Interview with Monk Turner (Creative Commons Musician)

by Robert Nagle on 6/6/2011

in creativecommons,interview,most popular,music

(See also my profile of Monk Turner: LA Song Writer and Concept Album Creator, his official website and musical blog. All of his albums are free for downloading and sharing from various places).

Musical Inspirationsofficial2lights-reduced

How has your biography or geography affected the kind of music you make? What do you think is unique or different about your music?

When I started playing guitar, I learned mostly classic and alternative rock with deep roots in the blues. Then when I did the band thing, my focus became surf, hardcore punk and Latin music. Towards the end of my ‘band’ career I was playing gospel and country music. I had grown up playing in bars since the tender age of 15 and was getting burned out on it. I loved the art of songwriting but I was done playing music for drunk people and making money for alcohol companies. It was at this time I started focusing my efforts on writing and recording.

Geography has also definitely played a huge role in my music. I’ve been doing solo music under my name for 10 years as of 2011. For about 4 of those years I lived in Texas where, as you probably know, the weather sucks and there isn’t much to do. During this time I had the most creative output but a lot of those songs are pretty rough around the edges. Living in LA where the weather is almost always beautiful and there is an abundance of distractions, my output has slowed down quite a bit. I’m lucky to get one album released a year. The flip side is that  quality of my music has improved dramatically because of the incredible pool of talented musicians in Los Angeles. Living here is an inspiration unto itself.

As for the music itself, what makes it different is that I’m not restricted by genre, distribution, band members, or money. There aren’t a whole lot of people doing concept albums these days either.

What other musician or musicians have inspired you?

Elvis Costello is a huge influence and is by far my favorite recording artist. Not only do I love his voice and his music, but also I also love his artistic integrity. He’s never compromised and always made the music he wanted to make without worrying about a label liking it. That is such a rarity and thanks to that philosophy he’s got such a deep range of music.

That said, I’ve always considered myself more of a fan of music than a music creator. I just love good music regardless of the genre. I’m constantly inspired by music that is completely opposite from what I do. I’m also inspired by the musicians who play on the albums. The majority of the time when I sit down to write a song, I have a specific person in mind who I think would sound great on it. Duke Ellington did the same thing when he was writing his horn parts.

Can you name someone who is NOT a musician who has provided inspiration for your creativity?

I can think of something that is not music related that constantly inspires me. That would be advertising and the creative process. I studied creative advertising at University of Texas which gave me a strong foundation in conceptualizing. Think of a campaign like the famous ‘Got Milk.’ That is a huge idea that has been executed a ton of different ways but maintains its strong central idea. I also feel the role of the copywriter and art director in advertising is similar to the role of a lyricist and composer. I draw a lot from the ideas of effective mass communication when approaching a concept album.

I keep humming the sung Easy on the Eyes, Who Da Ho Idaho, Nuts, Get Up, Do Your Thing. In fact, I am having trouble getting rid of them! Are there techniques you consciously use to make your songs “catchy”? Or do you just let the songs grow into whatever they turn out to be? Do you consider making a catchy song a primary goal of the songwriter?

Wow! You’re digging through the concept album crates, eh? Those are indeed some catchy tunes and yes it is by design. Like I mentioned earlier, I am obsessed with the craft of songwriting. How does the writer catch someone’s attention, keep them engaged, and have them come back for more? I feel like my older music and the examples you mentioned were very hook based. I’ve been slowly moving away from that. With Emergency Songs, the music is designed to be a bit deeper and a little less catchy. My goal these days is to create music that has deeper hooks that aren’t quite as in your face.

Do you think the music biz tends to squeeze out people who straddle both camps of song writing AND performing?

That’s an interesting question. Back in the day, you had songwriters and performers as two separate entities. The Beatles and Bob Dylan did a really did a lot to change that dynamic. I actually consider myself more of a songwriter than a performer though I do enjoy being on stage. I think these days there are those who perform other’s material and those write their own.

The Creative Process

Mad lib time. Fill in the blanks. To be a great songwriter, _____________________ is not really necessary, but ________________________ is absolutely required.

To be a great songwriter, being able to sing and have proficiency on an instrument is not really necessary, but the ability to communicate an idea that connects with people on an emotional level is absolutely required.

How did the idea for the Taking Requests album get started? Were all these requests from actual people? Were there any song idea requests which you were unable to turn into a song?

