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FIRST PERSON: 1120’s Benjamin Joe Steps into the Songwriter’s Arena at Davey Harris Mammoth Studio Retreat

(EDITOR'S NOTE — The following story is a firsthand account by 1120 Press senior writer Benjamin Joe, who took part in a recent songwriting retreat held at Mammoth Recording Studio in Buffalo, hosted by musician Davey Harris. The retreat was held from May 31 to June 3. — Photos: B&W Davey Harris; color headshot: Benjamin Joe)

It’s Tuesday and as I look at the email on my phone sent by Davey Harris, aka Dave Mutner, the solo artist and former drummer for the Buffalo indie band, The Tins, I try to think back critically of the events that brought me here.


It is a fairly straightforward message.


“It was such a blast to host the ‘Record of Your Life Retreat’ with each of you! It was a super fun experience, and we even created an awesome song!” wrote Harris, who’ll be releasing his first album, “Animals,” later this month.

And create an awesome song we did.


Harris had called me about the songwriting retreat held at Mammoth Recording Studio in Buffalo shortly after I wrote my first article about the venture for 1120 Press, asking whether I’d like to be involved. I talked to my wife and she seemed interested, so we went for it.


There was a form, so we knew right away, this was ‘official.’ What are your expectations? What would you like to achieve? Similar questions followed. We submitted our answers and waited for Friday when the retreat would begin with a dinner at Harris’s home.


In short: The experience was a lot of fun. As someone who has never outgrown the idea

of just four or five guys meeting in the studio and playing live, I’m always flabbergasted by the actual time and principles at play when recording.


For the song our group — (there were about 10 of us) — was to create, we needed layers of bass lines, drum machine loops, vocals, back-up vocals. Lucky me, I got to play the electric guitar. I had forgotten I even knew how to play guitar, so that sold me on the value of the exercise right off the bat.

The retreat was billed as an ‘art rehab.’ Harris and musician Steve Davit faced the rest of us in the studio and asked us to name our muse.


“The muse is an outside entity, like a voice that guides creative energies,” Davit said, revealing his own muse’s name was Gabrielle, the messenger angel in the Bible whom he considered non-gendered.


It seemed to be an interesting approach and if it worked for Marian Hill, for whom Davit plays saxophone, I was willing to give it a try.


“The doors will be wide open for the muse to come through,” Harris said.


Before proceeding to the jam room, we also learned about ‘Famine, Flood and Flow,’ as well as the trajectory of flow, which is different from famine where writer’s block and other creative projects end up stuck. Flood, meanwhile, is when there’s so much to say, write, play and think about, that nothing gets done — a kind of mania versus depression situation. And Flow is the state between these two extremes, achieved by being challenged enough for the amount of skill you have. ‘Flow’ always meets you where you are, I thought.


“There’s two parts to ‘flow,’” Davit said. “One is perfection in the moment. The other is retaining a skeleton of the song.”

We took our positions in the band room, changing instruments every so often to get the feel of the space and the jam we had going. One participant knew how to play violin and I quickly gravitated to the guitar, which Justin John Smith, co-owner of Mammoth Studios, assigned to, and handed, me.


My wife grabbed a tambourine. Keyboards, drums, drum machines, synths and bass were taken quickly, while others simply chose a microphone into which they sang. At the end of the jam, we knew that the energy was right, and broke for lunch.


Fast forward to the next day, we were writing lyrics through a series of questions that Harris asked us to reflect upon before breaking us into pairs to find “Lyric Gold” in each of the answers our partners provided.


There was a lot there. We sang our hearts out and, at some point, I fell asleep on the couch. So, barring anything terrible that may have happened while I snoozed, it all seemed like gravy.


The project, I’d say, was a success. And as for the song? It’s now being mixed.


Meanwhile, my wife thinks I’m a rock star. Now, I may have to steal my daughter’s guitar and start recording on Garageband, launching a new creative side project.


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