The importance of Fall Out Boy in my musical life cannot be overstated. I may not sound much like them, but in a way their music has its fingerprints in everything. Their flexibility with their musical style over the years inspired me to create my own sound and be fearless about it. It also showed me that it’s okay to explore different musical territories on different albums, which will be important if I get around to doing the second album I have planned, which explores some brighter lyrical terrain. Most importantly though, they taught me how to write lyrics. Again, my lyrics may not exactly resemble Pete Wentz’s anymore, but I promise you there are notebooks filled with copycat Wentz lyrics out there somewhere. Fall Out Boy taught me that it was okay to sing about emotional pain. That catharsis is the main reason I make music in the first place. Without Fall Out Boy, I don’t know if there would be an album.
If you’ve listened to Near Life Experiences (so if you’re like one of five people in the world), it may come as a surprise to you that I view AC/DC as one of my most formative influences. Now, of course, my music isn’t anything like that of AC/DC, but when I started playing guitar in the fourth grade they were my idea of what rock music was, of what it meant to play guitar. You may have noticed that my guitar style is more dependant on riffs than it is on chord progressions or arpeggios. The biggest reason for that is that’s how AC/DC played. Their music was straight up killer riff for the intro, killer riff for the verse, and killer riff for the chorus. Now, obviously I’m not as good at that as they are, that should go without saying, but early in my guitar career, when I was the most impressionable, that was what stuck with me: to have a great song you need killer riffs. Now my idea of what makes a riff killer has evolved over time with help from Slash, Hendrix, Nirvana, My Chemical Romance, Led Zeppelin, Fall Out Boy, and a thousand other bands and artists that helped shape me into the musician I am today, but that core has never changed. I still see a song without a riff kind of like a lost puppy, it may be cute but it doesn’t know where it belongs. Do I go outside my comfort zone every once in awhile and write a song without a definitive riff? Of course. Going outside my comfort zone is one of those basic things that I believe every artist should do to challenge themselves. We’ll get to that with Fall Out Boy. But still, at my core, I believe a really great song needs a really great riff. And I’m always trying to come up with my version of “Back in Black” or “Thunderstruck” or “Highway to Hell.” Even though AC/DC might not play a huge role in what my music sounds like, they laid the foundation for how I make music. And to me, that means they will always be one of my greatest influences.
So I’m gonna start another series of posts here just talking about the music that influences me or has influenced my musical style. The first is really the heart and soul of my influences, Jimi Hendrix. I may not play anything like Jimi did, my songwriting style might be completely different, in fact, my music might not even resemble Hendrix’s. But none of that is really what I’m getting at with influences. Jimi Hendrix’s music inspires me. It always has, to some extent, but it was watching the documentary “Electric Church” about the Atlanta Pop Festival and his appearance there when I really felt an almost spiritual connection to Hendrix and his music. He played guitar in the purest form I think you can, that is to say, he communicated his emotions with every note he played on guitar. That’s the blues. That’s soul. That’s rock n’ roll. To me, Jimi Hendrix is the greatest musician that has ever lived. I will never not be inspired by his solos, his riffs, his use of effects, his songwriting, and even his voice which, while maybe not technically great, was great in that it was distinctive and confident. As someone who doesn’t feel I have a great singing voice, Jimi Hendrix the singer is an inspiration to me because he’s proof that you don’t have to have the biggest range or the best tone to have an all-star caliber rock voice. In my first album, I didn’t sing with much confidence. That’s something that, as I’ve said on here before, is partially related to my gender dysphoria, but it’s also because I just don’t think I have a great voice. If I make another album with vocals (which I’m currently in the lyric-writing stages of), it’s going to be Jimi Hendrix that gives me that confidence to sing my heart out no matter what it sounds like. Because Jimi taught me that you don’t do anything halfway, and you don’t get anywhere without having confidence in what you do. Jimi was humble. I saw a clip of an interview where he was called the best guitarist in the world, which he was, and he narrowed it down to being the best guitarist sitting in his chair. That wasn’t false humility, it was real. Jimi didn’t say things that weren’t real to him. But it also didn’t mean that he wasn’t confident in what he did. You watch him play and he just oozes confidence. But he wasn’t cocky about it. There are so many things about Jimi that I admire, adore, and aspire to, it’s hard to list them all in a brief article. His metaphorical lyricism inspires me to think harder about the words I write. His virtuosic guitar playing inspires me to put time into my craft because I know I can get better and he makes me want to get better. His confidence inspires me to believe that I do have something to show the world. My music may not sound a whole lot like Jimi’s, but I promise you there is no other artist that has been more instrumental in my creative process than Hendrix. I just wish he were still around today, so I could maybe send him a fan letter with a copy of my album, telling him how much his music means to me. Instead this little article will have to do, and I have to hope that he’s up there or out there somewhere taking in my music from the ether of whatever the afterlife might be if there is one, and knowing that without him and the presence of his music, my music wouldn’t be half of what they are now. Thank you Jimi. Rest in peace.
