The Story of How “Reflections of Reality” Came To Be

As a child growing up in rural Indiana, my dad would play the guitar for us at times. He did a lot of fingerpicking and strumming folk songs from artists like Bob Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel, and Peter, Paul & Mary. Over the years I tried about once a year to pick up the guitar. My dad played the classical (which has a much bigger neck), so at the time I didn’t think it was even possible for me to do it.I knew that there were little kids that could play so I should be able to, but for whatever reason my fingers wouldn’t do it. I also had the worst time finding the rhythm of a guitar strum. I just couldn’t get it. I took piano lessons for five years but all they would ever let me play was classical and I just couldn’t get into it. I also hadn’t really heard any good piano music I liked (it didnt help that I was only allowed to listen to Christian music at the time). So I lost interest.

The first band that I got into in High School (that wasn’t Christian) was REM and U2. There was actually a time when I offered my parents to let me just listen to those two bands and I wouldn’t listen to any other non-Christian music, but they wouldn’t take it. Around this time is when Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” came out and moved popular music into a new paradigm. I remember the first time I heard it on the radio I thought it was so hard and couldn’t believe what I was hearing, on pop radio. Needless to say, I started listening to all the grunge bands and let me tell you, it was mind blowing rock. The gravely vocals and dark driving rhythms took over popular music and I was loving it. I still think my favorite voice of all time could be Eddie Vedder.

During this time I also heard Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” and have never been the same since. This song is a masterpiece. Everything from the tempo increase, to the searing vocals, to the shredding guitar solos made this song a stunning musical trip. But it wasn’t until I saw “The Song Remains the Same” that I realized what true rock music was all about. This movie was intense. And when I thought about what it was like in the world when this performance occurred. I couldn’t even imagine what it would have been like to experience that show live.

So for a couple years I listened to a lot of Grunge and Zeppelin and didn’t think I could like anything as much as them, until I heard Phish. It wasn’t until the summer of 2006 that I heard “Hoist”. This was of a completely different style than I had ever listened to, but it was AWESOME. The grooves that these super talented musicians were creating made me imagine about the possibilities of music in general. They were experimenting with different harmonies, beats, time signatures, you name it. And in the live performances I would listen to (I did just a few of the tape trading deals : ) there were times when they were pushing the boundaries so hard that it sounded horrible and then sometimes that would all come together and they would be producing “music” like I had never experienced before. Truly groundbreaking!

So for about a year, every time I went into my sizable CD collection to get something to listen to (which was almost all day every day) I couldn’t find a single disc that I wanted to listen to more than any of the Phish albums. It was crazy and I remember recognizing how bizarre it was that I felt that way. During this time I was hanging out with a couple guitar players and other musicians, so I started messing around with just playing chords on the keyboard to jam with others for fun. I realized that I had retained some of my piano training and that it was a blast to have any part of cool music being created.

So in the winter of ’97 I decided that “no matter what” I was going to learn guitar. I had seen over the past year or so that the guitar books had little pictures of where to put your fingers to create guitar chords that were displayed right above the lyrics. So if you knew the song you could strum just the chord as you listened to the song and that would even sound cool. My friends had done a lot of blues jams at the local bars and I had jammed with them on the keyboard a few times at home, so I knew a little about the blues chord progressions.  There are so many songs that follow a specific chord pattern, but are played with different strumming patterns, rhythms, etc… So I decided I was going to just learn 3 chords and strum a blues progression in the key of G. This would then give me G, C, and D to build on. And I had just learned that there was a way to play G where I wrap my hand around the neck and just hold down the top and bottom string on the 3rd fret and it works. G is a somewhat difficult configuration as a beginner and I wasn’t sure if my fingers would even do it so this gave me a shortcut.

The most important thing I knew I needed was to find the strumming rhythm to keep the song going. In my mind, this was the foundation of finally being able to play guitar. So I just listened to a song I knew to be in the standard G blues progression and put my fingers in the appropriate positions and would just strum the chord one time whenever the chord changed in the blues progression. So I had the whole measure for that chord to get everything in position for the next strum. I did this until I was comfortable, then I started trying to keep a strum that was comfortable for me that fit the timing (whether it matched perfect or not). It usually took me almost the whole measure to get the chord configuration right so that it wasn’t buzzing, but I just kept the strum going no matter what. I knew I could always get back into the G shortcut chord at some point to keep the song going.

