“Voices” Music Video: Process Blog

For “Voices,” the first single off of our latest album, I worked with multi-hyphenate artist Mark Landry to create this video:

Here’s the process we took to get there:

For the song “Goodbye at the End of the World” on the last album, Dust Among the Stars, I created an animated music video. I loved how it turned out, but as not-a-professional-animator, it was a colossal undertaking. So when it came time to think about music videos for Dreamers & Runaways, I knew I wanted to do something that was similarly unique, but I also knew that I couldn’t take a bite from the same apple.

The ideation process for the “Voices” music video literally began in the dark, with me thinking through the lyrics of the song, and allowing whatever images they might conjure to come. It was about the same time that the U.S. had decided to separate families — literally ripping children from their mothers’ arms — at the southern border. As an American, and a parent, this was simply too much to bear, and it’s no surprise that those images crept into my darkened little mental theater, and a story began to take shape from there. But a scenario that starts with militaristic thugs in masks yanking a baby from a mother’s grasp and that ends with a rally full of thousands of followers started to feel like an animated project again, and one that I would simply not hold up under.

That’s when the idea of doing this story as a comic came to me. I am very fortunate to have a friend in Mark Landry, who created the comic Bloodthirsty: One Nation Under Water. I reached out to him, to bounce ideas off of and see if he might have any interest in drawing the comic. So Mark came on board.

Step one was the script. I’d never done a comic script before, but there are some great resources out there. I relied on Dark Horse Comics’ sample pages that they make available.

Mark had a ton of great insight on my first pass of the script. After we talked it through and I made the necessary changes, Mark moved on to thumbnails.

We massaged those a bit, and he went to pencils, working backward through the book. The final pages were the most difficult and time-consuming, with all the detail and crowd work, so he started there.

Thumbnails through layout through ink

As Mark did all the pages by hand, scanned them in, and sent me inked pages, I started lettering and coloring them. For lettering, I bought fonts from Blambot, which were an absolute joy to get to use. Please never use Comic Sans. Please support these great craftspeople.

To get the aged comic look, I relied on a set of tools called DEBASER from True Grit Texture Supplies.  It’s an amazing bunch of tools, and I thought the results they created were outstanding.

As a matter of fact, in order to learn DEBASER, I colored a black-and-white version of the first page of EC Comics’ legendary story Judgment Day and tried to make it look like the original. You can see the results here:

Original (L), Fantagraphics Key Art (C), After DEBASER (R)

But during the coloring process, Mark and I hit a snag in terms of scheduling after his light table broke. The song premiered online while I was literally driving to San Jose for WorldCon 76, so we needed to get the video done quickly. With Mark about to start another project with a hard deadline, and his light table out of commission until a replacement could arrive, we discussed me creating the cover of the book. I don’t draw well, and this seemed like an impossible task…but I took a couple of reference photos in the hotel at WorldCon, and started doing pencils for the cover on my iPad.

I created the finished cover in Illustrator.

I started putting the actual printed book together, and pulled in some vintage ads from real 1940s comics. These public domain sources are available from the Digital Comic Museum, a site I simply cannot recommend highly enough if you have any interest in vintage comics.

One painful, explanation-heavy trip to FedEx Office later, and I had an actual, printed comic in my hand. I put it on my kitchen table, and filmed it to create the finished video, shooting in 4K so I could push in for greater detail, since the video was mastered to 1080.

That’s about it. If you buy Dreamers & Runaways on Bandcamp, a digital download of the comic is included as a PDF. If you want to check out Mark’s other work (and you totally should), you can see much of his brilliant painting output at LandryImages.com.

And finally, if you are an eligible nominating member of WorldCon 77, the “Voices” video is eligible to be nominated in the Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form category. Help spread the word!

Hurricane Harvey: When the Levee Breaks

We are releasing a cover of the 1929 song “When the Levee Breaks” to help benefit the victims of Hurricane Harvey. Download it here:

My Hometown

I was born in Houston, Texas, and lived most of my life there until I moved to Los Angeles in my late 20s. I learned how to play music in Houston, my first bands were in Houston (hell, most of my bands were in Houston), my first few years of playing live music in bars and clubs that smelled like cigarettes and old beer were in Houston.

My family is in and around Houston. My friends are there.

Watching the devastation brought on by the flooding from Hurricane Harvey and checking Facebook and email constantly to see if my family and friends were safe (they are), or if my old neighborhoods survived intact (some yes, some no), those cannot compare to the feelings of living through it. But watching from 1800 miles away and feeling helpless, I wanted to do something. The night the rains started, it occurred to me we could do a version of “When the Levee Breaks,” and use it to try to raise money. I had no idea how bad things would get, and how much relief would be needed.

I wrote to our cellist, Jody (originally from Dallas), and told her I wanted to try to do something to help out in Houston. Without even asking what it was, she wrote back, “I’m in.”

Yesterday we were able to get into the studio. And today, here we are.

The Song

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The 1971 Led Zeppelin cover version is certainly the most well-known version of “When the Levee Breaks,” but the song is not original to them. I decided to go back to the original version, which was a Delta Blues song written and recorded in 1929 by Memphis Minnie and her then-husband Kansas Joe McCoy. The song was about the 1927 Mississippi River flood — still the worst river flood in U.S. history. If I wanted — in some small, small way– to express solidarity with the people in Texas dealing with this nightmare, I thought a song that’s 90 years old, commemorating a similar event, had a lot of resonance. Ain’t nobody alone, even if it feels that way.