So I just released not 1, not 2, but 3 instrumental albums (and honestly I could’ve broken them down into 4 or 5 cuz they are looooong) on soundcloud. I won’t be releasing them through CDBaby at the moment because I don’t have the money to do that, but once I do I will likely release them properly. They’re under my name, Phoenix Chris Ellsworth, but I’ll be talking about them on this blog because it’s easier than running two blogs no one cares about. Plust it’s kind of a Bruce Wayne/Batman scenario with me and Gal Fawkes, and I had to put one of the albums on my Gal Fawkes soundcloud anyway. Anywho, I tried to diversify my work and also keep it easy for potential listeners so I grouped the albums by genre. The first album, Sounds From the Echo Chamber I, is kind of a straight up hard rock/metal album. Sounds From the Echo Chamber II is more laid back, a lot more acoustic and clean guitar and kind of fits more into easy listening. Sounds From the Echo Chamber III (the one I released on my Gal Fawkes account) is more experimental/progressive with heavy guitar effects and more synths and stuff. You can check them all out here and here on either of my soundcloud profiles. And I’ll also be putting music players up on a blog page.
Okay, last installment of the behind-the-scenes look at Near Life Experiences with a look at the final track on the album, “I’m Not Moving On.”
- This is, by far, my favorite track on the album. I’m incredibly proud of all that went into it and how it turned out. I think it’s my best musical composition on the album, and my best lyrical composition. It’s also the most emotional track on the album for me, as it comes at the death of my friend Skye from the most emotionally mature position on the album, with perspective that comes from being over a year removed from the their death (when I wrote the lyrics). It’s a song that left me with a great feeling of peace after I wrote it and after I recorded it.
- I also feel that this song integrates the Dirty Robot Synth Pedal better than any other song on the album.
- I wrote this song while I was in Residential, only shortly after I wrote February Smiles and Ghost Lives, but it comes from a much different place than those songs. Those songs were written thinking about all the things I could have done to potentially save their life, this song was a conscious attempt to try to let go of that guilt, as I say in the song. There wasn’t much time between these three songs, but the difference in perspective between this one and the other two is pretty incredible.
- This song contains probably about half the lyrics that were written for it. I realized pretty quickly that it was gonna get way too long if I kept all the original lyrics in. What was mainly bulking it up was that the pre-choruses were at least twice as long.
- Finally, despite this being my favorite song on the album, it’s also the one I have the least to say about. Not a whole lot of tidbits. Just a song that I’m really proud of, and one that helped me immensely in the grieving process.
In the penultimate installment of this behind-the-scenes endeavour, here are some facts about track 11: “We Sleep to Shake Hands with Death”
- That intro/verse riff that you can barely hear because of all the heavy modulation and effects on it is actually another one that I wrote when I was in Middle School, and fairly new to the guitar. The fact that it stuck with me so long is pretty satisfying. I remember listening to a lot of Iron Maiden at the time and a little of that went into this one. Also, I distinctly remember not being able to play the riff well when I came up with it. I kept tripping over the pull-offs. It’s a fairly fast riff and I just didn’t have the hands for it at the time but I knew in my head what it sounded like.
- I also had trouble recording it, as my hand speed has greatly improved but not to the levels of some guitarists, also I face the difficulty of having shaky hands from taking Lithium for my many mental illnesses. That shakiness played a huge role in how I recorded. Instead of playing a verse all the way through, I had to record the riff that was going to be playing and then loop it in my Digital Audio Workshop, because sometimes the shakiness was so bad I could only get one solid take of a given riff. For this song in particular, I meant to back the heavily modulated riff with that more clear brisk distortion for both parts of the riff, but found I could only get that first part down in time with the other track. It was an incredibly frustrating session in which I could see what I wanted, but had to settle for something less because of the shakiness of my hands (and to be honest, my lackadaisical relationship with tempo and beat).
