How Not To Write a Song

Ages ago (ahem, last June), when a long winter that cursed the lands succumbed to summer winds without any sign of spring inbetween, I started writing a song. The only line or thoughts I had came to me while listening to David Grey’s “Babylon” on my running route on Madison Wisconsin’s west side. The line went something like “looking through the blades of grass and locks of hair, wouldn’t even know there was something to see if the veil wasn’t there”. 

The general idea of the song is pretty clear from that line – I like people who don’t flaunt their beauty, have something to discover further down the road. The initial intent of the song was to try and make myself feel better after a breakup. Most of my songs are therapeutic in that way (see Mr. Wrong (You Aren’t Me)). I thought it would become a rather tepid sort of song, like the David Grey song that had been playing when the lyrics came to me. 

I spent weeks, maybe 2 months, trying to elaborate on those lyrics, find the write chords and melodies and meter for the lyrics. Everything seemed to sound contrived to me, and this wasn’t a song that would work if I had to force it. So I kept running every day to see what other bit of inspiration would come to me.

One day in late June, I was running and trying to think of how I could sing a song to someone and propose a course of action that we both knew was stupid…but we’d do it anyway. Soon I came up with a line very much like “Everybody knows that running away is a fairy tale ending, but I’d regret asking you to run away with me tonight”.

I repeated the line to myself for the rest of my run and completely ignored my need for a shower once I got home. This song was ready to be written. I can’t attribute my next impulse to anything, except perhaps my need to write on an instrument other than piano because my fingers tend to play what they’ve already played hundreds of times before. So I picked up my out-of-tune, unamplified electric guitar and proceeded to jam away on a B chord. I liked the idea of using barre chords so that I could choke the strings easily and create a percussive sound. After I played the B chord, it seemed natural to follow it with the ii and the V chord, because I had tried singing the line to that progression. I thought of what I could say to justify my feelings, and debunk my relationship’s potential affiliation with the terms “star-crossed” or “ships in the night”. I wanted to prove everyone wrong, myself included, and just say something honest, sweet, and green. Not naive, green. 

An hour later, I had written my latest song – all of the words (except the bridge, that would come 2 weeks later), all of the chords, I even had ideas for the solo that I would play on piano.

All this is a great way to write a song. 

But I’ve had to fix a lot since last June. The song had me singing a B in my falsetto, and everything else in the song was strained head voice. I’m still not convinced this was a terrible idea, but I’ve been unable to sing this damn song for the last two months – time to change the key!

Also a bad idea – writing a song entirely with barre chords when you don’t know proper guitar technique. 

Bad idea #3: buying a brand new acoustic guitar just for one song that you can’t even play!

So for the last 10 months or so, I’ve struggled with what instrument to play this song on, which key to put it in, what other instruments to include, and mostly, how I should translate it to piano. 

You all will have the answers to these struggles very soon. My song “Fairy Tale Ending” will be performed, in its new key and solidified style this Friday at the Elbo Room, somewhere between 9 PM and 12 AM, on piano and vocals. The master recording will still have the guitar as the driving rhythmic component, and hopefully very soon I will have that recording ready for you to all hear. Stay tuned, and come see me Friday to hear the song for yourself. 

I am a Piano Barbarian

I have intentionally avoided blog entries about dueling pianos. I thought I might be doing a lot less of it, but I’m growing more and more fond of the joke I made up about it that I tell audiences of my original music:

“I used to be a dueling piano player, which is a bit like saying you’re a born-again virgin”

So I still do my share of dueling piano gigs, mostly because it takes me quite a while to gain footing in new endeavors. I’m still learning a lot about (home) recording, how to promote myself, making connections, being forthcoming, arranging my songs, getting fans, all those fun things.

And it took me a long time to feel comfortable in dueling pianos. I’m a bit of an introvert by nature, I gravitate towards more obscure songs and jokes, I’m a bit too self-aware and referential, I tend to fold under more experienced players (especially those with type-A personalities, or a general need to always be the center of attention), and I don’t have a very loud voice…oh, and I’m very self-deprecating, in case you couldn’t tell.

