On Compiling an Album

Katt here again! This weekend, Wax Chaotic went down to CONtraflow in New Orleans. (Awesome, awesome con. Go, if ever you can.) As we try to do whenever we go to conventions, we sent out word that we’d like to make a con video. This usually entails an informal performance of a new(/-ish) song and some fan Q&A. The only question submitted to us was one best answered by me alone, so I thought I’d write up my response as a blog entry. We also couldn’t come up with a song to perform for the video that was actually ready to be released to the world, so sadly, we have no con video from CONtraflow.

But we do have this blog entry! We were asked,

… how do you go about deciding which songs (or to-be-written songs) should go on the same album, or what seems like it would even be a good concept to start with?

I’ll answer this question a bit backwards.

First, how do I decide what a good idea for an album concept is? Well, I’m not sure the answer to that will be overly helpful—to date, every themed album of which I’ve conceived has been thought of completely randomly. I just get an idea for something, and run with it. “[untitled]” came about because I was writing songs pertaining to my own life—”Coat of Scars”, “Buttons”, and “[untitled]” itself just to name a few—and figured that if I were ever going to publish studio recordings of them, I might as well do so as part of some sort of appropriately-themed project.

“Faces in the Fog”, for the record, was never intended to have a specific theme. It just randomly happened to turn into a compilation of a bunch of songs that were, for the most part, spooky stories.

I have multiple other themed album ideas in the works behind the scenes, and I don’t want to say too much about any of them just yet. But I will say that, like “[untitled]”, they mostly came into existence by complete happenstance.

As for the second part of the question, concerning an album’s content, if I’m working with a theme, then that part’s pretty easy. The theme for “[untiled]”, for example, is, “Where I’ve been, where I am, and where I’m going”. Once I knew that, I knew that I wanted to have songs for the project pertaining to several very important aspects of my life—long-time friends (“Partners in Crime”), found family (“Lost Girls”), cats (“Wild Hair Time”), the love of my life (“In a Hundred Different Ways”), the effects and social ignorance of psychological abuse (“Hand-Me-Downs”), finding the value of hardship (“Coat of Scars”), and others.

I’m currently working to round out rough track list drafts for two future themed albums, and in the process of doing that, I’m mostly writing down ideas. I know that I want to include in an album a song about this thing or maybe this other thing, so I’ll note that down and think of ways in which I might write a story or discuss the idea in question.

I’m also working to round out the track list for “Vagabonds”, which is intended to be Wax Chaotic’s first album. We hope that it will be a live album comprised of performances of various songs from shows during our 2015 tour. And its theme is…no theme at all. Which I suppose is appropriate for a group calling itself “Wax Chaotic”. (One of the things I love best about that name is that it sort of gives us the ability to do whatever we want to creatively as we feel the need to do so.)

So how am I deciding what songs should go on this disc? Simple: They need to be things that don’t already have a studio version available. Even better if they’re songs so new that no one has heard them before. We’re considering a possible exception to both of these rules (largely because having a live version of “The Singing of Dragons” with some good audience participation would make us really happy bards), but for the most part, I’m doing my best to stick to them when conceiving of track list ideas to get Sean’s input on.

And that’s about all there is to it at the moment. I really enjoyed answering this question, so thanks, Gabrielle, for asking it! I hope I managed to give you some useful information!

If you’d like to ask us—or any combination of us (the both of us, just me, or just Sean)—a question, you can do so on our Facebook page. If it’s something we can both weigh in on, it might even be featured in one of our YouTube videos!

Until next time, thanks for reading!

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Advice for Beginner Songwriters

Hey everyone! Katt here. I figured I’d publish this post on this blog instead of on my studio blog, as the question I’m endeavoring to answer was asked of Wax Chaotic rather than Dragon Scale Studios.

A few months ago, we were asked on Facebook what advice we have for aspiring songwriters. Since I’m currently the one doing the songwriting for Wax Chaotic, I thought I would try my hand at furnishing an answer. The reason I’m doing this as a blog post instead of in a video Q&A session as was originally intended is because it got a little long…

So we might as well begin! First and foremost:

If you’re writing for an audience, figure out who that will be
It might be useful to be cognizant of the tastes of anyone you’re writing for. They should not be the end all, be all of your songwriting existence—it is imperative that you write for YOU, too—but if you intend to show your pieces to anyone, it is highly recommend that, at the very least, you be aware of when you might offend them, for example. A song like “Fall from Grace” isn’t likely to go over that well at a festival sponsored by, say, a Baptist church.