- The phrase “we sleep to shake hands with death” was one of those epiphany moments and I believe I was away from the house at the time because I remember immediately opening up notes on my iPhone and writing it down. What I wrote down in that note ended up being the bridge to this song, as well as lending a phrase to the title. I still think the title line is one of the best lines on this album. It has its roots in a quotation that I can’t remember about sleep being the closest we can come to death before really dying. Can’t remember where I heard that, but regardless I kind of made it my own for this song.
- This album talks about suicide a lot, and this song hints at it pretty heavily, but it has a quality not many other of my songs have. That would be a glimmer of hope. It may not seem particularly hopeful, but from where I’ve been in the past, “please let me fall asleep tonight” so I don’t do anything to hurt myself is definitely on the hopeful side of the spectrum.
- I use “god” in a colloquial sense, as we just had a discussion about my agnosticism. I’m not literally praying to god that I fall asleep, it’s more in the vein of when an atheist says “god damn it” or exclaiming “god, can I just get one thing right?!”
- This has the odd hybrid of being a very literal song in that the verses, pre-chorus, and chorus are all literal things that I go through or have been through and felt, but also having a very metaphorical section in the bridge. The bridge is probably about as metaphorical as my writing gets. I’m a fairly literal writer. I write about my emotions, my experiences, and my life the way I see it, and I’m not very good at using symbolism in my lyricism, but this bridge actually gets metaphorical to the point where I’m not sure if you asked me I could tell you exactly what it means. Shit, some of the stuff just sounded good at the time. That being said, as far as lyrics go, this bridge still isn’t what you would call “intensely metaphorical” compared to a lot of the lyrics out there, just compared to mine.
- Final note, I’m super proud of the riff in the pre-chorus. I came up with that on the fly, as I do with most of my riffs, but that one just kinda sunk in. I see that riff as the glue that holds the song together.
Continuing the behind the scenes look at the album, here’s some stuff to know about the 10th track, Reckoning (AKA Conditional Anger):
- If you can’t tell from the track, I got beef with god. I’ll leave it at that.
- What the song is referring to in the verses when I say things like “I heard it sung Jesus was the answer / for every problem there was a prayer” is my Catholic upbringing. I grew up in a conservative Catholic family, went to Catholic K-8 school, and three years of Catholic High School until I moved down to Louisiana. So I was pretty inundated with the whole “Jesus” thing. I started to more seriously question the faith around fifth grade and officially stopped referring to myself as a Catholic my Freshman year of High School. Since then I’ve flirted with Buddhism but never really committed, although it’s still the religion that makes the most sense to me, but for all intents and purposes I’ve been Agnostic since Freshman year of HS.
- I think going through something like mental illness either makes your faith stronger or makes it disappear. For a lot of members of my family it’s done the former, but for me, along with several other things, it’s done the latter. I see the benefits of having faith, but there’s honestly just not that bone in my body. I can’t just say “I believe there is a loving god that has something so good planned for us that it justifies all the suffering and evil in the world.” I’m just fundamentally incapable and unwilling to make that leap of faith.
- The parenthetical title is “Conditional Anger” based on how I feel about god. Like I said, I’m agnostic, so I don’t believe in god, but I also can’t rule out the existence of one or many. So that puts me in an awkward spot when it comes to my views on god. If a monotheistic god does exist I would have immense amounts of anger towards them for the suffering and evil they created, but I don’t know if they exist, so I’m only angry on the condition that they exist. Hence conditional anger.
- This song barely scratches the surface of my problems with god (if they exist). Most of the other stuff is too dark to sing a song about (although I do sing a bit about it in “The Bogeyman’s Shoes”), and that’s coming from someone who sang three (four counting this) songs about suicide. So. Yeah. Didn’t wanna fully go down that road. Also, I wouldn’t have room to artistically put the depth of my feelings into lyrics, so I kept it with a simple topic that’s on theme with the album.