I also tend to get the audience to drink a lot, I have all my songs and bits completely memorized, I have a great ear, I can play all the instruments, I’m not afraid to get off the bench and do ridiculous things to get a reaction out of an audience, I very often talk to the audience on breaks instead of hiding in the player’s room, I can scream (that’s good, right?), and I’ve written a call-down that chases unwanted stage guests back into the audience every time (that song may have cost me a gig or two). I’ve also carefully crafted my persona on stage, and it works very well for me. I still have much to learn, but the faux pas are far behind me

Well now I’ve gone and done it, it seems (or at least, I would like to think  – any press is good press, no?). I have started listening to a podcast about dueling pianos called Piano Barbarians. Its run by two hacks who call themselves Steve Savage and Paul Seiz. Who are they fooling with names like that?

So these two high-and-mighty Gods of Dueling Pianos (so-called “Barbarians”) sit around a campfire and sing Kumbayah with other duelers (ahem…”wild life”, or “most exotic entertainers”) and talk about their exotic adventures in dueling piano bars which I’ve never graced with my musical  and comical prowess. They name drop, they giggle immaturely at female bodily functions, they drop some more names of young duelers who have dominated in the last decade, and every once in a while they may even drop the name of someone who did this gig in the 90s or even the 80s, without a single mention of how much they cowered in fear in the presence of these ancient founders and gurus of sing-a-long.

I had my servants send a very polite message to these clowns. I gave them highest praises for their achievements, contributed to the on-going debate about using ipads during the show (don’t do it), and gave some polite suggestions for their campfire chats (smores?).  I also extolled the virtues of being a relatable , vulnerable piano player when gracing the stage.

So I awoke many mornings later from my bed of virgins, seated myself on my ivory throne made from piano keys I’ve broken during the bit where I perform piano with my endowments, and listened to their latest podcast. They had finally gotten around to interviewing a legitimate dueling piano player, Travis VonCartier. In days of old, Travis and I roamed the desert plateaus of Phoenix Arizona, rocking the House of Shout, and I must admit I was excited by the potential to get a small shout out. I am a very humble person, after all, and would never tootest mine own horn….

but LO! What is this? Paul Seiz-Of-The-Boat cries fowl! In his latest attempt to trivialize this nation’s most patriotic, artistic and selfless profession, he jumps on his pulpit with a shout-out of his own before Travis could even speaketh his piece! (yes I know Travis wasn’t there for that part).

Paul was upset that he had ‘used valuable ink’ to print up the message I so graciously sent to him in regards to using the ipad. But being upset wasn’t enough! No, he was bored. BORED I tell you! Bored that I had continued his Savage friend’s ipad discussion in the privacy of personal email.

He was also bored by the lack of virtual fisticuffs in response to his podcast. So like any man with an overcompensating, un-cleverly misspelled euphemism for a last name, he wanted to start something out of nothing. Hidden among the treasure trove of knowledge that was laid out in my message was this gem:

“I think the audience relates to vulnerability and they respond positively to successful attempts of never-before-played songs.”

Paul’s first response went something like this:

“I generally find I get positive reactions from the audience when everything goes successfully. I think we can all agree on that”



Mr. Sighs then tried to make up for his speech impediment involving the word “vulnerability” by crudely imitating a green piano player who thinks that they can hop up on stage and always be successful with their attempts at faking a song and that the audience will always love them for doing so.

Hidden among Paul’s recitation of and reaction to this excerpt was the infamous phrase never-before-heard on Fox News: “This is completely out of context”

…..Alright, I gotta stop. Let down the facade, jokes over. In all reality, I’m not all that pissed at these guys. I’m happy for the plug of my website, I’m excited to stop writing this stupid blog and listen to their podcast while I finally get around to eating breakfast, and I truly do hope I get the chance to talk with these guys or even perform with them. They seem cool (cool enough to take a joke or five), and I’m always envious of other people’s accomplishments, gigs and notoriety. All the mean words were meant in good fun. But first, what I honestly do think about this issue:

As Paul said, faking songs is usually frowned upon by EDs (entertainment directors). Almost everything I did in my first few years of performing was frowned upon by every ED I had. And I *was* that green piano player who would get up on stage and fake a song and expect people to be impressed, or at least give pity applause. Did you notice the emphasis on *was*?

