During a stretch of science fiction reading in the early part of 2008, I decided to pick up Philip K. Dick’s classic novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. Not long after my review, I received an email from a man named John Anealio, informing me that he had recorded a song inspired by said novel. I was immediately intrigued, little knowing just what I would hear when I followed the link to Sci Fi Songs and gave a first listen to Rachel Rosen. What I discovered was a catchy tune that has stuck in my head for over a year and a man who links together his passions in a way that is admirable and inspirational. Any mention of Do Androids Dream or of Bladerunner kicks off the chorus in my head.
“Is Rachel Rosen really an android
Can Rachel Rosen really be alive
Is Rachel Rosen really an android
Can Rachel Rosen really be alive”
And that is a good thing! I am a big fan of this acoustical tune. Give it a listen and hear for yourself:
(“Rachel Rosen, inspired by Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep)
And please feel free to listen to this, and the other songs included after the break, as I put some questions to singer/songwriter/sci-fi enthusiast, John Anealio.
1. Merging science fiction and music is a fascinating idea, how did the decision to do so come about?
Prior to Sci-Fi Songs, I wrote fairly straight ahead folk-pop songs that I performed at local pubs and coffee shops and released as an independent CD.
My songwriting was becoming more story driven. I was spending a long time coming up with the back story for the characters that were appearing in my songs. Unfortunately, it is difficult to tell a complete story in a three minute pop song. This frustration led me to consider writing longer fiction that wasn’t tied to music. I eventually became aware of National Novel Writing Month. I read lots of “How to Write” books, constructed an outline, and in November of 2006 I completed a 50,000 word first draft of an urban fantasy-ish novel. I enjoyed the process so much that I did it again in November of 2007. I really enjoyed the experience, and would do it again, but through participating in NaNoWriMo, I learned that I am a pretty terrible novelist. It did get me thinking about the relationship between literature and music though, and I think that this almost certainly had some influence on the idea to start Sci-Fi Songs.
At the same time, I was discovering lots of great blogs and podcasts for the first time. In addition to just enjoying them, I felt that creatively I had something to say, and blogging or podcasting might be a good way to say it. There are lots of talented musicians putting music out on the Internet. I realized that the best way to differentiate myself would be to focus on a specific niche. I had already written a few songs that had elements of Sci-Fi, Fantasy, or Mythology. (including “Beautiful Vampire”, “Angels & Vampires”, and a song based on Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver that I still haven’t gotten around to recording yet). I realized that if I just looked to the books that I was already reading for inspiration then I could probably come up with a couple of good songs each month that I could record and post to a blog.
2. Describe your musical background.
I was a late bloomer. I was 16 years old when I started playing the guitar. It quickly became an obsession, and I was spending up to 5 or 6 hours a day locked in my room practicing. By the time I was 18, I was a music major at Montclair State University in New Jersey. I studied classical guitar and composition. I’ve been a lifelong student of music ever since. There is always something new to learn or something that you can get better at. There is often a misconception that our education comes to an end when we are finished with school. For me, that is when my learning really began.
3. How do you choose the stories/films that you are going to write songs about?
At this point, I just pick novels/films that sound interesting to me. I’m a fairly slow reader, so any book that I choose to read is going to be a pretty major investment of time. There has to be something about it that really grabs my attention. I want to be thoroughly absorbed into that particular world.
4. What do you look for in a story/film to inspire your lyrics?
I try to keep an open mind while reading. Something really unique may present itself. Putting that aside, I look at the relationships between the characters. I think a lot of the sci-fi songs that I’ve written are fairly straight up love songs. I often write from the point of view of one of the main characters, who is expressing his feelings for another character in the story.
5. How do you decide the (and here I show my ignorance of musical terms) the tone, tempo…the way the song is going to sound?
The most important thing for me is to come up with a solid chorus hook that is both musically and lyrically strong. The prosody [the rhythm, stress, and intonation of connected speech] of the chorus lyrics really influence the overall tempo and tone of the song. The chorus lyrics must flow and sound as natural as possible. Occasionally, to change things up, I’ll sit down with a metronome or drum loop on the computer and set it to a much faster or slower tempo or different time signature than most of my songs are in. This forces me to write differently and I’ll often come up with music that I find really interesting when I write in this way.
(“Sarene”, inspired by Brandon Sanderson’s Elantris)
6. My assumption is that you do everything yourself in creating these songs. What is your process. How do you do what you do?