- While making this album, I liked to challenge myself with every song. Meaning I wanted to do something I had never done before with each song. It was a way of keeping the process fresh and keeping it from getting formulaic, as well as a way of pushing myself to make better music. I bring this up because this was really the biggest challenge I issued myself (some of them were just like “use this pedal in this way”), that being the challenge of making a song without using guitar or bass. I wanted to, and did, make this song fully synth-based. The only analog “instrument” on it is my voice. That obviously makes it stick out on a pretty guitar-heavy album. I think I did well with this challenge, but I there are parts that I think I could’ve done better. But such is life. Overall I’m glad I pushed myself to make a song like this.
- Also, in case it’s not clear, I mean “reckoning” as in the biblical sense, not as it “I reckon I’ll drink some sweet tea.” I chose that word because of the role reversal it represents in context, with this song obviously putting forth the idea that maybe it’s time we start judging god instead of the other way around.
- This was probably the song that took the longest to record because I don’t have any kind of midi controller or keyboard so all of that synth work is me going into the midi editor of my Digital Audio Workshop and writing out the notes and chords and phrases. It took… forever… which is why I was super happy to get this song in the “finished” pile. Looking back I probably should’ve just sprung for the $50 to get a midi controller (I still haven’t), but it ended up working out alright and using a midi controller would have come with it’s own challenges as I’m not a keyboardist.
Continuing the behind the scenes look at Near Life Experiences, here are some tidbits about “Amber”:
- As you see on the SoundCloud title, the original title was going to be “Amber (The ‘Nobody Wants to Hear Your 10 Minute Song’ Edit),” but when I was releasing with CDBaby I kinda figured that just like nobody wants to hear my ten minute song, nobody wants to see my snarky 11 word title.
- The song actually was originally over 10 minutes. There were originally going to be a separate pair of verses that were structured differently than the verses that got left in. This, along with more choruses, and the solo, led to a song that even I thought was too long. I would love to release to 10 minute version on soundcloud, but sadly this is one of the songs that saw the master track get eaten by my careless computer cleaning. It was probably the hardest production decision I had to make over the course of the album to delete those extra verses, but 6 minute songs are already pushing it, I feel like 10 minute songs are a bit masturbatory. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I just felt like this album had enough of that in the first place.
- This was really the only song that I experimented with singing in a higher pitch in any sustained sort of manner. I think it paid off well, and it kinda leaves me wondering if I had realized earlier on that gender dysphoria was to blame for me disliking the recording of vocal tracks, if I might have experimented with a higher voice or a little falsetto more often.
- Definitely the first and only track where I experiment with sampling of vocal tracks. I don’t know why I didn’t ever go back to that, because I liked how it worked out, especially in the intro with the pitch shifting, but that kind of plays to the experimental nature of the song.
- Yes, carbonite is a Star Wars reference.
- Upon showing this to my mom and dad, my dad remarked that it reminded him of David Bowie. I’m still scratching my head over that because I don’t think anything I could churn out could be anything close to David Bowie’s brilliance, but I’ll take the favorable comparison where I can get it.
- This is also the only song where I kind of chopped and spliced guitar bits. The transitionary piece of arpeggiated clean guitar into distorted power chords is the product of having too many riffs for one song once I took out the second set of verses, and wanting to keep bits of each piece. I think it worked out pretty nicely, but it’s not an approach I would use again, and again highlights the experimental nature of this song.
- This was recorded before I got my multi-effects pedal so all of the effects you hear on the guitar are post-production from my Digital Audio Workshop.
- All the spoken-word parts were ad-libbed at the time of recording.
- While it’s certainly the most experimental/progressive track on the album, the concept is something that’s pretty basic to my existence. The idea of wanted to be frozen in time, suspended in carbonite because of how overwhelming life can be is something that I’ve been thinking about since I was 14. With my anxiety disorders, I get overwhelmed really easily, so this kind of escapism is a fantasy I came up with early on to cope with all that anxiety.
Continuing the behind the scenes look at Near Life Experiences, here are some fast facts about “Go Cry About It”:
- This was originally supposed to be the only instrumental track on the album. Then I was messing around with my Dirty Robot pedal and “Robo Funk #4” was birthed. (Shoutout to DigiTech for making awesome pedals that inspire me).
