Nineteen seconds may not seem like a long time, but within the confines of a three-minute pop song, it can be transformational. Take a scalpel to the most indelible pop songs in history — cut back things like instrumental intros, repeated choruses or perfunctory bridges — and you're often left with the purest distillation of the song.
From her first intonation to last syllable, Madonna only needs nineteen seconds to deliver the mystery and majesty of her finest song:
"Life is a mystery, everyone must stand alone / I hear you call my name, and it feels like home."
Same for this opening salvo of Swedish disco bliss; scrub past the string swells and descending piano chords and let Frida and Agnetha light the stage:
"You can dance, you can jive, having the time of your life / Ooh, see that girl, watch that scene, digging the dancing queen."
All it takes is nineteen seconds, and you're pretty much transformed into a sentient mirror ball.
We'll leave it to professional music theorists to discern if one-third of a minute is some temporal version of the golden ratio, but local producer and musician (and former RFT contributor) Ryan Wasoba has recently undertaken a quest to wring the maximum amount of nervy, spiky rock & roll out of exactly nineteen seconds. His just-launched project, sensibly called Ryan Wasoba's Nineteen Second Songs, has, as of this writing, released a dozen mini-ditties with accompanying lo-fi videos through its Facebook page.
The strictures of the project suit Wasoba's sensibility, one that he honed as a founding member of So Many Dynamos (and a sculptor of its earliest, math-rock-inspired songs) and burnished as engineer and producer for local bands including the Gorge and Foxing.
"The whole point of the thing was having an arbitrary limitation to have to stick to," says Wasoba.
The inspiration for the project hit Wasoba about five years ago — he keeps a note on his phone to collect song inspirations — but much of its impetus came in the wake of his last official release, his 2012 solo debut Music for No Reason. Some songs, he felt, were overlong, and the process of promoting the album and playing solo shows after so many years as part of a band didn't hold a lot of joy for him.
"It became apparent in that crisis of sorts that I had after making that record," Wasoba recalls. "I still want to write songs and I really love writing lyrics, but I don't want to have to write a bridge."
Freed from the bonds of the normal expectations of song-craft, and emboldened by this new constraint, Wasoba is having a lot more fun — and it shows in the songs themselves. Song number twelve, "Geography Bee," was inspired by years in the van on tour with the Dynamos, and offers a blunt precis of life on the road.
"From the Northeast corner to the shores of California / Nobody gives a shit about your band."
Since much of Wasoba's creative energy is spent as an engineer and producer, working out of his Bird Cloud studio in Edwardsville, he uses these truncated tracks almost like interval training, learning to work quickly and efficiently.
"It's really an engineering challenge for me. I have been guilty of not practicing recording — it's hard to practice on other people's time," says Wasoba, who normally tracks drums, guitar and harmony vocals on his nineteen-second songs.
Wasoba says he currently has six or seven production and engineering projects in the works and that a significant amount of interest in his skills stems from his work on Foxing's debut record The Albatross.
"I've had a couple people come in from out of town to record with me, and that 100 percent of the time is because they like that record and want to work with me," he says.
Even though Albatross, released five years ago this month, came early in Wasoba's engineering career, he remains proud of the record and even assisted with Foxing's latest, the Chris Walla-produced Nearer My God.
"For the longest time, I thought I was always gonna be Ryan from So Many Dynamos," Wasoba says. "I think that's over, but I wonder if I'll always be the guy that produced that Foxing record."
Nineteen Second Songs gives Wasoba a chance to flex his songwriting chops, however briefly, and reclaim the idiosyncratic artistic identity that often gets subsumed by his behind-the-board role.
"I always have had imposter syndrome; I never feel good talking about strengths," reflects Wasoba. "I do feel like with production and creatively, I feel like this is the first time I am comfortable with my point of view from a production standpoint, and I didn't have any way to get that point across."
Nineteen Second Songs has changed that.
"The project is entirely based on my point of view," Wasoba says.