Tuesday, January 3, 2023

What’s in a song? Love, Loathing and Resolution. (A Guest Post from Karl Westman.)

Karl Westman, of Soul Captain Music,
was my "music guy," when I worked at Ogilvy. I don't know how many spots I worked on with Karl, but every one of them turned out well and we always had a good time working together. Not once did I get that pulsating thing around my temples where those veins that are usually recessed decided to get up and go for a walk.

Karl taught me a lot through the years. A lot about story-arc because music should arc in similar ways. Karl's hands when listening to music were like a conductor's. They illustrated the arc we were always looking for.

I've learned through 40 years of advertising, that you find two types of friends. Transactional friends--you like each other, but only so long as you're helping each other. And lifelong friends. People you're in it with for the long-haul, long after you no longer work together. 

Somehow I made a lot of lifelong friends at Ogilvy. People I'll know the rest of my years. Karl is one of them. 

Some months ago I asked Karl for a blog post. This one came in on New Year's Eve. It seems like a good way to kick off the year. A little learning, a little wistfulness, a little love.

Thanks, Karl. Keep dancing.


I wrote a song a couple weeks ago. It came on like food poisoning. Unexpected and relentless. I don’t claim to be a vessel for a higher creative power. I’m just a guy who likes to make stuff. For advertising, I produce music to a specific brief. For my personal creations, it’s more of an urge, an inner voice that says “it’s time to get it out.” Hence the food poisoning analogy. 

I banged this one out pretty fast. I start with a figure, a motif and build on it. This time, I built on a bit of history. Back in the late ‘70’s I landed an entry level job at Counterpoint Recording NYC. As I developed some elementary engineering chops, the studio owner and songwriter, Jerry Ragovoy, (he wrote, Time Is On My Side, Cry Baby, Piece of My Heart) took a liking to me and gave me opportunities to engineer his song demos. This predated midi and computers. We recorded to tape and in pieces—first with a drummer keeping time and Jerry banging away on a Prophet 5 synth. Bass and various other parts were added later. The process was laborious and tortured. I don’t recall ever finishing one. Jerry was in his late 40’s and my numb skulled judgmental twenty something self thought his time had come and gone. See, Jerry’s music wasn’t exactly current. He sure did try though. At the time, the trend in R&B dance music was a 120 BPM, four on the floor, slap octave bass thing. I can still conjure up images of Jerry dancing around the control room with his granny reading glasses perched on his nose. He loved what he was doing. I was clueless to how important those days would become. 

In a fit of nostalgia, I based my latest tune on the very drum and bass feel that I cut my teeth on with Jerry. Why not? What’s old is new again. I made the track. The lyrics came easily. I sang it and buffed up the mix. It was another one of those “message” songs. I can’t help it. I put it aside for a couple days to let it ferment. 

When I returned to it, I dug it. I started to tweak it here and there. I’m pretty good at that part of the process. Simplify. Accentuate. Rinse and repeat. Then, as I worked, my “this-is-crap-o-meter” started to move into the red. “Change the drum feel. Your voice sucks. The chorus sounds weak. It should be faster. That bass line is cheesy. Lower the key. You have no business making pop music, Jesus! You’re 68!” my internal critic screamed. 

I felt a tad nauseous. I entered command/Q on my keyboard. “Do you want to save?” my computer asked. Even my computer was questioning my work. I’d gone from love to loathing. Bliss to bummed. Confident to confounded. Sure, critical thinking is part of the creation game, but games are supposed to be fun, right? I shut down my gear in disgust. I was mortified by my own work. There’s no way I will share this one, I thought. 

This morning, I listened to the song again with fresh ears. Is it the best song I ever wrote? Nope. Is it the worst? I’ve written some stinkers, this wasn't one of them. Will this be the last song I ever write? I hope not. So why all the drama? 

Several years ago, Ogilvy's HR Department instituted a bizarre and overthought peer evaluation system as part of our annual performance review. One of the peer comments was that I take "work criticism too personally". Guilty as charged. I won't bore you with the origins of this curse, but I know I'm not alone. I identify with what I create. 

The irony, through all this, is I stopped listening to the message of the lyrics I wrote. 

Dream your dream
Be all that's true
Give all you can
The best of you is waiting to be found
It's wanting to believe

Feel the beat
The pulse of time
Hear the voice that spins a rhyme
Open up your heart 
And you will receive

A New Year’s resolution. Be kind to myself. Find joy in my work and let it go. Care less about what others think and care more about what makes me, me. I have nothing to prove. I've been to the mountaintop. Has my time come and gone? In a way, yes, in fact, I welcome it. But, in the way that really matters – making stuff for making's sake – I'm just getting started. Who knows, I just might start dancing to my own music. Thank you, Jerry.

Listen and enjoy. So be it. Happy New Year. 

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