Takin’ It to the Streets

The sun sets down beneath Waikiki beach as streetlights flicker on. The faint scent of car exhaust, cheap perfume and spf 50 mingle in the air. People come and go to and from restaurants, bars, ABC stores and the beach – some with a sense of purpose, some meandering, everyone out for a good time.

I set up right off an intersection in a little alcove facing a shopping plaza. Almost immediately I realize I’m in over my head. My FX pedals have run out of batteries. My vocal harmonizer is going haywire. And when I do finally get up and running (hobbling more like) it’s with the growing realization that most people really aren’t interested. My tiny speaker isn’t carrying the sound as well as I’d hoped and my semi-soft voice suddenly seems to be in a shouting match with the street traffic and liquored-up loud mouths walking by.

An hour goes by with more and more people streaming past without so much as a glance and my spirits begin to dampen. So this was where having “tough skin” comes in, I think to myself. I’d heard from friends who frequently street perform that you need to develop an indifference towards people ignoring you and keep playing through the ego-killing apathy. All it takes is one or two people connecting with your music to give you the fuel to keep going.

Sure enough, as I begin getting more confident I start seeing some head bobs and thumbs up (even a few dollars thrown in the jar here and there). A couple of drunk dudes yell requests (no, Free Bird is not part of my repertoire). At some point two girls come and sit down on the wall next to me. They listen to around 10 songs, clapping at the end of each and asking if I know certain fave artists. I even let one of them come up and face her fear of performing in front of people by joining me on for couple of tunes. It’s a cool moment.

Towards the end of my set a large preacher man with a bent on hellfire and brimstone comes and sets up too close for comfort, his voice all but drowning out the subtleties of my playing. I decide that’s my cue to skidoo and pack up to begin the long trek back to the parking lot (parking in Honolulu is a nightmare).

Later on the drive home I asked myself ‘was it worth it?’ I think it was. Sure, I made the equivalent of minimum wage and walked what felt like miles draggin’ my wagon full of gear (I’m a poet and I know it). And even though I didn’t attract crowds or receive the standing ovations that I had built up in my mind (mostly because everyone was already standing), at least I DID IT. I experienced something new. I made connections with people that I wouldn’t have otherwise. I gained a much greater respect for the regulars who perform on the streets day in and day out.

So here’s my recommendation to my readers: next time you find yourself walking down a city street and you see someone with a mic and an instrument (or a deck of cards or a silver robot suit) sharing their talents – baring their heart and soul to random strangers – give them a quick moment of your time or a couple bucks (as long as they are actually talented haha and not just a hack singing off-tune karaoke in the best street corner…yeah shade thrown).

Really, life is all about connection. Whether it’s with someone you’ve known your whole life or a stranger singing your favorite song on the streets, you never know how you could make someone’s night or have yours made. Also, if you have any decency at all, PLEASE NEVER ask a musician to play freebird. EVER. Thanks

Deep Thoughts

The sunlight makes interesting reflections on my wall. I try to take a photo to capture the vibe but (as usual) a pic doesn’t do it justice. My mind is all over the place. I’ve been on Oahu for 3 weeks now and have played exactly 1 gig (and it wasn’t even my gig). Doors are opening and then slamming in my face left and right. What can you do? Just keep trying.

I’ll admit depression creeps in and I wonder why. Why am I even here (making a go at a life in music, living on my own, existing)? I’ve always gone straight to the existential. Probably one of the reasons I don’t have many close friends. I wonder if other people have these thoughts, or if they’re just content with the mundane day to day stuff; with feeding the dog before work and looking forward to going out for beers on the weekend. I envy that carefree spirit at times. But I also know that my deep thoughts make me more likely to wax poetic. So there’s that.

My mom used to say “How can I be in two places at once when I’m really nowhere at all”? Right now I feel like I’m both. Still worrying about my family’s lives and just sort of floating here, taking up space but invisible. I’ve always had the feeling that I’m part ghost, like people never really see me for who I am, just some half-shell. Oh well. Maybe the full me would be too much for them to handle (it’s too much for ME to handle sometimes).

I can’t help but feel like we as humans (at least in western society) overvalue doing and becoming and creating more than simply being. Of course that might sound like a cop out for the guy that is making less than most fresh-out-of-high school fast food workers. But it really does seem like our identity begins to become our vocation. One of the first questions after meeting someone is “What do you do for work?” Maybe some of that is just small talk in action but I’ve definitely felt the pressure to be successful at X so I can tell people I’m successful at x. Pressure that -whether self-inflicted or not- can introduce feelings of inadequacy when X doesn’t pan out.

