Friday, May 3

Deep Dive #2: Gone So Long



Time for the second installment in my “deep dives” series, 10 blog posts that will delve into each of our album tracks, one by one, in order (the track #1 review is here if you missed it: https://www.muhammadseven.com/blog)

Today's song, "Gone So Long", has enjoyed a renaissance in our live show - we revamped the intro, which is now an explosion of drums and bass and KJ vocals and distorted guitar. The video in this post is from our recent release show.



Without further ado...

Deep Dive #2: Gone So Long

I have been writing songs for about 27 years and they fall into three basic categories:

  • High school to age 30
  • Age 30 (when I toured with Chris Sand, this changed me and leveled up my writing) to age 37
  • Age 37 to present

My early work was exactly what most people’s’ early stuff is like - trying to learn the craft. There was some nice stuff in there.

My middle period was substantially better (it’s represented in my first album, “Bedouin Cowboy”, available for free on our Bandcamp page) but I did not LOVE those songs (although I honestly am currently falling in love with a few of them, which is nice. You’ll be hearing them live in the near future.)

My current period is the culmination of a life’s work - I’ve reached a place where I have real confidence in my abilities and where I feel deeply proud of the work. It’s very satisfying to have arrived at this point.

Gone So Long is the second song I wrote in this period. “Welcome Every Breath” was the first, which will come later in this list. It’s possible that “Swampers At Fame” from my first album is the real tune that kicked off my current run - but I’d rather think of it as a strong end to my middle songwriting period. “Gone So” bears some of the hallmarks of my earlier writing (I find it a little messy in terms of tone and narrative arc and the lyricism I find enjoyable but lacking in deeper poetry) but I also hear in “Gone So” some of the sophistication of my newer work.

It is, at its core, a song about homeland - which is more obvious in a song like “Sour Cherries” than it is here. On first blush this appears to be sort of an outlaw ballad, the story of a person who struck out for adventure and glory but “burned friendships” and “overturned lives” in the process and now is coming to terms with the damage that was done (you’ll find different takes on this theme in other songs on the album.) But “Gone So” came from my experience as a first generation immigrant and my relationship to a home that I have not managed to ever visit, my father’s homeland.

The line I am personally most pleased with is “If there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s that I’ll never learn.”

“Gone So” is not about my literal experience but it does weave together a tapestry of feelings and experiences that are mine; longing, loss, regret, nostalgia, re-evaluation, self-realization.

For me, the real strength of “Gone So” is in its composition. The chorus is a wail of harmonies, it’s brash and effecting and rambunctious. The verses are more restrained, then it explodes into the chorus (“I’ve been gone so long…”), which then crashes into the quieter sub-chorus (the part that comes after “I can’t remember”) in a way that is unconventional. My instincts as a songwriter are often to arrange a song in a fresh way, so that in addition to the allure of the lyrics, the song-parts hit you in a way that is new and different. Generally, if you hear my song and thing “this sounds familiar”, I consider that somewhat of a failure on my part. I think “Gone So” is a good example of this.

In deep dive #1 I talked about how Coling Fleming (producer extraordinaire) helped me re-arrange the song before rehearsing and recording it - this is another song he drastically reshaped. To oversimplify: he changed the choruses so that the catchiest part “I’ve been gone so long…” happened twice instead of once and the original end part (“I ain’t going home”) only comes at the end of the song, not after each chorus as I’d written it. Once again I didn’t like it when he proposed it and I now see that it greatly improves the song.

In the studio, this song had a more stable progression than some others, though it was not quite as straightforwardly itself from the start as, say, “Wood Stove Whine”. The guitar, bass, harmonies and drums were there from the start and they do make up the bulk of the piece (and are good by themselves.) It is mostly, once again, the lap steel work from the wunderkind Steve Saddler that gives it its major new dimension, as he shreds his way through the verses and (most importantly) through the grinding solo toward the end.

Finally Colin’s mixing work gave it the final flourishes it needed - the perfect balance and rugged tones. It was my request to add the slap reverb on the vocals (which I am very pleased with) and the odd distortion-played-in-reverse at the very beginning. My main inspiration for this was Zeppelin’s “Black Dog”, I always liked that odd bit of noise, though ours ended up sounding nothing like theirs (for the better, I think).

“Gone So” tends to be a song that appeals to rock fans. Which was more or less my intention - I’m flexing on this song. Not lyrically, but in terms of attitude. Expect more like this soon…#DylanWentElectric

Thursday, April 11

Deep Dive #1: Wood Stove Whine




It’s been a great release month, I’m so pleased with the warm reception our debut album has received. Thanks to all of you for listening and sharing your thoughts and praises. (If you haven't had a chance to catch up with it, it's here.)


