Hamell On Trial’s Blog: Writing On The Fly

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I’ve been working on a new show recently that I thought some of the songwriting practitioners and aficionados might get a kick out of. I do a lot of “Fringe Festivals” that provide me an opportunity to combine music, dialogue, visual arts in ways that aren’t as easily produced in more traditional venues. I had pretty good success with a one-man show I wrote and performed called The Terrorism of Everyday Life. This was about 50% music, 50% dialogue that addressed topical issues painstakingly woven into an autobiographical story.

It was a lot of work, initially doing a residency at The Knitting Factory here in New York over the course of a year with continual rewrites and editing, out on the road in a few major cities, most notably Austin, Texas, then over to The Edinburgh Fringe in Scotland where there are over 3000 acts from around the world. I did a month long run there where I was lucky enough to win the prestigious Herald Angel Award. From there we did two weeks in the London Soho Theater, and finishing up for a cross country tour here in the States culminating in the Capital Fringe Fest winning the Director’s Award. Exhausting, creatively challenging, immensely rewarding and most of all a boatload of fun.

I then proceeded to write two shows, neither of which quite jelled. I would take them out on the road, perform them in segments and they seemed to fall on deaf ears. I did some rewrites and further drafts and instead of breathing new life into them it seemed to “wash them out.” Maybe some of you writers can identify with this. Sometimes the initial spark which needs that “fine tuning” doesn’t seem to extend to further drafts. I was writing at that point a song a day anyway just for the fun of it so I wasn’t particularly worried about writer’s block. I was, however, concerned about getting an aesthetic boner. I’m talking about that exciting Viagra like muse called “inspiration.” Where you could taste it in the words. Something that I gave a shit about, was proud of, that challenged me and at the end of the day, knew that I had experienced that cool artistic thing called “growth.”

(Sidebar: A friend of mine, the excellent songwriter Wammo from the Asylum Street Spankers named his beautiful daughter Cecilia. I asked him if he was a big Paul Simon fan and he said yes but he told me that Cecila is the name of the Goddess Muse. That puts a whole other spin on the song right? She’s upstairs “doing it” with some other guy. She’s betraying Paul. He’s not getting the song written downstairs. She’ probably up there having an orgy with Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Randy Newman and, shame upon shame ART GARFUNKEL! Some kind of cool lesbian thing with P.J. Harvey….“Inspiring” THEM but not HIM!! Sorry…I got off on a tangent…I could Google this Cecila/Muse thing to fact-check but fuck it, I’m on a roll.)

In order to continue doing the Fringe Festivals I had to come up with a new script. I came up with a title that I was happy with, The Evolution Revolution. (Don’t give me any shit about this, Pete Townsend supposedly comes up with his titles first and he wrote some pretty good songs). I wondered if I could get the audience to help me write a song within the context and parameters of a 70 minute show. Here would be the plan: I’d come out, do a bit of one of my more unorthodox tunes, talk about what inspired that specific tune, get a bit more general: how I write them, what informs them etc. Do another. Ask the audience for help, we’re going to write a song together, we’re going to plant a seed and watch it “evolve,” share the creative experience. Give me 5 titles, we’ll pick the best one, I’ll do another tune, you guys think about it. My nine-year-old boy is on the stage with a computer ready to copy down titles, ideas, notes. They give me 5 titles, we pick one, write a song, sing the chorus together, my kid films it on my Flip camera, we post it to YouTube and Bingo!: Andy Warhol is spinning in his grave.

I committed to 5 shows with the Capital Fringe Fall Festival program. This last Saturday and Sunday, November 5th and 6th were opening nights. With nothing written, nothing prearranged except this vague concept I walked out on stage and asked for the audience’s help. Did it work? Fuck yeah. Was it tough at first? You betcha! Was I scared half way through that I had bitten off more than I could chew? Yup. But little by little they got into it, and by the end we had a fully participatory audience, enjoying the art of creating songs, coming up with a little ditty that we were all kinda proud of. Is it going to race up the charts? Probably not. Is it going to make the ghost of Cole Porter envious? Nope. Was it pretty cool and did the audience and I leave the venue stoked? Bet on it.

To give you an example; One of the titles that was volunteered from the audience was “South American Peace Corps Blues”. I’m looking out at a dark house so I ask, “Have you been or are you going?” “No,” they respond, “Our daughter is there.” Aha, now we’re on to something. “How old is she?” I ask. “23.” What’s her name, how long has she been? Yadda yadda….gotta keep the energy up, can’t mess up the pace so I do a tune about old timers in love…my reasoning here is, they love their daughter, they’re proud of her, she has chosen a righteous path…but they miss her and they’re worried about her, right? By the time I’m done with the tune I’m singing, I’ve written a verse in another part of the brain, (You know the part that’s panicking going, “GET IT FUCKING WRITTEN OR THIS SHOW IS GOING TO FALL ON IT’S ASS!!) Came up with a pretty cool line about how they’re proud of her, she not like one of them Kardashians, but we’re worried and get yer ass back from Peru! We project the lines my son has copied down on the computer onto giant screens in the house, the audience sings along… success! Cool, huh? I finish up with a spoken word piece I’ve written about song titles, a big closer, and everybody wins! Are you kidding me??!!

I was pretty pumped and proud and if it inspires any of you songwriters to do something similar, breathe a little life into stuff as they say, then awesome. Somebody just read this and told me that Jimmy Fallon is doing it on his show so it’s not like I think I’m some genius originator: Steve Allen used to do it too 40 years ago. But did he have a lesbian love scene verse? Probably not. Did he mention the excellent cocaine in Peru as I did? Of course not. So there.

BTW: I’m back in Washington DC at The Capitol Fringe Fest this November 18th, 19th and 20th. If you’re in the neighborhood drop by and join in the fun.

For more Hamell, visit hamelltv.com.


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