That's not a ukulele. For this photo Bob Nanna was 14 feet tall.
That's not a ukulele. For this photo Bob Nanna was 14 feet tall. Credit: Colleen Durkin; Stylist: Sasha Hodges; Photo assistant: Doug Johnston

I ’ve been a fan of Chicago emo hero Bob Nanna since 2003, when I was in high school and downloaded “The New Nathan Detroits” by his band Braid via a crappy dial-up Internet connection. My friend Matt, who I got to know after a 2009 Lincoln Hall show by Milwaukee post-emo outfit Maritime, is also a huge fan of Braid. So when I decided to do a story about Downwrite, a songwriting service that Nanna and former Spitalfield front man Mark Rose launched in February 2013, I got an idea. Last year Matt and his girlfriend, Anne, gave me a pair of tickets to The Book of Mormon on Valentine’s Day to thank me for cat-sitting for them. I could return their generosity—and get in on the Valentine’s issue my Reader colleagues were plotting—by paying for a Bob Nanna song from Downwrite that Anne would secretly commission for Matt. From the minute I set this plan in motion, I was looking forward to seeing his face when he heard it for the first time.

Downwrite is just a website, not a studio, but it can connect fans to a network of songwriters that’s grown to 34 from its humble beginnings as just Nanna and Rose—most of them come from the worlds of punk, emo, and indie rock, and the better-known names include Matt Pryor of the Get Up Kids, JT Woodruff of Hawthorne Heights, and Bob Morris of the Hush Sound. To hire Nanna to record a custom-made song for you, all you have to do is find his submission page and fill in two fields: “What would you like the song to generally be about?” says the first. “Please be as descriptive as possible and I encourage you to provide links to photos, drawings, etc.” The second is simpler: “Fast or slow? Loud or soft? What mood are you feeling for it?” Other artists ask different questions, or more of them.

Nanna’s page also lists some of the bands he’s played in since the 90s—Braid, of course, plus Hey Mercedes, Certain People I Know, Jack & Ace, and the solo project City on Film, among others. “All he wants to do is write music, practice, and get better,” it says. He’s not a full-time musician—he was a marketing manager at Threadless until a recent round of layoffs—but Downwrite lets him pocket a little extra cash while honing his craft. “A lot of times I’ll just enjoy writing songs from a different perspective that’s given to me on Downwrite,” he says.

Nanna is often hired to write songs for significant others, and I figured that by involving my friends Anne and Matt, I’d be able get a close look at the process. The two of them have become a big part of my life since that Maritime show: together we’ve watched midnight movies at the Music Box, kicked back at Soup and Bread at the Hideout, and seen lots of emo bands, including Braid. I’m also their go-to person when their cats, George Michael and Steve Holt, need looking after—which is a big part of how this all came about.

The author's friends Anne and Matt, pictured in various phases of their long-term adorableness
The author’s friends Anne and Matt, pictured in various phases of their long-term adorablenessCredit: Courtesy Anne

Of course, the service Downwrite offers is commonplace, and has been for decades. Especially in the 60s and 70s, you could reliably find ads in magazines asking readers to send in lyrics to be set to music—you’d pay your money, a group of anonymous studio jobbers would throw together a track, and you’d get a few copies of the finished product so you could try to break into the music biz. (The ads’ promises of big bucks were, to put it charitably, optimistic.) If it sounds a bit shady, that’s because it was, but some of these so-called song-poems have a bizarre charm that’s kept them in circulation—PBS produced a documentary on the phenomenon in 2003, and there have been dozens of compilations released over the years.

Less dodgy are the songwriters who offer to help aspiring musicians make a tune or album, usually for a much heftier fee—a famous current example is Patrice Wilson of Ark Music Factory, the man behind YouTube sensations such as Rebecca Black’s “Friday” and Alison Gold’s “Chinese Food.” But what’s distinctive about Downwrite is that instead of offering the services of a professional but more or less faceless songwriting studio, it lets people hire musicians they know and love. It can be pretty powerful, as Rose puts it, “to hear somebody’s voice that you had grown up with or are attached to sing just for you.” Customers own no rights to the songs—the songwriters retain those—but the recordings they buy are never publicly released. (Nanna is rerecording six Downwrite tunes for a forthcoming City on Film EP, and he plans to split royalties with the original clients.) Part of the draw is that the song is private, personalized, and unique.

Artists who’ve done the songwriter-for-hire thing—Reggie & the Full Effect and Swans, to pick two disparate examples—often do so in the context of crowdfunding campaigns, offering a personalized tune as a donor reward. Downwrite has several advantages over that arrangement, not least that you can buy a song year-round, not just when somebody’s Kickstarter is running. It’s also usually cheaper. Reggie & the Full Effect asked $1,000 and Swans wanted $500 (for an acoustic number by Michael Gira, not a full-band track), but every Downwrite artist has a $100 package, and some go even lower—multi-­instrumentalist and man of many bands Nnamdi Ogbonnaya will sell you a 30-second jingle for $50. “The one thing that we thought was important was that every artist should have a $100 option at the very least, because we wanted it to be affordable,” says Nanna. Downwrite’s songwriters know they don’t have the star power to demand big bucks, and besides, the whole idea is to make musicians accessible to their fans—extortionate prices would ruin that. “If I were, let’s say, to get someone really popular on it, like Bono,” says Nanna, “for $100 you would get him to hum something.”

