup buttermilk into the dry ingredients. Add 1 tsp. of oil to each pan and swirl to coat. Pour in enough batter to make pancakes the size of your choosing. There should be enough batter to make two large, pan sized pancakes, or four smaller sized pancakes. Flip the pancakes when deep holes appear on their surface.

savory_cooking

Serve the dinner pancakes with a compound butter:

Compound Butter

Use a fork to combine minced herbs, fresh ground pepper and a pinch of salt into 1 and 1/2 Tbs. softened butter. (if the butter isn’t soft, microwave it for 10 seconds before adding the other ingredients).

To summarize the ingredients (you can also download the recipe):

  • Flour
  • Sugar
  • Salt
  • Baking Powder
  • Baking Soda
  • 1 Egg
  • Buttermillk
  • Oil
  • Optional: chopped vegetables, crumbled feta cheese, butter, herbs.

July – Don’t Worry About Me

[soundcloud url=”https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/217394370″ params=”color=ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false” width=”100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]

For the past year and a half I’ve wanted to include more musicians in my recordings. Recording alone is fun, but making music is, by it’s very nature, a social activity. We make music with people and we make it for people. This is because music is a form of communication that connects with our basic instincts. By that I mean that we don’t have to think about music to enjoy it; we just react to it.

So far I’ve succeeded in a number of collaborations, including duets with Andrea Connolly (The Whistle) and Miriam Chicurel-Bayard (That Dress), and Robert Cantrell has played percussion on a number of songs. But when I formed the band, Starmakers, I wanted to include the members in a big way. This started last month with Casual Shirts, when Brian Risk played keyboards, and has continued this month with Brian and Robert (and next month, we’ll finally include Carol on bass!!!)

There are two logistical challenges to bringing collaborators into my project: I must write the songs early in the month so everyone can hear what I have in mind, and I need a space to record drums. On past songs, I’ve worked on lyrics right up to the day the song’s due. And while my little space is perfect for recording a ukulele, Robert would have to put his snare drum in one room and his cymbals in another, and that would never do.

Lucky for me, two things happened: a whole swarm of songs showed up in my head, giving me a jump start on the lyrics and arrangements, and my next door neighbor, Al Jacob, moved in. Al, it just so happens, co-owns Warrior Sound, one of the best recording studios in the area. In a beautiful setting surrounded by a horse farm, Warrior Sound has an amazing room for recording drums – just what I need.

The ukulele couldn't be happier recording drums at one of the best studios in the area!

The ukulele couldn’t be happier recording drums at one of the best studios in the area!

One thing I love about collaborating with other musicians is that the results are a dialog greater than the sum of it’s parts. Even though “Don’t Worry About Me” is a sad song, a song about rejection, think of it a a conversation between three people about what rejection means to them. Each person, Robert, Brian and I, bring different perspectives and experiences to the music. We have three stories and we tell them with the instruments that we play. In that sense, by talking it through, we can help each other deal with the sadness.

My home town is going through some changes! They're demolishing University Square to make room for a new art space.

My home town is going through some changes! They’re demolishing University Square to make room for a new art space.

I hope everyone had a great July and has a wonderful August! If you like the tunes, please share them with your friends (and have them share the tunes with their friends). And if you’d like to sing along, here’s the song sheet.

Recipe – Baked French Fries

Everybody lives fries and I’m no exception. In the summer I like grilling burgers and steaks and nothing goes better with those than fries, so I had to figure how to make them at home. I also wanted an easy recipe that wouldn’t require a lot of hands on time, so I could spend most of my time outside by the fire. Here’s what I came up with – using the oven to bake the fries means these guys require very little attention and cleanup is a snap!

First, get yourself 1 pound of Idaho potatoes (although any potato will do). It’s worth noting that a single large potato can easily weigh in at 1 pound, so you might only need one. To cut the potato (or potatoes) into 1/4 inch fries, cut a 1/4 slice off of one side. Then roll this potato over so that it’s sitting on the cut side (this makes it easier to cut the potato since it can no longer roll away). Now cut it into ¼ inch slabs. Lay the slabs on their sides (or stack them), and then cut them into ¼ inch fries.

Cut 1/4 inch off of one side of the potato, then roll the potato onto the flat side. Cut the remaining potato into 1/4 inch planks, stack the planks and cut them into 1/4 inch fries.

Cut 1/4 inch off of one side of the potato, then roll the potato onto the flat side. Cut the remaining potato into 1/4 inch planks, stack the planks and cut them into 1/4 inch fries.

After you’ve cut the fries, place them in a large pot and fill with enough water to submerge them by 1 inch. Add 1 Tbs. of salt and bring the pot of potatoes to the boil. Boil for 3 to 5 minutes. Meanwhile, preheat an oven to 400 degrees.

Drain the potatoes and mix with freshly ground black pepper and dried herbs, if using, and anywhere from 2 Tbs. to ¼ cup of olive oil, . Spread the fries into a single layer on a baking sheet and bake for 30-40 minutes (until cooked to your liking – just try one!), flipping the fries with a spatula after 20 minutes. If using fresh herbs, sprinkle them on when the fries are done baking.

Fresh out of the oven!

Fresh out of the oven…

... and nestled up next to a chickpea burger!

… and nestled up next to a chickpea burger!

To summarize the ingredients (you can also download the recipe):

  • 1 lb. Idaho potatoes cut into ¼ inch fries. NOTE: A single, large potato can weigh 1 lb.
  • Salt
  • 2 Tbs – ¼ cup olive oil
  • Black Pepper
  • (optional) Dried or fresh herbs

June – Casual Shirts

[soundcloud url=”https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/212703609″ params=”color=ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false” width=”100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]

We just played at Mystery Brewing. Stay tuned for our next performance!

We just played at Mystery Brewing. Stay tuned for our next performance!

Malls didn’t always depress me. When I was in high school I worked in one, in a magazine shop, and I enjoyed it. It had an eclectic mix of regulars that made every hour interesting.

There was the mall security guard – an old southern gentleman who kept a coffee mug behind the counter. Every hour would come by and pop the mug into the microwave for 30 seconds and take a sip or two before moving on. Without even trying, he’d make a single cup of coffee last 8 hours.

There was the guy from the stockroom at Dillard’s – every day he called to reserve magazines and newspapers. Since I never understood a word he said on the phone, I would stash a random assortment of periodicals behind the counter with hope that I had what he wanted. Face to face I understood about 30% of his words and I remember him asking me, “Can’t you understand what I’m saying?” after I had failed to reserve the Sunday edition of the Washington Post. (Quite miraculously, I had managed to reserve everything else he asked for.) I played it cool and told him it was sold out. He then pointed at the stack of Sunday Washington Posts still for sale and asked, “You sold out of those?”

Lastly, there was a pizza shop two doors down swapped calzones for cigarettes. It was a pretty sweet deal.

But since then, being in a mall wears me down. I’m not sure why, but I can feel my energy level dropping every minute I’m inside one. Maybe it’s the air. Regardless, I always feel like I need to shop as quickly as possible or else I’ll permanently wither.

Not that long ago I needed to buy some shirts, and I must have lingered just a little too long. By the time I made it outside, I was so dark and moody that I couldn’t even talk. I felt like a dementor had sucked out my soul. And then, out of nowhere, out popped this song. At least the first verse and chorus did. After that, the rest was easy.

On a completely different note, it has come to my attention that many people believe that my ukulele has a permanent smile, and are surprised when they they see it in person.

On a completely different note, it has come to my attention that many people believe that my ukulele has a permanent smile, and are surprised when they they see it in person.

But the smile is only photoshop...

But the smile is only photoshop…

You may have noticed that the instrumentation for this month’s song is, shall we say, non-traditional. That was intentional. As many of you know, I’ve got a band, “The Star Makers”, and the people in it bring a lot of talent and skills to my songs and I intend to feature their abilities in my recordings. This one features my long time friend Brian Risk (who also does a mixture of data analysis and music). I recorded the vocals and gave him a rough outline of the chords, and he came back to me with this incredible arrangement.

Folks! It’s been a great month! If you like the song, please share it with your friends. And if you’d like to sing along with this tune, here’s the song sheet.

 

Recipe – La Ferme Salad Dressing

Here, in the United States, it’s summer time and all kinds of things are growing in my back yard. These are the days for fresh salads, all the time. Here’s my French twist on a classic American recipe for ranch salad dressing.

First, puree a clove of garlic. You can do this with a garlic press, or you can do it with a knife and a large pinch of salt. While I generally enjoy the ease of a garlic press, for this recipe I prefer using a knife. Here’s video showing how I do it:

Once you’ve got your pureed garlic, put it in a small or medium sized bowl along with some fresh ground pepper, 1/2 tsp. of herbs de Provence, 1/4 cup of mayonnaise and 1/4 cup of butter milk (and if you used a garlic press, add a large pinch of salt). Then just whisk everything together. Bam!

The recipe makes about a half cup of salad dressing. If you need to, you can keep it in the fridge for about a week.

The recipe makes about a half cup of salad dressing. If you need to, you can keep it in the fridge for about a week.

Here’s a summary of the ingredients (you can also download the recipe)

  • 1 clove of garlic
  • A large pinch of salt
  • Fresh ground pepper
  • 1/2 tsp. dried herbs de Provence
  • 1/4 cup. mayonnaise
  • 1/4 cup buttermilk

 

May – The Cue For The Band

[soundcloud url=”https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/208003278″ params=”color=ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false” width=”100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]

Unlike a lot of my recent songs, this one wasn’t written in the shower. Instead, I wrote it in a comfy chair. This comfy chair was wedged in the corner of a room with terrible wi-fi, and that makes it perfect for being productive. The only thing you can do in that chair is get something done. Or read a book.

The ukulele enjoys a sip of tea while sitting in the comfy chair. (This comfy chair just so happens to be in Yangon domestic terminal).

The ukulele enjoys a spot of tea while sitting in a comfy chair. (This comfy chair just so happens to be in Yangon domestic terminal).

When I was younger I feared dancing and I blame my first middle school dance. The DJ (aka the school principal) was playing the Aerosmith/Run-D.M.C. version of “Walk This Way” and everyone was going nuts. People were just jumping up, down, left and right. It looked so easy! Because it was a group dance, I didn’t even have to build up the courage to ask anyone in particular to dance with me. Thinking, “what could possibly go wrong?” I jumped in and started to bounce around with everyone else.

BAM! Blood was all over the place. Within seconds I had hit a cute Indian girl (that I had a small crush on) in the nose with the top of my head. She was in tears and her clothes were ruined and I just stood there in shock, not knowing what to do. This was definitely The Worst Night Ever.

After The Worst Night Ever I gave up dancing until I was halfway through college. Unless I was careful, I knew it would lead to tears, so I played it safe; I signed up for ballroom dancing. I figured the rules and predetermined steps were there to keep everyone safe. However, once I learned a few steps, I noticed I was never in sync with anyone else. It was a mess. I moved early, and, to my mind, everyone else moved late.

I didn’t know this at the time, but different people have very different ideas about the beat. Classically trained musicians anticipate the beat. They are taught to lift their bow and move it across the strings just a moment early, so the audience will hear something at the exact moment the beat occurs. In contrast, many people react to the beat. They wait until they hear it before moving. As you can imagine, if one person is early and their partner is late, the result is a disco fiasco.

After a few years of playing with rock bands, who are relaxed about everything, I finally learned to be flexible with the beat. Now I don’t fear dancing nearly as much as I used to. It’s fun! (And it’s been years since I last bopped someone’s nose on a dance floor!)

Now the ukulele is relaxing on a nice park bench. (In the botanical gardens in Singapore).

Now the ukulele is relaxing on a nice park bench. (In the botanical gardens in Singapore).

Folks! It’s been a great month! For this tune I owe a huge debt to Robert Cantrell for coming over on a Sunday afternoon and recording the fantastic pandeiro part that you can hear throughout the song. If you want to sing, or play your own pandeiro along with the tune, here’s the song sheet.

Recipe – Home Style Fried Okra

Not everyone likes okra, but I’d be willing to bet that most people will like this recipe. It’s very different from the restaurant style fried okra you may be familiar with (if you are familiar with fried okra at all), where each piece is individually battered and deep fried. Instead, with this method, the okra clumps together a little and the shallow pan frying brings out more flavor.

One of my favorite quick and cheap meals, this is the recipe my mother made when I was a child. I serve it in a bowl on top of jasmine rice with a glass of wine or beer.

You start by combining 1 pound okra cut into 1/2 inch rounds (fresh or pre-cut frozen) with 1/4 cup of all purpose flour1/4 cup of ground corn meal (yellow or white – and if you don’t have corn meal, just use more flour), 1 tsp. of salt, 1/2 tsp. of ground pepper and, if you’re feeling adventurous, 1 tsp. of chili or curry powder in a large bowl. The chili or curry powder is terribly non-traditional, but it’s a fun twist on the flavor.

Here's the okra, flour, corn meal, salt, pepper and chili powder before I stir it all together.

Here’s the okra, flour, corn meal, salt, pepper and chili powder before I stir it all together.

Stir the mixture around with a fork to lightly coat the okra. Most of the flour and seasonings will migrate to the bottom of the bowl.

After stirring, the okra is lightly coated with the flour mixture (but most of the flour is now in the bottom of the bowl).

After stirring, the okra is lightly coated with the flour mixture (but most of the flour is now in the bottom of the bowl).

Then add two eggs and stir to combine. If there are still dry spots, add another egg and stir it in. It’s better to use too many eggs than too few.

Here's what the mixture looks like after I've stirred in 3 eggs.

Here’s what the mixture looks like after I’ve stirred in 3 eggs.

In a 12-inch non-stick pan (or cast iron skillet), add enough oil to coat the bottom and heat it over medium-high heat (I usually use close to 1/2 a cup). When the oil starts to ripple on the surface, add the okra mixture and spread it out into a single layer.

I've just added the okra mixture to the hot pan with the oil.

I’ve just added the okra mixture to the hot pan with the oil.

Put a lid on the pan and cook for 10-15 minutes. Use a spatula to check the bottom of the okra every now and then. When it’s golden brown, remove the lid and flip the okra. NOTE: At this point, the okra mixture will have stuck together to make a single sheet in the pan. Don’t try to flip this whole sheet, just break up into smaller pieces and flip them individually.

Here's what it looks like when you try to flip the okra the first time. It will have all stuck together. Just break it into smaller pieces.

Here’s what it looks like when you try to flip the okra the first time. It will have all stuck together. Just break it into smaller pieces.

Here's what the okra looks like after I've completed flipping all of it.

Here’s what the okra looks like after I’ve completed flipping all of it.

 

Cook for another 10 – 20 minutes, stirring and flipping the okra every 5 minutes or so, until the okra is well done – dark brown and even black in spots.

This is what the okra should look like after another 10 or 15 minutes of cooking, stirring it every so often so that it is cooked evenly all over.

This is what the okra should look like after another 10 or 15 minutes of cooking, stirring it every so often so that it is cooked evenly all over.

 

Season with extra salt to taste and serve immediately or transfer to a plate lined with paper towels.

Here's my favorite way to serve home style fried okra.

Here’s my favorite way to serve home style fried okra. It’s tasty, inexpensive, and satisfying.

Here’s a summary of the ingredients (you can also download the recipe)

  • 1 lb. okra cut into ½ inch sections (fresh or pre-cut frozen)
  • ¼ cup. all purpose flour
  • ¼ cup. ground corn meal (white or yellow)
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • (optional 1 tsp. chili powder or curry powder)
  • ½ tsp. ground black pepper
  • 2-3 eggs
  • about ½ cup oil

April – Look Away

[soundcloud url=”https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/203366690″ params=”color=ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false” width=”100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]

Thanks to everyone who came out to the album release show a few weeks ago. It was great to see so many friends in the audience. My friend Kacy Jung was in the front row and took some wonderful pictures (which I’ll sprinkle throughout this post).

The band, plus friends, all on stage for the "Going Back To Cali".

The band, plus friends, all on stage for the last song of the night, “Going Back To Cali“. It’s hard to see in this picture, but that cello is strapped to me so I can stand and play at the same time..

Lately, it seems like I’ve written all of my songs in the shower. This tune was no exception, but it has a bit of a story to it.

One day, before I took a shower, I came up with a really catchy pizzicato riff on my cello and I’d worked it into a full song. The part was peppy and it even included a really clever key change in the middle of the chorus. I thought it was cool, but I didn’t have a melody or lyrics for it yet. So I came up with a plan: I would play the cello part a bunch of times and get it stuck in my head and then run and jump into the shower and sing whatever came to mind.

Performing "The Whistle".

Performing “The Whistle“.

