A Maxell XL-II cassette tape with the words "J's Demos 1994 + 1995" written on it with pen.

Songs From The Shadows: An Origin Story

In 2023 I invested a bunch of money into digital recording software and plugins, spent hundreds of hours learning how to properly mix my songs in Logic Pro, and finally released my debut EP, which is why… for my next project I’m recording exclusively to tape on a TASCAM 4-track? Yea, I’m weird. I’ll be documenting the process, but first let me explain WHY I’m doing this by sharing my strange little origin story.

On Christmas in 1991 I was 16 years old. That’s when my aunt and uncle gave me my first guitar. A Hohner acoustic, which I immediately adorned with two stickers before learning my first chord. For the sake of levity before things get super heavy, the sticker I don’t regret is the classic Pearl Jam “stickman.” The sticker I DO regret is that “No Smoking” one. There was nothing clever about it. Just a lit cigarette inside a circle with a line through it. A sticker boldly proclaiming my aversion to cigarettes roughly 7 years before I started a two decade on-again/off-again relationship with the cancer sticks.

There’s nothing quite as naive and cringe as using your platform as a musician before you even write your first song, eh?

The Christian Weird Al!?

Although… how do you all feel about Weird Al? Because when I was 13, my very distinct dream of stardom was, well, being some kind of religious Weird Al Yankovic ripoff? MAYBE I was writing songs back then…

I’d take popular hits and mutate them with christian lyrics. Same cadence, same rhyme scheme, but with an entirely wholesome and religious message. The easiest were of course love songs, since God and lovers are so easily transposed. (Sorry to burst your bubble, but all those gorgeous U2 love songs are actually about God.)

As I write this, I’m 48 years old and I can’t imagine penning a religious lyric. A spiritual one, maybe… But back then, the authority figures in my life taught me secular music was a tool wrought by the devil’s own hands. Hey look, I grew up bouncing between a staunch Catholic household and an aggressively Protestant one. One or both insisted masturbation would send you directly to hell. Secular music perverted the youth! It caused suicides, rebellion, and debauchery! The world needed more christian rock of course.

You know, I often passed those silly songs off as originals and my family was none the wiser. I mean, they were original words, but not remotely original songs. I’d sing the altered lyrics to myself with the original melody, but emulate Michael W. Smith, Stryper, or Petra. I even recorded them on this monstrous Panasonic boombox. Somewhere — hopefully in a landfill — exist a few Maxell XL-II cassettes with high potential for embarrassment.

Also: there may have been an Amy Grant mock rock performance in my neighborhood when I was 12. I may have been the one who organized it. I played a mean broom guitar, obviously. My friend Kim played a Wurlitzer. Heh, Wurlitzer. What an extraordinary name. (I remember being annoyed that she was singing all the songs.)

(By the way, I’ve noticed this whole “Christian Rock during childhood” thread running through a TON of creative people’s lives, and this needs to be explored further. I think it’s a podcast begging to be recorded. But I’ll save it for a future rainy day.)

I even had a fake label for my fake music: “Honor By Father Music LTD.” Wow, just wow. What a pretentious name! Its logo was a simple pencil sketch of a child looking up into the heavens with a single ray of light cracking open the sky and illuminating the path ahead.

Pretentious, maybe… but there was a glimmer of a musician in there somewhere, trying to emerge in whatever awkward ways he could. Seeking a ray of light to illuminate the path.

Anyone Can Play Guitar

Francis Goulart: 1927 – 2008. This is the man who undoubtedly fostered my love for acoustic guitar.

And I really believe it was my first guitar — that Hohner acoustic — that was the light revealing that path. Not only was it an unspoken confirmation from my aunt and uncle that seemed to say “we see that spark inside of you,” but it also became a conduit for healing, for fighting off the demons, and for expressing raw emotions that I couldn’t manage to articulate any other way.

