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Clubbing inspiration 

Each February, the musicians come out to play

click to enlarge STEVE KEY: - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
The month of dead presidents and candied hearts just got cooler. That is, the change occurred in 2004 when four music-minded friends challenged one another to write 14 songs in the month’s 28 days. They posted recordings of their songs online, and maintained a flow of feedback for each other’s work. Now in its seventh year, February Album Writing Month has over 1,000 participants—amateur musicians, professionals, dabblers, and poets—who accept the annual challenge.

Following Jack London’s advice, “You can’t wait for inspiration; you have to go after it with a club,” fawmers leap headlong into a four-week maelstrom of creativity, cheap computer recording, and FAWM-spawned challenges for songwriters suffering from writer’s block. Participation is free, and though there’s no reward for those who trudge all the way to the 14-song mark, the FAWM website alluringly promises “the admiration of your songwriting peers.” For those who fail to hit the 14-song mark, the FAWM site philosophically offers this nugget of comfort and wisdom: “Let’s say you only write two. That’s still more than zero, right?”

To give an idea of the project’s popularity, the website features a region cloud displaying areas of the world with active fawmers scaled in size according to the number of participants in each region. California has by far the largest region, triple the size of New York, which falls second behind California. Other popular regions are Florida, Australia, Ontario, Pennsylvania, Texas, Wisconsin, and Somewhere, USA. While San Luis Obispo isn’t the FAWM hotbed that Sacramento and Los Angeles have proven to be, the pint-sized metropolis has its share of musicians committed to the 2010 plunge.


First-time Fawmer

James Koman is a graduate student of Biological Sciences at Cal Poly. He might seem like an unlikely candidate for a project like FAWM, if there was such a thing as a stereotypical fawmer. His musical background consists of playing the piano at church on weekends. Without any specific direction or plan for his 14 songs, the green fawmer admits that Christianity will be a prevalent theme within his music, although he wouldn’t go so far as to call it praise music.

His educational interests also provide a different direction for his songwriting.

“I find a lot of inspiration from life in general, especially how people react to the environment around them, to the wilderness,” he explained. “I like to be creative with music and writing but there’s also a side of me that loves raw science, which is something that might not be considered creative but can be inspiring towards creative pursuits.”

Like many participants, Koman came to FAWM by way of NaNoWriMO (National Novel Writing Month), which takes place each November. The literary equivalent of the Iditarod, NaNoWriMo sets each writer the task of completing a 50,000-word novel during the month, which isn’t even a full 31 days. Koman has been participating for the last two years.

“The closest I’ve gotten was 25,000 words, which I thought was quite an accomplishment,” he said. “That was the most I’ve ever written on a particular story.”

Though he’s not certain he’ll make it to the 14-song mark, Koman measures the endeavor’s success by the opportunity to be creative, rather than the final output. And with a wide variety of inspiration, from indie music to contemporary composer Nico Muhly, it’s difficult to predict what Koman might produce during his month of songwriting.  

“It forces you to be productive even when you’re maybe not that inspired. There were these times when I wrote 2,000 words and maybe only half of them were worthwhile,” Koman said of his experiences with NaNoWriMo. “But I think that’s the point of these competitions, to unite people across the country with a common goal to do something that’s creative, to do something that’s personal. The goal is to create. And there’s joy to be found in that.”


The songwriter turned booker turns songwriter

Steve Key traces his interest all the way back to grade school, playing the clarinet in the fifth grade. Then to high school during the ’70s when singer/ songwriters ruled the airwaves. Everybody had guitars, including Key, who learned to play at the age of 12 with the Boy Scouts. He had his first paying gig as a junior in college, and subsequently began touring the bars.

Thirty years later Key mostly works as a booking agent, putting together showcases for singer-songwriters at venues across the county. He estimates that he hasn’t released a new CD in the past seven or eight years. But that hasn’t stopped him from generating new work. This February marks Key’s second FAWM go-around.

“Twenty-eight days did not seem to be an unreasonable time to focus my attention on writing,” said the musician, who successfully hit the 14-song mark. “I feel guilty that I’m not one of those disciplined writers. It’s just when it comes to me.”

Of his 14 completed songs, Key estimates that six of them were collaborative efforts with other FAWM musicians. Someone else would provide the lyrics, or a poem, and he re-arranged and created the music to accompany them. Another fawmer proposed taking lines and titles from Bob Dylan songs and re-working them into original songs; Key’s fourteenth piece was a re-write of “Blowin’ in the Wind.”

He’s looking for potential collaborators for the 2010 year, and has already found some potential candidates including a fawmer in Bend, Oregon. His musical genre is folksy, influenced by the musicians he listened to in high school—Harry Chapin and Paul Simon.

“One of the dangers in co-writing is what if the co-writer doesn’t like the song,” he admitted, citing a concern from his five years in the Nashville music scene. “That’s something I didn’t run into at all. In FAWM we’ve all decided we’re going to write 14 songs in 28 days, so we just throw it out there.” 

While Key has a friendly, all-embracing approach to collaborations, he acknowledges that there’s a different level of gratification working with a musician who has a record deal in the works. His songs get new life that way, “kinda like kids you send out in the world,” he observed.

Song concepts come from anywhere, an item in the news or something someone says. These days, Key spends altogether too much time on Facebook, by his own reckoning. But lyrics frequently crop up through Facebook conversations and comments. Feedback from other musicians helps as well, and the project serves as a safe haven from an industry that can often be downright brutal.

