Thursday, February 24, 2011

Interview with Cahalen Morrison

Cahalen Morrison is establishing himself as a songwriter of great skill and depth.  His newest CD with musical partner Eli West is drawing praise from roots music veterans such as Dirk Powell and Tim O' Brien.  Cahalen is a multi instrumentalist who's comfortable on everything from guitar, banjo, mandolin, fiddle, and drums.  Much has been written about his style and skill so there's not much I could add to that.

However, I was fortunate to get to sit down and ask Cahalen about his musical roots, his approach to songwriting and practicing.  Songwriters should take special note as Cahalen is writing excellent songs that sound old and new at the same time.  That means they're timeless.  No small feat.  This is the first of two parts and the first of many interviews that I hope to do with musicians I like.  Enjoy.

If you haven't heard his music you should go to his website and check it.

BC: So how did you get started with music?

CM: My dad started me on guitar or let me start on guitar when I was 9, probably.  Pretty young, but I played as much as any nine year old does.  I just knew C and G and D.  First position chords and basically backed him up.  He plays fiddle so I basically just played rhythm for him.

BC:  Was he an old-time fiddler?

CM:  He plays old-time and Irish stuff.

BC:  So there was music in the house all the time?

CM:  Oh yeah.  Yeah.  Definitely.  I grew up around it constantly.  Everything too.  Old-time, Irish, Bluegrass, The Beatles, Classical, Everything.  When I started and he tried to teach me, he'd try to teach me little rags and I learned Under the Double Eagle.

BC:  That was my first Flatpick tune.

CM:  That was my first flatpick tune also.  I feel like that was a lot of peoples first flatpick tune.
Yeah, It's kind of a weird tune.  So we'd play a duet.  We'd play it in harmony.

BC:  So that was the first couple of years when you started?

CM:  Yeah. 

BC:  Did you play all the time?

CM:  I probably played a few times a week.  I just struggled a lot with doing things, like trying to push myself in any way.  I would get so frustrated when dad would be like "that one thing you're doing, try to do it this way."  And I'd say I know how to do it this other way.  Forget you, I'm sticking to this and it's easy.  So for a long time I was bad.  And that stuck with me for longer than I'd like to admit.

BC:  So your dad was you main mentor and teacher?

CM:  Yeah.  And I lived in the middle of nowhere so there was nobody else around I could have learned from.

BC:  Where did you grow up?

CM:  Northern New Mexico.  There wasn't any music or anything that I was around.

BC:  You had a radio? 

CM:  Yes.

BC:  Wow.  So, did you ever take formal lessons or was it all with your dad?

CM:  No I never had formal lessons.  I took one summer semester of Jazz guitar in college.  That was like the hardest class I took in all my years of college.  Saying it was jazz lessons is shaky.  To this day if you told me to play an E minor scale I would have to think about it.  I can't play scales really.  If you were like hey play it I could.  I had no formal lessons before hand.  I just learned tunes and songs.

 BC:  You were always learning new songs from your dad.  Mostly traditional tunes?

CM:  Yeah, mostly that until middle school or high school and I started playing rock or whatever and I started liking that. 

BC:   You also play drums too right?

CM:  Yeah and that's what I did from middle school on was play drums.  Even into college.  That's what I studied in college.  I did actually study music in college, but it was a weird program.  In the beginning it was a make your own major.  That didn't have a music major only a music minor.  I was trying to somehow do that as a major, of course then by the time I graduated they had a music major.  So I was kind of grandfathered in.

BC:  What school did you go to?

CM:  University of Colorado in Colorado Springs.  It's a smaller branch of the big school. 

BC:  What kind of drums did you study?

CM:  Jazz?

BC:  Do you still play drums?

CM:  Well, I would like to (laughs) there's not really opportunity right now.  I don't have a kit set up.  I have what I was playing on in college.  16 inch floor tom, snare, high hat, and ride.  That's what I have now.  It's not set up anymore.

BC:  Did you ever get any formal or any kind of guideline to practicing?

CM:  Nope.  My dad would encourage me to practice because he knew it would be good for me.

BC:  Did he ever say "well you should practice like this."

CM:  He would give small suggestions.  But mainly it was cause he was the same way.  He was all self taught so he didn't play scales either.

