After meeting through a mutual friend, the seemingly unlikely pair of long-time musician Seth Freeman (formerly of Boston alt-rock band Little John) and aerospace engineer-turned-songwriter Dan O’Leary began collaborating on the songs that would eventually become Still Spark. Though they were inspired by diverse influences – everything from Van Morrison and Bob Dylan to Weezer and Nirvana – the two found their different backgrounds and styles nevertheless complement each other perfectly.
The result is a collection of songs that range from the driving energy of the smirking first single “Love Comes Calling” to quieter, more introspective moments like “Heart O’ Mine,” always bound with a common thread of lyrical storytelling and genuine emotion.
A collaborative effort in every sense, Still Spark whips together roots rock, pop hooks and clever wordsmithing, proving that sometimes two heads, or two guitars – when nobody would have bet on them – can create something bigger than the sum of the notes.
Following is an unabridged conversation with Still Spark’s Seth Freeman and Dan O’Leary.
It’s a treat to have the opportunity to chat with you guys. You just released your new CD, that’s got to be exciting. Why don’t we start by asking you both to give us a little of your background.
Dan: Thanks Ken. We’re excited to be with you too. Our record was released to Itunes and all digital domains on March 8 and our record release party was March 31stat Molly Malone’s in Los Angeles. So, to your question, I’m from Pittsburgh PA but I live in Orange County in CA. I’ve worked professionally in the aerospace industry since graduating from Penn State. I also have an MBA. But, those things are just part of my story since I’ve been writing songs and performing them in some manner for 20 years, trying to fashion a career change. I’m a late comer to music- maybe I can tell you more about that later. But, I had a lot of catching up to do in terms of trying to learn the craft of songwriting and certainly playing. Still do. Some are amazed that I can do engineering and write songs. I say I’d probably be better at either if I didn’t dilute myself that way. I lived in Nashville for a few years back in the early 2000s and came away from that experience nearly giving up on songwriting altogether. After returning to CA, it took me 5 years to pick up a guitar again. But here I am with Still Spark, and my music dream is kicking the proverbial you know what!
Seth: Yeah! It’s been a real trip the way that this band came together. I’ve been pursuing music my entire adult life, and most of my child life as well. From my first songs like “Riding on my Horse” and “The Gobstopper Song” in my pre-teen years, to my studies at Berklee in Boston, to my band Little John’s single “Shoelace” off our major label debut, to my more recent material from my solo record and the College Girlfriend record in progress, to ultimately this amazing experience writing, producing, playing, and recording with Dan on this record, and the giant boulder sized snowball effect that has taken hold since our first meeting. There’s a lot in between, but I’ll save that for VH1’s Behind The Music. For now, let me just tell you that Dan initially came to me as an unassuming songwriter pursuing what appeared to be a vanity project for posterity. Wow, was that an understatement. These songs, and this record and the process of recording it, have really transformed my viewpoint on what a classic record is and how it gets done.
What’s the story behind the various items appearring in the picture with you guys on your album cover?
Dan: You’re the first one to ask about it! We are having a contest to see who can answer that exact question. I will say that each one has something to do with the record. We’ll post something on Still Spark .
Can you at least talk about the setting?
Seth: That was shot at The Dresden in Los Angeles. We felt it had the perfect vibe for the record.
Think you can decipher the items on the album cover. Click the image for an up-close look, then go to Still Spark to enter the “Guess the Album Cover” contest.[cincopa AoIAAjKgOLob]You two are from different parts of the country. How did you guys meet up?
Dan: I started calling CA home in the early 90’s but left in 1999 at the urging of my wife to chase the dream in Nashville. She was an awesome support system and we both quit our jobs and moved there together. I owe her the world. But, to answer the question, I met Melissa Lewis in Nashville at a writer’s night at the Broken Spoke (not there anymore I don’t think). She is a fantastic singer/songwriter whom I asked to sing on some of my demos back there. She and I stayed in loose contact after I moved back to CA, and as luck would have it, she moved out here also.
Seth: That’s probably around the time that I met Melissa. We met through a drummer I played with in LA when I first moved here in 2002 after a stint in San Francisco. After having heard her amazing voice, I had her sing on a song for peace that I wrote and produced. She kept me in the back of her mind as a producer.
Dan: Once I got the music bug back, I called to ask if she’d do another demo for me, and I asked if she knew anybody that could produce the demo. That’s when she introduced me to Seth. The demo experience with him was so much fun.
Seth: Dan sent me this amazing song over email. I took the liberty of making what I felt were improvements to the song and sending it back to Dan in its rewritten state. Having not met him in real life, I thought he might very well get offended by this. Thankfully he was open and really liked most of what I did.
