EVERYTHING STARTS SOMEWHERE
After 18 months working with my producer I decided to drop a bombshell, "I want to make a rock opera to save the American Dream, and change the world." He smiled and said "Sure, tell me about it." It's hard to find people who believe you can change the world, if you decide to. But that's halfway through the story. Let's start at the beginning.
Heading out the door one Friday night to listen to some live music, eighteen years ago, I paused in the doorway to the question, “Can’t that wait until the kids are grown?” I stood for a full minute in silence staring at my beautiful one-year-old twins and 18-month-old thinking of how much love I wanted to shine on them, couldn’t think of any other place I’d rather be, and I acquiesced.
Not quite the Dave Matthews Story. At times, I thought I was going the Willie Nelson route. You know, write songs for a few decades then do my own music. But, fifteen years later the mother of my children pointed out that I had been writing and playing my songs to an empty living room, perhaps it was time for me to find a producer and make a few songs. My own American dream had been on hold for a decade and a half. That interim allowed me to build my songwriting chops; I had developed a catalogue of over 500 songs. The thing was: nobody but me had ever heard those songs and my vision for the rock opera had solidified. Maybe it was time for me to get going.
At the time, I had been working with Craig at Cedar House Media on collateral materials for a small business consulting firm I was establishing. While I was there for hours on end, writing and editing, I would play homemade, garage band versions of my songs. Since he was a musician, I would get his feedback on lyrics. Several times his coworkers would make the comment that my music sounded like Johnny Cash. This began to be a pattern as I shared my music with random people from my life: “It’s that guy…the walk the line guy! You sound like him.”
Kids, the only pure truth, come first
It dawned on me that maybe there was a market for my low voice storytelling to music. I did have to go out and purchase a Johnny Cash anthology album, but it didn’t take long for me to understand why he was a legend. One of the most enjoyable family memories I have is, driving down the road with my kids singing his songs at the tops of our lungs!
It wasn’t just references to Johnny Cash. I had people tell me I sounded like Jimmy Dean (…yes, but before he sold sausage) and Hank Williams too. As people began to refer me to these artists and I learned their backstories, I could see parallels in my own journey to develop my unique style and understand who I was: I had my own generation of musical greats flooding my brain. I was writing songs I could sing and I really wanted my own original sound. I was telling stories of the loss and redemption of the American Dream. As these varied points converged, I realized I fell squarely into the folk singer, storyteller genre of music. Somehow defining this affirmed my work path forward. And, while my music idols include Woody Guthrie and Johnny Cash, I’d sure give a lot to sing like Kenny Loggins.
FINDING MY PRODUCER
Another of the guys I got to know working with Cedar House Media was the owner, Corey, who happened to be a drummer and played around the Indie Portland Oregon music scene. When I asked who would be the best guy in town to help me produce my songs, he had an immediate response, “That would be Tim Ellis, Kung Fu Music Studios.”
I called and left one message, then another, and another. Tim had been in the Caribbean on a gig with Aaron Meyer, so it was a full month before I sat down with him face to face. Thinking this would be like a job interview, I brought my five best out of the 500 songs I had written. But Tim didn’t want to hear my songs right away, he wanted to know who I was, why I was doing this and what was driving my music. He, in turn, told me what makes him tick, and never once referred to his forty plus years of music accomplishments,
The Mythical Kung Fu Studios
My "Magic Door"to making this opera
which included building and running Kung Fu Music Studios. Ninety minutes later we were tracking with each other: “This is a Real dude; I like this guy, a real solid person; I can take a long ride with him.”
Tim took a look at the five lyric sheets I brought as examples. He said three were worth making but the others needed work. They had Moody Blues, song within a song, style: full of strange sound, poetry, with a mini-speech blending into a section which culminates in a musical epiphany of what my movement is all about. Turns out those were my most prescient works, and Tim later embraced them as favorites, due to the texture I created in them. But that would not be for a couple years down the road.
Tim regularly put in eighteen hour days, seven days a week producing, preforming, teaching and running his studio. He was a brilliant musical arranger, so I had the right guy. It’s just that Tim was used to novices making vanity records which were kind of cut and dry: four quick days in the studio and you’re done. He was also used to having world renowned artists like Pink Martini in the studio. I think we just needed to put in some time together.