Don’t weed your garden too closely
Don’t be afraid of your ideas. Don’t worry yet if they’re good or not. You’re just starting out. Just see what comes out of your mind and play around with it. Even if you’re not sure it’s good, it might turn into something amazing in the future. Alternatively, your audience may surprise you by latching onto it as something they really love.

Study the language you’re working with
By its very nature, lyrical songwriting requires more conciseness than writing prose. If you better understand the language you’re writing in, you will be able to use it more effectively.

Study music theory—at least the basics
You don’t have to be a master at music theory to be a musician, but knowing something about it will definitely help. For example, it’s useful for all of the parts of your song—verse, chorus, and middle eight if you’ve got one—to all be in the same key. Since I tend to write songs piecemeal rather than all at once, it’s not uncommon for me to get a tune idea for one part that’s in a different key than a tune idea for another part. Understanding the basics of how that works not only allows me to recognize when I’ve done that, but fix the problem, as well. That saves us a lot of time and trouble down the line.

Plus, if you understand how stuff like that works, you can add in intentional key changes and the like where you want them.

Don’t be afraid to sit down at a keyboard
If you have trouble writing melodies to go with your lyrics, even just a basic keyboard will help. Make sure it has at least as many octaves on it as you can sing comfortably (or that your vocalist can sing comfortably, if you’re writing for someone else). Don’t worry if you don’t know how to play piano. Just plunk around and see what sounds you like. I find this very helpful sometimes when I’m working on a new melody; hunting and pecking with my own voice only gets me so far for some songs. It’s nice to hear what other alternatives exist, and sitting down at the keyboard allows me to do that.

Don’t be afraid to ask for advice
When you’re ready to start sharing your pieces with other people, don’t be afraid to ask your friends and those you trust to help with your writing process. Sometimes a second set of eyes or pair of ears can be the difference between loving something you’ve written, and remaining lukewarm about it (or hating it).

Don’t ever go anywhere without a way to jot down an idea, or a way to record a melody sample
This is pretty self-explanatory.

Just don’t. Trust me.

You could use a notepad, your cell phone, or anything else that works for you. I have an .mp3 player with recording capability that I’ve used more for songwriting than I have for playing music. I’ve also been known to whip out my phone and sing and/or talk at it for a few minutes. The means by which you record your ideas don’t matter, only that you record them.

If this is something you’re serious about, remember that this is WORK, and treat it as such
You might hate working with deadlines. You might prefer to only write songs that come to you in a flash of inspiration, rather than sitting down and teasing an idea out over a period of hours or days…or years. While there is nothing wrong with either method of working, if songwriting is something you really want to do seriously, you’re going to have to get over yourself. Yes, you are an artist. But yes, you need to work with some measure of discipline, or you will never get anything done. Be prepared to dedicate a lot of time to your craft. Be prepared to make sacrifices where necessary. And yes, be prepared to force yourself to write sometimes. I know this is probably counter-intuitive because we’re used to the idea that forcing creativity produces nothing but crap, and while that is true to a point, you won’t get anywhere if you don’t make yourself work at it. Even if all you come away with is an outline for where you want your song to go, that’s more than you had when you sat down.

I very rarely ever sit down and braindump an entire song into the world. The majority of my songwriting is done over a period of days, weeks, or months—and yes, in some cases, years—and is something I really put a lot of thought and effort into. There’s a lot of brainstorming. I absolutely work with deadlines. So if time management is not your forte, it might benefit you to look into learning how to become better at it.

Important note: The word “serious” as used in the above paragraph is meant to denote “those who wish to be professional songwriters”, but it might also be used to denote “those who really, really enjoy songwriting, but who may or may not wish to be professional songwriters”. As far as that goes, there is no right or wrong way to do this. You go with whatever level of activity or definition of the word “serious” works for you. As long as you enjoy what you’re doing, that is all that matters.

Find the process that works for you
It’s not uncommon for me to write something in my notebook only to then cross them out. Sometimes I come back to a song later and, upon realizing that it doesn’t quite say what I wanted it to, I will rewrite the entire thing. This is a legitimate way to work. You are not doing anything wrong by taking your time, or by rewriting things. You are finding your way to a process that works for you. And as long as whatever process that may be works for you, then that is what matters.

* * * * * * * * * *
And I think that about covers all of my thoughts on this subject for the time being. If anyone reading would like some clarification on the above, or was hoping I would discuss an idea and failed to, please let me know in the comments!