Where am I actually going with this? I don’t know (if I’m being honest). I just woke up with these thoughts parading around in my mind and decided what better way to formulate them then by writing them into a blog post that nobody will read? So there you go.

Livin is Easy (In Kalihi)

Looking back towards the Kalihi, Manoa, Palolo valleys
I’m standing on a crusty shore, looking out across the water as canoe teams yell out “hup!” “Ho!” and the sun slowly fades below the hills. I can see Kalihi valley where my new home sits nestled among hundreds of other houses, packed together like rice in a bowl. The evening air is still hot as I let out a sigh, somewhere between grateful and alone.

Moving was not an easy choice for me. I was comfortable in my life on Big Island. Work my day job at my sister’s flower business, work on my music in the mornings and on weekends, help my parent’s with chores and odd jobs around the house. Repeat. Plenty of time for self-care and chillin. I could have stayed and been completely ok with my existence as a part-time songwriter.

But there’s been this nagging in the back of my mind, an itch to really give this music thing more of a go. I admit that I’m still figuring out what that means (am I wanting to get famous? Write for others? Be a fixture in the live gigging scene?) but that’s ok I’m finding. Dreams can be vague as long as you chisel them into reality at some point. So that’s what I’m attempting to do.

I’ve gotten quite a bit of advice from friends about where to start. My friend Jon who used to busk on the streets of Waikiki said that I just gotta show up and start playing out on the sidewalk, despite what local security might have to say. My buddy Chaz thinks I could do well writing for sync (I’ve done some of that already…). And I know more than a few acquaintances that are living the full-time gig life. So THAT’S a viable option. I’m trying to be open to anything while keeping honest about what I really feel will be enriching and not go counter to my style & personality (having cops show up in the middle of a song and tell me to move before I get arrested doesn’t sound like my idea of fun or relaxing).

I’ll be honest it’s a strange time to uproot and change locales. The Rona is still rampant, and many venues are flying by the seat of their pants. But that’s true everywhere, not just Honolulu. I think I made the right choice. It’s a new chapter, a new adventure. And if nothing else it’s already given me some fuel for writing new songs. I’ll just keep following the muse and see where the music takes me.

Object Writing – June 4th

Channel

I recall sitting on the plush worn couch, beige with scratchy duct tape to keep the filling from spilling out. TV screen, tiny with rabbit ears tilted just so to catch the cartoons. Cool bowl in my hand I slurp milk and the last of the cheerios slides over my tongue, down my throat to meet its end. I remember nights after dinner, dad surfing the channels, amalgamation of bright-lit images and stuttered phrases. Sometimes I would get to have the remote, the slick black plastic slippery in my hand, rubber buttons hard to press where my sister’s rabbit had chewed the tops of them off. The night warm and humid I catch a cane spider lurking on the wall and instinctively jump in my seat. A broom would shoo it away but I’m too lazy so instead I watch warily from the corner of my eye, pretending I’m a chameleon while Pat and Vanna announce the next puzzle. Scent of mango and cotton–

Looking too hard

My tortoise ran away yesterday. When I say he ran away, I mean my dad let him out of his fence. Dad likes to let Simon graze in the yard, but got sidetracked and forgot about him until after dark. We spent a good while looking for the 80 lbs African Sulcada with flashlights up and down the property to no avail and eventually decided to give up the search. Then this morning I decided to look underneath the truck parked right next to his area. Low and behold; there he was! He’d hunkered down for the night.

My creative mind instantly formed a metaphor (if you know me you know I never met a phor I didn’t like). In songwriting, I find that often I spend a ton of time searching for the perfect lyric, only to find that the one that works best was close to my initial idea. It’s easy to go down rabbit trails (see what I did there….tortoise…hare..?), opening up rhyming dictionaries and reconstructing every syllable, redefining meanings and setting. But there’s something about going with your gut that usually cuts through all the extra stuff. The best ideas usually are the most intuitive and obvious, and sometimes fighting against that first instinct can lead to unnecessary work. Before I get going too fast down the road of idea-dom I’d do well to remind myself that getting a good line doesn’t always mean getting bent out of shape. Time and time again I’ve found great lyrics are often simple and the ones that at first I was afraid to accept because [insert reason].

One thing that keeps my mind churning for better lyrics constantly is the fact that there are a lot of mediocre (and even terrible) lyrics out there, some written by yours truly. So that being a real concern, it is important to be selective and not settle. The problem for me is that I swing the pendulum too far the other way where nothing is good enough. It’s like the old adage says; half a loaf is better than none. So we keep baking, keep searching, keep mixing metaphors till we have results that we’re (at least halfway) proud of. TLDR; the best ideas will usually land close to home. Just like my tortoise.

