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FAWM 2014 wrap-up

February 27, 2014

I did February Album Writing Month (FAWM) again this year.FAWM, for those who don’t know, is a self-challenge to write 14 songs in the month of February. Despite getting a late start and having a few weeks of feeling bad due to illness, I even finished a few days early thanks to some collaboration with my friend Mosno.

Read more about the process, read about the highlights, and my overall thoughts on the challenge here.

New show added — January 24th at Cellar Stage

December 29, 2013

On Friday, January 24th, 2014, we’ll be part of a showcase at Uptown Concerts’ Cellar Stage (in Hamilton, Baltimore, MD) along with Lynn Hollyfield, Jessica Smucker, and Neptune’s Car. It’s kind of a big deal for us, because it means that we’re not just an opening act this time when we play there, and we get to bring along Joe Scala to make a full trio.

You can check out info for the show at and on our shows page.

“Baltimericana” released (Jon & Joe side project recording)

October 21, 2013

Just thought I’d post a little note over here about the Baltimericana EP. This was a home recording project that Joe and I recorded starting last summer. It’s finally ready. There are four new songs on it, and it’s a free download. You can listen to it here:

And I’ve done some “Song Sources” posts about the writing process behind the tracks over on my blog. Check em out here.

“A Hole in Everything” – Co-Writing Session

April 14, 2013

That’s a working title for a new song with lyrics by me and Jen.

Co-writing continues to be an enjoyable (if sometimes weird) experience for me. This time it was with Jen, and we finished a song I’ve been working on for almost two years. I had a first verse, and then every time I tried to write a second verse, I just couldn’t come up with anything good.

So I played Jen the first verse (and chorus). It was a pretty bare bones character sketch of two people with very different personalities.

I know you were the kind
to be always one branch higher
Anything to be at the top of the tree
And I was the tongue-tied boy
Rooted and grounded and bored
Maybe a broken arm was all I need

Somewhat ironically, it was Jen who pushed for it to be more of a story, so we talked about what kind of relationship between the characters was implied by what was already written, and then something really fun occurred to us: we made it a duet, which is not something we’ve done ever. This opened up an entirely new way to explore the song, because now instead of one person talking about himself and someone else, it was two people talking about the other person.

Male character:
I know you were the kind
to be always one branch higher
Anything to be at the top of the tree

Female character:
When I finished my climb
I knew I was a flier
My heart wanted much more than you and me

Second verse:

Female character:
Always biting your tongue
You played helpless and quiet
Clinging to restraints you were chained to the ground

Male character:
I was the tongue-tied boy
Rooted and grounded and bored
Maybe a broken arm was all I need

I’m quite pleased with what came out. “Miscommunication” is good fodder for stories. Jen commented that the net result is that there’s a disconnect between them, some breakdown in compatibility and their basic ability to even understand each other to work past it. There’s also an interesting psychological bit with the way the narrators construct their sentences: his lines start have “I” as the subject even when talking about the other person; hers use “I” to talk about herself and “you” to talk about the other person.

Jen is better than I am at actually saying what “she” (or her narrator) means, and also seems to have a much easier time being completely open and honest about her own personal experience, so it’s a good foil to my tendency to be oblique sometimes to the point of obscurity. Her willingness to throw every idea out there really helped put me at ease for the session. Mostly I was relegated to rewording things slightly to maintain the rhyme scheme and rhythm, but lyrically it’s a true collaboration now.

The song has a chorus, and we did some fun vocal things with the harmonies, but I’ll save talking about those for when we have a recording of some sort.


Practice makes … all your songs sound different

March 25, 2013

If anyone’s wondering (all eight of you!) why I haven’t blogged in a while — well, I have. It’s just that I’m blogging in two places now, here and on “my” blog.

Joe Scala and I got together today to work on a few of the FAWM songs linked to in the last post.

It’s peculiar reworking songs for a band without everyone present: You get these weird gaps in the rhythms and music where you want someone to play a drum fill or you need a lot of extra noise and it’s just not there. Then you have to resist the temptation to add it all back in before hearing it in context with everyone else. Then you have awkward moments like this:

“Okay, this is the piano solo. Count out twelve bars and then we come back in. No, don’t play on those twelve bars, just count them out in your head. Piano solo. Solo solo. Okay, maybe some drums. And your guitar is NOT a drum.”

“Jon, you started too early. That was only 10 bars.”

“No, it was twelve.”

