Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

A Minstrel's Home Cooking (Musically Speaking)

One of the things I like best about the Christmas/New Year season is the many cards and goodwill messages I get. I know a lot of people think Christmas cards or nengajo (New Year cards) are an annoying hassle, but I really appreciate them. The main reason is that they allow me to hear from people who otherwise tend to be out of touch. It's that one, special opportunity to reaffirm contact with friends, acquaintances, and relatives that are otherwise too busy, lazy, indifferent, or afflicted with "real" lives to send off a message. ;-)

Sometimes what I hear from these long-lost companions can be surprising. Maybe there will be totally unexpected news of a personal or family development that has taken place since the last message (i.e. last winter). Maybe there will be a confession or revelation of something that has been around for some time, but the person never bothered telling me till now.

Maybe they will ask me things about myself that I haven't really expected. That's actually the gist of this post. I'm surprised at the inquiries I've been getting about my music. I'm not talking about my performances; I've been spewing plenty about those on this site. I'm talking about my most significant hobby, which is composing and recording music. Someone pointed out that I've never mentioned that on this site. To be honest, I just never saw the point. It is, after all, just a personal interest of mine, and I didn't want to be so vain. However, since people are flattering me by asking, I guess it's only proper for me to answer. Also, since the number of visitors to this site has grown so much (thank you all very much!) I suppose I'd better provide a bit of background information.

Songwriting has been a passion of mine since at least my junior high school days, though I composed my first song at age 5 (and I still remember it). I had a number of occasions to perform my compositions live, particularly in college, but I never had much of an opportunity to record any (beyond the few songs that Pa've engineered...thanks, Pa've!). Not surprisingly, when I graduated from college, came to Japan, and got a real life back in 1990, one of the first things I did was start putting together a sort of home studio in earnest. I already had my Epiphone 12-string acoustic guitar, which I had brought with me from the U.S.. By the time Christmas of 1990 was over, I had acquired a cheap Casio keyboard, a Fender bass, a Yamaha Telecaster-style electric guitar (a discontinued model which I bought at a 70% discount!), a cheap microphone, a Yamaha wind synthesizer, and, most importantly, a Yamaha 4-track cassette recorder. I then started spending the majority of my weekends in my "studio" putting my ideas on tape. Sometimes I would literally spend all my time in that room, pausing only for bathroom breaks, instant ramen, or brief naps. Once I had accumulated enough material to fill a 90-minute tape, I would then announce the completion of my next "album" and start foisting copies on people.

(In retrospect, those early recordings were pretty bad...)

The material I was composing and recording was quite different from what I was performing. In those days, I was a member of a community band (which I finally quit in disgust in 1999...long story) which performed classical and pop music, and I also belonged to a semi-pro jazz big band (which I was forced to quit in 1996, though I'm still an occasional guest member). My home recording allowed me to experiment with other kinds of music, in particular progressive rock. My girlfriend/fiance/wife's love of British indie pop also had a very strong impact on my style. Soon my repertoire was a very varied (vary veried?) one.

Anyway, the trend continued, and it also evolved over the years. Old gear was sold (usually to Jeff) and replaced with new and better gear. Other items were picked up along the way. In 1997 I finally mothballed the 4-track tape recorder and bought an 8-track digital recorder. Soon afterward, under pressure from friends, I finally bought a CD burner and started putting all my albums on disk. Also, more significantly, after both Jeff and pro musician friends of his asked (sometimes even hired) me to do professional session work in Tokyo, I began to reevaluate my whole approach. For one thing, I actually started taking it all seriously enough to try to make it sound good. The only problem was that, being married with children, I could no longer afford to spend much time in my studio, and I therefore produced very little compared with my rough early days.

A minstrel at work/play in Studio Moodio, circa 1999.

Then, during 2000-2001, I went through a period of extreme turmoil in my life (some of which I've described on this site...such as in my "Vindicated or Just Irritated" posting), and my studio became my outlet and my comfort. Over the complaints of my wife, my children, my in-laws, and my workplace, I threw myself into it and produced three albums in quick succession (the second of which, Diminished Arcana, was completed in a record-breaking two weeks!). This was the collection I now refer to as the "Purple Trilogy" (the sturm-und-drang-ridden Through the Valley, the soul-searching Diminished Arcana, and the assertive Islands). I was rather proud of (most of) what I had accomplished. My muse was also by now totally exhausted. I didn't think I would ever be able to compose again.

I did continue to dabble, however, and at the end of 2002 I suddenly realized I had enough to put together another album, the one entitled Spinning Flow. Although the album has received some very mixed reviews, it does contain a few gems which some people still call their favorites, such as my "hit" song "(Zen-Zen) Wakannai!". After that I took a much-needed break to concentrate on other things.

Finally, in 2004, a burst of creativity spurred on mainly by my sci-fi/fantasy writing led me to spend a few months completing View from the Tower. I was literally recording music I'd been hearing in my dreams. That was actually quite a project, and it left me feeling almost as drained as the entire "Purple Trilogy" had. I decided to take another break, but that was accidentally pre-empted.

You see, while I was recording View from the Tower, I bought myself a new Line 6 PODxt guitar amp simulator/effects processor. Once the album was complete, I just started having fun playing around with with my new "toy" like a little boy at Christmas. The trouble was that, in the process, I kept coming up with ideas that sounded good to me. I'd say, "Let's try recording that and jamming along with it and see what happens." Then, just for the heck of it, I'd add bass, drum, and other parts. Then I'd come up with lyrics more or less on the spur of the moment. I was just screwing around and having fun, but, before I knew it, I had a whole bunch of workable songs. The result was what has been perhaps my most successful (or at least best-received) album to date, Open Halls, which I "released" in early 2005. It is a much more "rocking" album than my previous work. Also, since it is very guitar-centered (obviously), it is more stylistically consistent. Interestingly, for the first time ever, it has earned me praise not only for my music, but for my lyrics as well. Considering I never really tried to make good lyrics (or good music, for that matter), that comes as a total surprise.

