Triple M contest forced local musician to churn out new material

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Posted by on July 07, 2009 at 10:08:09:

Triple M contest forced local musician to churn out new material weekly

by Katjusa Cisar | July 7, 2009 | 77 Square

There are two kinds of songwriting for Madison musician Whitney Mann: the kind that comes quickly, and the kind that stretches out torturously for months.

It feels like the difference between "drinking soda on a really hot day versus spilling coffee all over yourself," said Mann, 24.

Taking part in Triple M 105.5 FM's "Project M" this spring forced her to write quickly, even when she felt like putting a song aside for a while. The local radio station's "American Idol"-like contest pitted 10 local singer-songwriters against each other. Each week the musicians participated in challenges, like writing a song around an assigned title or from the viewpoint of the opposite gender.

The weekly deadlines took her back to cramming in college.

"Writing a new song every week was daunting," she said. "It was tough to put creativity behind an idea that I felt comfortable enough playing to people."

But that kind of pressure unblocks musical ideas, too. The Triple M contest was "a good laxative" for songwriting, joked Kyle Jacobson, Mann's boyfriend and bass player.

She used to call her band "Whitney Mann and the Boys," but she decided to drop "the Boys" because it "just seemed kind of honky tonk and ridiculous."

This May, she and her band self-released their first album, "The Way Back Home," a six-song EP of wistful and sad Americana originals ("the more heartbreaking it is, the better the song," she said). They strived for a "live" sound, reminiscent of Alison Krauss and Robert Plant's "Raising Sand," using no overdubs except for Andrew Harrison's pedal steel and some vocals.

They recorded it over the course of just one weekend at a studio in Milwaukee. By midnight that Saturday, drummer Tim Russell had passed out from fatigue, but Jacobson and Mann stayed up to dub a "choir" part. A self-described "cheapskate," she was determined to save money by finishing the recording over one weekend: "Compared to other people, we did (the recording) really cheap."

Jacobson, 26, and Mann met while working together as photojournalists for a television station in Rockford, Ill. He grew up skateboarding and listening to Fugazi and "didn't listen to any female singer-songwriters" until he met her. Now, he's not only playing in her backing band, but promoting her as well. He submitted the video that garnered her the spot in the Triple M contest, and he attended each of the weekly Project M sessions.

"He came every week to eat the free food and drink Old Style," said Mann.

She ended up not winning Project M, but it doesn't seem to bother her very much. Many of the other contestants were students or full-time musicians, she said, and had more time to invest in the weekly songwriting challenges than Mann, who works full time for a creative software company.

Now, she's back to writing songs at her own pace.

"Half of my songs I wrote in the shower," she said. Recently, she broke from her sad song tradition to write a silly song with the line, "Grandpappy was a milkman." She got the idea for it from an old potholder from the '50s or '60s that marketed a milkman named Carl Mann, coincidentally her grandfather's name.

It took her 38 minutes to write the song -- the songwriting equivalent of a tall glass of icy soda on a hot day.

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