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Artist Spotlight Q & A

Calendar Girl

The following QA with Calendar Girl was conducted in May 2008 by spinmeister.

In October 2006, singer song-writer Tamara Barnett-Herrin from London in the UK published a one sentence challenge to herself and to remixers around the World Wide Web: “I write one song a month. You remix and feedback. We make a record.” This experiment in songwriting and remix culture unlike any other yielded over 300 remixes, setting a new record at ccMixter. Twelve of them have been chosen to be published in an album titled Calendar Songs Volume I. Known to the ccMixter community as Calendar Girl, she has graciously agreed to an interview with ccMixter.

spin: Hi Tamara. First of all thank you very much for taking the time for this interview. It must be pretty exciting times as you get ready for the official release of your first Calendar Songs album. So how did you first get into making music?

Tamara: I started singing lessons around 7 years ago. I was nursing a pipe dream to sing, and I lucked out with a fantastic teacher, Gillyanne Keyes. She really helped me. With the singing I was immediately thinking about writing and composing my own songs as well, the two things went together. I wrote some stuff and had a demo of songs a couple of years later, around 2003 or so. At the same time I was getting involved with Freeform Five and was a vocalist on their album “Strangest Things”. We toured that record a lot, so that whole time I was working hard and trying to improve.

spin: How did you first get involved with remixing?

Tamara: I’ve always been into dance music - and remix culture is an inherent part of that scene. Perhaps arguably dance music is kind of responsible for remix culture. So the concept of a remix wasn’t foreign to me. I remember the early Bjork remix records and stuff like that… how nerdy you could get as you tried to get the most obscure mixes of your favorite tracks.

spin: (laughs) Some of us think, it’s good to be a little nerdy! — What inspired you to do the Calendar Songs project?

Tamara: I was tired of writing demos only to hit a wall. I’d produced two demo CDs and I was giving them to people but I wasn’t really hustling them around. That scene kind of turns my stomach. I’m not afraid of playing people my songs but it feels so uncomfortable to sit in someone’s office and sell yourself. I’d rather my songs speak for themselves but there’s only so much talking they can do when they sit in a pile of CD-Rs in someone’s bedroom, or lost in the mail, or whatever. My growing frustration was also counterbalanced by a growing interest in what the web could do. I knew I had to get some kind of web presence together and somehow myspace didn’t cut it. So I fashioned the idea of Calendar Songs.

spin: And how did ccMixter enter the equation?

Tamara: About 18 months ago, I Googled “remix” and started posting my vocal tracks in the a cappella section of ccMixter.

spin: And how did that work out?

Tamara: The majority of remixes came via ccMixter. It has been totally invaluable and without it, this project wouldn’t have the kind of momentum that it has now gathered.

spin: Sometimes it almost seems like there are as many ways of selecting “winners” as there are contests. What was your process of selecting the 12 songs for the album? Was it more intuitive, was it very cerebral, did you enlist other opinions or pretty much went with your own favorites?

Tamara: Ultimately I went for remixes that served the song the best. For example, Incoherent Mumble Train’s mix of “ February”, which was an editors pic at ccMixter, has this really simple and very uplifting excitement about it that sort of epitomizes the spirit of the song, which is a super-romantic, happy love song. There are a lot of great remixes that I ended up not choosing because although they were amazing and inventive it didn’t feel like a reaction to the song itself. I went for choices that felt “right” in that way, … that chimed. I wanted real variation on the record, but I got that automatically as there was such variety in the mixes submitted. It came down to my decision, and I had a lot of favorites that didn’t make it.

Listen to Incoherent Mumble Train’s mix of “February”

spin: Did you end up getting any negative reactions from remixers who felt spurned for not having their remix included?

Tamara: I didn’t have any negative feedback about the final selection. Isn’t that cool?! I love that. I think its because I’ve been very enthusiastic about everything that I’ve posted on the site. Why split hairs, you know? Even if it’s not a style of mix that I prefer, having all these different takes on my songs is a pleasure and a privilege. I think people picked up on my attitude and my calendarsongs site reflects it. Even if it’s not your favorite flavor, who doesn’t like ice cream?

spin: For some of us who have dabbled in songwriting, it can be a rather difficult undertaking. Was it easy for you to write a new song each month?

