My father-in-law took up woodworking two years ago – I remember specifically because his first project was a birdhouse he made as a third birthday present for my son.
My father-in-law is an oncologist, so the whole thing really just started as a passion project to pursue in his already busy semi-retirement.
He took a class, started watching Youtube videos, buying equipment, practicing cuts, examining sanding grades, learning the craft from its basic principles. Finally he brought over all the cut pieces for my son to assemble with drilled screw holes.
It wasn’t the most amazing birdhouse I’ve ever seen, but it fit the Platonic form and was unmistakably an aviary, with the hole and stick. My son loved it, and most importantly, some birds built their nest in the little wooden box and made it a home.
Some time after the birds were doing that, I was getting frustrated with screenwriting (too many meetings, too much free work and then my agent quit to become a screenwriter!) – and I wanted to pursue something creative that I had more control of, so I started writing and recording songs again.
I had a band when I lived in New York and loved playing gigs, but hadn’t done much recording and didn’t examine songs through the lens I might with screenwriting, following principles of engineering, understanding rules before experimenting with bending them. I wanted to take the same serious, craftsman-like approach to songwriting that my father-in-law took toward woodworking, seeing each project he undertook as more of a learning experience than an attempt to produce a pre-set outcome.
So last year I started writing, recording and posting a song each week on a songwriting circle hosted on Reddit.com called ‘Song-A-Week’. (Note: Despite Reddit’s extremely well-deserved reputation of being one of the Internet’s wretched hives of scum and villainy, it has hundreds of millions of users and the small subreddits like ‘r/songaweek’ often draw kind and helpful people looking for a sense of community free from trolling.)
In ‘r/songaweek‘, a moderator gave us a weekly theme to build a song around – they could range from subject/lyrical themes like ‘Greed‘ or ‘Holiday‘, to theory-based ones like ‘5/4 time‘, or ‘Seventh‘. The latter were always the biggest challenge for me, and produced the greatest results as they took me out of my comfort zone and into chord progressions or meters I had never even played, much less used in a song.
By the end of the week, 10-30 people would post their songs, and we’d all give feedback and constructive criticism. Each song was like a birdhouse, with some flaws, and some stand out elements – sometimes it was just a whole new take on what a birdhouse could be, sometimes it was a solid, well-built birdhouse. But we were learning about the wood, the nails, how to prevent it from buckling, which paint to use, by putting our songs out there, flaws and all, getting the feedback of an interested audience, eager to enjoy some new music. Birdhouses are for birds to build nests in, ultimately they’re the arbiters of whether your birdhouse is ‘good’.
Meanwhile, my father in law graduated from birdhouses and started building furniture for his kids. He examined wood types, and learned to wet the wood and bend it. He built my sister-in-law a black lacquer entry table that someone would gladly pay $2000 for.
I was starting to really understand verses and pre-choruses and choruses and bridges and solos and reprises, and why they worked in my favorite songs. It was like someone had just shown me songs actually have blueprints, and you can see which kind of song you’re looking at.
I was also finding my voice. I examined my favorite lyricists – Jeff Tweedy, Lou Reed, Sting, Justin Vernon, and found a mix of obscure and explicit that lent wings to the feelings of regret or loss I needed to get out of my heart each week. I was also improving my playing – what’s that about practice, practice, practice…? And I was learning a lot about harmonies by unpacking those of my favorites Fleetwood Mac, The Band and Uncle Tupelo, and then tried to learn from it by multi-tracking my own voice.
But what really changed my playing was the community – I heard other musicians making mostly (or completely) electronic music, and I was intrigued and wanted to learn more. Like my father-in-law, who drove three hundred miles to attend a master class by a Japanese woodworker, and made my wife a box with a curved handle and dovetailed joints.
So I watched videos to understand the arpeggiator, and started adding electronic elements to my Americana songs.
After posting literally dozens of songs, every few songs I wrote seemed to blend the electronic and analog sounds organically, and some of my Soundcloud songs started getting hearted and reposted. I accumulated tens and then hundreds of plays, and hadn’t even told anyone that I was recording and posting songs. Just anonymous strangers.
So this summer I looked at my 60+ tunes, took the six most played songs and recorded them in a studio. I met a fellow Dad at a kids party – he’s a mastering engineer at Capitol records – who agreed to do me a solid and mix them for a song. I’m releasing the EP this fall.
Which is where the birdhouses come back in. Because now I have a daughter too, and my father-in-law cut and assembled a birdhouse with her as well. But this birdhouse is perfect. Great dimensions, the lines and joints are tight and clean, and my daughter loves it. But again, most importantly the birds love it. Because while there’s nothing wrong with writing and singing songs in your own room, there’s nothing quite like playing a song for music lovers. At some level all music is folk music, a thing to be shared among the people. The creation process is for me, but the tunes are for the listeners. Just like a birdhouse… is for the birds. As for my father-in-law, I’m hoping he’ll learn how to make guitars.
King Commoner is an LA-based video producer and editor who plays under the name “King Commoner”. His EP “The Heart’s Electric” and his full album “Paper Crown” are currently being mixed. The EP will be available in early December and the album in early 2019.