• Ten takeaways from ten years of freelance music-making

    playing keys in 2006

    Ten years ago I decided to pursue music “professionally”- probably the scariest and best decision I’ve made. To me, perhaps the most interesting thing about the experience has been how the ups and downs of creative work seem to have changed me as a person.

    So instead of throwing a party I thought I’d share ten ideas I’ve personally found helpful for staying inspired, productive, and happy. And while the internet has no shortage of self-helpy articles for creatives (many by wiser people than me), perhaps posting this will help / publicly shame me into internalizing these lessons :)

    I never want to take for granted how lucky I am to even have the opportunity to make music. Thank you all for being so supportive over the years.

    don’t crush the baby bird

    On my best days, making music is cathartic- it’s a relief and I love it. I’ve often considered it to be “part of who I am”.

    So I was a bit shocked to discover it seems I’m capable of falling out of love with music! Usually when I’m trying too hard, in a bad mood, or taking something on the list below for granted. I’ve realized it’s a relationship I need to cultivate.

    Thus, I try to hold my sense of inspiration gently, like a baby bird. If I crush the poor thing it’ll never grow up to be a badass falcon!

    be in it for the right reasons

    Music can:

    • express emotion in a way words alone cannot
    • lead to acclaim, financial stability, or looking cool on the internet

    The former is incredible. The latter is incredible…ly rare- and for me, unhealthy to focus on. But in moments I’m not proud of, I do focus there. Desperately.

    I want to be driven by the simple desire to learn, improve, and make music. On good days, I am.

    If your goal is to be better than you were, if you’re competing only with yourself, it’s a more realistic place to be. If you say “I don’t want to write songs unless I can write songs better than the Beatles”, it’s a hard road. But if you say “I want to write a better song tomorrow than I wrote yesterday”, that’s something that can be done. If you continuously do that, you’ll get better.

    -Rick Rubin: on Cultivating World-Class Artists (Jay Z, Johnny Cash, etc.), Losing 100+ Pounds, and Breaking Down The Complex | The Blog of Author Tim Ferriss

    work hard (but not too hard)

    When I left my day job to give music a go, I thought “I’m going to nail this! Put the pedal to the metal!!” I tried to work insanely hard, like the piano prodigy David Helfgott in the movie Shine.

    But after a few years, all these negative side effects began cropping up. And I remembered one reason Helfgott worked “insanely hard” is the poor guy was insane.

    So I try to remember flooring it the whole time will destroy the car.

    It’s not how much you want something; it’s how long you want it for.

    -Sam Reich, relaying advice from his drama teacher: Career Advice From A High School Drop-Out CEO | Co.Create | creativity + culture + commerce

    don’t seek out suffering as “fuel” for art

    I was/am lucky to have a loving family and a relatively normal childhood. But sometimes I wondered if my life was “tragic enough” to be worthy of making great art.

    As I grew up I had all the cliché thoughts about tortured artists. At times I leaned into my antisocial tendencies and asked myself “am I crazy? Can I get crazier?” Fortunately, I was too shy to do anything actually destructive. To the outside world, I probably just came off a bit more awkward and quiet.

    Now I think… what if I had spent all that time and energy making music?

    Flannery O’ Connor said that anyone who has survived childhood has enough material to write for the rest of his or her life.

    -Anne Lamott: Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (I’m letting Anne incept this quote because Bird by Bird is gold)

    It’s good for the artist to understand conflict and stress. Those things can give you ideas. But I guarantee you, if you have enough stress, you won’t be able to create. And if you have enough conflict, it will get in the way of your creativity. You can understand conflict, but you don’t have to live in it.

    In stories, in the worlds that we can go into, there’s suffering, confusion, darkness, tension and anger. There are murders; there’s all kinds of stuff. But the filmmaker doesn’t have to be suffering to show suffering. You can show it, show the human condition, show conflicts and contrasts, but you don’t have to go through that yourself. You are the orchestrator of it, but you’re not in it. Let your characters do the suffering.

