The Making of...the Funky T-Shirt Music Video

Since releasing my first music video late last year for “Funky T-Shirt”, I've often been asked how it was made. Then, last week, I received an email from the wise and entertaining entrepreneur Derek Sivers, who I'd written to about something completely different. He had obviously checked out my website though, because immediately he wrote that he was watching the video. "God, that must have taken some patience!" he said. "Paid off, though."

Firstly, there was some freaking out on my behalf that Derek Sivers had watched my video. (Derek founded CD Baby, my online distributor, and these days makes excellent speeches like this one). Secondly, YES IT DID take some patience!

When brainstorming the kind of video I wanted, originally I envisioned a live-action dance video with me prancing around in a cute t-shirt and a tulle skirt. (It may still happen). But then I thought about how the song describes the little thrills we get from seeing a hilarious quote or cute illustration on a t-shirt, and I began googling animators and illustrators, thinking this may be a better direction. 

One Sunday evening, I discovered Soymilk Studio - a Brisbane-based company who make stop-motion animation with craft materials. The company was founded by illustrator Paul Lalo and designer Jenni Vigaud.

Two things stood out to me:

1. Paul and Jenni were French-born and between the two of them had trained in France and Denmark. Big points. I love cute, chic, understated European style and wanted that sensibility on the video.

2. Their work was adorable, thoughtful and clever. Check out their sweet short film about the designer of the Sydney Opera House, "Mr Utzon":

I sent them the song, asking if they'd consider meeting to discuss making a lyric video. To my good fortune, they liked the song so much that they wanted to make something a little more...adventurous. At our second meeting when Paul was telling me their ideas, he said to me, “We like to do things the hard way”, followed by, “So we need t-shirts. LOTS of t-shirts!”. 

Paul and Jenni are experts in stop-motion animation: the technique that’s used to make television shows like Pingu and Wallace and Gromit. A photo is taken of a clay figurine in one position, the figurine’s arm or leg is moved a fraction, and another photo is taken. After hours and hours of taking photos and adjusting clay body parts, the photos are stitched together. That's when Pingu no longer looks like a static pile of clay, but a waddling penguin. Where Paul and Jenni’s work differs is, they’ll animate using materials like felt, wood and paper, and incorporate illustration.

But, they hadn’t tried this technique before with a human. I was to be the first! I would be that clay figurine, having my limbs moved millimetres at a time.

Attention seeking? Not at all. I sewed those glittery letters on the night before! (It's actually the same t-shirt as on the single cover, but with different letters). 

The plan was for me to don multiple coloured t-shirts in the choruses. And in the verses I would wear white t-shirts, illustrated by the team. Hand-illustrated. With a fabric marker. To give the effect that a cartoon was happening on my shirt. These days, it’s far easier to draw an image with a computer and digitally layer that over a t-shirt. But remember how I said Paul and Jenni like to make things the hard way? Authenticity is cool. So I was in.

Our first step was to collect coloured t-shirts for the choruses. Paul and Jenni threw a party and invited friends to bring their most eye-catching shirts, and I dug out whatever shirts I could find at home. By the end, we had piles and piles of shirts!

Friends of Paul and Jenni's. We photographed everyone with the t-shirts they lent us, so that no t-shirt would lose its owner.

Then, we sourced other materials for the shoot. I ordered over 100 plain white t-shirts for Paul and Jenni to draw on. In the end we only used about half of them (and returned the unused), but that's still an awful lot of drawing! 

The deer illustrations that Paul and Jenni hand drew on plain white t-shirts. My favourites!

The shoot took place in the co-working space Salthouse where Soymilk Studio was based. The day before we started shooting, Paul filmed me singing along to the track so we'd have a visual record of all the correct mouth shapes. 

The next day, I was seated in front of a green screen, facing Paul with his computer, and another large monitor. On this, I could see the video of my singing from the day before. We'd freeze the video every few frames and I'd have to move my mouth into the exact position that I could see on the screen. Sounds easy, right? It’s surprisingly difficult. Paul would be saying things like, “Close your mouth a little more. A little more. Hold there!”. The goal was to piece the still photos together so it would look like I was singing the song, but in a more choppy way. (Check out "In Your Arms" by Kina Grannis for a great example of this). After shooting the first verse, it just didn’t look like I was singing the correct lyrics. In English, anyway. Maybe it was Welsh. But we wanted it to look like English, so we shot it again and thankfully it looked far more accurate!

The setup! Paul had his monitor while I watched another monitor to help me align to the correct positions. 

The setup! Paul had his monitor while I watched another monitor to help me align to the correct positions. 

The shoot took around four days - a Thursday, Friday, then Monday and Tuesday. I’m pretty sure I lost weight in that time. Long days were spent having to hold a position, hearing Paul say, “Move your left arm up a tiny bit. No, too far, down a bit. Okay stay there! Now move your chin down a fraction. shirt!”. Every three shots, I’d have to change t-shirt, and make sure it didn’t mess up my hair or makeup. That was also quite a feat. My hair had to stay still which is why it’s tight and braided for most of the video. However, having my curled hair down during the deer jumping scene gives a pretty cool effect. I look like Medusa!