For the next few weeks I’m going to go through the tracks, one by one in order, and take a deeper dive into how I wrote them and how we developed, recorded and refined them.


Without further ado…


Deep Dive #1: Wood Stove Whine


Every song starts from a unique jumping off point but the initial spark is always a bit of inspiration. It might be an idea that makes me feel a certain way; it might be a turn of phrase I have never quite thought of before; it might be a few words that make me laugh.


Where This Song Began


Honestly the initial seed of this song was my friend Kevin Shoemaker’s voice (I’ve never told him this, so hi Kevin! And...surprise! You were the spark that ignited this song.) Those of you who know him are aware of Kevin’s captivating powers as a singer and performer and I really wanted to write a song that he might sing harmonies on. In the end I would acquire Kelly Jo Reed as a bandmante, who became my permanent vocal harmonist and it is her amazing voice that you hear on this track and not Kevin’s...but it was Kevin who initially inspired me. I was trying to write a sort of Towns Van Zandt love song with “Civil Wars” style harmonies (see their debut album, Barton Hollow, if you really like beautiful things.)


What I ended up with was something quite different...but it has echos of those things. Towns was certainly prone to ballads of love, loss and desperation and “Wood Stove” has those notes. The original title of the song was “A Desperate Man.” But it took on it’s own life, as good songs always do. There are two things I’m most proud of in this song and the first has to do with melody.


Songcraft


The verses have a relatively simple melody, though the chord progression is more involved than your average 3 or 4 chord folk song. But when you get to the chorus, things get more interesting. The chorus jumps off with a lilting cadence of higher, then lower notes that somehow capture the emotion of the song sonically - one of those things that comes to you (or maybe come through you) in ways you could never recreate on purpose.


I remember where I was when I started writing the lyrics - oddly I was alone on the basketball court at my neighborhood YMCA and they just started to come. The first verse appeared in my head more or less as it stands: “Love me baby / love me soft and true / love me loud enough that I could find my way to you / I’m so lost without you, I can barely find my shoes / love me baby, I’m begging you.” At first I couldn’t tell if it was too simplistic. You know, begging the beloved for their love (something Rumi is prone to do), and the phrase about being so lost I can barely find my shoes...but I liked the twist of “love me loud enough that I can find my way to you” - the idea that love might have a volume, if it’s strong enough.


Now back to the “lilting chorus” - I also remember where I was when I wrote that and it was in my work truck, passing by the three ponds and the rose garden. The chorus melody was sort of the answer to the question “what fresh melody do I really want to hear after the first verses I’ve written.” And when it came to me, I knew immediately it was right. When Patrick (bass) first heard this song, it was this chorus melody that most captivated him - in fact his initial reaction was “how many times can we bring the chorus back in the song? Let’s add three more.” Which I didn’t do but I really appreciated his enthusiasm.


The last thing I’m especially pleased with is a lyric from the second verse: “A lid is stuck on tight that only your hand can unscrew.” Honestly this may be the lyric I’m most proud of from any song I’ve ever written and, though a few people have said they also like that one, I actually have no idea how good it is...I think I love it because it’s so uniquely mine.


Editing, Recording and Production


Colin Lester Fleming played many important roles as producer and the first was to sit with me and rearrange songs so they flowed better. In this song, he encouraged me to change the location of the bridge (“I’ll be the man you hope to find…”) so that it came just before the instrumental at the end. As was the case with all of his suggestions, I was resistant at first, then I trusted his judgement, then I realized he was absolutely right. So if you saw us Live last year, you heard a different version of Wood Stove than what we have on the record.


Then came the question “what sound should Wood Stove have on the album? It sounded great with just Pat on bass and Kelly Jo on Harmonies but for the recording we all imagined something a bit bigger. I was in the midst of a major love affair with the music of a Boston folk band called Honeysuckle (stop reading this blog post right now and get you to their streaming music!) - when I was auditioning producers, I actually reached out to them to find out who had produced their albums, and this is actually how I found Colin. So when it came time to hit the studio, Colin already had a close relationship with those folks which meant (and I still can’t really believe this) that it is the banjo and mandolin player from my favorite local band that’s playing on three of my tracks (Wood Stove, Gambler’s Crutch and Sleepin’ In A Toolshed.) Along with Theo Brierley on stand up bass, Ben and Chris’s sound is much of what defines this song.