So that’s what I did. I played the part a bunch, then jumped into the shower and started singing. At first I was coming up with potential melodies and words that worked, but somewhere between the shampoo and the soap things changed. The melody got darker and slower, from peppy to introspective. By the time I got out of the shower, I had a melody and lyrics, just like I’d planned, but for an entirely different song. Before, the cello part was flashy and complicated, now it barely had two chords.

After I got dressed I wondered what had happened to my plan and peppy cello part. I tried the same thing the next day and ended up with the same song. I have a theory that this song was stuck in my head to balance out my concert. The show was a huge extroverted thing that was fun and confident. In contrast, this song was entirely introspective. Maybe I needed to have both experiences to keep an even keel?

Performing "You".

Performing “You Don’t Know“.

Folks! I hope you had a great April. Spring has been slow coming, but it’s beautiful now and May should be a wonderful month. As always, if you’d like to play or sing along with this month’s tune, here’s the song sheet.

Recipe – Vegetarian Potstickers

One thing vastly different cultures agree on is that dumplings are awesome and delicious. There are many varieties, but the general method is to take something fantastic and then wrap it up in a bit of dough. One thing that sets dumplings apart from other tasty foodstuffs is that they are a pleasure to make with friends. You can prepare the filling in advance and then throw a dumpling making party. It’s fun, especially when people express their personal style in the wraps, and it’s tasty.

One of my favorite types of dumplings are potstickers. I’ve always loved them, but I’ve always been a little disappointed in the quality of the vegetarian varieties served in restaurants. These can be watery and lacking any rich flavors. So I made this recipe to solve all those problems. There are a lot of steps, but once the filling is made, wrapping the dumplings up is something you can do with the whole family and all your friends. It’s fun and the work goes quickly. Here’s the recipe.

Here’s how to do it:

Make the filling…

First, in a large pan over medium heat, add 2 Tbs. oil and 3 onions, thinly sliced. Caramelize the onions by cooking them slowly (turn the heat down if they brown too fast) for about 30 minutes.

Here I've just put the onions in the pan.  The goal is to slowly cook them for about 30 minutes until they become super soft and sweet.

Here I’ve just put the onions in the pan. The goal is to slowly cook them for about 30 minutes until they become super soft and sweet.

Here are what the onions should look like after about 30 minutes of cooking.

Here is what the onions should look like after about 30 minutes of cooking.

Then add one grated carrot and one diced poblano and cook until soft (about 5-10 minutes).

Now I've added the the grated carrots and diced poblano pepper.

Now I’ve added the the grated carrots and diced poblano pepper. Next I’ll stir the mixture and cook for about 5 or 10 minutes, until they are starting to get soft.

Then add 3 cups of sliced napa cabbage and cook until reduced and most of the water has evaporated (about 5 to 10 minutes).

Here I have just added the napa cabbage to the pan.

Here I have just added the napa cabbage to the pan.

Now add 1 cup of edamame and 2-3 Tbs. of grated ginger and stir to combine. Then add three eggs, break the yolks and and stir to scramble. To finish, add salt to taste (often I’ll just sprinkle a pinch or two of salt in the pan each time I add an ingredient to it and that alone does the trick.)

I've just add the eggs. Now all I need to do is stir them in and cook until scrambled.

I’ve just add the eggs. Now all I need to do is stir them in and cook until scrambled.

Now the eggs are scrambled and the filling is finished.

Now the eggs are scrambled and the filling is finished.

Make the dumplings…

To make the dumplings, you’ll need the filling, one package of Shanghai Style dumpling wrappers (or any other type of dumpling wrapper that you can find), a small bowl filled with water and a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.

Once the filling is cool enough to handle, put about 1 Tbs. of filling in the middle of a dumpling wrapper. Dip one or two fingers in the bowl of water and coat the outer edge of the wrapper with water.

After putting some filling into the middle of the dumpling wrapper, you wipe a wet finger around the edge.

After putting some filling into the middle of the dumpling wrapper, you wipe a wet finger around the edge.

Fold the wrapper to make a half moon shape and press the edges to seal.

Now fold the dumpling in half to make a crescent shape and pinch the edges together.

Now fold the dumpling in half to make a crescent shape and pinch the edges together.

Optional: Fold the edges to make an attractive border.

This step is optional, but you can make an attractive boarder. It's easy and fun! Check out the video.

This step is optional, but you can make an attractive boarder. It’s easy and fun! Check out the video.

Here’s what it looks like when you’re done making the dumplings:

If you have friends or family helping out, you can make a whole pan of these dumplings in no time.

If you have friends or family helping out, you can make a whole pan of these dumplings in no time.

To cook the potstickers…

Put about 1 Tbs. of oil into a large cast iron skillet or nonstick pan. Line the bottom of the pan with as many potstickers as you can fit.

I crammed as many dumplings into the pan as I could!

I crammed as many dumplings into the pan as I could!

The remaining potstickers can be cooked in a second batch (or a second pan) or frozen (I slide the baking sheet in the freezer to freeze the dumplings and then, once they are hard, transfer them to a zip-lock bag.) Cook the dumplings over medium-high heat until they have browned nicely on the bottom. Then add ¼ cup of water to the pan and put a lid on the pan as quickly as you can. Cook another 5 minutes before removing the lid. Continue to cook until all of the water has evaporated and then serve.

This is what the bottoms of the pot stickers should look like when they are done cooking (I've already steamed them and they are ready to serve).

This is what the bottoms of the potstickers should look like when they are done cooking (I’ve already steamed them and they are ready to serve).

To summarize the ingredients (you can also download the recipe):

  • 2 Tbs. oil
  • 3 onions, sliced thinly
  • 1 carrot, grated
  • 1 poblano pepper, finely diced.
  • 3 cups of finely cut napa cabbage
  • 1 cup edamame
  • 1-2 Tbs. grated ginger
  • 3 eggs
  • Salt to taste
  • 1 package of Shanghai Style dumpling wrappers

March – Lucky To Be Alive

[soundcloud url=”https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/198665144″ params=”color=ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false” width=”100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]

Is there anyone out there that doesn’t like singing in the shower? That’s where I wrote this song. I was in Bagan, Burma, washing the day’s dust off and this one just came to me, verses, choruses and everything all at once.

Sunrise in Bagan.

Sunrise in Bagan.

During the afternoon, while I was puttering around pagodas, I had been thinking about a time when I was really young. On the playground I had just learned the saying, “sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me”. It seemed to me like a pretty clever response to teasing and other juvenile torments. Later in the day, I mentioned it to my mother and she looked at me and said, “if only that were true.” I asked what she meant by that, because the only pain I knew came from, well, you know, sticks and stones. She told me that broken bones heal relatively easily, but the scars that words carve into us take much, much longer to heal.

At the time I was too young to understand what she said. I knew that she was saying something serious, but, having just brushed off insults at school without a second thought, I couldn’t imagine how much damage words could do to me. Since then I’ve learned that she was right. Sadly, it’s something everyone learns.

However, about the same time I learned the “sticks and stones” saying, I also learned about forgiveness. Like my mother’s comments, I didn’t understand it until much later in life. However, I’ve found that forgiveness is the only thing that heals the wounds that words inflict. It frees me from them and lifts my spirits.

The west entrance to the Shwe Dagon pagoda in Yangon.

The west entrance to the Shwe Dagon pagoda in Yangon.

Folks! It’s been a great month! It was busy at times, but I got a lot done and was able to spend time with very good friends. However, I’m super excited about April! My new CD, Germany Zulu, is coming out!!!!! The release show will be at The Cave in Chapel Hill on April 17. I’ll be playing with a full band, and The Drowning Lovers will open up. The show starts at 9, so come if you can. Otherwise, you can pre-order the limited edition CD or pre-order the songs on iTunes and Amazon!

And, as always, if you’d like sing or play along, here’s the song sheet.

Savory Crepes – the fast track to fancy food.

Sometimes fancy food can be really easy to make in a short period of time, and these savory crepes, stuffed with roasted vegetables, a slice of brie, and anything else you can imagine, totally fit that bill.

First, select and cook a few vegetables, like thinly sliced onions and fennel, or cherry tomatoes cut in half and thin asparagus spears, or, if you’re still feeling like it’s winter, small cubes of butternut squash. Thinly sliced fennel and onions can be sautéed with olive oil and a few pinches of salt, asparagus and cherry tomatoes, tossed with a little olive oil, salt and pepper, can be roasted for 10 minutes at 400F, and butternut squash, tossed with olive oil, salt and pepper, can be roasted for 30 minutes at 400F. You can mix and match the vegetables depending on what you can find fresh at your grocery.

While the vegetables are cooking (or shortly there after), combine 1 cup flour, 1 cup milk, ½ cup water, 4 eggs, 2 Tbs. melted butter and 1 tsp. salt in a large metal bowl with a whisk, or in a food processor using the pulse mode, until the mixture has a uniform consistency.

Nothing fancy here, just mix the batter together.

Nothing fancy here, just mix the batter together.

To cook the crepes, use ⅓ cup of batter per crepe in a 12” cast iron or non-stick skillet (you may need to rub a little bit of oil in the pan, but I usually don’t) over medium heat. Tilt the pan to spread the mixture and cook until the edges start to peal away from the pan.

Here I've add 1/3 of a cup of batter to a 12 inch skillet and swirled it around.

Here I’ve add 1/3 of a cup of batter to a 12 inch skillet and swirled it around.

You can tell when it's time to flip the crepe when it starts to peel away from the edge of the pan.

You can tell when it’s time to flip the crepe when it starts to peel away from the edge of the pan.

Flip the crepe using a silicone spatula and cook for another 30 seconds or so before removing the crepe to a plate.

I use a silicone spatula to flip the crepes.

I use a silicone spatula to flip the crepes. You can spot a second crepe, already flipped, in the background. I like to have two pans going at once, and can do the whole batch of batter in about 7 minutes.

Here's what a flipped crepe looks like.

Here’s what a flipped crepe looks like.

Continue to cook crepes, stacking them on top of each other on the plate when each one is done, until all of the mixture has been used up.

To serve, put a crepe on a plate or cutting board and put about 1 cup of a mixture of two or three roasted or sauteed vegetables (for example: thinly sliced onions, fennel, cherry tomatoes cut in half, small cubes of butternut squash, thin spears of asparagus, etc.) in a line across the middle, top with a slice of brie, then roll the uncovered parts of the crepe over the filling.

To summarize the ingredients (you can also download the recipe):

  • 1 cup flour
  • 1 cup milk
  • ½ cup water
  • 4 eggs
  • 2 Tbs. melted butter
  • 1 tsp. salt

February – On Your Doorstep

[soundcloud url=”https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/190747653?secret_token=s-ZJdO1″ params=”color=ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false” width=”100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]

Greetings from Singapore!

uku_merlion_smile

The ukulele is visiting his friend the Merlion, Singapore’s mascot. It’s half fish, half lion. Trust me, the Merlion gets bent out of shape if you call it a mermaid. He says, “Merlion! Merlion!”

For the past two weeks I’ve been here, visiting my folks. It’s been a lot of fun (and I’ve eaten a lot of good food).

Do you see that building in the background that looks like a durian shaped performing arts center? It actually is a durian shaped performing arts center. One day the ukulele will play there.

Do you see that building in the background that looks like a durian shaped performing arts center? It actually is a durian shaped performing arts center. One day the ukulele will play there.

One highlight was a side trip to Burma (Myanmar). This country is known for a lot of things, one of which is its sunsets, particularly in Bagan. Months before I arrived, I had read about them in travel books and once there, was desperate to see one in person. As soon as I could, I rented an “ebike”, an electric scooter that I named “Ernest”, and headed towards the nearest pagoda. Ernest wasn’t the speediest ebike around, and had a lot of trouble whenever we weren’t going downhill, but he tried has hard as he could.

Burma, an especially the Bagan region, is covered in old pagodas, many of which are over 1200 years old.

Burma, and especially the Bagan region, is covered in old pagodas, many of which are over 1200 years old.

My timing, however, was rather poor. The sun was setting as I made my way to the pagoda. I begged Ernest to go a little faster and he chugged along as best he could. When I arrived at the pagoda, it was bathed in a breath taking golden light and the sun was just on the horizon. Everything was perfect except one small detail. The camera shot wasn’t as awe inspiring as what I’d seen in the guide book. Certain that I could find a better location to capture the moment, I hopped back onto Ernest and puttered off to the next pagoda.

Unfortunately for me, time didn’t stand still. Instead, with my back to the west, the sun silently slipped behind the mountains and vanished. Instead of taking my perfect picture, I missed the whole thing. Disappointed, Ernest and I went back to the hotel for the night.

The last light of the day, shining on a pagoda.

The last light of the day, shining on a pagoda.

The next day, I had a much better plan. I left earlier and had the perfect pagoda picked out long in advance. When I arrived, I climbed to the top level and watched the sun slowly sink into the horizon. Everything was perfect, except one little thing – beautiful sunsets, the kind that fill you with a sense of wonder and amazement – don’t fit into tiny camera frames. Sure, I took pictures, but being there was what mattered most. It wasn’t about saving a formal record of the time – filing it away so that I could look at it later – it was about experiencing the moment first hand – watching it as it happened and soaking it up. To truly enjoy my trip, I needed to be there for the experience, and not just the pictures.

bagan_sunset_1

Believe me, this looked way better in person.

Folks! I hope you had a great February and are looking forward to March. I know I am. Feel free to share this song and story with your friends and loved ones. If you want to sing or play along, here’s the song sheet. It’s about how when you do things that you really care about, that you really love, the thought of failure can be really scary. However, It’s the only way I know how to do anything.

January – You Don’t Know

[soundcloud url=”https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/188963453″ params=”color=ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false” width=”100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]

Do you ever feel like you’re living in a movie? Every now and then there will be a short moment where everything syncs up and flows just like someone had scripted it. That’s how this month’s song came about.

The Ukulele doesn't mind singing in the car when the radio doesn't work. And even when it does, the ukulele still don't mind singing.

The Ukulele doesn’t mind singing in the car when the radio doesn’t work. And even when it does, the ukulele still doesn’t mind.

A few months ago the radio in my car stopped working. This means I either drive in silence, or I sing a little song to myself. I bet you can guess which option I usually go with. One day I got into my car and, while I started the ignition, I sang, “You don’t know… which way to drive this car to day…”. That’s how the song started, and as I drove the rest of the song materialized, finishing when I turned the car off at home. It was just like the perfect montage scene in a movie, where the music plays while the main character does something interesting (like learn karate).

The ukulele isn't all that good with maps. Good thing he can get his phone to tell him when to turn left!

The ukulele isn’t all that good with maps. Good thing he can get his phone to tell him when to turn left!

Even though writing down the date just became really complicated, it’s an exciting time of year. It’s a time to make plans and set goals. I guess I have my usual goals this year (more songs and recipes), but I’ve also got a few other monthly plans for 2015. It’s a fun way to see what I can do. Do you have any new year’s resolutions? Feel free to post them in the comments below!

Folks, I hope you have a great month coming up! If you’d like to sing or play along with this new tune, here’s the song sheet!

A fun fresh tomato sauce for midwinter.

pasta_on_plate

A little bit of summertime in the middle of winter.

Just when you thought winter couldn’t be any colder and darker, here’s a fun way to shake it off and bring a bit of summer into your home — An easy and delicious recipe that uses cherry tomatoes, which are pretty at the peak of their ripeness all year round.

Here’s how you do it:

1) Cut a large onion into thin slices. Add it to a large pan over medium heat with 3 Tbs. of olive oil and a large pinch of salt. Cook, stirring, occasionally, until the onion just starts to get soft, 3 to 5 minutes.

onions_in_pan

The first step – cut an onion into thin slices and cook it over medium heat.

2) While the onion is starting to cook, cut 7 cloves of garlic into thin slices and then add them, with another pinch of salt, to the onions, cooking for another 3 to 5 minutes. The goal is to soften the onions without allowing them to brown.

sliced_garlic

You don’t have to slice the garlic “Goodfellas” thin, just thin.

3) Once the onions are soft, add 2 pounds of cherry tomatoes, stems removed and rinsed, and 1 tsp. of salt. Cook for 20 to 30 minutes until most of the tomatoes have deflated and the sauce is thick.

tomatoes_in_pan_first

Here I’ve just added the tomatoes and salt to the onions and garlic.

tomatoes_in_pan_third

After 20 or 30 minutes, the tomatoes will have deflated and made a thick sauce.

4) While the tomatoes are cooking, boil a pot of salted water and cook 1 lb. of pasta. Once both the sauce and pasta are cooked, combine and enjoy!

pasta_in_pan

When the sauce and pasta are done cooking, combine and then serve!

