This week sees the release of a new album by a remarkably innovative song writer, Marc with a C. The album is called Unicorns Get More Bacon—and if you think the title is strange and intriguing, that’s just the beginning. We couldn’t pass up the chance to get Marc’s insights as part of our Songwriter’s Secrets series and see what we could find out about the creation of this new album.
We’ve spoken with Marc before, about his own musical development, recording and mixing an album, writing songs and playing in a band. Today we’re focusing on his song-writing process and the new album, Unicorns Get More Bacon.
Heads up: some of the tracks on this album, including those embedded here, contain strong language.
Let’s start at the beginning. How did you get started writing songs, has it always been a part of your musical life?
I’d always written poems to pass the time in elementary school. I looked at them as lyrics, and while I was hung up on trying to rhyme and throw in “rock cliché’s”, I never wrote melodies to go with them, so it was just poetry. Bad poetry, at that.
I made up my first complete song—including melodies, music, etc.—when I was about thirteen, and it was predictably awful. It was called “New Age”, and it was mostly about being mad at the teachers at my school. I could probably remember the recurring riff that ran through it if pushed, but there certainly aren’t any tapes of it laying around.
I might do something with it at some point, as I rarely throw any song components away. For example, bits of a song that I wrote around the age of fourteen called “BT” showed up in 2010’s “Winter Colors”, and I began work on “Falling Sometimes Down” from my newest album when I was around fifteen, only completing it last year. It’s always been there, and I just kept plugging away at it because it was fun.
I believe that anyone can write a song, honestly.
There’s not a typical process, no. Sometimes I have an idea while I’m in the shower, and when I get out, I’ll try to scrape together what I can remember and jot it down, but it rarely sounds anything like what the original idea might have been. Or maybe it does. Inspiration is fickle, and memory is a myth at best.
The way that my brain tends to process things is twofold: there’s the moment that something occurs, and the decay of the moment, which some might call “memory”, but when feelings and sociopolitical beliefs come into play, I don’t believe that memory is terribly pure most of the time for that reason.
But to be a little more direct, some of my best work comes when I just sit down with a guitar, a pen, a notebook and a glass of water and just play and sing improvised lines for a while to see what comes out.
You can usually find at least the zygote of an idea in even the worst session. You just have to be willing to expound on minutia.
Sure! Around the time of the initial writing sessions for Popular Music, crowdsourcing was all the rage: asking fans for money to complete your projects.
I did one such campaign to raise the needed money to put my album Normal Bias on vinyl for the first time. I found it to be an inspiring experience, because you were putting your fate into the hands of your listeners. I wanted to take it one step further by crowdsourcing actual ideas about the next album from my listeners. If I can trust them with my finances, why not trust their ideas as well?
I’d ask leading questions on the Marc With a C Facebook page, things like “What’s a song title that would ensure that you’d buy a record, sight unseen?”, “What is the biggest problem facing America today?”, and others in the same vein. I’d use these answers as writing prompts, and literally gear the record towards exactly what listeners claimed to want.
I felt that by following this pattern, one could make “the best album of all time”, at least for that community. We released a good portion of the used data in graph form on the innersleeve of the record, and the album itself was designed to look like the pie chart on the front cover. This way, you’d literally be dropping the needle on the information garnered from the focus group.
I don’t know how successful that was for the listener on the receiving end who might not have been involved with the process, but I would certainly consider it to be among the best albums that I’ve ever made.
Listening skills are everything when it comes to writing songs, for sure.
I’m willing to take influence from any source. Overheard conversations, misread sentences, anything at all. It’s hard for me to answer your question exactly as you may want, but I can say that I demo the song a few times, tinkering with different bits each time before I commit it to an album.
I only occasionally dip into completely unfamiliar material on stage, unless I’m positive it’s going to “work” in that situation. My performances aren’t the time to experiment: people paid to park and possibly took the night off of work to come and have a good time. It’s unfair if I cram a bunch of material that I’m merely “working out” into the good time I’m supposed to be hosting. This isn’t a John Cage performance. People are usually coming to see me in hopes of hearing a catchy pop song and leaving with a smile on their face.
We talked in our previous interview about choosing to include references which clearly date the songs. In that case, you said you were thinking about bringing the “Brill Building” approach into the modern day, writing songs for a modern 20-something woman to sing. With this new album were there particular song writers or artists whose commentary-through-songs you were inspired by?
