Behind the Track: "Moonflower"

Behind the Track: "Moonflower"

Sep 12, 2023

Hey! Welcome to my first single release ever!

(Well… I did release an electronic album back in college, which is still on Spotify, but I will not willingly hand over the artist or album name I used for that. 😉)

It's been quite a journey leading up to this release, and I'm super excited to launch my music career after producing music in the closet for ~15 years.

Well, in a bedroom studio, but hey!

The road to my new bedroom studio

So just before COVID started, my partner and I had this wild idea to move from Seattle to Maine and start a land-based low-tech intentional community. With two young kids.

And I had just built out a rustic-swank 10x16 shed studio in the woods near Seattle, where I could fit my drum kit, hammered dulcimer, cello, and lots of other instruments. I had a dream of becoming a film composer. And I just… walked away from it. For this other dream.

That's the second time I've tried to walk away from recording music. Never again!

So after we got to Maine, long story short, we tried to create land-based community twice and failed epically twice. We're now planning to create community and foster mutual aid in other ways.

There's a lot of misery and hard-won wisdom behind those experiences, but suffice it to say, for the last four years, I didn't have any space for a bedroom recording studio, and didn't have any time to make music anyway.

I had to split wood, make fires, build off-grid microsolar systems, do carpentry, garden, tend children, haul out the drain bucket, and do part-time programming work.

Fast forward to February 2023, when we finally moved into an on-grid house in the woods in Brooks, Maine. My dream came true - a bedroom studio again!

I was so desperate to get going on music again, I think I literally ordered my studio monitors the day we moved in.

Here it is, taking shape:

It's a very modest recording setup, but with scads of instruments. You can read about the gear and instruments I use on my Studio page.

How to launch a music career

When I started to really think about whether I could launch a viable music career, I realized that the ingredients are (mostly) in place.

I've gained a lot of musical skills over the past 20 years, from advanced jazz saxophone to playing mandolin to programming drums to mixing and production. I'm not sure if I've quite put in 10,000 hours practicing music-related skills, but certainly many thousands.

I also spent 10 years building and running a holistic health website, so I picked up a bunch of skills in web design, graphic design, videography, podcast production, marketing, and blogging, which I'm now super grateful to have for DIY music promotion.

However, there's one thing missing…

I'm not very good at finishing songs.


I mean, seriously, I realized that in 15 years of on-and-off music-making, I had only "finished" 35 tracks, many of which were short demos, not really deserving of the word "finished."


So as soon as we moved to this new house, I started listening to the Finish More Music podcast, started reading productivity & life hacking books again, and quickly got my mindset in order after four years of chaos.

I set myself a goal of finishing 100 tracks (65 new ones) by July 31, 2024. That's about 10 times my average pace over the last 15 years!

I will almost certainly not reach that goal, but it lit a fire under my butt, and I'm now 100% committed to releasing music regularly, at least one single per month (or an equivalent rate with EPs and albums).

I've spent the last 6 months consuming books, blogs and podcasts on DIY music marketing (on top of parenting and working and all the other stuff of life).

I've built Bitwig templates, mix presets, mastering chains, todo-tracking spreadsheets, and standard operating procedures, and I'm turning my previous music hobby into a well-oiled machine (well, a… creative machine).

And I'm slowly, painfully learning how to finish songs.

As testament to how difficult this is for me, when I was making my electronic album back in college, I developed psychosomatic carpal tunnel syndrome in my wrists as a subconscious way of sabotaging myself, because I was so scared of what people would think about my music if I actually released it.

Perfectionism → fail.

And you know what?

My music isn't doing anybody any good just sitting on my hard drive.

Better to release a polished turd than sit on it forever! Okay, that's a crappy metaphor. But you get what I'm saying.

So here's one of those finished tracks. The first track I've released in 12 years!

Behind Moonflower

Since I was a kid, I've often immersed myself in imagined fantasy worlds.

I used to spend countless hours sorting Magic cards, or learning how to write my name in Tolkein's Dwarven runes.

I would imagine entire worlds, and then hatch half-baked plans to write novels about them, which I never got more than 10,000 words into. (There's that finishing problem again…)

My parents never allowed me to have a gaming console, but I instead spent thousands of hours playing RPGs and dungeon crawlers on the computer, from Diablo to Dungeon Siege.

So now that I'm imagining a new music career for myself, I can't help but infuse it with some of this fantasy stuff.

My songs often start at the piano (an old Yamaha upright), where I sit down late at night, after the kids are in bed, and improvise something while recording on my phone. Since I hate to leave the filename as "Recording 479.mp3", I force myself to come up with a fantastical name there and then that fits the mood of the musical idea.

So for this track, which started in exactly this way, I picked the name Moonflower, which just so happens to be a mythical, magical flower that only blooms during:

  1. A thunderstorm AND

  2. In the light of the full moon AND

  3. On the fabled isle of Myssos

Which, as you can guess, doesn't happen very often (at least on this plane of existence).

Saxophone: a love/hate relationship

I recorded tenor saxophone early on, which is a love/hate experience for me for two reasons:

  1. I love it, because it is the one instrument I have attained some amount of mastery over, and I can more or less play whatever comes into my mind

  2. I hate it, because it doesn't fit the sort of Celtic, Tolkein-esque, mossy, wood/stone/leather, fantastical sound world that makes my bones tingle and my mind light aflame

I wish that I had learned to play violin-family instruments many years ago, as they would be a much better fit!

