A City’s Stories, Unplugged
An off-the-cuff New Year’s resolution by one man to be ‘more creative’ has since morphed into an international contest seeking ‘something beautiful’ from its musically inclined participants.
Published: July 9, 2013
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.
> Email Jim McFarlin