Monday, October 29, 2007
The above picture has become one of the most meaningful photos I've ever had taken...it's from two months ago. That's me, my Dad, and my Grandpa in the underground tunnel that leads to the elevator cage beneath the "C" Shaft at the Cliffs Shaft mine in downtown Ishpeming. I took my Grandpa on the mine tour (which opened to the public in 2002). The mine itself shut down operations in 1967. After starting his job there in 1932, my Grandpa left when the mine closed in '67 and never returned. Until August 2007, that is, when we took the tour. How incredible for me to walk back into history and see this strange subterranean world where my Grandpa spent his entire working career. And to go back to that mine shaft with him for the first time in 40 years! Amazing. Each miner was assigned a number...my Grandpa was #68...and his rusted numbered tag was still hanging there in the tool-check room...we saw it there, untouched since the last day of operation.
Here's a photo I took of the T-shaped mine shaft tower that is the focal point of my hometown skyline. You can check out a cool aerial view from a blog I posted back in August. Dad and I pushed Grandpa in his wheelchair all around the now-shuttered mine and surrounding offices, laboratories, and garages. While I was growing up in Ishpeming all these buildings were hidden behind huge barbed-wire fences, so you never got to see them up-close. It was so cool to walk around this formerly forbidden zone, and to be guided by somebody who actually worked there and knew every inch of the place.
Here's an amazing photo that I swiped from the Cliffs Shaft Mine Museum webpage (which is not really working right, as you can see...it's pretty much just a clickable menu). The photo holds a copyright by James Schuster, so James, if you want me to remove the picture, just let me know and I'll take it down. BUT, I hope you'll allow me to post it, 'cause it's amazing. What you're seeing here is the view from the TOP of the "C" shaft tower, looking over the old "A" shaft, with snowy downtown Ishpeming in the background. Grandpa told me that when he worked at the mine, every Saturday the fire inspector would arrive to inspect the elevator and the shaft, and Grandpa and his colleagues would use that time to go up to the roof of the "C" shaft and look over the town. I've always wondered what it would look like from up there, and now I can finally get a sense of it.
So, Grandpa is 94 years old, and 40 of those years were spent beneath the ground. And today he begins a new phase of life, residing at a nursing home. I'm sure it's incredibly sad and difficult for him to move there, but I know there's no way he could continue to live on his own. It's tough to get old. As Grandpa said to me in August, "Once a man, twice a child."
It's strange for me to think of this reality: the way things work with families in Ishpeming, it's totally possible that I could've grown up to work in the mine, and right now I could be hauling iron ore out of the ground, instead of writing songs and performing. Grandpa was an underground miner, and I grew up to be an underground musician. It's so mysterious the way that life unfolds.
Next time I'm back in town, Grandpa, I can't wait to visit you in your new home, as you enter a phase of life that few folks ever live to see. I hope that I, too, will follow you towards the century mark, up from the underground.
Sunday, October 21, 2007
Read the review in context here, or check out the text:
HickoryWind recently received unsolicited copies of Jonathan Rundman’s “Public Library” and “The Best Of Jonathan Rundman”. They arrived after one of those “I hate my job” days. I wasn’t really in the mood. A short note mentioned that 2004’s “Public Library” was produced by Walter Salas-Humara and accompanied by Drew Glackin and Konrad Meissner (all from The Silos). Smart move! That caught my eye. I slapped it in the cd player and hit play. Not surprisingly there was a nice rockin’ Silos vibe, a power pop twist on several tracks and some unique lyrics dedicated to the fairer sex (“Smart Girls”) and books (“Librarian"). A very nice surprise. My mood-o-meter adjusted, it was time for Jonathan's new disc. “The Best of Jonathan Rundman: 20 Songs from the 20th Century” is a compilation/best of/rarities/retakes/outakes culled primarily from his first four out of print recordings. “Tape” and “Armyman” sound like they could have been bonus tracks from “Public Library”. “Janesville” and “Read The Signs” show a mellower side and “Ask Me In Nebraska” adds some lap steel twangpop.
