Continuing the tradition here of posting interviews with storytellers of all stripes and polka dots, we’ve got Geek Bard John Anealio, also of the Functional Nerds podcast. He’s a funny dude, a smart man, and a kick-ass musician — fan of Jonathan Coulton? Do check out Mister Anealio’s work at johnanealio.com where you can download some free awesome music. Find him on the Twitters: @JohnAnealio. Oh, uhhh, also? JOHN TOTALLY DID A TERRIBLEMINDS SONG. You’ll find it in the interview, below.
This is a blog about writing and storytelling. So, tell us a story. As short or long as you care to make it. As true or false as you see it.
I’ve been a music performer for 20 years now. I’ve played every type of venue that you can imagine: bars, coffee shops, restaurants, ice cream parlors, churches, VFW halls, hookah bars, book stores, libraries and more. The most memorable gig that I ever played was with a cover band at a strip club. Now, that sounds awesome, but it was actually horrible. First off, the name of the band was “Hoosier Daddy”. Second, we weren’t performing for the dancers, we were performing instead of the dancers. The owner of this club thought it was a great idea to give the dancers a night off and hire our crappy college cover band to perform as a substitute. We proceeded to play the pop hits of the day (we did a mean version of “Breakfast At Tiffanies”) to a never-ending stream of horny dudes who walked in the door and were wildly disappointed to discover that the regular entertainment was replaced by a quartet of flannel clad douche bags playing Goo Goo Dolls songs. By the end of our set, all four of us were hammered… and shirtless.
The capper to this story is that the gig was on the Saturday night before Easter and it was Daylight Savings Time Weekend. Oh, and I had to play guitar for a children’s choir mass the next day. Being sleep deprived, hungover and covered in glitter is no way to accompany children singing “We Gather Together”.
Why do you tell stories?
Lessons are learned through stories. A good storyteller not only entertains, but educates. I’ve been a teacher for almost as long as I’ve been a musician and students learn best through stories, even inane ones.
When performing, I like to tell little stories that help to give my songs context. A song can have a much greater impact if you prime the audience with a relevant story first.
Give the audience one piece of writing or storytelling advice:
Write with all five senses. A lot of songs, even great ones, are “feeling” songs. You know: “I love you baby”, “I need you”, “I want you”, “I can’t live without you”. This is fine, but there are a ga-zillion songs like this. I think one of the most powerful songwriting techniques is to describe the situation to the listener with all five senses. Even if it’s a straight up love song, describe what’s going on. Where are you? What do you see? What does she look like? What is she wearing? What do you hear? Cars in the street? Boardwalk creaking? A song on the radio? What do you smell? Salt water? Gasoline? What do you taste? What are you touching?
I think you can really take a listener on a journey if you do this. Ironically, I think the listener can feel so much more if you describe in sensory detail what’s going on, rather than just saying: “I feel like my heart is breaking”.
What’s the worst piece of writing/storytelling advice you’ve ever received?
I was in a band with a drummer who was the primary songwriter. While discussing songwriting one day, he told me that: “real songwriters don’t use rhyming dictionaries”. Besides being an incredibly arrogant statement, that is truly horrible advice. Rhyming dictionaries not only help you construct better rhymes, they help you write better stories. They may reveal a word that can send the story of your song into a completely different direction that can make your tune much deeper and more memorable.
What goes into writing a strong character? Bonus round: give an example of a strong character.
Flaws. Vulnerability. Ironically, a character’s weakness will reveal their strength. How someone deals with adversity and how they overcome their weaknesses ultimately proves how strong they are.
So many strong characters, but I’m going to go with Arlen from Peter V. Brett’s THE WARDED MAN. Such a relatable character that develops into an utter badass.
What’s the secret to storytelling in songs?
Sequence. If you take a song and put the second verse first and the first verse second, and it doesn’t really make a difference, then there’s no story. Each verse, each line should develop the characters and story. The first verse should introduce the situation and character(s). The subsequent verses should move the action forward. The bridge or break should present new information or look at the situation from a different point of view. Otherwise, it’s better to not have a bridge at all.
