INTERVIEW: John Anealio on SF Music, the Musical Creative Process and More
John Anealio writes songs about science fiction and fantasy and other geeky things. Alternate-tuned acoustic guitar picking, soaring synthesizers, and catchy pop hooks power his odes to androids, princesses, and vampires. His newest album, available on his website JohnAnealio.com as well as iTunes is the Chuck Wendig named album Laser Zombie Robot Love. He also recently released a free single to commemorate the fall of Felix Baumgartner from space to the ground. He is the co-creator and co-host of The Functional Nerds and has come up with theme songs for a variety of other podcasts as well, including the one for the SF Signal podcast.
I decided to sit down with John to learn more about him and his writing and creative process…
Paul Weimer: Laser Zombie Robot Love is your newest album. But where did the idea of doing geeky songs, as opposed to, say, covers or homages to Rush or Emerson Lake and Palmer come from?
John Anealio: For years, I was a straight-up folk/pop singer/songwriter. My songs were about relationships and other typical subject matter. As my writing grew, I started to write about all kinds of things. The first CD that I put out as a typical singer/songwriter included a song about vampires and one titled Orbit. At one point, I decided to focus my writing on subjects that would appeal to genre fans and tech geeks. Part of the idea behind this stemmed from my then, new found interest in blogs and podcasts. I was reading all of these Sci-Fi review blogs and I thought if I wrote songs inspired by the books that these folks were reviewing, then they’d probably enjoy them and maybe even spread the word about them. That was the start and it pretty much worked. However, it quickly changed to writing about all different subjects and themes within the genre, not just about specific Sci-Fi and Fantasy Books.
PW: Let’s unpack that process a little more. I understand how to write non fiction; I write epic amounts of it. I understand how fiction gets written, even if I don’t have any published. Songwriting, though, is something that given my lack of musical knowledge, I don’t understand. Could you outline, at the 30,000 foot level, how you write a song from an idea to completion? What comes first? How does it all come together?
JA: Sure. I’m going to lay out a fairly straight forward process, but keep in mind that I arrived at this method after more than 20 years of working on my craft. I’m a firm believer in Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000” hour theory, and I’ve been working on music theory, guitar technique, composition, lyric writing, etc. every day since I was 16 years old.
Here goes. I start with the lyric “hook” for the chorus. It doesn’t matter how great the music is, or the lyrics to the verse are, if the song doesn’t pay off with a hook in the chorus that makes sense, then the song just won’t work at all. So I always start with a chorus lyric that I know works. From there, I shape the melody, lyrics and chord progression of the chorus until it is as strong as possible. I then futz around on the guitar or piano until I come up with a melody and chord progression for the verse that will best serve the chorus. I’ll then outline the action that is going to take place in the verses. Then I’ll “sense write”. I’ll think about whatever personal experiences that I’ve had with the subject and write about the sights, sounds, smells and tactile experiences that come to mind. That will usually give me a good chunk of words to start with.
I’ll then whip out a rhyming dictionary and get to work on making it all fit together in a musical way. I may add a bridge/break to the song, if appropriate. The whole writing process takes anywhere from a few days to a few weeks.
PW: So where and in what sort of milieu do you like to put together the song? What’s your writing/composing space environment like?
JA: I don’t actually have a studio. I write and record wherever I can clear some space and have some time to myself. I write at work, at home, in coffee shops, libraries, wherever. In terms of recording, I do everything on my laptop, so I’m still portable. I record my voice and guitar either in my bedroom or at work after hours. All of the other instrument and editing I can do in a coffee shop.
PW: How has changes in equipment and technology influenced and changed your songwriting process over the years?
JA: I love the fact that the technology has advanced to the point where you can make a pretty professional sounding recording in your home with your laptop. But to be honest, it hasn’t changed my songwriting process at all. I don’t get anywhere near a computer until the song is completely written. You can fall in love with a cool sound or riff that you created on your computer, but that doesn’t make a good song. The song has to be fully formed in my head before I start recording it.
JA: Teaching music (both instrumental and vocal) for so long has enabled me to see music from all different angles. I’ve taught vocal music classes different folk songs from all over the world. Sometimes these tunes would catch my interest and I’d end up researching that culture and its music much more in depth on my own. This exposure has provided a large base for me to draw from when I sit down to write and/or record a new piece of music.
PW: Interesting. With the world music that has influenced your creativity, have you experimented with non-traditionally western instruments, or converted that music to more familiar instruments?
JA: Sure. A few years back, I got really into Celtic/Irish music. I was mesmerized by the Irish Bouzouki. I bought one and spent hours and hours a day learning how to play Irish Fiddle tunes on it. I doubt that you can hear that in my songs, but I think anything you work on for a long time will seep into your art in one way or the other.
Also, I play almost exclusively in alternate tunings on the guitar (DADGAD, Open G, Drop D & GGDGCD). This technique of playing a melody or chord progression against an open string drone is definitely influenced by non-western music.
PW: Are there types of music that you haven’t yet put into the blender of remixing that you are itching to add to your musical oeuvre?
JA: Well, nothing is really calculated. I just have a big appetite for music. I get interested in a certain artist or genre and that will inevitably lead to a different artist or genre. It’s a bit cyclical too. I’ll go through a prog rock phase, a folk phase, electronica, etc.
I’ve been listening to a lot of movie soundtracks lately. I’ve done some instrumentals and I’ve been getting the itch to do some more. I’d love to score an independent movie or web series.
PW: Aha. I like to write to movie soundtracks, and I know a lot of readers and writers like them for that purpose, too. What are your favorite movie composers and soundtracks?
JA: Harry Gregson-Williams. I particularly like his Narnia, Deja Vu & Spy Game scores. I’m also a huge fan of Bear McCreary’s Battlestar Galactica scores.
PW: You’ve done music inspired directly by SF works in the past (e.g. Cylon #6, Leodora) although you have for the most part have gone to less specifically tied works with this new album. How does your genre reading these days inform your song writing?
JA: Well, I have been commissioned by publishers to write songs to help promote certain books. (Empire State by Angry Robot Books being the most recent example). I’ve also been commissioned by some independent authors recently too, which is great fun.
Other than that, genre reading impacts my writing in the sense that I think just the act of reading (particularly speculative fiction) helps to expand our mind and vocabulary. I feel a little smarter with each book that I read and that will always have at least a subtle effect on whatever new song I’m working on.
PW: So what’s next for you. What horizons in the world of genre music still beckon to you?
JA: I’m not sure. I’ve been fortunate to open for some big names in the “nerd” music world like Paul & Storm, Molly Lewis, Marian Call and The Doubleclicks. I’d like to keep going with that. I’ve played at Nerdtacular, Fencon, Balticon, Confluence and more. I’d like to keep playing some of the big cons and I’d love to play at a wOOtstock or PAX show.
Beyond that, my dream job would be to be a soundtrack composer for movies and video games or to be a staff songwriter for a show like Phineas & Ferb. That sounds funny, but some of these kids shows have a new song in every episode and they’re great! To do the job, you’d have to have a nerdy sense of humor, write in a variety of styles and be able to write fast. Those are three things that I can do pretty well, so I think it would suit me nicely.
PW: I’ve only recently seen Phineas and Ferb (the TV movie as it so happens). I had no idea that music was important to the show, so I was completely surprised by the musical number in the middle of the TV movie. Judging from the importance of music to non-animated Kid’s shows, I probably should not be surprised. And enough of those shows are geek friendly enough that I could see the appeal of working with one. So, where can people find you on the Internet if they want to learn more about John Anealio?
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