The vocals from Kelly Jo and I (and my acoustic guitar) are at the heart of it and the banjo/mando/bass breathes live into it all. Finally we brought in Steve Saddler who is just an inspiration on the lap steel guitar and dobro, and he put down the understated dobro licks you hear (most notable on the second half of the instrumental at the end of the song) and it was, I think you will agree, the icing on the cake. It just made it lively and perfect.


I’m not sure if Colin will agree with me on this (he’s the one who put in the major hours of production work) but I think Wood Stove was one of the songs that required the least amount of fussy production - the job was just to take what we had and make it sound like itself. Which Colin did masterfully. One of my favorite little tweaks involved the chorus vocals - KJ and I came out hot singing the refrains (“Won’t you think about the winter time”) which had a sort of unpleasant yelly quality on the recording...all Colin had to do was bring the volume down, just for that part and what result was an absolutely DELIGHTFUL “yelly” quality, which is what you hear on the recording. I feel like it really makes the chorus swoon and I feel so pleased with that part.


Once Michelle Mancini (https://www.demifugue.com/) worked her mastering magic, the blend of sounds and volumes was soft and strong and lovely.


I’m curious what you have to say about “Wood Stove Whine”! Please leave your thoughts in the comments.


Special thanks to Sierra Rothberg (http://www.lusterity.com/) for the terrific “Wood Stove” cover art.

You can listen to the album on every streaming platorm or buy it on our website.


Thursday, November 30

10 tracks, 26 years





If you’ve been loosely following the exploits of our band, Muhammad Seven & the Spring, and would like a fuller picture of the album we’re making, this is for you.

I’ve been making music since 1992, when I was 14 years old and my mother bought me my first guitar. Some of you will remember me haunting the halls of the high school, picking out melodies. Songwriting was my first love.

As an Iranian-American first generation immigrant, I really struggled in the early days to find my place as an artist. It seemed like there was no room for my experience or perspective in U.S. culture - but I wouldn’t give it up, I was driven.

(You can hear me talk about this with Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires here.

I was also not a terrific songwriter (few of us are from the start). I’ve lost count of the number of times I wanted to give up on music over the last 26 years.

“My songs are bad.”

“Well maybe you’re just not cut out for this.”

“My voice sounds like shit.”

“Who wants to hear a songwriter who can’t sing?”

The inner dialogue is a trap - you’re a dog chasing your tail. Anyhow, I fought on. I kept writing, playing, singing, trying to join bands (none would have me), playing open mics, playing small shows.

In 2010 I had a chance to tour nationally with my long time friend, underground folk hero Chris Sand. I knew I wasn’t ready. But I decided I either needed to take a chance on being a songwriter for real - or stop torturing myself and give up. I went for it.

We played 30 shows from Boston to Spokane, touring had been a dream of mine and it was a thrill to realize it. I practically wet my pants on stage for the first 15 shows…and then something happened in Marfa, Texas. I had one of those shows where everything went right, I was on fire. And from then on I was a different artist. Maybe a different man.

After so many years of feeling like there was no place for an Iranian-American in the landscape of American music, I started to understand that ONLY I could change that reality. I’d spent years trying to carve that space out - and now it existed, it was a thing.

A whole new catalogue of songs sprang forth from that tour, better than my previous work. I sat on it for years (I was busy getting married and starting a family) but then managed to record them in my very first album - “Bedouin Cowboy”, which I made entirely on my cell phone (you may remember, I made this video to tell the story.)

That album was terrifically received for the little thing that it was - write ups in my local paper, an interview on NPR’s “The World”, features on the Filmspotting podcast…you can see all that here.

Somehow it was enough encouragement to light a fire under my ass. I started writing. I wrote like a crazy person, 20 new songs in 7 months. My best work but a huge margin - unrecognizably different from all my previous stuff (though Amanda encourages me not to disrespect my early work.)

I started playing them live and, instead of the uphill slog I expected for booking shows, the shows started just coming to me. As a working parent there wasn’t lots of time to play live but I was steady with it and I started getting sharper as a performer.

My close buddy of 20 years, Patrick Mussari (also a working dad now) caught wind of what I was doing and he wanted in, trading in his axe for a bass. We had always dream of starting a band together. After a few months of rehearsal, we managed to woo my new but dear friend Kelly Jo Reed - the first time I heard her sings I said to myself, THAT’S IT! THAT’S THE SOUND MY SONGS WANT!

