Now that Milwaukee's Danny Gokey has been booted from American Idol, locals need a new reality show to follow. Triple M (105.5 FM) is offering one alternative: Project M, a competition featuring 10 Madison-area songwriters.
Each week, the contestants receive a challenge that dictates what kind of song they must write over the next seven days. The results are recorded and videotaped, then shared with the world via the radio station's website, 1055triplem.com. While the musicians are vying for a prize package that includes a month of airtime for one of their singles and career advice from an Atlantic Records rep, the best part of the show is their storytelling talents, both on camera and off.
I recently caught up with two Project M contestants - Whitney Mann and Mark Harrod - to get their take on songwriting under pressure and how "real" reality shows actually are.
What are you hoping to get out of Project M?
Mann: Adding more songs to my repertoire, songs that are good enough to play in public. I'm also hoping people that don't normally listen to my music will go to my MySpace page. It's more about stretching myself as a songwriter and finding new fans than being competitive.
Harrod: Right now, I have to play a lot of covers to make a living, but Project M is great exposure for original songwriting. I'm hoping people at the places I perform get familiar with some of my original songs and request them, too.
Tell us a bit about the songwriting challenges you take part in each week. What's the most challenging or rewarding thing about them?
Mann: One week the challenge was to write a song about Madison; another it was to write from the perspective of the opposite sex. I hadn't done either of those things before, so I'm operating outside my comfort zone.
Harrod: Sometimes the challenges are a little off-the-wall, but it makes each musician step it up a notch, which is pretty neat to watch.
Has anything gone haywire in your attempts to write and perform new songs so quickly?
Mann: I almost forgot my words one week, but we're allowed to have a sheet in front of us, so I ended up being okay.
Harrod: The week I had to write a song from the female perspective, one of the other songwriters and I were thinking, "What if we threw a curveball back at the judges and all wrote a song in the same key or with the same chorus?" We had this idea of doing a lesbian love song, so we were doing plot and character development on bar napkins. We were so excited that we pitched the idea to people at the Laurel [Tavern] and even got our guitars out. But the next day we called each other, and it was like, "I'm not feeling it. Are you? Nope? Me neither."