The NAB – New Album Blog
As a student of the creative process, I am fascinated by how things happen. How new works emerge from material, decisions, external influences, and vision. I have started work on my next album and I’m trying something new this time around. During the construction of this as-of-yet-unnamed record, I’ll be adding my thoughts, puzzles, tidbits and reflections to this here “New Album Blog.” If the creative process is your bag, then check back occasionally to see how someone else does it. See you soon- m
Musical Conversations part II or How “Sleep” Found Its Own Voice
“Sleep” was written mid-project, being non-existent in September. That’s when the first list was made. Let’s go back a few steps…
I didn’t start life out as a list person. Chriss Mester is a big-time list person. He’s pictured here behind the Baldwin piano at the studio. Aside from being a ridiculously vibey and intuitive musician, Chriss got me into making lists. We were in college together in the early 90’s,
And while we were all navigating the gauntlet of identity issues, life plans, relationship auditions, emotional detours and other youthful and momentous pitfalls, Chriss was deep into lists. In our shared dwelling, I noticed him making all sorts of lists for different things: groceries, daily schedules, who knows what else. Song titles? Possible star names for his newly discovered astral body? Whose turn is it to do the dishes? He knew, well before I did, that a list can be a holy and virtuous tool of survival in life. And somewhere along the way, I started making them too. Now, I make them before going to bed. I make them upon waking up. I make adjusted versions during the day. I make them on napkins, scraps of paper, notebooks, and I use them for everything, often having duplicate lists in different “back up” locations in case one side of my house should befall a natural disaster but not the other. I’m a list acolyte.
So, back in September, when I started compiling a list of the songs I wanted to record, “Sleep” was not on the list. This is because it hadn’t been written yet. It hadn’t even been conceived yet. Some songs are born quickly – concept, phrasing, melodies, lyrics – and others float around somewhere in my brain or body, as feelings, vague ideas, 1 or 2-line phrases. They can live in there, undetected for years. One I’ll tell you about later is called Losing Things. It will be recorded later in the project. But Sleep was not one of these songs. It jumped out onto the notebook paper, and was written to suit another person’s voice, another person’s life, with the possible application to anybody who’s been a son, daughter, brother, mother, or father. And as I kept playing the song to myself, I was surprised to hear other voices and instruments occupying the space that I initially created for just me. This song was slowly becoming a group song. Enter Carrie.
Carrie Boberg is an artist, performer, and singer from Austin, Minnesota, currently living with the swift, chilly winds of Lake Superior rapping at her door in Duluth, MN. Carrie always sends me a birthday card. In the mail. She’s a true admirer of Sir Paul McCartney’s artistry and generosity as a performer, and I’ve had the pleasure of singing with her off-and-on for 25+ years. I asked her to join me in the studio on such-and-such a day to sing a song with me, and I was delighted that she agreed. The day before the session, she made the trek to Minneapolis and we met at my house to workshop the tune a little. We found something we both liked and entered the studio the next day to put all the pieces together: Michael on guitar, Chriss on piano, Carrie on vocals, and myself on acoustic guitar.
In this way – part by part and player by player – Sleep started taking on a whole new identity.
Chriss layered his ambient, translucent piano work, Michael laid down a greasy, tremulous slide guitar part, and Carrie settled the deal with her smooth, expressive alto. The conversation had begun. Musicians saying things to each other, responding to little things here and little things there, and before we knew it, we had a song. Sleep had found its voice.
Of course, like most things, the experience was captured and over with. Carrie headed back to Duluth, Chriss ducked out to tend to a small human he’s been charged with raising, and Michael and I tackled a few more songs. Christian sent me some rough mixes of the day’s work, but I can’t bring myself to listen to it. It might ruin it. Eventually I’ll have to see what we’ve got, but I’m still kind of liking the mystery and magic of the moment –
Musical Conversations Part I or Why do I prefer beginning my sentences with prepositional phrases?
