On Day One of February Album Writing Month, Burr Settles is wearing his FAWM T-shirt. He insists he won't wear it for the entire month, but Settles is an enthusiastic, if understated, guy. It's easy to see him getting carried away.
The premise of the project is this: You sign up and create a profile at the FAWM website, www.fawm.org. Then, during the month of February, your goal is to write 14 songs. You record and share them on the website, and give and receive feedback with other participants ("fawmers").
It began in 2004, with Settles and a few friends in grad school with him at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. They challenged themselves to write an album's worth of material in a month, arbitrarily picking February. "It's worked out well, though," Settles explains. "The weather's usually not great in February, and people are sort of holed up. Plus Valentine's Day is right in the middle, so you get a freebie there. Write a love song, or a sad song about how nobody loves you."
This being a leap year, the challenge includes an extra half-song — fawmers are encouraged to collaborate, either in person or over the Internet, with another songwriter for one tune.
Settles, a postdoc at Carnegie Mellon (and guitarist in local band Delicious Pastries), studies "machine learning," a branch of artifical intelligence. The FAWM website features several songwriting tools he designed — each a simple program that generates ideas for a songwriter to start with, from lyric suggestions to song structures.
Settles says fawmers range from full-time musicians using the challenge as an exercise to people who have never picked up an instrument before. The project has grown from its initial handful of participants to hundreds worldwide; this year, Settles expects about a thousand people to "win" (meaning, complete the challenge) and another 600-1,000 to participate in a partial capacity.
Settles says working with FAWM and its participants around the world has even fed back into his research, raising questions for him about how computers can be involved in the songwriting process.
"I like to think about how we can use [artificial intelligence] to encourage personal creativity," Settles says.
"I guess I'm a technological optimist," he adds. "Or try to be."