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The mind of a musician 

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At the heart of the songwriter is the song ... or perhaps it's the other way around. A song is there to convey, cajole, and even confuse, depending on the songwriter's message or intent. It's there to celebrate, and it's there to condemn. It can instigate. It can seethe. It can soothe.

Although a song is an entity unto itself, it rarely starts out that way, and certainly not alone. Songs don't usually write themselves. There are myriad — infinite, really — influences and approaches that can make a song soar when handled properly. It all hinges on what the composer wants understood and the perception of the listener: those who weren't at the conception and who don't have a clue about a song's background. Does the music allude to what the lyrics are saying, or are they on their own trip?

When pressed for answers and at least a little clarification, some musicians can be a bit vague or obtuse, while others make so much sense it's scary. CITY picked the brains of six Rochester musicians of assorted stripes for a little look into the process, to see what defines them, what captivates them, and what they in turn use to captivate and dazzle.

We wanted to know if one song could sum up their process. Some musicians spoke of childhood influence, some revealed studio stunts, and some didn't understand the question. An edited transcript follows.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY AARON WINTERS
  • PHOTO BY AARON WINTERS

Susanna Rose

Don't let that pretty smile fool you, Susanna Rose is romantically dark, and in some spots, downright bleak. Her lovely voice fills the sanctuary with tales of loneliness and want over a delicate bed of finger-picked notes and patterns. Her most recent album, 2015's "Snowbound," is a beautiful and haunting dash of melancholy. She is currently working on her second project. For more on Rose, check out susannarose.com.

CITY: What is a song?

Susanna Rose: A song is what comes out when you start singing. 

How do you get a song?

You have to sit and listen for a while. Then you start playing and see what happens.

Where do you get a song?

I love the quote by Buddhist monk Pema Chodron, "Everything is the path." I think this applies to songwriting. Everything you've ever experienced, everything you've ever heard, can turn up in something you're creating. You get songs from good memories, bad memories; other albums you've loved; dreams you've had; people who have wronged you ... everything is the path to a song.

How do you use a song?

I use songs to help myself feel better when I'm not feeling great. Turning suffering into poetry makes it bearable. I also use songs to connect with other people. When you write something that resonates with you, often it will resonate with others because we all have so much in common. And that's a beautiful thing: when you can share your feelings through song, and other people get it.

What is your first favorite record, song, or portion of a song?

This is the weirdest thing, but in second grade, I was obsessed with an album by a new age, Norwegian artist named Cecilia, called "Voice of the Feminine Spirit." This is somewhat embarrassing to admit.

What do you remember the most about it?

I remember Cecilia's beautiful voice and the haunting melodies.

What about it still resonates with you?

While I don't have the same enthusiasm as 8-year-old Susanna, what still resonates is her beautiful voice and the haunting melodies. What no longer resonates are some of the lyrics and production choices.

Have you ever referenced it directly or indirectly?

I only had a dream-like memory of this album until last year when I randomly came across it at Record Archive. Listening to it 20 years later, the melodies still felt incredibly familiar. I never purposely referenced it, but on an unconscious level it certainly influenced me.

What is your favorite record that you've recorded?

My favorite record of mine is the one I'm going to record this summer and release next fall. But in the meantime, my favorite is "Snowbound," which I released November 2015.

What are the similar elements of your first favorite and the one you wrote?

Similarities might be a haunting atmosphere and a pretty voice. I recognize similar themes, too. I enjoy writing songs about broken hearts, but I also write about existential angst, feeling disconnected from nature, the struggle to be true to yourself. "Voice of the Feminine Spirit" by Cecilia addressed similar questions, though in a very different way. 

click to enlarge PHOTO BY AARON WINTERS
  • PHOTO BY AARON WINTERS

Katie Preston

Pleistocene plays some extremely quirky yet instantly alluring indie rock. The music is composed in relative safety and warmth under a blanket where the band's leader Katie Preston likes to work. The sound is light-hearted and fun despite the lyrical irony that comes out. Pleistocene rocks in the face of its beguiling innocence and playfulness. It's kind of like a plush toy with sharp teeth. For more on Preston and Pleistocene, go to pleistoceneband.bandcamp.com.

CITY: What is a song?

Katie Preston: To me, a song is a compact way of relating ideas. Whether those ideas are simple, complicated, off-the-wall, or grounded in reality, a song is an interpretation in the form of a present, just waiting to be opened.

How do you get a song?

I get a song by sitting very quietly, preferably under a blanket. First, the melody permeates through the blanket and into my ears, accompanied by incoherent babble from my mouth. The chords come next but usually don't stick. The melody takes a long time choosing its chords. Once the melody has chosen, the mood has been set, and I put on the finishing touches on the song by turning the incoherent babble into lyrics.

Where do you get a song?