I wish I could tell you where I get most of the ideas for my albums. Honestly, they just kind of come to me. All of the requests came from actual people. I was able to get a good amount of the people to read their own request on the album. There were a whole lot of requests that I didn’t get to write songs for and they can be found at the very end of the album. The track is about ten minutes of requests being read simultaneously in the left and right speaker.

You mentioned that you wrote all the songs for your Love Story album in a 2 week period, a feat I   find to be incredible. I realize that you’re not taking into  account the time to edit, produce, and mix the songs or obtain feedback, but how do you manage to do the writing part so  quickly? Do you spend that time  cooped up alone in some cabin in the woods?

I never really plan it that way. Since I tend to take such long breaks between albums, I have a lot of creative energy saved up. When it comes time to write, I have a database of little song ideas I’ll use for inspiration. Most come to me while walking down the street or driving around town. Sometimes there will be a music theory concept I just want to try in a song and that will get me started. Sometimes I will just be playing along to music I like and jack a chord progression. However the ideas come, it is definitely my favorite part of the process and it happens very quickly.

Can you talk a little about your creative process? What parts about making music are the easiest for you? What parts are the most difficult?

reduced-editingI learned a lot about the creative process while in advertising school. I’ve since developed a way of writing music that goes through several stages from idea to mp3. It normally starts with me singing a melody into my phone. From there, I’ll record an basic accompaniment with one microphone and save it on my computer. I’ve got a folder full of ideas that I go to when I’m working on an album. Then I’ll record a rough demo and flush out the idea a bit further. Sometimes I’m coming up with lyrics on the spot that will later be revised. The next step is to email the demos out to about 30 people whose opinions I trust to get feedback on what is working and what isn’t. From there I’ll rework the songs and create an arrangement that slowly grows as tracks get laid down. When everything is done, the album goes out into the world!

The easiest part is writing the music. Normally I can write whole album in a little under two weeks. The most taxing part is on the backend. Editing, mixing, and sometimes tracking my own parts can be a real headache.

Emergency Album

official1building-smallAs far as I know, the Emergency album was your most significant collaboration effort to date. How did you find Alanna; did you write the songs with her voice in mind? Did Emergency teach you any big lessons about collaboration?

I’ve known Alanna for about 5 years now and before this the extent of our relationship was that we were Facebook friends. We have quite a few mutual friends and would often see each other at the same parties and concerts. I also knew she lived somewhere in my neighborhood. I had no idea that she was a singer until one day she posted a cryptic message on Facebook. I emailed her asking if she’d be interested in doing an album with me without ever actually hearing her sing. After I heard a demo she had done, I not only fell in love with her beautiful voice but also was fascinated by her brilliant lyrics. I had done many collaborations on past albums but never a whole album with one person. My experience in this collaboration and others is that one must know when to compromise and when to stand their ground.

As for the music itself, it is important to note that she co-wrote all of the songs on the album. While producing and arranging the album, I constantly was making sure I was creating music that complimented her style of singing and the feeling of the song. There were quite a few moments in to process where I thought to myself ‘wow, I never thought I’d be doing a song like this.’

How did you arrive at an earthquake as a subject for an album? Did you have any experience (either first-hand or second-hand) with earthquakes? Were you the type who imagines hypothetical disasters during idle moments?

We spent a few months narrowing in on what the concept of the album would be. Previous to our collaboration, Alanna had been focused on a project known as “Prepare the Ones You Love” which came out of her involvement a near fatal bike accident. This was a life changing event for her that led her to question many of the relationships in her life.

As for quakes, I grew up in Northern California and experienced a few medium-sized shakeups as a kid. I moved to Florida before the Candlestick Park earthquake destroyed my hometown of Santa Cruz, CA. While in LA I’ve been through a very small handful of small quakes but nothing very significant. I figure no matter where you live, you have to worry about some sort of natural disaster. I must say that ever  since the Japan quake, I find myself getting little panic attacks when in tall buildings and elevators.

For me, the song that really stood out was O Say Can you see the future. It is brooding, tentative, turbulent, otherworldly, haunting, desolate, mysterious, violent, hazy and even tranquil. So many emotions packed into a single song! I was particularly struck by the musical bridge in the middle which provides a vivid and frightening sound portrait of what it must feel like to live through an earthquake. Yet for the rest of the song the flute solo skips along gently — like a butterfly fluttering above the wreckage. (Alanna does an amazing job there too!)