Well, I wish the “was” portion was completely true. I still take risks on stage, and I don’t always succeed. But I’ve learned when its appropriate to take these risks. As I said in the email, faking songs works much better in solo shows than dueling shows. Dueling is a game of crowd control, and when you lose that control, you can work your ass off the rest of the night and never get it back. I’m trying to keep this blog short, but the overall answer is that I only fake things when I know I can do it successfully – that usually means its a slow night, a solo show, I don’t run a risk of losing the crowd, my partners don’t know the song, and/or its a song I know people will like. …and if it doesn’t go over, I transition immediately into something that I know will. I’ve been fortunate to have the same partners for the past two years in Piano Fondue, and we know each other and our audience very well. With them I have learned a lot, but most pertinent to me was when to fake things, how to fake them, how to sell it, how to get out of it, and above all when NOT to do it (which is quite often!!!).

Like Paul, I try to avoid apologizing to an audience (I never do it for an audition committee – that’s fuckin nuts). As Paul said, it can get the audience to start listening for your mistakes and weaknesses. Some audience members think that way, while others start to root for the underdog. These are the people who respond well to vulnerability, and when they dominate the crowd (or are able to), then I might play a faked song for them. It’s another subtle game of crowd control that I’m constantly getting better at playing.

That, and sometimes I lie on stage about having never played a song before, knowing that I’m going to play it well.

I’m all together too honest (and likely to put my foot in my mouth) so I’m not sure I’m ready to come on the podcast, but I’m still happy to be listening. Paul wants to be startin something, and he’s started a great podcast with fellow dueler Steve.

Just don’t interview Mike Clement – he knows too much.

Piano Barbarians Episode 10 – Travis Von Cartier

How I Listen to Live Music (no, I’m not sleeping)

There’s no denying the power of seeing music live, as opposed to just listening to a recording. You can see the artists creating the music in real time. You’re a first-hand witness to the passion, technique, focus, talent, the blood sweat and tears that go into every great performance. That’s not even saying anything about hearing a piece for the first time and getting your mind blown when something you’ve never heard before triggers that g-spot in your brain. And when you are hearing a piece you’re familiar with, there’s a sense of excitement and suspense, wondering if it will be as good, better, or worse than the recording you’ve heard countless times before.

But sometimes that passion and suspense can trick me. I find myself enjoying something live that I would never listen to in the solitude of my home, simply because I am drawn in by someone’s performance.

This happens the other way around too. I find myself disliking a live performance because they are playing a great song, but with very little effort or passion included in their performance. Yet I know if I was listening to that song in my home or in my car, I would very likely enjoy the song.

Over the past few months I have seen very many acoustic performers at open mics and piano shows, and for the most part they have been extremely good. I’m not trying to out anyone as a joyless musician or a phony, because I haven’t met any.

What I *AM* trying to do is disprove a potential statement that someone may have for me if they happen to witness me listening to live music, and that statement would be:

“…dude, he fell asleep!”

I am easily deceived by the wonder of seeing music live, and it distorts my aural perception of the song. So sometimes I try to eliminate the judgmental sense of sight by closing my eyes and just enjoying the sound of the song. I tend to judge people and music unfairly because the I think the song they are playing is too easy to play (a common and unfortunate mistake to make when trying to assess the value of a song), or they’re the eighth guitar player I’ve seen that night. There are a myriad of visual and circumstantial reasons to unjustly dismiss a live performance.  The best way I can think of to keep myself from making these hasty and unwarranted conclusions, or falling prey to the potential juxtaposition of sight and sound,  is to close my eyes. I try to imagine myself listening to the song in my home, without the influence of the venue, the lighting, the audience, how long I’ve been there, or the performer’s presentation.

I usually find that I like the song a lot better when I close my eyes. I can focus more on the lyrics and the overall direction and style of the song. I often find a much deeper appreciation for what is being performed. Its hard to separate music from its visual representations. We hear classical music and think of people in frumpy clothes and wigs. We hear country music and see cowboy hats. We hear Lady Gaga and think of a meat dress…or a mermaid in a horse trough, or Janus giving birth to her (his?!?) own head.  My eyes really do deceive me. I see live music and hear an awesome plucking guitar performance from someone who looks to be barely moving their fingers, or dismiss a visually subdued performance of  two chords repeated over and over again when the music gives me goosebumps the second I close my eyes.