Day 1 in the studio. We planned to record 3 songs: Sleep, Crazy Fool, and It Won’t Last. These three songs I called ‘solo’ songs in the planning process, but as I played them, as Christian (my producer) listened to them, and as we saw the sun set on every iterative plan of how they may sound on the album, they became “duet” songs. Rewind…
A few weeks earlier I’m playing the songs at Michael McGarthwaite’s house. He’s a guitar playing style bender I keep company with. As we were playing the songs that evening and working on the arrangements (guitar solo here? start playing here? layout here? Is this tempo okay?) I noticed that he had called these set of songs ‘duet’ songs. I had called them ‘solo’ songs. Perspective check. He’s completely right, because his guitar playing steps into my song, finds the stride, learns the emotional language, and walks the talk. So, naturally and functionally, these are duets. In fact, a better term might be “conversational” songs. I say something, his guitar says something back. This is what happens when people play music together. The conversation continues like this until the players have said all they want to say. Each one measuring their final impact on the whole conversation as it happens in real time, trusting that they’ve got the right vocabulary, tone, and emotional or cultural perspective to carry the conversation to its final resting place: The Take. Did we get the take? How did that feel? Should we take another? These questions guide the conversationalists (musicians) into either more conversation, or a rest from it, to be satisfied with what’s been said and how it’s been said.
This musical conversation that is music is now happening inside a studio – a fabricated environment – to be captured by a recording engineer, then cut apart (mixed) by a mixing engineer, then brought to full colour and presence (mastered) by a mastering engineer. All because I felt I had something to say to you the listener, to myself, or the world at large – it gets fuzzy sometimes. So what started out as a “solo” song, a single voice and instrument reaching out into the darkness of the temporal, tireless, time-bound world surrounding me, becomes a joint exploration and statement. A song, a take, an entire collection of cohesive, complementary, and combustible thoughts crystalized in 1’s and 0’s.
As a musician, I seek out these musical conversations. Sometimes, very rarely, the song has enough internal dialogue between the melody, subject matter, lyrical fabric, instrumental texture, and overall shape to warrant it being a true “solo” piece. This can be a tricky place to shoot for because of ego, self-consciousness, and the beast/balm of ambition. That is to say, sometimes an artist thinks their stuff is better than it is. I’ve come to this realization too late in life perhaps, but not too late for this current project. And because of this realization, I open my songs up to collaboration. I know that if I have the right players to converse with musically, I will be able to overcome any latent egoism or misinterpretation of my own material, and using the microscope of collaboration, remove any false pieces of my work. This takes shape during rehearsals – initial conversations – and ultimately on recording day. Other players will contribute arrangement ideas, sounds and textures that weren’t there before, and help define the overall shape, or sound of the song.
This means 3 things to me:
- a) I lose control of the final outcome
- b) I gain the imaginative and emotional capital of collaborators who are much better at their craft than I am (piano, guitar, singing)
- c) The final version of the song will be a truly authentic statement, finding its voice through the players’ myriad musical experiences, styles, and artistic choices.
All this is to say that on this project, as I invite other musicians into a song or a set of songs, I look forward to the transformation. The song will change. The feeling of it will change. The key might even change. And the somewhat limited (I am one man, one mind, bound for dust) vision for the song might change. But in reality, the thing is enhanced. Made more whole, more colourful, more alive. And the goal of the recording process is to catch the beast hunting, to catch the statue breathing, to notice the sun’s rise in the sky – a moment that passes so quickly and slowly and fearfully, that only the most observant ears will hear. The studio has ears, and I’m hoping to catch this conversation. On Sunday’s session, I’m pretty sure we did.
I first learned guitar clandestinely. In my childhood home on the shores of Crystal Lake in Robbinsdale, Minnesota, my dad kept a classical guitar in a brown cardboard guitar case. This guitar lived in a closet on the main floor of our house, rarely taken out and secured from use and inspection by default, perhaps, due to its proximity to the ultimate family gathering space and high traffic area of The Kitchen. I never saw my dad take this guitar out of that closet.
My dad is a refugee from the wild barrens of Canada, where perhaps stowing a perfectly serviceable instrument in an off-kitchen closet is the norm. Fleeing the extreme winters, humid summers, pristine lakes and a slightly constrictive family structure, my father sought a new life in the US of A. First, in Chicago IL, then in Minneapolis, Minnesota. A ridiculously musical person – his brain is shaped like a 9 foot grand piano – he has spent his life interpreting, mastering, and coloring in the lines left by Gershwin, Debussy, Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, and Mozart. He’s a piano man, a showman and exhibitionist of the heart, and to this day, I’m not sure why he acquired that guitar. Why tackle 6 strings when you dream in 230? His record collection reflected the folk staples of John Denver, Peter Paul & Mary, and Simon and Garfunkel, so maybe he was hoping to color in those lines a little. Or possibly as a wooing mechanism to land the lady of his dreams, my mother.
