Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Master Plan

This was the final webstop of my musical reconnaissance journey in the wee hours of Sunday night. Yes, I was googling chord notation for... drum roll... a new Buffy song! You see, I seem to have a pretty good knack for coming up with lyrics and melodies, then singing them. Musical instruments themselves, not so much. That's why you'll never see me bust out my guitar around the campfire or break into song at an open mic. I can hear the notes in my head, then strum a few chords or plunk a few keyboard notes just to get them down for someone who really knows what they're doing to make magic with. To my great delight, I actually managed to write out the chords for the entire song you will soon hear the details on. I even managed to figure out the one crazy chord that almost looked like a C but didn't sound completely happy or completely sad. (Ended up being a diminished. Thank the Google gods for that!)

So how did I get to googling diminished chords on a Sunday night? Rewind to last Friday when I realized I had a Buffy Ballad conundrum on my hands. I'd gotten an e-mail from Bryant last week telling me he needed a new song for the Season 1 episode of The Scoobies and the Newbie by Saturday. I'd already used You Renegade Vamp for the preseason episode. Wherefore Art Thou Juliet?, as you probably know from the last blog entry, is not entirely done. The two remaining songs we'd recorded were Ooh, Mr. Mayor and If I Were a Robot. My first thought was to sync the villains to the seasons. Realizing that I had no Season 1 villain song, my second thought was to stick a song about a villain from a later season into the Season 1 podcast. But then I realized that the two villains I had songs about, Warren and The Mayor, were the MAIN villains of later seasons. Playing either of their songs prematurely would be doubly tragic because not only do they not even appear in Season 1, but once the podcast reached their season Bryant, Barbra, and Sam would be discussing all of the geeky factoids about that character, by which time I would've already blown my wad. Alas, there was nothing I could do for Season 1, as I did not have a song for The Master. Or did I???

I actually been brainstorming a Master song for a while. I knew what style I wanted the song in -- a slow, melancholy jazz standard resembling "Stormy Weather." I even had the melody and lyrics for the very last line. But that was ages ago, and no matter how hard I stared at the Wikipedia notes or how many times I re-watched Season 1, none of the rest of the song had materialized. The main problem lay in the fact that these are supposed to be love songs, and truth be told, I do not love The Master. I'll give Joss and the gang the benefit of the doubt, since it was their first season, they were working on a shoestring budget, and they were still in the process of figuring everything out. That said, The Master doesn't have anywhere near the sophistication of any of the later villains. He's also freaking ugly. But hey, we all have exes like that, right? So I decided that instead of a raunchy sexy song or a cheesy lovey-dovey song, it would be more like a "fuck you" song.

That was a good starting point. I was able to make lyrics out of factoids now that I had a point of view. Friday, I mocked up a first draft of the song. It was cleverly chock full of trivia and rhymes, but it was missing something. It was complicated; disjointed; a little too angry; and most of all it lacked a melody. Furthermore, the original ending felt forcefully tacked on. It seemed like a good ending at the time. Would I have to scrap it? I was reluctant because I'd had it in my head for so long. On the other hand, artists shouldn't get too wedded to their creations. On the other other hand, maybe my initial instinct was right. Brain fuzzy, systems shutting down...

In the meantime, I got an e-mail from Bryant saying they were delaying recording until next week. Ah, my manna from heaven!!! If I could figure the song out by the weekend, record it during the week, and get it to them by Friday, my conundrum would be solved. I slept a bunch Saturday morning and afternoon, chipped away at it Saturday evening, and by Sunday the song was done. Don't get me wrong, it wasn't as easy as 1 2 3. The lyrics, melody, and refrain went through lots and lots of permutations. It was like one of those sliding block puzzles where almost everything fits except for the two squares that are completely out of place. And when you try to move those two pieces, all the other pieces get into a jumble. Eventually everything finds its proper place, but not before you feel so mixed up you wonder if it'll ever get back to good.