- The AKA title conveys my actual feelings (at the time) about instrumental tracks. I was not in favor of doing one because I felt that they were just ego trips for the instrumentalist. The fact that I have now shifted to recording only instrumental tracks is the sweetest form of irony as well as a nice look into how quickly and completely my mind can be changed. Still I like the self-deprecating humor of the subtitle.
- This is one of my most stripped down tracks, probably along with “My Therapist Told Me to Write a Happy Song.” The acoustic guitar is just my Ibanez Artcore hollowbody played unplugged into my condenser microphone, and the only effect used is my Jim Dunlop CryBaby Wah Pedal on the lead. Incredibly stripped down in comparison to songs like “Ghost Lives” and “We Sleep to Shake Hands With Death.”
- The idea to do an instrumental song was planted in my head by my mom. I can’t tell you how many times after showing her a completed song she told me “I wish you would record an instrumental song” or “I wish you would do a song without all the effects,” so here ya go, mom, you can tell everybody that this is your song. The funny part is, I got into writing and recording instrumentals because I was working on a Mother’s Day gift for her, and that’s when I realized this is where my true passion laid.
- The title is a twofold reference: one obvious one to the CryBaby Wah Pedal used in this song, and a second one which is a riff off of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” Obviously this title’s a bit more abrasive than “Gently Weeps,” which is kind of what I was going for. If you want to pack a third reference in there, there’s one to be seen that refers to all the people who say abrasive and insensitive things like “Go cry about it” when people with mental illnesses or other disabilities talk about their struggles. Particularly I think of people who listen to someone talking about being depressed and say something like “I mean we all get sad, you just have to stop playing the victim and get through it.” Comments like that silence people with mental illnesses and other disabilities and deny the reality of what people are struggling with.
- You probably will notice a pretty heavy amount of “clipping” (the distortion that comes from the input signal being too loud) in this song on the Wah track. I considered redoing the solos with my preamp volume down, but I was really happy with the zone that I got into while recording these solos. They may not be the best solos, but they really come from the heart, and I feel like that’s well represented. I didn’t want to risk losing that just to have a “cleaner” sounding track. Plus I think the clipping gives it a little more character. So I decided that solos I was proud of with clipping issues were better than unknown solos without.
- This is one of the few tracks that utilizes the Jim Dunlop CryBaby Wah Pedal, and also highlights all of the reasons I have so much love for that pedal, the oldest pedal in my (currently) small collection. It has such beautiful tone and the high end (when the pedal is “closed” with your foot down) is so beautiful and dynamic in it’s own right. I could probably write a whole song just using that tone, but then I’d mis the beautiful “wah” sweeps. If anyone from Jim Dunlop is reading, I love your pedals and would love more of them.
- I really do love the unplugged sound of my Artcore. That’s the main reason I wanted it. While I probably shouldn’t have sold my acoustic guitar when I got it (regrets, regrets), I love that it has such a rich acoustic tone, so I don’t have to go through an acoustic simulator (which work well, but can never perfectly reproduce that genuine acoustic sound). The Artcore is without a doubt the best guitar I’ve ever had, and if the day ever comes when it doesn’t play like it used to, it will be hanging up on my wall of fame, because I am never ever getting rid of it. It’s range and versitility is really showcased in this album, from the genuine acoustic sound to the highly distorted metal-esque sound, to the beautiful bluesy tone that I take advantage of on this track. I almost always play with only the neck pickup on. I fell in love with that tone very early on. I highly recommend the Artcore, or any Ibanez guitar. If anyone from Ibanez is reading, I love your guitars and basses and would love to have more of them.
- Last little bit: I believe this is one of the only songs on the album that makes use of the Donner White Wizard Multi-Modulation Pedal. I have the White Wizard and the Black Arts Delay Pedal and I love them both for their simplicity, superior tone, versatility, and amazing stereo functionality. If anyone from Donner is reading, I love your pedals and would love to have more of them.
- Okay I lied one more little bit: yes I understand no one from Jim Dunlop, Ibanez, or Donner will be reading this, but when you have OCD that focuses on pedals and guitar-related accessories and the like, it’s almost impossible to keep yourself from just putting it out there that some complementary pedals or guitars would be fucking awesome. Plus I legitimately believe in these companies and am plugging their products because I love them, regardless of whether or not I get free stuff (I’m not getting free stuff, there’s like 2 people that read this blog).
