Dylan Drake takes on the RPM Challenge
By Brian Tucker
Local singer-songwriter and musician completes new album in 30 days. Last fall Dylan Drake released his debut Struggling Still and in order to help keep the creativity going he decided to accept the RPM Challenge – make an album of 10 original songs (or 35 minutes worth of music) during the month of February.
The Challenge, beginning in 2006 via staff at Portsmouth, New Hampshire alt-newspaper The Wire, happens each year and its intent is to push musicians to create or finish material. Drake heard about RPM while listening to NPR’s All Things Considered podcast several years ago.
His new album Dreaming so Well is singer-songwriter material awash in ambiance, cool energy, and haunted melodies. It can be streamed at Bandcamp. Be sure to check out “Potomac,” “Playing Pretend,” and “Open Up My Eyes.” Below, Drake answered a few questions about the album, what he learned, and the challenge of creating it.
What parameters did you give yourself in which to write songs, such as theme or style?
Drake: Musically, I sat down every day for the first week and recorded any ideas that came to mind. For song forms I picked some “template” songs that I loved and thought would lend some insight – Wilco, Beck, Iron and Wine, etc.
Lyrically, I got to fuse my faith into the album more than anything I’ve written before. It’s not overt, but throughout the process I was reading the book of Isaiah with my church. There are a lot of parallels I drew to our country and culture so the songs are character pieces and personification that unified into a theme. Having that theme definitely helped me shape phrases and go new places with my writing, it was helpful.
These songs show you, afield of last year’s Struggling Still. Were you looking to create an album like this stylistically regardless of the RPM?
Trying to keep things coherent – theme, instrumentation, style, was kind of like juggling while riding a unicycle – a lot of focus to keep from wiping out I had ideas of what I would like the music to reflect but at the end of the day I needed to write and wrap it up. I think it offers a little more of an intimate look at my influences.
“Happy” and “Open Up My Eyes” have a traveling feel. Is there more reflection underneath these songs than observation?
All the songs are serving the theme, as I see it. In that sense they are all very much about observation. While most of the songs are sung from a first person perspective, I’m trying to see it through a different character’s eyes. “Potomac” is probably the most reflective song for me, particularly in imagery and the desire of the character – caring for someone who is in trouble but can’t see it, yet.
What discoveries were made having to both write and record in a month’s time?
It was a really tough and anxious journey for me, one that I’m not particularly excited to repeat. However, I think every good craftsman has to be able to get to work and make a product with consistency – creativity is no exception. For that reason alone the RPM challenge is something I would recommend to artists at any level. Anything from a rock-opera masterpiece to taking 10 pop-songs and writing new lyrics and melodies to the chords would be eligible and encouraged, or weirder avant-garde stuff, of course.
As for my personal discoveries – be more forgiving and appreciative of your talents and what you do have. Don’t expect results before you’ve put in the time – get better one song at a time. As Elliot Smith said, “You can’t get better at things you never play.” Learn to handle family rhymes, assonant rhymes, line lengths, creating prosody – any of Pat Pattison’s books are great for this.
‘Mastering’ is a scary word in the audio community. Just get things sounding good at a good volume on different systems. This isn’t a major label release – re-visit the songs later if you need to, let your friends and fans grow with you on your journey, and give others the chance to support and affirm you. Practice finishing. Starting a project is fun, completing it is rewarding.