Not so much this time around. I have been listening to so much music recently that it’d be impossible to name one specific artist that influenced the direction of the songs on Unicorns Get More Bacon. I was mostly thinking about what would make for the best Marc With a C album, if I was thinking about the end result during the writing process at all. I think that what had lead to the social commentary you’d mentioned from the first four tracks on the album came from an early guideline I’d given myself: try to collect the amassed knowledge of a thirty-eight year old social misfit who is trying to make sense of 2016.
Also, I don’t care if things are dated. It makes you part of something, part of an era. But the good news is that I don’t really specifically sound like anyone else, so tonally I’ve got my own thing going on while using very of-the-moment terms like “on fleek” to showcase my ideals. I think that the most dated song in my repertoire is “Life’s So Hard”, with references to MySpace and Live Journal… but it’s also the most requested song at my shows, hands down. Being dated simply doesn’t matter to anyone except critics.
Keep going. No matter what, keep going. If you’re putting something on paper, or even stringing two chords together? You’re writing. You might not like it, and it might not all be “usable”, but you’ll avoid writer’s block, and possibly discover avenues that you’d never intended to cruise.
Let the song guide you, and don’t fight where it needs to go with things like trying to fit it into a genre, a scene or a specific sound.
The main thing is that I let the writing guide me, and not the other way around. I’m the most creative when I have no limit to what I can write, but only have a few crude tools to work with. It sort of forces me to rise to the occasion and come up with something that can work without much adornment, and then I’m free to “put the eyebrows on” and take it in any direction I want to.
But the most important thing to remember is that as a writer and performer? It’s your job to serve the song. Without the song, you’ve got nothing. The song creates you and lets you do all of the other fun stuff, but first it’s imperative that you do what the song demands. Let the song guide you, and don’t fight where it needs to go with things like trying to fit it into a genre, a scene or a specific sound. The song will tell you what it needs, and it’s my job to listen and be open to it.
Most of my favorite songwriters that know music theory all suggest that you learn music theory and then completely forget it so you can be somewhat progressive. I’m inclined to agree.
I know a bit of theory, but I do better when I don’t think about it and do something that I think sounds cool—or better yet, allow for happy accidents. You usually can’t run into those while adhering to any books or rules.
Sometimes. My wife once gave me some great advice when I was concerned that a song I was working on was a little too specific, and that was something along the lines of “the more specific you make the lyrics, the more universal it will become”. She was right, as 90% of my most resonant material has been conducted in that manner.
The more specific you make the lyrics, the more universal the song will become.
I usually don’t concern myself with questions like “who is going to get this?” but rather assure myself that the right people will get it. And if that happens to be a small number of people? Fine with me. That’s the way that the art came out of me, and I’m not trying to sell out a stadium. Obscurity is just right for me, and I’ve had to make the barest minimum of compromises as a result.
For me, half of what I fell in love with about music was the delivery methods. When you’re just a kid buying a record, it’s pretty mysterious to try to figure out how the musician you’re about to listen to got the music from inside of their head into the grooves of a record.
I love and prefer vinyl records as my intended canvas, much like some visual artists prefer spray-painting a wall or just using watercolors on a big piece of posterboard. You have to find the canvas that works best for you and speaks to your own sensibilities.
CDs and downloads are just sort of a necessity because it’s not terribly fair that I’d dictate that the songs can only be experienced the way that I prefer. I have no ill will towards those things, but I don’t get giddy with joy when I’m unwrapping the first copy of my new release on compact disc the way I do when I’m holding the test pressing of a vinyl record in my hand, you know?
I recommend that all songwriters do what’s right for themselves, but don’t shove down people’s throats that your way is “the best way”. Be open to options. For example, I’m considering doing some cassette releases in the future. Not because I have any great love for that format, but because people are asking for them. I don’t like telling people with ears that I can’t give them my songs on the format that they like best.
Make yourself happy, but give your audience every chance to enjoy the music as well.
So I won’t ask for your authoritative advice to an artist, but I will ask: if you could offer a beginner songwriter one tip that might help them, what would it be?
Anything can be a song. Seriously, anyone can make these things up. Children sing to themselves all of the time. It’s literally the easiest thing in the world to do, and there’s less parameters in the process than you’d think.
If you have the drive to write? Write, and keep doing it. You are the only person that can put your own personal spin on music, which makes your idea every bit as important and valid as those of a superstar.
You are the only person that can put your own personal spin on music, which makes your idea every bit as important and valid as those of a superstar.