But I can’t play Delta Blues guitar, so I re-worked the song, moving it from a major to minor key, and slowing it way down.

Thomas

When I lived in the Midtown neighborhood in Houston, I rescued a stray cat that showed up on my porch one day, starving. His ear was docked, meaning he’d been caught, neutered, and released back into the neighborhood. His other ear was cut, like he’d been in a fight. My wife named him Thomas.

Thomas

That was almost 14 years to the day before the rains from Harvey started. That neighborhood flooded. This other cat, which has now gone viral thanks to an indelible picture by an LA Times photographer during Harvey, could have been Thomas:

We lost Thomas earlier this year. He showed up skinny and starving, but made the move across the country with us and he lived out his life for another nearly 13 years, fat and happy, with friends all around our neighborhood in LA. He was the best cat, and so half the money that we raise from this single will go to support the Houston Humane Society, which is working like crazy right now to help animals like Thomas all over Houston.

The other half of the money we raise will go to the Greater Houston Community Foundation Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund. This fund was set up by Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, and so donations are going a local organization that will hopefully be able to provide meaningful, dedicated assistance to the people of Houston long after national and international groups have been called away to deal with whatever the next disaster might be. Probably Hurricane Irma, churning its way across the Caribbean toward Florida as I write this.

The band is not recouping recording or publicity costs. Everything Bandcamp pays us for this song from the people who purchase it will go directly to these two groups. I don’t know if we will make a difference, but with your help we can.

If you live in Texas and are suffering from these floods and dig the track, take it. Download it for free. If you want to help those people, and the animals of Houston with them, then please make a donation with your download, and spread the word. This only works if people share it.

Thank you.

Walk a Mile and The London Games

At the beginning of July, Stacey Haber of the Music Firm UK reached out to me to find out if I’d be willing to write and record a song for a social awareness campaign launching in conjunction with the 2012 Olympic Games in London. The campaign is called “Walk a Mile,” and draws its name from the familiar notion of walking a mile in someone else’s shoes. It’s an off-shoot of the State Department’s “Hours Against Hate” initiative, which encourages inter-faith and inter-cultural tolerance, and is sponsored by the International Olympic Truce Centre. Dave Stewart (of the Eurythmics) contributed the theme song for the whole thing. All of that sounded pretty good, and I was flattered to be invited, so I wrote a new song. You can listen right here, and read on below:

But the clock was ticking. It was July 1, I was in a hotel room in Florida, and my house had just been burglarized in Los Angeles, so I wasn’t sure if I even had any guitars apart from a battered old acoustic I had with me. The band and I only had two weeks to get them a finished track of a song that didn’t exist yet. Jaron Luksa, the inimitable force of nature who recorded our record The Ghost of John Henry, was on tour with Amanda Palmer, and would not be able to record us when I got back to town, so I had to find a studio, too.


I wrote the song in my hotel room that night, and recorded a demo of it on my phone (on my phone!), which I sent off to the band and the Music Firm, to make sure everybody was ok with it. I believe deeply in the importance of empathy, but not so much in pithy expressions — especially in lyrics — so I only wanted to move forward if I could come up with a song that got the idea across without actually saying “you should really walk a mile in somebody’s shoes before you judge them.”

When I put out the first Sci-Fi Romance album, for the first year that it was out, I donated every cent that came in from it to a group called Charity: Water (and if you haven’t read the story of 9-year-old Rachel Beckwith’s Charity: Water campaign, which raised over $1 million dollars after she was killed in a car accident, please do so). Charity: Water helps people in developing nations get access to clean drinking water by digging freshwater wells, so people no longer have to carry dirty water miles a day in old gasoline cans.  That image was the first place my mind went when thinking about this new song, and from there, the other three lyrical vignettes came very easily.

The world does not want what’s best for us. We’re all struggling daily against entropy, and fighting to stay upright in the face of circumstances that would knock us down. The only thing we have, really, is each other. We’re all in the same boat, and it will stay afloat or sink based on our willingness to help each other out. In my mind, that’s done best by recognizing that though our paths diverge, the people walking them share much, much more in common than we may differ.

To me, that’s a joyful realization. So I wanted the song to feel full of life and joy and camaraderie. If you know many of my songs, you know I don’t do “joyful” very often, so I hope you enjoy this one. I don’t know when you’ll get another like it from me…

We wound up recording the day after Woody Guthrie’s 100th birthday with Eric Rennaker in a fantastic studio called Bedrock in Echo Park, and the track was mixed and mastered by Tim Moore at Mas Music Productions in Highland Park (both in Los Angeles). They are good folks, and you should hit them up if you need studio time. And THANK YOU! to the wonderful people who gave up their Sunday afternoon to come sing in the Sci-Fi Romance Choir at the end of the song — Molly, Emma, Oscar, Rebecca, and of course, Kurt, Jody, and I joined in, too.

You can download the song for free right here:

Also, nothing much was taken in the burglary. We were lucky.