Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Somethin' American

With the Beijing Olympics behind us and the US presidential elections just before us, with the housing market and our once esteemed economy on life support, and with our stature in and policies on world affairs increasingly questioned, we have rarely needed a period of patriotism and focus on unity and commonality as much as we do now.

While I was happy that during this year's summer games the American-beats-Michelle-Kwan incident felt less relevant than ever, I am a little bit discouraged when the US presidential campaigns start to drudge up questions about race and fear of Somethin' Americans.

This song is about the hope that there exists unity in diversity. It's about commonality. The simple things that tie is together. The fact that we live where we do or grew up where we did. Our clothing, our right to vote, the air that we breathe; the fruit, vegetables, and meat that we find in our grocery stores. It's all the same stuff. We may wear it or prepare it differently, but it's the same.

Ironically, the most American I've felt has not been while living in any of the nine states that I've lived in. It's not when I've cast my vote, or paid my taxes. It's when I've traveled abroad to Europe or Asia and have been immersed in other cultures. That's when it becomes plainly obvious. There's never any discussion about whether I'm Somethin' American or not. They just see me -- and treat me -- as American.

There are times when we need to dissect our differences and in doing so realize opportunities to educate, communicate, and progress. There are times when we need to find inspiration in commonality. Now is a time for the latter. Although we can all claim to be Somethin' American, now is the time when we ought all to simply be, American.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Campfire dynamics, Costanoa, plus video update

Last Thursday and Friday I had the chance to do some light car camping with coworkers at an "eco adventure resort," Costanoa, which is about 24 miles south of Half Moon Bay in the San Francisco Bay Area.

 Among any group of people around any campfire, it almost always seems like there's a handful of folks who know how to play a tune on the guitar. How these ax wielders reveal their hidden talents to the group -- or even whether they reveal them at all -- is always an interesting phenomenon to behold.

First, there are those that actually bring their guitars to the campground -- they've learned a few songs, have played mainly in isolation, and recognize an opportunity to perform. Not all of them will actually gather up the courage to take their guitars out of their cars, however. Those that bring their guitars to the campfire and actually take them out of the case will fall into a couple of different categories. Some will play quietly and wait for the attention of the larger group. Others will boldly take charge and start playing a full set. Among those that did not bring a guitar, there are some who will volunteer to play the single song they know... then eek out a few notes that are barely discernible, yet somewhat entertaining. Then there are those that insist they do not play but leave enough hints to suggest that they are holding something back. After some persuading, they reluctantly pick up the guitar and then proceed to play a number that far exceeds expectations.

Regardless, of their personality type and skill level, almost anyone who has played guitar has at one point pondered the allure of strumming a guitar around a campfire for a captive, participative audience that sings along and sways, arms in arms, to Kumbaya or another campfire standard -- although this scenario does not always materialize.

For me, I'm likely to bring my guitar to a campground, but I'm not sure that I know enough cover songs to sufficiently lead an intimate sing along. I do have some covers that I can pull out of my back pocket and I'm more than happy to play my own stuff, if asked, but I probably won't force it on anyone. I often find myself savoring some other opportunities to play. On this trip, I woke up early on Friday morning and, before breakfast, made my way to the beach where I sang and played my backpacker guitar to the crashing waves and serene seaside. Playing by the ocean is one of my favorite places to play.

Finally, I should let you know that I did start the process of recording some video for this blog this month. I set up a video camera and some microphones and did a number of takes. Unfortunately, my home studio has some noise and lighting constraints that limit the amount of time that I can actually record. That said, I've been making some revisions to the way I'm playing and singing this particular song and I'm nearing a good solid take that I'll be able to post soon. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Album update

Some of you have been asking me for an update on the new album and it's definitely about time I provided that. When I set out last year to work on it, I was hoping that I would have something out by this fall. With less than a couple of months to go until autumn, however, the feasibility of this happening is dwindling. Between an increasingly demanding job, moving and settling into a new place, and other personal responsibilities, the daily grind has had its foot on the neck of my creative being and has not let up. I am pressing on, though, and I have been playing and writing. Just at a slower pace.