Can you talk about how you scored & produced that song? Did all the pieces of that puzzle come together easily or was it a long hard struggle?

Interesting you’d pick this song since indeed it was a struggle. Alanna had a large role in the direction of this song. This was one of the first songs we wrote together and the demo I presented to Alanna was completely different from what you hear on the record. Completely different! After we came up with a guitar/vocal version that worked for us, I kept wanting to take it in a jazzy or electronic/industrial direction. There were quite a few drafts that fortunately didn’t see the light of day. Alanna had this vision of the song being heard in the spooky part of a movie and she was also the one who suggested it needed a flute. When Sukari Reid-Glenn laid down her incredible flute part, all of the elements finally seemed to come together in a cohesive manner. That’s the creative process for you; sometimes you’re done in 15 minutes, sometimes you go through a ton of versions before finally landing at the right spot.

I was struck by how every single song in Emergency was in a different musical style and even a different mood. Did you consciously try to compose everything in a different style and mood? Or is that something which inevitably happens when you do a concept album?

I often get the question, “What kind of music do you play?” to which I respond “conceptual music.” And so it is that a concept album can be free of the confinements of fitting a certain categorical mode. That said, I think this album is the most consistent stylistically among songs. Some of my past albums are really all over the place.

As ashamed as I am to admit this, I found parts of Emergency to be hilarious. After Disaster is ostensibly about love and separation, but the ridiculously maudlin lyrics make it clear that the listener shouldn’t take the character’s words too seriously. The Prisoner song — about a prisoner who inadvertently is able to escape during the aftermath of an earthquake — is great ironic fun. Why the humor? Did you worry about injecting too much lightheartedness into this album?

I think the humor comes from what happens when Alanna and I are in a room together. We’re both quite irreverent and knew that in diving into such a serious topic, we’d need places to lighten it up a bit.

Of course, there is the amazing coincidence that the Japan Earthquake happened mere weeks after you release your album. If you embarked on the same album today, how do you think you might have approached the album differently (if at all)?

We were both quite taken by the tragedy in Japan. We stopped all promotional efforts as soon as we heard the news. The “We Love Japan” video was a good reminder that the music could be used for the right purpose. I think the thing to keep in mind is that the album isn’t about what it is about. FMA’s Jason Sigal captured it best when he wrote “the theme seems to be more about transcendence than doom; about appreciating life because it won’t last forever.”

To be more directly answer your question, I would do this album again but I couldn’t see doing it with anyone but Alanna. She is a brilliant writer and her lyrics really do go beyond the basic concept of an earthquake. She is one of the few people I’ve met that understands the concept of ‘a big idea.’

 

Love and Hippies

One of my favorite songs is the She’s the All American Hippie Girl. Lightly satirical and full of fun (and probably a crowd pleaser too). But it also had a political message (sort of). Are you the kind of person who is eager to tackle social or political themes in your music?

Haha. That tune is about an ex-girlfriend of mine. She had really upset me one day and I sat down and wrote the lyrics as revenge. There are actually quite a few songs I’ve written that are political such as New Downtown, March in March, Hot July, and pretty much every song on New American Songbook. I’m quite passionate about social justice and it definitely can be heard in some of the music I write.

I’d like to know more about your other big collaboration, Love Story and the people who helped make that for you. Did you write these songs knowing who would be performing them?

Yes. I knew ahead of time who I wanted to appear on the album. I love writing for a specific person’s voice. There were also a few songs that came together towards the end and we brought in singers and musicians that I didn’t know would appear on the album. So about half planned, and half fate. Much like love.

How did you meet gospel  singer Sherdale “Sip” Smith?

We  met while working together at a music program at a community center in South Central.

In your notes, you say that a portion of the Love  album has been altered to keep with the Buddhist tradition of human imperfection. Explain.

You’re the first person to notice that! Anytime you visit a Buddhist temple, there are  intentional human imperfections in the art. In creating Love Story, there is a place at the end of If She Gives you Her Heart where the flute and the rhodes have a really bad phase issue. I couldn’t figure out how to resolve it no matter how many mixes I did so I just decided to leave it in in honor of the idea of Buddhist imperfection.

What’s the hardest thing about writing a love song?

