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Story Behind the Album: Moments of Insanity

2020 has been a crazy year. Yeah, I know I’m stating the obvious — the year’s insanity may be the only point of agreement between my friends on the far left and my friends on the far right. However, were I to try to condense the story behind my latest album, Moments of Insanity, into a one short sentence, that obvious statement would be the one.

I’ll get to the more detailed story behind the album momentarily, but perhaps you’d like to listen to the album while reading its story? Here’s a YouTube playlist that will let you do just that (interestingly, it picks up the lyric video from the earlier single release of the first track, thus the different cover art in the embedded video):

If you’d prefer to listen on your favorite music streaming site, here’s a link that will let you choose from several of the most popular services: http://smarturl.it/MomentsOfInsanity.

Backing Up

The new year (and new decade) started innocently enough. Okay, maybe not so much here in the USA since presidential election year politics, and all the mudslinging that goes with that, were already in full swing well before the first day of 2020. But it wasn’t that much crazier than the previous presidential election year. Yet.

I started the year out with a couple of new singles that I’d written, and recorded in one case, last year. My main focus was writing and recording new material to target various opportunities, similarly to what I’d been doing since completing last year’s The Road That I Must Take album. Those efforts had resulted in a string of four singles in a row, and I’d also been recording and remixing some of my older songs to target similar opportunities.

While I always have some notion of a next album in the back of my mind, there were three years between my previous two albums, so I didn’t have any concrete plans for releasing another album this year. The songs I’d been recording were, by and large, not ones I saw as fitting alongside one another on a coherent album.

The Coronavirus Rears Its Spiky Head

While I vaguely remember news reports from the period when COVID-19 was primarily affecting the area around Wuhan, China, then South Korea, it wasn’t until it started breaking out in Italy that it really caught my attention. My daughter had moved to northern Italy in early February. I read an article in USA Today on February 22nd that mentioned a dozen towns’ being locked down after two deaths, and it turned out those towns were very close to where my daughter lived.

I emailed my daughter to ask her about the situation. She didn’t seem too concerned but did say there were already restrictions on public events at that point. The wider mandatory lockdowns were still a couple of weeks away, though her organization started voluntary self-isolation in late February.

As the news heated up closer to home, the most directly visible signs came on my weekly trips to the supermarket. I’d been hearing about wholesale stores being out of toilet paper. I had to buy a package myself on March 7th. While my supermarket wasn’t out that week, the supply was low, and they didn’t have the package size I usually purchased. By the next weekend, though, not only were they out of TP altogether, but also paper towels, tissues and pretty much everything else in the paper products aisle. That same week they were totally out of bananas (the main thing I’d been looking for that was not available), as well as quite a number of other products.

empty paper products aisle
The paper products aisle in my supermarket on March 14, 2020.

More concerning, of course, was the virus itself, and the rapidly evolving picture of the risks associated with it, how you catch it, how to protect yourself and others against it, and so on. I frequently found myself distracted, trying to catch up on the latest news reports, do deep dives into data from reputable sources, and separate out good information from misinformation. It didn’t help that misinformation seemed to be coming on fast and furious, and lots of politically-charged arguments were ramping up on social media.

Quarantine and Other “Distractions”

Our lockdown here in Orange County, California started on St. Patrick’s Day. Being an introvert (INTJ for any Myers-Briggs fans) who’s been single for over a decade now and spends the majority of my waking hours in front of a computer screen, solitary time and social distancing aren’t all that different from my norm. The biggest change was not being able to go out once or twice a week to play, or sometimes just listen to, live music.

On that very same day, I started a new IT consulting project that, while welcome for the injection of some income, added to my preoccupation with COVID-19 developments in taking my focus off writing new material. I tend to need a certain amount of mental “blank space” to write songs. If my mind is going in too many directions, I can easily get blocked, which is the state I found myself in during the last part of March and early April.

At some point in early April I decided I needed to get some creative wheels spinning. Writing new material didn’t seem very hopeful at that point, but the increasingly dire outlook as the pandemic ramped up here in the USA reminded me of a classic hymn I’d learned sometime during the last decade. “It Is Well With My Soul” is a hymn of hope that was written by a man who suffered great personal tragedies, including the loss of family members. It is a song I’d previously thought about recording … “someday”. It seemed extremely fitting for the times, so I decided “someday” may as well be “now”. (I apparently wasn’t the only one who thought the hymn was a great fit for the times as I saw a “virtual choir” video of the song made by a number of Nashville session singers shortly after I started recording it.)