So for Big Brother out there, live music does not bore me to sleep. I free myself from making unfair judgments when I listen to music with my eyes closed.

That is, unless you’re a piano player. Then I’m watching your fingers like a hawk, even though I can rarely tell what you’re actually doing.

One Step

I have officially finished the lyrics to my newest song, One Step. It’s taken probably two months to finish this new tune – its basically about feeling like everyone has a leg up on me. I kind of feel this way professionally, financially, socially…at least enough to write a song about it.

It’ll be a little while before I record it, though. I have very high aspirations for the piano part of this song. It has three distinct styles (and a key change for each one), but they don’t feel forced. The hard part will be writing each of these parts out. I have a tendency to do the same comping patterns over and over, and this is my best chance to create my own comping patterns, learn others that already exist, and expand my vocabulary. The slow process of musical evolution..

I’ll be playing this song at the Elbo Room this Sunday night, 8 PM. Come hear it and let me know what you think it sounds like. Hopefully I’ll have a video or audio of it soon, but not before next week. I have three performances coming up this week (corporate tonight, all-request on Friday at Grace Street Tap *come out and see it!!!!*, and the big show at the Elbo Room Sunday). They’re all different types of shows, and prepping for them will take up most of my time this week.

I hope to see you Friday at Grace Street Tap or, even better, the Elbo Room on Sunday. Tell your kids, tell your wife, they’s coming to get you and take you to the Elbo Room.

In the meantime, enjoy the lyrics to my newest song

Verse 1
Lean on me, but not too hard
do I really look like a rock to you?
paralyzed by wide eyes, yeah I’m not likely to move
but I swear everyone I meet has walls that stand on their own

Climb the flight in steps of two
you never have to meet me halfway there
I’ve got nothing in my calendar but flexibility
I’ll still ask far too politely for what I should demand

Why can’t the world stop to catch its own breath?
is there a color of the rainbow that I can’t see?
you think I’d be done playing catch up by now
but everyone else can’t help but stay one step ahead of me

Verse 2
know your place and wait your turn
that’s easy to say when you take all my moves
making amends instead of friends, they’ve all got deadlines to keep
they’re blowing autumn leaves all over my hand-me-down ride

you’d probably say cool passed me by years ago
you’re wrong – I am your retro trendsetter
But I’m just not big enough to be myself
why must I walk another man’s road just to find my own?

Chorus 2
Can’t wear you heart on Armani sleeves
you won’t get anywhere with virtue or tasteful subtlety
you think I’d be done playing catch up by now
but everybody else can’t help but stay one step ahead of me

if I could read your mind I wouldn’t waste our time
stepping on toes as a kid in his father’s shoes
Why don’t you just give up and call yourself grown up
well let’s not fool ourselves that’s what its all about
accept reality, admit to yourself I Can’t

© 2011 Adam A Nelson

Denks du vielleicht…

And many weeks later, I emerge from the depths of the thanksgiving gravy and stuffing to once again wave my arms, jump up and down and scream for your attention.


Anyhow, many things have happened lately. Thanks to the wonderful citizens of my hometown Vermillion, South Dakota. I went home for a week for thanksgiving and gave two exciting performances downtown, one at the Eagles Club and another at Maya Jane’s. Things went so well that I was asked to perform again at the Eagles Club when I return for the Christmas break. So if you missed me Vermtown, come see me at the Eagles on December 28th! Tell your friends, come on back to Vermillion for a few days before the new year and party it up while the town can be your’s!

I also did a great show at the Metropolis Coffee Company. I had two new songs that are now going through re-writes. A few offbeat poets I heard recently reminded me of the importance of re-writes, and I found that my song One Step Ahead was taking way too serious of a tone. I wanted it to be more “everything was cooler before I got her” rather than “you assholes follow the money and get where you need to go and I’m not rewarded for my self-proclaimed virtuous means to an end”.

That belongs in another song all together. So, back to the drawing board!