Then, after interviewing about a dozen producers (mostly young recent college grads) I finally found Collin Lester Fleming, a seasoned and inspired producer (and incredible drummer) - who got me and my music right off the bat. Our mutual admiration and excitement for the work has us both buzzing for the task at hand: laying down 10 tracks, in 3 different studios, with M7 & the Spring along with 10 other session musicians.

This album is, for me, the ultimate labor of love, 26 years in the making. In the past I wished I could have gotten here faster. At this moment in my life, I feel like it all went exactly the way it needed to.

I can’t wait to share the record with you. It will be free.

We have currently raised $5,561.99 out of $12,700. If you’d like to help make it happen, you can find fast, simple links here.

yours in the struggle,



M7/NS

Monday, November 14

Who is Steve Bannon? Here are my crib notes.

 If you’re like me and you haven’t paid much attention to the CEO of Trump’s campaign until now, here’s some background information about Steve Bannon, the man Trump has named the chief strategist and senior counselor to his new administration.



  •       Early in his career he was a naval officer in the Pacific Fleet and stateside as a special assistant to the Chief of Naval Operations at the Pentagon.[1]
  •     After naval service he worked at Goldman Sachs as an investment banker in the Mergers & Acquisitions Department[2] and later launched his own investment bank. (Ironically, in one particular deal he acquired a stake in the show “Sienfeld”…though his ex-wife later quoted him in a sworn court declaration as saying “he doesn’t like Jews and that he doesn’t like the way they raise their kids to be ‘whiney brats,’[3]”)
  • After a stint as a Hollywood producer, he became executive chairman of Breitbart News LLC – an alt-right website that publishes articles with titles like (this is not a joke):


“Birth Control Makes Women Unattractive and Crazy”

“The Solution To Online ‘Harassment’ is simple. Women Should Log Off”

“There’s No Hiring Bias Against Women, They Just Suck At Interviews”

“Bill Kristol: Republican Spoiler, Renegade Jew”

“Big Trans Hate Machine Targets Pitching Great Kurt Schilling”

“Planned Parenthood’s Body Count Under Cecile Richards Is Up To Half A Holocaust”

“Lesbian Bridezillas Bully Bridal Shop Owner Over Religious Beliefs”

From what I can tell, women are the biggest targets of Breitbart News, though it is Breitbart’s racism and anti-Semitism that is getting the most criticism in the press (even more sexism). If you read these articles, they are (if you can believe it) more insane than the titles suggest they will be.

Breitbart is misogynist, racist, white nationalist, anti-gay and anti-Semitic and this man was their executive chairman until very recently.

The New York Times reports that Bannon was charged with misdemeanor domestic violence, battery and dissuading a witness in early January 1996, after his then-wife accused him of domestic abuse[4].

We have entered a political moment where nearly any statement or action by a political figure, no matter how hateful or violent or divisive, is being excused. Trump voters had one thing right – the mainstream media and the political establishment will not hold them accountable. Not voluntarily. Most of them are already pushing for a return to “business as usual” and “giving this a chance”.

We, the people, must find ways to make our voices as loud (louder?) as those of our new reality-TV government and our existing corporate media. And we must force them to reckon with the oppressiveness of the Trump administration without apologizing for it or smoothing it over.

This is a new phase where we need to study and develop how to do that. We can’t leave it to anyone else. History is full of good information. But I think we will also need to innovate and improvise.

-NS

#WeFightOn



[1] From his Wikipedia page
[2] ibid.
[3] The Guardian, “Trump campaign CEO Stephen Bannon denies anti-Semitic remarks”
[4] New York Times, “Donald Trump’s Campaign Chief, Stephen Bannon, Faced Domestic Violence Charges in 1996”

Thursday, November 10

An Open Letter To Donald Trump


Dear Mr. President-elect,

You seem to have missed some key lessons that even the average high school student is relatively clear on (I guess a private school education isn't what it used to be). Allow me to provide you with some information that will be useful to you as "leader of the free world".


1. You cannot make sexual contact with another person without their permission. The fact that you are famous gives you the right to be known by lots of people BUT NOT IN THE BIBLICAL WAY and not without their explicit consent. This is a crime that people not named "Trump" go to jail for.

2. You have clearly learned your history of Mexico & United States from the movie "The Three Amigos". There are several actual books on the subject (made of real paper) that I can recommend.

3. All the wealth in the world will not bring you joy. Profiting at the expense of people much less fortunate than you will kill you inside. Compassion and generosity are at the heart of happiness.

4. Manipulating our laws to generate profit for yourself, both legally and illegally, is not the same thing as being a good businessman.

