woman listening to Jimmy's solo record

Why every indie artist should record a solo album

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Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

My first solo album — Rock Rewind on a Steinway, released on the Steinway and Sons record label — came out almost three years ago. I vividly remember how, across several recording sessions, I got to record on a beautiful Model D nine-foot grand piano, interpreting popular rock songs from the last half-century, not as full-band tracks with lead singers and distorted guitars, but as solo piano arrangements I could play with two hands.

U2, Pearl Jam, Prince, Halestorm, Tori Amos, Live, Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan… reimagining and recording those artists’ music was both a blast and a challenge. I remember being surprised at how much the project pushed my limits, both as a player and an arranger.

Here are some of the lessons I learned in the process of creating Rock Rewind — and some of the reasons why any indie artist can benefit from recording a solo vocal or instrumental album of their own.

Recording a solo album highlights your artistry

Creating tracks that are just you and your voice, or you on a single instrument, takes courage because there’s nothing, and no one else, to hide behind. Your vision and your artistry are fully on display — and that’s a powerful statement, all by itself.

Releasing a solo album shows that you believe in your music and creative vision in a strong and compelling way. And that can be a momentous step forward, both for your fans and for you as an artist.

Going solo gives you total freedom

When it’s just you and your voice or instrument, you can literally do whatever you want. You don’t need to adhere to a song’s chord structure because your singer and keyboard player expect you to. You don’t need to stick to a certain key, tempo, or vibe, because that’s the way the band plays it. You can take your material in whatever direction you feel, no matter how conventional, unexpected, or insanely experimental it may be.

Scary? Perhaps. Freeing and inspiring? Absolutely.

Solo arrangements push your creativity

If you’re used to playing guitar with a drummer and bass player behind you, what happens when those supporting elements are no longer there?

Spending more time exploring your instrument’s percussive qualities or lower registers could be the answer. Or maybe digging more deeply into using silence, or more nuanced interpretations when it comes to melodies, will give you the musical grace you’re looking for.

Whatever the case, don’t feel like you need to be locked in, note for note and hit for hit, with any pre-conceived arrangement. It’s your challenge and privilege to craft an interpretation that sparkles in your own solo context. For more on this, check out “Re-arranging big songs for solo performance.”

You will confront your strengths and weaknesses

Since a solo album is basically just you with no external support, interference, or distractions, your technique and creativity are fully on display. That means the things that you do excellently will shine and the things that you need to brush up on will likely stand out, too.

As you create your solo album, don’t just play to your strengths and shy away from your weaknesses. Recording a solo album can be great motivation to work on things you’ve been having a harder time with.

Do you find it difficult to keep a solid groove without the help of a drummer or bassist, and is that weakness coming through with painful clarity when you hear your solo tracks? Maybe you can take some time to work with a metronome and hone your rhythmic chops before recording again.

Do you find yourself relying too much on go-to licks, so that they start to feel tiresome on playback? Go back and figure out what interesting new phrases you can lay down in their place.

Stretch your creativity on the instrument

When it was time to record U2’s “Mysterious Ways” for Rock Rewind, there were some meaty challenges I had to figure out. How exactly would I manage to channel the propulsive and cyclical bass groove, the movement-filled drum patterns, Bono’s soaring vocals, and all the other big and small elements that make the original recording magic?

15 Music Promotions guideI won’t go too deep into the rabbit hole here — but I found myself experimenting with rhythmic two-hand interplay and extreme ranges of the piano in ways I hadn’t really done before. Even though every single move I tried in my practice sessions didn’t make it onto the final recording, it was great fun to try different approaches and see what worked.

Challenge yourself to investigate extended techniques on your instrument, ways you can get unexpected sounds in unexpected ways, or unique effects you can make with your voice. Any new sounds or textures can be intriguing tools to use in your solo project.

It’s easy to take on the road

If you’re fortunate enough to have a successful solo instrumental or vocal album that you want to take on tour, logistics can be much simpler because it’s just you. You may be able to perform in different venues or contexts than your full band would normally play and reach new audiences and fans in the process.

Impromptu outdoor performances, private house concerts, international venues, off-the-beaten-track historical sites — embrace the flexibility and cost-effectiveness that performing solo can bring and see where the road takes you.

rock rewindMichael Gallant is a musician, writer, and entrepreneur living in New York City. His debut album for the Steinway & Sons label, Rock Rewind, features solo piano reinventions of Pearl Jam, U2, Halestorm, Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, Radiohead, and more. Read his recent article for the National Endowment for the Arts and follow Michael on Twitter at @Michael_Gallant and Facebook.com/GallantMusic.

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