Until recently, my life was all about a different band to the one I’m in now (The Halls). I was in a band called Dirtywings, which I ended a few months ago. I almost don’t even want to link the two projects, they’re so different…but if I ever achieved any measure of success with The Halls, it would come out eventually! I Google my name, and a whole bunch of Dirtywings links come up. I suppose I could try and get rid of these links, but honestly, I don’t think I should have to hide my past to be a credible musician. (*Cough* Lana Del Rey! Or should I say Lizzie Grant? Here’s a satirical article about her seemingly calculated metamorphosis into the Lana we know now)
A friend of mine on Facebook recently noticed Dirtywings was over, and asked me what happened. In response to her innocent question (complete with frowny face emoticon), I went on a GIANT rant to try and explain, haha. Poor girl. I’m glad she asked, though, because now I have today’s blog topic!
The more experience I’ve had with playing music & with The Halls, the weirder the origins of Dirtywings seem. When I was fresh from completing my sound recording course, and still very green when it came to the ‘music biz’, I had some of my demos up on Myspace. (You know. That old website that now has visible tumbleweeds bouncing through it). A Brisbane producer contacted me, saying he liked some of my songs, and invited me to come work with him. I knew I wanted to record some songs professionally, but didn’t know much about how to get ‘out there’ in the business. This guy seemed full of ideas and contacts. He’d been the person who ‘discovered’ a pretty famous Australian pop band. And the examples of his production work were really awesome-sounding. So I agreed, and decided to go record 4 songs with him. I’d already been preparing to record an album with a good friend of mine, Andy, who was also a producer. But I also really wanted to “get somewhere” with my career, so I decided to go with the more pro-seeming of the two.
I brought Ross (my songwriting partner) to stay with me at the producer guy’s house for the week (let’s pretend said producer’s name is ‘Steve’). We recorded “Superglue Myself”, “I’m Your Jesus”, “When My Body Dies” & “Gingerbread”. Steve made TONS of suggestions when it came to song structures, sounds and lyrics. One of his most recurrent suggestions was “the verses are great, but you need a chorus on this”. I kept rewriting, and rewriting, until he was satisfied with what I’d done. I’m actually not knocking this guy, by the way. It’s true I wasn’t prepared for the level of changes he would suggest I make, but this is how he worked, and I am still grateful for all the songwriting lessons I learned with him.
At some point Steve asked me how I’d feel if he added some synth to the songs. At the time, I wasn’t much of an instrumentalist; most of my songs were written on acoustic guitar with simple chords. Ross came up with almost all the lead licks and more complex parts. I was, at that point, much more a vocalist/lyricist/songwriter. I could ‘hear’ what I wanted instrumentally in my head, but could only intimate this to others by giving painstaking and probably confusing directions to them. So I gave Steve heaps of freedom with the instrumental/music part of the songs. After a little over a week, the songs were done. And I’d never heard myself sound so good! The songs sounded crisp, perfectly produced, and were all neatly structured pop ditties. One especially (“Superglue Myself”) even sounded like it might have “hit” potential.
But they were – I can’t stress this enough – SOOOO DIFFERENT FROM WHAT I’D COME IN WITH. Way, way poppier. So much synth. Left to my own devices, I would never have gone in this direction in a million years. Steve has this way of being able to make something sound huge, and all the choruses in the songs had this dynamic of ‘jumping out at you’. (Listen to “Superglue Myself” and you’ll see what I mean) Never having had things recorded professionally before, I was blown away by the quality of the sounds. So I was pleased…but also kind of apprehensive. How on earth would I play these songs live? At the time I imagined I could try to market myself as a sort of Britney/Rihanna type artist, and just send the demos out to record labels and someone would sign me. Steve brought me down to earth and said that probably wouldn’t happen, and that I should instead put a band together.
