Boulder musician Adam Baerd was struggling to release music. He's a perfectionist, and he struggled to get over the hump of never feeling pleased enough with his work to share it with the world.
Hoping to break through, Baerd and an audio engineer got together in the studio for a recording session; he has a knack for improvisation and imagined something interesting and fun would come from jamming on an acoustic guitar.
To say Baerd finally broke through would be an undersell. The results are a whopping three hours' worth of completely improvised material, aptly titled Perfectish, a project broken into three hour-long tracks.
Ahead of the Perfectish February 18 release, Baerd spoke to Westword about how the project came to be, experimentation, what else he'd like to do with music, and how performing at nursing homes and for his grandmother had a profound impact on his life.
Westword: What was the big idea behind the release? What drew you to a three-hour release of improvised guitar playing?
Adam Baerd: I, like a lot of people, especially musicians, have a perfectionistic neurosis a little bit. Something about just recording a bunch of improvised music and putting it out into the world, I guess it was kind of my way of telling myself, hey, that’s cool. This music can still be valid and interesting and worth something.
I have a lot of friends that I feel like just sit on their music, and they’ve got a bunch of good stuff that they have to release, but it just never gets there. This was my random experiment to see if I could overcome that part about myself.
How do you feel like the experiment turned out?
Perfect-ish, is how I’d say. And that’s what’s fun about it: I’m trying not to judge it too much. The minute you start judging your improvisation is the minute it starts to get kind of weird. I’ve just been enjoying the process, which I think was my whole plan. I had fun.
When did you figure out that you could play for this long and that it was worth releasing?
It all started with a friend of a friend saying he’s an audio engineer over at UI Sound Studios, and we just talked about, hey, let’s see what happens. I spend most of my practice regime improvising, and especially when I meet new people, other musicians, that’s my favorite way to get to know somebody immediately. So, I figured, hey, okay, let’s just book an hour of time and see what comes out.
I think initially, we were just thinking that if there’s a really good part, we’d take that out and make it into a track or refine it or something. But we did the whole hour, and at the end said, "Oh, that was kind of fun." It was almost like a podcast or something.
Then we decided to do a couple more sessions, and by the time we did the third one, we said, "Well, maybe we should just put these together and not change it from the way it is," just to see if that would be exciting.
Honestly, it was just really fun, and I wanted to do it more after our first session.
What do you anticipate the listener response to be? Is this a totally niche thing?
[Laughs.] Well, as a finger-style guitarist, I’m pretty used to niche. Honestly, I have no idea, and that’s what I’m excited about. I think there’s a place for people who are really into finger-style guitar and alternate tunings and capos and all that stuff, and I think there’s also the element of you can put it on while you send emails. It’s commute music, or more that sort of chill-out-vibe sort of thing.
I’m honestly very curious to know how people use it — when they listen to it, where they listen to it. No data yet, but we’ll find out, I guess.
What’s an average practice session like for you?
It totally varies based on the day. I’d say I get at least two or three hours of musical practice in, but that can mean a lot of things; on a good day, it’s five or six or until my arms start hurting and I have to chill out. But it’s a mix of things. I really try to not over-prescribe it.
I don’t really subscribe to the classical school of playing one passage over and over for an hour just to get it perfect. I admire that in theory, but my brain gets a little distracted. So a practice session can be anything. Earlier, I was reading some gypsy-jazz charts on the mandolin, trying to figure out chord shapes for that.
Before that, I was trying to play drums to flamenco music because that’s what came on my Spotify Discover while I had it on.
It could be piano work, vocal improvisation or just a total mix of things, which has been really great for my ear: just trying to listen to something and then say, okay, what do I have in my hands? What am I hearing? How can I make these two play along, even if they shouldn’t? Example: if I’m trying to play banjo over classical music. I still enjoy the process.
Sounds like a lot of experimenting and getting into unusual pairings.
Yeah. It’s about finding a vibe or a groove. I really enjoy when two things aren’t working together, and then trying to figure out how to make that work. That’s where it becomes really fun to me, and that’s what I really enjoy about the practice regimes.
I don’t have to worry so much if it’s sounding bad, because something sounding bad is usually the precursor to it sounding kind of cool and then even good.
Other than playing for three hours, completely improvised, what else are you doing with music?
As of last year, I started doing it professionally full-time and using that time to really focus on what I needed to focus on. I’ve been doing some scoring work for AAA, Chili’s, things like that, and I’ve been playing around town. I’ve actually really enjoyed playing nursing homes.
My grandmother had a degenerative brain disease, so I’d go visit her and play. She’s sort of where I got my music background, and it was [eye-opening]. Sometimes she wouldn’t even recognize me, and then I’d play, and boom, she’d be back. That was pretty powerful, seeing that.
I’ve continued to do that in her stead, which has been really fun.
That does sound really great. So what do you see next for yourself? Any chance you'll try to make Perfectish Part Two?
I’m exploring. I’m always exploring what to try to release next or what I want to pursue. The next official thing is I’ll be recording a full-on live album, and that show will be in June. That’ll be a very different thing: very structured. It will have an accompanying video, all of that sort of thing, which will be a very different take.
I like pushing in different ways. I’d like to do one of these three-hour sessions again, even if just for my own enjoyment. But I think it’ll be a bit before I revisit this.
The three-hour sessions are a weird mix of energizing and exhausting. When I reach the end of one of these three hours, it’s like my brain’s on fire, and it’s also burned to the ground. It’s like when you get to the top of a climbing route that you shouldn’t have been able to reach the top of.
Have you learned anything about yourself during this time?
Yeah. I would say I accomplished the goal, which was learn to be okay with just doing it and putting it out there. That was my number-one goal, so fortunately I’ve already succeed in that, which was really nice. Now, whatever I put out will be more polished than that. That’s kind of exciting.
It’s also served as a mirror, in a sense. Listening to yourself play for three hours, there’s a lot there to learn about. I’ve kind of defined it as people listening to me learn as I play, which has been really fun.
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.