Dan: I was thrilled to find out we had complementary styles and abilities. That song “One of These Days” is not in the vein of Still Spark, but rather more of a country cross-over.
How did Still Spark come into existence?
Dan: After the demo, I really got to feeling like I wanted to make a record just for me, with me playing and singing on it. I approached Seth to help me out with it, and we were off. It was Jan 6, 2010 when we had our first session to find/write the songs for the record. We started with my catalog and rewrote some.
Seth: There were at least 20 songs we considered and worked on throughout that time. I think it was Dan’s deep catalog that made me realize quickly that we are kindred spirits. We really honored the process of pre-production and didn’t get started with tracking until the songs were ready.
Dan: Some new songs came out during that process, too. We started recording and slowly started to feel that this record was getting pretty strong. We started to refer to it as a studio album, then we started looking for a name for the project/band. When others started to hear some of the music, they all thought it was commercially viable. Then it was discussion about doing everything better and performing the songs live and getting a real band together. It spiraled upward like that. Just kept getting bigger and better. When Seth started calling this project his new band, Still Spark came into existence.
When I listened to your music I was taken by the early 70s pop rock feel, and eclectic quality of the cuts in the CD. It seems you guys are not too concerned about being pinned down to a genre. Do you consider that a plus? How do you perceive the fans are hearing you – what is the band saying?
Dan: Eclectic is a great word for it. Yes, it is! Yes, there are some notable 70’s and early 80’s influences on this record- Rolling Stones, The Band, Tom Petty, The Knack for sure. We wanted 10 strong songs and didn’t care much about a thematic experience happening. There were a few that absolutely had to be on this record because this project started out as my anti-demo album. It was about songs for songwriters. We think the variety is fresh in this music scene. We both can write songs in all genres but we genuinely fell in love with this set of songs for this record. Each one complements the others. We had an incredible and consistent production team. Seth does an amazing job of bringing something unique to each song but delivering it in his own native and familiar style. All the songs were produced with the idea that it’s important to stay true to the song, but to still give something unexpected. We’ve said all along, good songs speak for themselves, no matter what you do to them. Hopefully we have that situation. Ultimately, we wanted the record to just deliver 10 solid experiences, however different. We hope the fans are hearing some good old fashioned songwriting and sweet performances.
Seth: When you think of some of the greatest classic records of all time, they tend to be eclectic in this sense, with the song being king and the personality and character of the artist tying it all together. That said, Dan created the initial spark for each of these songs, and he has a style all his own. The mixture of that and what I bring to the table as a songwriter and a performer has created something that neither of us really anticipated. Well, I think Dan may have anticipated it, but he let me discover it on my own.
Dan: We came by this music honestly and that is what we want our fans to appreciate. As for message, the songs obviously have a lot to say positively and negatively about relationships, but they are all about a true emotional experience. But, we think the accessibility of the music and lyrics resonates with our fans the most. It is not too nebulous or esoteric to understand. I guess my experiences in songwriting and certainly Nashville taught me to gravitate towards songs that are more likely to have a conversation with people. I love songs that are mysterious or brooding unto themselves too, but, we ultimately didn’tthink that was Still Spark at all. Although, we both have a ton of those songs and at times it is important to go to that space for sure. Maybe our next record will have more of that. But we’ll never hide behind anything that is not accessibleto people.
With the demise of the big Labels and the invention of the Internet audio download do you think ‘genre identification’ is as important as it once was?
Dan: I hope not and I really don’t think so. The ability to buy single songs so easily and cheaply allows music consumers to really be discriminating and they don’t need to feel invested or any kind of an allegiance to a band or a genre. I bought a ton of records that have one or two good songs on them and the rest I could live without. I didn’t have a choice in those days. The model is changed for the better and themes or genre consistency are less important.
Seth: The model has changed, and it’s true with this album as well, that you can buy individual tracks online. But, the whole package is a great experience and that is still important. Yes, I’m talking about the physical package. It’s a classic record in many ways, with an arc to the sequence of the tracks, and artwork and lyrics that are consistent with the experience. I love holding this CD in my hands while I’m listening to the music.
Dan: In the old model with genre, big labels needed something consistent to build a marketing campaign around. But now, independent music on the internet can be so a la carte. I guess I’m saying that I don’t think genre is as important to people anymore as experience is. There will always be people that are genre specific because that is where they want their experiences. We are not worried about fitting comfortably in a certain space though. We are multi-dimensional songwriters first and foremost. Our songs are naturally going to cross boundaries. We are staying true to ourselves by creating diverse music and letting the songs live where they are most comfortable, and that is most important to us.