    -David Lynch: Catching the Big Fish - Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity

    take care of yourself

    I used to have a sort of deranged pride in how many hours I worked. I tracked my “impressively small” amount of sleep on a wall calendar. I learned all the tricks with powernaps and caffeine pills and could do three all-nighters in a row.

    After years of this, I of course didn’t feel great.

    Out of desperation, I started stretching 15-30 min a day. Eventually, I started jogging. Eventually, I stepped foot in a gym for the first time since high school. Eventually, I started eating healthier… sleeping very consistently… going to yoga… etc.

    All that was very gradual, but I’m happy to have learned what common sense was screaming the whole time: understanding how a human body works is much easier than looking for shortcuts.

    get organized (but not too organized)

    One of the most helpful books I’ve read is Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. It helps you focus solely on the task in front of you.

    As a detail-oriented, analytical person, I loved it. I put my whole life into my GTD “system”.

    But eventually (maybe you’re starting to see the pattern here) I got so wrapped up in being a “productivity nerd” that it was getting in the way of actual work. I was spending several days per week just maintaining everything. At its most ridiculous, my old GTD system contained nearly 400,000 words (Moby Dick has 206,052).

    These days I still love and use GTD, but in a much lighter and nimble way. I took Merlin Mann’s suggestion to think of it as short-term storage, like a refrigerator:


    Remember in college when you had four roommates and all those little bags of leftovers would pile up in the back of the fridge? They’d get all weird, maybe even moldy and blue.

    Don’t store blue food in your refrigerator. That’s not what it’s for!

    -Merlin Mann: 5by5 | Back to Work #82: Blue Food in Your Refrigerator

    Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them.

    -David Allen: Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity

    don’t live in a bubble

    Here’s a short one. I want to remember to ask the question:

    If I’m not taking the time to live life and have real relationships, do I expect my art to resonate with other people?

    Keep Human! See people, go places, drink if you feel like it.

    -Henry Miller: 11 Commandments of Writing and His Daily Creative Routine – Brain Pickings (this list is framed on my wall)

    be a good listener, be genuine

    When I started, I heard I should do something called “networking”. So I went to film festivals with a spiral notebook and backpack of demo CDs and tried to “meet the entire room”.

    I’ve met more than 2000 people since, but it took me a long time to calm down, become less desperate, and realize networking is about actual relationships.

    I did my best to be friendly in my awkward way. But I’m embarrassed how often it was about me, Me, ME! Every person I meet has their own hopes and dreams and battles- why should they care about mine if I don’t take a genuine interest in theirs?

    I still don’t know much about networking, but at least I know what not to do :)

    No one owes you anything.

    -Amelia Boone: on Beating 99% of Men and Suffering for High Performance | The Blog of Author Tim Ferriss ~1:20:59

    Networking is doing a favor for somebody you like and not expecting anything in return. It’s not about exchanging cards and then never calling each other and acting like you’re friends. Please remember that.

    -Merlin Mann: 5by5 | Back to Work #11: Johnny Heuristic

    Many people waste time and energy trying to make connections instead of getting good at what they do, when being good at things is the only thing that earns you clout or connections.

    -Austin Kleon: Show Your Work! via Derek Sivers’ book notes

    don’t be a donkey

    Many times I’ve taken on so many simultaneous projects (because I was a GTD Jedi!) that they all sort of limp along. Especially passion projects.

    One of the best pieces of advice I’ve gotten this year is to think of the many choices & directions in our life in terms of this story:

    Buridan’s donkey is standing halfway between a pile of hay and a bucket of water. It keeps looking left and right, trying to decide between hay and water. Unable to decide, it eventually falls over and dies of hunger and thirst. … Don’t be a donkey.

    -Derek Sivers: Trying to pursue many different directions at once? (just go read the article, it’s succinct and brilliant)

    How do I know if something is truly a priority? If it’s already done.