I've estimated that I must’ve changed t-shirt approximately 400 times during those four days. My body was probably aching by the end, but I seem to have blocked that part out. But I DO remember thinking, "If Gotye can do it, so can I". Because as I like to say, when in doubt, ask yourself WWGD? (What Would Gotye Do?).

"We need t-shirts." said Paul. "Lots and lots of t-shirts!"

After the shoot, Jenni crafted adorable backgrounds made of felt and balsa wood. In real life they weren't much bigger than an A4 piece of paper, but in the video they look huge! I love the record store she made with the little felt records. And the cityscape. And the little white forest. All. So. Cute.

Then Paul spent months editing and piecing the whole video together, adding in extra bits of digital animation. I think you can see that a huge amount of work and care was put into the video!

Thank-you to our friends who lent us their t-shirts, and to Paul and Jenni for their beautiful work!

Let me know what you think of the clip!

This one was inspired by my cousin's "Irish I Was Drunk" t-shirt. The story goes that he tried wearing it, sober, into a bar on St Patrick's Day, and they wouldn't let him in. 

Indie 100: Like the Speed-Dating of Music Recording

Here's a new song that I recorded as part of the Independent Music Project: Indie 100...and below, the tale of recording the song in under four hours.

I’ve never been on a speed date before, but I imagine it would be something like Brisbane’s Indie 100. 

Picture tens of eager musicians wafting in and out of recording studios, making quick introductions with producers they’ve likely not met before - let alone sung in front of - being smooshed together to record a song in under four hours.

This is what I was part of a few weeks ago.

(Actually, that description makes it sound more like a really short, but thoroughly enjoyable, arranged marriage....rather than a speed-date. Let’s move on from the coupling analogies).

The room I recorded in, and the piano I played, in the Gasworks Studio.

The room I recorded in, and the piano I played, in the Gasworks Studio.

Indie 100 is the baby of something called the Independent Music Project run by the Queensland University of Technology. What’s special about it is that it gives 72 independent music acts the opportunity to have an original song or two professionally recorded, produced and mixed in a swish studio. The ‘swish’ studio I speak of is the QUT Gasworks Studio in Brisbane’s inner-city suburb of Newstead. It houses three recording studios, two luxurious grand pianos, and a slightly unwell harpsichord, last time I checked. To let you know where this studio lies on a scale of 1 to Hipster, it’s next to a craft beer brewery.

2015 was the fifth, and last year of the project. But it was the second year in a row I was selected to record a song. (Here’s my 2014 contribution). I’m pretty sure I jumped around excitedly when I got the call to say I was in. Because it’s seriously fantastic to be given recording time, with engineers in a nice studio, for free. In the real world, that would cost a LOT of craft beers.

The other bonus? Musos get to feel like they’re part of a special music community all striving towards a common goal. When Indie 100 is on, I feel like maybe - just maybe - the sum of all of us musicians meeting, collaborating and simultaneously recording, may inadvertently create a musical movement to be known in years to come as Indiepressionism.

Indie 100 artists being asked questions like, "If your music was a dance step, what would it be?".

Indie 100 artists being asked questions like, "If your music was a dance step, what would it be?".

The way in through those Indie 100 doors was to submit a song demo. My song “Somehow” started life...oh, about ten years ago. It’s always been one of those slippery tricksters that I've half-wanted to drop, but could never completely forget. 

Through rewrite after rewrite, I’ve always called my song “Somehow” and it’s always been about the closing of a chapter. What’s changed over the years, is WHICH chapter it’s been about. And it's been a struggle to get the chorus up to Wendy Standard™.  

Early last year out of frustration, I took the unfinished version to a workshop run by a visiting lyric writing teacher called Pat Pattison. It was my last resort to help me get unstuck. I played my song to the class, and Pat did what I thought was unthinkable. He swapped around verses. He also showed me where my chorus at the time wasn’t making sense. By the end, I felt disjointed and even remember staring at the floor mumbling something like, “I should just bury it”. Pat, sensing my despair, said he quite liked it. A slither of hope!

It turned out that breaking the song apart was exactly what I needed, and after the workshop, I finally finished it to a standard I was pretty happy with. (No easy feat!). When I ended up in Austin, Texas in late 2014, I then took the song to a songwriting critiquing session run by a group of Pat Pattison devotees who meet monthly in a lawyer's office. They drew my attention to a few lyrical discombobulations which I hadn’t picked up on before. I’m a fan of being pushed that extra three percent. Often that’s when the magic happens. 

Happily listening back! (While the others are stressing over some technical issues).

Happily listening back! (While the others are stressing over some technical issues).

This is where Indie 100 feels like a speed-date (or a really short arranged marriage). Musicians are allotted a time, a producer and a producer’s assistant. You can nominate the timeslots you’re available, but you can’t pick the studio or the team. You literally walk in, meet your production team, then have to be all vulnerable and start singing in front of them about that guy who broke your heart. 