BC:  Not so much scales but what would you do when you practice.

CM:  He would give me guidelines on practice.  To break tunes into you know, fragments, little melodic fragments that you would be able to play over and over and try to nail the one part your doing.
The one little run or one little walk up.

BC:  And that happened for you pretty early on?

CM:  The suggestion happened pretty early.  I don't know how much I did it.  As soon as I would figure something out that would work OK.  Like something ascending and descending, a melody and baseline on the guitar.  A basic G to C walk up.  Ragtime style.  As soon as I found anything that worked OK that wasn't exactly what he showed me or heard.  I would be like OK got it.  But, he would encourage me to break things up and try to really get them before moving on.  Instead of just blowing through a whole tune.  And being like "that was OK."

BC:  When you started drums was it very structured?

CM:  I was self taught on drums from the beginning.  Until college my last semester of college I had lessons with a drummer.

BC:  Was it a process of listening to your favorite music and trying to copy what they're doing?

CM:  Yeah,  I would sit in my room and listen to Paul Simon and play along to it.

BC:  Would this be an hour or hours a day?

CM:  That was hours a day for sure?  That was really addicting.  Way more so than guitar or strings were when I was young.  It was easier to get gratification of playing a solid groove and being like "this feels good I can do it."  That's why jam bands go on for so long cause it feels good.  Once you settle into something you just keep going.   And that made me get better at the drums faster than anything else cause I liked the way it felt.

BC:  And did you work with a metronome?

CM:  Never.  I don't own a metronome still.

BC:  So in a way playing drums to records which probably used a click track you kind of were practicing with a metronome.

CM:  Oh yeah.  Whenever I was playing along it was probably with a click track.

BC:  So when did you decide I want to play and perform on stringed instruments?

CM:  When I was a junior in high school I was working in New Mexico and I met a guy who played and sang and wrote his own stuff.  And it was folky, early Ben Harper type music.  Folky pop.  And he had a great voice.  And I never sang till was junior or senior in high school.  And I heard him playing and singing his stuff and I thought, that is cool.  But, I had never considered to sing and to write but I thought hey if this kid can do it.  He was 2 years older than I was.  He had a bunch of songs that were cool.  And he was from Tucson and we're still good friends.  His name is Juan Holliday.  That's why I started singing and writing.

BC:  Juan Holliday.  Sounds like a movie star.

CM:  He is like a movie star.

BC:  What were you writing at that point.

CM:  It's embarrassing.  My housemate has my first first record which I did.  I made 100 copies when I was a senior in high school of this thing my friend and I did.  And it was the first 11 songs that I wrote.  I was like yeah I have an albums worth I'm gonna record!  It is so unbearable (laughs.)  It is so embarrassing.  I realize now that you have to come from there.

BC: I'd like to hear it and hear the progression.

CM:  I have some in New Mexico as long as you don't show it to anybody?  (laughs)

BC:  I wouldn't show it to anybody.  (laughs)

CM:  It was like no style.  Guitar, voice.  It wasn't folk at all.  I guess I was listening to Ben Harper then too.  That's kind of the direction it went sort of.  That was senior year of high school.

BC:  It was good enough that you were like "well I must be sort of good at this and kept working with songwriting."

CM:  Yeah,  It was satisfying to write more.  And then I was hooked and it just kind of happened.

BC:  Was it at that point you said "I'm a musician this is what I want to do."

CM:  I was still debating about that cause I didn't have a style or a place I fit in, in any scene.  I grew up going to bluegrass festivals since I was in elementary school.  But I never played.

BC:  You never thought of yourself as a bluegrass musician?

CM:  It was part of my stumbling block with practicing.  It was like that seems hard.  I'm going to do something that's easier.

BC:  It is hard.

CM:  Oh it's wicked hard.  It's still everyday I get a headache thinking about things.  In a good way though.  I like it now.

BC:  Did you gravitate to a certain style after that point?

CM:  In college after high school I started chemistry or something.  I decided not to go to school for music.  First of all I couldn't read so it would be pretty hard to get into any music school.   So I went to this school for chemistry or something.  I didn't want to ruin music.  Oh it would be my job and that would be terrible.  Then it wouldn't be fun anymore.  Then you realize, that sounds awesome.  That sounds great.