While I was recording that hymn, I started getting another idea relating to one of my “someday” projects. I’d long wanted to remix my adaptation of “The Lord’s Prayer”, which was my first self-released single. While it has been my most successful recording over the years, my production quality has come a long way since 2006, and I really felt the recording needed an update. Maybe now was as good a time as any to take on a remix?

Oh, and, while I was at it, I’d also long been thinking about doing an album to collect my Christian-themed original songs alongside covers of various classic hymns. Maybe that project’s time could also be at hand? I started working on one of the hymns I had in mind, but my progress was painfully slow, and there would be a lot of ground to cover between remixing older songs and recording additional hymns. In fact, I really only had the two songs in the state I’d want them for an album. It would be a big project.

Impulse Decisions and Milestone Birthdays

One night in early June, in one of my normal after dinner practice sessions, I was playing through a bunch of my original songs, including many older ones that I hadn’t played for some time. Many of those songs had a country flavor — for example, there were a number of cowboy-themed songs I’d written back in the late 1990s, some with one of my frequent collaborators and others on my own (it was that batch of songs that led to naming my publishing company Closet Cowboy Music). However, a non-cowboy song, “Happy Birthday to Me”, which happened to be from the same period of time, particularly caught my attention.

I’d cowritten “Happy Birthday to Me” with a lyricist named Kathy Schaeffer back in 1998. It is a relatively depressing song about spending your birthday alone, thinking about broken promises made by a former love on a past birthday. I’d made it a tradition to break the song out for live performances each year during my birthday month of July. That was out of the question this year, however, due to pandemic restrictions. What’s more, this year was a milestone birthday for me — “the big six oh” — thus bringing on thoughts of “over the hill” jokes, black balloons, and the like.

That night’s practice session, alongside thinking about not being able to perform “Happy Birthday to Me” for live audiences this year and limitations on any sorts of semi-public birthday celebrations, gave me an idea. Maybe, as a sort of inside joke, I should record “Happy Birthday to Me” as a single and release it on my birthday as a form of celebration. I’d have to contact my cowriter the next day regarding licensing the song, but I felt reasonably optimistic she’d be agreeable to that and also that I could get it recorded and released in time to drop the single on my birthday.

That night, or really the next morning, I had bigtime insomnia, running the idea around in my head. Instead of that “simple” idea, my thoughts expanded to the possibility of releasing a full album on my birthday, making “Happy Birthday to Me” the title track.

It seemed like a crazy idea. I’m not particularly fast on the recording front, and a 12-track album means a lot more work than a single. To give some perspective on this, back on August 1, 2015, I announced my intent to record and release a pop album by June 30, 2016 — approximately eleven months later. I really just made my self-imposed deadline, and that album (In and Out of Love Again) was one where I’d started with roughly a third of the recordings ready to go, another third needing fairly significant rework, and the final third needing new recordings. Only one of the songs was newly written for the album. I had a day job back then, but I also did a good job of focusing on the project over the period between announcing my intention and achieving it. Similarly, about nine and a half months elapsed between deciding to start my most recent album and its release, and that was another case of starting with some existing recordings, though I also made quite a number of new recordings and wrote several new songs. (You can read about that here.) Why would I even begin to think I could put a whole album together and get it out there in less than two months? Crazy, right?

That notion did turn out to be a bit off, but my thinking at the time was that I had a number of singles I’d already released that I expected could be used as is, a small number of other recordings I’d recorded or remixed for targeted opportunities that could be similarly ready to go, and a few others where I thought some minor remixing could take an older single and bring it up to my current production standards. Maybe there was a “low hanging fruit” possibility to make “superhuman” (or at least “super-me”) progress? At the worst case, my backup plan could be to release the single on my birthday, then focus on the album for release as soon as practical after that.

Reality

Recording “Happy Birthday to Me”, then designing and creating the cover artwork, took me a bit over a month. While I succeeded in getting the single into the distribution cycle in time for its release on my 60th birthday, I was nowhere near at the point of having an album ready to go.

It turned out some of the tracks I thought might be relatively simple remix projects took a lot more time than I’d expected. I also started trying to mix one song I thought might be a reasonable candidate, but, after a good deal of time and work, ended up abandoning it, at least for this project, because I was not achieving satisfactory results.

Meanwhile, I had a running list of song candidates, along with notes on what might be needed to get them ready to go for an album and thoughts on whether they might or might not fit whatever album theme, and/or stylistic parameters, might emerge. The truth is I was at least one track short, and I was also having misgivings about making sense out of the collection of songs that I was considering. For example, there was one song, “Bubble Gum”, that I’d released as a single back in 2007. I was considering it for my previous album, so I remixed it for that, but I ultimately decided it really didn’t fit the thematic concept for that album, and the musical style, which was a closer fit, was insufficient to outweigh the lyrical considerations. This time around, I didn’t have preconceptions on a theme, but I was still feeling like its extremely lightweight nature might be out of place alongside what were largely much more serious songs.