I might focus too much  on the tone of a song. My biggest problem is coming up with too much material and not being able to include it all, so I scrunch it all in, and before I know it, my song has too wide of a scope and no listener can tell what I’m really trying to say.

But the new songs will be rewritten very soon, just in time for my solo performance in the lounge of the Elbo Room, here in Chicago.


Here is my soon-to-be-imfamous poster for said show at Elbo Room:

Adam A Nelson, Elbo Room Lounge, December 18th 2011 8 PM $5


And lastly, I was summoned at the zero hour to play TONIGHT at the Red Head Piano Bar. You just can’t escape all-request piano shows, can you? I’m playing from 7:30 to 11:30 tonight, and all of you Chicagoans should bring all of your friends and thank your lucky stars that you can come see me here in the big city and don’t have to wait until December 28th like my hometown buds.


Thanks for the continued support! Hope to see you at a show very soon!

Just-in-time songwriting

I’m pretty happy with the new song, One Step. Its a song about knowing that you should be grown up, but still finding it weird to look in the mirror and admit that you’re grown up….or maybe its just hard to look at my paycheck and admit that I’m grown up. Yeah, that’s probably the real issue, but I don’t really touch on that subject much in the song. It will take a lot of practice and polishing up to get it where I want it, but its ready for its premiere tonight at Metropolis.

Then there is a former song of mine, which used to be called Hate. I wanted it to be about the motivational power of this often-dubbed negative emotion. The old version had lost its way and it was unclear what the point of the song was. So I deleted the chorus entirely (yes, my new version HAS NO CHORUS!), rewrote the pre-chorus melody (and words!), and changed the key. Its not in C#, and not E (YIKES).

Firstly, it actually does alright without a chorus – the only thing I’m really missing, form-wise, is a strong ending.

The pre-chorus (ahem…pre-non-chorus) now sounds a lot more rockin and has more honest lyrics that convey the message much better.

And C# makes the song much easier to sing. It’s not harder to play, but I am unfamiliar with it, obviously. Once you’re used to playing a song in a certain key, and you’re not just mashing chords like I might do with a cover song I couldn’t care less about, it just becomes very comfortable. The new key isn’t difficult, but I will need to practice it a bit to get it to the level of performance I had when it was in E…one section of the song is actually easier in C# because I often cross my thumbs when I play – my right thumb might play the 7th of the chord while my left thumb goes under it to play the 8th or 9th. It makes for easier performance of melodic passages in the middle voices of my arrangements.

The only thing that’s missing….the ending. 5.5 hours until I take the stage and play the updated version for the first time infront of an audience. Will you be there to see me sink or swim?

The Latest Gigs

As everyone knows, tomorrow night I am making my Edgewater premiere at Metropolis Coffee Company at 6 PM. I’m playing a full hour of original music, some songs I have never performed before!

And upgraded versions of older songs! *

Different lyrics, some completely new parts to old songs, and filled out solo sections.

I think its true when people in Hollywood say “Movies aren’t finished, they are released”. If left to my own devices (and let’s face it, I am), I could spend my whole life making my songs better. Changing lyrics, expanding piano parts, tuning harmonies, adding effects, getting yet another vocal take and probably changing the lyrics again.

I’m happy with what I’ve got so far, and tomorrow night you’ll hear all of it. The emo songs, the post-break up songs, the finding-the-girl songs, the therapeutic songs, and a few meaningless ditties just for good measure.


Come see me November 17th!

1039 West Granville, Chicago IL 60660

*Note – upgraded always means better – just ask Netflix and Greedo

You’ll Never Know

Tonight I am playing at my first sweet shop – Lickity Split on N Broadway in Chicago. I can (but won’t) walk there for the gig – my digital piano and other equipment can’t, but I like to fantasize about having a gig for which I don’t have to tear down or set up (If there was a way to write that sentence without ending on a preposition, please let me know).

I’m working on a few new songs, and I’m suffering from the same critiues I always give myself during the writing process:

1. I have a few little parts of songs, and I can’t figure out which ones go together – they all sound interchangeable to me

2. The melody sounds forced, but I’m tired of all of my melodies falling into that pentatonic pit (hee hee hee alliteration).

3. I spend so much time writing down what I want to say and trying to mold it into lyrics that I end up with things sounding more trite than just writing what I feel – but that’s always far too many syllables to express lyrically.