In the mean time, I'm thinking of recording some songs and putting them on YouTube and maybe MySpace. Although the recording quality won't be great, it's much quicker and it'll give you a chance to hear some of the new stuff and new arrangements of the old stuff. It also could be fun to participate a bit more in the growing virtual coffeehouse that YouTube is becoming. So stay tuned!

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Wedding profiled by Junebug

My wife and I recently celebrated our one year wedding anniversary. Around the same time, we were approached by Junebug Weddings -- a wedding blog and planning service based in Seattle -- Wedding Pictureto have our wedding featured in the "Real Weddings" portion of their blog. After we agreed to do this, they called us up and chatted with us over the phone about the planning of the day, our most prominent memories, and a bit about our story. While we were surprised by some of the details we had forgotten already, we enjoyed the trip down memory lane and the chance to relive our wedding day once again.

Junebug published the post yesterday. You can check out our "real weddings" profile on the Junebug site, as well as our entry on the "what Junebug loves" blog. As you browse through the pictures (photos taken by Joey Hong), note that my wife deserves all the credit for the aesthetic qualities of our wedding -- she did an amazing job planning it. And she looked absolutely stunning walking down the aisle.

I will, however, claim advanced credit for writing a song about our wedding day -- Song #2 on the new album. Although I wrote the song last summer, I haven't recorded it yet... so you'll have to take my word on this for now!

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Watching John Mayer perform at a conference

A few weeks ago I was at a conference in Orlando. One highlight for me was getting a chance to watch John Mayer perform an acoustic set at the conference with two other guitarists. Ever since I was in Arizona and I'd go to small coffee shops to watch my friends Rick and Steve play intimate acoustic sets, I've liked the sound of just a couple of acoustic guitars on stage. One of the best concerts I've been to was watching Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds in Oakland a few years ago, packing in the coliseum.

Not only did I thoroughly enjoy the hour-long acoustic set by the Mayer trio, I got to watch it from about fifteen feet away. There were over five thousand people at the conference, but not nearly that many turned out for the concert. And the performance took place in a relatively large conference hall with plenty of food and drink to occupy the guests -- many of whom expressed little more than casual curiosity for the live music. So although I was pretty close to the stage, I felt at times like I was watching a local band in a bar where the chatter from the crowd nearly drowns out the music. I've certainly played in that sort of environment before; it was encouraging to see that even guys like Mayer have to play through the chatter every now and then.

The Mayer trio played a mix of his radio hits, a couple of covers, and some bluesy tunes that I hadn't heard before. Tempo-wise the songs were fairly similar -- all pretty upbeat and nothing too slow, probably a good combination for this audience. I also noticed that his lyrics seemed to be a bit more on the wordy side in contrast to someone like Jack Johnson, yet he still makes it work. Interestingly enough, despite Mayer's numerous radio hits the song that drew out the most camera phones and snap shots and cheers may have been the trio's cover of Tom Petty's Free Falling. I wonder if covering songs like this allows Mayer to expand his fan base to new demographics?

I also wonder if popular covers are a testament to the power of well-written songs? While it may take great performers to break hit songs, I think the fact that some songs can grow more and more popular with repeated covers highlights the fundamental importance of composition.

John Mayer

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Seriously Heart Tour 2008

Last weekend, I had a chance to watch an up-and-coming L.A. band, Seriously, perform at Stanford as part of their "Heart Tour" to raise awareness for the dire shortage of bone marrow donors in the U.S. There's a disproportionately miniscule pool of donors for Asian Americans. Organizations like Asians for Miracle Marrow Matches, the Asian American Donor Program (endorsed by Survivor Cook Islands Winner, Yul Kwon), and Cammy Lee Leukemia Foundation are working hard to register new donors and to increase the probability that more Leukemia patients will find matches. Check out any of those links to find out more info.

The band consists of Chris Pham on vocals and acoustic guitar, Alex Yi on electric guitar, Joshua Baek on bass guitar, and Philip Park on Drums and viola. The band is produced by Woody Pak and Gloria Lee, friends of a friend of mine. Woody is the head of Chaos Theory Music and has composed scores for Making Tracks the Musical, the film The Grace Lee Project, and a variety of other TV, film, and recording projects. Gloria is an ethnomusicologist researching Asian American popular music.