Sometimes I would play to a song, but I also started using the one strum pattern I had found to work for me and would play the blues progression by myself. I was focusing on getting comfortable changing the chords cleanly while keeping the strum going. This stage took a while, but it was what had kept me from being able to play the whole time and I had found a way to break through. I had to let go of trying to do something specific (the exact rhythm or pattern of a certain song). I had to just let whatever came out, come out, and it did.

It’s funny, one of the first things I did once I had those 3 chords and a strum was I recorded just the guitar to a tape. Then I played the tape and recorded piano to it. After that I played bongos to that combination, and then finished up with a track of harmonica to that. So I made a multi track recording of the first chord progression I could ever do. It was exhilarating! So now I needed to learn more chords if I wanted to play songs. So the first thing I did was take the same song I had just learned in G and just changed up the keys, using the same rhythm and strumming pattern. This was key, to add chords and the order of the changes. As a beginner, it’s one thing to go from a G to a D, but another thing entirely to go from D to G. I did this for a while until I started getting comfortable with more chords and the changes, then I was ready to start trying to play some songs.

I don’t remember for sure which was the very first song I actually played, but there were a few that I messed around with all at the beginning. I remember “Leaves That Are Green” Simon & Garfunkel, “Sample in a Jar” Phish, and “House of the Rising Sun”. I remember specifically finding a strum for Sample in a Jar and that being something that I used for a long time for almost every song I learned for a while. It started to evolve over time, but that first strum gave me something to build the chord changes and rhythms on so I could play “my” version of a song.

During this same time period, my dad taught me a standard fingerpicking pattern that could be applied to just about any song and makes it sound pretty cool. I also learned that by using the capo, I can play in any key I want using only the 10-15 finger configurations I had just learned. After that my progress moved quickly for while. I played hard for about 6 months and got fluid with all the chords I needed and could play a good chunk of covers in a way that was fun for me. So for years I would play whatever songs I liked and could figure out a way to play and sing them, at home by myself. It was just something I really enjoyed doing during breaks from working on the computer. My voice was horrible and could only hit the notes in a certain pocket, but I found songs that worked the best for my voice and style and would play those for hours. Something that really helped me improve was that I many times would just turn on the video camera while I played and then would watch or listen back. So I could tell that just by hearing what I actually sounded like helped me to tighten it up the next time until after years of doing that, it turns out my voice is something people like. It’s apparently a muscle that can be exercised.

During those years when I was going to blues jams, I would have conversations with musicians about how they all just get up and play together so easily without ever playing before and so that’s where I learned about the blues progressions and the minor pentatonic scale and how it was the framework for most rock solos. So all you really have to do is learn one pattern. Then you just move it around on the fretboard depending on the key the song is in. There’s a lot more to it, but thats the basic structure of the patterns. So after about a year of playing acoustic strumming and fingerpicking only, I decided I wanted to solo out on the electric guitar and see what it was like.

So I took electrical tape and put little pieces of it all over my fretboard for the pattern of the key of A and burned a CD of only songs in the key of A. Then I could jam out, and as long as I put my finger on one of the marked spots it would be in key. I had a blast just wailing out with my wah-wah peddle and ended up learning just that pattern. So I can usually find at least a few notes if I need to do a short solo when I’m jamming for fun : ) I have no idea when to bend, or any lick structures. I was just free playing and it didn’t sound awesome I’m sure, but it was incredible for me.

Then in November of 2001, I decided to try to write a song. I had a keyboard with beats on it, so I found one I liked and got it on a nice tempo and gave it a shot. I turned on my video camera and just started strumming chords to the beat. They were Em C D Em. Pretty basic. Then as I was strumming, some words appeared in my head from the rhythm and it was the chorus to “Ride with Me” by Nelly. As this was bouncing around in my head I just started singing the words that came to mind as I strummed.

Pretty much right off the bat out of nowhere came,
“Now won’t you come and listen to me, I’ll show you things that you never have seen. I talk of ignorance, I talk of greed. This is the only way that you will be free”

Then lines and lines came out that all seemed to be about something interesting. I was blown away at what was popping into my head. After doing this for a while, I went to check the tape and found that it had turned off while recording. Ugh. I couldn’t believe the nuggets I had just lost : ) So I sat down and tried to write out the ones that I did remember and structure them into something to start another round of ideas from. This went on for a few rounds. At some point I stopped using the beat and then the strum changed and eventually it formed into a song with 3 verses and 3 choruses. I had my first song!