To summarize the ingredients (you can also download the recipe):

  • 3 Tbs. olive oil
  • 1 large onion, sliced thin
  • 7 cloves of garlic, sliced thin
  • 2 lbs. cherry tomatoes, stems removed and rinsed
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1 lb. pasta

December – Amadeus

[soundcloud url=”https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/182903808?secret_token=s-VhZdl” params=”color=ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false” width=”100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]

Friends, we made it! Hooray! It’s been another magical year and I’ve loved very minute of it. Like last year, I thought it would be fun to end with an unexpected cover song. Something you’d never think would be played on a cello. Something inspired by a movie. Something in German. The only song I could think of that fit all of those criteria was “Rock Me, Amadeus” by “Falco” (aka Johann Hölzel). I remember this song as a kid, thinking that it made classical music “cool”, not realizing that it was played entirely on synthesizers. Well, I guess I finally got revenge for that – I swapped out the electronic instruments for banjos, mandolins and, of course, my cello.

Writing songs each month has been an exciting adventure. Like seeing a mountain on a map, but not knowing the best way to get there, I knew what I wanted the songs to be like, but had to explore different combinations of instruments to make the right sounds. It was a lot of fun and I learned a whole lot in the process. I guess it’s no surprise that a lot of the songs were written during, or were inspired by, real life adventures to Cambodia (Up In The Air), the Galapagos (Puzzle Pieces), Long Island (Dance Party) and Colorado (You and Cabin Pressure). And since I sing in the shower, it’s no surprise that a few were written there (That Dude (in the movies), Right Here, Right NowTurn On Your Radio). The rest were written on my bike ride to work (The Chariot, That Dress, Winter), where the rhythm of pedaling provides a constant beat to try ideas against.

The ukulele is hard at work learning "Turn on the Radio".

The ukulele is hard at work learning “Turn on the Radio”. He can’t wait to play it live!

Just like last year, I’m going to make final mixes of this year’s tunes, plus a bonus track, and compile them into an album. This one will be called “Germany Zulu”, after the last two phonetic alphabet letters in my father’s old ham radio handle. The first three and middle two letters were coded in the song sheets for Puzzle Pieces and Turn On Your Radio.

I’ll keep you posted with progress on the new album and the release show for it. The band has already been hard at work learning these songs, plus favorites from 2013. And who knows, we might toss a few of the newest songs from 2015 into the mix. I think it will be a blast.

All of the other instruments  super excited about band practice, too!

All of the other instruments are super excited about band practice, too!

Folks! I hope you enjoy this last tune for 2014 and that 2015 will be full of awesome things for you. I know it will be for me. This adventure isn’t over yet and you can look forward to another new song at the end of January.

p.s. Bonus points to anyone who can guess who my father’s favorite composer is. Feel free to put your guesses in the comments!

A fantastic vegetarian caesar salad dressing

salad

I’m pretty sure this recipe is the best vegetarian Caesar salad dressing out there, but, I’ll be honest, I haven’t tried them all. However, I know for sure that this one is easy and tastes great. This time of year my favorite Caesar salad is fresh kale, with the stems removed and the remaining leaves chopped into small pieces, shaved parmesan cheese and croutons. If you leave the croutons off until the last minute, you can make this salad, mixed with the salad dressing, up to a day in advance. That’s right, you can make this salad a day in advance, which makes it the easiest salad on the planet.

The recipe is quite simple (and I’ll have pictures up here as soon as I can).

1) Puree one clove of garlic. You can do this with a garlic press, but the way I like to do it is on the cutting board. I sprinkle a pinch of salt on the garlic and then chop it up. When the bits are small, I spread them out with the side of the knife while pressing down firmly. Sweep the garlic back and fourth a few times and it will become a paste.

2) Then, in a small bowl, whisk together the pureed garlic, 1 Tbs. mayonnaise, 1/2 Tbs (or 1 and 1/2 tsp.) Dijon mustard, and 1/2 Tbs. red wine vinegar.

3) Now, while whisking, slowly pour in 2 Tbs. – 1/4 cup of good olive oil. The amount of oil depends on how thick you want the dressing to be. I like mine to be pretty thin so I can coat a whole lot of kale. Continue to whisk until the sauce looks uniformly brownish.

4) Lastly, season the dressing with with salt to taste (maybe one or two more pinches will do), black pepper to taste (maybe 1/4 tsp.) and the juice of one small lemon wedge.

That’s it! The whole thing can come together in less than 5 minutes. Toss it with your chopped kale, shaved parmesan and croutons and you’re in for a delicious treat.

November – Turn On Your Radio

[soundcloud url=”https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/179237884″ params=”color=ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false” width=”100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]

When I was growing up, my father was an avid radio operator. Not the kind of radio for listening to music, but the kind for talking to people far away. When the weather was right, a cloudless night sky, he’d say, “Propagation’s good!”, power up his equipment and scan the frequencies for friends, most of whom he had never met in person. He talked to people as far away as Russia and deep into the southern hemisphere.

It's hard to see, but there's a tall radio antennae to the right of the ukulele. He's wondering how far it's signal reaches!

It’s hard to see, but there’s a tall radio antennae to the right of the ukulele. He’s wondering how far its signal travels!

In the room where he stored his radios, my father had a world map that showed the distant places he’d contacted. My favorite was the Saint Peter and Saint Paul Rocks. I thought the name alone was funny, but it was also as remote a place as I could imagine. My father showed me a black and white picture of it; a few barren stones in the middle of the Atlantic ocean. Back then, the internet was limited and it wasn’t easy to communicate. I showed the map and picture to my friends because I was proud that my father talked with people so far away.

During the holidays, my father turned on his radio and it sounded like the skies were alive with good cheer. We heard celebrations taking place all over the world. Friends and strangers wished us a merry day and we returned the joyful salutations. It made the world seem like a friendly place. Even though the US and the Soviet Union were waging a “cold war”, I realized I had something in common with the people outside of my country. I learned that the only way to really know someone was to talk with them.

All of these instruments are different, and the cello doesn't trust the banjo all of the time, but for the most part they get along!

All of these instruments are different, and the cello doesn’t trust the banjo all of the time, but for the most part they get along! Without each one, this song wouldn’t be the same.

Folks, I hope everyone has a wonderful holiday this year. I know it’s a busy time, but it’s also a time to reflect on how much we have in common with everyone else in the world. Most people like to hum a tune and share their happiness with the people around them.

This month I was very lucky, Robert Cantrell helped me with the percussion parts in the song. If you hear an awesome “THUMP” during the verses, or a little razzle-dazzle during the last chorus, you’re hearing the fun, skill and energy that he brought to the part. If you’d like to sing or play along with us, here are the chords and lyrics!

My Sister’s Amazing (banana) Chocolate Chip Muffins

One of the highlights of visiting my sister is that she makes the most amazing muffins for breakfast. These come together quickly and it doesn’t take long before her whole house is filled with the mouth watering aromas of chocolate and vanilla. I wish I could visit my sister every weekend, but I can’t, so she was kind enough to give me her recipe. Since I always seem to have bananas around my house, I’ve added them to the mix, but these work great with or without them.

Here’s how you do it:

1) Preheat your oven to 400 degrees fahrenheit (about 200 degrees celsius) and grease a 12 cup muffing pan.

2) Combine 14 and 3/4 oz (3 and 1/2 cups) of all purpose flour, 2 tsp. baking powder, 1/2 tsp. baking soda and 1 tsp. salt in a large bowl. Hold onto that teaspoon measuring spoon, since you’ll need it again in a bit.

3) Now coarsely chop up 1/2 cup of milk chocolate chips and 1/2 cup of any combination of dark, bittersweet and semi-sweet chocolate chips and add them to the flour mixture. Combine everything with a fork.

chopped_chocolate

This is what “coarsely chopped” looks like.

dry_stuff

Now I’ve added the coarsely chopped chocolate to the flour mixture.

dry_stuff_combined

Now I’ve combined the chocolate with the flour mixture.

4) In a separate bowl (potentially a large glass or other microwave safe bowl),  measure 7 oz (1 cup) of sugar and 4 Tbs. of butter, cut into 1 Tbs. pieces. If you had the foresight to take your butter out of the refrigerator well in advance, which I never do, you can cream together the sugar and butter with a fork. However, I usually just microwave the butter and the sugar for 30 seconds to a minute – until I can easily combine the two with a fork.

I can never remember to leave the butter out overnight, so I just microwave it for 30 seconds.

I can never remember to leave the butter out overnight, so I just microwave it for 30 seconds to a minute.

Here I've combined the melted butter with the sugar.

Here I’ve combined the melted butter with the sugar.

5) Optional, but awesome: Add 1 or 2 ripe bananas to the sugar mixture and mash them up with a fork.

6) Whisk in 2 eggs, 2 tsp. vanilla extract and 10 oz. of a combination of sour cream and buttermilk to the sugar mixture. (I usually have 6 oz of sour cream sitting in the fridge from last week’s taco night and 4 oz. of buttermilk from the jug that lasts forever.)

7) Fold the sugar mixture into the flour mixture until there are no longer any patches of dry flour, and distribute the mixture among the 12 cups in the muffin pan.

all_combined

Here’s what it looks like when you finally combine all of the ingredients into a single bowl.

Here's what the mixture looks like in the pan before baking.

Here’s what the mixture looks like in the pan before baking.

8) Bake for 15 to 20 minutes. You can tell when the muffins are done when you can poke the biggest one with a toothpick and it comes out clean (or just smeared with chocolate).  After baking, let the muffins rest in the pan for 5 minutes before transferring to wire cooling rack.

A tasty treat, waiting for you to eat.

A tasty treat, waiting for you to eat!

Shockingly, these muffins taste better at room temperature than when they are still warm.  I find this out the hard way every time I make them.  It’s a delicious lesson.

To summarize the ingredients (you can also download the recipe):

Dry Ingredients:

  • 14 3/4 oz (3 1/2 cups) all purpose flour
  • 2 tsp. baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp. baking soda
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1/2 cup milk chocolate chips, coarsely chopped
  • 1/2 cup of any combination of dark/semi-sweet chocolate chips, coarsely chopped.

Wet Ingredients:

  • 7 oz (1 cup) sugar
  • 4 Tbs. butter, cut into 1 Tbs. pieces
  • 1-2 ripe bananas (optional, but awesome)
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 tsp. vanilla
  • 10 oz of a combination of sour cream and buttermilk.

October – Winter

[soundcloud url=”https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/174695713″ params=”color=ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false” width=”100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]

Some people love fall. Summer chafes them for months on end and they can’t wait for the season to change. I’m not one of those people. I love long summer days and sunlight. I love the little turtle that comes out and plays in the creek at the bottom of the hill. I love day trips to the shore, and ice cream out in the countryside. I even love, to a degree, the warmth of summer. To me, summer is freedom with infinite possibilities to explore.

trees_1

Fall, on the other hand, evokes nostalgia and melancholy like nothing else. Everything seems to be coming to an end. The days get shorter and the spontaneity of summer is traded for routine. In the past, this has really brought me down, so I decided to do something about it this year. I made a list of all the good things that fall brings to help me focus on the positive rather than the negative.

The first thing I thought of was pretty obvious: cooler, drier weather is actually pretty nice. There are fewer mosquitos, too.

Then I started to notice that the shorter days meant I experienced the sunrise more frequently. Summer is all about sunsets, but fall, it seems, is all about sunrises, and some of them are really spectacular.

sunrise_2

And lastly, I realized that fall can be a time of newness. New people come to college towns in the fall, and new friendships begin. I’d never thought of it that way before. Fall wasn’t the end of all things good, but the beginning of so many good things. All of the sudden, fall wasn’t something I feared any more.

trees_2

For those interested, I have a few notes about this month’s song. First, it’s based on a chord progression that I used in Gaspard and Dancer’s “Annatations”. You can hear the original version in the studio version of the song (10 minutes and 29 seconds in). Second, “Winter” features the cello equivalent of “falsetto” – it’s a flute or whistle like tone that comes when I play with the bow close to the bridge. Technically, this is called “sul ponticello”, and it emphasizes high harmonics rather than the full tone. To me, it’s an “icy” sound, and fits with the theme of the tune.

As always, if you’d like to sing and play along, you can download the chords and lyrics.

The Best and Simplest All Day Tomato Sauce Ever

One of my favorite things about the first chilly days in fall is making the house feel all cozy by slow cooking an amazingly simple, yet rich and complex tomato sauce. I can not overstate how good, and yet easy, this recipe is. And it will make your house smell great. Use this sauce on pasta (straight up, or with a little cream and vodka), with homemade ravioli (I’ll show you how in the coming months), in a lasagne or just drink it (yes, I know that last one doesn’t sound appealing, but I’ve done it and, wow, it really was good!). This recipes makes a lot, so use what you want and freeze the rest. Anything that you put this sauce will taste better than ever before.

Here’s how you do it:

1) Combine 5 to 7 peeled cloves of garlic and 3 Tbs. of olive oil in a large pot.

Step 1:  Combine the garlic and the olive oil in a large pot.

Step 1: Combine the garlic and the olive oil in a large pot.

2) Warm the oil up just enough for it to start bubbling around the garlic, then turn the heat down as low as it will go, cover the pot, and wait 30 minutes. After 30 minutes, the garlic will be soft and slightly browned on one side.

Step 2: Cover the pot and cook the garlic over low heat for 30 minutes. After 30 minutes, the garlic should be soft and lightly browned on one side.

Step 2: Cover the pot and cook the garlic over low heat for 30 minutes. After 30 minutes, the garlic should be soft and lightly browned on one side.

3) Add 4 28 oz. (about 800 grams) cans of whole, peeled tomatoes to the pot.

Four 28 oz. cans of whole peeled tomatoes.

Step 3: Add 4 28 oz (about 800 grams) cans of whole peeled tomatoes to the the pot.

Step 3: Add 4 28 oz (about 800 grams) cans of whole peeled tomatoes to the the pot.

Here are the tomatoes, in the pot.

4) If you’re not already wearing an apron, put one on and then reach into the pot and carefully break open the tomatoes with your hand. This is where the apron comes in handy; no matter how gentle you are, one of the tomatoes will squirt juice all over you.

sauce_hand

Step 4: Breaking the tomatoes up with your hand.

After breaking the tomatoes up, this is what they should look like.

After breaking the tomatoes up, this is what they should look like.

5) Turn the heat up until the sauce just begins to simmer, then turn the heat down to keep it at that simmer and no more. Simmer for 5 to 8 hours. If the liquid seems to be evaporating too quickly, you put a lid on the pot or add more water. After about 6 hours of simmering, the tomatoes should be very, very soft, and the garlic will start breaking up.

Step 5: After about 6 hours of simmering, the tomatoes should be very, very soft, and the garlic will start breaking up.

Step 5: After about 6 hours of simmering, the tomatoes should be very, very soft, and the garlic will start breaking up.

6) After you’ve simmered the sauce all day long (and your house now smells amazing), puree it using an immersion blender, a food processor or a food mill.

Step 6: After letting the sauce simmer all day long, puree it using an immersion blender, food processor or food mill.

Step 6: After letting the sauce simmer all day long, puree it using an immersion blender, food processor or food mill.

7) Taste the sauce. Often I don’t need to add any salt, but if it does, add it in small amounts until everything is just right.

That’s all there is to it.

To summarize the ingredients (you can also download the recipe):

  • 5-7 stemmed and peeled cloves of garlic
  • 3 Tbs. olive oil
  • 4 28 oz. (about 800 grams) cans of whole, peeled tomatoes
  • Salt to taste

September – That Dress

[soundcloud url=”https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/170090604″ params=”color=ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false” width=”100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]

I started this month expecting to write a sad song because everything around me was ending. Summer was over, a great friend moved away and, to top it off, they knocked down the building where I used to breathe LA quality smog as a kid (in the name of science! That is, breathing LA quality smog was done in the name of science. The demolition was done in the name of making a green space.)

demolition

No more LA quality smog here! Pretty soon it will only be clean air.

Despite my prediction, a song about dancing showed up in my head on the very first day of the month and wouldn’t budge. I tried everything I could to write something else. I installed a pick-up in my ukulele and played it like an electric guitar, I recorded the first parts of another song and even wrote down the lyrics. I then spent a lot of time rehearsing and performing with Gaspard & Dancers. (Psst!  The reviews are in! My music was called “haunting and very beautiful“)

gaspard

Here’s Gaspard, dancing in a duet with Kristin Taylor. His style comes from his 10 years touring with Pilobolus.