    -Merlin Mann: 5by5 | Back to Work #17: Brick Building Full of Lies

    don’t shoot the second arrow

    There’s a Buddhist story called “The Second Arrow” which goes something like this:

    Imagine being shot with an arrow. It hurts!

    Now imagine being shot with a second arrow. Now you feel even worse, right?

    The first arrow is any undesirable thing in life that’s out of our control. You didn’t get the gig. Your friend never emailed back. The grocery line is too long.

    So often our reaction is to unleash a whole series of mental processes that only make things worse. We blame, we criticize, we throw a tantrum. That’s the second arrow.

    I can’t think of an area in my life where this story isn’t useful.

    -Dan Benjamin introduced me to this story in 5by5 | Back to Work #3: The Second Arrow at ~34:30

    The greatest regret I have is that, early in my career, I showed myself such cruelty for not having accomplished anything significant. I spent so much time trying to write, but was paralyzed by how behind I felt. Many years later I realized that if I had written only a couple of pages a day, I would’ve written 500 pages at the end of a year (and that’s not even working weekends). Any contribution you make on a daily basis is fantastic. I still happen to write almost everything at once, but I now cut myself slack on all of the thinking and procrastination time I use. I know that it’s all part of my creative process.

    -Matthew Weiner: “Mad Men” Creator Matthew Weiner’s Reassuring Life Advice For Struggling Artists | Fast Company | Business + Innovation

  • Catch up

    I’m overdue for a post- if you’re not on my email list, here are some highlights since last time:


    While I was visiting AZ in December, my sister Ann and I interviewed Mom about her life. We’re so glad to get some of her stories on the record. e.g. when she was ~10 years old, she decided to get rid of a massive anthill with gasoline and accidentally set part of the house on fire! First she tried putting it out with her Alaskan Malamute’s water bucket. That didn’t work, but bought her enough time to get the garden hose and finish the job.


    Speaking of pets, my parents’ dog Ben is still afraid of me for being a tall person. I know it’s hard to believe, but he’s hiding somewhere in the above photo.



    And as far as work stuff:


    Jenn Medvin and Marcus MacDougald’s Little Hero has been making the festival rounds- from Belgrade to Nevada City to DOC NYC to St. Louis where it won a Crystal Gator (the award that deserves an award.)

    This article calls my score “quirkily appropriate”. NICE. It’s kazoo on every score from here on out, k?

    I’ve also been doing some recording lately, both at my place..


    Poet and performer Mayda Del Valle

    … and at Narnack Studios with the great engineer Griffin Rodriguez:


    Andrew Conrad (bari), Walt Simonsen (trumpet), Ryan Dragon (trombone)


    Brandon Dickert (drums), Griffin Rodriguez (hiding in the control room)

    There is really nothing quite like recording great musicians live in a great room with a great engineer. I don’t miss my Chicago days of tracking everything in the kitchen!

    I’m on a Timeboxing hiatus at the moment while I finish a bigger project, but here are the latest two if you haven’t caught ‘em yet:

    Will and Vince both had great & insightful stuff to say. As a bonus, Will’s interview is laced with previews of my Little Hero score :)

    That’s all for now!

  • The Devil’s Violinist - new film score

    Here’s Jeff Lamb’s new short film, for which I had the pleasure of composing a solo violin piece.

    When I first met with Jeff he told me how important it was for the music to be beautiful but haunting. And man, it’s vulnerable! It has no dialog, is shot on 35mm film, and the piece is performed live on set (with a film this centered on music, is there any other way to go?)

    Much of the music I make is full of instruments & textures & such, so it was a fun challenge to compose something this stripped-down. Jeff put a lot of trust in me (thank you Jeff!) and it was a rewarding & fun collaboration all around.

    I hadn’t written for solo violin before, and what an honor to have the piece performed by Barry Socher, who (as Jeff pointed out) has been in the LA Philharmonic since before we were born :)

    Barry and Jeff came by my studio one afternoon to discuss and rehearse the piece. Barry has a really cool beard and immediately struck me as sensitive, expressive, and humble- all qualities I aspire to as a music-maker.

