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