A Room of One’s Own: The Story

How “A Room of One’s Own” came to be – April 08

I had a very tumultuous 2007. I did almost nothing musically, and music is usually my pressure valve for resolving excess tumult. Art is an emotional vent for me, and different things go different ways: Comics get outrage and incredulity, while tumult, sadness, frustration and anger go to music. Joy and astonishment typically go to plain old words. Twitter is converging some of these, however, this is still largely the way my brain works.

As a result, if I don’t or can’t use one of these vents and something is chewing at my brain, pressure tends to build up, and I lose the ability to think clearly or enjoy anything.

I moved to a very limited space late last year, and couldn’t really have done music the way it has value for me at all there. The pressure continued to build, unsympathetic to my situation, and I had to scramble to find alternative outlets. Unfortunately, all of the projects that I attempted to take on as alternatives are in states of partial completion, because they simply don’t get the ultimate job of quelling my demons done as well. I intend to revisit them, but they just aren’t the same.

Sometime during 2007, I became aware of Jonathan Coulton‘s wonderful Thing a Week experiment – quitting his job to pursue his then-hobby of making music, and setting a regimen for himself based simply on rigorous output – doesn’t matter what it is, but put something up once a week (or so, as JoCo tends to clarify.)

It was the next notch up from what I’d been doing for a while with various things like the comic and music – looking at something, saying “I could do that,” and just going for it, willing to fail miserably in exchange for the knowledge that I’d tried something new that deeply interested me. Thing a Week took that and put some pretty steep stakes on failing miserably; stakes I’m not yet willing to take on. Coulton did, and is enjoying the other side of those stakes; fame, artistic freedom, and the knowledge that he inspires many across the vast interwebs to pursue and share their work. Disregarding the man’s musical legacy, he will go down in history for sheer testicular fortitude.

He continued to inspire me with his attitude toward licensing, derivative works, accessibility to his fans, and his passionate defense of those who try something and put it out there for the world to see, knowing how cruel and unforgiving the world at large can be.

I was so taken by this, in fact, that in February 2008, I volunteered to be a production assistant for a DVD recording of a JoCo concert, when he made an open call on the internet. He’d played a gig in San Francisco and loved the venue, and decided “I could do that.”

In that process I was lucky enough to meet the man in person, stand in for him on stage for the light techs, and go to a restaurant supply store to buy big-ass gloves to handle dry ice with, among many other things – and I was just some guy on the internet who’d written about him once, and was a fan.

That amazing experience drove home very hard what setting a goal and going for it can result in, on several levels. I am sure he was terrified every step of the way, but look at what came of it for him – a sold out and stellar show, and I imagine the forthcoming DVD will sell like hotcakes. I was hesitant to throw my hat in the ring to help out, (for fear of fanboyish embarassment, having to take off work, drive a lot, etc) but now I have a wealth of amazing experiences (and some souvenirs) to show for it.

Shortly thereafter, in early March 2008, I was similarly inspired by Nine Inch Nails’ Creative Commons release of Ghosts I-IV. So inspired, in fact, that I immediately bought it, and wrote about how important I thought it was (joy and astonishment.) Everything about this release fascinated me: the PR, the distribution methods, the production methods, and the production timeline. 36 tracks in 10 weeks. That’s insane, I thought. Jonathan Coulton was insane at one a week. 3.5 a week?

The thing was, I absolutely loved Ghosts I-IV; it was less popular with many Nine Inch Nails faithful, as was The Fragile, because it was experimental, and instrumental, and from time to time (gasp) beautiful. There’s a running theme in NIN music of destroying something beautiful, both musically and lyrically, and I have always found it very similar to what I produce when trying to vent something off. Part of this is influence and part of it is simply my natural inclination.

In listening to it, I found many tracks that I could easily have created. This is not a self-aggrandizement or trivialization of the work, there are simply a few tracks on there that are very simple in composition and instrumentation and in keeping with the style that I happen to create.

One in particular is 13, on Ghosts II. If you have the album, you can go listen to it. If you don’t, I highly recommend you go buy the $5 downloadable version – or, you can just listen to it here, because due to its license, I can put it up for you to listen to.

It’s simple, it’s downtempo, most NIN fans probably snooze through it. When I listened to it, though, I heard what goes through my head all the time, and the precious little of that makes it out of my head and into some audible form bothers me. I listened to this, and I thought, once again, “I could do that.” What to do with that thought, though?

Right around this time, this ambition was reinforced by Joel Watson of the most excellent Hijinks Ensue webcomic, during his 8th podcast: (which he gave me permission to post an excerpt from)

Even though I went to college, I proved his point, as what I do for a living has absolutely no relation to what I went to school for. Both of us seem to have a “These tools are available, and I’ve always wanted do to this, so fuck it, let’s go” sort of attitude about these things.

