Happy Isolation Lunch Box Land.

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I’m spending February way out in the snow-covered woods, at an artists’ colony in Upstate New York. They’ve given me a tiny cabin with a piano in it where I’ve been writing songs and recording some electronic music. I walk to dinner in a 19th century mansion, where I eat with the fifteen other artists staying at this place, in a wood paneled Victorian dining room. The massive dining chairs have the faces of knights, and coats-of-arms, carved into the sides. There’s an actual tiara in a glass case. We eat breakfast there, too, and afterwards they give each of us a lunch box–a lunch box and a thermos!–with something for lunch in our studios. The other artists are mostly writers, but there’s visual artists, and a composer working on an opera, too.
The whole scene is a product of early 20th century noblesse oblige; the rich people who lived on this state started a trust so that artists could come here for free to work. It’s effective; I’ve finished three songs and a bunch of tracks for my Dubious Luxury electronic thing, and I’ve only been here eleven days. Because there’s really nothing else to do up here, no TV–which I don’t really watch at home, but turn on whatever reality product is on VH1 and let it drone in the background as an electric fireplace–and, in what has been the greatest grace of this place, no internet in the studios–there’s one room in the mansion with WiFi. No killing time on Facebook, instead of finishing the ever-troublesome second verse.
I feel kind of out of place here; everyone else seems a more ‘legitimate’ artist than me, a lowly singer/songwriter from the grubby world of commercially viable music. But that’s just in my head; everybody’s cool. They’re all fascinating, too, and, invariably, really, really talented. Fun suppers.
The bookshelves in the houses (there are a bunch of smaller mansions surrounding the imposing main house, with multiple writers’ studios) are filled with weird things. One has a huge collection of classical 78s–I said 78s!–that must be seventy years old if they’re a day. There’s no 78 player in sight. I was looking at some books and discovered one, published 1908, called The Gay Gnani of Gingalee. It’s signed by its author, one Florence Huntley, with a personal note to the baron of industry that owned this place.
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In my tiny cabin, I have a couple of mics and a bit of ultra-simple recording software, which is fine for laying down simple versions of things. I’ve been recording some covers as b-sides, to use as bonus tracks on the ‘real’ Mike Doughty album that I’ve been working on. (I’m using my name in the third person to describe my work, is that troubling?) The relative paucity of cover songs in the world has something to do with the way musicians get paid–most of us depend on ‘publishing’ income, which means songwriting income, to make a big chunk of our living. If you’re a genius interpreter of other peoples’ material, you’re shit out of luck in this music industry. I always think of my old running buddy in early 90s New York, Jeff Buckley. God bless him–and us, for having briefly shared the world with him–but his songwriting, in general (to me) just wasn’t as strong as his ability to get inside somebody else’s songs. But however transcendent his version of “Hallelujah” might be, there was no way he was going to put out an album full of ‘em–there’s no dough in it, and even geniuses have landlords.
I take pride in my left-field choices of cover songs, and I’ll have a handful of good ones, which I’ll spread across a couple versions of the album–the iTunes version, the physical retail version. I’ve gotten a couple of reviews where the critic has called me kitsch-monger for doing “The Gambler” and “Hungry Like the Wolf,” and I guess it would look like that if you don’t know me, but I really do find something wonderful and purely musical in all the covers I do–when I remake some 80s warhorse standard, I’m looking to reveal something weird or beautiful hidden under the surface of these things, to put a new light on it.
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I did my first interview, for the upcoming tour of Europe, in German, ever. It was an email interview, which makes it easier to put together sentences, but I swear to you I did not touch a dictionary. Of course, I sound weird and half-cocked in German–I’m turning into kind of a Deutsch version of Roberto Benigni in Down by Law. But the introduction to the interview said it was ‘charming’ and ‘soppingly authentic.’ NICE.
Here’s a link: http://www.echoes-online.de/blog/index.php?/archives/676-Interview-mit-Mike-Doughty-zu-Introduction.html
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Doing electronic dance music makes your ears incredibly tired. You listen to the same beat for hours at a time–boom bap, boom boom bap, it loops and loops all day long, as you make tiny adjustments and additions and subtractions. I find making this kind of stuff incredibly rewarding, but being in the face of all that repetition takes a toll. I have my speakers and laptop set up at a desk by a window where I look at trees, and fat woodchucks running around hilariously, and watch owls turn their heads in that weird way that owls turn their heads. When the boom-boom-boom stops, that slight, tiny note of ringing in my head is incredibly, incredibly loud.
Working on Ableton Live (it’s music software) you cut and paste and manipulate things in a way analogous to using a word processor–it’s really that easy. So the process itself is so simple that you end up rethinking and adjusting everything just because the motion of changing it is so simple. Cut that break after that one part, put it at the end; take out the drums here; put some more drums in there; take everything out where that big blast of weird synthy horn is, to make it more prominent; cut up the vocal into slices to make it sound weirder. The simplicity makes it ever harder to walk away from the computer, and so you sit there longer, and the repetition keeps repeating, and your ears get more and more exhausted. Sometimes I work for hours and realize that I’ve taken something, changed it, changed it again, changed it for umpteen times, and then finally, when I’m satisfied with it, I’ve turned it back into exactly what it was in the first place.
I’m digging that I’m in this cabin, with a piano, clearly put together with a ‘legitimate’ composer in mind, and I’m making all this quasi-freaky, quasi-dance-floor-y groovy music.
One of the odder pleasures of being up here is that I can walk around without keys–my whole world is the walk past the other houses to the mansion, to pick up my lunchbox (and to post this blog in the WiFi parlor). I leave the house everyday without my wallet. But there’s something about the pull of consumerism that’s made me go slightly insane–I went into a nearby town to pick up some stuff, and ended up spending 60 bucks at CVS–spending money is a primal need, and I was starved.
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Wow, I’m looking over what I’ve been blogging here, and it looks like I’m taking what I’m doing really, really seriously. I don’t take myself that seriously, really, but I guess being in this environment where you’re encouraged to feel like you’re doing something important–the dinners, the lunchboxes, the fact that the people who work here are under strict orders not to disturb you–it’s easy to take your work seriously. I have a little disdain for myself, believing this, but it does feel nice.