In the first part of this series of posts, I explored my beginnings as a songwriter and posed the question of why the vast majority of my non-symphonic work had never found its way outside of the studio over the course of the past 27+ years. This post will pick up where we left off – at the end of 1987 and the beginning of what would become a highly transitional, productive, and yet creatively uncertain period. >
I think my musical influences have always been quite varied. I previously mentioned being heavily inspired by the work of Vangelis and Tangerine Dream during the writing of my first two song collections, but I was also a big fan of pop and progressive rock as well. Neither of the latter influences played a dominant role in my earlier work, partially because I was well aware of the technical proficiency and compositional prowess required to even set foot into the prog arena, and partially because my sonic palette at the time was pretty weak when it came to realism. I was just fine with all of that, however, as I hadn’t been trying to write pop or rock songs.
Early in 1988, I discovered that one of my friends owned a Roland Juno-106 synthesizer, which he allowed me to borrow for a few weeks. The difference in sound quality between my home keyboard and this professional-grade analog synth was substantial, and it was infinitely more flexible when it came to programming. The Juno became the featured instrument on my next two song collections, with my Yamaha covering rhythmic elements and backup sounds. Despite this important change to my instrument roster, my approach to writing really hadn’t changed: I was still composing largely atmospheric electronic soundscapes. The addition of a borrowed Roland TR-505 drum machine for the second of these song collections did make a difference, however, as I was now finally able to incorporate semi-realistic, programmable drum lines with far more variations than my Yamaha was able to store at one time. Rhythm became a central ingredient for the first time, and the collection culminated in a song that strayed far outside my usual writing style; a driving, major-key anthem entitled “Chivalry & Sorcery.”
And then a funny thing happened. Some of my friends and family started telling me that they actually really liked “Chivalry.” Initially, I wasn’t sure what to make of this, as I had gotten rather used to my music being a solitary, personal pursuit. My loaner period had since expired for both the Juno and the TR-505, and despite the fact that I was thoroughly happy with what I had done on the previous two song collections, I felt a strange pull to get back to what I started off doing: composing the kinds of atmospheric landscapes I sensed I was starting to drift away from. The result was a collection that (intentionally) sounds like it had been written the year before, recalling the kind of stark simplicity that was a hallmark of my earliest songs.
After graduating high school that summer, I spent a number of weeks touring Europe and the U.K. as part of a music ensemble. Upon my return, I immediately got back to work on a collection of traditional Irish songs using a newly-upgraded home keyboard (another Yamaha), and quickly followed that with a separate collection of musical impressions of some of the other sights and sounds I experienced while overseas. An autumn-themed EP-length collection followed those, along with yet another Christmas collection by years’ end. Throughout all of this, I began considering the possibility that music could be more than just a bedroom or basement hobby for me – that I might actually be able to turn it into something even remotely resembling, say, a career. It was certainly something I enjoyed doing – I just hadn’t seen much potential for it having widespread appeal. The autumn-themed songs I had recently finished represented what I felt to be the best of my writing up to that point. They were still atmospheric in that they were able to evoke the spirit and character of their subject matter effectively, but they were also reasonably well-constructed songs, with identifiable verses, choruses, melodies, etc. I had received an honorable mention nod from a national songwriting competition for another (non-collection) song, so I decided that 1989 might be the year to officially test the waters by putting together an official three-song demo to shop to some of the New Age-oriented record companies.
Next time: concept albums, growing pop influences, and a musical crossroads, plus some of the things I did and didn’t learn from my experiences!