cadet servante is writing a song for each of March’s 31 days, not about the days, or even necessarily about her days, she’s just writing a new song 31 days in a row. Karli Helm has been recording songs as cadet servante for a couple months, a solo and side project to Plush. The songs she’s recording are short — one to two minutes — and usually recorded at the end of the day. It’s a quick turnaround, and it’s an even quicker listen, but the 16 or so minutes she’s recorded thus far are a interesting musical window into her head: you’ll hear spacey-sounding arppegios and chords, somewhere between sentimentality and lethargy, with lots of reverb and lots of layered vocals.

This kind of musical regimen probably isn’t what people picture when they think of creativity. When I first heard about the idea I thought it seemed kind of taxing, if not stressful. But if you or I made ourselves create something everyday, I have a feeling we’d lose sight of the stakes. Like, if you make a song everyday, after a while you might forget the sanctity of the song, with is probably a great thing. Writing a song everyday puts the spotlight on idea; it forgoes the polished and often-times belabored single, and puts the focal point on the modest spark that spawns the single. It’s about the itch you feel when an idea is so new it’s losable, and the scurry to not lose it.

I emailed Karli Helm some questions about the process. Here are her responses.

The Bay Bridged:
March is a busy month for you. Have you ever committed to this kind of project?

Karli Helm: Haha, it definitely is. I tend to become very abruptly motivated and somewhat obsessive with creating when there is a lot going on in all aspects of my life. When there is a lull in work, my social life, etc., I struggle to create, but when I’m super busy, it’s easier to roll with that energy. I tried to do this project last March actually, and I gave up after eight days. It was actually not intentional that I reattempted this project again this March.

TBB: What are you using to record the songs (instruments, equipment, software)?

KH: Every song I’ve recorded is with an acoustic guitar, GarageBand, and the internal mic on my laptop. Sometimes I feel like it’s cheating because I experiment with effects so often to make my guitar sound electric and distorted. I’ve always been hesitant to invest in real microphones because I often times feel like a crisp, clean sound takes away from the atmosphere of a song.

TBB: At what point in the day do you write?

KH: It’s always different, but typically very late at night after I get home from work, or after drinking with friends. This entire month though, I’ve been pretty sick with some sort of never-ending cold, so I actually was able to start strong with this project since I was home most of the time. I was out of work for days, so I made it a point to set an alarm to wake up and just sit at my computer until something happened. Now it’s basically whenever I find a spare minute…or I’ll tell myself I can’t hang out tonight because I need to go home and write my song. I find myself at work humming a melody or concocting a beat in my head, so I rush to the bathroom to whisper it into my voice memos, and then I attempt to decipher them when I get home…sometimes it gets really messy. Sometimes I’m really thankful I did.

TBB: What song took the longest to record, and how come?

KH: I think days 8, 10, and 11 are tied. “day 8” took me a while because I couldn’t quite find the right drum machine sound that I wanted. I basically wanted them to sound like real drums just by using GarageBand presets and messing with them, which I don’t know much about, haha. And that took me so long. I got so frustrated that I had to take a break and go read. “day 10” took forever because I tried to write the entire thing on guitar and realized it didn’t sound anything like it did in my head, so then I went entirely electronic. Then I tried tracking vocals and the rain outside was too loud. Then my roommate was vacuuming. It was all kind of hilarious, and of course I got all frustrated and had to take a break like with “day 8.” I started “day 11” in the morning before work. I recorded one guitar track, and could not think of any lyrics, so I went to work and finished it that evening. I don’t know if that counts as taking the longest, but maybe it does.

TBB: Since you’ve started writing stuff daily, have you found yourself thinking more musically throughout the day? Like, are you more aware of the way your day-to-day informs your music-making process?