Jonathan's music and tenor follows in the power pop tradition of Matthew Sweet (see Goodfriends aka Girlfriend demos)/Nick Lowe/Parthenon Huxley/Tommy Keene/ The Silos with a folky acoustic twist. Jonathan’s lyrics occasionally remind me of the heart on his sleeve/simple pleasures songs of Jonathan Richman (no relation!).
The “The Best of..” disc includes a bonus disc “Myopia:cassette recordings 1991-1998”. I’ll listen to it soon but I’m enjoying “Public Library” and “The Best of Jonathan Rundman” too much to move on just yet.
Seemed to go pretty well from in front of the camera, although I'm afraid my hair might have been a bit too fluffy and preppy, and my jacket might a have been too bunchy. We'll see when Ryan gets some prints in a week or so.
Here's an example (shot on my basic digital camera) of what images Ryan's shots may include. I wanted to avoid the typical rock-band promo photo locations (old warehouse, railroad yard, grungy alley, brick wall), so instead we focused on my "suburban Dad" existence. Hopefully it'll be cool and provocative, and not confusing and lame. We got some neat stuff inside the house, too, and down in my studio. After dozens and dozens of pictures taken, I'm hoping for 3 or 4 keepers. Any more than that and I'll be thrilled. Photoshoots are fun to do, but I'm just not consistent in my own face...I can't smile for the camera without looking like a total clown, and I can't create a dependable facial expression on demand...it's just shoot, and hope for the best.
Today (Sunday) I did what I haven't done in over a year: I spent hours tracking ProTools sessions in the studio. It was SO FUN I couldn't quite believe it. Oh, to have privacy, and creative time, and to come up with cool new musical ideas! This is a near-impossible situation to achieve while parenting, so thanks Dawn for managing both kiddos for most of the day.
I've had dozens of half-finished songs sitting on my studio computer doing nothing for the past 5-7 years, and today I put a HUGE dent in 'em! Here's a preview of some songs you may hear in the future:
QUIET SOUND: a duet written and recorded with my cousin Bruce Rundman, this recording appears on Bruce's 2003 album True North. (Hey, have you seen Bruce's new MySpace page?) I wanted to create a different mix of this recording, so I dug into the original tracks and removed the drum kit, resulting in a really sweet acoustic version. I like title of this song...it refers to a ferry ride Bruce and I took across Puget Sound from Shelton, WA to Seattle. This could be a lost Rembrandts tune.
LIBERTY ISLAND: another duet written and recorded with Bruce, and also first appearing on his True North album. This one was a serious overhaul of the original recording. I removed all acoustic guitars, replaced them with Wurlitzer electric piano, and sang my first home-studio lead vocal since my tonsils came out. Felt good to sing again down in Verkstad Studio. Then I cut and pasted Bruce's original vocals around mine, so he got to sing the harmony parts. It worked out great. I've been picking away at this re-recording for the past 4 years, adding drum machine, chopping up the arrangement, and really changing it around. I realized today that I can hear a Styx influence in this tune...maybe something JY would've written, like "Ms. America" or "Half-Penny Two-Penny." And the synthesizer soloing my me and Bruce will bring tears to the eyes of prog-rockers everywhere.
NO MORE WALLS 1994: Yes, it's the first song I ever wrote on my own when I was a junior in high school, and it's appeared about 5 times on different albums of mine over the years. I made this recording in a garage in Springfield, Oregon, back in the Summer of 1994 at the dawn of the OJ Simpson hearings. Lowell Michelson played drums, and eventually my cousin Bruce provided harmony vocals for its appearance on the cassette-release of The Chandlers album. The original album version is SUUUUPER lo-fi, and almost unlistenable, but there are some decent elements within. Amazingly, I had preserved those original rhythm tracks from 1994, so a few years ago I dumped 'em in my computer. Two years ago when Bruce was visiting, I had him re-sing his harmony part, and about the same time I had John Kerns play a new bass guitar track. Those ancient drum/vocal tracks were starting to sound decent! So today I played a new acoustic guitar track (in a first take, thank you very much). Later this week I'm gonna match a new vocal performance with the original, play a melodica solo, and boom, I'll have a "20th anniversary mix" of the song for 2008.
