This is from FAWM’s website:
The goal of FAWM is to compose 14 original works of music during the shortest month of the year, or one new song every two days on average. The site’s fast-paced collaborative songwriting approach emphasizes artistic growth and community. “Fawmers” are a mix of music professionals, students, homemakers, and people who work day jobs but rock nightclubs.
Who’s behind this crazy idea? Let me introduce you to FAWM’s founder, Burr Settles.
Tell me what you discovered when you tried to compose an album in one month, and why you’ve decided to make it a yearly tradition.
The first thing I discovered is that it’s nearly impossible to write an “album” in a month. Writing fourteen songs in a month isn’t too thorny, but (at least with my style) it’s hard to have a collection of songs in the end that are consistent enough in quality and theme to constitute an actual album. “February Album Writing Month” just rolls off the tongue a little easier than “Write a Song Every Other Day for a Short Month,” no?
Others have pulled off single solid sets of fourteen FAWM songs, such as Andrew Grimm from Baltimore, or a trio of California songwriters who each took on a different president in U.S. history last year. (Three times fourteen equals all 42!) Those folks are made of magic. For the rest of us, a subset of FAWM output makes for the starting point of a good album. Some of my best material from the last few years came out of the FAWM challenges, I think, because I was forced past my stale ideas and ruts, leaving me with a lot of unexplored territory… and a reason (if not inspiration) to forge ahead.
As for the tradition”¦ when four of us attempted the first FAWM in 2004, I’m not sure we intended to make it a yearly ritual. We just shared a weblog to track each other’s progress since we were all in different parts of the country. Other web-surfing songwriters stumbled on the archives, or we’d tell musicians we met about it and they got interested. After enough requests to be involved, I decided to keep it going.
What kind of feedback have you received from FAWM folks? Who’s been involved?
The feedback sent to me has been universally positive. Some fawmers have never written a song before, and others try to do something like this almost every month. We’ve had musicians who used to be prolific but hadn’t found a reason to write in over a decade complete the challenge, and that’s really cool. Most are excited to see that they had it in them… even if they only make it halfway there.
Participation is around half professional and half hobbyist. Some of the professionals are in the audio recording/production industry, looking for something to drive their own creativity. The rest are unsigned independent artists more like myself. I’ve talked with a handful of higher profile singer/songwriters with label support who love the idea, but aren’t sure they can take it on. For a lot of artists at that level, the constant recording and touring schedule is prohibitive. Last year there were 371 registered participants and around 72 met the goal. If growth trends continue, there should be about a thousand fawmers this year and a couple hundred “winners,” but who knows?
Take me through the ups and downs of your career?
The ups are certainly playing shows where people are listening and buying CDs, or they say afterward that this song or that song meant something to them. Even hecklers are valuable in my experience… if someone cares enough to heckle they care enough to listen, plus they keep me on my toes. The downs are playing the very next gig where no one listens, and I wonder if I’m better off just keeping my songs to myself, you know?
As far as FAWM goes, the ups are seeing people realize their songwriting goals, and feeling like I had something to do with that. The downside is that it’s a lot of work for what amounts to a volunteer job. I organize FAWM for donations.
So far, what’s been the key to getting as far as you’ve gotten in this business? Who or what opened doors for you?
I’ve been writing songs a long time but I’ve only taken my music career seriously for about two years. So I wouldn’t say I’ve gotten that far in the business yet. What success I have had is owed, I think, to the network of artists I’ve come to know via FAWM or gigging or other channels. We’ve helped each other book tours, share resources for merch and marketing, etc. I think the fact that FAWM is such an interesting project and I get a lot of the credit for it helps a little, too.
What are some of your favorite songs, and what is it about them that appeals to you?
This isn’t a fair (or reliable) question to ask a pop music junkie. But I’ll say that I’m a sucker for puzzling orchestrations and cunning wordplay.
Who are some of your favorite songwriters (established and up-and coming)?
I’ve loved Johnny Cash, Arlo Guthrie, Joni Mitchell, Tom Lehrer, and the Beatles for a long as I can remember. More recently I’ve obsessed over Beck, Elliott Smith, Ani DiFranco, Outkast and Sufjan Stevens in spurts. My favorite up-and-comers are probably Margot and the Nuclear So & So’s (partially biased because I’m friends with a couple of guys in that band), plus a lot of fellow fawmers. This question is a bit below the belt, too, by the way”¦ the list could go on and on”¦
What’s your hope for how your career might look/change in the next couple of years?
I’m not sure. Both the music industry and my perspective on it are in so much flux right now. For one thing I’ll be done with my Ph.D. in a year or so, and would like to move somewhere with more of a pulse for music. The talent here in Madison, Wis. far outweighs the demand, so I’d like to try out New York or L.A. or Seattle”¦ someplace where I can use my degree but still be part of a thriving scene. Besides, it may take a couple of years to grow into what I want to do, musically. Right now I’d like to collaborate more and immerse myself in a musical community that isn’t just online. We’ll see.
How can folks who are interested sign up for FAWM?
Go to FAWM.ORG and click on the link that says “Sign Up for FAWM!”
Oh. Finally, tell me the story behind your name.
The short version: I was born in February during an ice storm and named on a dare. The long version: it turns out to be a family name, although we didn’t find that out until I was seven. There are a few people named “Burr Settles” in Texas (plus a few dead ones) to whom I’m distantly related. I’m apparently also related to Aaron Burr, which made dating a Hamilton in college kind of difficult. We dueled a lot, so to speak.
Burr Settles was born in the back of a stalled pickup during a 70s snowstorm in Lexington, Kentucky. Years after his parents (a writer and an ichthyologist/wood truss salesman) named him on a dare, he began cutting his musical teeth at the folk/bluegrass jams in front of a fire station on Woodland Avenue. Since then, he picked up several instruments, moved briefly to Indiana, and is currently situated in Madison, Wisconsin, where he is also pursuing a PhD for some reason. Sketches is his first full-length album. More highlights:
+ Burr has toured from New York to Alaska, and among other things played the 2006 Musical Family Tree Festival in Indianapolis.
+ Sketches was nominated for “Best Americana Album” at the 2006 Madison Area Music Awards. He was also nominated for “Best Americana Artist” and the song “Sugar in the Raw” was nominated for “Best Unique Song.”
+ Burr founded the annual February Album Writing Month (FAWM) challenge, to write 14 songs in 28 days, which in 2006 had over 350 songwriters participate from 12 countries.