The Little Engine Doesn't Run Here Anymore

The Little Engine Doesn’t Run Here Anymore

For years I have thought of myself as a lyricist only.  My claim is that I can play guitar well enough to write songs, but I am not a guitar player.  My self image is that because I only play rhythm guitar, I am not really a musician.  I have learned recently just how wrong I have been all these years!

It all started with a Christmas CD I wanted to do. I had a few Christmas songs written, and I really wanted to do a CD for last Christmas, it was October and time was running out.  I wrote the needed songs to fill out the CD, and started to record.  I realized that I need more instrumentation than just a rhythm guitar and a harmonica.  I needed steel guitar, mandolin and synth sounds to fill in and complete each song and to help each song be unique.  I also realized that I had no studio musicians to hand to whom I could turn the songs over, and get the sounds I wanted.  I realized it was up to me if I was going to get anything at all.

I began learning how to play the needed instruments.  Not well, and certainly at a master-level, but good enough to fill in and make interesting the recorded songs.

I began recording my practice sessions track by track.  I would work on a line here and a line there.  Just hoping that I would eventually have enough good sections to piece together and get something interesting enough out of to use in the overall recording.

It came together.  It was hard, but I got it done.  At first I was skeptical of the finished product, but then again I have several friends who are accomplished producers, tell me they liked the album.  It’s titled, “Cactus Christmas Tree,” and you can find it at, if you want to check it out.  It could be better, but by doing it I got the courage to do another one, which will be a whole lot better.

CK Chesterton once wrote something to the effect, “If something is worth doing at all, it is worth doing poorly.”  I take this to mean that if we just put off doing something until we can do it with perfection, it may never get done.  But that we should start and just get it done.

I remember a little book my mother used to read to my sister and me titled, “The Little Engine that Could.”  The story has a very small engine with a very big load, on a very steep grade.  All the way up the grade the little engine says, “I think I can!  I think I can!  I think I can!”  Then after it finally makes the summit it says, “I knew I could!  I knew I could!  I knew I could.”  But sometimes you don’t know you can until after the fact.  Now I know.

Success is a product of dreams come true.  You start with the dream.  You work/struggle/fight/create through the process, and then, sometimes surprisingly, you succeed.  Then, success breeds more success.

I am now in the final stages of a new project.  It is for a Broadway Musical, and as usual, it is a hell of a lot bigger than I am.  I have just completed several of the close-to-final mixes and I am getting excited.  Much if it is way out of my genre and much more complex than I have ever attempted.

Out where I live the trains have ceased to run.  The long, lonely, whistles have ceased their calls.  The clack-clacks of steel wheels on steel rails have been silenced.  But in my mind there is a small child who still remembers the steam and call of a whistle in the night.  And a too small engine that challenges me to attempt the impossible.

More to come on this.


Hilary Writes a Soundtrack for a Musical — Part 1

A Musical About Medical Marijuana.

A Musical About Medical Marijuana.

I have sure had a number of things on my mind.  I am figuring out how to perform without a band, and still keep it interesting.  More on that later.  Also, I have been working on a musical.  I am trying to produce my songs so a playwright can write a script for a Broadway Musical.  I am just so far out of my league that I am running in circles and snapping at my tail.

I am working with Coni Congoli Koepfinger who is Associate Director, and Playwright-In-Residence at the Spiral Theatre Studio, New York, who has written over forty plays of which over fourteen have been published.  She holds an MA in Literary and Cultural Theory from Carnegie Mellon University.  She is very prolific and talented, and a little scary when I realize that it is my work she is scrutinizing.  So far it is going very well.  To find out more about her check out

She is an amazing writer, and she has a team working with her with a vast array of experience.  The Spiral Theatre Studio is the brainchild of Paula J. Riley who is rebirthing the Legacey of her mentor, Iza Itkin, and it is a phenomenal concept in and of itself, and if you are interested in more information about it, I suggest you check out or to find out more.

The play, Livin’ the Green Life,” is based on a collection of songs I wrote about four years ago depicting the development of the Medical Marijuana Movement.  The songs begin with the bad old days and dark beginnings, and proceed to the Movement it has now become.  My lyrics tell stories about fear, death, paranoia, hope, family systems, and the everyday people caught up in the overarching story that is Marijuana.

My idea, originally, was to write my songs and give them to a producer who would then, using studio musicians, develop them into finished, mastered, songs that could be used for a soundtrack.  My problem became clear as I attempted to find producers who could do this.  I soon discovered that they did not have my particular and peculiar vision for how the songs should be produced.  YIKES!!!

What I had produced as rough sketches, were just that, rough sketches.  I then needed finished, studio produced, mixed and mastered songs that were complete.  I had to learn how to do all that.  AND that my friends is what this last year has been about—learning how.  Not an easy task, this learning thing, but doable and fun.

I have had to find musicians to play on my songs.  I have limited expertise, musically, and need lead guitar players, sitar players, to lay in the tracks for my songs.  Finding them has been a trial, but that is getting done.

