Prelude to a Dream
This is the story of my best birthday present ever. One of the hallmarks of adulthood is realizing that paychecks allow you to buy yourself gifts; and who knows you better than you? Armed with a modest but steady income, on the eve of my quarter-century day, I made an investment in my own happiness by contributing to Schematic’s campaign on Indiegogo.
If you look at that page, the perk I pledged for has actually been removed, but it was the highest honor:
Acoustic House Show — Dave will come to your house and perform a private show for you and your friends playing Schematic & MAE songs. ***This show will have to be booked in conjunction with the Schematic Spring Tour (March/April 2013)
Maybe I should catch you up. Schematic is an ambitious new music industry endeavor being run out of Nashville. It encompasses a recording studio, a label for distribution, management for a stable of artists, and a planned social network element. Also under the same moniker is the solo work of Dave Elkins, the creator and head of the entire suite of programs. I’ve written about this before.
Now let me give you something you can relate to, whether you’re familiar with his work or not. Throughout the 2000’s, Elkins fronted a Virginia-based act, Mae. I’ll spare you any effusion over their catalog or neologic genre discussions, because I want you to think about musicians who have become deeply embedded in your own story. Mae is woven through the whole fabric of my love life. Lyrics from their songs, found in an AIM profile circa 2003, sparked some of the first conversations I had with… this girl. I still have the ticket from February 9, 2008 when this girl and I had our first date: Mae, in concert at our college. Last summer, I danced with this girl to a Mae song in front of friends and family, the first dance of our wedding reception.
Schematic is an idea I would back regardless, but Elkins at the helm adds personal meaning. Arranging this house show proved knotty, as the Schematic Spring Tour was largely a casualty of strep throat infecting the tour van and the many cogs turning in Nashville demanded perennial round-the-clock attention. Nevertheless, my expectations were high for my birthday present to myself.
We brought on an opener, Marilyn Auza, a disciple of many acoustic guitar stylings. We sent invitations, electronically, of course. We cleaned the house, we stocked up on refreshments, and 536 days after making our pledge, “this girl” and I played host to the concert event of our young lives.
This section was written by Dan.
When Colton invited me to his Dave Elkins house show, he included a note that Marilyn Auza would be the opener. He shared a link to her YouTube channel. Her video recordings are lo-fi, but decent, so I had the expectation that I would enjoy Auza’s set.
But I didn’t just enjoy her set, I was blown away by it. Auza is a skilled songwriter, both in preparing intricate acoustic guitar compositions and writing heartfelt lyrics to accompany her songs. Her style is immediate and perfectly suited for the stage of a living room. She played about a dozen songs, with a wide variety of styles and tones — from romantic to carefree to conscientious. It was an excellent way to start the evening.
If you’d like to read a little bit more about Auza, I interviewed her and wrote a bit more about her performance here. I’ll hand the mic back over to Colton to talk about the main attraction of the evening.
By contrast, the living room was in some ways a strange place for Elkins’s music. His recent work has been somewhat technical and heavy on production, with much added to the melodies in the layers of each track. And Mae’s best mid-concert acoustic numbers were always played on keys, not guitar. This is where it came in handy that a couple of us in the audience knew so much Mae by heart.
Yet this apparently imperfect format actually created some powerful moments that would never have been possible at a rock club. Elkins was able to focus all of his energies on crystallizing the best version of every song, every note, and would commit enormous force to the task. Even—especially—during slow or soft sections, his face would contort with sheer exertion and emotion.
This was most true during an instrumental that led into the mountainous “Giving It Away” from Destination: Beautiful. Later, recovering with a sip of water, he explained to our little crowd that the instrumental was the piece to which his wife had walked down the aisle just over four years ago, a piece he had written. Frail and graceful, it was the polar opposite of another special treat he unpacked for us: “Going to School,” a belligerently sing-songey verse repeated ad infinitum. Found as a hidden track on a collection of Mae B-sides, it’s something he wrote on tour to play in the van for the express purpose of annoying everybody else.