“Well, then, stop speeding up while you play.”

“It wasn’t me! the piano player sped up!”

And according to Joe, I don’t write “two-guitar songs,” which is probably true. Even though a piano fills a lot more sonic space than a guitar, it’s just not the same thing: A guitar can’t play complicated bass lines or really high tinkly parts, and just having another set of strings makes things sound more homogeneous. Or maybe I’m just not good at staying out of other peoples’ way.

But it was a good practice. “What Kind of Heart Beats (In the Black Breast of the Beast)” was very easy to translate; the piano sounds good in it, and the bass was a very easy addition. Joe’s “Grounded” is also sounding spiffy. We rewrote some of the chords, and I can actually play some bass on it for Joe. It’s also fun having some songs written by other people in the band in the works. It’s something we tried to make happen a bit in the past, but I didn’t spend time rearranging them to our sound, so they were always slightly out of place. “The Language of Flowers” is going to sound awesome as soon as we have that piano solo down.

We also worked on two more Joe songs: “No Man (is an Island)” (he started playing this live last summer when we did the “triple solo” show at Bread and Circuses) and “Just a Taste” (one of his best from FAWM 2012), and a couple more of mine that still need some work.

No recordings from this session, but we may post a few demos if we get something good.

FAWM wins … and So Long To Tim :(

March 1, 2013


Some of you may remember — if you were following our blog or Facebook this time last year — that Joe Scala did February Album Writing Month (FAWM) last year. I still listen to what he made every once in a while — it was an amazing achievement. Well, he did it again this year, and he convinced me to do it, too. And we both completed the challenge, writing 14 songs apiece, one of which is a collaboration between the two of us, the first of what we hope to be many.

Some linkses to the new songs

I wrote a little blog post wrapping things up, with videos of what I thought were the strongest songs from my challenge, on my personal web site. Rather than repost the whole thing here on the Midway Fair site, please hop on over and have a listen to some songs that might appear in our set list in the future.

Joe blogged about each song he wrote, and has a soundcloud player for the whole album.

Here’s our FAWM pages, where you can see all the songs in one place:

Other News

Many of you are friends with members of Midway Fair, either online or in real life, so you may be aware, but there hasn’t been an official announcement: Tim Taormino has decided to leave Midway Fair for other pursuits (mainly being a dad). Tim was a bedrock of the band for three years, and his decision, though understandable and not entirely surprising in the circumstances, was still a pretty hard blow. We’ll begin the search for a new drummer in the coming months.

We do plan on hitting up the studio in the fall to record some new material, including the song “Most Distant Star,” which I think is one of our absolute best.


Midway Fair’s Recordings Are Now Creative Commons

October 5, 2012

Midway Fair’s recordings now fall under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. You can read more about what on earth that means by clicking that link!

And you can read more about my decision to do this on my personal web site. It seemed a little heavy to go into here.


Joe Scala Finishes February Album Writing Month!

February 29, 2012

Our bassist, Joe Scala, spent the month of February not only playing some shows with us and learning a slew of new material for the St. Pattrick’s Day show, but writing and recording an entire 14-song album from scratch. Have a listen, then pop on over to to read the liner notes on the songs.

Atrophy and Entropy

December 20, 2011

The Bard (ca. 1817), by John Martin

A long time ago, poets would come up through their schooling and be forced to learn thousands of years of formal poetry, reaching back not only to the days before wide-spread literacy (and thus almost exclusively “aural” poetry) but to the time when poetry was invariably accompanied by music, often a harp of some sort, probably because it was an instrument that required little musical skill to make pleasant sounds on while concentrating on reciting hours of material in meter and rhyme.

Ezra Pound might have been noticing a transition when he said

Music begins to atrophy when it departs too far from the dance… poetry begins to atrophy when it gets too far from music.

The twentieth century produced two fairly extensive shifts in what were once linked art forms:

First, “artistic” English-language poetry lost much of its classic form, to the point where you can go to a college writing class and other students will argue that anything that rhymes isn’t poetry, it’s “a rhyme,” and they’ll write only free form poetry. Some of them are good at it. Most are not. Rhyme isn’t native to English poetry, so no big loss there, but for people who write freeform verse to suggest that the mere presence of rhyme invalidates something as poetry is the world turned upside down to me. These people are imitating other rule breakers who decided that even meter (which has been present in all evidence of written English poetry going back to the 7th century) was not necessary for poetry. Those innovators learned the rules and then went their own way. It’s become counter-cultural in the poetry world to do anything resembling, well, poetry, instead of being prose with funny line breaks. A lot of poetry resembles visual art, a a result of poetry being read and not recited.