WORSE FOR YOU: this obscure tune appeared on my 1997 album Recital, and never really caught on with the listening public. There were some obvious flaws in my performance on the original version, so I dug into those original files, fixed the goofs, cleaned up the timing problems, and man, it really turned around nicely. This will probably appear soon as a free download. I always loved this song (it contains one of my only uses of a major-7 chord!) and me and my Chicagoland bandmates Andy Deitrich and Benji Derrick did a killer live version of it. 'Tis a lyrical theme I would revisit later in the song "The Loneliness of Happiness."
and finally, my most exciting moment of the day:
ALIVE AND SLEEP-DEPRIVED: oh, the journey of this tune. The initial recording was made way back in Summer of 2000 with me on drums and my brother Tim on guitar, captured in the bedrooms of our parents' house on Westwood Circle in Ishpeming, MI. For the past seven years I gradually added bass, percussion, and Hammond organ. It evolved into a total '70s rock prog-hard-rock stomp. I had a lyric idea that never really clicked, so tonight I vowed I would write a new and final lyric for it. A couple weeks ago I wrote down the phrase "Alive and Sleep-deprived," and I really liked it...boom, that line fit perfectly as the chorus. I chilled out in the living room with Dawn this evening, and as we talked, I was able to write two complete verses and a bridge for this new idea! It was really cool, and I walked back to the studio and sang the entire vocal. This tune is a departure for me...it's certainly one of the more hard rock tunes I've ever tracked...it's like Deep Purple meets Kansas or something. I'm really excited to get this baby mixed and sounding HUGE. I think I have a prog-rock record developing for future release....
Saturday, October 20, 2007
I submitted my initial idea (the slow, Celtic-esque tune) to my editor, and he liked my acoustic demo of it. Then, the evening after I sent in the demo, I took my pre-bedtime shower, and as I shampooed my hair, I thought of a completely new and different song dealing with the same theme. So I jumped out of the shower, dried off, threw on my jammies, and jumped downstairs to the studio where I demoed a second idea....this whole new song came spewing out of my brain and into a finished acoustic demo recording in about 45 minutes. Now THAT'S what songwriting is supposed to be like!
This second idea was one of those magic songs that happens to songwriters occasionally. Simple, hooky, interesting, completely fresh, challenging, yet insightful, with that inexplicable "zing" of inspiration. I knew that THIS was the song to submit, and when I sent the new idea to my editor, he knew it, too....he told me in his email that when he first heard it he couldn't stop giggling (in a good way). That's how to do it.
SO, my original slow folky idea has been put on the creative shelf...maybe I'll use the melody and chords as scrap metal for the construction of a different song sometime. I'm thankful that I spent the time on that first idea, 'cause it greased the wheels and allowed me to vomit out the final product.
SO, knowing what song was the official project, I knew I had to turn in a final listener-ready recording of it by November 1st, so my editor could have it prepped for the consumer by early 2008. This past Wednesday I went in the studio to record the song, and I got to work with a couple local artists who I've been looking forward to utilizing for a long time.
Matt Patrick was the engineer and bassist, and is the owner/operator of a lovely new studio in South Minneapolis. Drums were provided by my Chicagoland pal Jimmy Olson...Jimmy and I lived in Chicago at the same time (and both of us have played music with Chi-Town heroes Dolly Varden), but we didn't get to hang out or work together until we both moved here to Minnesota.
First of all, Jimmy got his drums set up and organized down in the lower iso-room (seen in the above photo through the low window). Matt plugged in a bunch of cables and set up mics. I made a cheat sheet for my lyrics. Matt played bass and engineered simultaneously, and I sang a scratch vocal and played a scratch guitar part while standing in the control room. We banged through the song a few times to figure it out, and did three takes with the "tape" running. Take three was the magic one, and Jimmy's awesome fills and Matt's shifty bass playing had really nailed it. Then it was my turn: I went down into the isolation room and played a couple rhythm acoustic tracks (using my 1952 Gibson LG guitar), and then stood facing the corner to sing lead and harmony vocals.