The dance song, however, wouldn’t go away. After three weeks, I finally recorded it, and I’m so glad I did. Maybe it was from spending so much time with the dance company, but I just had to write this song. Dance and music are two very different art forms, but they fit perfectly together and they give meaning and significance to each other. So, if you can, try to dance to this one for me. It’s a slow dance, so you don’t have to do anything complicated. Just enjoy it.

This month’s song features the incredibly talented Miriam Chicurel-Bayard. If I could do it all over again, I’d re-write the lyrics so that she could sing lead (i.e “You’ve got that tux I like…”). It’s an honor to have her help me out and I hope you enjoy her voice as much as I do. And as always, if you’d like to sing or play along, here are the chords and lyrics.

Annatations with Gaspard And Dancers

gnd_2_20140924

The last two nights I performed “Annatations”, a work I composed for amplified cello with Gaspard and Dancers and both nights were amazing. The dancers were in top form and the music and motion meshed together perfectly.

A number of people asked if they could get a copy of the music. For you, I’m posting it here and I’m including two versions: the original “studio” version, which is layered and complex, and the “live” version, which is raw and powerful.

You can stream it from this site, or you can download it to play whenever you wish. To download, click on the button in the upper right-hand-side that shows an arrow pointing down to a line.

If you download the music, please support me by buying my latest album. You can get it on CD or you can get it from iTunes. At the very least, please sign up for my mailing list. I only use it to send out one email a month when I have finished a new song.

[soundcloud url=”https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/169595389″ params=”color=ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false” width=”100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]

[soundcloud url=”https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/169595902″ params=”color=ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false” width=”100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]

gnd_1_20140924

The Best Old School Tacos with Tofu

This vegetarian recipe is based on the tacos I ate as a kid, the old-school tacos that came as a kit from the grocery store, with a seasoning packet and hard shells. Back then these were made with ground beef, but times have changed and I wanted to make something that captured the same fun (and messiness) with tofu for my vegetarian friends and loved ones. As always, the trick with tofu was figuring out how to get the flavor and texture to be satisfying in its own right. The flavor comes from a surprising ingredient, carrots, and a not-so-surprising ingredient, butter (more on this later), and the texture comes from a new speedy drying technique.

Here’s how you do it:

1) Prepare the tofu: Drain the water from a 1 lb. (500 gram) package of firm or extra-firm tofu. Now put a colander in the sink and line it with paper towels.

colendar

This is my colander, in the sink, lined with paper towels.

Crumble the tofu onto the paper towels…

crumbled_tofu

Now I’ve put the crumbled tofu into the colander.

…and then press it down with your fist to squeeze the water out.

pressed_tofu

Here I am, pressing the water out of the tofu.

Try to press out as much water as you can. There’s a lot, and you can’t get it all, but the more you can squeeze out, the shorter the cooking time will be.

2) Make the taco filling: While the tofu is draining, dice an onion and a carrot, and, if you like it hot, one or two diced chili peppers.

I have a fun trick for dicing onions that I learned from Julia Child. She used the layers of the onion to do a lot of the work for you. You first trim the top and peel the onion, leaving the root on, and then cut it in half, from top to bottom (through the root). With one half of the onion flat-side down on your cutting board, make length-wise slices, about 1/4-inch apart, that almost go to the root, but not quite. Then turn the onion 90 degrees and cut it width-wise, perpendicular to your first set of cuts. Voila! You’re done…  with the first half. Now do the same thing with the other half of the onion. Here’s a video showing all of this in action:

Now sauté the onion and a pinch of salt in about 2 Tbs. of olive oil over medium heat until it is just starting to turn soft, about 5 minutes.

a_pinch

This is my version of a “pinch of salt”

To dice the carrot, peel it, and then cut it in half length-wise. With one half of the carrot flat-side down, cut it into planks, then stack these planks and cut them into matchsticks, then cut the matchsticks into small pieces. Repeat with the other half of the carrot.

Once the onion is just turning soft, add the diced carrot (and chili peppers, if using), another pinch of salt and sauté for another 5 minutes.

onoins_carrots

I’ve already cooked the diced onion for about 5 minutes and now I’ve just added the diced carrot.

Once the carrot is just starting to turn soft, add 5 Tbs. of butter to the pan and let it melt, stirring to coat the onion and carrot mixture. This may seem like a lot of butter, but keep in mind that when you were a kid, you used a pound of ground beef with 20% fat. Even with a full 5 Tbs. of butter, this recipe is leaner than what you ate when you were young. Once the butter is melted, add the tofu, 2 tsp. chili powder, 1/2 tsp. ground cumin, 1/2 tsp ground coriander and 1/2 tsp. salt. Stir to combine.

saute_start

This is the filling mixture, before cooking it for about 20 minutes.

Cook, stirring occasionally until the tofu is brown and crispy, about 20 minutes.

saute_end

After 20 minutes, the filling gets crispy and ridiculously tasty.

3) Prepare all of the extras: While the filling is cooking, shred 1 cup of cheddar cheese, 1 cup of lettuce and dice 1 cup of tomatoes. For a tasty sauce, combine the following three ingredients in a small bowl: 1/2 cup sour cream, the juice from 1/2 lime and a dash of ground cumin. You didn’t eat this sauce when you were a kid, but you will wish you did!

When the filling is done cooking, warm up the taco shells and serve! The easiest way for me to warm up the taco shells is to put them in the oven, turn the heat on and wait about 3 to 5 minutes. Turn the heat off and your done!

taco

The final taco, enjoy!

To summarize the ingredients (you can also download the recipe):

  • 1 lb. (500 grams) firm or extra firm tofu, crumbled and drained
  • 2 Tbs. olive oil
  • 1 large onion, finely diced
  • 1 large carrot, finely diced
  • (optional) 1-2 chili peppers, diced
  • 5 Tbs. butter
  • 2 tsp. chili powder
  • 1/2 tsp. ground cumin
  • 1/2 tsp. ground coriander
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 10 hard taco shells
  • 1 cup cheddar cheese, shredded
  • 1 cup lettuce, shredded
  • 1 cup tomatoes, diced
  • 1/2 cup sour cream
  • The juice from 1/2 lime
  • a dash of ground cumin

August – That Dude (in the movies)

This is an embarrassing story, but I’m going to tell it anyway. All of my life I’ve been a skinny guy. This is fine. I don’t mind, but back in college I got this crazy idea that I would look better if I had big muscles. I smile about this because I would look idiotic if I bulked up, but at the time I daydreamed about taking my shirt off at the beach and everyone admiring my physique. I have no idea why.

charles_atlas_j

When I was a kid, I saw ads for the Charles Atlas workout routine.

One day I thought I’d try to live the dream and I signed up for a weight lifting class. I spent hours imagining how awesome I was going to look at the end of the semester. I’d come home for the summer and everyone would freak out. People might even call me up to move furniture. Stuff like that.

So I took the class and learned about all kinds of fancy fitness machines. After a few weeks, I felt like I was making progress. At the very least, my entire body was sore. To make room for all the extra muscle I was carrying around campus, I started walking with my arms puffed out . This was awesome, a dream come true! I knew I looked good. Then I  looked in a mirror.

uku_in_mirror_smile

The ukulele looks in the mirror and sees… a ukulele.

The guy looking back was just me. The same old skinny me. Completely deflated, I dropped my arms to my sides and walked back to my dorm room.

But, you know how these stories go, there’s always a silver lining. On my way back to my room I realized that the real hero of the beach wasn’t the guy who could crush a can against his head (although I still wish I could do that), it was the guy who knew CPR. This was liberating. I already knew CPR. I could stop wasting time on the fitness machines and spend more time playing my cello. Score.

cello_and_uke_smile

The ukulele admits that sometimes he wishes he was a cello.

Folks, this month’s song is all about those times when we wish we could be cooler than we think we are. Or when we wish we were better at karate. In the end, we are who we are and that’s the best. We just don’t always realize it at first.

I hope you have a great September, and, as always, if you want to play or sing along, here’s the song sheet!  (I’m now referring to the chart as the “song sheet” because there was some confusion about whether the chart also had the lyrics).

p.s. Check out the new “Recipe of the Month” feature that I’ve started up!

The Best (and easiest) Buttermilk Biscuit Recipe

I love biscuits. Passionately. I make them frequently and often you can find me reminiscing of these light and tender morsels. Here’s my recipe for buttermilk biscuits. While I would gladly toil away in a kitchen for hours to make these, I don’t have to. These biscuits are incredibly fast and easy (or, as the saying goes, they are “country good and city quick”). It takes less time to mix the ingredients than it does for the oven to warm up, and mixing is all you do; these biscuits do not require a rolling pin.

Here’s how you do it:

1) Preheat your oven to 500. F (or 260 C).

2) Combine 10 oz. (2 cups) of all purpose flour, 1 Tbs. sugar, 1 Tbs. baking powder, 1 tsp. salt and 1/2 tsp. of baking soda in a large bowl.

flour_butter

I’ve combined the flour mixture and am about to cut the butter in.

3) Cut 4 Tbs. (2 oz.) butter into the flour. There are a lot of ways to do this, but the easiest is to use the small holes on a box grater, or a cheese grater. I simply dip the butter into the flour mixture (this makes it easier to hold and keeps the butter from melting) and then, directly over the flour mixture, I grate about 1/2 of a Tbs. of the butter and then stir it with a fork to prevent clumping. I then alternate grating and stirring until all of the butter has been combined.

4) Depending on how you want to serve the biscuits, grease a 12 cup muffin tin, or two loaf pans. If you want to serve the biscuits on the side, use a muffin tin, and if you want to make egg and cheese biscuit sandwiches, use the loaf pans.

5) When the oven is pre-heated, stir 12 oz. (1.5 cups) of buttermilk into the flour mixture until you no longer see any dry flour. Then divide the batter between the 12 cups in the muffin tin or the two loaf pans.

Instead of rolling out the dough, just scoop it into a greased muffin tin for individual biscuits.

Instead of rolling out the dough, just scoop it into a greased muffin tin for individual biscuits.

Or scoop the dough into a greased loaf pan to make  large biscuits that can be cut to size and are perfect for egg and cheese sandwiches.

Or scoop the dough into a greased loaf pan to make large biscuits that can be cut to size and are perfect for egg and cheese sandwiches.

 

6) Bake the “muffin” style biscuits for 15 minutes, or bake the “loaf” style biscuits for 20.

Once baked, the large "loaf" biscuits can be cut into thirds or fourths for the perfect egg sandwich.

Once baked, the large “loaf” biscuits can be cut into thirds or fourths for the perfect egg sandwich.

7) After baking let the biscuits cool on a wire-rack for 5 minutes before serving.

final_biscuitsTo summarize the ingredients (you can also download the recipe):

  • 2 cups (10 oz) all purpose flour
  • 1 Tbs. sugar
  • 1 Tbs. baking powder
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1/2 tsp. baking soda
  • 4 Tbs. (2 oz) butter
  • 1 1/2 cup (12 oz) buttermilk

 

July – Cabin Pressure

[soundcloud url=”https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/161091113″ params=”color=ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false” width=”100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]

A half of a mile north of where I live is a small airport. It’s been operated by the University of North Carolina since 1940, and when I was in third grade, I went on a field trip to visit it. However, even though it’s a relatively large feature in my small town, it’s never been something I’ve given much thought. It’s always just been there. Small planes fly in and small planes fly out.

The ukulele enjoys taking in the occasional sunset at the nearby Horace Williams Airport.

The ukulele enjoys taking in the occasional sunset at the nearby Horace Williams Airport.

A month ago I ran into one of my favorite musicians, an old drummer friend of mine. He moved here from Illinois a few years ago and I’ve always thought of him as the scholar of drums. When he plays, he cites a source for everything that he does. He’d say, “I’m working my snare like you hear it in the Beatles’ ‘Abby Road’, I’ve got my ride cymbal going like in Coltraine’s ‘Giant Steps’, and I’m tying both together with a Sly and Robbie groove.”  That sort of thing.

Watching the sunset at Horace Williams Airport, part 1.

Watching the sunset at Horace Williams Airport, part 1: “Going!”

Anyway, this friend told me that he’d been going to the airport in the evenings and watching the sunset. There was a bench, he said, and you could sit there and watch the sun drop behind the trees in the distance.

“What a fantastic idea!”, I thought, and a few weeks later I went up the hill and sat on that bench and did just what he said. The view is spectacular. I can’t think of anywhere else in town with such a large clearing that allows you to see so far off into the distance.

Watching the sunset at Horace Williams Airport, part 2.

Watching the sunset at Horace Williams Airport, part 2: “Going!”

The point of all this, is that for a long, long time, I’d taken this airport for granted. It was just there. Then someone who had not grown up with it opened my eyes and made it new.

This month’s song is just like that. It’s been floating around in my head for years and I never knew what to do with it. Like the airport, it was always just there. But then, at the start of the month, I was talking about music with another friend, and he offered some suggestions that suddenly made the song seem totally new to me. And just like the those sunsets inspired me to use my camera to capture the moment, this new twist on the old song inspired me to finally record it.

I hope you like this one. As always, if you enjoy it, please pass it on to your friends. They might like it too.  And, if you’d like to play it at home, here’s the chart.

Watching the sunset at Horace Williams Airport, part 3.

Watching the sunset at Horace Williams Airport, part 3: “Gone!”

A Delicious Vegetarian Pad Thai Fit For a Meat Eater

Vegetarian Pad Thai.  It's good, it's quick and it's easy.  And this is coming from a meat eater.

Vegetarian Pad Thai. It’s good, it’s quick and it’s easy. And this is coming from a meat eater.

If you know me, you know that I love to cook, and it was only a matter of time before I shared my recipes on this blog. Here’s my recipe for vegetarian Pad Thai that is fit for meat eaters. I am not a vegetarian. I love eating meat, fish and chicken, but I also love the challenge of cooking meatless dishes for my vegetarian friends and loved ones.

Here’s what you need to do:

1) Cut, season and bake the tofu: Preheat your oven to 400 degrees fahrenheit (about 200 degrees celsius).  While the oven warms up, cut 1 lb. (about 500 grams) of firm/extra firm tofu into 32 thin triangles. To do this, slice the whole block into 8 rectangular planks, and then and then cut each plank in half to make 2 squares per plank (for a total of 16 squares).  Finally, cut each square on the diagonal to make 2 triangular pieces.

To cut the tofu into 8 even slices, I first cut it in half, then I cut each half in two, and lastly, I divide each piece into two.

To cut the tofu into 8 even slices, I first cut it in half (two very thick pieces), then I cut each half in half (this gives me 4 slightly thick pieces), and lastly, I cut each of the 4 pieces in half (leaving me with 8 thin pieces).

Now, arrange the tofu triangles on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Drizzle with olive oil (or vegetable oil), and sprinkle 1/2 tsp. of salt and whatever spices (i.e my favorites include black pepper, curry powder, savory spice blends, paprika, chili powder, etc.) and herbs (oregano, etc.) you happen to have in your pantry on top. The idea is to compensate for tofu’s inherent lack of flavor. Once you’ve spiced up your tofu, put it in the oven for about 45 minutes. You want to dehydrate the tofu so that it becomes just a little firmer on the outside. You can check for doneness by poking it with your finger.  It should give, but just a little bit, and maybe be a bit tough in the corners.

This is approximately what you want your tofu to look like before you bake it.

This is approximately what your tofu should look like before you bake it.

This is approximately what you want your tofu to look like when it's done.

This is approximately what your tofu should look like when it’s done baking.

2) Prepare the rice noodles for the stir fry:  While the tofu is baking, soak 8 oz (250 grams) of dry rice noodles. Just put them in a large bowl and cover with warm water.  Let them sit while you do everything else.

3) Make the sauce: This is an odd one. Traditional pad thai calls for fish sauce, and, as far as I can tell, there’s nothing else that tastes quite like it.  However, it isn’t used alone, but is combined with other flavors, and the real goal isn’t to replicate fish sauce, but to replicate the final mixture, and that can be done quite simply. The idea is to create something that is tangy (acidic), sweet, spicy, salty and rich, all at the same time. To do that, combine the following ingredients in a small bowl or measuring cup:

  • The juice of two limes (about 1/4 of a cup)
  • 2 Tbs. demerara sugar (or light brown sugar)
  • 1 Tbs. sriracha sauce
  • 1 Tbs. soy sauce

Shockingly, that does the trick. The limes are tangy, the sugar is sweet and rich, the sriracha is spicy and rich and the soy sauce is salty and rich. It’s that simple. No special trips to the asian market required. If I could patent this part of the recipe, I would.