“It’s all very positive,” said Key. “You won’t see a lot of people ripping into each other. FAWM participants are looking to encourage you, to find the good. I like to encourage the members of the FAWM community to pursue songwriting. God knows, there’s a lot of discouragement out there for writing.”


The father/ husband/ songwriter

On the FAWM site he shares with friend and fellow musician Ryan Miller, Bret Rooks cites his annual FAWM goal as “write as many songs as we can while not ignoring our respective wives or daughters.” In the pair’s three years of collaboration as Halfpenny Orchestra, Rooks estimates that the most they’ve accomplished is seven songs in a single FAWM period.

Besides working full-time as an engineer, Rooks has two daughters, aged three years and six months old respectively.

Rooks was one of the first to sign up for FAWM, back in 2005 when participants were still few enough that everybody pretty much knew everybody. But he didn’t start posting songs until the following year. And creativity really flourished when he joined forces with Miller.

“Most of the time we kind of generate ideas on our own. We’ll get together a couple times a week and work together. We’re both very word-minded people. So the lyrics are individual and the music is more bouncing ideas off each other.”

They cite a range of influences on their FAWM site, including The Decemberists, Mountain Goats, Bob Dylan, Sufjan Stevens, Radiohead and Simon & Garfunkel, but humorously add a warning that their music “may or may not actually sound like any of these artists.”

Their recording equipment is minimal, consisting of a computer, sound cord, and small mixing board in the back room of Rooks’ house. They’ve got some microphones, a bass and acoustic guitar, and a keyboard, recording each part one at a time and then layering them into a song.

“We don’t have the strings of Sufjan Stevens,” admitted Rooks. “We don’t have a drummer. We don’t have the ambiance and technical glitches of Radiohead.”

As each new year begins, and the shortest month prepares to overtake the first, many fawmers begin sketching out their 14 songs, selecting a theme and proposing challenges to other participants. In late January, Halfpenny Orchestra (pronounced hay-penny) posted a forum challenge based on loteria (Mexican bingo) cards. Interested musicians could message the duo, and be assigned a card at random which would then be the subject of a song. With a 54-card deck and subjects as diverse as el borracho (the drunk), la sandia (the watermelon), la estrella (the star), and el catrin (the dandy), the concept instantly attracted a couple dozen fawmers.

Thus far, the songs they produce have had little life outside FAWM. Sometimes they play their songs in friends’ backyards. And Rooks’ brother confessed that he had downloaded all of their songs and listens to them on his iPod. His mother is also a fan, and he’ll sometimes play his favorite songs for co-workers.

“I think our songwriting has gotten better over time,” admitted Rooks. “In the future I could see us playing a little more at coffee shops when our children are a better age. But for the moment we’re not thinking about that too much. When it comes down to it, it’s a creative outlet. It’s nothing I’m going to leave my family to pursue.”


- LET’S GET MUSICAL:  February Album Writing Month kicks off Feb. 1 and proceeds through the end of the shortest month. To sign up for a free account and start your album, or to check up on other people’s progress, visit -
  • LET’S GET MUSICAL: February Album Writing Month kicks off Feb. 1 and proceeds through the end of the shortest month. To sign up for a free account and start your album, or to check up on other people’s progress, visit
The girl who went to Nashville

Flo Paris didn’t have any question as to whether she could hit the 14-song mark. Writing 14 songs in 28 days would be easy. Writing 14 caliber songs that she could comfortably feature on one of her albums was the true challenge. Mediocrity was the enemy. Not time.

The SLO native, who moved to Nashville a couple of years ago, first participated in FAWM in 2009, encouraged by Rooks and Miller. For whatever reason, 2009 felt like a good year to begin.

Besides being a stay-at-home mom, Paris has made her career in the music industry as a mostly folk-rock singer.

“My parents were musicians long before I was even born,” she said. “My mom had been signed to Warner Brothers as a teenager in the ’60s. It was kind of like there was no way I wouldn’t be a musician. My parents were so supportive that it was never viewed as an unrealistic goal.”

As she embarked on her 28-day writing flurry, Paris asked her friends and fans to suggest song ideas for FAWM. She would pick her 14 favorites and transform them into song. What she wound up with was 219 song titles and a spreadsheet that she generated, with the help of her husband, to pick her 14 favorites.

“I had never done anything like that before and I thought that it would stifle the creative process,” admitted Paris. “It wound up being completely the opposite. It really changed a lot of how I write songs in general.”

In fact, the process was so successful that on Jan. 1, 2010 Paris announced on her blog that she was looking for song titles for her new FAWM season.

There were some challenges last year, even for a pro like Paris. Keeping track of two young daughters didn’t always leave as much time as she would have liked to write. She recalls locking herself in a closet as soon as they were napping to begin recording songs. And she clocked a lot of late nights, writing her songs after her daughters had gone to bed. She worked on her fourteenth song late into the final night of the competition. But she’s learned that creativity doesn’t always go to the artist. Sometimes, the artist must pursue.

“I used to worry about that a lot more in my early days of writing,” she said. “I used to think that inspiration would hit. In the last few years I’ve set aside time and wrote. If it didn’t happen overnight, that song just needs more time to grow. I have songs that have been half-written for years. It’s kind of like watching a baby grow.”  

Arts Editor Ashley Schwellenbach likes to watch kittens grow. Send fluffy mittens to


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