It was the first time I really have sung ANYTHING since getting my tonsils removed about a month ago, and I must say, I felt a difference in my vocal ability. Even though I was a bit fatigued from weeks and weeks of not singing, my voice was more accurate than before! AND, I could easily sing up to the E above middle C, a note I used to have to "work for" back in the tonsil era. Engineer Matt even noticed the difference, commenting on how my vocals weren't nearly as thin as they were before. YAAY....I'm hoping that this is a reality: that now that my mouth has been detoxed, I'll have a more accurate, wider-ranged, and beefier singing voice!
After about four hours of work the basic tracks were done. Matt's gonna add an electric guitar track, and maybe some maracas, and then he'll have it mixed by next week, and I'll submit it to my editor ahead of schedule. Ahhh...a good feeling. And I'm really thrilled with the song. I've been playing it at home this week, and Paavo already knows how to sing along. He's the best focus group a pop songwriter could ask for. Come see me next month on my East Coast tour, and I'll be testing the song at every show.
Monday, October 15, 2007
My most vivid observation during Svea's delivery was the blinding power of love and life that was radiating from Dawn. It seemed like that if you were standing outside the delivery room you'd be able to see lightning emanating from under the door. Dawn was like a Supernova or something, and I remember thinking that all the hate and fear and death out in the world was powerless against this kind of unstoppable and natural and life-giving love. Whew.
Svea was born on a Sunday. That following Monday will always be remembered as one of the most purely pleasurable and blissfully happy days of my life. Svea slept in the hospital nursery (with occasional nursing visits) during the night, so Dawn and I snoozed in the hospital room, completely relaxed, getting tons of delicious sleep. We spent the day being visited by Paavo, my parents, other family members and friends, and resting some more. We snuggled with newborn Svea, and she was warm and soft and happy and healthy and nursing like a pro. Somebody brought me a Butterburger from Culvers. At the end of the day Dawn and I chilled out alone in the room and watched that show Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip on the hospital TV. (That was a great show....why didn't anybody watch it? Now it's been canceled!) And we snuggled more with our new girl and drifted off for one more night of heavenly sleep. Man, that day was ideal.
One year later, baby Svea is pushing toddlerhood. She's just days away from walking, she seems to have identified a favorite toy (weird blankie with stuffed dolly head), she waves and says "Ba Ba," she's got a wild "cave-baby" haircut, and she loves wrestling and snarling around with Daddy (that's me). She's a cool kid. I like to dress her in pink, red, purple, and orange at the same time. Lately, we've been dancing together to the Pretenders' album Learning to Crawl (no pun intended)..."Hush little baby, don't you cry, when we get to Tucson, you'll see why..." Oh, and she comforts herself by sucking on her 3rd and 4th fingers, resulting in a virtual flash of the "heavy metal horns" hand signal for the world to see. Rock on, Sve Sve!
Yesterday we had an awesome birthday bash for her! Svea's name means "daughter of Sweden" so it was a Swedish-themed party: Swedish flag decorations, Swedish food and drinks, The Cardigans pumpin' thru the iPod speakers, her IKEA highchair, and government-provided health care for everyone in attendance.
Monday, October 8, 2007
New review! Phantom Tollbooth writers choose my Best of the 20th Century CD as a "writer's pick" for October!
This month I'm thrilled to see that they included my own Best of the 20th Century album as a "writer's pick" for October, along with new CDs from Over The Rhine, and ex-Jayhawk Mark Olson. Man, that's good company!
Link here to read the review in context. The text is below:
Jonathan Rundman is the King of Lutheran music, an even more obscure sub-genre of CCM. This is in itself a darn shame. Not only does Mr. Rundman own that sub-genre, but he is better than 90% of CCM, and probably two-thirds of pop-music in general. He has remained rather obscure, despite breaking out somewhat with his mammoth, 2-disc project Sound Theology in 2000. Since then, he has had a little more name recognition, but you can only reach so far as an independent Christian musician. He is too Christian for the pop music world, and too Lutheran for the CCM radio stations.