Well, now that the "background" has taken up so much space...

I've done very little since then. I've only completed a single song for myself since Open Halls. Right now my main project has been doing something I don't usually do: composing and recording music for someone else's lyrics. The lyricist/vocalist in this case is my wife's student...actually a problem student. She is a very talented writer and musician who had to transfer from her former school on account of bullying. Now she is definitely a rather troubled individual, as her lyrics show very clearly. My wife asked me to try coming up with music for her. First I refused, as I usually refuse such requests, because it has never worked in the past. Other people's "lyrics" (poems, at any rate) tend not to flow well enough to fit into song form easily...if they inspire me at all. Quite often they don't. However, on reading the girl's lyrics, I was immediately struck with a very strong inspiration, and I immediately went to work. I have completed a total of four songs, one of which she has recorded (in a real studio...not at home). The other three have been held up by her pickiness and inability to make up her mind. I'm quite proud of the original demo versions (me singing...the only bad point), but I've already had to redo one song twice in order to accommodate her (apparently ever-changing) vocal range and completely rewrite another to put it in a different genre (in this case pop ballad to orchestra classical!). Yes, it has been a damned chore, but I'm actually enjoying the challenge. It has also been rewarding to help someone else overcome difficulty to realize a dream. The smile alone was worth it.


  • Cool, MM, you're a recording artiste, actually a star in your own right. I am honoured.

    I have always wondered whether the lyrics get written ahead of the music or the other way around. Now I have a better idea. Thanks for the enlightenment.

    By Blogger Happysurfer, at 6:00 PM  

  • I'm sure your blog audience - myself included - want to sample your music. Yes, I've heard you play, and you're awesome, but that was all other people's music.

    Is there a toll free number? Rhino records? iTunes? What? How can we get a copy of "Open Halls"?

    With the internet, you might become a global sensation over night.

    Seriously, MM, what's the availability of your albums?

    By Blogger Pandabonium, at 8:45 PM  

  • Well...
    I have sent copies of my albums to people. In the case of Open Halls alone I must have mailed out more than a dozen copies. Some friends of mine have been pressing me to have it marketed on CD Baby. I may still try that someday. I'm also looking into the idea of finding some web hosting and just posting some mp3 files online. One of my friends has already done that with almost all of my albums, having set up an FTP site just for that reason. He has also set up his own online radio station, which tends to feature my music. However, he does NOT want his site and station to be open to the general public.

    If people are really interested, I'll look into it.

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 3:22 AM  

  • Alas, for the last five months, all of my music gear is stuck in boxes. The best i have been able to do is pull out my seven string studio Ibanez, and twink it a little bit.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5:29 AM  

  • Yes! Yes! Yes! MM, Pandabonium is right.

    Pandabonium, thank you.

    By Blogger Happysurfer, at 11:45 AM  

  • You life certainly "sounds" wonderful, Moody :)

    I was a bit upset sometime, because i wasn't brought up in a musical environment. Well, you win some, loose some, huh?

    I enjoyed my time drinking out in some bars with live band, not even semi-pro musician, i guess. But that's the way i like it, to be close to band, close to the music. But you have made it amazingly closer, even without hearing you music! Thanks for sharing, my friend!

    Take it from Pandabonium, maybe you should consider feeding (songs) some of your faithful blog readers? :p

    And Happy New Year! I hope you will be achieving greater heights in years to come...

    P/S: I agreed with sending nengajo and greeting cards...hand written characters are always better than any fronts! :)

    By Blogger @ロウ 。LOW@, at 11:28 AM  

  • Is that Yorick's skull on the shelf behind you- or that of some music critic?

    By Blogger Pandabonium, at 4:57 PM  

  • haha, Panda, you have once again represented our voice.

    MM, how abt putting a e-version on this blog, so that we can all appreciate the music?

    By Blogger Robin, at 5:14 PM  

  • Someone gave me the skull as a present. It was a lamp, actually. I just kept it on the Korg sampler because it helped frighten away evil spirits (or good ones, maybe?). A couple of months after this picture was taken, my daughter (3 at the the time) picked it up to show it to somebody and promptly dropped it, smashing it into a hundred pieces. Undaunted, I kept some of the larger bits on the Korg until I had to make room for something else.

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 1:10 AM  

  • Oh dear, hopefully cracking a skull is not any bad luck, at least not in my work place.

    May 2006, the year of the Fire Dog, brings you joy, happiness, love, good luck and lots of money!

    Happy Holidays!

    By Blogger Robin, at 4:49 PM  

  • Awaiting the launch of an album, any. hehe. Full support here!

    Clark kent certainly has many unrevealed talents hidden, to be discovered one by one. Good job n ganbate!


    By Blogger YD, at 1:18 AM  

  • That student is a very lucky girl indeed...
    By the way, you mentioned that you would sell your gear to Jeff. But you failed to note that you also bought much gear from him. In fact, I think Jeff sold you a Roland amp, and then he bought it BACK from you a few years later. Ok, to my point. Jeff has a Roland amp for sale. Interested?
    Nice post. I LOVE your last album by the way. And I don't think you sold out with "Wakkannai" as "Rolling Stone" wrote...

    By Anonymous Jeff Nicholson, at 6:55 PM  

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