    Hearing your piece come to life through an enormously talented musician is quite a thing.. you get a whole new sense of the possibilities. And though he has decades more experience than me, Barry was very collaborative and open to my little tweaks about this phrase or that phrase- a glissando here, an extra swell there- and quickly adapted each into his performance. Details like that are one of my favorite parts of music.

    Hope you like it.


    Barry & I. Someday I’ll learn how to not get freaked out and awkward when waiting for a camera to take a photo, but know I’m excited & happy to be here :)

    p.s. here’s a nice writeup by Jeff from the Shorts Showcase site about making the film.

  • CH's Comedy Music Hall of Fame airs on IFC tomorrow

    I produced some ridiculous music involving Russia, Canada, and Elvis for CH's Comedy Music Hall of Fame, which airs tomorrow at 10pm on IFC.

    Paul F. Thompkins hosts, and it features comedy music luminaries such as Tenacious D and Weird Al. Here’s a trailer:

    CH wrote the lyrics and I made the music. It involved a whirlwind of recording sessions including (Kazakh-American opera singer!) Timur Bekbosunov, vocalists Igor Komar + Mela Lee, comedy rappers Siobhan Thompson + Pat Cassels, and my trusty accordion (in mid-side, audio nerds!)

    I also recorded percussionist Tim Carr (in the recording scramble I spaced on taking a photo.. sorry Tim!), guitarists Sasha Birrittella + Max Crowe (recorded remotely), and Klezmer clarinetist Andrew Conrad:

    You have now seen “behind the scenes”. Was it enjoyable? Terrible? Both?

  • Timeboxing with Rob Kleiner (Sia) and Ethan Nicolle (Axe Cop)

    Ridiculously talented people continue to help me stay sane & productive in pursuit of art, on my podcast Timeboxing:

    • Songwriter/producer Rob Kleiner (Sia, Nikki Yanofsky, Quincy Jones)
    • Comic artist Ethan Nicolle (creator of Axe Cop, Bearmageddon):

    Rob and Ethan are extremely driven and insightful. I hope you find their advice as useful as I do.

    More here if you like it:

  • Everyone's Bee is Important: bee-hind the noises

    As Mila puts it in this interview, “Daddy draws the (un-intelligible) and his friend made the noises.” Ha!

    This project came about when 3 year-old Mila Shane improvised a song about the Importance of Everyone’s Bee. (We all know everyone has a bee, so I won’t get into that here.) Then her fantastic filmmaking father Giga Shane animated it, and brought me on board to sound design. As you might imagine, I had a lot of fun with this project.

    Giga and I chatted about the approach on the phone and he basically told me “go nuts!” (while of course leaving Mila’s song as the focus.) I think this is the best sort of collaboration- where there are a few guidelines and boundaries but plenty of room for experimentation and fun.

    Despite the fact that this was one of those start-friday-finish-saturday turnarounds, I decided it would be a good challenge to not use any pre-existing sounds (i.e. commercial SFX libraries) since:

    1) I like how constraints often lead to more interesting results. Given the amount of personality in Mila & Giga’s contributions, I wanted to put as much character into this thing as possible!

    2) To paraphrase Alice Waters, if you want a great meal, start with delicious ingredients. I love applying this idea to music and sound, hence using homemade sound effects instead of “canned”. For this same reason, most projects I do these days involve at least a few live musicians :)

    Here’s a list of how I made every sound effect in this thing!