That said, I'm very grateful for my skill on the saxophone, since jazz theory and improvisation translate to many other areas of music-making, and it's now much easier for me to pick up Irish flute, silver flute, and clarinet since the fingerings are so similar.

But I will probably use saxophone sparingly in my music since it's so firmly anchored in contemporary music, and I so deeply yearn to explore my ancestral forest music roots in the British Isles and Scandinavia.

Speaking of violin…

I’ve been madly trying to learn this instrument over the last few months so I can record it in my music, but hot darn is it difficult.

The fingerings translate from mandolin, but I never had to be that precise with my finger placement on mando cuz frets. And the bow is just wicked difficult. And vibrato! Probably the most frustrating instrument I’ve ever tried to learn.

All that aside, I did record myself on violin in this track anyway. It’s a bit buried in the mix due to my lack of violin skillz - let me know in the comments if you can find it!

Other instruments?

There’s some cittern tremolos at 1:45, some mandolin harmonics at the very end, and few other odds and ends scattered throughout.

Lacking a drum set at the moment (not to mention the skills to play it), I used sampled drums.

Sampled strings found their way in here too, a holdover from my attempts at being a film composer. I hope to be able to record an IRL string quartet at some point!

How I made the album art (er, single art?)

For the art, I knew I wanted to do it myself, but I had two ideas for how to do that:

  1. Draw it myself

  2. Use Midjourney AI art generator

I tried the first one first. I’m a decent artist but not stellar, especially when it comes to drawing more realistic and representational things. I studied concept art & digital illustration a bit in high school, but didn’t get very far with it.

Here’s what I came up with after line drawings, an anime colorizer app, and Photoshop:

It’s unique and has character, but ultimately I decided it just didn’t sit right with the fantastical story-world vibe I’m going for with my music, and that more representational art will help me tell my stories better.

On to Midjourney!

I have a lot of concerns about AI in the creative space. I’ve already used:

  • Bard to generate a business name for a climate finance software platform I’m developing

  • Framer AI to generate a starting design for a harp luthier’s website

  • Midjourney art generator to make custom Magic card illustrations as a gift for my cousin, as a celebration of our childhood playing Magic - here's an example:

So yeah, it’s amazingly empowering in certain ways, but it also feels like a dark path to walk, at some level.

What's the long-term impact on artists and creators of all types? Is it replacement, or another tool in the toolbox to amplify creativity?

I can tell you for sure, there is zero chance I would have made these custom Magic cards without Midjourney to make the art.

And when it comes to my music, the reality of it is, I don’t have the budget (yet) to hire an artist to make art for every single, and I enjoy the process of prompting and tweaking Midjourney and exploring lots of artistic ground.

This art took a ridiculous number of prompts

Sometimes with Midjourney, my first attempt yields something just spot-on. Not so with Moonflower.

I had to prompt Midjourney 147 times over a 2-month period to get something that finally felt right. And you get four images per prompt, so that’s 588 images I waded through.

587 fails, one success.

That’s by far the most time I’ve ever spent on one prompt. Way more than I spent making the hand-drawn art above!

Maybe even more time than I spent making the actual music. Damn.

(And in the back of my mind, I’m wondering, what were the carbon emissions of generating 588 AI images? My day job is building a reforestation finance platform, so maybe there's some karmic balance there.)

In those 588 images, there were a ton of really beautiful options that just didn’t make sense with the concept behind Moonflower. There were other options that did make sense, but I didn’t like the composition of.

In the end, it was a really excruciating decision.

Part of that difficulty was me figuring out what general art style, mood, texture, and feeling I want to go for with my album art going forward, and what magic words to use to guide Midjourney there.

And part of it was my Libra nature of seeing an expansive array of possibilities, but being unable to choose one!

Here are 192 of the contenders:

And the final result, after some tweaking and post-processing:

I bet if you had seen all 588 options, you would have picked a different one! That’s art for ya.

Maybe in the future I’ll hand over the art selection process to you and other readers with a poll.

What genre is this, anyway?

Do you have any ideas about this?

As you might have seen on my website, I’m calling my music “cinematic jazz-folk.”

That’s not one of the genre options in my music distribution service, though:

So I’m picking “Alternative” as the primary genre. Bon Iver is alternative, Olafur Arnalds is alternative, Hania Rani is alternative… seems to kind of work with my music since it doesn’t neatly fit into anything else.

For the secondary genre, I’m picking “Electronic > Downtempo”, which seems weird because there’s not a single synth in this track, but I guess if you replaced the acoustic instruments with synths it would fit squarely into that category.

If you have a better idea for the genre, let me know in the comments.

Or if come up with a custom genre that’s different from “cinematic jazz-folk”, let me know that too!

Did Moonflower make you feel, see, or imagine anything?

I’m really interested in how my music makes people feel, and what images or sensations it evokes.

If you had some feels or images come up, let me know in the comments!

Thanks for listening - it’s great to have you at the beginning of this journey as I start getting over my fears of finishing songs and putting them out in the world!

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