April 25, 2014

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Cover Story

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Helsinki musicians gather after their concluding live concert. TACP founder Dave Adams is in the forground holding the guitar.

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The made-for-Detroit guitar, with the name of the instrument, “This Symphony, This City,” inscribed inside.

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Acoustic Guitar Project founder Dave Adams (left) consults with his sound engineer in Port-Au-Prince.

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The Acoustic Guitar Project during its taping in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti.

A City’s Stories, Unplugged

ONE GUITAR. ONE WEEK. ONE SONG. The slogan and premise sound straightforward enough — unless you’re the songwriter-guitarist-singer who agrees to take on the imposing composing challenge, presented by the Acoustic Guitar Project — so relatively simple to accomplish.

Well, that depends. For some musicians, like Eva Louhivuori of Finland, a new original song came to her fully formed in little more than one hour. “Carrying the guitar home got me thinking of melodies,” she says. “I can’t really explain what happened, whether it was the spirit of the guitar, but it got me to compose my song, ‘The Last Time.’ I didn’t think about much. The song just came out by itself!”

For others, the relentless tick-tick-tick of a creative deadline can be daunting. Who can put a stopwatch on brilliance? “Some songs come out faster than others,” notes singer-composer Joel Waldman, a graduate of Boston’s prestigious Berklee College of Music. “I think it depends on how connected you are with ‘the source.’ But as soon as I realize I am blocked, I stop and change the activity.”

How would you do?

You soon may have the opportunity to find out. The Acoustic Guitar Project (TAGP) — described as “a social art experiment” by its creator, Dave Adams — has emerged as far more than the online equivalent of a parlor game or a musical dare for instrumentalists — both raw and seasoned — since it began in April 2012. It is one vision, by one Detroit native, to reinvigorate the creative process one artist at a time — a minor-key global phenomenon that already has made stops in New York, Helsinki, Bogotá and Port-au-Prince.

And now it’s coming home: To the home of great music; Adams’ hometown — the rhythm of the streets — Detroit.

“I’d love to have a thousand, or as many submissions as can come out of Detroit,” bubbles Adams, 41, a supremely upbeat and optimistic fellow whose east side upbringing revolved around I-94 and Cadieux.

“It’s really important to me that it comes from every aspect of music in Detroit. I don’t want it to just be about, ‘Hey, what’s the hot indie scene in the city?’ Believe me, I love that, but I really want everyone in the Detroit area to feel like this is open to them, whatever style they play or whatever kind of person they are.”

Here’s how it works: The Project (i.e., Adams) selects a city and one of its musicians to start the exercise. The musician is loaned an acoustic guitar and given one week to compose and record an original song, using only the guitar and a hand-held recorder provided by TAGP. No editing, no overdubs and no computer-generated effects; the song must be played live and the performer chooses his or her best version to upload.

When finished, the musician signs the guitar (very important), has a photo taken with the instrument and sends the song, lyrics, picture and any video accompaniments to the website (theacousticguitarproject.com). Then the songwriter helps Adams select the next person to whom the guitar will be passed. Simple, right? Except maybe for that “writing and recording the song” part.

TAGP’s aim is to reconnect musicians with the moment they fell in love with music by stripping the creative process to its bones. “Not to say there’s anything wrong with production, I want to be clear about that,” Adams says. “But I think in a world where production has become so ubiquitous, and everybody has access to software, you feel obligated to use it. And I think for a lot of musicians, that becomes a huge obstacle. Sometimes you just want to hear somebody picking up the guitar to play something beautiful. Why are musicians slaving over stuff?”

Adams has seen his burst of inspiration hailed by the website Goodnet.org as one of “Six Websites to Boost Your Creativity.” Last fall, TAGP triumphed over more than 59 competitors to win a $1,000 grant from the Awesome Foundation, which called the Project “music, creativity, inspiration and a celebration of humanity rolled into one.” However, as Adams quickly realized, the backstories of the musicians accepting his six-string baton were at least as interesting as the songs they were creating, if not more so — “The stories are the dinner, the songs are the dessert,” as he puts it — he decided he had to incorporate video into the mix.

