Musician Produces Online Songs, Videos Inspired by News for Boston.com

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By: David S. Hirschman

In 1934, celebrated author William Saroyan challenged himself to write one finished short story per day for a month, with the resulting work to be submitted to Story magazine for publication.

Seventy-three years later, Boston musician Jake Brennan is attempting a 21st century version of that feat, creating a hard-core folk song and video each morning for the Web site of the Boston Globe based on the day’s headlines from May 7-18. The music videos are posted every day by 3:30 p.m. on a special “Pop-Ed” blog on boston.com

The first song of the project, on May 7, called “21 Over 22” focused on the return of former Boston Red Sox star pitcher Roger Clemens to the New York Yankees:

back in ’84 number 21 soared (but now he?s just number 22)
two twenty K games and three Cy Young awards (but now he?s just number 22)
number 21 never bowed to no one
but now he?s the Boss? boy for 28 million
like jilted lovers we?re licking our wounds
say hey, so long, see you soon 22


The following song, “Four-hundred fifty-six billion reasons to…” addressed the cost of the Iraq War, while another, “My Duct Tape Prom Queen,” referred to a story about a high school couple’s unconventional clothing for the event. (To watch this music video and others, click here.)

“I feel like it’s my take on what modern folk music is,” says Brennan. “Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger all wrote about things that happened in the immediate timeframe; not just political songs, but just everything that was going on around them. And punk rock was an extension of folk music. Now it’s the information age and we have all these tools available to us, and, creatively, we’re at a crossroads of technology.”

The day’s song also airs each night on Boston’s 92.9 WBOS during the 9:00 p.m. hour. At the end of the project, the Web site and radio station will host a live concert with Brennan exclusively for audience members.

Brennan, a three-time Boston Music Award-winner who has recorded albums with the bands Cast Iron Hike and Confidence Men, has been waking up at 6 a.m. each day to write his songs so that the lyrics can be submitted to boston.com editor David Beard by 8:30 a.m.

“Thankfully there have been some stories that are easier to write about,” says Brennan. “Certain stories lend themselves to a lyric, so once I find one I’m off and running.”

While Beard says the approval process is “pretty rigorous,” he also says that the site is treating Brennan’s music as it would an opinion piece.

“By its name, Pop-Ed, [the feature] allows a certain latitude for the songwriter,” says Beard, who says that he hasn’t made any major changes in Brennan’s music so far. “It’s weird for a print or online editor to say ‘Can you work on that last verse please?’ It’s more about management than about us telling him what to sing about. It’s always going to be Jake’s voice.”

The only real guideline, Beard says, is that that Brennan has been told to focus on stories that are higher up on the homepage, and to take his inspiration largely from local stories.

“We want to keep this feature as hyper-local as possible,” says Beard. Still, in Brennan’s second song (May 8th), he was able to use a local issue, Boston’s Big Dig, and relate it to the cost of the War in Iraq.

Once the lyrics are approved, Brennan hits the studio, and a team of four or five producers at Luke Gassbarro’s Folk Hero Industries gets working on the video for the piece. Brennan has some melodies stockpiled which he then works the lyrics onto, and so far, he says, things have gone smoothly, with everything getting done on schedule, but that the time constraints of the project are really what makes it so difficult.

“There’s really no room for error and technical difficulties,” he says, “because the time just goes.”

Brennan’s project also includes a blog, in which he posts the lyrics to each day’s song and talks a bit about his reaction to the news and why he chose to focus on the items that he did.

Boston.com readers are encouraged to submit their own lyrics to Brennan, who will consider using them in his song, and they are also able to upload their own videos to the site, either in response to Brennan or offering their own musical take on the day’s events.

Stephanie Shore, the site’s director of marketing, says that the idea for the two-week promotional feature originated in conversations with a media buyer who was connected to Brennan. After that, she says, the project kept “mushrooming” as one idea begat another. Beard says that so far there has been a very positive response to the project.

“One reason why this music is connecting here is that Boston is just filled with students, and musicians, and frustrated musicians [who appreciate Brennan’s project],” says Beard. “Not to mention sort of obsessives who are too smart, who wish they could write these kinds of lyrics every day.”

Shore says that there have been some discussions about whether to continue the project later on with other artists, but wants to see how Brennan’s creation has fared after the two weeks are up. “It’s obviously an extremely ambitious undertaking,” she says.

But as ambitious as it is, Brennan doesn’t want people to think he has delusions of grandeur about the project.

“No one’s going to mistake what we’re doing with Brian Wilson’s Pet Sounds or Sgt. Pepper, and the videos we make aren’t Spielberg” he says, with a laugh. “But that’s more where I am. I’m more on the raw end of the spectrum anyway.”

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