Seth: And regardless of what genre is in favor any given decade, year, or week for that matter, well penned mainstream pop rock tunes will always find an audience. Usually, that audience will apparently come out of nowhere, because people will always be able to connect with it.
Seth, I was particularly surprised and delighted with the duet piece with Gaby Moreno – talk about genre busting – that cut is delightful but also pretty courageous. What was the thinking on recording that lovely cut?
Seth: This particular song came into the production process from Dan with the chorus in a little different order, and a different emphasis on the hook. When I heard that “Careless Thing” moment I just wanted to milk the hell out of it. Producing 101: milk the hook – a Hanley / Eisenstein credo probably paraphrased or quoted from Mike Denneen. So I worked with Dan on re-envisioning that chorus and building out the arrangement for the rest of the tune.
Dan: Yes- a stroke of genius Mr. Freeman! That was an awesome feeling. Many moments like that on this record demonstrate the power of the co-writer!
Seth: I honestly didn’t even realize we were writing a duet, though. I don’t think Dan knew either. He just had an inspired moment after we had recorded everything else, and suggested bringing in a female vocalist to accompany me. I immediately thought of Gaby for this song, and Dan wholeheartedly agreed, “if you can get her!” I think he said. Gaby Moreno is one of those vocalists that you just cannot help but love. Her voice is so rich and sensual and powerful. Perfect for this song. When she came into the studio to sing this song, we were in the control room out of her sight, and our jaws literally dropped at the first take. All I could think was, “I’m definitely gonna have to re-sing my part now.” Her talent really challenged me to step up to the plate, which was the beginning of a thought process that others have latched onto as well. I had already taken a huge step forward with my solo record with Michael Eisenstein at the helm allowing me to just be myself in the vocal booth. In turn many others, Kay, Chris, and Dan have pushed me farther than I had imagined. The whole thing really transformed this record and me as an artist.
Seth you have fronted other bands – I read that you were reluctant to be the singer for Still Spark- what’s the story there?
Seth: Well, I pretty much threw in the towel in the mid 2000’s after having pushed hard on making it with my band Little John in various incarnations over the years. I achieved the coveted major label record deal in the mid to late 90’s as a result of my tireless yet joyful DIY route. It just got more tiring than joyful at a certain point and I switched over to focusing on songwriting, composing, and then producing. Oddly enough, it was the producing that brought me back around to the band thing, first with Susan, my co-writer in College Girlfriend, and ultimately with Dan in Still Spark. The idea that this was a real band for either of us was not originally part of the plan, so it was not so much reluctance on my part as just being unaware of what the universe was calling upon me to do. On top of that, I really never considered myself a singer’s singer. I thought of myself as a singer/songwriter/guitarist. I started with guitar, got into songwriting, and finally became a singer. That’s not to say that I haven’t studied and practiced tirelessly, but I’ve always considered myself less than in some way (self esteem issues? Ha!) and hidden behind my guitar playing and songwriting skills. Well, that has all changed over the past couple years, with this recording process as the completion of that transition. Case in point, I feel so strongly now about myself as a singer and frontman that I just recently went out for the X Factor auditions! Dan supported me wholeheartedly in that effort and even coached me on my material and delivery.
You are both songwriters – Seth you co-wrote some of these cuts? You front the band and Dan writes and plays guitar, did I get that right? Tell our readers how you came about developing this relationship.
Seth: I said you got that right! Sho got that right. Sorry, just quoting one of my favorite southern rock tunes. We’re still developing the relationship, heh. Though I am a guitarist and songwriter, Dan was the initial mastermind behind these tunes. I have added to them as a writer in varying degrees, and channeled his inspiration to the best of my ability, plus added my own voice and story. Some of them are outright co-writes but really this is a record that came from Dan. Though Still Spark has taken on a life of it’s own that none of us can control or predict any longer, it is Dan’s original voice that I’m channeling.
Dan: Ha. It’s almost gotten to the point where we finish each…
Seth: …other’s sentences!
Dan: So I’m playing rhythm guitar, allowing Seth to get out and sing unencumbered! You should watch him go now!
Do you guys write specifically for the band and its style – or do you pull up songs you have already wrote and tweak them to the band.
Dan: We formed the band after we wrote and selected the songs. We tweaked them in production to match our idea of a Still Spark feel. This is a great question going forward. What will we do for our next record? I suspect we’ll pull from Seth’s catalog and mine, and we’ll write some new ones. We already have 3 or 4 new songs that might be viable.