Playlists & Plateaus

Photo by Zhengyu Qi on Unsplash

The music industry is changing. Has changed. This isn’t surprising, as it was only a matter of time once streaming became a thing that music would be mostly thought of as something that is free (or at most worth a $10 monthly subscription). As artists, though, this presents some weird challenges. The keys to getting heard globally now lie in the playlists one’s music gets on, the marketing you do on social media, the intriguing story you have. It’s gone way past just making music for the sake of making music. If you want to be heard and get paid by people listening to your songs, you’ve got to hang with the new gang.

At the risk of sounding jaded, I miss the days when I used to just write and play music because that’s what I wanted to do. When you didn’t feel like you had to share everything you did with the world. Those were purer times, with no ulterior motives or monetary fishhooks. I do think that there’s still space for that, and that the best music often comes from that honest and pure place. It’s just that as an artist trying to stay relevant, you need to consider the tools and industry practices that have become the norm for music consumption. Playlists and online marketing strategies aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. So you stay in the loop, hoping to maintain a respectable level of listenership (and collect those royalty pennies). To me an artist’s job is to be able to write from that real place regardless of external things going on around.

I do think that at the end of the day, the quality of the song should rule. Unfortunately there’ve been too many instances of good marketing creating buzz for a subpar song (Rebecca Black’s ‘Fiday’ comes to mind). The same can be said for production quality; it’s become popular to put more emphasis on a song’s production, feel, and vibe, than on the structural and lyrical integrity of the song, which to me is sad. I heard a great quote from Phoebe Bridgers the other day. She said “There are a lot of great songs that hide behind shitty production, and a lot of shitty songs that hide behind great production.” I’m all for music that makes you feel a certain way and is produced with state-of-the-art tools, interesting sounds and great melodies. I just don’t agree with relegating the lyrics down to the role of afterthought.

Maybe this whole semi-rant is being brought on by the plateau I’ve seen in my own writing since trying to keep up with the musical Joneses. It can be rewarding in it’s own right to come up with content and share some of your personality with others in innovative ways, but also you have to use a lot of non-creative energy to do things like run your social media, keep an updated website, submit to blogs and playlist curators, keep track of music income and expenses and do interviews and podcasts. I feel like I’m in that place where I’m not quite ready to delegate these more manager-y tasks to someone (plus I’ve got zero money to pay anyone to do it professionally) but am definitely wearing too many hats, and some of ’em don’t fit very well. I guess I’m figuring it all out like every other artist in these strange times. I just want to make sure I keep myself grounded in the fact that I am, after all, a songwriting and performing artist. Everything else is just a necessary evil.

Happy little accidents

I’ve been chipping away at my next release, going through each song and revising lyrics, arrangements, mixes, etc. Some days it feels like I’m fighting an invisible force, duking it out with my perfectionism & what I call my release anxiety. There’s a part of me that doesn’t want to share my art, for fear of it being ridiculed, or worse being met with a “meh”.

I think all artists struggle with this feeling to some degree. Whenever my friends are showing me a new song they are working on or having me listen to their latest mix, there’s always the self-conscious explanation: “it’s not done yet”. It’s a scary thing to show what’s basically an extension of yourself to a group of people who may not give a damn.

It can feel like a curse to hold so tightly to your creative “children”, feeling like your art is full of holes still, an incomplete sham. But the flip side is that without that feeling of anxiety and self-critique we’d all be putting out mediocre garbage (many still do). When I’m in a headspace where I feel like a fraud or like my art isn’t anything special, I try to turn that on it’s head and thank myself and my inner critic for being such a stickler for quality.

As the new music model changes, I’ve decided to release my full length album as two separate EP’s online, spaced about a month apart, then to hopefully put all the songs together on a physical album. Not only does this make more sense from a “bang for the buck” standpoint, but it also allows me to focus on 5 or 6 songs at a time.

The painter Henri Matisse said “Creativity takes courage”, and concur. But I also take comfort in the words of the late great Bob Ross: “We don’t make mistakes, just happy little accidents”.

 

Chaos Theory

Coming up as a young wanna-be musician in Hawaii, I had a pipedream about being a rock star. I was convinced that if I could learn a couple common chords, I could play just about anything (at least the radio hits and Christian worship songs that my sheltered ears were hearing at the time). I bought a guitar- nixing to spend the money on a trip to Honolulu with friends because I was SERIOUS about it!- and got to learning my G, Em, C & D chords. It was rough going in the beginning (especially since I was a southpaw learning to play right-handed).