For the next 6 months, if I wasn’t at school I was hunkered down in the basement with a chord chart, methodically trying to learn them all. In fact, sometimes I hauled it to school and spent my lunches alone, outside under a tree, just riffing away. By the time I knew Em, E, C, G, D and Am, I was already fumbling my way towards a few original songs. My lyric writing exploded; it seemed like I was writing a new one every single day.

And yes, I was trying to learn ALL the obligatory “Look, I just started playing guitar” songs. You know the ones. “Wish You Were Here” by Pink Floyd. “Stairway to Heaven” by Zeppelin. “Sunshine of your Love” by Cream. “Nothing Else Matters” by Metallica.

I discovered power chords and harmonics. Bends and hammer-ons and pull-offs. The pure awesomeness of those green “Turtle” picks with the ridges on them. And gradually I started caring less about the technicalities, and more about how what I was playing made me feel. I never became more than just a basic rhythm guitar player who used the instrument as a vehicle for songwriting. I still don’t know the names of half the chords I play. And I’m totally fine with that.

That leads us to Christmas 1993, two years after getting my first guitar and becoming obsessed with writing songs. My goal became to take 10 of the best and record an acoustic album called “Songs from the Shadows.” (An acoustic album because that Hohner was still my only guitar; weirdly, I never developed the desire to acquire more until decades later.)

The first 10 songs I ever recorded.

After tons of practice and a brief distraction in the U.S. Navy, it was December 1994 and I was 19 years old. I spent three nights “recording” those 10 songs on the only equipment I had: the crappy condenser mic of a Panasonic boombox. And let me tell you, I was ridiculously proud of those songs. So proud I shared a tape with my mom, my girlfriend, my friend and occasional songwriting buddy Greg Brown… and that’s it!

The years wore on. A cycle emerged where I wrote new songs and repeatedly abandoned the old ones. Eventually, I abandoned my pursuit of songwriting altogether.

(Sidenote: I recently came back to the U.S. after spending 7 years in Europe and  rediscovering my love for making music.)

Project 2: Songs From The Shadows

Let’s shift back to the present tense: just a few weeks ago, some tapes were unearthed.

Not just that lone cassette from 1994, but a few others I’d given to family and friends between 1995 and 2002. Rediscovering these and listening to the songs resulted in a roller coaster of emotions. I felt disgusted with myself that I’d forgotten the majority of them even existed, much less how to play them. I felt embarrassed over how amateur the recordings sounded, and how off-key much of my singing was. I felt regret over abandoning what could have been a music career if I had been consistent and diligent.

But I also felt proud! Proud of the fearlessness I heard in those songs. Proud of the experimentation. Proud of the passion that shined through the mistakes and questionable sound quality.

My newly acquired 4-track recorder: A TASCAM Portastudio 414

And so, nearly 30 years later, I’m going to relearn all of those songs. I’m going to practice the shit out of them. I’m going to improve them through the lens of experience. Then I’m going to re-record them to tape, using my newly acquired TASCAM Portastudio 414. 

“Songs from the Shadows” will finally see the light of day! So that’s what I’m devoting myself to for the next several months, and I plan to document as much of the process as I can. Why? Well, I’ve been spoiled by digital recording methods, and I’m a complete noob when it comes to recording on a 4-track. So it’ll be a sort of production notebook, but also a way to pass on any lessons I learn for my fellow musicians who might crave a return to analog at some point.

Thanks for being here. Thanks for reading this. Thanks for rocking out with me. 



3 responses to “Songs From The Shadows: An Origin Story”

  1. jeanette goulart Avatar
    jeanette goulart

    That is awesome J. I love how you let yourself feel it all and then had the wherewithal to come back full circle and be proud of yourself for having heart. You clearly see your younger self and validate him. That is something to be proud of.

  2. Dude, I’m so glad we connected online. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this and relate to so much of it (right down to Weird Al and christian music). Keep up the good work!

    1. Thanks JOEL! Let’s keep this conversation going for sure. Thanks for taking the time to read AND comment — I don’t need to tell you how rare that is.

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