It helps that Downwrite has almost no overhead—it has no rent to pay, since all the songwriters use their own spaces and gear, and it has no employees of its own. (Dan Reed, Downwrite’s other founder, built the website and still steps in to troubleshoot it.) For $100, Nanna will make you a home-­recorded song with a single instrument (which essentially means a guitar) and a multi­track vocal arrangement. It’s one of seven song-pricing options he offers—his most expensive is a full-band studio recording with guests for $500. Those options help customers new to the process get some idea what’s possible and what to expect: a cover tune, say, with one instrument and one vocal track ($125), or an original duet by Nanna and his fiancee, Lauren LoPiccolo ($250). Anne’s song for Matt is the $200 option, a multi-­instrument home recording with a multi­track vocal arrangement. Given that Nanna can never devote himself wholly to a single song, it usually takes a couple weeks to finish one. The two-question survey is to help get his creative gears turning.

Anne didn’t have much to say about the sound of her song (“Fast! Loud! I honestly am not totally sure, as long as it isn’t mopey”), but she wasn’t similarly reticent when describing what she likes about Matt. She drew up a long list, including “Appreciation of cats” and “Ability to make others appreciate cats”—and she got serious too, adding “Complete acceptance of, and compatibility with, a neurotic girlfriend who is much better at making fart jokes than she is at explaining to strangers that her boyfriend is best thing that’s ever happened to her.”

Nanna always writes songs by starting with the music, not the lyrics. “I’ll read through everything, but the part I’ll really pay attention to is the second question, which is the feel of the song,” he says. “I saw that Anne wanted something with pep.” Nanna says he spent an hour or so psyching himself up to start the tune, thinking about it while he was doing other stuff. After he set up to start recording (he used the new practice space for his fourth-wave emo band, Lifted Bells), it took about an hour for the music to take shape. “Once I can start working on something and can devote time to it it happens pretty quickly,” he says. He used his laptop’s Photo Booth program to record himself playing different parts of the song (verse, chorus, bridge) on acoustic guitar, then began piecing them together in GarageBand.

Nanna listened to this basic instrumental sketch in his car, working out a melody by singing along to it on routine drives. To write the lyrics, he recorded a hummed version of the melody into the GarageBand file at his practice space, so he could play it back over and over while he hunted for words that fit. “I reread the e-mail and took notes, this time specifically on the content, about what Anne wanted to say—some notes about who Matt is and what she loves about him,” Nanna says. “When I started to sing along, I would insert some of that stuff that I thought would fit into the cadence of the song.”

Anne had provided Nanna with nearly 700 words and a couple photos (one of her and Matt, the other of their cats). Nanna’s lyrics use what she wrote, but they’re vague enough that anyone can listen to the song without feeling left out—the only identifying details are the names of the couple’s cats. “I like to take it and go from the pets’ perspective a little bit,” he says. “It sort of adds a personality.” The acoustic tune, called “You Get Me,” is jaunty and catchy, and Nanna’s half-­whispered vocals express just the right amount of sweetness, never crossing over into cloying. Nanna sent me an early demo, and I couldn’t help but crack a smile listening to it, knowing who it was for and what it was about. And I won’t lie, when I first heard the part of the chorus when Nanna sings “I got you / You get me,” I choked up a little.

This is the face Bob Nanna uses to say "No way am I posing with the bow and arrow."
This is the face Bob Nanna uses to say “No way am I posing with the bow and arrow.”Credit: Colleen Durkin; Stylist: Sasha Hodges; Photo assistant: Doug Johnston

On Tuesday, February 4, a couple nights before Nanna recorded the final version of “You Get Me,” he played it at City Winery as part of a Downwrite showcase that also included sets from Rose, William Beckett, and Dustin Currier. “I felt comfortable performing it live,” he says. “People really liked it.” He recorded the song in Crystal Lake with engineer Matt Jordan, who plays guitar in Lifted Bells. It took him about an hour and a half—he tweaked the melody he’d used for the demo and filled out the arrangement a little, overdubbing vocal harmonies and adding a guitar lead and a shaker on the bridge.

“You Get Me” sounds polished enough that when Matt first heard it, he didn’t realize it had been made for him. The three of us were at their apartment chatting, and though I’d sent Anne the song, she hadn’t yet had a chance to listen to it herself—she felt too nervous about it to hit “play,” so she silently signaled me to do it on my laptop instead. My screen didn’t display any info, but Matt recognized the voice. He didn’t figure out who the song was about, though, not even when he heard the cats’ names. “It didn’t really dawn on me until after the reveal,” he says. “Like, Oh wow, that’s a reference to very important creatures in my life that I love very much.”

After that first listen—especially once I’d explained who’d written the song and why—Matt seemed out of sorts and overwhelmed, and Anne teared up a bit watching him. A couple hours and few listens later, he was better able to wrap his head around the fact that a musician who’d helped soundtrack his teenage years had written a song for and about him. “To have a gift that feels timeless, something that’s only going to appreciate with every listen, is not something I can really say I’ve felt before,” Matt says. “And to have different eras of my life kind of summarized in a song—it’s pretty great.”

Matt and Anne both loved “You Get Me” instantly, and Matt couldn’t stop thanking her or me—one of the first things he did was call for a group hug. And though it might not have seemed possible for his opinion of Nanna to improve, it definitely has: “What a great dude.”