Tamara: Every month I would bitch and moan that I was never going to get that song done! People in my house had to walk on eggshells when it was crunch time — I was a massive diva about it. Having that pressure on makes a huge difference, and my songwriting got a big fat workout.

spin: (laughs) So you were a Calendar Diva? — Have you written any more songs since September, the final song in the cycle?

Tamara: I’ve not been doing any writing for myself since Calendar Songs finished, although I’ve been writing for others. It feels like a fast before a feast, or maybe I am feasting on as many influences and inputting as many ideas as I can before I fast, and start writing the next record! I’m thinking of maybe doing the reverse and writing as many songs as possible in just one month.

spin: That sounds like an incredible challenge. — Some songwriters have a repeatable process like starting with the lyrics or starting a melody or chord progression, other writers don’t. What is your method for song writing? Where do you draw your inspirations for your songs?

Tamara: I take a lot of ideas from books and movies. I keep a bunch of notebooks around and do a lot of automatic writing, which generates material that I can then go back over and scavenge for interesting lyrical ideas that might springboard me into something. The Calendar Songs were all inspired by very specific incidents or ideas, as they were all written in the space of one month, so in that sense they had an intellectual genesis rather than a purely musical one. I would gather my attention around an idea and then a formal arrangement that suited that mood would suggest itself. So for example with the “January” song I was a bit obsessed at that time with New Years resolutions, which led to me to the current thinking about rehabilitation and “making yourself anew” - all that bullshit. Meditating on this theme I realized I could make a song of broken resolutions, a list and a litany of trashed vows.

spin: And it’s a theme, which a lot of us can relate to! … continuing with your process, now that the song was written, how did you get it recorded?

Tamara: I am completely rubbish with the technical side of things. I record into Garage Band, even though I do have Logic Express — how lazy is that? A couple of years ago after stupidly following peoples recommendations, I got an MPC that didn’t get much usage! Thankfully my sister inherited it and she was much better at it than I was. I realized I was going to make a deal with the devil and concentrate entirely on songwriting and practicing my singing and not pay any attention to the technical stuff. If you heard a bad recording of a good song, with a good performance, you’d go, “OK, I can hear something here” That’s what I was counting on at least!

spin: (laughs) Sounds like a lot of remixers could definitely “hear something there”. So it’s pretty much you and your Mac …

Tamara: … with an AKG acoustic mic. The one concession I made to technical detailing with this project was to buy a popper-stopper.

spin: (laughs) Which every remixer is grateful for, because that’s pretty difficult to “fix in the mix”! — I think it takes quite a bit of courage to let go of your voice in raw and unprocessed form for anyone to tamper with … errr… remix as they see fit. Not everyone has that courage. Some are too self conscious or shy and others are concerned about maintaining “artistic control”. Now that you’ve been remixed over 300 times, what would you say to singers with those concerns?

Tamara: Screw it! What’s the point of preciously guarding your work? Let it go, let me interact with it and mutate it. As a listener and a fan I want to hear different interpretations of my favorite artists’ work! I’m curious about it. And I think by opening up your work to interpretation. People will respect your vision as an artist, and your opinion, more highly. People respect that bravery. At least I do.

spin: So opening your music allows you to intensify your relationship with your audience. Speaking of “open music”, as you know, ccMixter is sponsored by the Creative Commons, who are the authors and maintainers of the Creative Commons licenses and provide tools for artists to share their work while still maintaining some rights of their choosing to those works. Now that you’ve had significant experience with the Creative Commons open licensing, would you recommend the use of such licenses to other artists and why?

Tamara: Yes. Go for it. It is a pre-existing online network with very high standards. An audience any artist would be foolish to ignore! The Calendar Songs project is due in large part to ccMixter.

spin: And when will the first Calendar Songs album come out and how will people be able to get it?

Tamara: May 26th. You’ll be able to get it through or CD Baby or, and hopefully in a few good specialist record stores too.

spin: So there will be physical CDs — cool. Will you release the album commercially?