I didn't want to do chemistry.  I was playing in bands in college so I switched to music.

BC:  What kinds of bands were you playing with?

CM:  I played drums in a kind of indie folk rock band.  There was a fiddle and a guy who played mandolin and banjo.  Electric guitar, electric bass and drums.  A bunch of harmony.  Fuzz pedal guitar. It was cool.  The girl who led the band she had a distinct writing style.  It was fun.  Interesting music.

BC:  Was that part time and kind of casual?

CM:  Yeah, we played around town a lot.

BC:  During that time were you writing your own music?

CM:  Yeah I was recording in my dorm room.

BC: Did you feel like you were pushing yourself to write or would you write when you felt like it.

CM:  I wrote when I felt like it but that was most of the time.  I had my new found excitement that I thought was cool.  Creating something that you like is a pretty exciting thing.  Being pleased hearing something you did and say I would listen to that.

BC: You were doing that in college?

CM:  I don't play those songs anymore.  I occasionally would maybe.  I've chipped away at that a lot and have the form down of how I create things in a much more refined fashion now.

BC:  At that stage were the songs the same or similar to the styles that you're working in now?

CM:  I was going in a more acoustic music direction so not really bluegrass or old time but maybe a combination.  I wrote some Motown songs and I was working on my falsetto.  I wasn't going in that direction but I was feeling around in all of these crazy different styles.

BC:  You were experimenting with styles?

CM:  Definitely.

BC:  So how has your process of songwriting evolved.

CM:  I still kind of straddle bluegrass, old time, and folk and a little celtic.  I kind of sit in the middle of that.  I don't know if it's cheating but I draw from everything and not go full in one direction.

BC:  I'm curious of what your process is.  Do you have a schedule for yourself or do you just decide to write?  How do you motivate to write a tune?

CM:  It changes a little bit.  Occasionally I'll sit down to write and say I'm going to write a song.  Sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn't.  Sometimes I'll write a tune when inspiration strikes and that doesn't work too.  But, generally when inspiration strikes and I sit down and write one, but not on purpose.  I hear something and I sit down.  Usually those work out a lot better for me.  Just cause it's a more natural process than trying to decide what kind of song you're going to write.  You sit down with that blank page and say alright. A! It's gonna be in A.  So unless there's something backing that I have trouble.

BC:  Do you always start from like "oh I have a notion for a song." then you go grab the instrument.  Would you already have words?

CM:  Between that and sitting and mindlessly playing banjo or guitar and I"ll literally accidentally do something I've not done before and I'll be like Oh what was that?  I didn't mean to do that.  I think that sparks creativity and I go off in a different direction that wasn't in the song I wrote last time.  Accidents are pretty key.

BC:  Do you have to keep yourself open?

CM:  Yeah.  But then it's between that and if I get an idea for a song based on another song.  Like you hear a song on a new record that you really like. You might try to write the same type of song.  And occasionally I'll start one and go no that sounds just like that other song.  But sometime I'll finish and I don't think anyone would realize that's where the song came from.  Because it's me.  Even if it has the same type of backbone it's coming through me now.  

BC:  When you were working on songwriting after you recorded your first album did you say I want to be good at this?  Did you struggle with feeling like oh I don't sound good enough or my songs don't stand up to the artists that I like.  Or compare yourself to your favorite music?

CM:  I definitely struggled with that but instead of deterring me it spurred me to practice more.  It's like I'm not that good but I don't practice and I don't work that hard so if I did maybe it could work.  So I would buckle down and I started practicing more in college and then after college, now I practice on all instruments.  I sit down and work stuff out slowly.  It definitely changed somewhere in the middle of college I decided I wanted that to happen.  I was like right, I've got to take this more seriously if you're going to try and do it.

BC:  When you write songs do your start with a title or does it change every time?

CM:  It changes every time subtly.  I guess my process is usually either starting with a melodic fragment from an accident or idea or whatever.  Have a little riff and go cool that's a good enough building block to start from.  Or it's a line I come up with.  You come up with some line and say that's killer.  If you come up with a good enough line it'll spark off in so many different directions you can see immediately 4 or 5 verses that are possible from it.  From one line.

BC:  When you come up with those lines are you thinking about it?  Or does it just happen?

CM: Usually I'm thinking about it.