But it is. Good, I mean. In fact, it's better than good. The factoids fit. The syllables work. The refrain is in line with the point of view, and the ending makes total sense -- both word-wise and musically. I e-mailed David the chord chart Sunday night, and we met Monday to lay down the track. He can do amazing things with music. Honestly, I am always mind blown every time he works his magic with a new song of mine. We are going to record the video for "Love You... With a Vengeance" this afternoon. If we have time, we might even get to the new song, "What Kind of Master Are You?" Either way, there will be a new video on the YouTubes and a new track for the Season 1 Scooby-Newbie podcast. Victory dance!!!

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Insane Psychobabble

Make sense to you? Me neither. Had I not known the genius behind the madness, I would've labeled it as psychobabble (perhaps even Drusilla-caliber). It is actually the structure for the percussion line in the new instrumental track for Wherefore Art Thou Juliet?, which David and I are currently arranging. Yes, that's right -- we are recording an ALBUM!!! I'm giddy with delight. Positively giddy!

This whole thing originally started when Bryant and Barbra Dillon asked me if they could feature my songs at the end of each episode of the podcast, The Scoobies and the Newbie. I quickly realized that though I had the musical tracks for four completed songs, I didn't have good quality vocal recordings since we always captured the vocals live on camera. I'd been planning on making a CD anyway, and this was the perfect kick in the butt. Since rerecording You Renegade Vamp for the first podcast, David has recorded and mixed vocals for Ooh, Mr. Mayor and If I Were a Robot. The only song left was Wherefore Art Thou Juliet. Juliet is taking a little longer for a couple of reasons. First of all, it was the very first recording David and I ever did. He arranged and recorded it in a couple of hours the morning that we met on craigslist (yes, we met on craigslist). And given the circumstances, it's pretty darn impressive. But now that we are doing this for real, we thought we'd give it a makeover. I wanted to add a drum track, some base, possibly harmonies and other instrumentals, and in order to do that we needed to scrap the original. We are actually going to keep the intro, since it's rather brilliant and David and I agree there isn't anything we wanted to improve. But given that the initial piano recording was done without a metronome, there was no way we could even add a drum track in. So off we went to record our new track.

Recording a drum track from a keyboard is funny business. You have to reverse engineer the whole thing, counting out the total measures for each part of the song, what you want to happen in each measure, then syncing the beat changes with the measure count exactly the right time. In short, involves a lot of math on David's part, followed by David scribbling some crazy notes that only he understands, followed by David staring at the little screen on the keyboard and pressing the right buttons when the designated measure numbers come to bat. It's pretty amusing -- not to mention amazing -- to see him geek out over all these little beats and counts and know that they will somehow translate into music. Actual music. I just sit next to him, take a few pictures for my blog, and cheer him on for moral support.

So that's what we did the past couple of days. We picked out a few Doo-wop percussion lines, decided on the speed, decided where to switch from one to the next, and got it all down in Pro tools. And let me tell you I think it sounds pretty fab. Next, we noodled with the beginnings of the piano arrangement. It's the same chord structure as before, but we were able to decide on some nuances that we obviously didn't have the luxury to do when splatting it out in a hurry the day that we first met.

David needs to take some time to practice and familiarize himself with the new arrangement, at which point we will get together and record again, then brainstorm what else we want to do with the track. This one's kind of a tall order and it may take a while to really get right. But honestly, this may very well be the coolest track on the album. I don't want to jinx myself or make a self-fulfilling prophecy. The other recordings sound great, and I'm extremely excited for the new songs -- both written and unwritten. But the Drusilla song has a special place in my heart for a lot of reasons. First of all, I LOVE the character with all my heart (we are talking major girl crush). I also love the Doo-wop style and I think I've always secretly fantasized about performing it (though I never thought with a vampire twist). I think the biggest reason, though, is that it was the birthplace of this whole project. Sure, I'd noodled with a few Spike lyrics, but the experience I had seeing Juliet for the first time gave me such a jolt. It was one of those unforgettable, visceral experiences that takes you so outside of your comfort zone; your thought patterns; your ideas about what's real and what's not. And these types of experiences are the soil where amazing art takes root.

David and I will continue to work on Juliet, and in the meantime we are scheduled to record the video for Love You... with a Vengeance on Monday. More blogging to come!