Rundman has decided to release his first greatest hits compilation as an object for the majority of his fans (myself included here) who hadn't heard of him prior to the release of Sound Theology. This is a collection of 20 songs from Rundman's early career (pre-2000, hence the title).
I want address one issue up-front. Many of these are re-recordings of songs that appeared on earlier albums. Some may consider this sacrilege. I don't know how the sound & recording quality compares to the original versions; I can only speak to what I hear on this collection.
The sound on this disc is consistently top-notch, with strong mixing and mastering. Rundman, as always, delivers a sonic delight whether the song is an upbeat rocker or a tender, country ballad. The early stages of Rundman's songwriting is obviously influenced by the '80's & '90's alterna-pop bands that hit big. I hear touches of REM & They Might Be Giants, both the Violent Femmes and the Vigilantes of Love as well. Rundman has a twangier side as well, reminiscent of the Alt-Country of Ryan Adams, Buddy Miller, or Jay Farrar. Jonathan Rundman hasn't hit it big like any of them, but his talent isn't far from their heights.
The Best of Jonathan Rundman: 20 Songs from the 20th Century is a top-notch effort, as long as you don't own the original recordings. If you do, you should decide for yourself if the re-recordings are worth getting. To enhance the experience, Rundman has a few unreleased tunes added. Also of note is that he includes a bonus disc of (mostly raw) demos. This 20-track bonus disc isn't one you will return to often, but it adds nice value to the release.Buying this disc is well worth it if you are a fan of Pop-Alt-Country-Folk music, and should be considered essential if you are trying to up your Lutheran Rock collection.
Whew, I'm spent. I should be booking my November East Coast tour but I don't feel like it. I should be cleaning the bathroom and putting away clean laundry, but I'm too tired. I should be sending out song-licensing reminders, but I'm unmotivated. After I blog, I may go make myself my first post-tonsil PB&J sandwich.
Nothing too monumental going on these days...just a random series of small events. Here are some details:
I was up 'til 1AM last night recording an acoustic demo of a song I've been commissioned to write for Augsburg Fortress Publishers. They need a theme song for a series of curriculum for adults that corresponds to the lectionary readings for the season of Lent 2008. The series is about "Questioning" so I wrote a Celtic-inspired folky tune about faith and doubt and questions. It's one of those "work for hire" gigs that songwriters sometimes get, and you have have to just craft the song (like a carpenter building a chair) rather than sit and wait for some natural inspiration. So, lots of slight adjusting of melodic direction, experimenting with chords, finding lyrics that are meaningful but not cheesy, and still sound like a song that I would write. The demo turned out pretty good...now we'll see if my editor wants me to fire up the computer and record a big rock-band version of the song. Oh, and I still need to write the first verse.
How 'bout that heatwave, eh? This past Saturday, October 6th it was 86 degrees in Minneapolis, so Paavo and I went to Lake Harriet South Beach in Minneapolis and we went SWIMMING. In October! Yes, it was pretty darn cold, but I'm a Finlander, and i've swum colder. It actually felt quite good and refreshing, once I numbed myself. Comfortably numb, as Pink Floyd would describe it.
Last night I went to a real Christian rock concert. Now, I know a lot of you actually think of ME as a Christian rock musician, and assume that this is a situation I'd be in all the time. Well, in reality, the Jonathan Rundman music experience is really quite removed from what is called Christian Rock, and although I do occasionally play music at a Christian Rock Festival or something, I haven't personally attended a Christian Rock Concert (as an audience member) for about a decade. A local Minnesota musician who I've gotten to know a bit, Jason Gray, is on tour with a couple other bands who are signed to a big Nashvillian Christian record label, so I went out to hear 'em. I must say, I was very impressed. Thankfully, the performers were ultra-professional, classy, non-manipulative, light-hearted, theologically responsible, insightful, funny, and just plain cool. And wow, what a production! Lights, smoke, video, sound effects, set changes, huge fancy PA, tech crew, etc. This is not shoegazing indie rock, dear readers, this is like U2 playing in a gym or something. And musicianship: holy cow, these folks could sing like crazy, play like total pros, and tie it all together effortlessly. It's a whole different way to do the "touring artist playing church gigs" routine, compared to the way I do it. I'm just showing up with a guitar case, plugging in to some 1960s era Radio Shack speaker bolted in the rafters, and playing "Meeting Nixon" and "Children of the Heavenly Father."
