This weekend, All Songs Considered host Bob Boilen, intern Will Butler, NPR Music contributor Mike Katzif and I will gather at Bob's sweet suburban pad to listen to some of the greatest, most astounding music ever recorded: our own. Each of us spent the month of February writing and recording an entire album, as part of the RPM Challenge and, for better or worse, we're going to sit together and play our records for one another. If you see a mushroom cloud form over Silver Spring, Md., mid-afternoon on Sunday, you can safely assume it's from the powerful convergence of our songs meeting at once in the same room, not unlike the energy released during nuclear fusion.
Every February, The Wire, a weekly music magazine in Portsmouth, N.H., issues an open invitation to musicians everywhere to produce an album in four short weeks. In 2006, the first year of what they call the RPM Challenge, 165 bands participated. This year, they had more than 2,000.
For my album, I collaborated with Mike Katzif and Meg Ruddick, a former All Songs Considered intern with a gorgeous voice. We called ourselves Golden Days and the album It Was Over Before We Began. People assume that artists (writers, musicians, painters, and so on) create because they're overwhelmingly inspired to — that they have a brilliant idea or deep feeling that leads them on a quest to actually realize that idea or feeling in a tangible way. The truth is, most of the time, it just comes down to making stuff up. That's what's so great about the entirely arbitrary deadline of the RPM Challenge: It compels participants to take action. As the saying goes, 90 percent of success is just showing up.
This is one of the songs I wrote for our album, with Meg on harmonies and Mike on electric guitars. It's called "Year of Dreams." (You can download the whole album here.)
Here's host Bob Boilen on his RPM Challenge:
I've composed a lot of music in the past 30 years, but I've never written an actual song until now. A song is a tune with words. My music has always been instrumental and mostly experimental. I started playing synthesizer in a psychedelic dance band in 1979 (Tiny Desk Unit), but that's as close as I've come. So for this RPM Challenge, I decided to write and sing three songs. I'll long remember this record for the struggles I had to overcome.
First off, I can't count. My songs change at seemingly random bars, and the structure is done entirely by feel. Also, I'm new to lyric-writing. Here's what works for me: I'll write a lot and toss away anything that feels like it isn't working. And I don't worry if it doesn't all make sense. Repeated listening usually makes it all cohere. Also, as I've learned from so many interviews over the years, the intent of the lyricist usually has little to do with the interpretation of the listener.
As for singing, just imagine being naked in front of a lot of strangers and then, when you get comfy with that idea, imagine that you've discovered there are a lot of TV cameras scanning your body. Once you get through that, it's easy. It took me 30 years of music-making to do it, and I'm loving it.
This is the fourth year I've done the RPM Challenge. The first year, I did it with my former Tiny Desk Unit bandmates. The past three years, our guitarist Michael Barron and I did it together, sharing sound files over the Web and making music under the name Danger Painters. This time around, our album is called iii, and this song is called "Monkey Time." (You can download the whole album here).
Here's Mike Katzif on his RPM Challenge:
This is my third RPM Challenge in four years, but the first where I haven't worked long distance, sending tracks back and forth, Postal Service-style. And while that can work wonders if your best friends are dispersed cross-country like mine are, it can feel like you're working in a sensory deprivation tank. It's pretty hard to describe a sound you're going for over instant messaging chats and email strings. I was excited to work with Robin and Meg, not only because we all live in the same area, but also because we had long talked about getting together to start a band. RPM, and its looming deadline, is often just the catalyst you need to get started. The month goes by at a frenetic pace, and any free moment is typically spent weighing how to best represent the song you have in your head with just getting it done so you can move on to the next one. I've found there's always stuff left over that should be rerecorded or remixed. But having perfectly produced tracks really isn't the point. It's mostly about the creative process, learning the craft a little, and trying to accomplish something you can feel proud of.
This is one of the songs I wrote, with Meg on harmonies. Robin played drums and some of the percussive sounds. It's called "Come Tomorrow."
Here's All Songs Considered intern Will Butler on his RPM Challenge:
For me, RPM is no more than a great rationalization for shelving the anxieties that plague your creative conscience year-round. As I prepared to settle in for the challenge, I realized that, unless I made a concentrated effort to just humor my better instincts for a few weeks, I wouldn't get anything done. It's way too easy to let your internal critic get in the way and run the show; that applies not only to nervous, small-time musicians like myself, but even to the most admired songwriters of our day.
Thom Yorke once described writing an album as working with your own limitations, and I couldn't agree more. I would take that a step further, though, and say that it's about being able to accept and even embrace those limitations so that they don't get in the way of all the great things you actually have to offer. That's not to say I've achieved this in my own music. But I am proud of what I did with only borrowed instruments and a battery-powered 4-track this February. The song is "The Odds," and the album is called Talking to a Snowdrift. (You can hear more of Will's music here.)