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Glorious Ripples

This is Buffy birthday present #2, given to me by my fabulous friend Malia, who happens to take yoga with Clare Kramer (a.k.a. Glorificus) in Sherman Oaks. Small Buffy-verse, right? And here's the real beauty of the present. I wrote a Glory/Ben song quite some time ago but couldn't for the life of me think of a title. I scoured through the song lyrics, looking for a snippet I could use. I rewatched some Season 5 episodes. Nothing. Within hours after receiving the gift, boom! I got my title. The song is all about a person who tries to date someone two-faced, so to speak. I'm sure you all have had the experience of wanting to get to know someone who appears to be one thing in one moment, then changes to something entirely different the next. This song takes such a scenario to the extreme. And the title is "When 3 Become 2." (This is, of course, riff off the Spice Girls hit "2 Become 1.")

Now, onto some other exciting tidbits. First of all, "Love You... With a Vengeance" is coming along. I got an incredibly helpful one-on-one tutorial with my friend Josh Rubinstein, who I met -- guess where -- at a Buffy event. He showed me pretty much everything I needed to know about mixing the levels on my 7 instrumental tracks. He also gave his seal of approval on my song. (Smiley face icon!) Next, I've got to work out the details of the video shoot, which requires coordinating the schedules of myself, the cinematographer, and the owner of the house I want to shoot in. (Once we get everyone in the same room together, it'll be a piece of cake!)

As for the Faith song, I did put an ad on craigslist looking for a Buffy fan who could produce a hip-hop track. Alas, no bites! A little disappointing, though not too surprising, given that there are probably more pianists and rock guitarists than hip-hop producers in the Joss Whedon fan base. But not to worry, Faith, your time in the spotlight will come.

Speaking of being in the spotlight, I'm thrilled to announce that my Buffy ballads will be featured on a podcast! The geek power couple, Bryant and Barbra Dillon -- who run Fanboy Comics -- are starting a new podcast called "The Scooby and the Newbie". They will be airing an episode for every season of Buffy, and using one of my songs to sign off. How cool is that??? I've got to get all the info for them by this weekend, including an audio file for the very first song, which will be You Renegade Vamp. Unfortunately, the audio quality is a little spotty. So if there's any way I can possibly squeeze in a session, I'm going to try to re-record the vocals tomorrow. Ambitious, but who knows how many folks it'll reach?

Oh, and while were on the topic of reaching folks, here is another bizarre and wonderful coincidence. I was randomly doing a Google search to gather links for this blog, and while doing so stumbled upon this article, which featured -- guess who -- me!!! Last Monday, I was at a Labor Day barbecue at the home of Marsia Powers, who runs Whedonopolis. While there, I met a guy named Gene Turnbow, who produces Krypton Radio. He is a totally cool guy, along with a visionary thinker. We talked for a super long time about all sorts of things, and I gave him a Buffy flyer. And the next thing I know, I am featured on his site! It's a crazy thing how word travels, especially if you get plugged into the right circles.

Okay, enough for now. I am burning the midnight oil and then some. In less than five hours I must be up again, to receive the Substitute Teacher imprint (no, I am NOT ready for a treatment!!!) Reluctant Fan Girl signing off.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Geeky Things Are Worth Waiting for

The picture above has little to do with this blog entry. It's a birthday gift I received from my friend Chris Bowers -- a ceramic statue of Spike that is just bad-ass enough to possibly merit the creation of an entire Buffy shrine. (There is one more object that definitely belong in said shrine; photo to be displayed at the top of the next blog entry.) Speaking of pictures, the picture for the next Buffy Ballad is now in clearer view. Unfortunately, filming will take a little longer than originally planned, but I promise you it will be worth the wait. In the meantime, I will keep you posted on all the juicy (or should I say gory) details of the creative process.

Before I tell you the story of how I found my cinematographer, let me just say that the Buffy-verse works in strange and wondrous ways. In fact, that is exactly how I found Bill McClelland, the very talented man who will shoot the video for "Love you... With a Vengeance." Although he himself is not a Buffy guy, I found him through 2 people who actually played super villains themselves.

