One strum is usually all it takes. I walk up to the impressive-looking guitar hanging on the wall, anchor my ring and little fingers next to the soundhole and pass my thumb across the strings with a practiced briinngg … "Nah."
On April 19, 2014, I attended an indoor string festival in St. Paul, MN, where Gary Bartig had chosen to display some of his wares. Gary's stuff consists mostly of frankensteined instruments — bass ukeleles, five-string fiddles — and I wandered over and picked up an octave violin for the first time.
One strum. "Oh, no." Another strum. "Oh, NO. What is this. WHAT is THIS. I must have this."
It sounded almost exactly like a cello, but I was cradling it in my hands like a baguette I was about to demolish. I don't wish to exaggerate, but it really was one of those moments when my whole life made sense: I write songs, I play violin, the two are more or less mutually exclusive. Until this moment.
It was a completely normal-looking violin, except for a little circular jack on the lower left bout, a little piece of machinery, like it was wearing a watch. Gary had plugged the jack into a small amplifier sitting further down the table.
I'm not hard to please when it comes to violins and electronics, I'm impossible. I avoid it at all costs. But this was beautiful.
"HOW does it sound like that?"
"I attach the pickup to the bass bar inside. I take the top off and put all the electronics inside. Then I glue the top back on. That's mostly what I do, make the pickups. I buy the instruments wholesale."
"You glue the top back on."
"Yep. You want to take it home for a few days, give it a try?"
"Sure. Yeah, sure."
But I didn't need to give it a try, I was just saying that because I was supposed to. I knew I was going to buy it, I knew this was one of those moments, and I felt like the Count of Monte Cristo arriving at the Island of Monte Cristo. God help Gary if he'd tried to take it away from me at that moment.
The octave violin began to take over my sound, and it's now pretty much all I do. If no one had liked it, if I'd gotten lots of negative feedback right from the start, maybe I could have limited it to an occasional thing. But probably not.
I made an album. I'm calling it Sweet Octave. It was the hardest thing I've ever done professionally. But it's also the best. It takes a violin and transforms it into a cello, then transforms that cello into a million other things. It's the sound of me having a eureka moment, when finally — finally — I get to play the instrument I'm good at while playing one of my songs at the same time.
I'd like to ask your help in funding Sweet Octave. When I say I can't do it without you, it's not hyperbole — I think we all know that the profits made after releasing an album no longer allow the artist to recoup its initial costs. This is why we crowdfund. Crowdfunding lets everyone get in on the party. You and your hard-earned dollars — seven, fifty, two hundred — actually help to bring a work of art to life, a work that would otherwise wallow in obscurity. You get to say, "This matters to me, I trust this artist to make something good, something that will bring me joy, and here's the proof." We used to go up to the merch table and plunk down those same hard-earned dollars and walk away with the same thing, but technology has moved us on from that, for better or worse. And in a weird way, I think it's for better — I like this kind of rallying cry, I like knowing who my people are, it feels like defying the system, it feels personal. And maybe I'm alone here, but I think we could all stand to get a little more personal.
Will you join me? I've come up with a few benefits — posters, concert tickets, masterclasses, bread made with my own hands — that I thought people would find interesting and valuable, ones I thought would show each contributor how he or she is special to me and how I value his or her support.
You may not know this about Kickstarter, but the campaign only earns money if the goal is met. Yep: if your $25,000 project goal receives $24,685 in contributions by the deadline, it's a no go. Zero funds. Kickstarter asks its creators to have some skin in the game, and I respect that.
I've done something weird and beautiful and fun — I'd love for you to hear it. I was able to do it thanks to the support you've shown me in the past. If I can cover my costs, I'll be able to keep making this kind of art. Make no mistake — you are the reason tiny little blue-collar artists like myself survive. There's no government funding here, I'm not incorporated, and I'd be crazy to recommend this career to my kid. But I love beautiful things — love making them, and love the joy they bring to other people.