“It’s about the music and how musicians create, and it still is,” Adams says. “But I was like, ‘Wait a minute! There are stories here that need to be told, that are absolutely remarkable.’ Each one of these musicians, in addition to their rich musical history and the ‘interesting-ness’ of just being a human being, is having these amazing experiences with their week. That’s when I realized I absolutely needed to film this.”

If you’re shooting video anyway, individual tales of inspiration from the Tent City of Haiti to the darkened nightspots of Helsinki, why not make a television series? Adams made that pitch on the website Kickstarter and in seemingly no time raised $20,000 toward producing a TV pilot. The donors then got to vote on where the pilot should be filmed.

The runaway winner? Detroit, of course!

Granted, the ballot box may have been stuffed a bit. Many of Adams’ longtime friends and family members contributed to the fundraiser, and they’d relish having the prodigal producer in town for a stretch. “But truthfully, a lot of people outside of Detroit voted for Detroit too,” he declares. “It’s a music town, nobody’s going to dispute that. But I think another aspect is that it’s in a very unique moment in its history in terms of transformation. This truly feels like the beginning of something, where something is actually going to happen for Detroit. And to be able to come back and contribute, even in a small way, feels good to me.”

Adams is looking for at least 12 metro Detroit musicians willing to take the challenge and potentially take part in the TV pilot and proposed series. (Actually, more than a dozen individuals will be needed in case replacements are necessary.) To be considered, go to the lower right-hand side of the project’s website, under the heading “I Want to Participate,” and fill out the basic information form. Applicants will be contacted via email with a short questionnaire requesting additional details about musical style and background. The project — and the pilot — is scheduled to get under way here in August.

 

From Start to Finnish

That Adams should have conceived and committed to the Acoustic Guitar Project, essentially forsaking his job as an advertising copywriter in New York, where he now resides, becomes even more remarkable when you consider that he doesn’t consider himself a guitarist or, for that matter, a musician of any kind.

“No, definitely not a musician,” Adams says, laughing. “I’ve picked up guitars and can play a few chords, but there was no impetus for me to promote my own music through this or anything like that. I’ve never written a song. I have no intention of involving myself musically with this project in any way.”

So, let’s ask the question: Whatever inspired this idea to leap into his mind? Flash back to 2011, an intimate New Year’s Eve party in New York: “The host passed out little books where we were to write our intentions for the New Year,” Adams recalls. “Well, I’d had a couple of drinks, I felt pretty good, and I wrote, ‘I’m going to be an artist this year.’ I really didn’t know what that meant or how it was going to happen. I just wanted to focus on being creative. Not thinking about making money necessarily, just driving it from a creative standpoint and exploring my artistic side.”

He could have explored painting or documentaries or modern dance. But it’s possible Adams opted toward music, and the guitar, for two reasons: One, as he notes, it’s extremely portable and easy to pass from one player to the next; and he may have been subconsciously influenced by his eight-year bromance with Brooklyn singer-producer Brandon Wilde, a man Adams describes as “one of my closest friends, and one of the best voices I’ve ever heard live … the musician other musicians respect.”

Fact is that Wilde might have inspired the whole concept. “We’ve been doing that kind of thing for so long,” Wilde says. “I’ve been coming over to his apartment, picking up his guitar and just playing with him, making up songs on the spot.”

Adams may not know how to play, but he knows how to promote, from years spent working at Madison Avenue heavyweights like J. Walter Thompson and Campbell-Ewald. “You realize, ‘Hey, wait, I know what I’m doing when it comes to big ideas,’” he says. After building the look, slogan and marketing of his notion, and when time came to launch TAGP, Adams handed the guitar to his old bud Brandon.

