Charlie McCarron: A Dreamer Like That

Tucked away in a corner bedroom of an Uptown apartment, is everything you need to write beautiful music, run a successful podcast and orchestrate an elaborate international composition contest (set to video with a live orchestra). Well, maybe not everything YOU or I would need... but, everything Charlie McCarron needs. Composer Quest was born out of his "desire to fill the surprising void of music composition podcasts on iTunes", and has grown into something so much bigger than that, with listeners around the globe and an ever changing cast of characters. When I caught up with Charlie he was working on some of the final arrangements for his event this Thursday at Landmark Center in St. Paul. It's clear this musical warrior can go anywhere he sets his mind to- Composer Quest is a very fitting name for his mission.

Why do you write music?
I was always an imaginative kid. I wrote sci-fi stories, invented video games, made home movies, and I even created a comic strip called Double Trouble (starring a gopher named Chuck). I guess at some point music took over as my go-to creative outlet. Some part of my high school self believed that being in a rock band could make me "cool," unlike my nerdier hobbies. Because I was kind of a control freak and couldn't stand someone else recording our rock band, I got into audio mixing myself. From there on out, it became a huge passion that led me to my composition major in college.

I love that music (especially recorded music) can exist in a totally imaginative and abstract space. In some ways, music acts more like a novel than a film, because the audience can form their own mental images. I've been writing music for over ten years, and I still feel like I've barely scratched the surface of the creative things I could be doing with it.

What's the first song you ever wrote?
Although I thought my first songs came from my high school rock band days, my mom reminded me that I used to make up songs about animals as a 5-year-old. She even got some of them on cassette tape! The embarrassingly cute evidence can be heard around the 27-minute mark my autobiographical podcast episode.

What motivates you to compose and how often do you write?
Lately, I've been motivated to write sheet music for friends and other talented performers. I've found it more rewarding than messing with synths on my laptop. Also, my girlfriend is a bassoonist, so I've been writing more bassoon parts than ever before.

I wish I could say I follow the Jerry Seinfeld "write every day" method, but my schedule varies a ton. I think it's okay to take a few days to recharge your creative batteries though. Sometimes my most creative moments come after a long dry spell of not composing.

I will say that when I'm on a big composing kick, I tend to dream up new song ideas. The trick is to be able to think in music theory terms. I find that helps me remember them well enough to write them or record them the second I wake up. Often the songs I dream up are being sung by my music idols, including Paul McCartney and John Lennon. I feel pretty lucky when I get one of those dreams!

What's composer quest and how did it come to be?
Towards the end of 2012, I felt like I was having a BIG composing dry spell. My time was being sucked up by the corporate video world. I ended up on a Careers in the Arts panel at St. Ben's, and I found myself wondering, where is this "career in the arts" I supposedly have?

So I made a vow to seriously devote myself to composing. I looked at the money I had saved up, and realized that I could make it for about a year without a normal job. Inspired by Alan Watts and his crazy philosophy that you can make a living doing what you love, I told myself I would write 45 minutes of music each month.

I soon realized that was a crazy, lofty goal. But a side effect of my composing quest was that I created Composer Quest, my podcast, and put out about 360 minutes of songwriter/composer interviews each month. I really wanted to answer the question posed to me by a 2nd grader: "How do you make good music?"

Have you ever had a moment while doing composer quest and thought: WOW THIS IS AMAZING?
I've gotten a lot of submissions for the composing quests I challenge my listeners to. But I've never gotten a cooler one than this mini-documentary about a guy's quest to find a fortune cookie in Taiwan (harder than you'd think).

Another awesome moment was when I happened to interview two synesthetes in a row. Both Mary Beth Huttlin and Warren Hildebrand associate color with music. I pestered them with question after question, trying to understand what it's like to have this odd condition

There have been so many other amazing moments. Whit Trebella produced a video game track on the spot. Cameron Scott Boster performed some of the best acoustic songs I've ever heard. Paul Spring still holds the title for most moving episode. I also got to interview the most famous music psychologist ever, Dr. Diana Deutsch. Oh, and...Lazerwülf.

Tell me about the event coming up at the Landmark Center. 
My friend Oanh, who runs the video-making group MNKINO, had the bold idea to set up a film screening with musicians playing the scores live. So we paired up filmmakers and composers to make videos under 5 minutes, with scores that the Composer Quest orchestra will perform at our screening on Thursday, Aug. 14th. It's probably the most exciting event I've ever helped organize. More info here.

What's your vision for composer quest?
I definitely want to keep challenging my listeners to the composing quests every couple months. It's kind of fun having direct evidence that I've inspired composers to write new music.

I haven't gotten bored of interviewing people yet, so I'll keep those up in Composer Quest: Season 3 in the fall. I have some exciting ones planned with composers of big TV shows (Fargo, 24, Dexter, etc.). I also want to stay true to the roots of the podcast and keep interviewing random people who haven't "made it" yet; those often feel like the freshest conversations. 

Someday, it would be awesome to have enough patronage to keep the podcast totally sustainable. I'm just a dreamer like that, though. :)


Come to the EVENT:

Photo and Copy by Jennifer Sandquist

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