I have learned that it is I who must decide on what songs to use and how to order them.  I had thought that some genius producer would jump in and wave a magic want and get that done in a flash.  I am working on the ordering of the story songs to fit an overall movement on meaning as stories within the story.

More on my progress at a later date, but know that I have committed to completion by the end of May or June.  I have a series of important meetings from July through the end of Trout season with a number of important rainbow trout, and I do not want to miss out on those stream-side sessions.   So onward, forward, charge—tie those flies!

News Flash

News? Well I am working–actually working on producing a new CD, and the project is bigger than I am. I will go into the whole thing in more detail in another post, but suffice it to say that I am madly trying to learn stuff that I need to know in order to get to the next level–whatever that is. What I am trying to do in this posting is to just get a post done.

Borderlands of Hell --

Borderlands of Hell —

With the help of Rob Fisher, I released the “Borderlands of Hell CD” on CD Baby last year. and it sounds really great! Now I am learning to produce my own CDs–very exciting More to come


Tool of the Trade

Last post was about learning to listen.  The time spent between that post and this post has been spent doing just that—learning to listen.

EARS TO THE SPEAKERS, so to speak.

I bought a program called Ozone that offers both preset and manual mastering.  I know that for the hard-assed mastering professionals that this is the absolute worst choice I could have made, and that if I was serious about my music, I would pay the thousands of bucks they want to charge me, and get it done right.  Oh well…

It is not easy doing your own mixing or mastering.  I’d listen to the way it came over the monitoring speakers as I was mixing each track–over and over until I thought I had a mix that worked.  Then I would take the song into the house and listen to it on my house system.  I would do that over and over as well.

There is a place where I heard enough.  At that point I had listened to it on my $30 CD player, a pair of cheap ear phones, my home system, my huge PA speakers, a standard studio monitor speaker system.  There is a point where if you work with it any more it gets worse.

I had actually already reached that point a couple of weeks prior.  I loved how it sounded in my studio and on my car stereo.  So I took the “finished” CD into the house to listen to it and by the time I was half-way through it, I was ready to do murder.  Jeeze, there was a high-pitched jangling sound that, after a few cuts, was just crazy-making.  I went back and discovered it was a preset that had reverb in it.  I also discovered that if I wanted reverb, I could put it into the tracks from Sonar and it was fine, but from Ozone, and bluck!  Lesson learned!

Next on the learning curve highway, was getting it onto CD Baby.  WOW, what a trip!  I think my next post will be about that ordeal.

Learning The Ropes of Listening

Last week I was disgruntled but this week I’m learning. Learning to listen.

I figure if I can’t beat them I might as well join them. That’s what I’m trying to do.
I have had to re-record some material, so I am trying to do this thing right. I did my recording. Then I did the mixing with Sonar. I worked each track to where I thought it sounded the best.

Once I got each track as good as I could, I mixed the whole thing down into one stereo track. That done, I tried my hand at Mastering.

Now Mastering is tough, but I do not believe it is as esoteric, or arcane as some writers would like me to believe. I think it is a learnable skill like anything else. It is a matter of learning what tools are out there, and available to my budget, and then learning how to use them.

The real trick, the one that is what music writers go on so much about is the skill of actually listening to what you have done. But, and I believe this is true, this is a learnable skill as well.

We’ll see. I have a lot of songs on which to practice. But years ago I had to learn the fine art of seeing. I know that not everyone can see as well, or the same as everyone else. That’s what makes humans unique. I did learn to see better than average, I believe I will be abe to learn to hear better than average as well. We’ll see.


Just Disgruntled--So's My Buddy Back There

I am disgruntled.  BIG TIME!!!

I write songs, and I write good songs.  I also have been minimally successful in having them placed here and there.  I am not a huge success at this, but I am not a dismal failure, either.  I began writing songs for my own performances, and discovered that there are some people out there other than my audiences who like what I do.  I have written nine songs for a play (produced and performed), twelve songs for a docudrama (on the shelf and looking for a writer and producer), I have two licensed for a film due out maybe this year, and several for singers, also I have a couple of CD’s out there somewhere in the ozone.  I am not totally without credits.

I write in a couple of different genres, but mostly Country, Americana, Rockabilly, or Honky-Tonk.

I received the following call for a song:

“XXXXX are amongst some of the most successful musical producers in the U.K with production credits For artists including Usher & Nelly. XXXXXX has recently moved into artist development and management.”

“At just 15 years old, “ZZZZZZZZ” has a great voice and interestingly never taken vocal lessons. Like Esmee Denters and Justin Bieber, “ZZZZZZ” was discovered on YouTube and is where she whipped up a storm with covers by the world’s biggest vocalists, Beyonce, Mariah, Christina Aguilera and Leona Lewis. Album will be executive produced by “XXXXXX” whose production credits include hits for Usher, Nelly, Tony Braxton and Rihanna.