Once I’m happy with the chorus music and lyrics, I begin to compose the melodies and chord structures that will become the verse and bridge sections of the song. I can usually do most of that work in a day. I’ll then spend a few days writing and refining the lyrics. Once I finish writing the song, I begin the recording process. I use Apple Logic Pro 8 recording software on a MacBook (this is a new purchase, the first 12 sci-fi songs were recorded on an old eMac). I begin by sketching out the chord structure and form of the song by recording a MIDI piano part that I use as a guide track. This allows for flexibility in determining the best tempo and key for the song before I start recording real instruments and vocals.
Once I’m happy with the tempo and key, I record all of the vocal parts in one session. I’ll then have lots of takes and harmonies that I can edit together later in the process. I’ll then record the main acoustic guitar parts. Next up is the drums. I’ll either program the drums using Logic’s sampler, or I’ll chop up different drum loops to create one seamless part. Once I’m happy with the drum part, I’ll then compose and record the bass part using an old Washburn electric bass guitar. Those are the core elements that make up most of my songs. From there I will add both real instruments that I can play pretty well like mandolin, lap steel, Irish bouzouki, various electric guitars, harmonica, and glockenspiel as well as virtual instruments in Logic like organ, piano, strings, and synthesizers that are played via a MIDI keyboard. I’ll then arrange and mix all of those elements into a finished project.
7. What is your average time of creation from start to finish?
Writing the song takes a few days. Recording and mixing the song takes about 10 to 14 days.
8. Once a song is completed are you done with it, or do you go back and fiddle with it from time to time?
There is always a temptation to keep working on the song to make it better, but over the years I’ve learned that once it gets to the point where you like it enough and can live with it, it is much more productive to move on to the next song.
9. As with every creative endeavor, I assume that there are times when the muse is kind and others in which she is a fickle mistress. Are there any stories or films that you really want to give the musical treatment to that haven’t quite worked out…yet?
I wanted to write some music for Bruce Sterling’s Schismatrix, but I just couldn’t seem to come up with anything. Most of the time, once I get that initial spark, I can usually finish it.
10. Recently you have gotten a great deal of exposure because of “Grasping for the Wind (The Linkup Meme Song)”. Can you tell us a little bit about the project and how you came to be involved with it?
It wasn’t really a project. I’ve followed John Ottinger’s blog for a while now. I was happy to see the SFF blogger community uniting around this meme. When The Crotchety Old Fan started reviewing the sites listed in the meme, the idea to write a song just struck me. I came up with the chorus melody and lyrics pretty quickly. Then I realized that there were so many blogs listed that if I just tried to rhyme the titles, I’d have material for the verses.
I’ve been a singer/songwriter for most of my life. I’ve played lots of crumby gigs to a mostly disinterested audience. I’m not complaining. I’ve always understood the situation. When people go out, they want to have their drinks and chat with their friends, not listen to the guy with the guitar in the corner. Since releasing my music through Sci-Fi songs, I’ve been fortunate enough to connect with a supportive and enthusiastic audience for the first time. “Grasping for the Wind” is my way of thanking all of the bloggers who make up this great community.
Besides the song, this linkup meme has also started a new forum called The Dragon Federation and there has been talk of having a book review blogger convention.
11. This may be a redundant question based on the previous one, but which is your most popular song to date?
“Grasping for the Wind” elicited lots of great comments and links from the book reviewing community, but it hasn’t been my most popular song. My most downloaded songs are: “The Millennium Falcon for Christmas”, “Summer Glau”, and “Sarene”.
[Carl: Who doesn’t want the Millennium Falcon for Christmas? This could be the new science fiction geek anthem!]
12. Which of your songs are you most proud of/pleased with?
I’ve been happy with the way that most of the songs have turned out, but I’m probably most proud of “Sarene” and “Rachel Rosen”. I really enjoy the epic, almost progressive rock-like feeling that “Sarene” possesses, and I think that “Rachel Rosen” sums up a lot of the qualities that I try to incorporate into my music. I also like “Lonesome October Night” because it was a one take live performance that was a very different approach for me.
(“Lonesome October Night”, inspired by Roger Zelazny’s A Night in the Lonesome October)
13. When you are not creating your own music, who are the artists you enjoy listening to?
The answer to that question changes from week to week but lately I’ve been listening to Wilco, Beck, Ben Folds, Gomez, Mates of State, Lindsey Buckingham, Jack’s Mannequin, Nick Drake, and Fleet Foxes.