BC:  Is there a specific setting that you might be in when you come up with something like that?

CM:  Most of my writing in the past couple of years that I really like or that I really feel has some meat to it,  I've been writing a lot while reading a good book with rich language and rich imagery.  I'll be in a place.  So it's more about my mental state than where I am in a cool setting.  It's more about where I am in my head.  So if I'm reading a cool book about a cool subject with good language and meat in the book it helps.  I'm reading Ahab's Wife.  It's about Capt. Ahab.  Moby Dick.  It's from his wife's perspective. 

BC:  That is cool.

CM:  It's a super cool book.  It's about whaling.  Massachusetts in the whaling days.  It's dripping with imagery and cool language and ideas.

BC:  So a lot of your songs are fiction?  Fantasy in a way.

CM:  A lot of them are.  If you take a song as a whole it's definitely fiction and composed or whatever.  But I could tell you what a lot of lines mean outside of that context.  Or what they mean to me so they're not fictional to me.  They're things that probably happened.

BC:  But not totally autobiographical. 

CM: Yes.

BC:  I can't do that so that's really cool to hear.  You do have great language in your songwriting.  Like Jealous Sea.  Where did you have the inspiration for that song?

CM:  That's the interesting thing about music.  A year later I'm like I don't have any idea where that song came from.

BC: Incredible.  Maybe that's as it should be.

CM:  It becomes less a song I wrote than a song I play.  I don't feel like I trudged through it and really hammered things out.  It just kind of exists.  It feels like it existed for a long time.  I like it when that happens.  A lot of times it doesn't happen.  And I remember while playing them they become they're own entity after a while.  You get so comfortable with them, they become this little bundle you have somewhere in your brain.  You're not thinking through all the words as you sing them they just spill out of your head.   I do have some autobiographical ones too that probably no one would realize that they were.  I keep that pretty...

BC: You cover your tracks?

CM:  Yeah I like to do that.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Do you know where the fingers go?

Bach's Partita in E Major played by John Williams.

         The first time I heard Bach’s Prelude for Solo Violin in E Major BWV 1006a (even the name is long) I fell in love with it and wanted to play it.   It was like saying "Hey I think I'd like to play basketball on Michael Jordan's team!"  I was way out of my league, delusional even.
         The Prelude in E Major is, aside from being incredibly beautiful music, incredibly difficult to play.  If it’s not the highest summit around it’s at least a satellite peak.  The sheet music reveals six pages of continuous 16th notes with no respite.  Played fast it’s about 4 and a half minutes long.  Endless streams of notes flowing from Bach’s mind to the page like raindrops flowing down a pane of glass.  Apparently Bach just couldn’t be satisfied until he had wrung out every possible variation on a phrase and created a challenge to the player with all manner of contortions, stretches, and quick fingered movements he could think of.  
         For the longest time I could play the first two or three measures which are mostly just a subtle variation on the E Major scale.  Playing those phrases was like looking into the forested hillside at the start of a huge mountain range.  The forest is dark and forbidding but you can see the high peaks off in the distance.  You know that to get to the other side you’re going to have to enter that forest and start making your way uphill.  There’s probably going to be a great deal of suffering and risk involved but the sublime could be waiting as a reward.  It took years of practice before I would be ready to enter the forest.
         When I finally couldn’t wait any longer I got a copy of the sheet music and set to work.  No matter that my sight reading skills were extremely novice and I had never played any classical music.   No matter that I wasn’t even a classical guitarist.  I’m a bluegrass guitarist.  I’m a flatpicker.  Meaning that I play with a pick.  Classical guitarists play this piece using classical guitar technique which uses the thumb and three fingers of the right hand. A classical guitarist will always have a finger at the ready.  I have only the one pick.  I might have a hard time getting my pick across the strings.
         The combined challenge of sight reading in a key with 4 sharps and the need to develop left and right hand techniques I had never used before made for slow progress.  Some days I would only get through two or three measures at a time.  And that might take a couple of hours to work out all the fingerings.  I would beat my head against the wall working out complicated fingerings only to realize they would lead to a dead end.   I would need this or that finger for a note coming around the bend and it wouldn’t be available.  Sometimes I would need to rework several measures to make it all fit together. 
             About three months later I reached the end of the piece.  I had crossed the mountain range.  It was incredibly satisfying and truly felt like a journey.  I had spent 3 months just learning the fingerings.  Just the fingers! I couldn’t play the piece.  I only knew where my fingers needed to go to play it.  A classical guitarist and teacher told me that it would probably be another 2 years till I really had the piece down, ready to be performed.
         Needless to say this piece was the ultimate lesson in learning where the fingers go.  I used everything I knew about the guitar and picked up several tricks in the process.  If I had better sight reading skills when I started maybe I could have shaved some time off that three months.  It doesn’t really matter.          
           The process improved my learning skills and technique tremendously.  Sometimes you need to take on a big challenge to move forward with music.  Learning fingerings takes patience and critical thinking.  It’s a puzzle the musician needs to solve to get to the music.   