Multi-Instrumentalist & Producer Extraordinaire
Tim Ellis making magic happen
Tim said, "I'll work with you. But let's do songwriting workshops for six months, then maybe make a few songs and see where you're at”. He worked with me once a week for six months teaching me traditional musical composition helping me to separate out all the instruments and background singer voices I had in my head for each song. I was attempting to sing up to 8 parts on one vocal track while attempting to imitate an entire band with one guitar. Tim taught me how separate all the layers and how to build them back together. The written music was only the first step. We would layer anywhere from 15 to 70 tracks to complete a single song. At some point, Tim knew I wasn’t there to make a “vanity” album, he could see I had a mission to accomplish.
RECORDING MY MUSIC
What a musical journey I embarked upon. I had that fifteen year delay, and before I knew it I was full throttle five nights a week at home, and three days a week in Kung Fu Studios. I would maintain this pace for three and a half years, but first, I needed a band.
Turns out, Tim was Nashville Northwest with all his connections. Tim simply indicated he would call in a couple of his studio musician friends, and that would do it. I wondered aloud, “But, are these guys good?” Tim humbly and dryly, like a friendly Clint Eastwood, said, “They can play anything.” After only one session, it was apparent these guys only needed to hear the song once to play along. It wasn’t until later, when I was listening to how good the music came out on my songs, that I took the time to look them up online. These guys had played with Billy Joel, Peter Frampton, Hall & Oates, toured with Pink, and so, so much more…Be sure to check out their bios!
Surround Yourself with Great People
And let it rip
So I showed up blind the first day of our two-day band session, a new creative artist with a business background. I had twenty-five songs prepped and charted. But when I declared that I wanted to get through twelve per day, I distinctly remember the guys rolling their eyes. Normally band members wrestle through the creative process ‘in studio’, fighting to control the driving sound of a song, and are lucky to make three songs in a day or a week. But, I had already done all the creative fighting with myself and we were ready to roll.
Tim had already worked through the musical arrangements with me ahead of time, which reduced a four hour studio process down to one hour of studio time. Even though I had read up on musicians like Neil Young and Steely Dan, I had never read about the production line process Tim employed. He was right in line with my business mentality and said, “I know you guys, you can play anything, we can knock these songs out no problem”. That first two-day session, we recorded fourteen songs. We ended up doing three more two-day sessions pumping out as many as nineteen songs in a session. We established a great rhythm and continued refining our recording process with my prep and Tim’s consummate professionalism.
Before we tackled any song in the studio, I’d already threaded through it 100, maybe even 200 times. Each song was crafted until it was precisely what I wanted it to be. One of my goals was to create enough texture musically that my listeners would return to my music over and over, hear new things, and enjoy discovering the hidden entendre of my writing.
There are at least two notable exceptions to that level of song prep. These songs came as result of that first two-day session. I was so over stimulated having prepared twenty five songs, singing (& speaking) for almost ten hours, and pressing into that fifteen hour session that my brain overflowed with the lyrics to “Sold Down the River” and “It’s Judgement Day”. When I got into the studio early the next day and showed Tim, he listened and said, “Oh yeah; what are your thoughts on musical arrangements? …this is really good. We have to slip it into the production line up.” The idea that I was able to write any song and make it on the next day was magical. Those blasts of inspiration were the biggest rush I have had making music. It was obviously the result of the endless hours I have spent pouring into my project, but those particular splashes of spontaneity were almost as amazing as watching the birth of my children.
Labor of Love
500 hours behind the mic
On the flip side, one particular song, “Seize the Moment”, took a year to make. It was the first in the trilogy about the 1st Declaration of Independence. This song would include a reading of the entire Declaration, interpreted with music and original song lyrics to make it relevant and up to date. We had recorded numerous times for this, but I would still show up telling Tim that I had the introduction ready. Tim would say, “…we already have one!” Nevertheless, he rolled though the iterations with me day in and day out. One time, I described a soaring church organ sound I wanted for a certain section and hummed it out to him. Tim thought Troy Welstad could nail that, and got him scheduled for a studio session. Another day, I wanted to put a mini-song right in the middle, and Tim exclaimed, “It’s already 8 minutes long!” But my only real rule is to break all the rules, because rules only stifle people from trying new things. It went on like this week after week. I was fearless and seeking to push my creativity to the ultimate limit, and I think Tim could see that something indeed was coming together.