The melody is picked up on the bottom of my shoes from wherever I've been that day. The melodies beget the chords which beget the lyrics.

How do you use a song?

I use a song like it's life or death. I really don't know what I would do if I couldn't write music. It is my only source of therapy.

What is your first favorite record, song, or portion of a song?

This is stupid, but I remember that the first song I ever really liked was this song called "Hot Lunch." I found out much later in life that it's from the musical "Fame." As a kid, I was in a dance recital and that was our song. I wasn't a great dancer, but that song got me so riled-up that it didn't matter.

What do you remember the most about it?

I remember the build-up in the beginning of the song. I remember thinking the song was kind of "sexy," but looking back, it's just a basic blues riff and they're literally singing about cafeteria food. I suppose that was provocative stuff to me back then. Plus, that girl's voice is so classic and perfect.

What about it still resonates with you?

My taste has changed quite a bit, but 9-year-old me wasn't completely off base. It's not a bad song. The part that still resonates with me is its playfulness mixed with its strange sincerity. Those are two elements I always strive for when writing a song.

Have you ever referenced it directly or indirectly?

I can't say I've directly referenced "Hot Lunch," but it's not too late ... look out, world. There may be something about listening to that song repeatedly over the course of a year in preparation for a dance recital that left a mark on my psyche. A lot of the songs in Pleistocene are fast-paced and routed in blues, and it makes me wonder if "Hot Lunch" is where it all began.

What is your favorite record of yours?

My all-time favorite record is "Blood on the Tracks" by Bob Dylan. I heard it for the first time in high school and have been on this side of the tracks ever since. He makes personal crisis sound so majestic, without melodrama or lack of certainty. He makes pain listenable, and might I say, he does it with playfulness and sincerity.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY KEVIN FULLER
  • PHOTO BY KEVIN FULLER

Dan Eaton

You could say "Dan Eaton and Crazy Horse" and you wouldn't be entirely wrong. Eaton takes on the role of hardcore troubadour with hints of vulnerability and resolve. Whether fronting The Dan Eaton Band or as a solo artist (he has released one album as each), his voice is always at the forefront, reedy and raw. You hear Eaton sing and you can't imagine anyone doing justice to the music other than him. His sound is more than the country blues he calls to mind: it is world weary and beautiful in its denim and wood mortality and entropy. For more on Eaton, go to facebook.com/daneatonband.

CITY: What is a song?

Dan Eaton: Generally, I think a song is a reflection of the human condition.

How do you get a song?

I tend to get a song by getting out of the way and channeling the moment. Sometimes it's born of a melody; sometimes a turn of phrase.

Where do you get a song?

Love gives me a lot of songs. But also: spirituality, sadness, happiness, hope, fatherhood, nature, the sun rising and setting every day.

How do you use a song?

It's a way to have a conversation about experiencing a particular thing or feeling that other people can relate to in their own personal way.

What is your first favorite record, song, or portion of a song?

The Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young album "Déjà vu." Song: "Almost Cut My Hair." "I almost cut my hair the other day. It was getting kind of long. But I didn't and I wonder why. I feel like letting my freak flag fly."

What do you remember the most about it?

I loved the album cover; the photo and the texture of the sleeve. I listened to "Almost Cut My Hair" over and over again singing and playing air guitar like I was in the band.

What about it still resonates with you?

I still feel like letting my freak flag fly.

Have you ever referenced it directly or indirectly?

The whole album and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young in general (especially Neil) have been an underlying reference to me my entire songwriting life.

What is your favorite record that you've recorded?

Time to be diplomatic here. My first record was recorded with my band over the course of about two years. I love it. It's a great reflection of the talent and musicianship that I am beyond fortunate to have in my band. Lots of collaboration and deep focus. My second record was recorded in five days in Austin, Texas, with a friend I met through my band, plus two other studio musicians I had never played with before — totally different experience, super organic.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY ADAM ZAROWNY
  • PHOTO BY ADAM ZAROWNY

MdotCoop

MdotCoop raps with a powerful punch of authority that mimics jazz in its freestyle. Although Coop is ensconced in hip-hop's lexicon, he is able to take a step back and stand alone. Lyrically, Coop runs deep with his quick tongue and wit, and he has lent his positive rhythm and rhymes to various people and projects like AudioInFlux and DJ Tim Tones. Coop recently released the EP "Finally, I Can Vibe." For more go to mdotcoop.com.

CITY: What is a song?

MdotCoop: A song is a marriage of sounds, rhythms, harmonies, or words arranged rhythmically, or not.

How do you get a song?

Jam on it. Freestyle on it. Write, revise, record. Sounds simple, right?

Where do you get a song?

For me, songs come from my experiences, my ancestry, my environment. It's important for me to have a tangible connection to a tune.

How do you use a song?

A song can be used for anything; history proves that. Songs have the ability to spark a revolution, start a war, relate an experience, divide people or bring them together. Songs can paint a picture as vivid as any painting.