“Styles wanted Hits! Catchy Lyrics!. Infectious hooks!, Big singalong choruses! Songs you can hear on heavy rotation on the radio. ZZZZZZZZ can sing the phonebook. Think Mariah Carey, Jennifer Hudson, Jordin Sparks, Christina Aguilera, Jojo, Miley Cyrus, Rihanna, Keri Hilson. Plenty of Interest in all popular styles but please bear in mind, ZZZZZZZZ is just 15 years old so relevance is key. A great opportunity for Unknown writers to get in on the ground floor for an artist who is going straight to the top!”

So I submitted the following Jazz-styled song with a bare-bones sound-track

Wish I Could

© Hilary Marckx, BMI, all rights reservedChorus:
Wish I Could, Wish I Might, Have this Wish I Wish Tonight
Wish I Could, Wish I Might, Have this Wish I Wish Tonight
Wish I Could Hold You, Hold You Tight.Verse 1
I’m Not One to Let Emotion Run My Heart
I’ve Been Told I’m Cold, but That’s Not True
I Have Let You in My Heart and Now it Seems
I Wish I Knew Some Way of Telling You

Verse 2
Your Laughter Makes Me Think I That I Might Just Explode
The Sight of You Makes Me Want to Sing
The Sparkle of You Eyes Tells Me There’s So Much More
But All I Seem to Do Is Sit and Dream
So, I got this as a response:  “Hi Hilary this is more a live performance than a studio demo. We are looking for finished fully produced songs. Also when pitching to a female artist its always wise to pitch using a female.”

I and my disgruntled self have come to a few conclusions:

1) The people who need material don’t know what they are after and don’t know how to listen to what they get and interpolate that into what they can use, and don’t know how to ask for it if they did.  I do not believe that they are musically oriented, but that they are pitch oriented.  Why else would they not say that they wanted studio, radio-ready material to make a pitch.  Females have been getting hits of of male-written and male-sung hits for years.  Think of Janice Joplin and Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee,” or Rosanne Cash with Hank Snow’s “Movin’ On,”  or most anything that Norah Jones sings, and you begin to realize that much of music seems to be driven by fear and lack of knowledge of how songs work.

2) If I want to place songs in this current market it is not they who need to change but me.  I have the intelligence to make changes.  I know music, and I understand how to re-arrange a song so it works with a particular market.  I haven’t in the past, simply because I am stubborn.  OK, so that places me right into the not-so-smart category with the rest of them.  So it is me who will change.

3) I have my work cut out for me.  I am going to begin rearranging my Rockabilly into the current Pop sound.  It won’t be easy, but so what?  Am I disgruntled?  Yes!  Will I get over it?  Probably not!  Will I do it anyway?  You betcha!  I figure that I’ll arrange Pop, and perform Hillbilly.  Just because I arrange it, does not mean that I must play it.


Blank Page Waiting for the Song

I am working hard, but I feel as if I am not doing anything.  How can this be?

I am not really a prolific songwriter.  Since 2000 I have only written two hundred and twelve songs with a yearly average of around seventeen songs.  That means that I some years I only wrote five or six songs, and other years I have written over sixty.  However, I identify with being a songwriter.  I may have a Ph.D. in theology, and I may be a minister of a church, a very small, liberal, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Northern California, but I nonetheless identify as a Rockabilly/Honky-Tonk singer/songwriter.  I spent years as a professional and fine-art photographer, but I still wrote and performed my original songs.  Songwriting and performing is just what I do, and I do it very seriously.

So this last year, and this coming year as well, it seems that I am doing more song promotion and song marketing than writing.  It also means that I am spending more and more time at this computer communicating with A&R reps, song peddlers, artists, film companies and whoever else needs and uses songs.  It also means that I am doing less and less songwriting.  It also means that I am doing more recording, mixing and mastering, at which I am least proficient.

I have a woodshop where I build and repair wood stuff.  I enjoy working with the wood, and I make a little money ate it, but it is still just something I do to clean out my brain for the real work of songwriting.  I have written one and one half songs this year so far, and there are more to be written, but I feel frustrated by the need to record, mix, and master my old songs.

Actually I feel grumpy at the blasted A&R people who need fully mastered radio-ready songs to pitch to their artists.  I yell stuff at my studio walls like, What the hell ever happened to interpolation?  Where they could hear a song and hear themselves singing it.  Without having everything done in advance.  The walls of my studio have no answers, and I just go ahead and play the stupid game.

The bottom line is that I am learning how to do it because I cannon afford to have it done by the experts.  I am using an older version of Sonar for the mixing and a new version of Izotope Ozone for the mastering.  I am slowly figuring it out.  I do not have high end studio mastering speakers, but I have my PA speakers that work good enough.  I figure that if I get the sound so it sounds good on my studio speakers, and it sounds good on my little CD player and on my house system and on the car system, then the sound should be good enough quality to send to an A&R type.  It somehow seems to be working.

Yet, while that seems to be working, I still do not feel as if I am working.  Rather, I should say that I don’t feel like I am accomplishing anything because I am not writing songs at the rate at which I want to write them.