December 17, 2009

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Whose song is it anyway?
@RANDOM Song Project aims to spark improvisational muse
By Michael Witthaus music@hippopress.com

Take a bunch of bon mots, onomatopoeias and a curious uttering or two — “as if sleep were a disease of the human mind” or “life goes on in spite of reality” — and toss them in a hat. Then grab a stack of pictures — a dog in a neck cone, a leaflet-plastered wall, a staircase or a men’s room door.

Put those in another hat. Reach in both, grab one of each, and hand them to a waiting group of songwriters with a simple instruction: turn it into music. In a few weeks, there will be a show where everyone can perform his or her song. 

Make a record; maybe (hopefully) make a little history.

That, in a nutshell, is the essence of the @RANDOM Song Project, a collective effort to fire the creative spark of a music scene battered by a down economy. It’s a bit of improv comedy zeitgeist mixed with alt-rock angst, a sort of musical version of Whose Line Is It Anyway?

If it works, the result could provide a shot in the arm to a scene that desperately needs it.

Concord-based folk rocker Mechelle Zydenbos said she and her friend Michael Crane came up with idea as a way to buck the tide of cover bands.

“It’s difficult for songwriters like me,” Zydenbos said by telephone recently. “Cover bands with smoke machines and light shows? It’s such a different mindset. They’re making more money than original song writers ever would.” But mostly, she just wanted to prod a muse sitting dormant, newly solo after several years of playing in bands that had suddenly crashed and burned.

“It was starting to take off,” Zydenbos said of Mini Jacket and Band June, the two groups she played guitar and sang in. “I’m not saying that playing CBGB was the ultimate achievement, but it was a cool stepping stone, and we did Higher Ground in Burlington and places in Portsmouth. We had a pretty cool sound and it just imploded.”

She hoped @RANDOM would become an online songwriters’ workshop. It’s hard to crack the whip when you’re the only one at rehearsal.“I wanted to do this because I’m no longer in the band,” Zydenbos said. “I miss having my feet held to the fire in terms of my own creative inspiration.”

She was also certain that she wasn’t the only one feeling a sense of artistic frustration. 

“There is no scene” in Concord, Zydenbos said. “The creative demographic is dead … people are more receptive to original music in other parts of the state, but it’s an afterthought here.” To change that, she and Crane set up a Facebook group and invited other musicians and artists to contribute.  They also recruited amateur photographers and anyone who felt clever enough to be a “phrasemaker,” a coiner of the currency that ultimately will be a performance at the Barley House, the Main Street Concord restaurant/bar where Zydenbos also waitresses.

So far, the group has 100 members and a curious collection of contributions. Some are frivolous, the creative equivalent of photocopying your butt. But most are provocative and inspire hope about what artistic magic might transpire when one becomes songwriter’s fuel.

“I have my favorites, the ones I hope will end up getting chosen,” Zydenbos said. But the fun of the project is the mystery — what the raw material might be, and how an as-yet unknown group of artists will approach the project once it is known.

“This whole thing is unfolding before me on what is to become,” she said. “I realize it might be a lofty ambition.  I don’t know how spirited the community is for that. But if I push a little bit and assert this is what it is, I think I can do it.”