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The liberating brevity of “Short Songs For No One”

Singer-songwriter Colin Bares offers up a series of personal thoughts on the nature of commitment, self-reliance, and music’s shifting culture.

Photos by Steven Spoerl

The words ring out, briefly, but the quiet devastation underpinning their delivery hits home. “I went too far upfield and turned my guts to dust. Is this really happening? Happening. Am I good enough?” A coffee mug sticks stubbornly out in the bottom right hand corner and a beleaguered man hunkers over a makeshift desk near a rack of flannel shirts, pouring his all into making every last word count. And then it’s over, just as soon as it started, leaving the song an indelible 38 second reverie. For anyone familiar with the work of Colin Bares and the Short Songs For No One project he’s been rolling out via short videos since late April, the sight and sounds offer a comforting familiarity, but to Bares, the project represents something more important.

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Those above lyrics come from the 11th installment of Bares’ series, which has been an extremely welcome addition as Madison’s music community transitions into an almost entirely online existence. When the project officially launched on April 21, the premise seemed clear: an ongoing series of ultra-short songs that made sense of our shifting world through a personalized lens, building on the songwriting Bares has showcased in his Colin Edwin solo project and a range of bands including Good Grief and Mr. Martin & The Sensitive Guys

With lyrics that touch on everything from TV dinners to inescapable reduction to abandoned Don Herbert books to small, everyday triumphs and trivialities, Short Songs For No One offers a portrait of an artist at an unexpected crossroads. In 30-odd-second bursts, Bares offers a curious microcosm of the uncertainty that’s gripped the world at large. The project’s aim has shifted slightly throughout its run but the yearning and empathy that sustains the songs have found a more immediate relevance amid increasing tension. Each installment, simply titled “Short Song For No One” with a chronologically assigned number, latches onto a specific feeling, each one difficult to neatly place but impossible to ignore. All of them tethered to Bares’ songwriting, which incorporates tense chords, folk progressions, and soaring vocals, often as haunted as they are haunting. At once forceful and frail, Bares nestles a series of relatable vignettes (messing up rice, adhering to new guidelines, being struck by the sights and sounds of outside movement, and caring reflections all appearing with accelerated purpose) into something approaching an ineffable quality, despite the incredibly brief nature of the narratives. 

The songs manage to stick much longer than their runtimes, providing relief and release in near-equal measure for both artist and listener. Bares has good company on this still-emergent micro-songwriting front, including Tony Molina and LVL UP, the latter of which was notably covered by Bares in a past recording project. No entry in the 14 current installments of Short Songs For No One has been longer than the first, which clocks in at 47 seconds, bringing the entire project, as it currently stands, to just over 8 minutes in length. The limits of brevity also prove liberating here, allowing Bares to imbue each fleeting second with immeasurable meaning, a unifying trait reflected in the lyrics, vocal melodies, and tasteful guitar figures. Tone Madison sent Bares a list of questions regarding this project, recent moniker shifts, and various states of mindfulness. His responses were characteristically thoughtful and occasionally biting, reflecting the tongue-in-cheek humor that sporadically strikes into the narratives of Short Songs For No One (never more notably than the 13th entry, which is a three second clip of the camera toppling over). From modest beginnings through to unexpected ends, Bares seems to have a lot on his mind. Navigate a handful of those thoughts below and subscribe to Bares’ YouTube channel here.

Tone Madison: What made you start this series? 

Colin Bares: I’m trying to convince myself I can still write music, and so far it seems to be working. I’ve developed a lot of nasty hangups about making music over the years. I’ve always had an impulse to make stuff but often when I get to work it’s not as good as I think it should be, the bottom drops out and I’m left feeling bad with nothing to show for it. “God Only Knows” already exists. I can’t top that, what’s the point? But what could I make if I had no expectations? So I’ve been trying to let go long enough to find a little seed of something, exploring that until it feels like a “thing” and then taking it to the bank. I like some songs more than others, that’s okay. I can only get out whatever’s in there.  But I’ve also found that writing in quick succession has given me a stronger aversion to repeating myself or leaning on things that have worked in the past. And challenging myself to try something different provides its own fuel and direction.  I’m really just tricking my brain into working unburdened by expectations. I don’t know how long it will last but I’m planning to keep at it til it no longer feels productive.