I didn’t try to control what came out, but when it was done it ended up being what I considered to be a fairly profound Christian song about getting right with Jesus before judgment day. Then for 10 years I never tried to write another song. Not for any other reason than I didn’t really care to. I liked the songs I played (and would learn) so much and I didn’t think I could make something that amazing anyway, so why bother. I just loved making music.

Then sometime in 2008 I decided I wanted to play an open mic sometime, so I started looking into it around where I lived. I went and watched a couple and every time I felt like I just wasn’t quite good enough yet, or the place was too intimidating. Now looking back, I know that those fears were somewhat justified as there are certain environments that help you get through a situation gradually. I know that I could have just played at any one of them, but I could have totally f’d up there and my first experience would have been forever associated with that failure. You can never reset an experience, you can simply re-connect it more strongly with something positive. So it took me a while to find a place and then get up the courage to actually do it. This place allowed 3 songs (which was perfect to try to get through for the first time). So I practiced 3 songs for a while to get totally confident with them and made my live debut : )

I arrived at Spill the Beans in Clemson, SC in March of 2011 well before the open mic started to make sure I could get comfortable with the environment and get on the list. I really didn’t want to have to wait around too long all nervous to go. Long story short, when my name was called and I went up to play I was nervous but I was alright. The song I was starting with was something that I felt pretty good about. I had posted a version on YouTube and had a few positive comments and when I played it a couple times for different friends, they all seemed to like it a lot. So I did “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” by Johnny Cash and I could feel the room’s attention move to me as I played. It was a new, strange, but cool feeling. After that song was the finished, there were applause and the host came up on the side and was like “That was awesome?” Is that one of yours? And stuff like that. It was crazy for me!

Then I went into John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero”, which is the song I have probably been playing and singing the longest. It is two chords and fits right in my vocal pocket. During this performance was probably one of the craziest experiences I’d ever had. Even up until the end of the first song people were still chatting and walking around and some not really paying attention. But by the end of this song, it was like the room went quiet and everybody was frozen where they were, staring at me performing that song. And I could feel the tension.

As I finished the song I said something like “Alright, I’m going to go ahead and lighten things up a little after that and the whole room erupted in laughter (remember where I am, but this is how I remember it : ) Then I broke into a fun folky version of “The Gambler”? by Kenny Rogers, which became my opening song standard for most sets until I wrote my own songs. And the crowd got really into it and it was awesome.

Then as I was going to put away my guitar, my hands started shaking so bad I could hardly get it in the case and suddenly my mouth went pasty and I got a little dizzy. I was fine through the set, but then the adrenaline was unloading on my system and I badly needed something to drink and go relax. But I had made it through my first show ever and I never looked back. Of course that night I was eyes wide open awake until 4-5 in the morning because I was so jacked up. I can honestly say it has never been like that for me again. I still always get a little jittery before I perform, but then once I’m playing I know why I’m up there. It’s just so much fun.

After that night, I played in every open mic I could find and started recording covers of every song I could play and posting them on YouTube. Over the summer I traveled to several states in the western US including Colorado, Arizona, Texas, and Lousiana playing open mics. I used a social network called Couch Surfing to find places to stay when I wasn’t visiting friends and did this for over 2 months before returning to the Clemson, SC area.

One of the biggest things I learned as I was traveling and meeting and talking with different musicians from all kinds of backgrounds was that I was going to need some original material. That basically, I was going to need to write some songs at some point. A few weeks after I got back, on a Saturday afternoon at the coffee shop where I played open mics, they had a songwriter’s weekend. Performers were playing their 60 min sets of mostly original songs. Many of them did a storytellers style show and would talk about the inspiration for their songs.

This got me inspired as well, so as I sat there listening I started a list of song ideas. Some I already had planned like “When I Was Wasted”?, and others came from specific concepts I always talk about. But essentially I sat there and brainstormed ideas for songs. I went to this list once in a while over the next few weeks to tweak the possibilities. Then in October of 2011, I sat down and started to try to write some songs. I had a few chord progressions that I had strummed over the years and had all of the strumming rhythms that I was using for covers that were my creations because I couldn’t match the originals anyway. Plus, I had the song from 10 years ago to rework. So that’s where I started. I had a decent chorus, but needed to update the lyrics in the verses.