What is your first favorite record, song, or portion of a song?

The Gap Band "Outstanding."

What do you remember the most about it?

The way the bridge culminates and brings it all together, the synth, the congas, the harmonies; there is so much synergy. That record impacted me long before I ever knew who or what it was.

What about it still resonates with you?

The memories associated with the record. That song was the backdrop to so many family functions and BBQs, especially during the warm weather. That's quintessential summer music.

Have you ever referenced it directly or indirectly?

I actually took the liberty of recording a freestyle over it recently. It was something I always wanted to do. That tune is just another predecessor to what would become hip-hop.

What is your favorite record that you've recorded?

Most recently, I would say "Spread Love" off my "Finally, I Can Vibe" EP. It's a tune about pursuing passion, bypassing negativity, embracing positivity and going for it wholeheartedly.

What are the similar elements of your first favorite and the one you wrote?

It's like all the songs I came up on, all the great music that has reverberated with me over the years. At any given moment it could give me inspiration, perspective on approach to a song, or just bring me back to a time in my life that will influence the writing of a song.

PHOTO BY KEVIN FULLER
  • PHOTO BY KEVIN FULLER

Chris "Hollywood" English

Chris "Hollywood" English occupies at least two thrones: as a drummer and a singer so full of soul you'd swear he was levitating. But the cat is laid back in his humble, funky nonchalance and utter Frigidaire cool. English has shown his chops as singer and drummer for AudioInFlux and as drummer (briefly) for Plattsburgh jammers Lucid. His most recent band, The English Project, is in the studio now. He also keeps busy hosting a plethora of open jams; further ensconcing himself in all music. Check him out at facebook.com/theenglishprojectfunk.

CITY: What is a song?

Chris "Hollywood" English: A song is a universal language.

How do you get a song?

From your mind, body, and soul.

Where do you get a song?

By watching, humming, learning from others, and making it your own.

How do you use a song?

You can use a song in many different ways: spiritually, mentally, and creatively.

What is your first favorite record, song, or portion of a song?

Donny Hathaway's "Live" album. Favorite song is "What's Going On" by Marvin Gaye.

What do you remember the most about it?

The meaning of his lyrics.

What about it still resonates with you?

The soulfulness of the tunes and the deep grooves.

What is your favorite record that you've recorded?

Audiolnflux "Here Comes the Audio" and The English Project "Volume 1." It comes out next month.

What are the similar elements of your first favorite and the one you wrote?

The real live soul sounds, deep grooves, and the meaning of the songs.

click to enlarge PROVIDED PHOTO
  • PROVIDED PHOTO

Julia Nunes

Julia Nunes has come so far from the imp with the ukulele we fell in love with on YouTubewithout losing sight of the mirth intertwined throughout her songs. Primarily an acoustic artist in the indie realm with four albums to her credit, Nunes has played Bonnaroo and shared the stage with Ben Folds. She continues to crisscross the map, bringing joy to all the boys and girls who dig her insight and acerbic wit. For more on Nunes go to julianunes.com.

CITY: What is a song?

Julia Nunes: Rhythmic thoughts.

How do you get a song?

I have to figure out how I feel, and then say it over and over in different combinations with different rhythms until it feels really good. Even if it's a bad feeling, it feels better once it's a song.

Where do you get a song?

From the parts of my mind that aren't so afraid of acknowledging what I want, who I want, what happened, why, and most importantly, how I feel about it. I think they come when your mind can wander and then come back to you. So for me, that's cleaning, walking, bathing, crafting, or anything that keeps my body busy and my brain free.

How do you use a song?

To clarify something to myself or someone else. Sometimes just to dance, though.

What is your first favorite record, song, or portion of a song?

Consulted my parents. I knew it'd be a Beatles song, but I'm glad I checked because I forgot how viscerally I identified with "I'm Only Sleeping."

What do you remember the most about it?

I remember feeling very understood, like someone else gets how exhausting life is.

What about it still resonates with you?

I was not into responsibilities — still not. In re-listening, it still feels relevant. Sometimes I feel like the world is so full of stress and worry, and I wish people could relax. The only difference now is that I better understand why people cannot.

Have you ever referenced it directly or indirectly?

On my last record there's a lyric, "I wake up alone. I wanna get stoned and stare at a screen." It's maybe a much more painful angle on the same theme. The song is called "Fondly Enough."

What is your favorite record that you've recorded?

The next one. I'm recording this year; comes out January 3.

What are the similar elements of your first favorite and the one you wrote?

I just demoed a new song, "Leave Me Alone," which echoes the general feeling of "I'm Only Sleeping," just wishing people would get off my back. "Revolver" has a healthy mix of philosophy, sadness, celebration, and story-telling which is what I aspire to do. Also, harmonies.

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