You may have seen something like this before. A bunch of artists descend upon a particular month and choose it for their own. This month, they decide, will be the month they complete a Single Work In a Short Amount of Time. Novelists chose November. Musicians? Their month starts tomorrow.
Isaac Quatorze, better known to me as Denys Gareau, was one of the participants in last year’s FAWM: February Album Writing Month. The work that came out of it was called Sin of the Summer, and it’s not just my friendship speaking when I say it’s got some killer work on it. The crucible that is insane-deadline writing can produce some amazing work. Even when it doesn’t, the experience is no less worth the time.
I sat down to talk with Denys today, on the eve of this Leap FAWM, to see how he was feeling about his second run through the gauntlet. I’ll continue to check in with him through the month and see what an album in a month looks like from the inside.
So the marathon starts tonight, does it?
ostensibly at midnight…..
here’s the thing
i quit caffeine about a year ago due to some anxiety problems, and my usual bedtime is around 8:30pm these days due to early work days. i have tomorrow off, and i went and got a large strong caffé mocha and just downed it…
so it’ll either be a writing marathon until 3-4 in the morning or i’ll have a heart attack
And this will be your second FAWM, right? Did you quit caffeine after the last one?
shortly before, i think… yes, this is FAWM number 2 after a really successful go at it in 2007
How are you feeling about it?
well i couldn’t use a single word to describe the feeling, that’s for sure…. of course i’m excited. there are a lot of amazing people on the FAWM site, musicians and writers with incredible ideas and helpful comments. that’s something i’ve looked forward to for 11 months, and i’ve already been rekindling some of those “relationships” on the FAWM forums this month
on the other hand, i’m shit-scared. things aren’t as…. serene for me as they were last february. work is insane, my family is having some challenges, and i haven’t touched a guitar or keyboard since last summer
i do foresee a struggle reaching that number 14 this year. hell, it was a struggle last year… so this should definitely be uphill.
What got you to participate last year? What drew you to it?
I looked up FAWM last year after hearing about a friend of a friend who was doing something called the RPM challenge. it’s another online speed challenge that also runs in february, but with RPM, the idea is to record and produce an entire album in the month of february. the songs can be pre-written, you just have to make them sound pretty.
well after looking it up, i realized i couldn’t do the RPM cause i didn’t have an album of songs written and ready to record. but my search pulled up the FAWM site, and that one looked more my speed. the focus in this case was to write 14 songs. recording was optional, as long as you posted at least 14 song titles, and if possible lyrics and/or demos.
i decided to do it because i hadn’t written a decent song in several months, and because the number 14 has always spoken to me (hence the pseudonym)…
The album that came out of it was called Sin of the Summer. Can you tell me a little bit about what influenced you when you were writing it?
a little bit of everything, eric. at the start of the month, i was influenced by the music i listen to, which is all over the map. as the weeks went by and i started running out of steam, i took influence from stranger places… little snippets of t.v. dialogue i’d written in a notepad… the cool sound of a keyboard preset slowed down to 10% of its actual speed…
they also have weekly challenges on FAWM to help those with writer’s block… for example, one week was a challenge to write a song about a colour (that inspired ‘violet’). other weekly challenges were to write a 2-chord song (‘right-wing cowboy’), a duet (‘déjà-vu’), and a song about a street (‘hamel’ and ‘st-jean baptiste’)
i took inspiration wherever it popped up, as hokey as that probably sounds. in a challenge like FAWM, you kinda have to run with whatever you’ve got.
What was writing 14 songs in a month like? How often did you feel like quitting?
my feeling about the 14-song goal changed from day to day, depending how the writing was going. i’d say i never felt like quitting, but i did get pretty down on myself at one point. i had written 2 songs in a row that i felt were subpar, and my fingers were starting to hurt like hell from guitar playing (i have arthritis in my hands). i never thought “shit, i’m gonna quit this.” but i did feel like i was sucking, and that i would continue to suck.
fortunately, the other participants on the site always have constructive feedback. those two subpar songs had their good points, as i came to realize, and with other FAWMers suggestions, i was able to retool them and actually use them on the final album. the songwriting also got better, and some of my favourite songs actually came in the last few days of february!
What about your writing style had to change to accommodate such a compressed schedule?
the second-guessing. writing for FAWM opened my eyes to the fact that i had always spent about 10% of my songwriting time actually writing, and the other 90% second-guessing myself and trying to edit and write simultaneously. as you have no doubt discovered by now, that’s a recipe for a fruitless process.
I’m listening to the album as we speak, and one thing that’s impressive is how polished it sounds. Did you finish songs as you went, or was there a mad scramble to polish things after everything was written?
Thanks for that compliment! i know that “polished” sound can be a good thing or a bad thing, and my goal was always to make something that didn’t sound radio-ready, while still avoiding too much lo-fi ugliness.
your question is actually really interesting, cause in retrospect i did spend too much time “polishing” during FAWM 2007. they are very clear on the site about the fact that any songs posted are demos. nobody is expected to put out a phil spector wall of sound. sometimes i think the reason my songs got so much attention on the site is because they were more fleshed-out demos than a lot of other participants were posting, which is kind of unfair to the others.
in response to your question, about half the post-production was done during FAWM, and half in march, as i was preparing ‘sin of the summer’ for release.
this year i plan on making my demos more off the cuff, and then letting the songs stew past february, and take my time with post-production after the hectic event is over.
You mentioned relationships with other FAWMers. Can you talk a little bit about the support you get from the other participants? Is there a lot of talk between people as the month goes on?
The whole event is built around those relationships and that support. in fact, some of the logged-on FAWMers aren’t even songwriters, but friends, spouses, acquaintances and past-FAWMers who are just there to listen to the demos and give feedback. i’d say there is a fair amount of ass-kissing, in all honesty…. there are those FAWMers who will leave nothing but positive comments on a song that’s definitely lacking.
i mean, who am i to say? maybe the same song that struck me as a piece of crap really touched someone else. but i’ve seen songs where the writer truthfully wrote “my guitar isn’t tuned very well, and i missed the high note in verse 2”, and you’ll always have a couple people leaving comments like, “oh no, the guitar sounds great, and that high note was perfect!”
but for the most part, people are truthful. some are brutally honest, which can be helpful, or in some cases just obnoxious. one guy last year left comments on at least a dozen people’s songs telling them they had serious timing issues, none of which were noticed by anybody else. it’s all so subjective.
but what more could you ask for than a soundboard of very different people, from different musical backgrounds, to listen to your songs and give you instant feedback?
Anything in particular on your mind going into this year’s FAWM? Do you have a sense of what you want this album to feel like?
well first of all, i’m not aiming for an actual album this time around. they use “album” in the event name, but they’re pretty clear about the fact that the goal is just 14 songs. whether or not you want to base your writing around an “album” structure is optional.
one of the reasons i got stressed last year is that i decided from the onset that i wanted to make an album out of my FAWM songs. so every idea that didn’t feel up to par freaked me out. i would kind of panic, think “jeez, i don’t want this shit on my record!” and that contributed to the lower points.
this year i want to have more fun.
i plan to collaborate with a few other FAWMers, in what capacity i don’t know yet, but there have already been collaboration offers made and accepted on both sides.
i also want to go with those questionable ideas i would have panned last year.
if i end up writing circus techno, then so be it.
Thank you for your time. We’ll talk again next week to see how things are going. Good luck!
thanks, eric! happy february…