Even among the songs that I was feeling were “must haves” for the album, especially if I wanted the “low hanging fruit” aspect of having songs ready, or at least nearly ready, to go help me succeed in releasing an album in record time (at least for me) — the only parameters I’d set on schedule were that I wanted to get the album out no later than sometime in the autumn and not too close to the holidays — there was a real hodgepodge of musical styles. For example, one of the tracks was a synth-oriented pop/adult contemporary track, another was one of those peppy ukulele songs, another couple were country pop, one was old-style R&B-flavored, and still another was reminiscent of a Dan Fogelberg ballad. Was there any way to make sense of this collection?

Nevertheless, I kept chipping away at remixing the tracks on my list, not worrying too much about the “forest” level, be it in the sense of how the songs on the album would eventually tie together into some sort of unified whole or which songs I’d end up using to fill the holes. The idea was to get each individual track on the list ready to build a collection of tracks then make any further decisions when I got closer to having an album’s worth.

A Late Entry

Somewhere around mid-August I came across a listing that was looking for a modern ballad for a cable TV show. It had been about three months since I’d written anything new with a specific opportunity in mind. The reference songs used in the listing struck me as being about complex relationships. I hadn’t planned to write any new songs for my album-in-progress, but I did want to try to come up with something for this opportunity.

I started writing with the opportunity in mind on August 18th, working against a deadline of August 30th. I hit on the idea of writing a song about love/hate relationships, which ended up resulting in “This Circle”. While I wrote the song quickly enough — I finished a draft that only differed from the final song in a few “noise words” on August 19th — recording it took me much longer. Even my first work mix of the song came about four days past the deadline, and getting it to a final mix took a little over a month of elapsed time, landing at September 20th.

On the bright side, this gave me one more pop/adult contemporary song to make a stylistic match for the other one on my list of candidates. The love/hate theme of the song would also prove to at least serve as a catalyst for choosing the album’s title, picking a theme for the album, and rationalizing my conflicting thoughts about the mixture of genres in the list of candidates for the album’s tracks. I’ll go so far as to say that, indirectly, it became the breakthrough that allowed me to finish the album in record time — less than five months from deciding to record the album to releasing it.

Logic or Lack Thereof?

When I finished the recording of “This Circle” I had twelve tracks ready to go, but they crossed a number of genres, and I had no concept of theme. In short, I was not feeling like I had a collection that could hold together as an album. While I enjoyed listening to various sequences of the completed tracks alongside tracks that still needed work, I really wanted to have some sort of logic for how the album could fit together. It’s not like I could simply claim it was a greatest hits collection or anything.

I decided to take a short break to review my brainstormed list of potential title phrases taken from the lyrics of songs I was considering for inclusion on the album. That list is one I’d put together quite a bit earlier. It contained upwards of seventy entries, including some from songs I had not even recorded yet but had been considering as possibilities. Going through the list, there was one phrase that stood out: “Moments of Insanity”. The phrase came from the chorus of “Stubborn Heart”:

My mind knows just how this will end one day
No faulty logic’s leading me astray
It’s just this stubborn heart that leads me wrong
And starts me heading toward some sad song
It gives me moments of insanity
Though my mind knows you’re not the one for me
Each time I fall in love I miss the mark
Thanks to my stubborn heart

A song about love/hate relationships, where the individuals gyrate back and forth between loving and hating one another, or maybe experience both feelings for each other at the same time, certainly felt like it fit this potential title. Of course, the phrase came from “Stubborn Heart”, which is about the battle between the head and the heart. It also felt extremely fitting for this crazy year, though perhaps “moments” would be a gross understatement in that context. Perhaps it could also provide the logic for the hodgepodge of musical styles, and it immediately gave me an idea for cover art:

An early mockup of my cover art idea that I ended up using as a profile picture on Facebook.

What about a lyrical theme? Was there any chance the notion of “moments of insanity”, or craziness, could fit the other ten songs that were ready to go, even with a fair bit of rationalization? Also, could the unusual mix of styles be made into some sort of track order that flowed well as a listening experience?

These were both areas that needed some consideration. The former was simply a matter of reading through the lyrics of each song to see if I could find some sort of rationalization to make it fit the theme, however tenuously. (More on that below.)