Over the years I’ve spent some time honing in on the craft of musicianship, and while I still consider myself an artist who happens to play a few instruments, I’ve gained confidence as a player. I’ve jammed with musicians of all calibers, from those who needed to stop every chord change and find their fingers to those who are advanced far beyond my musical prowess. And what I’ve seen is that while it’s not the end all be all, knowing music theory can definitely be useful.

I remember being in my first serious band (serious in that we put records out and did an interi-sland tour) LifeinPursuit. It was myself and my two friends, Chase and Carl Kauhane. I played drums and helped write the songs. We were all pretty young and dumb when it came to the music biz, and I was the only one who knew anything about chords, key and theory (and that wasn’t a whole lot). When learning a new cover, if the lead singer Chase didn’t know a chord he would just stay on the previous chord and sing the melody over it. Sometimes it actually worked out pretty well. Other times not so much. Carl and I both sang harmonies. We never really talked about what parts to take or tried changing the harmonies if there was a dissonant note. We just came up with our parts in our heads, and if they sounded good to us, we kept them. It was pure in a way, unrefined. We had confidence despite our lack of knowledge (it helped that Chase and Carl had two of the most naturally gifted musical ears of anybody I’d ever known).

The singer-songwriter community (of which I’m a part) seems to be less well-versed in theory and the left brained side of things. And why should they be? Lyrics are the most important thing in a songwriter’s toolkit (or melody if you write more pop-based music), and you don’t need a lot of theoretic music knowledge for those skills. Gone are the days when you had to be great at composing melodies, rhythm, lyrics, notation, in-depth chord progressions ala the George and Ira Gershwin era.

Another thing is that these days feel trumps all (at least in popular music) and everything is so specialized. The last few songwriting conferences I’ve been to can attest to that. When we’d break into writing sessions, there would be a “writer” (the lyrics and melody), “artist” (singer + helps with melody), “producer” (creates the track + helps with melody and direction) and “supervisor” (helps keep the focus on the feel of what the song is trying to emulate). Of course, these conferences are more geared towards writing for commercial purposes like film and TV, so there’s much more of a focus on the vibe of the song and how it relates to its potential placement (emotional backdrop for a scene in This Is Us, happy-go-lucky high & energy themes for a Coca Cola ad, etc.).

But as a performing artist, I can’t tell you how many times it’s come in handy to know basic concepts like how to change keys and what scale sounds best over a chord change. I’ve been at the other end too many times early in my career, where I was asked to take a solo on uke or guitar and wound up wincing my way through wrong note after wrong note, guessing the whole time. It’s not a good feeling. It’s like running a 5k without any training and having to stop and rest a mile in. So even though my artistic pride sometimes suffers when I focus on the “equations” of music (why does this chord sound good with this other chord? What note can I change in this harmony to get it to sound less dissonant? Etc.) in reality it’s very beneficial in real life situations. And unfortunately, even dream-filled creatives have to live in the real world.

I honestly believe that some people are just more inclined to the technical aspects of music, while others are more “feel” or “heart” players. The more artistic types seem to be less in the mathematical headspace required memorize inversions or refer to the circle of fifths. We just want to write and play music that speaks to us on a visceral level and knowing too much about the process can sometimes seem like a buzzkill. It’s fine and dandy if you have someone (or multiple people aka a band) who can do the other stuff, but as a solo artist sometimes you gotta grit your teeth and do things you don’t like. That’s what separates the successful people from unsuccessful.

One thing I’ve learned is that sometimes, you’ve got to wear multiple hats. During the process of recording my current album, I’ve been in the producer’s chair, the arrangers seat, been my own session musician, and of course written and performed all the songs. I’ve learned the limits of how much I can do that’s out of my natural element before getting burnt out and discouraged. But damn there’s nothing like having to figure things out, having to get a grasp on basic and complex chords, arrangement, even basic recording and engineering. Knowledge isn’t everything in music, but it does help a lot to speak the same language as your peers and be able to translate your ideas into reality.

Everybody has a different experience. I sometimes wish I could just write, sing and rap, that I didn’t have to push my brain to learn stuff that it’s not naturally good at, that I didn’t have to inflate my concentration to the level it takes to sing and play the chords (and simultaneous rhythm and sometimes percussion too), or think about things like inversions and dotted eighths notes that make my head swim. But I’ve come to appreciate the fact that I can see both sides of the musical coin. Sometimes it’s good to pull the curtains back and see what makes things work so that you can improve.