What else is going on? I got a haircut. I love my stylist at the JC Penney Salon out at Ridgedale Mall. I downloaded some cool Genesis songs on iTunes. Been listening to lots of Bob Dylan this week, too. Havin' fun with the kids. Trying to stay mentally afloat. I'm alive and sleep-deprived.
Wednesday, October 3, 2007
I’ll be honest and admit that I’m not accustomed to receiving “Best Of” CDs from artists I’ve never heard of. But hey, when someone’s been recording albums for around 15 years there’s got to be something good in the catalog right? Thankfully, on this album, there are a number of gems. According to the press release, The Best of Jonathan Rundman “draws from Rundman’s first four albums which have been long out-of-print. Essential album versions, remixes, alternate takes, and various previously unreleased recordings are included.”
The album opens with the track “Tape,” a rocking tune with splendid sounding acoustic guitars and vocals reminding me of Matthew Sweet circa 100% Fun. Rundman’s vocals stay pretty much in this vein throughout, although on songs such as “Ask Me in Nebraska” and “Nothing Old, Nothing New” he sounds a bit like Ben Gibbard from Death Cab for Cutie while on “The Sound of The Cicadas” it’s almost as if he’s channeling Weird Al Yankovic. All four of the aforementioned are some of the standouts from the collection along with “Meeting Nixon” which speaks of the “great white house in the sky.” Rundman has a knack for throwing out memorable lines and hooks and I’m sure I’ll be singing “Ask Me in Nebraska” for weeks on end.
The only problems I have with the album are the sometimes stale drum sounds. These seem to be more prevalent on the “rocking” tracks such as “Meeting Nixon” and “Armyman” but they don’t detract enough as to not give the album high praise. Loops and samples are used on many of the slower tracks and this seems to work well for these tunes.
If you’re like me, and had never heard of Rundman, he’s a Minneapolis-based songwriter and seems to keep pretty busy with his label, Salt Lady Records and his touring schedule. He’s had some nice reviews in Performing Songwriter and Paste along with countless accolades from local and regional publications over the years. On the other hand, if you have heard of Jonathan, I bet you’ve been jamming out to this disc since it was released in May. A 2nd CD, Myopia: Cassette 4-Track Recordings, 1991-1998, is also included with this release.Wow! I still get totally excited whenever I get a record review, especially when it's a nice one like this. Never gets old.
So, you've been wondering why I haven't been blogging? Well, mostly 'cause there's not much interesting going on at this point. I'm almost back to normal now, two weeks after my tonsils came out. It's been a painful journey. I'm struggling with insomnia. Bought a Burley bike trailer for Paavo and Svea to ride in, hooked it up behind my bike, and have been cruising Edina with the kiddos in tow, having a great time. Had lunch today with my great pal David Scherer and we talked seminary and showbiz. I've been washing lots of dishes, cleaning lots of floors. Discovered a great pizza place near my house a couple weeks ago, and I've already been back again....Michelangelo's Masterpizzas....mmmmm.
AND, I've never really been a fan of the band Genesis, but after reading a band profile in the magazine Blender I jumped on the iTunes store and downloaded some Genesis hits, and MAN are they great! "Turn it on again," "Abacab," "Throwing it all Away," "Paperlate" (those awesome horns!), and the incredibly synthey "Man on the Corner!!" Holy cow, these songs sound SO GOOD to me right now, I can't believe it. Phil is singing the crap out of these songs, the keyboards are hooky and amazing, and the grooves are undeniable. I can't believe I'm having my mind blown by Genesis.