4) Prep the vegetables: Divide one large onion in half and then cut each half into thin slices.  Shred one large carrot.  Mince two cloves of garlic.  Mince about 1/2 a cup of cilantro (coriander) and about 1/2 cup of dry roasted peanuts.

5) Cook the eggs: Crack three eggs into a small bowl, sprinkle with salt, pepper and any additional herbs (again, oregano goes well here) and spices (again, chili powder or curry powder go well here). These additional seasonings are non-traditional, but it’s one way to compensate for the lack of meat and dried shrimp.  Whisk everything together with a fork and cook the eggs in a large non-stick pan (I use a cast iron skillet, but use whatever you have) in a single layer over medium heat.  If you’re skilled in the art of the spatula, try to flip the eggs.  Otherwise, wait till they are just about set all the way through.  In either case, when the eggs are almost done cooking, roll them up into a cigar-like shape.  Remove the eggs from the pan and slice them in the same direction that you rolled them up, forming thin (1/4 to 1/2 inch) spirals.  Set aside.

6) Make the stir fry: Start this step when the tofu is done baking. If you used a cast iron skillet to make the eggs, you might want to swap it out for a stainless steel pan at this point. If you used a non-stick pan, just keep using it. In either case, turn the heat up to medium-high. Add 1 Tbs of olive oil (or vegetable oil) to the pan and toss in the onions with a large pinch of salt. Stir to distribute and let cook for a minute or two. We’re just trying to take the edge off of the onions. After a minute, add the carrots and the garlic and another large pinch of salt. Stir to combine.

Drain the water from the noodles and put them on top of the onions, carrots and garlic mixture. Pour the sauce on top of the noodles and then put a lid on the pan. Steam the noodles until they have achieved the desired tenderness. This is really up to you and may take a little experimenting to get right. I usually steam the noodles for about 3 minutes. Once the noodles are soft, remove the lid and stir everything in the pan to combine.  Now add the eggs and tofu and stir again to combine.

Here, I've cooked the onions and just added the carrots and garlic.

Here, I’ve cooked the onions and just added the carrots and garlic.

added_noodles

I’ve added the noodles and sauce on top of the onions, carrots, garlic and baked tofu.

7) Plate and present: Divide the stir fry into 3 or 4 portions and top with cilantro and chopped peanuts.  Enjoy!

Vegetarian Pad Thai.  It's good, it's quick and it's easy.  And this is coming from a meat eater.

Again, vegetarian Pad Thai. It’s good, it’s quick and it’s easy. And this is coming from a meat eater.

To summarize the ingredients (you can also download the recipe):

  • 1 lb. firm/extra firm tofu, cut into 32 thin triangles
  • 8 oz. (250 grams) rice noodles, soaked in warm water
  • 1/4 cup of lime juice (or the juice from two limes)
  • 2 Tbs. demerara sugar (or brown sugar)
  • 1 Tbs. sriracha sauce
  • 3 Tbs. soy sauce.
  • 2 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1 large carrot, shredded
  • 1 large onion, cut in half and sliced thin
  • 1/2 cup minced cilantro (coriander)
  • 1/2 cup minced dry roasted peanuts
  • 3 eggs, cooked in single sheet, rolled up and finally cut into thin spirals.

June – You

[soundcloud url=”https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/156422290″ params=”color=ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false” width=”100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]

In early June I was on a plane headed to Denver to visit family. The pilot, trying his best to imitate Chuck Yeager’s relaxed and confident voice, said to expect significant turbulence. In the best of situations, my ability to read while moving is iffy, so I put away the crossword book and the neuroscience manuscript that a friend sent me. Skymall would have to wait.

co_pond

A pond in north western Colorado.

With four hours of flying time ahead and nothing to do, I closed my eyes and let my mind wander. I wasn’t trying to sleep, I was just letting my brain goof off – letting it go where it wanted and enjoying the ride. I thought about seeing the huge circular farms and fields from the plane as we approached Denver. I thought about the mountains and wondered if Mark Twain, on his way to San Francisco, went over them or around. And that’s when this month’s song appeared. The words, melody, and arrangement all came at once. As if it was a song I’d been singing since I was a kid.

The four hours went by quickly and when the plane landed, I remembered the song, but not the turbulence. I wrote the words on the back page of the neuroscience manuscript and left the airport for the hills. The tune was clearly going to be my “June song”, but, to be honest, this intimidated me. Until now, my songs have been dense arrangements with instrument after instrument stacked on one another. I love doing this. To me, it’s like painting a rich picture, one coat of paint at a time. This song, however, was different. I tried to imagine more textured arrangements, but the simple one that came to me at first was the only one that felt right.

When I returned home, I practiced singing the song a few times and then hit record and about an hour later, the whole thing was done.  I guess sometimes I get lucky.

When I retrurned home, I had the wonderful opportunity to play with Gaspard and Dancers at the American Dance Festival.

When I returned to North Carolina, I also had the wonderful opportunity to play with Gaspard and Dancers at the American Dance Festival.

Folks! It’s been a great month. For me, it was busy (I played shows with Gaspard and Dancers, Felix Obelix and Bombadil), but very rewarding. I hope yours was just as satisfying. If you liked the song, feel free to pass it on to your friend, or have them sign up for the mailing list. And if you’d like to learn the song, here’s the chart!

May – Right Here, Right Now

[soundcloud url=”https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/151931088″ params=”color=ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_artwork=true” width=”100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]

Ah, yes, it’s summer again. We had a long (crazy long), cold (super cold) winter that was determined to hang on for as long as it could, but now the windows are rolled down, the wind is messing up our hair and we’re loving it. Let’s all go to the beach!

lone_boat

Maybe we should all go to this isolated beach I found in Vietnam. That’s what I’m talking about!

Right now I’m imagining sitting in one of those beach chairs with the super short legs so that I’m just about an inch above the sand. I’ve got everything just right; a cold drink in one hand, a trashy book in the other, and the waves just making it up to my feet and keeping them cool. Maybe someone else is taking care of dinner. And maybe someone else is going to take care of the dishes. I haven’t turned a page in my book for two hours. I’m just looking out over the water as the shrimp boats pass by. I’ve got nothing to do and nowhere to go.  That’s what this month’s song is all about – enjoying the moment and making it last.

Even this guy, made entirely of bath towels, enjoys relaxing.

Even this guy, made entirely of bath towels, enjoys relaxing.

Last year, right around now, I released my first beach song, and this month’s is my second. I think we’ve established a tradition. I hope you have a great June. Enjoy the song! Learn how to play it or just sing along. And, as always, if you haven’t signed up for a monthly song update, get down to it!!

The Ukulele is on the way to the beach!

The Ukulele is on the way to the beach!  (Sporting a  classy speedo.)

April – Puzzle Pieces

[soundcloud url=”https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/147202486″ params=”color=ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_artwork=true” width=”100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]

Last month I was fortunate enough to visit the Galapagos Islands.  600 miles into the Pacific Ocean and largely uninhabited, they are a remote outpost of the garden of Eden; the animals do not fear humans. Although you are told to stay at least 6 feet away, their curiosity makes this impossible to abide by.

sea_lion

This little guy come over for a sniff.

It was a wonderful trip, spent with wonderful people.  However, one huge surprise wasn’t the islands themselves, but Guayaquil, a city in mainland Ecuador that serves as a gateway to the islands. With a day to spend wandering around, I took a tour with a local guide.  Before, all I saw a very poor city. It lacked the history and romance of Paris or Charleston, or the natural and cultural beauty of Rio. The buildings were a tan mishmash of low-end concrete architecture, and the one impressive structure was being torn down. Our guide, however, opened our eyes to its beauty, which, in some ways, was every bit as thrilling as the Galapagos.

When our guide picked us up at the hotel, you could tell that he was bursting with pride in his city. He was thrilled to show us what we had overlooked. The first thing he pointed out was how clean it was. There wasn’t any trash in the gutters, graffiti on the walls or even gum on the sidewalks.  Although so much poorer, Guayaquil is Singapore clean.  And in a city with relatively little money, that can come only from the people taking pride in where they live.

park

I met this little guy in a park in downtown Guayaquil.

From then on, the tour was a parade of hope and growth and improvement. Some features were subtle, like the citywide sidewalks that are covered to keep you dry and cool. You don’t realize how hot you could be until you step out from under them. Some features were more obvious, like the beautiful waterfront promenade. The final stop was a former slum that was becoming a lively commercial district that was owned and operated by the former tenants. Given an opportunity for something better, these people were taking it and doing the best they can.

On that tour I learned to not judge a city by its architecture, but by the people that live in it. And I also learned that the people of Guayaquil love a tasty turkey sandwich! Who knew? Every street corner had a little stand with two or three roast turkeys that they would carve fresh and pile into loaves of bread.

When in Ecuador, the ukulele can't resist the tasty turkey sandwiches.

When in Ecuador, the ukulele can’t resist the tasty turkey sandwiches.

I hope everyone had a great month. I certainly did. As always, here’s the chart for this months song.  And, as always, if you haven’t signed up for a monthly song update, here’s where you do it!

March – Dance Party

[soundcloud url=”https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/142434607″ params=”color=ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_artwork=true” width=”100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]

Every two years I attend a conference at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.   The lab is sort of like heaven for people like me (nerds).  It’s a place where scientists are the rock stars and half the people at the bar have won Nobel prizes.  It’s a place where you’re not judged by your looks and social graces, but by your research and your publications.  I love it.  It’s all science all the time.

Last month I was there to soak up some knowledge and present a new method for determining 3-D chromosome structures.  Cool stuff!  (If you’re interested, we used this method to look at genes that escape X chromosome inactivation.)

uku_and_dna_smile

It’s not every lobby that has a big DNA molecule AND a ukulele on display.

While I love this trip, it has one very awkward feature.  On the last night they transform the conference room into a discotheque.  Usually they get a really bad band and everyone lines the walls, looking down at their shoes, waiting for the whole thing to be over.  It’s a little bit like that nightmare we all have about being 13 years old all over again.  Except this time it’s for real.  I think they do this to remind us of the real world.

This month’s song is dedicated to that dance.  Science and music are both a lot like that conference and the dance party.  There are great times and then there are those uncomfortable moments.  However, on the bright side, these awkward moments always make great stories to tell (and songs to sing) back home!

joshs_fish

Here’s an example of “day-glo gene expressions” from an experiment I did years ago. The blue shows the nuclei inside of 10 cells, and the red and green dots show genes that are being transcribed.

If you’d like to try to play or sing along with this song at home (and I would strongly encourage you to do so), here’s the chart!

And if you’re not already getting email updates about my songs each month, join the fun!

My album, Postcards From Home is out!!!  Get your copy on iTunes, or order a limited edition CD!

Interview on WUNC

Today Eric Hodge interviewed me for WUNC‘s Morning Edition.  You can read about it and listen to the full interview.  It’s a nice synopsis of my “Song-of-the-Month” project, with some fun behind the scenes details that haven’t made into my monthly posts, and they did a great job splicing in various tracks from the album.

The ukulele knows he can't live without his radio!

The ukulele knows he can’t live without his radio!

February – The Chariot

[soundcloud url=”https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/137288476″ params=”color=ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_artwork=true” width=”100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]

Early in the month I had a conversation with a classical pianist about performance anxieties.  Getting on stage, especially in the world of classical music, can be very stressful.  Your audience comes with all kinds of expectations about what they will hear – comparing you to the collections of cherished recordings they have at home.  With their opinions formed years ago, will they be open to your interpretation?

The conversation reminded me of a line from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock“, a poem by T. S. Eliot.  In it, Prufrock asks, in the midst of his angst and insecurities, “Do I dare disturb the universe?”

uku_with_tea_smile

Who said the ukulele was uncultured? The ukulele enjoys a spot of tea with a side of poetry.

I love that line.  To me it conveys a sense that the littlest thing can cause ripples that change the very core of existence.  In the context of the poem, Prufrock is freaking out. He thinks he will ruin everything and make a fool of himself, but the optimist in me sees another side to it. If we can make things worse, then we can also make things better.  To me, it says that the smallest amount of beauty that we bring into this world can change things for the better.  In that way, all of us can, and should, dare to disturb the universe. (“Oh, dear,” says Mr. Eliot, as he rolls over in his grave, “I never intended this poem to be used in a pep rally.”)

The ukulele doesn't mind the occasional chariot ride

The ukulele doesn’t mind the occasional chariot ride

From time to time, people ask me what my song titles mean, and this one, The Chariot, is a little cryptic.  It comes from the last line in the main chorus, “Coming for to carry me home”.  That line was borrowed from an old spiritual called, “Swing low, sweet chariot“, which described a chariot delivering the singer from hardship to heaven.

For those who want to try this song at home, here’s the chart!

And if you’re not already getting email updates about my songs each month, join the fun!

Postcards From Home update!  Tune into WUNC this coming Friday, March 7th. I’ll be on Morning Edition  with Eric Hodge.  The album’s official release is Tuesday, March 11th, however, right now you can pre-order it on iTunes, or order a limited edition CD (there are still a few left, but they’ll go quickly in the next few weeks).

January – Up In The Air

[soundcloud url=”https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/132443678″ params=”color=ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_artwork=true” width=”100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]

At the end of last month I visited my parents in Cambodia for their 50th wedding anniversary.  I had a wonderful time and the overnight flights were fine, except for one small thing.  Someone near me must have had a pretty bad cold…

uku_with_tissues

Even the ukulele get a cold from time to time.

Nobody likes getting sick, but it happens.  This was a hassle, but it wasn’t a big deal.  I got a stuffy nose, a sore throat and my voice dropped an octave.  And once the sickness went away, I was left with a bunch of lingering symptoms – in particular, a deeper voice.

I had a song to work on, and I was making good progress.  I’d done everything but record the vocals and I was waiting for my voice to return.  So I waited, and I waited.  And then I waited some more, thinking I should rename my song, “Lingering Sinus Congestion”, but I was also getting worried.  How was I going to sing if my voice was twice as low?

Like everything in life you can’t change or control, sometimes you just have to go with it.  If you can’t beat’em, join’em. So, instead of waiting till April for my voice to return, I embraced its lowness and re-wrote the tune to take advantage of these unchartered notes.  It felt funny at first, but it didn’t take long before I was having a lot of fun with these notes.  And who knows?  I might just use them again now that I know I have them.

johnny_cash3

Before he got famous, the ukulele used to hang out with other bass singers.

p.s.  Here’s the chart.

Album update!!!  Last month I told you that I was putting my 2013 songs in an album.  Well, I’ve done that.  I tweaked the mixes (if you liked “You Can Do It” before, you’re going to love it now) and had them all mastered.  And, just for fun, tossed in one more tune, just for good measure.  I’ll have this baker’s dozen on CDs and iTunes, and pre-sales start February, 11th.  And don’t worry I’ll send you an email reminder!  The official release is March, 11th – this gives the distributer just enough time to ramp up some publicity and fan-fare.  Here’s a sneak-peak at the front of the album:

Here's what the front looks like (photograph by KC Jung Photography)

photograph by KC Jung Photography

… and here’s the back:

... and here's what the backside looks like!

WOCS interview

My friend William Dawson is the music teacher at a local elementary school, and back in the fall he started teaching how to put on a radio program.  It’s incredibly fun and every week a different grade (from kindergarten to fifth grade) prepares and records a new variety radio show.  They have jokes, news, weather, and an interview.  Yesterday, they interviewed me and wanted to know all about being a scientist and a rock star.

photo 2

Interview questions included:

  • “Which do you like better, being a scientist or being a rock star?”  (I like them both.)
  • “What is my favorite science experiment?” (Any time we make something glow in the dark with lasers.)
  • “When do I sleep?” (I gave that up long ago)
  • “Is it hard to be a rock star and a scientist?” (With great power, comes great responsibility.)

[soundcloud url=”https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/129896135″ params=”color=ff6600&auto_play=false&show_artwork=true” width=”100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]

December – Going Back to Cali

[soundcloud url=”https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/125175304?secret_token=s-naKy2″ params=”color=ff6600&auto_play=false&show_artwork=true” width=”100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]

Holy smokes!  We made it to the end of the year!  12 months and 12 songs.  Who knew we’d get this far?

uku_with_hat

OK, maybe the ukulele knew all along…

This month’s song is a musical victory lap.  I wanted to have some fun, relax and pump up the volume.  I wanted a song to celebrate the end of my resolution and a song for New Year’s eve parties.  So I decided to cover my very guilty pleasure – “Going Back to Cali” by L. L. Cool J.  I know it sounds crazy, but I’ve dug L. L. ever since his first big hit.  I mean, the guy can rap, act, and even knows morse code.