1 Million Tiny Steps
5 years, 100 songs, 3,000 tracks
Tim may have been one of the best producers of our time, but I know he enjoyed this project because it was the only one he ever had with no budget and no limits. I told him straight out: “Listen: I’m 56! I don’t get another shot; this has to be my best ever, and I need to push every song to its limit.” He worked tirelessly with me so I could pursue this vision.
This project has taken five years; three with Tim in studio production and two years of post production with Dean Baskerville. The most enjoyable sessions were when we brought in the background singers. It didn’t matter if they were professionals or amateurs, they were all a pleasure to work with. It was thrilling for me to hear other voices singing my message of redemption. When Tim would play an acoustic guitar to warm them up, it sounded like the best campfire singalong I’d ever heard. This is part of what I had been aiming for: I envisioned people of all ages and all backgrounds singing along to my songs.
My journey has certainly had peaks, but during the making of this opera there was profound loss. I lost my wife to divorce. Unfortunately, she did not share my musical vision. Dean, my uber-talented primary sound engineer (with whom I worked those two years in post production), lost his beloved wife to cancer. And we all lost Tim Ellis to cancer shortly after the 100th song was tracked.
Following the loss of Tim, I realized how fortuitous it was that I had my videographer, Ethan Shiels, capture most of our band sessions. We made two full-band music videos, and it is so wonderful to see Tim in those videos rocking up his guitar. He was a phenomenal multi-instrumentalist guitarist, playing electric, acoustic, banjo, mandolin, and charango. I almost got him to bring in his electric Sitar. Sadly, Tim ran out of time on this earth and passed away in March of 2016. He is missed everday by his family, friends, and fans. He was a super guy, a mentor to many, and a stellar musician.
In some ways these losses have only intensified my desire to persevere. My desire, my job, is to make tomorrow better not just for us, but for our loved ones and those we wish to return the same favor. It is this kind of American spirit which I have poured into every song. People tell me they like my music because they can understand every word. And I have worked hard to lend my voice as the voice of the people, so that my music can be something everyone with which everyone can identify.
Her Spirit Shines On
Leana Baskerville was a phenomenal person: wife, mother and teacher. And during her battle with cancer, she took up painting. This is just a taste of her stunning artistry.
I know I’m not Johnny Cash, not even close, but one day when I played one of my songs at a crowded Apple Store, I saw something I will never forget. I had just gone in to buy some wireless speakers, and I set my phone to Bluetooth to test one. I played “For the Ordinary Man” which opens in a guitar riff to my first four words, “So hard to understand.” Suddenly a millennial who was working behind the counter jerks his head up, stands bolt upright and shouts, “Johnny Cash! I love that guy!” I marveled at how my music changed his body language so dramatically, even in a crowded room. For 15 years of songwriting in my living room, I thought people would not like my sing-speak vocalizing, going back between spoken word and song, but that is the kind of reaction I want to inspire. When I started this project, I had only known the Johnny Cash song, Folsom Prison Blues, and had not made the connection yet. But as the bumper sticker I saw recently says, GOD BLESS JOHNNY CASH!
By the time I started talking to Tim Ellis, I had realized there was a profound yearning in all Americans, not spoken aloud, to save America. And if you save America, you save the world, because for the past 250 years the world has followed America’s lead. Recently it has become apparent that America’s worldwide leadership status is in jeopardy, and I am not going to sit around and watch us give away our future. Like Steve Jobs said, “I want to put a dent in the universe,” and so, I have created this national sing along big enough to dent the universe, and help guide us out of stagnation. My vision is that America does not just give lip service to our values, but actually returns to being a land of, by, and for We the People.
Life = Art. Adrian's American Spirit guitar.
My vision is called REDEEM THE DREAM, The ROCK OPERA TO SAVE AMERICA. Just as the Promised Land Band came together, so are people banding together with me to add their names and lend their voices toward the restoration of everyone’s American dream. 300-Million-As-1, that’s how we’ll get this done. I wrote my 100 song daily rock opera to motivate you to act with me by adding your name and telling everyone. I realize it may take some time to hear the whole opera, but I believe the cumulative effect of my daily installments will help you see the urgency I have to spread the word and motivate change. When the next recession hits, and the job losses start again, I think you’ll all start humming along, or singing my songs, because they’ll already be playing in your head. REDEEM THE DREAM NOW!
You probably have a better voice than me. Sing along,
Sing daily, Sing loud and Sing proud. Join in with me. Visit RTDNOW.COM often let’s get this done together!
In certainty and trust,