It’s pretty much like, “Hi! I’m such-and-such. Here’s my song. Shall I sit by the piano now?”. 

Reactions you DON’T want from a producer when you play them your song:
-speedy parkouring out of the studio
-suggestions that you should rewrite all the lyrics without using the letter ‘e’

Nothing beats the sound of a real piano.

Nothing beats the sound of a real piano.

Thankfully, my producer Adam Kharita did none of these. A jazz-pop singer-songwriter himself, he exclaimed something like “This is right down my alley” and later thanked me for not bringing in a banjo.

We started by recording the piano - a lovely, white, sumptuous beast that I happily would have let follow me home. I can play enough piano so that I can compose on it, but I’m not a proper pianist. This became obvious when Adam sat down to give me a few tips, making the keys sound like melted white chocolate. Nevertheless, I did my plonky piano thing and we got there.

Next step was to record the vocals, which went pretty smoothly. Voice is the instrument I’ve focussed on most in recent years, and Adam and his assistant Alex Van den Broek (from the sassy singing quartet Jazel) informed me that I seem to have a talent for mirroring my own voice. That is, singing a line, then being able to sing along with that recorded line almost identically. It's my mediocre superpower. 

After vocals, I layered on some clarinet (an instrument I’ve played for decades) and some simple bass drum (an instrument I’ve never really played). Adam suggested I give it a go, and I felt mighty powerful sitting behind that drumkit. As it turns out, you need quite a bit of calf strength to play a bass drum evenly -  and my right calf just ain’t up to scratch. But post-editing, it sounded great.

Inside the beautiful piano that I played.

Inside the beautiful piano that I played.

We had our noses to the grindstone throughout those four hours, especially during the last 30 minutes. But we got the song and all its parts recorded, edited and mixed. Exhausted but content, we packed up, congratulated each other, and handed the recording baton over to the next arranged musical marriage. A group with a banjo.

While I’m a little sad this was the last ever Indie 100, I look back on my experience with joy. Both Adam and Alex were very professional, gave useful ideas and feedback, but were also fun people to work with. I think we made a great team! And I’m happy that this song, which has been plaguing me for a decade, has been released into the wild. 

Now let us all raise a glass of craft beer to the Indiepressionists!

Thanks to the QUT Independent Music Project team for this opportunity.

Please let me know what you think of my song. Constructive criticism is welcome - it’s how I get better!

Alex Van den Broek, Adam Kharita, and moi, post-recording. Exhausted but pleased as punch.

Alex Van den Broek, Adam Kharita, and moi, post-recording. Exhausted but pleased as punch.

Melbourne Radio and a Cactus Chorus

One Friday night in April, Melbourne's youth radio station SYN 90.7 interviewed me for the radio release of Funky T-Shirt. While at home in Brisbane, I spoke to the lovely Harry and Amy from the New and Approved program in their Melbourne studio, live-to-air via phone. It was much better than the last interview I did, live-to-air via tin cans joined by string. Who knew you were meant to take the peaches out of the cans first?

Anyway, Harry and Amy were so...youthful and enthusiastic. They asked great questions, said really sweet things, and henceforth, I want them to be my friends.

I've been slow to upload the interview because I've scared to listen back. See, 15 minutes before we were to speak live on air, Harry rang me to check that I was good to go, and also to warn me that they were going to talk about my cactus song. In one of the biographies they'd read, I'd mentioned the first song I'd ever written. It was called What Kind of Dirt Does My Cactus Need?, which I wrote when I was about 13. Back then I called it a 'song'. It was really just a chorus*. 

Before the interview, Harry asked if I remembered any of it. I did. (See above paragraph about it being just a chorus). But I'd never sung it to anyone before in my life. It had always been a secret between me, the piano, and my cactus**. 

Thankfully, I had a few minutes to practice before going on air. They were pretty eager to get into it, and suddenly there I was, on live radio, singing about a cactus. I have to admit, when I finally did listen back with butterflies in my belly, I wasn't too embarrassed. It's a pretty catchy cactus chorus. They thought it was cute.

I'm pretty happy with the rest of the interview, but I must make amends for a mistake I made later on. I mentioned my musical friend Sarah Calderwood who provided some backing vocals on the track. And I said that she was fundraising for her album on Kickstarter. In fact, it was Pozible. (Elders of the Internet, please forgive me). Nevertheless, in the time since the interview aired, Sarah not only reached her goal but kicked the ball right past it. See?! 

Big thanks to SYN 90.7 for taking a chance on me. And please do let me know what you think of my skills as an interviewee. I've interviewed other people on radio before, and been interviewed as part of a band... but this was the first time I'd been interviewed for my own creation. It was just like Sting stepping out from The Police. Or Justin Timberlake going solo from NSYNC. Or a cactus being planted into its own pot. 

*A chorus about a cactus with an insufficient supply of dirt.
**Cactus is not a euphemism. I really did have a cactus.