“I was flattered, but [there was] also probably a little fear — ‘Oh, God, I’ve got to come up with a song in a week? How am I going to do this?’” Wilde recalls. “I was the first, so I didn’t have the advantage of getting to hear other people’s ideas and stuff. But I was inspired, and I was able to conjure a song. Something came to me relatively quick, but then I had to do some crafting.”

The result was an airy, melancholy ballad called “Deep Blue Secret,” the project’s premiere composition. “I think I write a lot of these kind of lonely love songs,” says Wilde, who plays in two New York bands (one called the All Night Chemists), produced the latest CD for rising Irish songwriter Niall Connolly and has enjoyed moderate success in his own recording career. “I just get into a space, and I guess I’m a romantic at heart.”

Wilde says the song (which, like all original tunes composed for the project, can be heard on TAGP’s website) was inspired by his on-again, off-again girlfriend of many years, Briana Winter — who became the second person to receive the guitar. “At that point I was definitely writing a lot of stuff to her, to one degree or another,” he admits. “She’s a phenomenal songwriter, but she had taken a little hiatus.”

The New York guitar is currently in the hands of its 34th composer. Adams’ plan was for that guitar to travel around the world indefinitely, providing motivation and acquiring autographs, but you know how New Yorkers are. “When I realized it was staying in New York I started a second guitar and decided, ‘OK, the New York guitar, I’ll let it go indefinitely. That one has its own rules and that’s what it’s doing,’” he concedes. “But for the other guitars, I want a beginning, a middle and an end; because that’s life. That’s what happens. I think something loses its value when it goes on forever. For New York, it’s different. That’s kind of a piece of art now. That’s something I want to have like 100 signatures on.”

“He’s a deep appreciator of music, and of people in general,” Wilde says of his friend. “Dave is so incredibly articulate, he’s able to take ideas or thoughts or whatever and explain them to people in a way that is just amazing. He’s got a gift. You want to be around Dave, because he’s got so much energy coming off him. I get scared sometimes he could hurt himself with all that energy. He’s a special cat.”

It’s a restless energy that compelled Adams to sell his house in Ferndale at just the right moment economically and use his profits to travel around the world three times in his 30s. By his estimate, he’s set his sandals down in more than 40 countries over the past decade and lived for a year in Australia. So naturally, when he realized he could fahgheddabout the NYC guitar ever leaving the Big Apple, yet wanted to go international with his project, the nation he chose was … Finland!?

“I was going to Europe on vacation, and I’d already purchased the second guitar,” he explains. He stopped in Finland to visit his friend Nicole Hejlt, who performed in the same improv comedy troupe with Adams when she lived in New York in 2011 and was working as a morning radio announcer on station Yle in Helsinki, Finland’s equivalent to the BBC. “He started the Project while I was still in New York,” Hejlt says via FaceTime. “I told him, ‘If you’re at all interested in doing something in Finland, I could do a story on the Project and help you out.’” What ad guy can resist exposure like that?

TAGP’s first international participant was 22-year-old Axel Ehnström (better known in Finland by his stage name, Paradise Oskar), who made it to the finals of Eurovision, Europe’s long-running forerunner of American Idol, in 2011.

“Nicole contacted me and asked if I was interested,” Ehnström emails. “I love writing music and I love challenges, so it sounded great to me. I’m pretty young so my songwriting routine is sloppy, and at first I was a little scared I wouldn’t get anything done. But I ended up writing three songs that week, one in Finnish, one in Swedish and one in English, and I felt like a king!”

Ultimately, 20 musicians took their turn at the Helsinki guitar, and 15 of them arrived at a tiny club called Mussa Kista (Finnish for “Black Cat”) last January to perform their compositions live for the Project’s culminating concert. “It was the coldest day of the year in Helsinki, minus-10 degrees,” Adams remembers. “And the place was completely packed. It was amazing because I had seen pictures of these [musicians], but many of them had never seen me. I didn’t even know how to pronounce their names!