Seth: Yeah, we’ve done that. I started introducing songs, and though I love them so far because of how they’ve been transformed with Dan’s input, I’m wondering what’s going to happen here. I mean, we’ve had such great results from just fielding Dan’s songs and revising them, will it still be the same if I bring in material? I guess the answer is no. Then again, who wants to hear the same record over and over again, no matter how great it is. That said, I don’t want to go the total opposite. Jeez, this is a lot to think about right now. We haven’t even played our first full band show yet! We should talk again in six months and maybe we’ll be able to give a better answer.
How did you come up with the name Still Spark?
Dan: It was Seth’s idea. I wanted “Big Pneumonia”, but that’s okay because that is the name of my publishing company! “Gibberish” was always a name I fancied too,
Seth: Actually, my thought was “Still Sparkle” drawing from what I felt were important messages from the lyrics of the tunes on the record … it was Dan that had the thought of dropping the “le”. I don’t even want to say it’s a double entendre because that limits the real meaning of the name. Its meaning is multifaceted.
You guys had a lot of great players and singers get involved in this currant project – how about a rundown.
Seth: (takes deep breath) It was produced by fellow Bostonians Kay Hanley of Letters to Cleo and Chris Zerby of Helicopter Helicopter and boasts knockout performances by Michael Eisenstein, also of Letters to Cleo, Blair Sinta of Melissa Etheridge and Alanis Morrissette, Lawrence Katz of Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Joseph Karnes of Five for Fighting, Linus Dotson, Gaby Moreno, Katie Shorey, and Sara Mann.
Is Still Spark Seth Freeman and Dan O’Leary or is there a set band – or do you guys like the idea of guest folks joining in?
Dan: Still Sparkgrew out of the studio and we loved having guest appearances. But, to do our songs live we need a full band playing with us. Right now we have great session guys who do live shows with us. We have Andrew Synowiec on lead guitar, Derek Frank on bass, and Kelly King on drums. We’re open to greatness happening. If we can keep a core together for shows and maybe the next record, who knows what the band will look like in the future.
Seth: Yeah, the music sounds like a band, and we love playing with these guys. I wouldn’t be surprised if they ended up on the next record, but seriously, we have only just played one, yes one, unbelievably great show with them. Let’s not put the cart before the horse, but they do look super hot.
Given that this is a songwriter site – how about some songwriting and production questions – How do each of you go about writing a song – do you wait for the muse to stop by, or do you take it as a job and sit down and just get it down on paper?
Dan: I start with music usually. A guitar riff or chord progression will start it. It may take weeks or months before the music has formed itself, requiring repeated attempts. I find it best to have the conscious mind occupied watching tv or something, while strumming on a guitar. The subconscious takes over and the music comes out. I will hold on to that music as long as needed until I have the cognizance of an emotion that I can match up to the music. At that point, I’ll try to title the song and come up with a hook. If I’m successful with those things, I’ll work hard to finalize lyrics.
In a totally different vein, I do like searching for titles or phrases that would be good in a song. That effort generally doesn’t yield songs for me, but it has contributed to songs. I think the practice of always being on the lookout for song ideas or emotional ideas is essential for a songwriter.
I did learn how to write on demand in Nashville. The world there is based on setting up writing appointments for one or two hours a day. Also, some of my songwriting study was structured that way – write a song a week for months at a time. I think that kind of formalized environment can lead to trivial or trite music but it is great for your musical discipline to at least be able to create something new on demand.
Seth: I’m always writing. I write while I’m walking the dogs, while I’m driving, while I’m drinking a cup of coffee, while I’m sleeping even. I can’t help it. I used to start with the guitar. Now I feel like I’m limited by an instrument. The melody is the real hook. An instrument can certainly inform a new melody, but really the hook tends to come straight out of nowhere without a guitar or piano.
I think that it’s key to learn as much as you can about theory and composition and song structure, etcetera. It will never hurt you unless you let it take over. It has helped me in countless ways that I cannot even count. Just never sell your inspiration and intuition short. That is where the ideas come from.
How long have you been writing and give our readers an idea in how your approach to songwriting has changed over the years.
Dan: I didn’t learn the guitar, much less start writing songs, until after I had graduated college. I was experiencing a new part of the country where I knew nobody (outside Hartford CT), had plenty of time on my hands, and made good on a goal I’d had since boyhood – learn the guitar. My approach in those days was simply to construct a complete song. As I became more skilled, I paid more attention to message. It wasn’t until I moved to LA and studied songwriting that my songwriting became transformed and focused on music theory and contrast. Obviously the move to Nashville further transformed my writing, if only to teach me how far the bar had to be raised. Life is so great now with the iPhone or android when you can record a song and email it to someone in a matter of minutes. Or you can just capture an idea or video on the spot. You have no reason to ever lose an idea these days.