Seriously played a couple of sets that ranged from hard-rocking, electric guitar-driven arrangements to mellow acoustic guitar and viola-based combos. For one song about the mechanization of daily life, the band moved around the stage robotically. In another, the guitarist busted a guitar string and the band attempted some jokes. Overall, they seemed like a fun group of guys.

Among the songs I liked the best -- Godspeed Cats and Dogs, and Fireflies. The latter most-likely because it featured acoustic guitar a bit. In fact, in some other songs I wish they would have turned the acoustic guitar up a little bit so that you could hear it better.

Overall it was a fun evening centered around a good cause. At some point during the evening, Yul Kwon even proposed to his girlfriend on stage!

Here's a video of the band playing at Berkeley:

Saturday, March 1, 2008

The inspiration for song #6: a French post-impressionist painter

Is it March already? This year has been speeding by! Seems like just yesterday we were ringing in the new year and 2008 still felt like an awkward date to jot down. Between traveling for my day job and keeping up with life outside of work, I haven't been able to spend nearly as much time on the music as I would have liked. That said, I have managed to get some writing in and you're long overdue for an update.

The main progress I've made has been on writing some new lyrics. I've pretty much finished lyrics for songs #6 and #7 for the new album. For song #6, the lyrics took me much longer to write -- there were a couple of parts I just kept thinking about and coming back to and couldn't get quite right. The ending, for instance, was tough because that's when I wanted to deliver whatever commentary on life that I wanted to make with the song. In this case, I ultimately wanted to submit an answer to the age-old question, "why write?"

Song #6 is actually a bit of an homage to a French post-impressionist painter that I found inspirational during my visit to the Musee d'Orsay last summer. I not only found his work unique and compelling, but I was drawn to the story of his life. In fact, that's one of my favorite aspects of visiting art museums -- they're like gigantic storybooks bursting with drama, characterization, comedy, climactic moments, commentary, and description. I enjoy consuming not only the stories depicted in artwork, but the stories of the artists themselves. So many of them struggle to be able to pursue their creative endeavors, while others are discovered early on and find themselves a patron. What they all have in common, though, is that they made the time in their lives to create art. It's humbling in some ways, yet inspirational in others.

Now, many artists are criticized and ostracized in some way or another. But the reasons for why this occurs vary. In this particular case, I was drawn to the fact that this artist was criticized for being untrained and for painting like a child -- for being amateurish, in fact. He was born into the working class, went to college for something other than art, held a regular job for most of his life, and got a pretty late start on painting. He was different from other painters and didn't always hang out in the same places. He must have encountered the question, "why do you paint?" on numerous occasions. While I certainly didn't read the biographies of all the artists in the museum, I read a number of them and this is one that struck a chord with me. This one stopped me in my tracks. This one sent me through this surrealistic time warp where I imagined shaking hands with this fellow and saying, "hey, I think I know how you feel."

When I sat down to write a song about this, I wasn't sure that I wanted to write about this painter as a role model or a hero -- I'm old enough to know that role models change over time and that there are always things you don't know about them. I also wasn't trying to say that I wanted to be this person or to accomplish the same things in life. I ultimately decided to write about what I admire about him and to conclude with my own thoughts on why I write and why I think he may have continued painting himself.

So that will be song #6.

Actually, I should clarify that these song numbers reflect the order in which they are written, not necessarily the track number that they will get on the album. I don't have all the titles for these songs figured out, yet, so hopefully this will suffice for now.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

A note on the Grammys

I caught some of the Grammys tonight and enjoyed some of the artist pairings and performances: Alicia Keys and John Mayer, Tina Turner and Beyonce, Herbie Hancock and Lang Lang, Josh Groban and Andrea Bocelli. Who was the mastermind that devised these pairings, I wonder? Some disappointments for me, though, occurred when Glen Hansard & Marketa Irglova got shut out from the various movie-related categories for Once -- a terrific film if you've not seen it. I also would like to have seen Tom Higgenson win Song of the Year for "Hey There Delilah," although Amy Winehouse was certainly a deserving winner. As far as pleasant surprises -- I liked the performance of Leslie Feist, whom I'd never heard of before. Apparently, an iPod nano commercial tipped her song, 1234, which was distributed primarily through digital downloads.