KH: Absolutely! Like when I was talking about making sure I record each and every idea that comes to mind, even if it’s an idea for a lead, a tempo, or beat, a vocal melody… it’s become so important for me to make it tangible immediately via voice memo regardless of where I am because I know I have a responsibility to myself to turn it into something, or at least attempt to. I find myself going to the bathroom way more than I used to just so I can have a quiet space to whisper a three-second melody. In the past I’ve let myself brush off ideas as they come to me because I didn’t think they were valuable, but through this project I’m seeing the importance in tending to an idea and making it grow into something larger.

TBB: Do you have a favorite song? Or a song that best embodies what writing a song everyday sounds/feels like?

KH: I think so far, “day 5” has been my favorite, mainly because it’s so drastically different from anything I’ve ever written. I truly believe that without this song-a-day exercise, I would have never created anything like it. My vocals are entirely autotuned, it’s an upbeat tempo with a clicky drum beat… it’s so the opposite of everything I usually create. It’s also lyrically happy, which is something I’ve always struggled with. I view it as a clear example of the power of forcing yourself to create and destroy, and to force yourself out of your comfort zone. To me “day 2” best represents what writing a song every day is like… because it’s total bullshit. I have no idea what I am singing about in it. I just started singing and words came out, and even nearly weeks later I don’t even know what I was referring to, but it was for the sake of starting strong and pushing through even when you don’t actually have any ideas.

TBB: Besides writing a song everyday, are there any other sort of prompts or goals you’ve given yourself, consciously or subconsciously?

KH: I realized after “day 5” that in the back of my mind I was telling myself “don’t stick to a genre or ideal sound.” Being in a band, I feel like you pick a theme/vibe and roll with it, maybe for the sake of continuity, and it’s not always on purpose. For this project, I want to have a song that represents every type of music I like. I want a country song, I want a sexy R&B song, a really emotional song, a totally fucked up distorted song that means nothing, just anything I have ever felt inspired by. That’s really the only goal I think I set in place. Of course in doing this it’s also an exercise in character to me, in sticking with things instead of just saying “fuck it” and giving up, which is something I have an issue with.

TBB: Other than the obvious ones, what’s the difference between a five-minute long, five-week produced song, and 1-2 minute bedroom-recorded song? Or maybe a better question, what do you think makes these short, somewhat impromptu songs, feel the way they feel?

KH: I don’t think I’ve ever spent more than a week really actively working on/producing a song. For Plush I have definitely spent more time making the songs I’ve written more structured, overall more prepared for a studio setting though. It can be really frustrating. I’m very impatient, so I feel like this song-a-day project is more instantly fulfilling, because by the nature of the project itself, I’m forced to see the results by posting each song each day.

Something I think is unique to any DIY recording scenario are the quirks that I don’t think I’d be able to accurately explain to a producer or engineer if they were recording me…like, “Hey can I record five more tracks of that same exact vocal part and then another track of me just breathing and then just at the beginning a second of fret buzz with 30 layers of distortion so it sounds like thunder?” I’d just feel so silly having to do this in front of anyone.

And these songs definitely have a lot of imperfections. I make sure to mix them to the best of my abilities, and trim out any ‘fat’ or extra noise (or amplify it, depending on the vibe of the song), but you can hear my roommates talking in the background in some, you can hear my chair squeaking, the rain… I hope it feels really personal.

TBB: I feel like this kind of exercise is a good way second-guess yourself less while writing songs. Something about how quickly the songs solidify seems really candid, and it makes a nice sketch of someone’s musical sensibilities. Do you feel like this process is changing the way you’ll approach song-writing in general?

KH: This project is teaching me to trust myself. With tackling every idea and at least taking it seriously for a minute of my day, I am teaching myself that I can actually write on command. I’ve always thought that I just have to sit and wait for some great idea to come to me because forcing ideas can be disappointing and upsetting, and I thought that that’s just how I was going to be forever. And that’s completely untrue. It’s also teaching me to face that, with that said, not everything I write is going to be great, and that’s OK. The songs I have left over from last March’s failed project have become Plush songs, or other cadet servante songs, whether it’s just a chunk of lyrics or a chord progression. You just never know how an idea will come to fruition if you don’t try.