14. As books and movies are a major focus in what you do, I could not let the opportunity pass without asking you about:
George R.R. Martin, Elizabeth Haydon, Kurt Vonnegut, Neal Stephenson, Tad Williams, Kay Kenyon. Non SF: Chuck Klosterman and Tom Perrotta.
George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire Series
Elizabeth Haydon’s Rhapsody Trilogy
Tad Williams’ The War of the Flowers
Chuck Klosterman’s Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs
Tom Perrotta’s The Wishbones
15. What are the recent and/or not so recent films/TV shows you are inspired by?
Star Wars, even the prequels, though they certainly have their flaws. The Lord of the Rings: I actually enjoyed the movies more than the books. Avatar: The Last Airbender: I watched the entire series on DVD over the past year and I think that it is just brilliant. Battlestar Galactica: I don’t know what took me so long, but I finally started watching it. I’m up to season 3, and I’m completely sucked into it.
16. Who inspires you?
That is a difficult question to answer because I’ve gone through so many musical phases. I’m always on the hunt for something new and interesting. Here are a few artists/bands that have had a lasting impact on me as a musician: Rush, Yes, The Beatles, Neil Finn/Crowded House, Steve Morse, Kelly Joe Phelps, Peter Mulvey, Ben Folds, Fountains of Wayne, Collective Soul, Jon Brion, Dave Matthews, David Gray, Tim O’Brien, The Postal Service, etc. This list can really go on and on.
(“Leodora”, inspired by Gregory Frost’s Shadowbridge)
17. After listening to your songs, the merging of science fiction and music seems only natural. Which begs the question, do you listen to music while you are reading?
Absolutely! Music on my iPod and reading a novel go hand in hand for me. I know many people find music to be too much of a distraction to their reading, but I find it difficult to read without music.
18. Tell us about any upcoming projects you would like to discuss. Any specific books or films in line for the John Anealio treatment?
It is still in the early stages, but Lou Anders of Pyr has asked me to write a song that will encapsulate the story of Wilson Cole that is depicted in Mike Resnick’s Starship series. The first four books in the series have these great appendices that contain all sorts of interesting things. The plan is to have the lyrics of the song that I write appear in the appendix of Book Five with a link to a website where the reader can download the song for free. I’m really excited to have this opportunity.
[Carl: Wow, that is an amazing opportunity, John. I cannot wait to see what results.]
When I started Sci-Fi Songs, I never dreamed that I would have contact with the authors and editors that create the books that I love, much less have one of my songs appear in a published novel.
19. What do you hope people take from time spent listening to your musical creations?
I think that reading a novel is the most immersing entertainment experience that a person can have, especially if it is a series of books. As a fan, I know that I would be really excited if I discovered a song that was based on a novel that I loved. I just hope that people get a kick out of the fact that I’m writing songs that are based on the books that they love so much.
20. Are there any projects that you’d like to participate in that you haven’t yet?
I’d love to get involved in more projects like the one that I’m currently working on with Lou Anders. I’m also intrigued by the possibilities of audio fiction. Recently, John Scalzi, Tobias Buckell, Karl Schroeder, Elizabeth Bear and Jay Lake created audio-only shared universe stories for Audible.com. I think that there is a real opportunity to incorporate music into this type of media. I’d love to score some instrumental music for these types of stories, or write songs that the characters would sing. How many fantasy epics have songs as part of the lore and history of their world? I love reading the lyrics to those songs. Now with audio fiction, I’d love to participate in the writing and the recording of those songs. Besides that, I’d jump at the opportunity to score music/write songs for an independent film or web video series.
Thank you so much, John, for taking the time to let us get to better know the man behind the music. It has been a distinct pleasure.
I hope you have all enjoyed getting to know John Anealio. We all have passions, and it is inspirational to see someone like John Anealio taking his passions and combining them to create something unique. That should be celebrated. I encourage you to visit Sci Fi Songs for more of John’s creative output as well as other musician’s mixes of his songs, including Rachel Rosen.
For those of you who may not know, SF Signal’s own John DeNardo penned the lyrics to a song celebrating everyone’s favorite “killer woman” from Firefly, Summer Glau that John Anealio put to music. It seemed like the perfect way to close this interview.
(“Summer Glau”, inspired by Joss Whedon’s Firefly)