Rewind to beginning of story. A couple of months ago, I saw an absolutely stunning staged reading of A Streetcar Named Desire starring Juliet Landau as Blanche DuBois. Watching someone on the small screen is one thing. Seeing them perform in front of you, up close and in the flesh, for two hours straight, is something entirely different. After seeing Juliet as Drusilla, I was a fan. My sentiments now surpass the superficiality of fandom. I have such deep respect for her strength, bravery, and commitment to her craft. She took a character who could easily be seen as a victim; embodied her through and through; put up a fight from lights down to curtain call. A few friends and acquaintances tried to make small talk with me moments after the show, and I was absolutely speechless.

It was a serendipitous night indeed, for I also met my now friend Camden Toy, who played not one but two of the villains on Buffy. Most notably, he was one of the Gentlemen in the Emmy-nominated episode Hush. He also played Gnarl in Same Time Same Place. (He did the voice for me at the screening, and I almost jumped out of my skin [pun intended]!) I'd been hearing his name for a long time from my piano player, David Bickford, who had also been friends with him for many years. So it seemed -- in a way -- like I was meeting an old friend.

After a long string of online communication, Camden and I finally hung out for the first time a couple of weekends ago. He also introduced me to his friend Bill, who is a steadicam operator. Bill and I hit it off, and he told me that if there was anything I needed to shoot I should let him know. At the time, I thought to myself, "It would be totally fun to shoot with this guy, but I don't have any projects I'm doing in the foreseeable future." The next morning, it occurred to me that Andre, my trusty camera guy for the past three Buffy Ballads, was headed off to Puerto Rico for a shoot and would not be available for the next video. Can we say biggest DUH moment ever??? So I called Bill, and he was down for the shoot. Yipeeeee!!!

We met last week at the Valley Village Starbucks to talk details about the shoot. He had pretty much all the equipment I could ask for (and then some!). The only thing we were missing was a prime location. His place had tiled floors, which are horrible for acoustics, and my place-- along with being totally out of the way-- had no interesting backdrops. And while while a boring background wouldn't be the worst thing in the world, we had such a cool one for If I Were a Robot, it seemed like a shame to downgrade. As we parted ways, I told him I would rack my brains for a better location. At the time, I was totally at a loss.

Shortly after I got home, I had DUH moment #2. Good location? I had the PERFECT location!!! Not only was it super geeky and cinematically awesome; it was also conveniently located between Bill's neighborhood and mine. I just had to coordinate it in a way that would work for me, Bill, and owner of said location. As good fortune would have it, the owner said yes. Unfortunately, he's off to Burning Man so the location won't be available for another three weeks. We could settle and shoot with the boring backdrop in the meantime, but given the three most important elements of filmmaking (location Location LOCATION!!!), I figured we'd better wait. In the meantime, I could polish up the sound mix, possibly work on new songs, and -- of course -- blog. If you can stand to hold out for another few weeks, I'm pretty sure you will be glad you did.

Next order of business on the Buffy blog: Buffy birthday present #2 and how it led me to the title of my previously title-less song. Stay tuned!

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Working in Anya-log

Soon, the new Buffy ballad -- "Love You... with a Vengeance" -- will look like a video on YouTube. Right now, it looks like the picture you see above. I know you all have been waiting forever for this new track. (I bet you're all at home right now on this beautiful August Sunday saying to yourself, "Man, where the heck is that new Buffy track? Just kidding...) Well, there are couple of reasons why this song has taken longer to produce than the others. The main reason is probably the fact that I've been working two jobs, but that's pretty boring so I'll talk in more detail about the other ones.