I started December thinking this was going to be easy.  The song was already written, I just had to do it in my own style.  I could swap the turn-table scratching with my cuíca, the bass drum with my stomps and the lead trumpet part with my mandolin.  Easy-peasy, or so I thought.  Eight hours into recording, however, I started to think differently, and that’s when the fun began.

One of the cool things about my new year’s resolution is how much I’ve learned about music and recording.  At every step of the way I’ve learned a new trick or two, and that’s kept this project from being anything but dull. “Going back to cali” forced me out of my comfort zone and made me think about how to make a killer song without catchy melodies and lush string arrangements. With very limited recording time left, I had to learn a new trick to make this song work.

So what did I do?  I took a walk.  I got away from the microphone and let the fresh air clear my head.  I needed to stop thinking in terms of what I was going to do to the song, and instead start listening for what the song needed.  The difference between those two approaches is subtle, but very important, and it applies to more than song writing.  It’s how you treat your friends, and how you want them to treat you.  It’s how you make those big conceptual breakthroughs at work, or in your personal life.  It happens when, instead of dictating, you listen.  And when you listen closely enough, you’ll hear the solution to whatever the problem may be.

Once I started listening to what the song needed, the next steps were clear.  I ran home and grabbed a reco-reco, two types of shoes, my trusty Morton salt, some dried beans and a pillow.  (Yes, part of the song features a pillow that I stole from the couch.)  Everything fell into place and, finally, the song was my own.

uku_hat_pillow

Folks, it’s been a wonderful year.  We’ve got 12 new songs, and after I put a final coat of polish on them, I’ll have an album coming out soon.  Stay tuned!  Let’s do it again in 2014, OK?

UPDATE!  Joe Gore, former senior editor for Guitar Player magazine, who’s played and recorded with Tom Waits, PJ Harvey, Tracy Chapman and many more, dubbed my achievement “The Starmer Challenge” in this blog post.

p.s.  If you’re not already on my mailing list, sign up!  You’ll be the first to be updated about each song as it comes out.

[contact-form][contact-field label=’Name’ type=’name’ required=’1’/][contact-field label=’Email’ type=’email’ required=’1’/][/contact-form]

November – The Choicest Gift

[soundcloud url=”https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/122603428″ width=”100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]

When I was a kid, every month I received an issue of “World” magazine.  One year, the December edition showed a boy and a girl completely inundated with gifts.  They must have opened up just about everything in the whole world on Christmas morning (or Chanukah night), including a new robot, which I really, really wanted.

uku_gift

The magazine was an inspiration.  It set the bar for the ideal holiday.  I stared at it for days, imaging that I was the one unwrapping all of those gifts.  It would take hours and hours.  I’d start with the small boxes first and work my way up to the robot.

After I’d drooled myself dry, I brought the magazine to my mother’s attention. “I wish I could have all these presents”,  I told her.  I don’t know why.  In my heart I knew that the presents were excessive, but I still wanted all that stuff.  I felt greedy just thinking about them, so I assumed my mother would say something like, “those kids are spoiled rotten.”    Instead, she completely surprised me.  She looked at that mountain of gifts and said, “If I could, I’d get them all for you.”

Those simple words filled me with love in ways that to this day I have trouble finding the words for.  No joke.  I’ve been working on this paragraph for hours.  I write and rewrite and I still can’t get at the emotion.  Fundamentally, the words my mother spoke were enlightening.  They triggered a realization that, though love could be expressed with presents, the presents themselves were not love.  Until then, I had been confusing those two things. The kids in the magazine might have more gifts than me, but they didn’t have more love.  I had all the love I needed, right then and there.  I didn’t have to wait for it to come on a certain day.  I didn’t need to unwrap it.  It was just there, always.

uku_heart

For years now I’ve been recording holiday songs.  Until now, they have been arrangements of traditional Christmas carols;  my interpretation of songs you already knew well.  This year is different.  Today I’m offering a new holiday song – my tribute to the amazing realization I made all those years ago.  

organ_1

This month’s song features my grandmother’s harmonium.  It’s an old, creaky pump organ (you can hear it cracking and popping during both solos) that she gave me long ago.  When I visited her as a kid, I’d always run to this instrument as soon as I could and play it.  I loved its sound and the way it seemed to “breathe” with each foot-pump.  Even the creaks and pops had an endearing character.

organ_2

Happy holidays everyone.  I hope they are great, restful and full of love.

p.s.  If you’re not already on my mailing list, sign up!  You’ll be the first to be updated about each song as it comes out.

[contact-form][contact-field label=’Name’ type=’name’ required=’1’/][contact-field label=’Email’ type=’email’ required=’1’/][/contact-form]

p.p.s. Here’s the chart!

October – The Whistle

[soundcloud url=”https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/118011888″ width=”100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]

Folks, we’ve made it to October! The 10th month of the year, and my 10th Song of the Month song. I never thought we would get this far, but with all of your support, we have.  It’s been a great journey, and I’m already making plans for next year.  However, before we pull out the champagne, I’m going to put these songs together and have an album ready by mid December…or really early January.  You’ll hear more about it soon.

october_song

Notice the circled “V2” for “Version 2”. Version 1 was… well, let’s just be glad there’s a version 2.

Have we waited long enough?

Here’s the deal.  The album will be called “Postcards from Home, Volume 1”.  It comes from an unexpected, yet amazing, result of this project.  I didn’t start out thinking that writing songs would be a great way to connect with friends and family, but that’s what happened.  Each month I sent out a new tune with a little note scratched on the back saying what I’ve been up to.  Then you wrote back.  You told me what was going on in your life, what you had done, and what you had hoped to do.  Some of you have even threatened to start your own monthly project, and I can’t wait to see that happen.

That’s the story of the title.  As much as I’ve enjoyed song writing, singing and arranging music, the part I love the most is keeping in touch.

uku_at_mailbox

The ukulele sometimes sends postcards to the banjo.

p.s. The beautiful backing vocal was provided by Andrea Connelly, of Birds and Arrows. I take voice lessons from her and without those and her encouragement, my songs would be instrumentals!  Expect to hear more of these collaborations in the upcoming year.

p.p.s. Here’s the chart!

p.p.p.s.  If you don’t already get an email from me each month about these songs, but you’d like one, feel free to sign up.  I promise not to abuse your email, or sell it or anything like that.  And you don’t have to write back if you don’t want to.  Enjoying the music is enough.

[contact-form][contact-field label=’Name’ type=’name’ required=’1’/][contact-field label=’Email’ type=’email’ required=’1’/][/contact-form]

Gaspard & Dancers – Performance

Last weekend I had the pleasure of performing with Gaspard & Dancers.  The reviews are in, and they are good.

dancersI had been rehearsing with this incredibly talented group for almost a year, and it was wonderful to see all the parts come together in a performance.

The dance and the music were based on group improvisations from the first rehearsals.  Over time, bits and pieces were selected and refined, but the music remained highly improvisational, with only the structure of the piece set in stone.  I knew when to create certain textures and moods, but specific notes were not determined until the moment they were played.

single_dancerAs a result, the dancers, Amanda, Dominique, Bill, Dana, Alain, Emily, Kristen, Leah and Shaun-Avery, and I, were able to create a fundamental and flexible link between the sounds and motions.  The music did not control them – but responded to them – and likewise, they responded to the music.  In my own mind, I like to think that the music joined the dance and was a partner in it.

This shared “energy”, for lack of a better word, is a magical thing that can only be found in a live performance.  Spontaneous actions leading to reactions and then back again can’t be recorded and played back later.  It exists solely in the moment.

That isn’t to say that musical magic can’t be recorded – it can, but it is different.  My music, of course, is meant to be recorded and listened to, but it is also meant to be performed.  And this is something I’ve kept in the back of my mind this year as I’ve recorded an album of songs.  As the new year approaches, I’ve started to dream of bringing these recordings to life.

September – Just Me and You

[soundcloud url=”http://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/113059439″ params=”” width=” 100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]

Not long ago I was in some really slow traffic.  As far as I could see, cars were crawling down the highway – stop and go, stop and go.  All I wanted was to be at home playing the cello, but instead I was staring at the bumper in front of me.

When you’re stuck in traffic, there aren’t many options for passing the time.  You can’t do anything engaging, and you can’t relax.  Either way, you loose track of the car in front and the grumpy guy behind honks.  The only thing you can do is fiddle with the radio.  So I fiddled, hoping to find a fun pop song to pass the time quickly.  Maybe the oldies station had a little something by The Police.  I tried, twice, but all I found were ads.  The situation seemed desperate, but was it?

The ukulele should be wearing a seatbelt at all times.  Especially if it makes it look like a pirate!

A ukulele should be wearing a seatbelt at all times. Especially if it makes it look like a pirate!

When the going gets rough and you can’t find a fun song on the radio, you’ve just got to sing your own.  The idea was simple, but I didn’t know what to sing about.  I just tapped my finger on the steering wheel and waited for something to happen.

Tap, tap, tap, tap.

One, two, three four.

Tap, tap, tap, tap.

One, two, three and four.

Tap, tap, tap, tap.

“One, two, three and four, I want to see you some more…”

Whoa!  I was singing a fun song!  I didn’t know what came next, so I repeated that line until another one came into my head.  I just kept tapping and counting and singing, and before long I had a full verse.  By the time traffic picked up I had my second verse, and the choruses filled in moments later.  I went from being bummed about driving slow, to having a brand new song to sing.

Hmm… maybe getting stuck in traffic isn’t always a bad thing?

I hope you all enjoy this fun little number.  If you’d like to play and sing it too, here’s the chart.  Just don’t play the ukulele while you’re driving.

Also, if don’t already get a personal email from me each month about these songs, but you’d like one, feel free to sign up.  I promise not to abuse your email, or sell it or anything like that.

[contact-form][contact-field label=’Name’ type=’name’ required=’1’/][contact-field label=’Email’ type=’email’ required=’1’/][/contact-form]

August – The Dream

[soundcloud url=”http://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/108477933″ params=”” width=” 100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]

This month’s song was supposed to be a real rocker.  One night in July, when I was visiting family in Rio de Janeiro, a riot broke out on the streets surrounding the hotel.  From the balcony, I was blinded by search lights from three helicopters overhead and the red-orange glow from burning piles of garbage.  My ears were filled with the deep booms from tear-gas cannons, the clatter from what sounded like a lost samba school, and, of course, deafening “CHOP! CHOP! CHOP!” from the three helicopters.  The smoke from the fires worried me.  I wondered if the hotel was going to catch on fire and if we would have to evacuate into the streets.  I imagined navigating the riot in my pajamas and, with my limited portuguese, only being able to ask where the bathroom was.

I wanted to pack all of that energy and all of that emotion into a song, so I recorded layer after layer of frenzied cello notes.  Then I added a part that sounded like the riot police marching to the hotel.  All the while, everything got louder and louder and more chaotic.

rio_from_sugar_loaf

A calming picture of Rio that I took from Pão de Açúcar (Sugar Loaf).  Beaches on the left, business on the right.

Well, now I’m getting ahead of myself.  Let’s back up a little bit.  The riot was  inspiring, but it was only a part of what brought this song into existence.  The other part was meeting my wife’s two cousins.  These men were doing extraordinary things in a city that was literally screaming for change.

One of them co-founded Papaya Ventures, a company dedicated to nurturing new types of industry.  Rio, like many cities, is experiencing major economic changes.  Old jobs are vanishing, leaving a vacuum for something new to keep the city alive.  The start-up companies that Papaya Ventures develops are part of the revitalization.  They bring new ideas, new technologies and new jobs.

The other co-founded Escudero, a fashion company whose name comes from from the portuguese word for “squire” – the person who prepared knights for battle.  However, instead of making armor, they make beautiful, yet practical clothes.  The modern day knights are the people that fight to keep Rio alive and vibrant.  The battle isn’t in a field, but in office buildings and places of work.

complicated_duct_work

I wasn’t sure what to make of this duct work, so I took a picture of it. I meditate on it daily.

The inspiration for this song came from two sources: the riot and the entrepreneurs.  One source required loud, frenzied cello playing, and the other requested a softer sound.  It’s a song about people demanding change, and about people, through hard work and dedication, making change possible.  It starts out in the chaos of a riot, but ends up being about working to build something new.  And building something new, trying to make the world a better place, is what we can all work towards.

glass_xylophone

This month’s song features, among other things, small drinking glasses that I tuned with different amounts of water. I played this “glass xylophone” with a wooden spoon.  Who knew Ikea sold musical instruments?

And last but not least, here’s the chart.

 

July – Time to Go

[soundcloud url=”http://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/103345466″ params=”” width=” 100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]

Moving your home is hard to do.  A few months back I moved and it wore me out, both physically and emotionally.  It was back breaking work and I had to come to grips with one phase of my life coming to an end.  Putting my belongings into boxes was like watching a nostalgic slideshow as I found pictures of friends and old things that I loved.  Another phase in my life was just about to start, but it was filled with unknowns, and those scared me a little.

Now that I’ve spent a few months in my new home, which is a full 2 miles from where I was before ;), I can tell you that all the trouble was worth it.  The point being that even a little, tiny move can be hard.

nc_map

Although I didn’t get very far, it was a lot of work!

Early in July a friend told me he would soon be moving to another country.  He’s going because he thinks it will be better for his family.  It’s a big, scary thing for him to do, but he’s willing to brave the unknowns for a better life.  Another friend moved to a new job in a new city, and similarly, did it with hope of something better.

Taking chances to improve our lives is what this month’s song is all about.  The theme is similar to last month’s song.  However, last month’s song was about taking small risks, little gambles that might pay off or might result in feeling embarrassed or silly.  This month’s song is about is about putting all your chips on the table and keeping your fingers crossed.  You don’t even want to consider what’s the worst that could happen.  However, we take chances like these because it’s the only way to get the most out of life.

This song is my salute and encouragement to anyone who’s taking a big risk with the hope that their life will benefit from it.  It’s a hard and scary thing to do.  It’s also a little sad, bringing one phase of your life to a close.  But there’s a new one just about to start, and it can be even better…  Especially if you start it with an awesome going away party!

disco_uku

Nothing says, “Let’s Party!!!”, like a ukulele with a goofy grin.

Oh!  I almost forgot… Here’s the chart.

June – Way Too Soon

[soundcloud url=”http://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/99001963″ params=”” width=” 100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]

Ever show up to a party before everyone else?  That’s me, every time.  In fact, the Oxford English Dictionary defines “fashionably late” as “30 minutes after Josh shows up.”  Anyway, in a literal sense, this month’s song is about those awkward moments before the party starts.  When you’re a little nervous and you don’t know what to do.

uku_alone

Where’s everybody else?

In a not so literal sense, this month’s song is about something much, much bigger.  It’s about following your heart, and that can get you into all kinds of awkward and uncomfortable situations.  Following your heart gets you out of your safety zone and into a place where anything can happen, including really, really embarrassing things.

Fear of Embarrassment tries as hard as it can to hold us back from doing what we love.   It tries to scare us with horror stories and nightmares, regardless of how unlikely they are.  It moans and rattles and makes us nervous, but we must give Fear of Embarrassment a roundhouse kick to the face and do what we’ve got to do.

So go for it!  Say something to that cute girl at the party.  If you love singing, stand up in front of a crowd and sing a song.  If you love cooking, try that new recipe.  Or just try something completely new.  That’s the only way we can find and fulfill our passions.  When we do what we love, we almost always do the right thing.

Hooray!  The gang's all here!

Hooray! The gang’s all here!

Folks, we’ve made it halfway through my New Year’s resolution.  Can you believe it?  I can’t.  I thought it was doomed halfway through January.  And April was pretty rough, too.  But whenever I had my doubts, you, my friends and family, got me through them.  You listened to my songs, left encouraging comments and supported me all the way.  Thanks to you, I’ve stuck with my resolution and I couldn’t be more proud of the results.  Pat yourself on the back for helping me get so far.  I owe you one, big time.

reindeer

This little guy is one of the many unsung heros of this whole operation. Thanks little guy for helping out!

NEW NEW NEW!!!!  Now, in addition to downloading the mp3, you can also download the chart (“chart” is cool cat music lingo for “simplified sheet music”).  You read that right!  You can hear the song while you’re jogging AND you can play it yourself! (But only if you bring your guitar/ukulele/mandolin/cello/lute/kweeca along for the run.)  So go ahead, download the chart and learn how to play it.  There are also charts for April and May.

May – I’d Rather Be With You

[soundcloud url=”http://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/94884525″ params=”” width=” 100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]

Ah, it’s summer time.  It’s time for swimsuits, beach chairs and sitting in the sand with your feet just touching the cool water.  Who cares if the ocasional wave soaks your copy of People magazine?  This is what you’ve been waiting for all year long.  Everything is so close to being perfect; there’s just one little thing missing.