Favorite songs that tell stories. Pick three. Go.
1. “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” by Richard Thompson http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j0kJdrfzjAg
2. “Red Barchetta” by Rush http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=djVGhqvl_8A
3. “Another Auld Lang Syne” by Dan Fogelberg http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ar9Ip7pSqEg
What’s a musical artist we should all be listening to but aren’t?
There are so many amazing singer/songwriters out there that most people have never heard of. I can’t pick just one. Here are three:
1. Kelly Joe Phelps
2. Peter Mulvey
3. Jeffrey Foucault
In my opinion, these are the three best singer/songwriter/guitarists performing folk music these days. They all had a profound impact on my own writing, guitar playing and performing. If you like literate story songs, soulful singing and stunning acoustic guitar work, then you can’t go wrong with any of these guys. Pop their names into YouTube and prepare to kill a few hours.
What geek topic or pop culture property deserves a song that doesn’t yet have one?
All of them. Let me clarify. Back in the day, TV shows used to have theme songs that would really lay out the story behind the show. Nowadays, songs are put into movies to evoke a feeling. Lyrically, they usually have very little to do with the source material. “Live to Rise” by Soundgarden was the theme song to The Avengers movie. It has nothing to do with The Avengers! Hey Marvel, why not hire Jonathan Coulton, Kirby Krackle or me to write a song that is actually about The Avengers? I work cheap.
What’s an average day like in life of John Anealio, Geek Bard?
Wake up at 5:30am. Get to the day job (elementary school music teacher) at 6:30am. Do my creative work from 6:30am to 8:30am before my students and co-workers arrive. During this two hour period, I’ll work on recording and editing whatever my latest song is. Fortunately, we live in a world where you can make a pretty professional recording with a good mic, audio interface and laptop. I teach my morning classes from 8:30am to 11:30am. I continue working on my song during my lunch hour. I get home at around 4pm and take care of my son until about 6:30. After dinner, I do about an hour at the gym. I usually try to put another hour of work on the song in before I go to bed.
If you had to write a song about terribleminds, what would the chorus be?
I actually wrote a tune and recorded it. Here’s the link: Terrible Mind Song If you are so inclined, you can click the share/embed button to get the code to embed the player widget within the blog post.
If you look inside his terrible mind
You’re bound to be offended
So don’t look inside the terrible mind
Of the man they call Chuck Wendig
Recommend a book, comic book, film, or game: something with great story. Go!
CONTROL POINT by Myke Cole. Blackhawk Down meets the X-Men. If you dig military sci-fi, D&D and the afformentioned X-Men then you will love this book.
Favorite word? And then, the follow up: Favorite curse word?
Appoggiatura: which is a type of musical grace note. I just like the way it sounds.
Cock-wad: I find myself yelling this when I get angry these days. Sometimes I shorten it to wad, which seems even more vulgar for some reason.
Favorite alcoholic beverage? (If cocktail: provide recipe. If you don’t drink alcohol, fine, fine, a non-alcoholic beverage will do.)
I’m a beer and wine kind of guy. If I want to catch a buzz quicker, than I’d say red wine. If I had to pick a favorite based on taste, I’d go with a nice beer like a Blue Moon or a Sam Adams.
What skills do you bring to help the humans win the inevitable war against the robots?
The ability to bore the robots to death with my endless, narcissistic blathering. I’m also an excellent swing dancer.
What’s next for you as a storyteller? What does the future hold?
Good question. I want to continue churning out good songs and releasing singles, albums and E.P.s. I have lots of awesome spec-fic author friends. It makes me want to do more collaborative work. Perhaps a concept album tied to a novel, like what Rush just did with Kevin J. Anderson for CLOCKWORK ANGELS. Maybe some sort of trans-media thing. I don’t know. I’m excited to have the opportunity to work on any of it.