Story Behind the Album: Love Holds On

I began threatening to record and release a full-length album of my songs somewhere around 1998. At that time, I’d been focusing on writing songs with the idea that other singers and bands would record them and take them out into the world. My recordings prior to that point were intended solely as song demos, to let other artists consider whether they wanted to record the songs. However, there were some of those songs that didn’t seem like the sorts of songs that other artists would record, even though some of those were ones I considered to be among my best. Perhaps the way to get those out into the world might be to record them myself?

Backing up a bit, I’d always enjoyed singing and playing music, having bands from approximately the sixth grade through the end of high school. I’d also been writing my own songs since approximately junior high or early high school. I started experimenting with recording, including doing some early multitrack experiments going back and forth between two cassette decks, while I was in high school. Thus, the idea of recording my own songs wasn’t all that new. Somewhere along the line, though, I’d decided I was too old to have a real chance at success as an artist in the modern, youth-oriented music business. My best odds at making a living in that business would be as a songwriter, with younger, more video-friendly artists recording my songs. By early 1998, I was also married with two children in elementary school, so the notion of touring and other recording artist-like activities seemed pretty remote, despite my never having lost interest in those activities.

I think the first song I recorded with an eye toward possibly releasing it directly at some point was an early version of “Portadown Rain”. The song was very long by commercial radio standards, had an unusual form, had an extremely sad story, and was politically charged to boot. In other words, it wasn’t exactly the sort of thing pop or country hits are made of. On the other hand, it was a powerful song that would later be nominated for a Just Plain Folks Song Award, and which was drawing highly positive reactions on the live front. It wasn’t so much that I was looking to abandon the whole “outside songwriter” orientation, but rather that I was looking for a home for those songs I wrote that didn’t happen to fit the commercial mold, but which were still strong songs. In the commercial songwriting world, those were often referred to as “artist songs”, because they are songs that would generally only get recorded and released if they were written by the recording artist. The “outside songwriters” (i.e. people writing songs for others to record and having no business connection with the artists looking for songs) only had a fighting chance if a song was deemed a potential hit single. Even a potentially great “album track” (e.g. think “The Last Resort” from Eagles’ Hotel California album) wouldn’t have a chance.

That initial recording of “Portadown Rain” didn’t prove to be of sufficient production quality for releasing directly. In fact, on the front end of my quest to put together an album of my own, that was the norm. My production skills simply weren’t up to snuff, and some of the tools I was using were also fairly limited for what I was trying to do with them. It would take a number of years before I finally starting hitting my stride on that front. My first tease with that came in Fall 2001, when a song I’d written about the events of September 11, 2001, “Help Us Understand”, got played on the radio in Western Australia. Then in Fall 2002, I placed a newly recorded version a Christmas song I’d written, “It Started in a Manger”, on a multi-artist charity album called Ho Ho Ho Spice, alongside recordings by a number of independent artists, including a few I’d actually heard of prior to receiving my copy of the album. While I look back at those recordings now, and hear them as not having been of a quality I’d want to release at this point, that little bit of external encouragement motivated me all the more to get to work on an album.

Meanwhile, though, I started seeing more acceptance of my songs in the form of other artists’ recording them and putting them out on their own independently-released albums. Additionally, starting around mid-2002, I signed a series of single song deals with a Nashville-based publisher who was targeting major label artists exclusively. The result was that I backed away from my album plans to focus even more on the outside songwriting. I guess I was hoping that big break — a major cut in the country market — might finally be on the verge of happening, and such a success might help open some doors to complementary opportunities down the line. There wasn’t any rush on my own album. It was more important to try and get some music business income flowing so I could keep at this work I love indefinitely.

Unfortunately, despite some localized success, such as a young Mongolian pop singer’s taking one of my songs to top five for both radio and video play in her country, the bigger successes did not materialize. As time passed, it became clear that the songs signed out in Nashville weren’t getting cut, and all of those songs ended up reverting to my co-writers and me by early 2006. As much as I’d viewed, and still do view, that I have a number of songs that could be hit singles, and maybe even classics, if matched with the right artists and promotion, I’d spent well over two decades pursuing success as an outside songwriter, with little to show for it. I had on the order of a dozen independent cuts, but wasn’t even breaking even on the financial front. Artists I’d thought would have big potential had either gotten into situations where “life got in the way”, gone on to write all their own material, or arrived at a level of success that didn’t look to unknown songwriters for material. So much was dependent on other people to even let a song get out into the world, and there were so many competing interests. It felt like the bottom had dropped out.

