By Matt Hobbs
I discovered Dad’s Garage shortly after moving to Atlanta in 2010. Prior to that, I’d written some songs, played in a few bands, and done some musical theatre. But I’d never worked as a musical improviser. True story.
Outside of the musicians on “Whose Line Is It Anyway,” I’d never even seen a musical improviser, but after attending shows at Dad’s, I was fascinated by the role. It seemed like a cool way to use music, so I inquired about the gig after a show one time. Then I did a few workshops and started sitting in on Thursday nights. The rest was history – and what followed was the craziest, most amazing 4 years of improv shows, musicals, and improv classes. And that experience has taught me a lot.
During much of that time, I was also writing and recording an album of original songs. And that album is finally done; it’s called “17th Street.” In reflecting on the experience of creating the album, I realized how my experience as a musical improviser has shaped my approach to songwriting.
Make Musical Choices that Support the Story You’re Trying to Tell
As a musical improviser scoring a show, your musical choices should enhance the narrative. When a king enters the stage, you play regal-sounding horns. When a young couple is lamenting the loss of an omelet, you play melancholy minor chords. The choices you make – what music to add and how much – needs to support the idea that you and your fellow improvisers are trying to communicate.
This same idea drove many of the decisions we made when we were recording songs in the studio. We started out with stripped-down demo versions of each song (piano and vocals or guitar and vocals), and from there we built out arrangements to enhance the songs. Each song on 17th Street captures a moment from a narrative – and the process of deciding “what music to add and when” felt similar to scoring an improv scene. For example, there’s one song on the album called “Everybody Else’s World.” It’s a darker, emotional song that definitely has some anger and bitterness to it, so we added in heavy drums and some electric guitars. Another song, “When I Was Ready to Grow Up,” is totally different. It captures a lonely moment for the main character of the album, so we didn’t add too much – leaving only guitar, vocals, and light percussion to tell the story.
Pull from Personal Experience to Build an Authentic Story
I’ve heard that when an actor uses personal experience to inform how they approach a scene, the character they’re playing will be much more authentic. That is, it’s easier for an audience to connect with a character whose reality is based on something real.
I approached writing “17th Street in a similar way” – even if it meant taking some risks to share real, personal stories about real people. In some cases, I didn’t even bother to change their names (for fear of compromising the lyrical quality of the song, like “Mary Delaney”). I’ve heard if writing isn’t scary for the writer, it probably isn’t good. So in putting these songs together, I tired to march in and tell some honest stories, including happy moments of love and optimism as well as unstable moments of insecurity, anger, and heartache.
Trust Your Scene Mates / Studio Mates
In the same way that improvisers support each other to build an improv scene, a supportive environment is equally crucial in the studio. When you’re in the 10th hour of a session and you’re stuck on how to finish out a vocal part, you need to trust your fellow musicians and engineers to look out for what the song or track needs.
You also need to trust your producer. I met Ben Holst, the producer of “17th Street,” through Dad’s Garage a few years. In recording the album, we had to support each other, say “yes and,” and build on each others’ choices as we journeyed from stripped-down down demo tracks (which I recorded in my bedroom) to a full blown album.
So There You Have It
Working as a musical improviser has definitely shaped my approach to writing and recording and album. More than that, my time at Dad’s helped connect me with the people who made the album possible. So here to many more years of musical improv and writing songs! Yee haw!
Matt Hobbs’s Album “17th Street” is available for “free or name your price” download at 17thStreetAlbum.com. It’s also available on Spotify, iTunes, and all other major online music stores. Visit Matt’s Website for more info.