Seth: I cannot remember a time when I didn’t write music. I am always hearing little melodies in my head, and often wake up with a new song in my head, which I then vet out while walking the dogs with a cup of coffee, so that by the time I’m starting my day, there’s a song ready to go. It’s very important for me to listen to my intuition, and the most vivid moments of intuition for me are upon waking, or more specifically in that state between sleeping and waking.
Dan: I have to interject- sorry! Forgot to mention that I’m most creative in the morning! Best time to write for me.
Seth: Well it sounds like we need to arrange some sleepovers, where we wake up at 6AM and walk my dogs, Dan! Or maybe some camping trips. Anyway, my writing became less melodic when I started playing guitar, believe it or not. It took years of writing for me to refocus on melody. It started to really happen when I picked up toying with the piano again, specifically for some songs I’ve written for films or for some film scoring. The last couple years have been somewhat precious to me in this way. I participated in a song a day exercise with some friends a couple years ago, which is still ongoing in the month of February every year. You can hear all the songs I wrote that month freely on the Internet. That was an amazing exercise because it really got me to just create create create, something I’m not half bad at in the first place, but to do so without any real editing whatsoever, because there’s just no time for it!
What do you both think makes a good song?
Dan: It’s complicated and it’s simple- which makes it complicated. Much of it is scientific. A good song manipulates the listener musically through the use of certain chords which play specific roles in a song and through the use of contrast between different sections of songs in terms of melodic leaps and rhythmic emphasis. These are tools for the songwriter, and the listener doesn’t even know what is happening to them! Lyrically, a good song finds a way to say something common in an uncommon manner or it makes the strange seem somehow more comfortable. In every case though, lyrics matter and shouldn’t be “throw away lines” or something I’ve heard a million times over.
Seth: Of course I agree with Dan. How could you not!? On top of that, a great song is inspired. It’s the initial spark of a song that cannot be manufactured. Then, it’s what you do with it that really allows it to shine. This is where the tools Dan talks about come into play. From the more broad strokes Dan talks about to the little tricks like dropping or adding a bar or a beat for emphasis, throwing in a sus or a new chord at a crucial point, going up higher melodically in the chorus or even lower in the chorus (sneaky!), but to a different place, stretching out or speeding up the harmonic or melodic rhythm, there are a myriad of tools in the songwriter’s toolbox to choose from, depending on your particular flavor of choice. There are also tools and tricks like this for lyrics, from internal rhyme to not rhyming where one would expect it, etc. I picked up a lot of this in my studies at Berklee, and while it’s certainly not necessary to take a lyric writing course from Pat Pattison or a songwriting course based on John Lennon’s songbook, it does kind of get you leaps and bounds farther than those around you in quick stead. The only possible drawback to this approach is that one might become so analytical that they forget why they started doing this in the first place, which is usually to create some sort of self-therapy. Songwriting is a cathartic experience, and the true great songs come from the gut. It may not even be an experience that you’re writing about in the first person, but we’re empathetic creatures, so we can feel everything those around us are feeling if we let it happen. It is truly amazing what can be done with only 12 notes, or more to the point, 5 or 6 notes as in most popular songs :)
Dan: One go back, now that Seth has made me sound like a robot! Inspiration is a given for a great song. But true inspiration deserves a professional treatment with songwriting’s best tried and true tools.
In your opinion is there such a thing as a template for writing a hit song?
Dan: As I said before, there are tools that must be used to take advantage of the science behind the music. And you need to have something worthwhile to express that other people need to hear and feel! It also is pretty much a given that you need to write songs in one of the standard formats that popular music demands. I think the music and structure needs to be there before someone will give the lyrics a chance. Obviously, a dance mix doesn’t need lyrics. Analyze the market you are going for and understand who your audience is.
Seth: There are those who do believe that great songs need to have templates. Jay Frank does some amazing analysis of popular songs in his book. I think it’s all worth considering. In the end, though, a template does not make a great song. A great song makes a great song. Yes, I stick to a template for song form much of the time myself, but I try not to allow myself to get boxed in. Most of the time you really don’t need to try to reinvent the wheel, but I like to stay tuned into the song and not just think, “oh, we need to put the bridge here because we just finished the guitar solo.” Some songs don’t need a bridge, or a solo, or even a chorus in the case of a verse refrain song for example. Heart O’ Mine on our record is confusing form-wise until you realize it’s a variation on the classic AABA form (verse / refrain, verse / refrain, “b” section, refrain). I would like to know what Dan was thinking about form when he wrote that or whether he was just so wrapped up in the emotion of it that it came out the way it came out.
Dan: Its the old “put the hook in the verse” ploy, that’s all. Fairly common in country music.