That was when the plan began to form in my head, knowing I’d be financially able to move in the near future. I couldn’t do 3.5 songs a week – I probably couldn’t even manage 1 a week for a year and keep my day job, which I’ve grown fairly attached to. But I could do a brief period of pumping stuff out – more than could, needed to. This got me to thinking a lot about my need for a creative outlet, and my lack of skills at anything nondigital basically requiring that I have certain technology and a certain environment at my disposal.

This is how I came to the title; from A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf’s seminal essay on writing. Go go gadget Wikipedia:

The title comes from Woolf’s conception that, ‘a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction’ (chapter 1). It also refers to any author’s need for poetic license and the personal liberty to create art.

Mid-March, I finally had confirmation I was moving to a new place at the beginning of April, and would have some space. I figured I’d have some typical post-moving settling in, so I didn’t plan on launching this project immediately thereafter. I began chopping post-move-in tasks into chunks for weekends, so that ideally, by the first of May, I’d be ready to go. I liked the idea of it being a clean span of time like that.

I was still mentally forming the rules for my plan and dealing with moving stuff when at the very end of March, Joel posted the following, after being laid off:

I am giving myself 4-6 months to try and make a living as a cartoonist through this website (or at least carve out a path towards that goal). I am going to put my all into this site and NOT look for another day job. At the end of 4-6 months I’m going to evaluate the progress and decide whether or not to proceed as a full time cartoonist, or quietly slink back into the workforce.

I say this is the short version because this is NOT the “Manifesto” I’ve been promising. That is coming this week. I want you to know why I am doing this and what this site, and you readers mean to me. I want to be very open and transparent about the whole situation and the “experiment” that I will be running.

I suppose this page could be considered my version of the Manifesto he mentions, as I launch into a much more limited and safe venture than either Jonathan or Joel. Knowing they are out there and doing very well has helped curb my hesitation to go through with this.

I did, however, purchase a MIDI drum pad to complement my trusty mini-keyboard MIDI controller. Because I figured, if you’re gonna suck at electronic music, why not do it with some style?

The rules (as established May 1, 08)

The plan is to create 10 tracks in 12 weeks. This gives me 2 weeks of fucking up, which is only a half-assed nod toward being realistic, instead of actually being realistic. I’m giving myself a safety net with that. It also nicely rounds it up to 3 months, and it began on May1, 2008.

I have dozens of odds and ends, riffs and patches and wiring routes and so on saved on my hard drive from years of idle playing and work that just never developed into anything larger. None of this is allowed to be used. This project is designed to be entirely fresh material, created in this 3 month window.

Typically my songs are made in one sitting – I’m hit with something, and I work it out and polish it up as best I can in available time, and if it has reached critical mass enough for me to like it, I’m generally so excited to share it that I put it up without doing the deep and time-consuming polish. That won’t be the case here. I am not allowed to consider anything final or releasable without having stepped away from it for several hours. This will let me get fresh perspective on it, as well as curb my desire to get something up quickly to showcase the one cool part. That desire thus curbed, I will more inclined toward taking the time to really do the polish work that ironically is what I am best at. This may be limited by available time due to the output schedule and the aforementioned day job; hopefully the 2 extra weeks can be put to use doing a full-album polish sweep.

Documentation is not something I set rules for on this, aside from the weekly song posting with whatever comments I think are prudent. I think it creates a bit too much overhead and would be taking myself too seriously if I did a series of videos on youtube documenting this process – I wouldn’t if I was doing this full time, as a real and risky experiment in making a living at an interest. As it is, though, I am simply getting more serious about a hobby, and so I am not placing any goals on myself to document the process. This does not, however, mean that my natural inclination to blather on about whatever I’m doing at any given moment will not kick in. I have already begun to document some of this process in a small way on Twitter. I suppose I should start tagging those posts with #rooo.

The Postmortem – August 08

All of the above was written from late April to early May. It’s now August, and the album is done. It didn’t go quite like I’d hoped, but I have 10 tracks, album art, and I didn’t break any of my rules about using existing material. All in all, it was a very interesting experiment, but I am glad I kept the stakes rather low.

As I note in the first week’s release, I still feel obligated to direct people toward some recommendations to wash this album out of your ear canal, and to remind myself I don’t totally suck at this: Hope on the Wind, Daybreak, The Hopeless Romantic, and Diversionary Jam Session.

On the plus side, this experiment has taught me a lot, and given me the push I needed to begin moving songs like those linked above from vague groupings into proper albums with proper mixing and leveling, and a track order, and such.

I’d like to thank Joel Watson, Jonathan Coulton, and Trent Reznor for providing inspiration and motivation for this project; do not hold them responsible for the end product – my job and home duties deserve the blame for that, but as this incredibly long story has laid out, they each had a hand in me creating this, and I am grateful.

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