I wanted to have my solo music moniker be ‘Dirtywings’ (after one of my fave Nirvana songs). But with the new “band” idea, I decided that could be our group’s name instead. Then I started showing the songs to my friends and family, and the accolades and compliments started rolling in. My mum and family were blown away with the songs, and finally seemed to believe that I might get somewhere with my music. Most of my friends were also really impressed. Only one seemed to be vehemently against my new sound – Andy, the producer I’d decided not to work with. He was like “dude, you can do so much more with your music. I don’t know why you decided to go in this direction”. I was kind of upset, but decided everyone was entitled to their own opinion.
Ross and I joined up with two of Ross’ friends (a guitarist and a bass player), and advertised for a drummer in RAVE mag. Finally, we were a band!…nearly. Sure, we hadn’t done any gigs …but we had recordings! It was a weird concept from the start. The “band” basically consisted of learning the songs, and then trying to imitate, live, how they sounded on the CD. After some band photos and trying hard to get our drummer to learn the songs properly, we wound up hiring a session drummer for our first gig. (He ended up staying on nearly the whole run of the band!) We figured out a way to imitate the synth sounds live – we just isolated the synth sounds from the recordings, and played them live with a line-out from an iPod. Our drummer had to play to a click track, but luckily he was an incredibly talented session muso.
Soon we recorded 6 more songs (not the whole band, just me and Ross in the studio with Steve again). Then I went full-on with promoting us, and entered us into every band competition I could possibly find. In the nearly 2 years we were together, we won and placed in a lot of things. We even came in the top 10 of the NSAI (Nashville Songwriters Association International) awards with “Superglue Myself”. (Hey, I’m still pretty proud of that international accolade!) We had “Gingerbread” placed in a low-fi horror film about Red Riding Hood. We won the QLD leg of Nova Radio’s “I’m With the Band” competition, and got to play alongside huge Aussie bands at Nova’s birthday celebration festival. We played at the first Surfers Paradise Festival amongst bands like You Am I. We won a Gold Coast band competition, receiving a free music video. Lastly, we won an online, nationwide song contest that resulted in us recording a track at Studios 301 in Sydney, and having 1000 copies of our album printed, with album art and free distro. Pretty rad stuff. (You can look at the album here)
The awards we won all had something in common, though. Most were entered online and were judged on only the recording of the song. We didn’t win any live competitions, and won no industry awards. (Still, I definitely urge any musos reading to enter every competition you can. We got so much free stuff, and so much networking and publicity out of those competitions!) I think most of what held us back was the way we still didn’t feel like a ‘live’ band – even after practicing regularly for months and months. Part of it was having the synth on backing track, I guess. But even when the lineup eventually changed dramatically, and we finally got a live synth player and non-session drummer, the band didn’t feel “real”. We tried to write new material together, and guess what? It sucked. We didn’t have much creative chemistry at all. (Except me and Ross, but he’d left the band by that point)
I realized that if we wanted to make another Dirtywings album that sounded anything like the previous one, I’d probably have to start by writing a bunch of songs on my own again. And I just couldn’t be bothered, yo. I felt really ‘over’ that type of pop music by then. My taste had expanded. Our songs had such predictable structures, and didn’t really allow us to let loose onstage. There wasn’t room for improvisation. And it seemed like the majority of our real fans were either very young or older – ie: not the general gig-going populus. It felt so strange playing live gigs alongside ‘real’ bands. The kind of music we were playing didn’t translate well to gig venues/bars. I don’t think the songs were that bad – I liked the melodies, and I thought the lyrics were pretty good for pop. Over 50% of the songs were more social commentary than ‘love and fun’ type songs, and I even snuck a song about victims of incest in there (‘Sickening Feeling’). But any subversiveness in the lyrics was masked by the sparkly popness of the music. Sure, our style could have befitted a big, Lady-Gaga style pop concert, or sounded rad on radio. But as an indie band, our music just didn’t seem to quite…fit. It seemed like to get anywhere, we’d have to get picked up by a major label. And that’s harder to do than pull your own teeth out these days. Plus, Steve (the producer) tried to help us with that. We were passed on by Universal Music, Liberation Music, and a big Australian management company. The only labels/managers that seemed to want us were really small businesses, that wanted to rope us into crazy 50-50 contracts, and who had no examples of successful clients. The Australian indie scene is heavily dominated by Triple J, who I knew would never play us. It just felt like we tried all our avenues and came up against a brick wall every time.