Perfect summer days need the perfect summer song.  A tune you can whistle while you pack the towels and sun-screen.  Something you can hum while you fill the tank with gas.  You know the type: catchy, upbeat, and fun.  And everyone, even the cranky dude stuck behind you in traffic, knows it.

Well, here’s that song.  Just in time to make everything grand.  Listen to it a few times (once should be enough to get the melody, but you can download it and listen as much as you please) and then send the link to your pals [hint hint], so they can listen and pass the link to their pals.  Soon enough, even the cranky dude in traffic will the get the link and start whistling along.

equation

The thing about perfect summer days, though, is that it’s not about the beach, or the sunshine, or the cool water at your feet.  It’s about the people that you’re with.  It’s about spending time with the people you love.  When you do that, just about any day can be perfect.  Even rainy days with sustained winds of over 158 miles per hour.  And that’s what this song is all about.  I hope you enjoy listening to it as much as I enjoyed writing and recording it.  Have a great June!

p.s. My ukulele finally got a little counter melody to play!

uku_in_window

p.p.s. June first marks the start of the Atlantic hurricane season!  So get your maps out and start tracking the storms!

p.p.p.s.  If you want to play this at home, here’s the chart!

April – You Can Do It

[soundcloud url=”http://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/90220847″ params=”” width=” 100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]

What do you do when you show up to work and The Boss says, “OK, it rained a lot in March.  I get it.  You wrote a song about rain.  Next month I want a song that’s upbeat!”

I’ll tell you what you do.  You freak out.  You start by tapping your finger on your desk.  The tempo is fast.  It has to be.  Then your toe joins in.  You keep the tempo quick till it’s lodged in your body.  With the rhythm set, you hum bass lines on the way to the break room (where you make your green tea extra strong).  When you’re alone in the elevator, you add melody to the rhythm that is pulsing in your head like a jackhammer.  When you leave work, you’re singing at the top of your lungs.  You’ve got a headache throbbing in sync with your song.  If you don’t record it NOW, you’re going to explode.  You power up the computer, the microphone and the metronome.  The rest is history.

april

Despite my writing and subsequent scratching my writing out, most of the lyrics were ad-libbed when I recorded.

At least, that’s what you do when you’re in a movie.  The whole thing, from The Boss walking into the office to the song sweeping the nation, takes about 4 to 5 minutes.

But that’s not what happened.  Instead, my quickly tapping finger got tired.  It slowed down and I thought about that sad melody I whistled for the abandoned March song.  Why not just finish that tune?  It was cool, it had a xylophone made of orange juice glasses, and it was so close to being done.  But it was so far from being what The Boss demanded.

After two weeks, I didn’t have a peppy song written, not to mention recorded.  This was troubling.  Free time in April was scarce because I moved to a new house.  Any downtime was spent packing, unpacking, making trips to the hardware store or staring at the wall, completely exhausted by it all.  My to-do list had no end in sight.

Fearing that I wouldn’t record a song for April, I told myself, “you can do it”.  And I said it over and over.  You can do it.  You can do it.  You can do it!  Before long, those words formed a melody.  It was slow, and not particularly upbeat, but it was catchy.  Would it still work if I jacked the tempo and made it faster?  It would.  It actually sounded better that way.  I had my chorus figured out.  I could do it!

Once I realized April wasn’t going to be a bust, all kinds of upbeat songs blossomed in my head.  It wasn’t a matter of trying to come up with something to work with, but a matter of picking the right pieces to put together.

“You can do it” is the finished puzzle.  Surprisingly, my cello stepped up to the plate and kept it peppy.  In fact, it totally hogged the plate.  Not only was my ukulele shunned for yet another month, but so was the mandolin.  This was all cello, all the time.  Plus stomps, hand-claps, my voice and morton (my trusty box of salt).  This might be the first cello “pep” song every written.

Desperate to shed it's "total downer" image, my cello insisted on playing all of the parts in this pep song.

Desperate to shed it’s “total downer” image, my cello insisted on playing all of the parts in this pep song.

You can try this song at home!  Here’s the chart!

Donkeys, The Explorer’s Club, Gaspard Dance Company and Big Star

It was a busy, but very fun and rewarding weekend.  It started off with a trip to my friend Linda’s farm for a dozen eggs.  Her chickens lay more than she can eat, and that means I get the overflow from time to time.  In addition to chickens, Linda also has goats and two donkeys and an amazing indoor volleyball court.  Who has their own indoor volleyball court?  Linda.  She’s also one of the best volleyball players in the entire state and she coaches a lot of local teams.  She also plays a mean viola.  Here’s one of the donkeys.

donkey

From there I went to the Fidelitorium, Mitch Easter‘s studio in Kernersville, North Carolina, to record cello tracks for the Explorer’s Club.  They are working on a cool, but also sad, project.

fidelitorium

The Explorer’s Club have been a band for the past 10 years and, after all this time, are parting and going their separate ways.  This is there last album.  It’s a collection of cover songs that they’ve played live and were chosen for the album by their fans; it’s their farewell gift to them.

fidelitorium2

On Sunday, I had another rehearsal with Gaspard and Dancers.  The piece we are working on is coming along very nicely.

dance_rehearsal

And that was followed immediately with a performance with Chris Stamey and The Fellow Travelers at the Full Frame Film Festival.  We played songs from Big Star’s 3rd album to commemorate a documentary about that classic southern band.

big_star

March’s song – The Rain In Midwinter

[soundcloud url=”http://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/85760158″ params=”” width=” 100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]

I don’t think my ukulele is talking to me any more.  After February’s supposed-to-be-a-ukulele-song-but-ended-up-being-anything-else tune, I promised the instrument it would shine in March.  Things didn’t work as planned.

uku_frown

Determined to to write a ukulele song, I brought the instrument with me on the last Birds and Arrows tour and, much to Pete and Andrea’s chagrin, played it every minute we were on the road.  By the end of the trip, the entire song was worked out – I had chords, melodies and harmonies.  Recording it was a snap.  I even got far enough to add auxiliary percussion.  With a drum stick, a wooden spoon and a butter knife, I tapped and rattled just about everything I could find in my kitchen.  I discovered that I could play a a set of small glasses with the wooden spoon like a xylophone.  And the butter knife sounded particularly cool when I banged it against the countertop.  I had made an enormous amount of progress on this song; it was almost done.  But then another melody came into my head.

I wanted to ignore the new song.  I was very, very busy and I didn’t have time to work on something new.  The first song was almost done, and only a few weekday evenings remained to get everything done.  But I couldn’t shake the new tune.  It was stuck in my head and wasn’t going anywhere until recorded.

The new song was intriguing.  While the chords and melodies were fixed in my mind, every other aspect of the song changed when I thought about it.  Sometimes it would be slow and soft, with a breathy, brushed snare drum in the background.  Other times it was a loud, stadium sized anthem, with pounding bass drum beats.  I wanted to record this tune to resolve these issues.  The song needed to be defined, given a shape and form, or else it was going to haunt me forever (or at least until April).

As you can guess from the lyrics, it’s been a rainy winter in North Carolina.  And when it rains, it pours.  In this case, it also shakes.  After auditioning table and kosher salts, the plain old variety made the cut.

salts

An aside – Back in the 80’s, you could call 1-800-SALT-TIP for advice on using Morton’s salt. Did anyone other than me call this number?

This month’s song features stomps and claps, just like February’s song.  This physical percussion is here to stay (unless I can master the kweeca, and then all bets are off);  it’s cheap (no drum kit required) and easy (again, no drum kit required).  But it also means I should ask my friend Amanda to choreograph melancholy line-dances to go along with these tunes.  Who says country music get’s to have all the fun?  I think a mellow, slightly-gloomy-but-very-pretty, acoustic line-dance craze needs to sweep the nation.

I hope you enjoy this month’s offering.  If my ukulele gets its way, things will be very different in April!

Gray Young album release

photoAfter an ice storm, Gray Young have finally released their latest album, Bonfire.  I play on three of the tracks and I also played with them at Kings on Friday.  I’m not sure, but I’m pretty certain they sold out the venue.  The show was awesome.

chas_and_dan2

dopko

powerballs

Album Release Show with Birds and Arrows

banda

After working on our album, Coyotes, for two years, Birds and Arrows had its release show last Friday night at Chapel Hill’s Local 506.  The crowd’s response was fantastic and we had a great time.   I could describe, in painstaking detail, all of the incredible things that happened, but for my own benefit and memory, I’m going to write a timeline of how the album was created.

2 years ago – Andrea and Pete started writing songs.  Some of these we tinkered on as a group.  We played a very early version of “Out in the garden” in a Baltimore parking deck one afternoon.  However, most songs were written by them as a duo.

1.5 years ago – Andrea and Pete gave me “drafts” of the songs to arrange.  I put “drafts” in quotes because a lot of these takes ended up being the final versions.  The original plan was to try a lot of different and crazy ideas, and not hold anything back.  We weren’t going to worry too much about the details early on, assuming that as we worked on the music, some songs would stand out and others would fall to the wayside.  Well, of all the songs we started out with, only one didn’t make the cut.  The rest stood up to any test we gave them.

b_a_with_june

1 year ago – I finished my arrangements, having added many, many layers of the usual cello and mandolin, but also many layers of the unusual dilruba and tambora.

10 months ago – After the final overdubs from guest bass players and friends came in, Chris Stamey began mixing the tracks.  Throughout this period we courted record labels with rough mixes of the songs.  Ultimately, we caught they eye of Yep Roc records and, while they did not sign us outright, they offered to handle distribution and licensing.

6 months ago – Chris finished mixing and we mastered the songs at Track and Field.

katie

If you contributed to the kickstarter campaign, then you know that we planned on having the album out 6 months ago.  That was when all the work was done, and it made sense to release it as soon as possible.  At least, it made sense until the publicity folks explained the situation to us.  First of all, they need months to line up the interviews and commentary and do all the million other things that they do to get the word out.  Second, releasing an album at the end of a year is just a bad idea.  Regardless of whether you release on December 31st, as soon as January 1st rolls around, your album is suddenly last year’s album.  And to critics, that’s not half as interesting as this year’s album.

So we decided to wait until last Friday to release it.  This decision, however, was very fortunate.  Some of you may recall that Andrea broke her wrist last fall.  If we’d released the album as planned, we would have had to cancel all of the the promotional shows that followed.  What a disaster that would have been.  By a stroke of luck, we planned this show late enough in the year to give her arm a chance to heal, and give us time to practice and make the show as good as we could.

Thanks to everyone who helped with the kickstarter and anyone else who has bought the album, or seen one of our shows.  We can’t do any of this without you, and we sincerely appreciate your support.

Waltzes with Ted and Dean

Tonight I got a very special and unexpected treat.

Ted on piano.

Ted on piano.

A few weeks ago my friend Ted, from the Pittsboro Bach Society, called and asked if I’d play waltzes with him at the Chapel Hill senior center.  I said yes, not really knowing what I was getting into, thinking that it would simply be a chance to practice reading music.  These days I play mostly by ear, and those dots and lines can get confusing if you don’t work with them every so often.

Dean on clarinet.

Dean on clarinet.

When the day and time came, I got lost and had to ask for directions before showing up late arrived on time.  And for the next hour and a half, I had a blast.  Ted played piano, and Dean played clarinet.  And about 20 people danced waltzes to our music.  I’m still smiling.

Recording for The Love Language

I really need to remember to take pictures sometimes. Recording cello parts for the upcoming Love Language album would was one of those times.  We started in Stu’s bedroom, with a broken microphone stand and a lit stick of incense. (Was Stu trying to seduce me?  He had me with the broken mic stand.)  I carefully positioned the microphone and tuned up.  And then a Mexican polka party commenced in the apartment below.  Pulsing tuba and drums filled the air and forced us to evacuate the room.  I ended up in the hallway outside the bathroom, bumping my left elbow into the wall and narrowly missing a doorframe with my bow . All of this would have made great pictures.  But guess what?  It also made for great music.  So, while you won’t get to see what happened, come this summer, you’ll get to hear it.  And I think you’ll like what you hear.

I did get one picture, though.  It’s a little lame.  Below is a picture of the chord chart that I played from.

chart

Birds and Arrows – Baltimore MD

20130311-080338.jpg

Our last show for this short tour was in Baltimore. Andrea has a lot of family in this area and my pal Eric and the wonderful Murdoch Drive crew are up here, too. This time we played at the metro gallery (pictured above and below).

20130311-080951.jpg

Random Baltimore trivia: while the utz brand of snacks (represented by the girl in the billboard) are embraced by this town as their own, they originated in Hanover, PA. However, Baltimore was the first large market for utz, back in 1921.

We got into town a little early and grabbed some food at Nino’s pizza. Unfortunately, neither of these pictures captures the truly bizarre experience we had here. The food wasn’t bad, though.

20130311-081246.jpg

20130311-081303.jpg

June Star opened up, and I managed to get a picture of them and my orange pants during the sound check.

20130311-081349.jpg

Today we’re heading back to Chapel Hill to get ready for our official CD release show this coming Friday.

Birds and Arrows – Washington DC

Birds and Arrows made its way up to DC yesterday to play at a relatively new club called 9th and beats. The club itself was quite unique in its composition: one part sports bar, one part sushi bar, and one part venue. If there had been more light I would show you how these three parts fail to blend.

Regardless of the incompatible atmosphere, the music was fantastic. Our new songs are finally blossoming the way they should, and the other two groups, Echo Wall and Letitia Van Sant, are definitely on the watch list.

canned_food

Lacking pictures from the show, all you are going to get are pictures of the road food we had between here and Blacksburg.

Birds and Arrows – Blacksburg VA

We played a house party last night for a crowd of old friends. Andrea went to college here and kept up with some really amazing people. Below is a shot taken from the back porch.

blacksburg

Birds and Arrows – Charlottesville VA

Birds and Arrows are doing a quick east coast tour to rev up for our CD release show. Our first stop was The Southern in Charlottesville VA. It’s a small, but very friendly and cozy place.
And it sounds fantastic.

blue_pete

The new songs are shaping up really nicely.

The Love Language at Slim’s

The Love Language comes in many guises.  One is simply Stuart McLamb, his jangly guitar and his massive voice.  Another is a rock band, full of energy and excitement.  The coolest The best The most awesome Yet another version is Stuart plus strings.  This is where I come in.  This is also where two fantastic violinists, Rachel Rollins and Mark Paulson, come in.

I’d actually played a Love Language set with Rachel before.  Last spring we paired with Stuart and a tap dancer.  That was amazing, but there’s something truly awesome about getting to play with two violinists.  I’d never played with Mark before.  He’s usually too busy playing tennis.

mark

Actually, he’s usually busy playing with the Bowerbirds.

Anyway, we played for a packed house at Slim’s in Raleigh and hopefully we’ll be playing again soon.  I’ll keep you posted.

image

Last Motel with Birds and Arrows

Gearing up for the release of our album, Birds and Arrows recorded an episode of Last Motel at WUNC.  Eric Hodge peppered us with questions and witty banter, and we played a short set.  It should air this Sunday (or next? I can’t remember.  I’ll update as soon as I figure this out) at 6pm, so tune in if you can.

IMG_0653

February’s Song – Beneath a Pyramid

[soundcloud url=”http://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/80745912″ params=”” width=” 100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]

February’s song was supposed to be a ukulele song.  That was the plan.  I’d come up with the best part ever a good part, and recording it would be easy.  All I had to do was tune up, press record and play my heart out.  Piece of cake.  So I tuned up, pressed record and played my heart out, but somehow the magic wasn’t able to make across the three inch canyon separating my strings from the mic.

feb_song

This lead to a minor panic.  February, as we all know, is a short month.  January’s song wasn’t finished until the 31st, and this time I only had 28 days.  So I did what any normal person would do when pressed for time.  I recorded four cello tracks with my fingers crossed, hoping that would make things better.  It did, and after adding mandolin and vocals the magic started to return.  Just for fun, I decided to hear what the song sounded like without the original ukulele part.  Lesson learned: sometimes a ukulele song sounds better without the ukulele.  Who knew?

three_shoes

I recorded six different types of shoes for the “stomps” in the song. Here are three of them.

The other part of the plan for February’s song was record foot stomping, hand clapping and finger snapping percussion.  My friend Brian gave me the idea a few years ago when I recorded cello parts for Rabbit King.  I’ve always loved how that simple rhythm makes the whole thing sound awesome.  And since I can can’t play drums, this is something I’ve always wanted to try myself.