As I mentioned before, I had used a different musician -- a guitarist named Gary -- for "Love You... with a Vengeance," the country Western ballad that sings the praises of your favorite vengeance demon and mine, Anya Jenkins. Gary is a little more old-school than David Bickford, who did the tracks for the last three songs. Whereas David works in digital, Gary works in analog. (Or as I like to say, Anya-log.) With David, we would record music on one piano or keyboard track, possibly adding or splicing an electronic percussion line or different keyboard voice. We would then sit down together while he fiddled with the volume levels, swapped takes, and polished the whole thing up in Pro Tools. This could take hours, but we usually knocked out in the course of a single session. With Gary, on the other hand, things took a little bit longer. First, we recorded the main guitar line. The actual recording took a very short time -- maybe about an hour from start to finish-- but I knew he wanted to bring in a drummer, which would be another session. (For him, it would take more time and energy to find and incorporate an electronic beat than to actually do it with a live drummer.) So we had a session with his drummer Cyrus, which was pretty freakin' cool. (Collaborating one-on-one with an accompanist is awesome, but having a drummer brought in on your behalf really makes you feel like a rockstar!)

After the drum session, I expected Gary to mix the two tracks onto a CD and that would be that. But Gary decided he wanted a fuller sound in some parts of the song. "I think I'll add an organ, a slide guitar, and maybe a bass," he said. Who was I to object? When it comes to music -- especially this project -- I consider myself pretty easy to please. So anything more than the bare minimum is really icing on the cake. Well, we ended up with a pretty amazing sounding song that has SEVEN (count 'em, seven) live instrumental tracks!

Now that I have the tracks, I have to figure out what exactly to do with them. I've got to mix the levels, choose what to keep and what to cut, and before I do any of that stuff I have to actually learn how to use the free audio mixing software I just downloaded off the Internet. So yeah, I've got my work cut out for me. But let me tell you, before I even lay a finger on it, it sounds GOOD!!!

Also, once I mix the audio track, I've got to find a new cameraman, since Andre is leaving tomorrow for a shoot in Puerto Rico. But something may be conspiring on that front even as we speak. I'll let you know the details once I get a clearer picture, so to speak...

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Just HitRECord

Gary was doing double duty, pushing the buttons on his console then scrambling to play the chords on his guitar. I said, do you want me to help you so you can focus on getting the pickup? He said (not knowing the double meaning of his words), "Just hitRECord."

It's a happy day in Buffy fanland. I just got back from West Hollywood where me and the new guitarist, Gary Dunn, recorded the music track for Buffy Ballad #5. The song is for Anya, and it's a country Western ballad called "Love You . . . With a Vengeance." We'd met once before to go over the chord charts and figure out the arrangement. I was going to write a whole entry on that after the fact, but it didn't quite happen so I'll try to integrate the previous highlights with what happened tonight.

The act of collaboration is infinitely fascinating. You get inspired to do something, create it and tinker with it in your little mad scientist lab, tinker with it some more, get sick of it, and tinker with it more still until you have no idea what it looks like to the rest of the world. It could be a windup toy or a pink poodle or a Frankenstein beast for all you know. And once you show it the light of day; give it room to breathe; unveil it in the presence of those few trusted others, you are pretty much always pleasantly surprised.

Working with Gary on the Anya song was no exception. Off the bat, he thought the genre was more singer/songwriter than country Western. True, I am more familiar singer/songwriter style music as a whole, but I wanted to give it a country feel, since I imagined it as the type of tune Faith Hill might sing (maybe that's just me projecting my desire to be Faith Hill, but hey). So he countrified it with a twang here and a twang there. We decided where he would pick, where he would strum, and where we would insert some percussion. The most intriguing observation he made was about the chord pattern on "Dagon Sphere" located in the bridge, which he thought was "more sci-fi than country." (Funny you should say that, was my initial response.) We went over it several times and ended up changing the D chord preceding "Dagon Shere" to an F. And at his suggestion, we added a G chord right after the F# chord at the end of the bridge to give an extra punch to the key change. "With the F# to the G, it's more of a 'Hey, we're modulatin'!'" he explained to me as he widened his eyes, hickified his voice, and over dramatically elbowed a pillow on the couch. (I'd have to say that was the highlight of the day.)