4. I write too damn high for my voice, but when I transpose it, it becomes too low for the piano (there’s a term for why you can play a fifth in the middle of the keyboard and hear the interval, but your ear can’t recognize that same fifth when played three octaves lower – it just sounds like noise. Wish I could remember that term).

And I wish I had an answer for these problems, mainly the first one. I can deal with the others, but I feel weird when I have four small pieces of song and they don’t fit together as one, but they work well together in many combinations of pairs. So how do I decide which one makes the best song? Its something you can’t recognize until you’re too deep into the writing process, once you’ve really fleshed out what the song is going to be about.

That brings up another problem I face a lot.

5. The song ends up being about something completely different from what I originally set out to write.

Through the means, I lose the ends…if that makes any sense. I set out to achieve a goal, and I lose that goal completely when I enact my means of achieving that goal.

Sometimes I do wish I had a McJob. Would save me the mental strain of trying to create something perfect.

A song 6 years in the making, Part 4/4

I had lyrics, a form, an opening lick (though I almost changed that a few times), a concise ending, a solid groove and a sloppy solo.

Time to fix the solo.

The previous recording of Mr. Wrong had a rather lazy (and often tacet) left hand, and that’s all thanks to one sad fact: I’m not very good at improvising. I knew I had to write out what I was going to do and actually practice it. This applied to everything I was playing once I started recording back in June of 2011. I had to write down virtually every note I was playing so that I could edit takes (What?…). Thankfully, writing a solo was significantly easier than writing lyrics. I had already written the solo for Picture Yourself, and I had transcribed a good deal of songs and solos by Elton, Billy and Ben. I also knew I was going to be recording this very soon with drums and a bass so I wasn’t afraid to write a solo as if I was a jazz player – let the bass player play the bass notes, I’ll play a little “rhythm piano” (a little joke for your rhythm guitarists out there) with my left hand and play the actual solo with my right hand.

Here are the licks I came up with:

I ended up using almost everything on this page for my solo. You can listen and follow along – the solo begins in the very bottom left with an implied walking bassline under it. The lick towards the end of the line (just before the left hand stops walking) that you can’t read is a variation of a lick from the lead guitar in Elton’s Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting. From there the solo jumps up two lines, where you can see left hand and right hand written together. I liked the idea of taking the upper spelling of the D chord (playing A minor in my left hand) and letting the chord descend, and idea I got from the solo at the end of Ben Folds Five’s solo at the end of Underground. After four measures you can see the left hand continue while an arrow points to a lick written another line higher for the corresponding right hand lick, a simple mordent (?) with more upper spelling of each chord (G minor while playing over the C chord, and F Maj. 7 while playing over G7).

I love music theory. tee hee!

The solo was finished probably 2 days before I was to fly to Portland, OR. I went there to get a grip on myself, my music career, my goals, and to see my long-lost High School best friend, Steve Giedosh, who was getting me a great deal on musicians and recording producers so that I could make quick demos of three songs. In 9 hours, we rehearsed and recorded Mr. Wrong (You Aren’t Me), Another Day (also available on reverbnation), and another song that no one has yet to hear (because it’s freakin hard to sing and I need to get another take). That song is called Tomorrow Never Knows, a Stevie Wonder-inspired contemplation about whether life should continue as is or take a sharp turn.

Would you like to hear Tomorrow Never Knows? It’s not ready for release just yet, but you can hear it live at any of my performances:

NOVEMBER 11, 8 pm at Lickity Split
6056 N Broadway in Chicago


NOVEMBER 17TH, 6 pm AT Metropolis Coffee Company
1039 W Granville in Chicago

or my latest addition to the schedule, the one you should go to if you can’t go to any other shows:

DECEMBER 18TH, 8 pm at the Elbo Room Cocktail Lounge
2871 N Lincoln in Chicago
I MUST BRING AT LEAST 20 PEOPLE TO THIS PERFORMANCE! If you’d like to show your support, the best way to do it would be to attend this show, say hi to me, grab some drinks and tell all your friends about it.

Thanks again for reading. New songs are on the way – hear them first this Friday at Lickity Split.