Give us an idea of the difference in writing a song alone and collaborating with another writer? Do you recommend collaboration to solo songwriters?
Dan: I absolutely recommend co-writing. But, collaborating requires an open mind. Learn to write and rewrite again. Learn to love your co-writer for what they can bring to your song. Never marry any of your lyrics or chords until the song is committed in some way beyond change. Be conscious of your own shortcomings and be willing to ride on the abilities of your co-writer. Leave your ego at the door. On this record, Careless Thing was transformed tremendously , as one example, from a good song to, in my opinion, a very strong song. Someday I’ll play you the original version!
Seth: I say co-writing is for suckers who can’t write a good song on their own. Hahaha! But seriously, a term that flew around Berklee alot, being a school with a very strong jazz curriculum, was “big ears.” I will never forget this concept. When you’re jamming with a group, instead of just focusing on your part, the idea is to imagine your head in the middle of the room, hearing everything at once, as an audience member might if they were fully absorbed in the music. Take this visualization into the songwriting world and imagine the possibilities. Yes, there are countless amazing songs created by one person alone, but if two or more writers are really tuned in, the sum can be so much greater than the parts. It’s the Mastermind Principle. I have been a huge proponent of co-writing in recent years, and really of collaborating in any way on anything. While I’m a fan of Thoreau, I’m through going it alone. I’ve done that. This, this collaborating thing, this is way more fun. In the end, we’re all in it together and it’s so much more fun if we just embrace that reality.
If you guys had one thing to tell a new songwriter that would help them, what would that be?
Seth: Get tuned into your intuitive side, but don’t be afraid of the craft. It will not ruin your art. It will only help.
Dan: Never stop thinking of yourself as an artist, no matter what criticism you receive.
What performers or songwriters influence you?
Dan: Van Morrison, Eric Clapton, The Outlaws, Bruce Springsteen, The Band, Tom Petty, Collective Soul, Bon Jovi, Tony Lane, Radney Foster
Seth: The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Rogers and Hamerstein, Weezer, Paul Simon, Billy Joel, Led Zeppelin, Bob Marley, Nirvana, I mean this list of classics could literally go on for pages. I could name every CD in my collection and every artist’s online page I click on – it all influences me in some way, it’s just that some artists or writers just consistently deliver the goods. That said, it’s really the sum of our experiences that shapes who we are, right? There are so many undiscovered or up and coming artists I love as well. Gaby Moreno – look out for her! Jonny Polonsky – why did his record not do better?
Dan, in an interview I heard you talk about what I consider an important thing – that songwriters should just write for themselves and their fans and not worry so much about being famous – did I get that right? Tell us a bit about your philosophy on being a songwriter?
Dan: I only meant that I spent a few years in Nashville trying to write songs that I thought other people (Radio, Publishers, Record Labels) would like. I found out that I wasn’t writing songs for me anymore which is how I first fell in love with writing. I actually stopped thinking I was a songwriter anymore. I lost belief in myself. I spent years before believing that the industry would find me if I wrote music true to myself. It didn’t happen. The move to Nashville was about me trying to move to the market. That didn’t work out well either. I was right in the first place but wrongly craved commercial recognition. I learned that the most satisfying writing I could do was to satisfy myself. Kind of ironic to see where this focus on the anti-demo album has led us to.
Seth you are a songwriter and a producer – you also have your own studio, I know quite a few songwriters who produce, how did that come about?
Seth: Wow, yeah, it’s been a long road. Initially I sort of shunned producing and engineering, not because it wasn’t interesting to me, but just because I wanted to spend my time writing, rehearsing, performing, you know, all those artist things. Plus, there used to be a lot more legwork to do as an engineer, and a lot more at stake with studio hours and tape rolling, etcetera. Along the way, I inadvertently learned how to be a producer, and even an engineer, the old school way, using the gear. I’ve always loved recording and have been doing it since junior high school with four track cassette recorders, bouncing and bouncing the way The Beatles did, except on a cassette tape ;). Then my band stepped up to an 8 track reel to reel and I got to know that machine and the associated outboard gear we had in the studio as an apprentice to Brendan Taylor who was our drummer in Little John and also had a Music Production and Engineering degree and studio experience. Watching producers I’ve worked with along the way, like Mike Denneen, and more recently Michael Eisenstein, I really just sort of Zelig’ditand absorbed their skills and craft via osmosis. Then more recently when it became feasible to do so much more in a smaller space, I converted our garage in LA to a studio where I could compose and write songs. I ended up getting pretty good at this stuff over the course of a couple years because of the prior years of real experience that I wasn’t even considering … and I’m sort of a quick study, heh. I could hear what I wanted, but needed to read a lot and ask a lot of questions of real pros to get close to it. Ultimately I got good enough where others were approaching me to produce them, which was definitely an honor.
