Writer’s Room: Honest Work. Redefined.

Written by Mike Doughty

Videos by American Songwriter

I’ve written about 300 songs in the past few years because I made a commitment to release a new one every week via my Patreon. But for me, the headline isn’t that I’ve written a whole bunch of songs—it’s that, because of the constant practice, the good ones are exceptionally good. 

I’ve been pushed in unexpected directions just because I’m continually in need of more material. So in desperation I keep turning to new styles, new strategies. This new band hearkens back to Soul Coughing to a certain degree, and it’s largely because of the experiments I had to conduct to keep the wheels spinning. I returned to the upright bass as a central element because I was writing basslines on GarageBand on my phone, and that’s the only bass preset I like. I started working with breakbeats because, in search of inspiration, I looked up the old Scarface Classic Beats and Breaks CDs on YouTube (they’re all 100% uncleared samples and are entirely against the law now—I used them as templates, shifted them around, cut and pasted, and then worked with drummers to record new versions.)  

I’m releasing the first album by my new band, Ghost of Vroom, this month. It’s everything I like in an album—35 minutes, eleven songs. It’s coherent: the songs hang together in such a way that they seem to embody a tiny world. 

I’ve gone through extremely prolific periods before, but this is different: there are stakes. The songs get in front of people. You have to keep them coming—and make it worth their monthly $5. It feels like honest work. 

I’ve always been a disciplined-practice kind of an artist, but I have honestly never thought of writing in the same way I do practicing guitar: the more I do, the better I get. It seems counterintuitive to me: writing is more inspiration than technique.  

I’ve always wished I could have been around in the era when it was more about singles than albums. I like that idea of writing a radio song and a B-side every month. I see a purity in that.  

By the time I started putting out albums in 1994, artists were expected to release something that approached the limit of what a CD could hold: 74 minutes. Supposedly, the length was specified by Akio Morita at Sony, who wanted it to fit Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. To me, 74 minutes is too long for an album—and it seemed that, as the American attention span dwindled, artists were being required to overload in such a way that it strained a listener’s ability to listen to an album as a distinct experience.  

The common scheduling strictures bothered me too: artists were usually taking two years, even three years, between releases. For one thing, the power of global media made it such that artists go out on the road, to every possible media outlet, and try to dig up every single person on the planet who would want to buy the album. I definitely do not object to that. That’s the evangelism endemic to our trade. But the end of the cycle would leave an artist absolutely wrung out, with zero time to work on tunes, which further handicapped their writing skills. 

When I got into the music business, I told everybody I met at labels that it was my intention to do more of a 1970s schedule—a release every eight months or so—and I don’t think anybody was opposed to that. But the rhythms of modernity were what they were, and I released only three albums in the ’90s. 

I was friends with a bunch of British techno producers back in the day, and they would do a track, cut it on a white-label acetate, and give the record to a DJ who would spin it at a rave that weekend. Electrifying! 

So writing something one day, recording it the next, and then releasing it that week is exhilarating to me. 

The other thing: it’s lucrative. It has sustained me through this pandemic. And, like I said, it’s honest work: people are subscribing because they get new material every week. It’s different from other crowdfunding—and indeed from the Patreons of artists who do it differently—in that a fan’s $5 isn’t just a way of casting a vote that the artist should continue to exist.  

I was doing great early in the quarantine because I’m an isolator by nature. I took it as a fantastic opportunity to work on songs every day. I went through a couple of months of writing raps daily (I work with some rappers who can freestyle for twenty minutes straight and fifteen of them are good—I need like eight hours to write sixteen bars); I went through periods of going through multiple YouTube tutorials for producing drill and electro-cumbia music—kind of a monkish, student phase. 

Because of that early-pandemic productivity, I have a backlog of 35 songs. Ten okay weeks, fifteen good weeks, ten great weeks. I was beginning to panic, thinking I’d have so many that I couldn’t release them all, but I crashed—now all I’ve been able to do is practice guitar to instrumental tracks all day. 

But I have a lot of songs, way ahead of schedule. I’m headed back to L.A. to do another album with Mario Caldato and my partner in Ghost of Vroom, Scrap Livingston, as soon as I get that jab. 

Photo by Jamie Harmon

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