Okay. Truth time. I’m very proud of my work on Near Life Experiences… and you know a BUT is coming… BUT I do have one pretty major regret about the album. It’s not necessarily something that was totally in my control, and it’s something I think I did the best I could with given the circumstances, but it’s still what I see as my biggest failure on the album and it’s the reason I’ll be shifting to instrumental songs from here on out. Given the title of this article, I’m sure you know where I’m going with this. It’s the singing. With a few exceptions, I don’t feel that I sing with confidence or passion. It’s not a lack of technical abilities thing, because I’ve long since realized that my voice isn’t fantastic, it just is what it is. It really is what I perceive comes across as someone who’s going through the motions of singing because they have to, not because they want to. And again, because of the title, I’m sure you understand a bit of why that is already.
But let me explain myself a bit more robustly. Because to me, admitting that I didn’t put my all into any aspect of this album feels like admitting that I’m a fraud. But I’m trying to be gentler on myself than that. So first of all, I am transgender, if you didn’t know that before, now you do. I’m genderfluid and spend all my time between the agender and woman parts of the spectrum, which is to say depending on my situation, I either don’t have a gender, or I feel feminine to some degree. I never identify on the masculine side of the spectrum. My dream in life is to transition with surgeries and hormones and everything, be able to rock a black skirt with some Adventure Time leggings and a Tom Brady jersey with full makeup on. Right now, I’m not at that point. Not even close. I only tell you the direction I would like to go so that you have a better appreciation for what I’m dealing with.
What I’m dealing with, of course, is gender dysphoria. Specifically in terms of how my voice sounds when I hear it on a recording. I’ve had a pretty deep voice for most of my adult life and I’d be lying if I didn’t say it chipped away at my self-esteem and self-worth everytime I hear myself talk. Now, project that onto an album where I’m singing 10 of 12 tracks, and I think without even realizing it my dysphoria really held me back. It’s the reason I often did one vocal take and refused to do it again unless I absolutely had to. It’s the reason there aren’t backing vocals on a lot of the songs even though there are areas where I think the song could benefit from them. I did the best I could, and I got better as the album went on, but it hurt every time I listened back to a vocal track and I heard this deep voiced man singing back to me. I’ve never even allowed myself to think of who I would like to sound like because I know that right now it’s just not possible. Right now my voice is always going to be an anchor that ties a song down for me. Because even when I put my all into it, there’s a part of me that’s still holding back, constantly judging what I sound like against what I wish I sounded like.
I spoke a few days ago on the intersection of OCD and music in my life. This topic represents the intersection of gender dysphoria and music in my life. One of the reasons I have so much awe and respect for Laura Jane Grace of Against Me!, is that she’s able to sing like she’s always sung, and she’s stated that that’s her voice and that’s how it’s going to stay. I would still be in awe of and respect Laura Jane if she decided to change her voice, but that decision, which I saw her talk about in an interview early on in her transition, is something I honestly can’t comprehend. And it’s one of those areas where I have a different standard for myself than for everybody else. When she sings with the voice she’s always had throughout her career, I don’t look at her as being any less feminine, any less of a woman because of that. In fact, the complete opposite, I admire and respect how she refuses to allow society’s potential categorization of her voice impact her self image. Yet, when I look at myself, for some reason I can’t see it in that light. For some reason I hear those vocal tracks and it’s like they’re constantly whispering “you are not feminine, you are masculine and you will never be able to change that.” I would never say that about someone else in my position, but unfortunately I have a way of finding the most cruel way of punishing myself and using it without remorse.
I wish that I could sing confidently and passionately, because I have a lot of lyrics that I would like to turn into songs. Unfortunately right now gender dysphoria isn’t just intersecting with my musical life, it’s T-Boning it. Maybe someday I’ll be in a better place and I’ll be able to look back on these songs and be as strong as Laura Jane Grace in saying “I’m feminine, that’s my voice, so that means that voice is feminine and if you have another opinion you can take it to someone who cares.” Maybe someday I’ll be able to record songs with vocals and know that I left it all on the table, know that every ounce of passion and confidence was poured into that recording. But for now, I’m saying that I’m not going to let my gender dysphoria ruin my love of music, so I’m going to enjoy writing and recording instrumental songs, and I’m going to keep doing what I have to do to not only take care of my music, but take care of myself.