How important is having access to a studio for a songwriter?
Dan: I don’t think it is that important for songwriting. It is essential for song development. But there are plenty of options for home studio song development. I think most songwriters need the support of great singers and musicians, and other writers. In the case of Still Spark, we benefited tremendously from all of the above. It takes a village to raise a child they say, and now I believe, also a record. I owe so much to all the people who have contributed to this record.
Seth: In a way, having a studio can be a detriment. It used to be that you wrote a song and you perfected it and rehearsed it and you got that song as great as you could possibly get it before rolling tape. Now, the studio has become a part of the songwriting process, which for some music is kind of essential, but for these kind of classic songs that are not relying on a certain sound or beep noise to be their hook, it’s just a distraction. That said, if you’re trying to write songs for anything other than just the sake of writing songs, like, for example, film, television, or video games, then you need a studio. Unless you’re going to get massive airplay and sell tons of records, hardly even a possibility for even the best writers these days, then you need to be able to turn around a demo in less than 24 hours. And by “demo” I mean a track that most ears will hear as a professional track that could be heard on the radio or in a movie. It’s kind of insane what is expected of a creative person these days. At the same time, having that kind of time pressure forces creative decisions to be made quickly, and if you’re making a creative decision quickly, you can’t second guess yourself, so ultimately you’re going with your gut, your intuition, and in my book, that’s always the right creative choice.
From Boston to Nashville to LA – how different is the songwriting/performing scene in each of those places?
Dan: Nashville is all about the songwriter. The song is the star there. Songwriters are royalty there. LA is about the band or the musical perception. Image is everything here. The music business is easier to find in Nashville than LA. I think the trump card no matter where you are is to have “The Song”. If you have the song, it doesn’t matter where you are.
Seth: Boston is an amazing scene. I love how it’s a city but it’s a town and everyone knows each other. The music is varied and inspired. It’s certainly got a more punk garage feel, and frankly I dig that, assuming there’s a real song there. I don’t really go for sound just for the sake of the sound. It has to actually be conveying something. I learned so much from the Boston scene, and I will always look back fondly on those years riding my bike or taking the T around the city from club to club, hearing tons of music, grabbing a slice of pizza at the end of the night across the street from TT’s before heading home to crash. Los Angeles is almost the polar opposite. Most clubs and even bands are not looking to book a night as a full night, but instead every show is just a string of sets with friends only showing up to see their one band. Everybody drives everywhere. Pay to play! Didn’t happen in Boston. That said, there is a level of musicianship in Los Angeles that is unparalleled. All the people I know that moved out here from Boston have maintained the old school let’s just jam attitude but also adopted the LA session musician work ethic – be as great and as pro as you can – and get paid! It’s all good, to use an LA phrase ;) They are all better now than they were in Boston. I don’t know why that is, but people just get serious about their craft when they lay it all on the line I guess. Though the clubs can be cut throat with the draw and the money, the bottom line is that Los Angeles is an entertainment industry mecca. You don’t even say “the entertainment industry” here, you just say “the industry.” So while LA is not the place to make a ton of money at a show as an artist, there are just a ton more opportunities for placements in film and television and other creative ways to make royalty income. All that said, yes I agree with Dan that the song is king, but getting people to actually hear that song is an entirely different animal. That is why being in LA is kind of key. The people I want to hear this music are in Los Angeles – the producers, directors, music supervisors, and music editors, to be specific. If I’m living here, I will meet them. If I’m living in Boston or San Francisco … or Santa Fe, heh, it is a LOT less likely that I will ever bump into them.
How about you guys giving us a workshop on your terrific song ‘Love Comes Calling’ – from writing the song to getting the cut down on a CD.
Dan: I wrote most of the music for that song on a lunch break one day. The lyrics followed within a week. The lyrics are loosely based on experiences I’ve had throughout my life and I’ve wanted to capture, but I think they apply globally. I brought it to Seth, he massaged a melody line here and there, tweaked a chord or two in the Pre Chorus and wrote the music for the bridge. We made a scratch recording within 1 week and we continued to tweak the lyrics until it was time to lay down drums and bass. Of course we could have changed lyrics anytime in the following months before we finalized vocals, but we didn’t. That is, not until a great thing happened during the vocal takes. Seth was improv-ing and vamping on the ending and came up with a great melody phrase ad lib that we ended up adding through out the song- “Don’t do as I do”. We had a blast the day we added that, dancing around the studio. We made an iPhone video of that moment and included it on our Kickstarter campaign. I do recall that we had some internal fireworks (myself and Kay Hanley) over the tone of the vocal. We kept trying to find the right mix of attitude and like-ability for Seth. It was quite the storm. I think that situation brought us all closer and catalyzed a tremendous synergy to finish the record.
