29 Hour Music People: A Writing & Recording Collective Pt.1

With this post, we welcome Cheri Leone and Matty Karas to the IVC family. Cheri and Matty, longtime songwriting and performing partners in bands including the Trouble Dolls and Lightning Kites, kick off their contribution to IVC with a three-part account of their experience with 29 Hour Music People; a collective of songwriters and musicians who write and record albums, from scratch, in intensive three-day sessions. The first 29HMP album, “Soft Eno Blessing,” written and recorded in 29 hours in January 2012, will be available this March at 29hourmusicpeople.bandcamp.com, with all proceeds from downloads to benefit Sweet Relief Musicians Fund.

This Q&A was conducted after the making of album #2 in October 2012, which took 31 hours (including meal breaks). The group to date includes: Alan Black, Alan Blattberg, Rob Christiansen, Kate Edmundson, Kim Howie, Matty Karas, Cheri Leone, Chris McBurney, David Satkowski, Meave Shelton and Pam Weis.

PART I: Friday

Matty: Let’s start at the beginning!

Cheri: Friday.

M: Yes, and…

C: Write lyrics to at least ten songs in 3 hours.

"Yes, and…" refers to the suggestion that you pick up an already-written stanza or title that is in a paper pile in the center of the floor, and add to it. Don’t approach it as an editor or critic. See how you can develop the idea already expressed.

M: And then throw it back onto the floor for someone else to pick up. “Yes, and” of course is a principle that comes from improv comedy. Which you have studied, but I have not. How did we do on that front?

C: Pretty well. Mostly one person would write a starter line or verse, then someone else would grab it and add to it. In one case someone had come prepared with a rhyming prescription for a series of lyrical lines.

M: I loved writing lyrics that way, partly because it’s so different from how it works in our band. Usually one of us writes and the other adds/subtracts/tweaks as necessary. Sometimes we argue over words. I assume that happens in most bands. But I loved NOT arguing, and instead everyone just assuming that everyone else was right. There’s that old Motorhead motto, “Everything louder than everything else.” In this case it was, “Everything exactly as right as everything else.” It certainly allowed me to open myself up to the kinds of lyrics, and therefore the kinds of songs, that I could never have written on my own. Or, more to the point, that I WOULD never have written on my own.

C: I don’t assume that arguing over lyrics and words happens in most bands…NOT arguing is a choice. And it requires a lot of discipline to stick to that decision — the "yes, and" mandate — in any collaboration. It feels inorganic at first. People are very excited about their own ideas, and they get very possessive of them. They have a vision. They want to see that vision through. If they’re directing “Bridesmaids” in their heads and someone walks in with a maimed puppy, the tendency is to put the puppy in the next room and resume the hilarity. But the puppy should not be denied!

Reality check: not everyone in the room assumed everyone else was right. On Saturday someone who had started one lyric declared, “Last night I thought about my lyrics some more and I know how the whole song should go” — and discarded the additional lyrics someone else had written. Technically, that went against our rules. Like I said, it requires dedication, and constant self-policing, to trust that others will make your idea, not necessarily better, but what it should be (in a Zen way?).

M: Alternatively, someone could hilariously insert that maimed puppy into the middle of their “Bridesmaids”! But I digress.

One of the interesting things to me about the thrown-out lyrics is that you picked them up and used them as the chorus for another song. We ended up with two really good songs. Win-win. I think the chance element in all of this is kind of cool. But I also agree with you that the more buy-in you get from everyone in the room about the whole process, the more likely it is to result in a successful and productive weekend.

So those were the limitations we imposed upon ourselves on Friday night: the “yes, and” principle, the idea that no one in the room “owned” any particular lyric, and a rigid three-hour time limit. We ended the night at 11 p.m. sharp with complete lyrics for 13 songs, along with a few extra scraps and unused titles that we threw in a folder just in case.

Coming up in Part 2: How to write and record all the music for an album in one day.

-Posted by Cheri & Matty

Cheri Leone and Matty Karas
have written and played music together for as long as they have known each other, in bands including The Trouble Dolls and Lightning Kites. The Trouble Dolls’ “Giant Moon: The Difficult Neverending Second Album, Vol. 1” will be released in 2013.