Like most of us, Jeremy Hollen of Do Ra has spent some time at home in these long months with his music and his work. Do Ra (pronounced dough-raw) packs a lot of meaning into those two tiny words. Hollen says the name was chosen for a couple reasons.
“For one, it’s short and sounds cool, if you can resist pronouncing it dew-raw,’” Hollen explains. “But yes, it’s the defining solfège for the Phrygian mode.”
So, yeah… let’s unpack that.
Musically speaking, Do and Ra are the two lowest notes on a guitar, Hollen’s primary instrument, and sound like the alternating notes of the Jaws theme sung as solfège. Solfège is a system of assigning syllables to the notes of the musical scale for naming pitch and sight singing (think The Sound of Music’s “Do-Re-Mi”). As for Phrygian, it’s one of the medieval church modes from which all of western music is derived and commonly used in classical music. To the ear, the full Phrygian scale is an exotic and mysterious, moody, minor progression.
But this isn’t all ancient history and music theory. Modern jazz composers use the modes to improvise, and just as it has always been, musical scales in major or minor keys are a form of sonic storytelling that provoke the emotional responses of joy, sadness, or both.
Do Ra deftly accomplishes this with their new release “Sound of Me,” a sad / happy song and incredibly clever lyric video that places itself in the middle of the pandemic at a time of isolation and social separation, wrestling with two ways of seeing the world.
“The whole song is this depressive character kind of giving himself a pep talk, but he can’t quite step up to the plate. He’s not quite there,” Hollen says. “And the chorus is this happy ‘you’re just having a fire with friends, and you’re laughing.’ That’s the point of the song—it’s about presence and being happy.”
At this moment, we have the time to really sit with our thoughts and analyze ourselves as we whiplash between tenuous, fearful watching, or full-on participation and continued celebration of what life was and continues to be. Some days we get a lot done, some days we barely manage to get dressed, and some days, we play a duet with our dryer’s end of cycle jingle and accidentally go viral in the best way. Or at least, that’s what happened for Do Ra.
“I couldn’t have expected anything less,” Hollen laughs. “I mean, we had made a video every week for I forget how many weeks at that point. But the dryer video blew up. I get it—it’s short and simple and not trying to do anything. It’s just funny that that’s the thing that started the ball rolling. We were thinking of it like, ‘well, we did the work, we just needed something to get eyes on it.’” That work was the weekly release of a song on YouTube with long-time friend, collaborator, and drummer James Alton. Do Ra TV consists of 31 episodes of original music interspersed with brilliant covers of songs by The Weeknd, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Blink 182 and Nirvana.
“I’ve always been oriented in collections of songs, because I feel like one song can’t say it on its own. So learning to do singles has been the opposite of what I want to do, but it’s also been kind of fun. It’s just like, ‘put it out there.’”
One of those songs was “Sound of Me,” a version of which posted last year as Episode 17, and it was one of the two songs that producer Chris Coady (Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Grizzly Bear, TV On The Radio, Blonde Redhead, Beach House) chose to work on. Hollen explains how the collaboration happened.
“I had been in touch with him for years. He was busy and right when our viral video took off, we got some momentum, Covid happened, and then he had some time. I went to LA in June and we worked for a solid week straight, 14-hour days, every day on two songs with him. We had wanted to work together for a while, but more than anything, it was timing.”
Hollen says he rewrote the song a little bit and tightened it up before going, “so maybe it had a little bit of Covid blues in there too,” he admits. The song had been well under three minutes but Coady convinced him to make it longer. “It gave us room for this nice big ending, which I think is the best part of the song.”
Then there’s the sweet genius of the lyric video choreographed as one long text with emojis — a rebus for the modern, asynchronous age of telling all of our stories online. “When I first posted ‘Sound of Me’ on Instagram, for some reason, I used emojis, so in my head that’s what it always was,” Hollen says.
More poignantly, Hollen confesses that the creation of the video was done in just over an hour while in bed — a story that tracks with Corona Times.
“Usually my videos take a week straight of me filming and editing, but it was the quickest video I’ve ever done and I did it the old-fashioned way, Disney-style, I took a ton of screenshots.”
There were other interesting and international reasons as well. Do Ra has a distributor in Korea who wanted to release a video. “I wanted to do as little English as possible, kind of like hieroglyphs, a way around the language barrier,” Hollen says.
As far as future releases, Hollen also wonders what an eventual full-length release would look like for Do Ra.
“The point was to start getting these songs together, put them out as singles, and then do this record, but now I’m not exactly sure what I’m going to do. With things online, I don’t know if you put out a record and you can’t play live. So there’s all these questions.”
These are the creative questions that likely swirl and plague the minds of musicians everywhere. Is what you’re doing good enough and loud enough to make it past the noise and the headlines in a life that feels like we’re on constant pause?
With no music venues hosting concerts, a lot of music has become virtual releases and live-streaming shows from homes and studios. Hollen is humble, self-deprecating, funny and makes an honest statement about the music industry in the time of Covid-19 when he screenshots YouTube analytics and revenue in an Instagram with the caption. “We’ve released 23 songs in 23 weeks, gone from 30 subscribers to 2.8k, and made almost $13! A lot of that was because of my dryer but it’s been an awesome 6 months."
“If there’s a way to make any money right now for musicians in my class I haven’t found it,” Hollen continues. “You make a little bit on YouTube, you can do merch and vinyl. The only way is touring. Even if you’re in a good situation, you’re not going to be making money from streaming. So, every penny I make is from teaching, but I’m looking for other doors in the industry, composing, things like that. But as far as being in a band goes, I don’t know how anybody does it.”
Hollen showcases his musicianship and teaching skills in a Behind the Song video for “Sound of Me,” talking about the song and songwriting in general, though he initially felt almost unprepared to speak about it. “I’ve felt like there’s no place for this music. It’s usually these big, philosophical thoughts I’m exploring, but I’m not trying to say anything for the first time ever.” What he does say is that he composed the song using a trick he learned from Beethoven and offers encouragement to fellow creatives. “Anyone can write music, computers write music.”
He also offers insights on the writing process: “For me personally, it’s very easy to slip into points where I’m looking at the bleak side of things, so the verses were easy to write, but the chorus is ‘let it all go, it’s not that bad, have a fire with your friends.” As Hollen encapsulates in the Behind the Song video, he wanted to include “some sulkiness to contrast that happy upbeat chorus.” The accompanying percussion expresses this mood shift as a soft and contemplative heartbeat plodding towards a chorus that picks up with a cymbal ride that sounds like a twitching, palpable excitement and a happy gallop.
“Sound of Me” turns on elegant variations of the musical and lyrical themes with Hollen’s vocal cadence pausing mid-syllable, creating gentle and masterful internal rhymes: “There isn’t more an orange nor as fine a shine” and word puzzles like “Take the ‘NEVER’ in ‘adVENturRE’ out.”
But at the center of the song in question, what “Sound of Me” is asking, is what way are you going to look at the world, and what sound are you going to make? It has a simple answer: “It’s an A HA HA!” It’s the sound of our own laughter, a necessary medicine we all need right now.
Whether you’re a listener, a musician, or composer, you’ll appreciate the thoughtful self-analysis of a song as a cinematic single, a technologically enchanting lyric video, and a behind the song video for technique. Do Ra creates engaging songs and videos that offer a glimpse into the mechanics of making music in a way that both instructs and delights.
You can also catch Hollen on an episode of Guitar Magazine’s ‘Sick Riffs,’ showing you how to play “Waves,” the other song he recorded with Coady this Summer.