My first attempts at trying to find a solution for the latter were not very satisfying. However, I ultimately found that breaking the album’s list of tracks into three-song mini-sets helped immensely, as long as I also tweaked my early thoughts on mini-set order, as well as the song order inside each mini-set, for a more satisfying album flow. As best I can describe the mini-sets, in order, they are:

  • The modern pop/adult contemporary set. (Two of the songs are firmly in that category, while the peppy ukulele song fits well between them.)
  • The country/pop set.
  • The “60s” set. (While the individual songs in this set are fairly different from one another, they do have that sort of vintage feel.)
  • The country/Americana/folk-AC ballad set. (Okay, this one is really a stretch in terms of trying to suggest a single genre. However, it seems to flow reasonably well, and at least doesn’t feel like a major mismatch on the musical styles front.)

The Track List and Rationalizations

As I mentioned above, some rationalization was needed to tie the songs that ultimately made the album to a theme of moments of insanity or general craziness. Sometimes the rationalization came down to a single line in the song. Other times the rationalization was, at best, indirect. Here is the list of tracks in order, along with songwriter information and my quick thoughts on fit for the theme:

  1. Stubborn Heart (Rick Paul): As mentioned above, this is about the battle between the head and the heart. The heart gets its way, and the head can only say, “I told you so,” later when the heart gets broken. Again.
  2. Dream a Mighty Dream (Rick Paul): This is an inspirational song about dreaming and dreaming big. Some “rational” people look at dreamers as if they’re crazy.
  3. This Circle (Rick Paul): The song about love/hate relationships, including making the same mistakes over and over.
  4. After Us (Country Mix) (Michael J. Parker, Rick Paul): I’ve described this song as being somewhere on the border between trying to hold onto love and stalking.
  5. One Good Reason (Country Mix) (Rick Paul): This song is about leaving someone you’re still in love with because there are no visible signs of interest from the other person. There’s a line in the second verse that starts, “perhaps I’m foolish, leaving when I want to hold you every day and night.”
  6. Happy Birthday to Me (Kathy Schaeffer, Rick Paul): This one’s about spending your birthday alone, ruminating on broken promises instead of getting out and celebrating.
  7. Bubble Gum (2020 Remix) (Rick Paul): This is such a sticky sweet song (pun intended), perhaps about that stage of being crazy in love where objective reality has yet to set in?
  8. Once Through the Sixties (2020 Remix) (Ray Ducharme, Rick Paul): While the 1960s may not have had a pandemic, the drugs, protests, “free love” culture, assassinations, and various other aspects of the times set a pretty high benchmark for craziness.
  9. Come On Home (2020 Remix) (Rick Paul): The opening of the second verse, with, “I can’t believe I let you go, even pushed you away,” when this song is imploring that person to come back, suggests a past decision that wasn’t well thought out.
  10. Love is Enough (Ray Ducharme, Rick Paul): Despite its happy ending this one starts out with an extra-marital affair where a woman in a bad relationship is looking to hear the words, “I love you,” but only getting, “I need you,” or, “I want you,” and being satisfied with that, at least for the time being.
  11. Steel (Rick Paul): This is a suicide prevention song, aimed specifically at those who may be going through struggles on multiple fronts, including mental and emotional.
  12. Love Holds On (A.C. Remix) (Rebecca Hanneman, Rick Paul): This one’s a stretch that comes down to one line: “We start to lose our grasp on what’s important.”

Finishing Up

As I mentioned above, having the “Moments of Insanity” title click was a big breakthrough in getting this album out quickly.

I immediately got the idea of trying to do something based on Edvard Munch’s painting, Der Schrei der Natur (which translates as “Nature’s Scream” in English, though we popularly know the painting as “The Scream”), for cover art. My initial thought was to use a photo of myself (selfie time!) in a pose similar to that of the main figure in the painting, but set against a photograph of an empty supermarket paper products aisle to give it an explicit 2020 tie-in. I had a few photos I’d taken in my supermarket that I thought might work, and I even looked for licensable stock photos. However, when I actually tried making that concept work, I just couldn’t get it to both make an obvious enough allusion to the Munch painting and work as cover art.

Since the Munch painting is in the public domain, I could use it directly, but I also wanted to use my photo in that pose to replace the main character and get some modern timeliness. The challenge there was making my photograph feel like it fit into the painting. That took some doing, but I got the cover art done within a couple of days of having made the title decision.

I submitted the album into the distribution cycle in late September, less than four months after deciding to make the album. I scheduled the release date for October 30th to ensure there was plenty of time to resolve any distribution cycle delays, take care of various administrative needs, and come up with ideas for getting the word out about the album.

Thus ends this story of how an impulse decision that arose from moments of insanity during an insomniac morning in this crazy year of 2020 resulted in my fastest album project to date.