A second shift was in art music, which also lost some of its interest in form, such that many long music pieces lack a strict dramatic structure that can be heard in a Beethoven symphony. Think of the blank verseness of a Phillip Glass piece or the incredibly complex time signatures and antimelodic nature of many small ensemble pieces performed by the likes of the Kronos Quartet. I’m overgeneralizing, of course. Because we all know that these did not completely disappear, which I’ll get to in a second. It’s simply that among people who delve into art very deeply, greater consideration was given to experimental pieces that break the mold so drastically that they can barely be recognized by the plebes. Too many disparate elements occupying the fringes and the center erodes.

Playing one of these and singing in a nasal voice does not automatically put you in the running to be one of the greatest poets of the 20th century.

The odd thing is that the classic forms had to adopt a disguise. An impression of ivory towerism gave “poetry” a bad name, so some people who had classical poetry forms bouncing around in their heads ended up writing songs. Thank goodness for Bob Dylan, because he gave all those folks a haven that didn’t really exist until 1963 and wasn’t widely accepted until much later. (Of course, then everyone who lacked his genius with language picked up on everything that was secondary about Dylan and ran with it, thinking that by channeling his lesser attributes listeners would forgive the lack of his best, and an awful lot of people did, creating legions of annoying, pale imitations. That’s a rant for another time and place, I think.) Dramatically structured music went to the most logical places, the stage and screen. Every once in a while, people will try to analyze pop art as “serious art” and the results can be a mess, because, no, not all pop art is serious art. But this leads to the impression that all pop art is devoid of seriousness, and because pop art is now the home to older and familiar forms of poetry and music, those forms are guilty by association.

The worst thing to me is when an artist breaks an established form in pop art and observers take that as a form of laziness. I’m still utterly shocked that there are generalizations made about rap as being a “bad” art form because it doesn’t use traditional song forms or melody. This is also throwing out the baby with the bath water. Bad lyrics are bad lyrics. Adding a melody to bad lyrics doesn’t make them less bad. The opposite is true, too. Analyzing the melodic merits of a music form that eschews melody is laughable. Don’t like that particular type of song? Then move on. But don’t try to invalidate it as an art form.

I say this even though I barely listen to any rap. It’s the pathetic and mean-spirited nature of the criticisms that bothers me. There are overtones in the criticisms that make me uncomfortable. Criticism is supposed to be helpful.

But that’s essentially arguing that critics changed enough tastemaker minds to create a schism between art and pop. Critics aren’t powerful enough (no matter what they think) to change more than a few minds, and artists are notoriously contrarian and iconoclastic. So something else must have happened.

I think what happened is, very simply, the increased availability of information. As more information becomes available, our ability to comprehend the swath of human knowledge atrophies. This is a humanistic approach to the physics of information technology and entropy:

There is only a certain amount of energy available for useful work.

This is something I think about a lot. I thought about it enough to use it as the background philosophy for a novel. Essentially, it’s like growing up: As the world around you becomes larger, your part in it becomes smaller and more diffuse.

Back in the days when a poet was expected to memorize the Iliad and be able to recite it accompanied by a harp, it’s perfectly possible that, other than a handful of other stories, there was nothing else to memorize. They could use the same form and meter for anything when something new came around. There’s substantial evidence that many lines in the works of Homer reuse descriptions and a kind of “name tag” like Odysseus the Clever (not to mention those long speeches that are repeated word for word) because they always fit the meter, which means the poet often improvised. And it also saved him the embarrassment of sounding like he got lost.

This dude knew everything. Ironically, you probably know more.

Aristotle was famous for knowing everything there was to know in art and science. If you wanted to know something that could be known in Athens at the time, chances are he could tell you.

I think this helps explain the fetishization of experimental forms of music and poetry. I was a teaching assistant in a poetry class once, and one assignment was to write a poem that sounded like William Carlos Williams. I don’t like his work, but I can’t say he was bad at it, and his stuff looks so simple that it’s one of the little things students can latch onto as “something they can do.” (Sort of like students deciding to use all lowercase letters a la e. e. cummings, a pretension that carries over into the music world. This is again taking a secondary element, a gimmick, and using it as a shortcut for determining where the real magic is.)