The love songs that I wrote before Love Story tended to focus on unrequited love and a cynical view of romantic relationships. A love song can often  leave the writer vulnerable. The writer also  runs the risk of getting into territory of being cheesy or having their song sound like one of the many that has already been written. Paul McCartney’s Silly Love Songs comes to mind. Love Story was my first stab at writing love songs that looked at love in a positive light.

Musicians and their Audience

Are you surprised by which songs turn out to be the most popular by online and live audiences? Do live performances provide an accurate barometer of which songs are succeeding?

Without fail my favorite songs on the album, and the ones I put the most effort into are the least popular. I wish I knew why this happens! That said, the one predictor that always is pretty accurate is the demo critiques. The songs people gravitate towards on those pre-production versions are normally the tunes that will be most popular on the album.

Up to this point, I have not done many live performances for the same reasons that the Beatles stopped performing after “Revolver.” A lot of the songs are hard to pull off live and I am more interested in creating an album that stands on its own as a conceptual piece. On a personal level, think of the albums as audio diaries of where I am in my life and who I’m hanging out at the time of the recording. Each album can only exist in the point in time it was created.

Name a song or album  by someone else you wish you’d written.

I’m going to pick an album since I’m an album oriented artist. I wish I could have written preludes and fugues of The Well-Tempered Clavier. Bach invented the rules of music that we all follow, and then he broke all of those rules. I wish I could invent the rules of music. That would be awesome. In fact, sometimes when I get complimented on my music, I feel guilty since all I am doing is following the rules of his system of harmony.

Do you think that your decision to write noncommercial/shareable music has affected what kind of songs you write or how you produce them?

Given that I only make money when people license a track for commercial use, I try to write music that works well with ads, movies, and TV shows. I worked for  a music licensing house in Hollywood and learned what people look for when they are looking to license a song. I try to keep this in mind when working on an album and try not to make the lyrics too specific.

In what ways do musical people look at the world differently from nonmusical people?

I often have this conversation about what is unique about musicians with my friends.

The first thing that comes to mind is that musicians have a deeper appreciation for what it takes to create music. It is hard to just listen to music without analyzing it. Your ears become much more sensitive to harmonic structure too. I’ve been in a social situations when music is playing in  the background, and I can’t help but name intervals, scales, or chords changes. I’m also not very tolerant of bad and out-of-tune music.

On a deeper level, I think being a musician requires so many personality traits that put musicians in a class of their own. So much of our time is spent doing the same thing over and over again until you have it right. The majority of musicians will also play with a group or ensemble which not only allows them the ability to communicate with others on a different level, but also requires special skill in working with others. I have some friends that if it weren’t for music, we would have nothing in common. Making music is a very special thing.

If you could telephone your 18 year old self and give him some advice about being a musician, what would you say?

18 again? Wow. In three years I would record my first concept album. I really had no idea what I was doing but it was really fun. I wish I had been more open to learning music theory back then. I was too busy trying to be a rock star and I thought I knew it all. I’d also force myself to wear earplugs. I suffer from a condition known as tinitus that is the result of too much loud music. It drives me crazy on a daily basis. In fact, Beethoven had the same condition towards the end of his life when he was going deaf. There are some that suggest you can hear the influence of hearing a constant tone in his 9th Symphony.

So I’d say to my 18 year old self, ‘learn some theory and wear earplugs.’

Monk Turner: Where to Start Listening

  • Most of Turner’s albums are mirrored and downloadable  on several creative commons music sites. Turner’s home base is at Band Camp, and it contains links to all the other mirrors and his blog. However, Archive.org has all the MT albums and Free Music Archive has all the important albums.
  • If you’re looking for liner notes, I’ve noticed that the most complete versions are listed on the archive.org pages for Monk Turner albums.
  • Here’s a chronological listing of MT’s albums, with short descriptions by Monk himself.
  • Probably the two most polished and “mature” albums are Emergency Songs and Love Story. They are serious, accessible, beautiful, mainstream pop and there’s not a bad song in the bunch.
  • I wrote a long profile about Monk Turner’s music and reviewed most of his recent albums.
  • At the top of this article, I included a playlist of some faves of mine, as well as some songs mentioned in this article.  Turner consciously embraces the concept album genre,  so perhaps any playlist of his songs might miss how it fits into the album he used it for.
  • Monk Turner hasn’t indicated a way to show support for his musical efforts, so I don’t see a tipjar for example. But some albums are “for sale” at Bandcamp.

2013 Postscript. Here’s another interview with Monk Turner about his 2013 album Instrumental Friends.

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