The Life of a Functioning Scatterbrain

Hi, I’m Ryan and I’m a scatterbrain.

Sure, I have my moments of clarity and concentration, but way too often I find my mind unable to lock in on any one thought or task, instead swirling them all together with distractions and future plans, hoping that they’ll coagulate into something I can work with.

But focus doesn’t work like that. It likes to check things off, one at a time. It’s calm, collected, stations in the present. In a way it’s like there’s this inner battle between chaos & order. Too often I let the chaos rule, and it results in unproductive days (which I hate) and a plethora or hours-long rabbit trails. That’s right I said a plethora.

In this digital age, where only a couple clicks separate work and flash mob videos, focus and attention have become scarce commodities. Honestly if you even read this far without checking your phone I’m impressed. There are a million things vying for our attention at any given time, be it in the real world or the cyber one. It’s a lot. So yeah, I’m a casualty of distraction’s war on my mind more often than I’d like to admit.

Since becoming aware of this state (awareness is the first step), I’ve begun to come up with some hacks to get my focus back on track, so I can pick up slack and keep my brain intact without letting my attention fall through the cracks. *Ahem* They don’t call me wordy dirty for nothing (nobody calls me that).

One simple thing I have found to keep me in the zone (not the twilight zone) is to leave my phone in another room (or turn it off) while I’m focusing on a particular project. “What?” you say, “Ryan, how do you capture the moments for your Instagram story and post funny hashtags with you phone OFF?” Well it turns out “pics, or it didn’t happen” is a myth (I know I was just as surprised) and that you aren’t going to lose half your followers by getting off the social media grid for an hour. This was a shock to me, and something I still need to remind myself often. Like every day. Sometimes twice.

Another trick to turn my hocus pocus into a magnum opus by way of focus is to define one thing that I’d like to get done. That’s right, ONE THING. My scatterbrain rebels and says “but why do one when you can TRY and accomplish 10 things? Hmmmm? We WANTSS IT, PRECIOUS!! [Gollum voice]” That’s when I have to break out the comeback of “I’d rather do one thing well, than a bunch of things mediocre” (take that, scatterbrain! (Also, is it weird that I have this many convos with myself?)). It’s easy to feel snowed under when going after multiple projects at once. So I’ve been trying to focus my efforts on one thing before I move on. This can be tricky as an artist because I’m constantly getting new ideas and wanting to run with them. What I end up with is hundreds of voice memos on my phone that just sit there, untouched. If I have an idea I think is a keeper, I’ll try and capture the essence of it at the time, but then I move on, or risk “rabbit-trail-it is” (Medical term). Look, is it nice to start ten new songs in a day? Sure, but you know what’s even better? Finishing an entire song.

One more thing I’ve recently been employing are positive affirmations. Taking a few minutes before I begin a task to reassure myself that I’m in the right headspace. Things like “I am focused on my task”, “I’m grounded in this moment”, or “I am not thinking about Cardi B’s hot new music video” (that one sometimes can have the reverse effect). It can feel a little new age-y at first (summon that third eye, damnit) but it’s really just a tool to bring your full attention back from whatever long dark taverns it may have been loitering in. And my attention is known to frequent some doozies.

 

So yeah, I’m a scatterbrain. But me and focus are starting to see things more eye to eye.

Up to no good (well, some)

kalopa kung fu

It can be pretty isolating living up in the hills on an island. Sometimes I lose track of time and forget what day it is. I enjoy the solitude, but I it does make connecting with others a little tricky. Thanks to the interwebs, I can still be a part of a community while sitting in my home studio listening to cardinals sing. It’s not quite face to face, but the next best thing.

My recluse life isn’t completely idle; I’ve been chipping away at my first full-length album (10 songs and counting!). I’m trying to do as much of it diy, in my humble home studio, as possible for financial reasons, and because I’m the only one that can completely understand and interpret what’s going on in my quirky Hawaii-Irish brain. I have though gotten some much-needed outside help in the form of my friends Alan (hardware and mixing expertise, excitement) and Brad (mic/gear loan, musical expertise, moral support). 

Below are some pics of my foray through the recording process. It’s been a challenge, and there are some days where I’m at a complete loss on how to get from “a cool idea in my head” to “a dope song”, but it’s been rewarding in its own way, and caused me to really be intentional about each lyric, each part, each drum hit. Cause I’m into details like that. 

With any luck (and some hair-pulling)The new album should be out by Springtime 2020. I’m looking forward to sharing these songs with you! Thanks for being part of my music and life.