5. If you hire people to do a job you need to pay them for the work that they did for you. That's the way the exchange of goods and services works in our legal system. An intro to economics course might be helpful, I suspect your future White House chief of staff would be able to arrange that.

6. Someone's ethnicity is not an indicator of whether they will be good or bad at their profession. 

7. Bullying and domination are not the same as leadership. Also, hurling insults can turn into hurling missiles all too easily.

8. Winning is not the most important thing in life. Life is not a game of Monopoly, and also monopoly is a really dumb game and I have always enjoyed playing it.

9. You are confused about the basic medical science in the abortion procedure. PLEASE take the time to understand what that actually involves.

10. But you did get one thing right! The system is rigged. And it is rigged in your favor, as a rich, gentile, straight, able bodied, white man.

These are just a few thoughts off the top of my head, I'd be happy to share a much longer list with you.

See you in the streets!


PS I love nasty women.

Sunday, April 24

Bedouin Cowboy


The album is done! I recorded 9 original songs on my iPhone.


Here's a 3 minute "making of" video.





Here's the album.




And here's my interview on KYRS!





Wednesday, January 13

I'm Recording A New Album! On My iPhone.


Hi friends, it's been a while.

Since my last post I've gotten married, and Amanda and I now have a wonderful two year old son, Rostam.



I've been busy with work, parenting and a graduate degree at night - too busy to perform or record music...

Until a few months ago.

I wrote a new song. Then on a whim, I tried recording it into "Garageband", a recording app on my iPhone. And to my surprise, I thought it sounded good. Much better than I had expected - great, even. And I've been sitting on twenty or so songs since my tour with Chris Sand 5 years ago, just waiting for an opportunity to record them.

Unlike recording on higher quality equipment, I don't need a lot of extra time to record on my phone. I can produce the track and record the vocals in the little stolen moments between appointments, on my coffee break, in my car. I've got 5 tracks down so far and I'm excited about the results. The final album should be 10-15 songs.

The sound quality is good - I mean, when Alan Lomax set out to record folk songs for the Library of Congress in 1946, his equipment certainly wasn't as good as the iPhone - but the production quality sounds a little canned, a bit cheesy.  Somehow it doesn't seem to interfere with the quality of the songs, to me there's a punk rock, DIY aesthetic to the thing, like when you used to record on an 8-track cassette station. As long as the song was good, the cheesy low-fi quality could even add to the appeal.

Well that's what I'm hoping for with this. I'm not sure if it'll be a digital download only or if I'll press CD's as well...several of you certainly have free copies coming your way, I've been getting a lot of musical love and support from so many of you for such a long time.

Oh, and I won't be releasing it under my own name...I'm putting it out under the name Chris has been calling me for years:

Muhammad Seven. 

The song you've been listening to is almost finished, titled "Working". (A little secret - if you right click on the player you can download the audio file if you'd like.)


Just to be clear - I am not actually playing any of those instruments, the vocals (lead and harmony) are the only live instruments on the track. Everything else I did on my phone, it looks like this:


That's it for now.  Stay tuned for further developments...

Tuesday, March 12

My Bargaining Unit Speaks Out

My tiny 16 person SEIU local 615 bargaining unit sent a petition to the president of Harvard and the head of labor relations on behalf of our sister union, HUCTW.  The Harvard Crimson wrote this article.


Friday, April 22

Gazette Article

I just got a write up in the Harvard Gazette, have a look.  Spring is in full flux on the grounds, the cherries and magnolias are in bloom.  Lilacs soon to come.




Tuesday, March 22

Nary A Rich Gadget, Yet A Love

Just as I was trying to decide what direction to take in the next chapter of this blog...

The trash spoke in that unmistakable voice of intrigue, mystery and stinky grit.  I seem to have stumbled upon a clue to a scavenger hunt of some kind (pictured below).  

I was picking trash around one particular wrought-iron gate when I noticed this slip of paper in a zip lock bag, rubber banded inconspicuously around a lower bar.  I assume this message was intended for a particular person so after making a digital scan I tied it back to the gate whence it came.

So dear readers - here begins the first ever Poet of the Wastes trash puzzle!  Whoever figures out the four names that lead to the next clue will receive a POTW t-shirt (also known as my tour shirt, in brown or light grey with the same logo as my blog.)  If we never actually figure out how to find the next clue (since it seems to claim to lead to a person - who's name might ring a bell with the intended recipient but not to you or me), I'll send a shirt to the first person to have responded with a 4 name guess.

Enjoy.