Nevertheless, I wasn’t ready to give up. I was determined to get my songs out into the world. If I felt powerless to do that via the route I’d been taking, perhaps it was time to try another avenue I could more directly influence. Perhaps it was time to revisit my original passions of singing and playing music, and my long-time goal of putting out an album. The music business had changed a lot over the years. Technological developments like home studios had come along to the point where it was much more feasible for an individual, working on an almost non-existent budget, to record a quality album. Market developments, such as the Apple iPod and iTunes, had made it possible for even independent artists to get national, and even international, distribution with little upfront costs, and without even manufacturing CDs. The rise of the Internet, including developments such as MySpace, made it possible to get the word out about new artists and music far beyond what had been possible just a few years earlier. I’d been keeping abreast of all these developments. Perhaps I could take advantage of them to get my songs out into the world in a new way.

Of course, a full album is a pretty big project, and there is a lot more involved than just recording songs, from administrative considerations such as licensing co-written songs to dealing with artwork, packaging, and distribution. I decided to start with a single, “The Lord’s Prayer”, for which there were at least no separate licensing considerations. I also set up a MySpace account to try and shift from just marketing my songs to recording artists to being able to more directly communicate with music lovers. That first single was released in May 2006. I followed it up later the same year with the release of That Time of Year, a four-song Christmas EP, which included a few co-written songs, thus causing me to figure out how to deal with licensing co-written material. I felt like I was finally starting to hit my stride on the production quality front, but this also meant that I felt like all the recordings I’d made prior to that period weren’t at a level I’d be willing to release to the public. Finishing a full album would take a while.

While I might now mark late 2006 or early 2007 as the beginning of my true push to record and release a full-length album, I interrupted those efforts on a number of occasions between then and now to tackle some smaller projects. Those included three more singles (“Bubble Gum”, “Spam It”, and “Halloween”), a cover of the classic hymn “Onward, Christian Soldiers” on the multi-artist Goodnight Kiss Records album ALTARnative Music: Songs of Christian Faith, and a 5-track/2-song set of duets with Beverly Bremers (Make Me Feel). While each of those efforts took time away from the album recording effort, they also gave me vehicles to release songs that didn’t fit the album concept I had in mind. The net is I really didn’t start focusing more fully on the full album until late 2008. Things got particularly intense on that front in the first two quarters of this year, thanks to the deadline I’d set for myself of having the album ready in CD form in time for my July 12th show at the Orange County Super Fair.

The new album, which is called Love Holds On, is now available (see the album page for the latest list of outlets carrying it). The album title comes from a song of the same title that I wrote with Rebecca (Shari) Hanneman back in 1997. Shari wrote the lyric, which I immediately loved, and which made the music flow very quickly. That song has long been one of my personal favorites, and one I thought would have big promise for the right artist. I consider it to be among my most beautiful melodies, and I also love the sentiment the lyrics express, which is summarized in the chorus:

Love holds on
Fear lets go
Love is steady, love is strong
Love holds on

Though a few artists have recorded it on their demos over the years, none have actually released it to date. Meanwhile, I’d come to use it as the closing song for most of my full-length live shows, so I felt strongly that it would make a good anchor song for the album.

Though I’d considered a few other album titles over the time I’d been working on this album, the more I thought about the phrase, “love holds on,” the more I realized that phrase could be interpreted a number of ways. Of course, there is the obvious notion of holding on to romantic love, such as in a long-term relationship, and that is my primary interpretation of the title song. However, it could just as easily refer to the trials we parents experience in the course of raising our children, needing to hold on out of love even when things seem out of control. It could refer to the love we have for a long-term friend as the relationship evolves over time. It could refer to the love we maintain for loved ones even after they are no longer physically present in our lives. It could also refer to what keeps us going when the going gets tough in pursuing our passions through rejection after rejection, something I could personally relate to with my love of music and trials of the music business. In short, it had a lot of potential as a theme for the album. All the songs I chose for inclusion on the album relate to that theme in some way.

When I started writing this blog, I thought I’d give a bit of history of the album then dive into talking about the songs themselves. To avoid writing another War and Peace, though, I think I’ll cut this off now, then talk more about the individual songs in future blogs. In the meantime, though, I’d encourage you to have a listen to the songs, to see what you think. If you want to play only the songs from Love Holds On, you can listen to the full album in sequence on MySpace Music. If you are interested in getting it on CD or from another digital download store, go to the album page for a list of some of the most popular outlets.

I hope you’ll agree that the results were worth the long wait. Or should I say that I hope you’ll find this long-term “labor of love” worth “holding on” for?