    sound effects

    • 0:00 waves/water = bathtub/bucket sloshing
    • 0:03 shooom = mouth sound
    • 0:03 birds = the sound right outside my front door in the morning (featuring my neighbor’s birds)
    • 0:08 logo disappearing = bathtub draining
    • 0:10 title card = B’s played on the chromaharp
    • 0:15 branches extending out = opening my blue umbrella
    • 0:16 bears = me growling
    • 0:18 bees = me buzzing
    • 0:19 bee body pump up = accordion air release
    • 0:19 bee’s wings sprouting up = umbrella
    • 0:19 hammer hitting flask = tapping trumpet with harmon mute
    • 0:21 honeycomb filling in = lips/finger noise with delay
    • 0:25 grey transition = removing disc from led zeppelin boxed set
    • 0:24 factory ambiance = bike wheel spinning + me saying “tikatikatikatikatika”
    • 0:25 flask falls = me meowing
    • 0:29 close-up flask bubbling = water boiling on gas stove
    • 0:31 psychedelic tongue warp = mouth/tongue noises + whistling with effects
    • 0:33 teeth flying in = trumpet valves rattling
    • 0:33 lips/faces appear = me “taking a bite” sound
    • 0:33 lips/faces pulled apart = me saying “whoa!” as grandpa
    • 0:35 teeth fly out = more trumpet valve rattling
    • 0:36 jar appears = catching a pickle jar
    • 0:36 house appears = snare brush in jar
    • 0:37 garden fall = oven opening
    • 0:37 shutters/walls appear = paper
    • 0:37 curtains up = my curtains
    • 0:38 plants grow = vocalizations
    • 0:39 volcano / green ocean = vent hood rumbling (cheap piece of metal from home depot)
    • 0:41 it’s like, the universe, man = bunch of vocalizations
    • 0:42 honey men vocalizations = “say ahh” vocalization
    • 0:47 cosmic honey color swirl = vocalization
    • 0:48 eating cosmic honey = me saying “bwlowllowllowllowlow”
    • 0:50 bee quick entrance = me quick buzz
    • 0:52 start honey button = me saying “blerp”
    • 0:53 honey machine = chromaharp and accordion ascending glissando + vocalizations
    • 0:53 honey machine slams = plosive P’s (me saying “puh!” really close to the mic)
    • 0:58 team hands = leg slaps
    • 0:59 space cats = me meowing
    • 1:02 bees fly by = me buzzing
    • 1:17 bees exit = more grandpa whoas

    Check out Giga’s write-up for even more Bee-hind-the-scenes goodness including storyboards and photos of him and Mila on their way to the Lower East Side Film Festival premiere.

  • Little Hero - An Autism Documentary

    If this kickstarter succeeds…

    1) We’ll get to see a short documentary about a 6-year-old boy’s Autism as seen through his twin sister’s eyes.

    2) I will get to compose the score.

    Check it out and consider donating if you are moved. I just did :)

  • Will Roseliep, Roshin Mathew, Accordion for Deadwood

    Time to catch up on a few updates:

    I had the pleasure of interviewing classical hype man, cellist, and author Will Roseliep for ep 2 of Timeboxing. He recently released a new book (which I enthusiastically recommend) about how to quickly diagnose and treat problems within the classical music industry e.g. “being out-hustled”.


    I recorded voiceover with my new friend Roshin MathewBig Bowl of Ideas.


    Finally, I played accordion in a 4-hour musical adaptation of Deadwood by the SIlverlake Children’s Theatre Group.  (There are no typos in the previous sentence)  Talented and ambitious kids!


  • I had the pleasure of producing the music for this Reading Rainbow parody featuring the man himself, LeVar Burton! The amazing Mela Lee is on vocals.

    Thank you to director Charles Ingram, producer Rachel Goldenberg, and the other talented folks at Funny or Die for bringing me on.

    LeVar is currently raising funds to get Reading Rainbow online and in thousands of classrooms for free… what a great and worthy project. You can join tens of thousands of people in helping him out here:

  • Timeboxing with Sam Reich

    Sam Reich runs video for CollegeHumor, and I had the pleasure of interviewing him for episode 3 of Timeboxing!

    Hear his thoughts on creativity, productivity, a “light hand” in the writers’ room, and the sociopathic gear shift between creative and executive modes.  Then he brings up Getting Things Done and derails everything.

    If you enjoy, feel free to like/share/etc!  Write a short iTunes review and I will be forever in your debt.

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