Tone Madison: Has the pandemic shifted your creative habits at all? 

Colin Bares: Definitely, but only because I was laid off for a month and able to dedicate that time to self-care and creativity. The biggest change for me was journaling every day. My journals are mostly like talk therapy with myself so it really helped me to handle all the cool new anxiety and uncertainty, and also to figure out where I wanted to put my energy. I started drawing more and did some other art projects. I have even less confidence in my artistic abilities than I do with music so it’s been a trial but I feel like I have to do it anyway, I don’t know why. I also want to shout out a few books that really helped grease the wheels. Why Art? by Eleanor Davis, Syllabus by Lynda Barry, and Catching The Big Fish by David Lynch. I find I need a lot of support to squash the self-doubt and get to work, and each of these books provided that in some way.

Tone Madison: Are you planning on releasing these songs as an album at any point? Or even extending some entries into longer songs?

Colin Bares: I’m not sure what will happen to them but it’s most likely they’ll lose all meaning before I get the chance to do something else with them. They’re meant to be ephemeral so I’m trying not to think about their future. I worry that if I start to think about what might become of them, the spell will be broken and I won’t be able to work under the assumption that they exist for no one. I’m posting them online so there’s already a very obvious contradiction there, but somehow the intention I’ve gone into the exercise with has held out.

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Tone Madison: What prompted the moniker shift from The Weasel, Marten Fisher to Colin Edwin?

Colin Bares: What prompted it was being billed as Colin Edwin and thinking that was okay. It’s my first and middle name, and my name on Facebook because I naively thought that gave me some anonymity when I made an account. I’ve released music under a couple different names. I like having an alter ego but those projects eventually felt like they existed for a very specific purpose that was no longer what I was trying to do with my music, and the name felt tied to that purpose so I started something else. I’m hoping that using two-thirds of my legal name means whatever I make now will be appropriate for this project, because I can’t not be me. Or I’ll have to change my legal name. How am I not myself?

Tone Madison: Switching gears, you have a well-documented history of covers that feature your own arrangements. How do you curate those cover selections (are they songs that impact you emotionally? Ones that just catch your ear? Are the choices more intentional?) and what’s your arranging process like when you’ve got one picked?

Colin Bares: Songs I’ve covered tend to be ones that I just get hung up on. If it’s been in my head I’ll try to figure out a way to play it. Most times I feel like I can’t do anything interesting with it or can’t pull off performing it. I’ll almost always check online for chords or tablature so I’m definitely not always starting from scratch. Otherwise it follows the same track as songwriting, you see what sticks, what’s missing, and try to build it up until it feels right. I’m not a virtuoso guitarist so I’m also always working within my limitations. I think there’s enormous value in learning and performing other people’s music. If you want to write your own music, that is 90 percent of the experience, it’s not a cop-out. You learn what you like and don’t, you learn your strengths, all sorts of things that will inform how you write music. 

Tone Madison: What are your hopes and fears in regards to other artists currently navigating the extremely uncertain nature of our current global situation?

Colin Bares: I’ve almost always had a day job so I wouldn’t pretend to know what it’s like for touring bands right now but I worry this is going to be more damaging to the arts in general than we’re expecting and that damage is going to be more permanent than anybody would like it to be. We’re going to lose a lot of venues. I have no idea how long it’s going to be til people are comfortable being at a crowded show. It’s gotten easier for anybody to get their music out there but harder to make a living at it and I think that trend’s just going to accelerate. My hope, I guess, is that consumers voluntarily move to more equitable ways of compensating artists of all kinds. Patreon? I have no idea.

Tone Madison: Is there any other advice you’d like to impart?

Colin Bares: If you want to make something you can never worry about the quality of what you’re making, because that isn’t real. You can only do the work and at the end of it there’s something you made, you don’t have to like it, no one does. You can try to share that thing with other people and if they like it that’s great and if they don’t it has no impact on whether or not you should do it again. I can say the Beatles are a great band and Nickelback is a bad band and we can even agree on that but it’s all just made up. All you can do is make whatever you can make, you just let the little part of your brain listen to the big part of your brain and then it happens, and you watch, and then you’re left with a little gift at the end, and the gift is a part of you that used to be inside and now it’s outside. And the more you do it the more you’ll recognize it. So if you’re compelled to, just do it and make great effort not to let yourself discourage yourself.

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