“I got up and introduced the show, and as I began talking about it I just started crying,” he says. “It was a really emotional moment for me because I was tired, for one, and I had been working so hard to get it all together. In Finland they don’t show a lot of public displays of emotion, and I think people were very surprised to see that. I surprised myself! It added something to the room, and for the entire show every single person was completely, intently focused on the person performing. No one was on [his or her] phone, no one was talking. People had their eyes closed, nodding their heads and listening. It was unbelievable. I’m getting choked up just talking about it. It was incredibly moving and rewarding because it felt like all the work I had done was really, really worth it. It was one of the best nights of my life.”

 

Detroit’s Guitar: ‘This Symphony, This City’

Adams’ experience as a world traveler gave him the confidence — or delusion — to journey to Haiti with very unstructured plans, certain he could make something happen. “Let me tell you, it’s a lot of work to shoot in Haiti,” he sighs. But his work netted such aural and visual treasures as a blind musician who poured out his soul musically from his tumbledown home in the Tent City.

Karma, Adams says, has played a major role in his city selection and the ongoing role of TAGP. For example, when deciding where a guitar should be started in Latin America, he heard Michael Zsoldos, an accomplished jazz musician and instructor at the University of Vermont, tell the story of how complete strangers Joel Waldman and his family aided him in the hospital after he was stabbed by bandits while on tour in Colombia. Adams sensed immediately that Waldman was the man and Bogotá was the place.

“This reaffirms to me that nothing is by chance and we are all connected,” says Waldman, a Colombian-born Jew whose grandparents escaped Poland before the Nazi invasion. “I got so excited with this project that I have been [Adam’s] link here, buying the guitar, hiring the photographer and booking the venue among other things. It is important to give to others when you believe something comes from the heart.”

And the story of how Victor Long, a software engineer from Maryland, became the man not only to hand-make the guitar being used for the Detroit rotation of TAGP, but to name the instrument as well, is a story almost worthy of being a separate story.

Long happened upon the project’s TV pilot-aspirations while perusing the Kickstarter website. “I frequent the site because I see these passionate people doing these amazing things, large and small,” he says. The proposal struck a chord with Long on multiple levels: he holds a bachelor’s degree in TV-film production, he’s a former amateur musician and he builds custom guitars in his spare time through his website, minorbird.com. He made a contribution to the Project, and when Adams, who contacted all his donors personally, called Long to say thanks, the conversation blossomed.

Long took two weeks off from work to craft the instrument and gave it to Adams for free. Then came the process of naming it, a tradition all the project’s previous guitars share. Adams ceded the honor to the builder, but “I’m not from Detroit,” Long says. “I didn’t feel like I could just make up a name. The name had to somehow derive from the Detroit experience.”

The engineer did his research. He read books, listened to everything from Motown to techno, and devoured Detroit-born poetry. Finally he happened upon the poem “Detroit Bre[a]d” by Will Langford, a winner of the 2010 Detroit Jazz Fest Poetry Slam. “There was a phrase in it, ‘this symphony, this city,’ that really jumped out at me,” says Long. (A video version of the poem can be seen on YouTube.)

Not wishing to use Langford’s words without his permission, Long tracked him down — in Kenya — where Langford, a graduate student at Penn State, is performing a summer educational mission. Long explained, Langford approved, and Detroit’s guitar had a name.

Someday soon, it also will have its first player. “All I do is think about how to make this better, all the time,” Adams says. “For me it’s truly about, how can we make more magic? Where’s the magic at? A lot of times, it’s just getting people excited and creating something beautiful for them.”

Jim McFarlin is a freelance writer based in Indiana who regularly contributes to the Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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Comments in violation of the rules will be denied, and repeat violators will be banned. Please help police the community by flagging offensive comments for our moderators to review. By posting a comment, you agree to our full terms and conditions. Click here to read terms and conditions.
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