Tamara: I am having a CD made at considerable expense so - commercial release, guys! Download will be cheaper. People like to have an object in their hands — the end result. And I like it too, I think it’s important with a project like this to have some kind of final product.

spin: Now you really have me intrigued - a project, entirely born in the Creative Commons domain evolving into a commercial undertaking, which I believe is one of the intents of the Creative Commons approach to open music. However, since some Creative Commons licensing doesn’t cover commercial use, you had to make separate arrangements with the respective remixers featured on your album?

Tamara: I had a license agreement drawn up. When you want to release a compilation record you license music from different artists and labels so this is exactly the same principle except that the license is directly made with each remixer/artist. The license states that the new recording we made together is a 50/50 co-write. Remixers shouldn’t get a one-off fee and not see any publishing. Especially in this case where brand new music was written for my ‘pellas.

spin: This is refreshing to hear, since there are quite a few instances where original artists and/or their publishing companies make remixers agree to abandon all publishing rights — even for commercial use…

Tamara: This whole project is about “WE make a record”. I might be leading it and bossing everybody around but essentially it is collaboration. One of the remixers mastered the project, one of the remixers designed the cover art and the logo, and all of the remixers are involved in how we move forward and market this record. I wanted to motivate the remixers to be involved in bringing this project to the further attention of the rest of the planet - and what better way to do that than make a deal where they have a fair and deserved stake in the potential revenue? Quite apart from the fact that if you are writing all new music for a new recording of an original song (which is how I would define remix), then you SHOULD get publishing on that new recording.

spin: So, not only your artistic model, but also your business model is based on collaboration - very refreshing indeed. And did you register your songs with any performance rights organization, which might become interesting, if/when some of the songs end up getting radio play or other covered public performances?

Tamara: I am a member of PRS (Performing Right Society) in the UK and have registered the original songs, which I retain all the rights of, and the remixes, which have this new publishing split. PRS are also now giving performance royalties for YouTube you know…

spin: And there are similar organizations in many other countries, who tend to have reciprocals deals with each other. Speaking of performances — have you ever performed any of the remix versions of Calendar Songs live?

Tamara: I’ve done PAs to CD playback and I did a show at Pianos in NYC with Incoherent Mumble Train and eskimo-esque where we sort of figured out who would play what parts. There was live guitar, bass, percussion, sequencers and the rest was to track. It would be interesting to do something with one of the really minimal acoustic remixes live as well as the more energetic electronic ones. I’m going to do a record release party and there will be some live stuff there!

spin: That will be something to look forward to and I hope somebody will shoot some video! What have you been up to since the official end of the Calendar Songs project in the fall of last year?

Tamara: When I stopped writing songs each month, I felt like I was going into free-fall. I badly missed the structure and discipline that Calendar Songs had given me, so I decided to train for a marathon. I know. I ran the Paris marathon in early April in four hours and twelve minutes and loved every minute of it. ditto-ditto was there to wish me well too, although we didn’t see each other with the 30,000 other runners getting in the way - allez-allez!

spin: (laughs) A marathon may be a pretty good metaphor for being in the music business these days! And on the music side?

Tamara: I’ve been really busy just getting this release together. All the mixes I chose needed some polishing, and I worked with each of the remixers on how we wanted to improve the mixes. I re-recorded vocals completely for several of the mixes and recorded backing vocals also. Then there was the mastering, which has been done by the amazing and fantastically talented Mr. Darkroom. And getting the artwork ready for the CD, etc., etc., etc. It has been a steep learning curve but I figure that if I ever want to release another record it will be easier the second time around. I’m also working with Freeform Five on their new album, as well as a couple of other artists.

Listen to ‘before’ and ‘after’ of Old Dog’s “April” remix

spin: On behalf of ccMixter, thank you so much for taking the time for this interview and may you have wild success with Calendar Songs and your other endeavors!

Tamara: And a big thank you to the ccMixter community for the fantastic reception and support of my songs. It has been amazing and I fully intend to re-visit the site with some new material soon!