And as for the lyrics, they describe the time I was trapped underneath one of the great pyramids in Egypt without any light or idea of how to get out.  In short, a standard life experience that everyone goes through and can relate to.

p.s. I want to thank everyone who sent me such supportive feedback for the first song.  Knowing so many people enjoyed “Strangely Warm” is making it much easier to keep up with my New Year’s resolution.  I hope you enjoy this one, too.

Pittsboro Bach Society

Sundays are always more fun when I play with the Pittsboro Bach Society.  Every three or four months, Ted Ehrhard calls the local classical players to join him in performing some of the greatest music of all time.  Two weeks prior, he sends us copies of the music, along with a CD, so that we can have no excuse for sight reading practice in advance.  When we meet (often in Pittsboro, but sometimes in Chapel Hill), we play through the pieces twice: the first time is the rehearsal, and the second time is the performance.  In between we enjoy cookies, fruit punch and conversation.

A cellist's view of the Pittsboro Bach Society.  Here you can see Dean, the fearless conductor, and Brian, the solist, behind him.

A cellist’s view of the Pittsboro Bach Society. Here you can see Dean, the fearless conductor, and Brian, the solist, behind him.

Brian Reagin joined us as a soloist for three pieces (Mozart, Bach and an unattributed Waltz).

Chris Stamey – Lovesick Blues

I can’t remember the exact date, but roughly two years ago Chris Stamey told me he had some new songs he wanted to try out.  Kick’m around a bit and see what happened.  So the two of us met in his backyard studio to discover cello lines for a mix of old and new tunes.  These informal rehearsals eventually lead to residencies at Mill Town and the West End Wine Bar.  There, surrounded by rattling ice machines and city traffic, we performed our experiments for a handful of people, working out the kinks.  To make things a little more interesting, Chris invited local celebrities, Brett Harris, Matt McMichaels, Skylar Gudasz, and Dale Barker, (just to name a few) to add their magic to the music.  Those were special nights to be a part of, because anything could have happened, and it usually did.

Chris Stamey

This picture was taken by Jeremy Lange and was originally part of an excellent article written by Peter Blackstock.

Now, two years later, Chris has released those songs in  Lovesick Blues.  Arranged and performed on an epic scale, they represent Chris’s vision finally realized.  When recording, a symphony orchestra gradually made its way, one by one, through Chris’s studio, each instrument adding to the grandeur.  However, the humble origins are still there.  When I listen to these recordings, I can’t help but hear him ask, “what if you tried this…?” or say “see if this works…”,  because the results of those experiments are all there.

cs_ensemble_crop

Photo by Peter Blackstock

Last night was the CD/LP/MP3 release party at the Carrboro Art Center.  Chris and 20 of the best musicians in town all worked together to give justice to the final arrangements.  And judging by the audience’s standing ovation, it was a huge success.  From my perspective, it was a pleasure to be a part of the process from the beginning.  Rarely does anyone get to witness such a respected songwriter craft their music over such a long period of time.  I saw this album grow from infancy to adult, and like a fond uncle, I’m proud to see it go out and into the world.

music_stand

Although this printed music looks premeditated, in true Chris Stamey form, some parts were not finalized until the moment they were performed.

Sally Mullikin – Luthier

Back when I was that the North Carolina School of the Arts, my cello teacher, Robert Marsh, used to tell me about how, once a year, he sent his cello to his luthier for a minor tune up.  This impressed  me to no end.  “Wow,” I’d think, “this guy is big time.  He’s got a luthier”.  Not even really knowing a luthier was.  All I knew was that it sounded cool and he had one.  And I didn’t.

Since then, a lot of things have changed.  However, one thing that has remained the same is my vanity primary cello.  My parents bought it for me in the 80’s at an estate sale, and as soon as I was big enough to play it, I have, and I still do.  And I play it a lot.  But since I didn’t have a luthier, my instrument hasn’t had a “minor tune up” in over 25 years.  In fact, it was way overdue for a major tune up.  And it would be way cool if I could find someone who could be my luthier.

This is where Sally Mullikin comes in.

sally

Sally’s not afraid to bring the hammer down when the job calls for it.

Yes, she’s a luthier; she’s my luthier, and that is super cool.  Now I can toss around casual banter, like, “my luthier just finished making a new cello…” and all the cello nerds everyone will think I’m awesome.  And I am.

But back to Sally.  We met long, long ago in high school. When that was over, I went my way and dreamt of how cool it would be to have a luthier, and she went to instrument making school and became one.  And now she builds some of the most amazing cellos I’ve ever played.  They sound great, and they look beautiful.  And, lucky for me, she also does tune ups for old cellos that need a lot of work.

cello_on_table

My cello on Sally’s operating table.

A week ago I dropped my cello off at Sally’s shop and she gave it a total overhaul. I loved it before, but sort of like a parent who loves their kid’s finger painting.  It was my cello, but it was warty and was hard to actually play.  The action was too high and the fingerboard was lumpy and unpredictable.  So Sally worked her magic on it, and now it plays better than ever.  While it looks the same, Sally improved every aspect of it.

Will people really think I’m cool now that I can say “my luthier gave my cello a tune up”?  Well, after all these years, I’ve learned that what’s important is having a good sounding instrument that plays well.  And Sally made that happen.  And people will think I’m cool for that.

p.s.  Not only does Sally build and repair instruments, she’s also an incredible viola player who is one half of Little Root and a member of Justin Robinson and the Mary Annettes.

January’s Song – Strangely Warm

january_song[soundcloud url=”http://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/77342667″ params=”” width=” 100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]

For 2013, my new year’s resolution was to write and record a new song each month for myself.  At the time, this seemed like a relatively easy resolution to keep; most of the songs I have written and recorded in the past have been done in a single day.  This rush to get things done was simply a necessity, since I so rarely have much free time on my hands (I’m usually playing, recording or composing for someone else’s project).

So a whole month seemed like a luxury.  Granted, I was still doing what I normally do, so it wasn’t like I could sit in front of a microphone for eight hours a day working on my own little tune.  But it still seemed like plenty of time.

What I didn’t realize, however, is that with more time, I built up higher expectations for what I could create.  The resolution started to morph from, “write a song each month” to “write the best song ever written, ever, each month”.  And the pressure to do just that started to really weigh me down and took a lot of fun out of the whole thing.

So I took a step back, and reeled in my expanding resolution.  The point wasn’t to make a hit single, but just to make something.  Something I might like to hear, or something that allows me to try a new idea or technique.  Maybe this was my opportunity to learn how to sing, regardless of whether it sounds good.

Once I was able to refocus, the ideas finally started to come and the song, like they always do, came together in a short period of time.  January’s song isn’t the best song ever, but it’s not bad, either.  And like I wanted, it let me try new things and techniques.

January’s song is the first time I’ve ever tried to sing original lyrics.  At first I had no idea what to do.  I suppose other people keep little bits of poetry floating around in their heads or in notebooks.  I’ve never done that sort of thing because words never come very easily for me.  Instead, I use  words just to get the job done.  But I wanted to sing something in my song and not have it be entirely instrumental.  So I started with syllables.  That solved the “what should I sing” problem, but only temporarily, since I didn’t think I could get away doing the whole song like that.  So I did what any normal person would do when at a loss for words, I sang about the weather.  It was, in fact, a strangely warm day.  The whole month has been that way.  A week ago, while I was biking to work, I saw a whole row of trees that had already bloomed.

I’m kind of proud of this tune, now that it’s all done, and I hope you enjoy it, too.

The Birds and Arrows video for Firefly is out!

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VBr8qxGjQdE]

Shuffle magazine premiered the video and gave it a fairly nice write up.  One fun thing about this song is that it gave me a chance to pull out some of my old Indian instruments.  In 1997 I spent a month in south India studying the music, and, in particular, I learned how to play the carnatic veena and the dilruba.  In Firefly, I played the dilruba, which is very much like a sitar and was derived from it.  The major difference is that instead of being plucked, the dilruba is bowed and played a lot like a cello.  I also used a tambora for a drone during some of the verses and choruses.

Recording for Birds and Arrows

wood_protools

Few things feel more comfortable, more at home, than recording for Birds and Arrows.  Andrea and Pete’s songs are like water for a fish.  I can not overstate how much these songs have helped me develop my own sound and style.  The melodies, progressions and the open spaces they give me make it all seem so obvious as to what I need to do.

Today I worked on overdubs for a new/old EP.  Birds and Arrows did a kickstarter campaign last spring, and one of the prizes that we offered was a new take on these old songs.  Since they were recorded before I joined the group, one “new take” was to have me add the cello tracks that I play at shows to the recordings.  So far I’ve added parts to Woodgrain Heart, Weight of the World, Garden Shed and Ghost of a Bad Idea, and it has been a delight.  Andrea had already done a great job arranging these songs with extra banjo and piano tracks, and the cello fits right in there.  As always, it was no struggle finding a home for my instrument.

 

 

 

Gaspard and Dancers rehearsal

Today I was fortunate enough to attend another rehearsal with Gaspard and Dancers. These take place at the American Dance Festival building across the street from Duke University’s east campus.

gaspard_co_2

The rehearsal space itself is beautiful. The floor to ceiling windows that open up to enormous oaks trees give the impression that we are in a forest, rather than a building.

This setting, that makes us feel so close to nature, is perfect for dance since, in my mind, it is the most natural art form. We all move. To move is to be alive. Before we learn to sing, or to paint, we all learn how to move.

As magnificent as the view is, the best part of the experience is getting to be so close to the dancers as they practice their routines. I have the best seat in the house. The dancers move with such skill that it makes me feel like I’m just now learning to stand. Their balance and grace and ease of motion is awe inspiring, elegant and efficient.

The dance itself is about death, and the music I’m writing is to reflect the range of emotions that come with that word. Fear, of course, but also tranquility, peace and resolution. Exploring death with dance is such a fascinating concept for me, because, like I said before, to move is to be alive.

So far, the tones I’ve been working with have been a range of processed cello sounds – tremolo with massive delay and reverb – looped arpeggios and pizzicato – and eerie resonances from tunes wineglasses.  The rehearsal is an excellent time for me to improvise and develop ideas quickly, while I watch how the dancers respond.

gaspard_co_1

New hair for my old bows

It’s that time of year again, when the rosin just doesn’t stick to the bow hair anymore, and it’s getting harder to make the strings sound.  Yes, it’s time for new hair for my old bows.

Over the years I’ve had my bows rehaired a number of places, but my current favorite is NetRehair.com.  This service is done out of Raleigh, North Carolina, by Jerry Pasewicz (who also does great instrument work and runs Triangle Strings).

There are three incredibly awesome things about NetRehair.com.

  1. First and formost, the work is impeccable.  My bow always plays significantly better after the rehair.
  2. They ship.  So, if I can’t make it to Raleigh, I can send it to them via FedEx.  Which sounds crazy, but they will send you a special box and tube to ship your bow in. Image
    It works great, and I’ve never had a problem with it.  Keep in mind, though, that when the bow comes to you, you have to sing sign for it, so be sure to ship it to a work address if you don’t think you’ll be at home.
  3. Crazy cool colors!
    Image
    Jerry and his crew dye the the highest grade hair all kinds of awesome colors, including tie-dye (if you’re into that sort of thing).  I admit, I was hesitant at first, but I took the dive with my last bow rehair and used purple hair and I loved it.  So this time I choose green.  One unexpected benefit of using colored bow hair is that you can see where the rosin wears off.  Conventional wisdom says that rosin comes off at the frog and the tip of the bow; you always see players adding extra rosin to these parts.  However, the opposite is true; rosin comes off in the middle of the bow. With colored hair, you can see this for yourself.  And it makes sense, too.  Most of the playing takes place in the middle of the bow.

Rehearsing with Gray Young

grey_young_rehearsal

Just a hint of Dopko’s drums at tonight’s rehearsal

Last winter my good friends, Gray Young, called me up to record some cello overdubs for their upcoming album.  While this was quite an honor, it also freaked me out because these guys tend to rock out a lot harder than the typical band that calls in a cello player.  However, much to my surprise, their music works great with the cello, and it was a real pleasure adding my voice to it.

Their album has since been mixed, mastered and manufactured, and the release party is coming up at Kings in Raleigh next Friday, January 25th.  I’m going to be playing 5 songs with them during their set.  So come out if you want to see and hear a cello in territory it’s never been before.  I’ve got my delay pedal maxed out (a patch dialed in by Chaz), with bass notes I’m not even playing pulsating with feedback.  It’s a cool sound that is just on the edge of exploding.  One false note and the whole thing could come apart.

Katharine Whalen’s Green Stag

green_stag

Today and tomorrow night I’m going to be working on adding cello overdubs to Katharine Whalen’s wonderful new song, Green Stag.  This tune is going to be hard for me, since it is already so good.  I’m going to be focusing on coming up with little hooks and bass notes that add to, and don’t get in the way of the incredible parts that are already in there (including an excellent dobro part played by Nathan Golub).

Filming the Firefly music video with Birds and Arrows

Yesterday, Birds and Arrows, along with 15 of our best friends, were out at the farm, romping around in the fields filming a new video for our song, Firefly.  Andrew Synowiez and Marie produced, directed, filmed, edited and inspired all of us to have a great time as we scrambled to get into and then get out of the camera’s view for this single take video.

andrea_pete_firefly_video_1

We started out at 10:30 am with just a vague idea of what was going to happen.  Andrew and Marie had brainstormed some ideas – close ups of feet running along the ground, a duet between Pete and Andrea, and lots and lots of spinning around – but they left it up to us as to how all these things were going to be done.

andrea2_firefly

The fun part was doing it all in one take, so that meant lots of running around.  By the end of the day we were all completely exhausted, but it seemed well worth it.  Andrew and Marie thought they had captured the perfect take and we all had had a great time.

group_photo_firefly

A holiday in Colorado

Alexia and I visited her parents in Colorado over the holidays. One day we went out for a walk and this is what it looked like.

snowy_trail

Tune it up!

If you’re going to play amplified, one of the best ways to spend $100 on your rig is to get a tuner pedal (or stompbox).  Not only do these help you stay in tune under bright (and sometimes very hot) stage lights, they serve as “mute” buttons.  Step on your pedal and your cello is instantly silent.  This means you can set it down without making a huge amount of amplified booms and without worry that your instrument might start feeding back.  Early on in my career I remember agonizing over spending $100 on a digital tuner pedal, but now I know that this is the first thing I would do, and I would do it without any hesitation.  It’s the right move.

Now that you’ve decided that you’re going to go for it, which tuner works well with the cello?  So far I’ve had very good success with two Korg models.  For years I used a Korg DT-10, which worked great for the cello’s full range (even though it is not marketed as a multi-instrument tuner, but instead as one that only works with guitar and bass), but recently I switched to the Korg Pitchblack+ (also called the PB02, and also marketed as a guitar/bass pedal and not one for other instruments) because it is more precise.  One thing that is unique about the PB02 is that it is 10 times more precise than any other tuner in this price range.  All other tuners will only get you within +/-1 cent of the pitch, while the PB02 will get you within +/-0.1 cent.  And tuning a cello this precisely is actually very easily done.  At first I was worried that it might take longer to tune my cello, but this has turned out not to be the case.  It takes me just as long to tune with my older pedal as the new one.  There are, however, two drawbacks to this pedal.  The first is that turning it on and off can cause “pops” that get amplified and can be heard through the PA.  The second is when it is on (so that it mutes your instrument and allows you to tune) it is noisy.  Turning it on creates a noticeable increase in buzzy white noise.  So, as a result, while I would recommend this pedal, I wish it were quieter and didn’t inform the audience that you are now going to tune with audible “pops”.

Another thing about these pedals that you don’t always think about when you’re in the store is how easy it is to read the display in different lighting situations.  Reading it on a dark stage is one thing, and reading it outside under the noonday sun is another.  Everything is harder to read outside in the sun, but both of the Korg tuners are still usable.  In contrast, I’ve heard bass players complain that their tuners are essentially useless outside.

Which strings should you use?

One of the most important decisions a cellist has to make is what kind of strings to use on their instrument.  Few things have more influence on the character of their sound than strings.  And the importance of this decision is no different with amplified an cello.  The bad news is that you’re probably going to have to try a variety of strings until you get the sound that you want, and this can be very expensive.  The good news is that you don’t just have to take a shot in the dark with the first set you try.  And this is what I’d recommend Thomastik-Infeld Belcanto Gold strings for.  While they might not be the exact combination that works best for your instrument, they are going to be pretty darn close.  Some people love their A and D strings, others adore their C and G, so the whole set is definitely worth trying.  Personally, I’ve found these strings to be stable and sound very good when amplified.