So I set up the video camera and start playing away and saying whatever came to mind. I had the list of song ideas printed out giving me a context for phrases to appear in the melodies. It was crazy how these ideas came flowing out of me and were able to eventually fit into what seemed to be decent songs. After that process started, I pretty much wrote the whole first draft of “Reflections of Reality” within a few days. I recorded videos of the songs and posted them on YouTube (mostly for the date/stamp). I even tried to post a couple places to get some feedback. It’s funny though, on the same day someone railed the song I sent him to review and posted a link to my site with What not to do for a music website on his Twitter account, I played an open mic and had people seemingly blown away and wanting me to join their band and do gigs in town. So what I’ve found is it still comes down to a matter of taste and preference in regards to music (obviously if you have something worth hearing).

So a few weeks after I wrote my first drafts (what I thought were my finished songs), I showed a couple of them to my brother’s roommate who was a musician and songwriter to get some feedback. The bottom line was I had rhythm and meter, but I needed to find other ways of saying the same things. It was really vague, but after rewriting the songs I knew what he was talking about and why it was hard to explain. He even said that he would be willing to record a couple of them if I got them to a good point.

So over the next few weeks I gradually reworked the songs one at a time. I was using an online dictionary, thesaurus and rhyming dictionary to figure out better ways to present the ideas. It was like writing a paper for school, only this time it was going to become a song that I was going to be using for the rest of my life. So it wasn’t so bad. When I got them to a decent point, I would upload a version to YouTube for my Mom to listen to and give me feedback. This was actually a huge part of the song writing process because it helped me find places where I was not clear about what I was trying to say. Sometimes I had to rewrite whole sections to accommodate one concept that just wasn’t working. But in the end, I could not be happier with how these songs turned out. And they never would have been what they became without her help (Thanks Mom : )

As I was finishing them up, I was trying to figure out whether to try to write more songs and wait to release them until I had a full album. Or should I just go with what I had finished and release an EP. I knew my brother’s roommate (who is Jeffrey Joslin and ended up becoming my good friend and producer) had the recording equipment at their house and had offered to do a couple songs. But I felt like I needed to do all of the songs I had and release an EP if possible. Since I had messed around with recording software before, I realized that if Jeffrey could just show me the basics of his setup I could record during the day while he was at work. Then he could do the producing magic at night and I wouldn’t be wasting his time just laying down the tracks. He said that would work : )

So it just so happened that at the beginning of December 2011, my brother was going out of town for 2 weeks so I was going to be able to stay in his room and record during the day while the roommates were at work. Over the course of these 2 weeks, I experienced something thats hard to explain. Not only did I make a couple of great, lifelong friends, but I experienced the creation of what I consider to be my first “significant” original artistic expression. It was amazing to watch as I heard my recordings being transformed into professionally produced songs. He used various combinations of guitar and vocal tracks along with effects and added some piano and harmonies to a couple of tracks. When we got them all to a good point, he bounced them down and we listened to the whole EP in his truck.

During the course of recording, I had spent a significant amount of time trying to figure out a good order for the songs. I always liked albums that flowed well from song to song and created a full listening experience. I had put my fingerpicking song “What Life Is About” at the end, and had started off with “Tune Your Mind” because both Jeffrey and I agreed that everything seemed to come together with that song. As we listened to my finished songs for the first time, I just couldn’t believe how cool it sounded. The production selections were perfect creating the right sound for each track as each song flowed to the next. There were still a couple little parts that he needed to fix, but essentially it was done.

Now that the album is fully released and I have it registered with the Library of Congress and available on iTunes, Amazon, etc… It’s hard to believe that all of those songs could have just never existed, and did not exist just a few months ago. But now they are in a professionally finished format and have been added to the record of human history. It’s been an amazing series of events that has led me to this point and the creation of my first album. The exciting thing is that this is just the beginning of a whole new adventure. I’m pretty sure when I am an old man looking back at my life that the release of “Reflections of Reality” is going to be a significant fork in the road that is my life.