Friday, February 11, 2011

Another book excerpt (Goal Setting)

       Rock climbing is often about goal setting.  Eavesdrop on a conversation between a couple of rock climbers and you’ll likely hear about their latest “project.”   Rock climbing projects are objectives that climbers set for themselves as a new challenge.  These are often individual climbing “routes” that a climber must ascend without falling.  Success on these “projects” often takes months or years of training, preparation, rehearsal, and lots of failure. 
         Success, when it comes, is short lived.  Once you’re on the mountaintop there’s nowhere to go but down do so to speak.  Time to move on to the next project.  This process of “projecting” is all part of the normal lifestyle of the “serious” rock climber.  It’s a lifestyle that I’ve spent a large portion of my life following and still do to a certain degree.  I love the lifestyle despite it’s flaws.
         One of those flaws is that climbing often focuses (or climbers indulge in) an emphasis on success over process.  Ego over spirit.  The summit over the journey.  In the beginning my climbing was focused almost solely on success.  I had a strong desire to succeed.  I had always been an athlete in middle school and high school.  Not surprisingly I had always been unsuccessful.  Perhaps it’s our culture’s focus on winning, or perhaps it was just my desire to win and always losing that fueled my desire to be a good at climbing. 
         For most of my twenties I pursued rock climbing with little interest in anything else.  My first several years were rife with failure and desire to improve.  By the time I was 26 I started to achieve some long sought after climbing goals.  When I turned 27 I started to get good.  I had finally become the climber I had hoped to be.  I was pushing myself hard.  By the time I was 28 I developed injuries that put me out of hard climbing for 2 years.  My emphasis on success ultimately led me to failure.  When I returned to hard climbing 2 years later I had developed a new found respect for process and a resolve to not injure myself if possible.
         I guess it’s not surprising that my musical path mirrored my path in climbing in much the same way.  When I started practicing and performing I was always pushing to play at levels of musicianship that I wasn’t quite ready for.  Just like my climbing.  The only difference is that this approach to practice does not make good music or a good musician.  It might have been good for me to push myself but I was going about things the wrong way.  As evidenced by my early hand injuries.  My ego was in the way.
         My early practice goals were always lofty.  I was always jumping in way over my head.  I’ve kept few of the musical ideas I thought were important at the time.  I realized that goal setting for the practicing musician is much different than for that of the rock climber.  That realization of process over success improved my playing by leaps and bounds.
         Rock climbing did have a few positive influences on my music.  Rock climbing taught me to see goals through to completion.  It taught me to deal with failure and keep working until I could find a solution that would solve a critical piece of the puzzle and plant the seed that success could be possible.  Ultimately it helped teach me about process.
         When I injured myself and was forced to take a 2 year break from climbing I returned with a new found respect and love of process.  The building up of skills and steady improvement that could lead to harder and harder objectives.  As a result the climbing successes I achieved in my thirties were more difficult than what I did in my twenties despite being past my athletic prime.  I had learned to maximize my skills.
         I think that learning to improve at anything is about learning to love the process of improving.  It’s about looking carefully at where you are compared with where you want to be.  The distance between those two points is often a long way apart.  You can’t cross that distance without taking many small steps.  Each step gets you closer to your goal.  The difficult part is deciding what steps to take.  To improve you need to decide what to improve.  And when.
         Goal setting for the musician is crucial if they hope to make constant improvement in their playing.  As we’ll see, it’s not the big goals that matter.   It’s all the little ones.