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Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Melancholy Dane or Why I Finally Made a Nice-Sounding Album of Classroom Songs

Hamlet: The Album is now for sale on my Bandcamp page: The album collects all the original songs I wrote with my wife's second-grade class for a musical version of Hamlet. The kids learned and performed the actual Shakespearean dialogue -- my wife edited the script down to about 30 pages so that the show would run under a hour and tell the basic story but also give her students an opportunity to wrestle with those wonderful original words. I worked with her and the kids to figure out which moments best lent themselves to song and then wrote brand-new tunes with lyrics that are a mixture of what the kids wrote for homework, my additions and polishes, and Shakespeare's own words.

It's the first real cast album I've made with a school class even though I've been writing musicals like this one for years. Every year my wife and I create a brand-new show, usually based on a work of children's or classic literature. I've also gone into public schools in NYC, Connecticut, New Jersey, Long Island, Massachusetts, and Arkansas to write songs based on what kids are studying. All in all I've written over 200 songs with kids in schools.

Every time I do a new show, parents, teachers, kids -- and other people I've told about the project -- ask me "When is the album coming out?" I usually dodge this question by saying that we might make an album, we might not, it will depend on how much time the teachers can devote in class, etc etc BS BS...

No matter how many times I deliver this lengthy evasion I still believe it on some level-- I still think I might get around to making a real album.

But of course I never have. I have made some home recordings featuring me performing the songs as well as some GarageBand-quality "albums" with the kids singing and me playing some simple accompaniment. But why haven't I ever tried to make something people would actually enjoy playing again and again? (When I say "people" I mean people who are not parents of children in the class and therefore willing to put up with low quality recordings simply because their child is on them).

It's not because I haven't believed in the songs. Although there are certainly songs that were written for a very specific narrative purpose and wouldn't make sense to someone not watching a live performance of a particular play, most of the tunes I've written for these shows are poppy (poppier than the Dees), easy to sing along with (more so than much of the Dees catalog), super catchy, and often tied into movements. They're very much tunes that someone could enjoy whether or not they were familiar with the story that inspired them.

But as someone without a home studio or the skills to make my own recordings that sound professional (I'm a songwriter and performer but definitely not an engineer, mixer, or producer) I have hesitated to spend money on recordings that are unlikely to make that money back. I've written a lot of good songs over the years but people will only buy so much music -- and if I tried to sell an album, for example, called The Silk That Got Away (the title of last year's absolutely wonderful Silk Road musical) many people would be baffled and ask me things like "Is this for children?" "The Silk Road? Why?" "Does this have that honk-honk song on it?" (They ask these things about every Dees record also)

So I've let these songs disappear and exist mainly in my mind and the minds of the kids who wrote and performed these shows (I still have high schoolers coming up to me wanting to tell me that they were just recently singing some song I wrote with them years ago).

It's pained me. I used to go to a therapist (hasn't everyone in New York?) and I used to tell him about this -- how I felt like I nearly killed myself a few times a year writing and leading these shows only to have them mostly forgotten. He said that I was frustrated because I was "spinning my wheels" (his expression) with these shows, putting in a lot of time and creative energy but not seeing any concrete professional or financial rewards as a result. I protested that these shows have offered many rewards of a more difficult-to-measure variety: the satisfaction of seeing kids who struggle in the classroom come to life as they work on a musical project, the thrill of writing and performing a complete story-in-song for an attentive audience... but my therapist, pragmatist that he was, acknowledged these rewards as valid but immediately resumed pushing me to figure out a way to make my schoolwork pay off. He couldn't be dissuaded from the idea that my school musicals and the process of making them could both be commodities that I could sell for a good profit. I agreed, half-heartedly, to investigate the possibility.

Hamlet: The Album is an attempt to make good on what I told my therapist. The songs we wrote for this show are terrific, but there have been many terrific tunes in the many shows I've co-composed. All that's really different with Hamlet is that I'm trying -- for the first time -- to present one of my school shows to the public in a truly palatable way. We recorded these songs quickly -- all the basic rhythm tracks in one day, nearly all the kid vocals one afternoon, all the overdubbing another day -- but we did most of the work in a real studio, the studio where we're recording the new Dees record. Dean Jones, who's producing that album, recorded us, added a bunch of new, bad-ass guitar parts, and mixed the tracks. We didn't have the album really mastered -- Dean just EQ'd the tracks then put them through a nice limiter -- but I do feel like we've presented these songs the best way we possibly could. Obviously I'm super biased but I think the album sounds really great -- and I really want everyone to hear it. I especially want parents, teachers, and other people connected with schools to hear it so they understand what can happen when I go into a school and am given enough time and resources -- so please pass it on to as many of these folks as you can. Despite the involvement of my bandmates and Dean it's still very much a kid album and we tried to leave enough of their quirks and jerks and weird notes and cryptic lyrics in there so that it would sound like it, like something that was created by actual kids in an actual school.Teachers and parents: your real kids in your real school can do make something just as impressive.

So I don't feel too bad about finally using one of my school projects to promote myself publicly -- and so no kids sue me for stealing their ideas -- I'm giving all the proceeds after expenses to earthquake relief in Japan. I do want to help Japan but I also feel like these songs don't belong to me. They're very much the product of our collaboration and even the ones that I played the biggest role in writing wouldn't have been written outside the unique creative environment that a classroom provides. I also don't want this album to be a vanity project in any way -- for me or the kids. I want all our hard creative work to fuel good works elsewhere.

So download the Hamlet album! We've got to pay this thing off. And once we do, we can start making some money for Japan. That would be cool, wouldn't it?

Still spinning my wheels but now hopefully in the right direction...