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.