(The beauty of it was cutting out the racket after the bandmates had moaned enough, only to hear someone humming the diabolically infectious tune twenty minutes later.)
The rest of the set was a jaunt through Mae and Schematic’s combined repertoire. We caught Elkins off guard with a couple of requests, but he was happy to oblige, even if he had to hop online to look up chords for his own songs once or twice. A highlight came near the end of the night when Elkins delayed his last few songs in order to invite Auza up with him to perform some impromptu duets, on anything they both happened to know. He played backup on “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” as well as a pair of Beatles songs, but took the reins for “A Day in the Life,” a classic he covered in 2005 for the special edition of Mae’s The Everglow.
Dan again. Duh.
My familiarity with Mae and Elkins prior to the living room show would best be descibed as “passing.” I saw Mae live in 2006 as an opener to Relient K, one of my favorite bands. I don’t remember much about that show except that the sound mixing of The Electric Factory made it tough to discern Elkins’s vocals. I also contributed to Schematic’s Indiegogo campaign, but this was based on Colton’s impassioned rally moreso than my prior allegiance to Elkins.
That said, I was thoroughly won over by both Elkins’s performance and his personality. As I listened to the show, I could tell that songs were initially designed for a full-band setting — some tracks felt a bit aimless without a backing band. But it was quite pleasant — each song felt stripped down to its emotive core. I was swept away by the powerful tunes and lyrics even though I didn’t already know them by heart.
But my favorite memory of the evening has to be chatting with Colton and Elkins after the show finished. Elkins’s acumen and passion shine with every word he says, and I remain proud of my modest contribution to Schematic crowdsourcing. He shared with us his huge ambition for the Schematic project, and gave hints for what may be happening in the near future.
I’ll remember this special night for a long time. It was a unique chance to enjoy an intimate performance and conversation with a groundbreaking, forward-thinking musician. I’ll cherish the memory of the show itself, and even moreso the joyous look on the face of my great friend Colton.
The people loved Auza’s soul and her intricate technique. I was impressed, and will be keeping in close touch with her as she develops and hopefully continues to make new material available. But of course, for me, the big magic of the evening was in getting to know Elkins.
His parents actually showed up to our house with him, since they often support him on tour and don’t live too far away. With their help, I was able to get the story-behind-the-story on a few songs: “The Fisherman Song (We All Need Love),” with all its Biblical imagery, was largely just a retelling of one night’s dream; more adorably, “I Just Needed You to Know” was first performed as Elkins’s way of proposing to his then-girlfriend.
On the business end, Elkins shared a lot of his plans and vision for Schematic. He had driven to our place straight from a pre-production gig with a Leesburg, VA band whose pledge perk from the Indiegogo campaign entitled them to record one song with him. All things Schematic are gaining speed lately, and that acceleration will only increase once Elkins finishes hand-numbering and signing vinyl for all his faithful backers. (It’s a labor of love that can take 15 minutes per package.)
There are plans for a social networking platform through which anyone comfortable with Facebook or Twitter could integrate Schematic seamlessly into their mobile life. While still nebulous, the tool would allow artists in various media to connect, collaborate, or compete, but always to create. Also in the plans is a sort of Schematic academy that would provide education and professional training—maybe even accredited two-year programs—with the goal of teaching musicians how to monetize their passion so as to make it sustainable without corrupting it. It’s not so simple.
My personal highlights came out of shooting the breeze about everything from Steely Dan to Porcupine Tree to Death Cab for Cutie. This concert was an unreal opportunity, and it left me feeling hopeful and inspired. While I once thought the Mae era was over, Elkins is still pushing forward ventures that seem conspicuously absent from the current music industry landscape. Plus, his songwriting edge is sharper than ever, and now he’s got his own studio.
Keep your eyes and ears open. Big things are just around the corner.