Those same students are expected to write sonnets in the mold of Shakespeare and Petrarch, blank verse, sestinas, ababcdcd, experiment with free verse, experiment with prose poetry, imitate a dozen famous poets like Emily Dickinson, make up their own forms, and none of this for more than one or two poems and certainly are not expected to write 154 examples of any given example. Now imagine that William Carlos Williams only had to learn how to do the Shakespeare, Petrarch, and the blank verse. Then he went off and did his own thing.

What changed? Well, there was more stuff around, and it accelerated as more books became published, more people became literate and wanted something new, and more people decided that they could write poetry and afford to live the life of an artist.

It’s getting dangerously close to my suggesting that there’s some sort of class issue. And I think I am, but it’s not a monetary class.

Before the collapse of the music label industry, which was really a network of banks, music artists could spend a lot of time just practicing their art. Now, though, if someone wants to do music for a living, they’re expected to be able to run a business—on top of a killer writer and musician, because there are thousands of people out there who are mediocre enough to pass for good with a casual listen in a bar or on the radio.

There are times when I think that it’s better to work a day job and be a part time musician because even though you’re spending 40 hours away from your instrument, at least when you get home you can practice for a few hours, instead of spending every moment off stage working on getting on stage. My band puts about 12 hours into a one-hour set between two or three 3-hour full band practices (not even counting personal practice time or writing and arranging), online work like the mailing list, and designing a poster sometimes. We could easily put in five or ten times that per show if we depended on this for our bread and butter: postering the whole city, making constant phone calls to friends and fans to get them out to shows, endless open mics, and the time needed to book and plan all aspects of a tour. It’s part of the sophomore album equation, which is the test of whether a band’s writing and practice routine can survive constant touring.

The only other way to do it is to be so extraordinary that other people will want to use you for their own success.

I keep thinking that things will go back to an older model in the music industry. Mozart died poor, you know. But evolution doesn’t work like that. I don’t think there’s anything “wrong” with what has happened, either. Evolution is never “wrong.” It’s possible that in 2000 years, language itself will be so different from the way it sounds now that 20th century poetry and music will sound just as formal and ancient as the Iliad sounds now.

This has applications that go well beyond music. In general, the breadth of knowledge any human is expected to have might be higher now than at any time in the past.

What happens when there is so much to know that our actual organism has not evolved to be able to use it?


In the studio: Silent Little Bells

December 9, 2011

Jon's feet.

This session was an exercise in letting go.

During the Distance sessions, we were as meticulous as possible: Every song was done to a click track (a metronome, to keep time), we overdubbed each instrument and voice in isolation, and this gave us control over every note, passage, and line in the songs. It let us copy and paste parts to create loops and layers, and it made for a pristine record. At times it’s too pristine. I joked with Chris during the mix down that the next session would be the garage rock album.

We recorded the tracks mostly live—no click track, no isolated instruments, so all the bass and guitar and drum parts are bleeding into the microphones. We did overdub some vocals, mostly because there aren’t 12 of us for a choir, but also because we didn’t have any more microphones or inputs on the board, so Joe had to sing his parts afterward.

At one point we did try playing to a click track. This was very frustrating in that I tried using the loop function on my delay pedal and discovered that I’m not a robot. Eventually we scrapped it and just played the songs like we’d practiced. We did fix a couple things here and there, fixed a lyric here and punched in a couple notes—I’ve never pretended to be flawless—but for the most part, what you hear is what we did at the time.

Here’s what we used, for any curious gearheads:

Jon: My red telestrat on “Silent Little Bells” and my friend Keith’s Gibson ES-135 on “It Started Well.” Effects: Hartman Compressor, El Capistan, volume pedal, Germanium OD, Malekko Ekko 616, and a Vox wah. Amp: Fender Hot Rod Deluxe miced with a Royer. I also play a glockenspiel in this song, but, uncharacteristically, I don’t want to disclose what we did to it.

Vocal mic is a Shure SM-7, which was also used for all vocal overdubs.

Jen: Roland RD-700, direct into the console. I think her vocal mic was an AKG.

Joe: Epiphone Viola bass into a 100-watt Ampeg head. I don’t remember what it was miced with, but it might have been another Shure.

Tim: We used Chris’s drum kit, which is a hodgepodge of stuff with Zildjian cymbals. The snare is a black beauty that Tim donated to the studio during the Distance sessions.

There are multiple room mics surrounding the drum kit.