So when I came in today, we had it mostly figured out. We ran it a couple of times for polish, recalling what we did and didn't like in the last rehearsal. Oh, and I forgot to mention the fact that a lot of the elements of the arrangement I stole from a Lisa Loeb song. (When we watched the music video together, I realized how frighteningly close her guitar arrangement was to what I wanted mine to be. But the fact that I'm singing about vampires, vengeance demons, bringers, and such makes it a pretty different animal, so to speak...) Although I still think of it as a country-western ballad, it is definitely a hybrid of sorts. Along with the "sci-fi" chord progression in the bridge, the end of the song is very un-country. Whereas a country song would "milk the drama", drawing out the guitar and final verse as long as humanly possible, I wanted my song to end concisely, leaving the audience to fill in the rest. Also, instead of making the song louder after the bridge and key change, we decided to bring the volume way down. This was something we played around with while we were recording. I thought, "Who the heck am I to change the rules? This could sound awful, but let's give it a try." It sounded amazing. And it totally fit with the lyrics of the song, which you'll just have to hear to understand what I'm talking about.

Sadly, you can't hear it quite yet. We've still got to get Gary's drummer in for a session and lay down a percussion track. After that, I'll get together with trusty Andre, who's shot my last three videos, and we will make some multimedia magic. Sorry to tease you. If it's any consolation, I'm in exactly the same boat. Okay, maybe I have a little bit more of the inside scoop, but I want just as badly as you do (if not more) to see how it all turns out. In the meantime, I will tell you that the track I heard coming out of the speakers in Gary's West Hollywood home recording den was magic. It was gold. It was all the colors and textures and flavors we'd discovered, honed, and captured when the stars and guitars and creative energy that charged the electrons in the air were somehow perfectly aligned. Collaboration is infinitely fascinating, and I feel honored to be a part of it every time. And very soon, you'll be a part of it too. I promise you will.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Tinkering with Chords and Clay - Part 1

Blogs are great because they make you do things. I know I've said this before, but I'll say it again and will do so forever more. Since writing the last blog entry -- or more accurately, as a RESULT of writing the last blog entry -- I've really kicked it into gear. That very same day, I put an ad up on craigslist looking for a guitarist. A few days later, I took it upon myself to craft some accessories. For the Anya song, which is next to be released, I decided it would be cool to wear the amulet from the episode The Wish, in which on she first appears. I looked it up online, but couldn't find any website that sold replicas of the amulet. But did I let it stop me? Noooooo. I re-watched the episode, freeze-framed the necklace in close-up, drew a sketch of the pendant, took a trip to my local Michael's, and made a reproduction out of green and gold fimo (pictured above). Hopefully at least a few people will get the reference and appreciate it. But even if this one slipped under the radar, the gigantic, shiny, geeky-ghetto fabulous bling I made for the Faith song will most definitely not. I'm going to keep that one under wraps until the release of the video when it makes its big splash.

And while the jewelry was baking, my message-in-a-craigslist-bottle was floating far and wide. I ended up getting more responses than I could possibly use, or even know what to do with. There was one guitarist to particularly impressed me, with whom I followed up and corresponded several times but didn't totally work out in the end. And just when I was thinking I should crack into the initial wave of e-mail responses, I got a belated reply from the person who turned out to be my guy.

His name is Gary Dunn. He plays in a blues band and has studio recording space in his home. He also works in music licensing so he knows pretty much everything there is to know about music from the 18th century until now. When we met up for coffee two Fridays ago, I showed him the chord chart. Originally, the song was in the key of C, but I had changed it to B since -- despite it being more complicated -- it fit my vocal range a little better. It was a point of self-consciousness for me because I thought, "Here I am, diva singer, making everything all screwy-wonky to fit my needs." But his immediate response was, "I like the key of B. A lot of Rolling Stones songs were written in B. It's probably what fit Mick Jagger's vocal range the best." Wow, I thought, that just rocks in so many ways. First of all, you like the key. Second, you cited a Stones factoid that probably a lot of Stones fans don't even know. Third, you kind of sort of indirectly drew a parallel between Mick Jagger's voice and mine. How many points did you just earned in my book???

Finally this weekend, we synced up our schedules and rehearsed the song. There is much to tell from that, but I fear this blog entry is getting a little long so I'll pick it up another day. Hope you've enjoyed! I promise I'll report back soon.