Seth: It’s funny, when I did the “don’t do as I do” line I didn’t even realize it was happening. I was just ad libbing, and was eager to save that take and move on and do more ad libbing. Kay, Chris, and Dan all said no way, dude, you’re recording that melody again and again and again. The ad libbing that I thought was going to be on the record was really just a ruse to pull out another hook. Another interesting moment in the recording process was Kay’s suggestion to strip the drums and most of the instrumentation we had already recorded in the bridge and just lay down a stomp / clap rhythm. Initially Dan and I were taken aback a bit, but I think by then we had learned to trust that her seemingly extreme ideas were potentially gold. She was right on with that one. We had also already recorded a much bluesier guitar solo, but Chris and Kay were not letting that fly. They coached me on the solo that ended up going down on that song, which is pure melodic pop rock. I do remember the debate about my vocal tone as well, and I also remember trying to figure out exactly how to come across with that second line. It’s more aggressive than I’m used to with the “hate” and “shoot” language, but then I realized it’s about a particular situation where the guy’s just devastated and trying to caution anyone else that might venture down that road. I think ultimately we did a great job as a team striking the balance. I’ve seen all types of faces on listening to the opening lines of our first song on the record, and I recognize more understanding than I would have initially expected and never an ounce of offensiveness. Kudos on that line, Dan.
Dan: We were giving away the song, mostly to support the video we have on Residentband.tv. Residentband is an awesome site, the brainchild of Lance Chapman, and we are honored to be one of his select Residentband artists.We are moving on to periodically give away various songs from the record. We are just starting to gig as a band, and in fact, our first show was our record release on March 31st at Molly’s, believe it or not! We have done a number of acoustic shows as a duo. Seth really wants to shed the guitar and just sing. The band situation allows him to do that. The band is being received exceptionally well and we expect great things when the PR campaign and radio promo campaigns hit high gear.
Seth: We’re not gonna be the dinosaurs here like the major labels were early on with the Internet. You’ll be ableto hear our music everywhere, and if you want to own it, you should buy it. That’s fair :) Every once in a while, we’ll give something away in exchange for an email address or a Facebook like or something. Heck if you really want to you can figure out a way to get any music for free, but why would you want to do that to a band whose music you like!
Is there something about Seth and Dan that we, your fans, don’t know and should know?
Dan: I’m Batman and he’s Robin! Maybe not. Or the other way around? Maybe not. But we are a great team! We absolutely complement each perfectly from the music side to the business side of music. We are also great confidantes and friends. In this business, flakes are everywhere. I think we both really appreciate that we absolutely can count on each other. He is a Godsend to me. On a personal level, it may interest some to know that my father and my uncle invented the baseball batting trainer called the Johnny Bench Batter-up. I was in a national TV commercial with Hall-of-Famer Johnny Bench from the Big Red Machine (Cincinnati Reds) when I was a boy. I’m a tremendous dreamer, thanks to my father, who was an incurable inventor.
Seth: Ditto on all that, except it’s my uncle that’s an inventor and he invented a water valve that is in use the world over for five gallon water bottles, mostly in places where the refrigerated tanks with the hot and cold spigots are just not feasible. But yeah, Dan and I are a great team, not just as songwriters – really great friends now who complement each other well. Another fun tidbit about me is that my childhood friend Dalton and I used to go skiing in the Santa Fe ski basin and we’d go off the trails, which I suppose you’re not supposed to do, and go on little adventures. We’d call it “making trails.” I like to think that I’m still making trails today.
What’s on the horizon for you guys and Still Spark
Dan: Nice! Am I invited? We are anxious for our radio campaign to start and to get album reviews in the next month. We are looking to get our music on Pandora, also. We plan to play a lot of summer concerts in the beach cities around LA and play some great college dates. Even though we are extremely proud of our record, we feel our music translates even better live. We are looking forward to building our reputation as a great live band. Watching Seth Freeman on stage is an amazing experience. I love how fearless he is and how much he loves our music. I can’t wait for everyone to fall in love with his performances.
Thank you both for a great interview and your generosity and candor. Dave and I see great things a-comin’ for both of you and Still Spark.
Seth: Thank you! We’re happy to espouse our philosophies, theories, and tidbits well into the early morning hours with you any time!
Dan: Thank you for the opportunity to talk about ourselves. I hope you are right about us!
Listen to 3 great tunes from the new Still Spark CD
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