Towards the end of Dirtywings, Ross and I started making some new demos. We got a band together fairly organically (all friends of friends), and started jamming. It felt fucking GOOD! I actually had fun at practice, and everyone in the band was a creative force on their own. We could just jam with no particular aim, and still have it sound decent (and sometimes awesome). We couldn’t find a bass player, so I picked up Ross’ bass to ‘fill in’. One year later and I’m addicted. I bought my own bass and am the official bass player for the band. I think I’ve finally found my instrument; I’m certainly no Flea, but I can keep rhythm decent enough, and a bass just feels natural in my hands. Whereas, while I GREATLY admire good guitarists like Ross, playing guitar was always a struggle for me.
After a couple months of being in both bands, I really felt like things had run their course with Dirtywings. I ended things with the band and decided to focus full-time on The Halls. It was a sad parting in many ways, but I don’t regret it. I feel like I honestly did my best with Dirtywings, and tried everything I could think of to move us forward. But we only reached a certain level. And once my passion and heart weren’t in it anymore, it seemed stupid and futile to continue.
It’s not like The Halls never uses traditional structures or is the most experimental band in history. I think most of our music is fairly accessible. But it doesn’t smack you in the face with its obviousness; it has its own unique style. It comes from the heart, and we all write our own parts on our instruments. Best of all, I can tell we are improving – our songs are getting tighter and better. We are growing together as a band, and we are all friends. It feels like…how it should be. I’m finally in a real band. And hilariously, we’re now planning to record an EP with the producer I decided not to go with, years ago (Andy). Full circle, anyone?
I could look back with regret and say, “I should have just stuck with my own music vision, and recording with Andy, and maybe I would have gotten somewhere faster in my career”. But life doesn’t work like that! I don’t consider Dirtywings a mistake, I consider it a learning curve. I learned so much about what is important to me in music – integrity, honesty, creativity and passion. Those things are more crucial to me than a glossy finish, catchy lyrics, commercial success and media exposure. I learned that friendship, creative connection and talent are extremely important in a band, and you can’t just team up with anyone and expect ‘phoning it in’ to work. I learned that I (and Ross) have a unique style of writing, and that I don’t want to temper that with comped vocals and the same structure every pop hit uses. And finally, I really did learn a lot about writing songs (thanks Steve). You know that old saying, “you have to learn the rules first before you break them”? It’s so true. Now, when we subvert the ‘rules’ in songs, we‘re aware that we are subverting them. We understand things like the rise and fall of dynamics in a song. I have learned heaps about finding gigs and navigating the music business world. I look forward to applying this to my new band. At this point, although I, of course, do care if we get somewhere, I would be proud of our music even if we don’t. Because it comes from my heart and I feel I’m finally truly expressing myself. And that’s what art is about.
No offense meant to anyone who was involved with Dirtywings. Like I said, I am proud of what we achieved. I still like the songs, I just got tired of the way every song ended up in the same formula with similar sounds. I feel like I wound up with a shallower product than I wanted to put out. Dirtywings songs just wound up sounding ‘flat’ to me after a while. The emotion and passion that goes into a song don’t have to just come from the vocals – you can say so much with the choice of what guitar sound to use, what drums, etc. With manufactured pop with the same sounds all the way through, you can’t get that feeling across. When I write songs, it’s usually because of some burning feeling within that I just have to let out, or I’ll burst. I want the music I write now to express those feelings. That’s why I started making music in the first place. It was confusing with Dirtywings because so many people seemed to like and “get” the music easily. So I started thinking, I guess this is what people want. But now, I still want to touch people’s hearts, I just feel I can do that in a way that’s truer to my style and who I am.
Wow, what a long blog. That was very ‘me, me, me’. But I hope it is an interesting read about how not to put a band together!
Have an awesome day, and thanks for reading.