I have never asked why he bought that guitar – a student model Yamaha gut string classical with exquisite tone – but I knew it was in that closet and every now and then I would sneak a peek. The first few times I just opened the case and looked at it. I don’t think I even touched the strings. Then, about time number 3 or 4, I took it out of the case, held it in my arms, and let all 6 strings ring out with a rake of my fingers. A huge, discordant yet organized chord rang out, filling the space around my head with sound waves. Low tones, middle and high tones; wonderful vibrations emanating from the soundhole, back, and sides of the guitar, seeking absorption in the soft trimmings in my parents’ living room. Something calibrated inside of me during that moment. I saw the other side of a thin scrim and I new there was a code and puzzle to wrestle with. I loved the sound of that guitar.
I knew I wanted to spend more time with this mysterious instrument, so I talked to my dad and asked if I could move the guitar up in my room to learn how to play it. I was 14 years old. This is how my journey began.
Tonight, I’m heading over to my guitar player’s house to run through 4 or 5 songs for the first recording session on the new album. I’ve decided to break the 12 songs up into 2 sessions, using about 4 days total to get the material down on tape. The first session will be me and Michael on guitar – a communion of guitar shaped brain types – and a special visit from a Duluth-based vocalist, an old friend who’s agreed to join the slipstream of the recording process and meld our voices on a new tune, Sleep. Michael has not played guitar on this tune yet, as it was written only a few weeks ago. I’ll drop my ideas on the table for him: Bruce Langhome’s melodic noodling on Dylan’s Mr. Tambourine Man; Bo Ramsey’s smoothly acidic atmosphere stretching out behind Greg Brown’s deep baritone vocals about death, women, and gardening; or a hat-tipping to Ben Keith, Neil Young’s pedal steel player off and on for 40 years. Michael will of course play in his own style, gracefully disregarding my suggestions, completing my song with a genre-defiant stroke of just-the-right-thing-at-just-the-right-time. No worries.
Tonight’s rehearsal should get us studio-ready, not to the letter and dash, but breath and bone of the songs. I don’t like to over-rehearse, just get a pretty good idea of what fits the song and then go into the studio with a strong idea and the flexibility to change directions if need be. These are just snapshots.
Is the recording process even creative?
The recording process is inherently technical, by definition. Somewhere along the line, human beings wanted to capture, contain, canonize, aggrandize, or immortalize our own creations. Cave paintings in Spain dating back 40,000 years, The Tower of Babel, stone and marble statues of important people pocking village squares all over the world, then, in 1877, American inventor Thomas Edison worked on this:
“He experimented with a diaphragm which had an embossing point and was held against rapidly-moving paraffin paper. The speaking vibrations made indentations in the paper. Edison later changed the paper to a metal cylinder with tin foil wrapped around it. The machine had two diaphragm-and-needle units, one for recording, and one for playback. When one would speak into a mouthpiece, the sound vibrations would be indented onto the cylinder by the recording needle in a vertical (or hill and dale) groove pattern. Edison gave a sketch of the machine to his mechanic, John Kruesi, to build, which Kruesi supposedly did within 30 hours. Edison immediately tested the machine by speaking the nursery rhyme into the mouthpiece, “Mary had a little lamb.” To his amazement, the machine played his words back to him.”
-Library of Congress (www.loc.gov)
Human beings could now prove our own existence, show off in front of each other, share our stories, and most importantly, re-create a moment of perceived valuable emotional, intellectual, or cultural significance to someone else who wasn’t in the room when it happened. Because of Edison’s cylinder, I was able to borrow The The White Album from Forrest Dahl when I was in the 5th grade, take it home, and listen to it clandestinely on my parents’ turntable. I used the big puffy headphones with the curly coiled cable to isolate myself from the rest of the world, immersing my head, heart, and imagination into the Beatles’ songwriting masterpiece. I was able to listen to the visions, secrets, political statements, musings, laments, sonic experiments, and unfiltered creative processes of the four lightning rods from Liverpool.
All this from the Spanish cave paintings 40,000 years ago. Why? So many answers here, but my guess is that humans want to be seen, recognized, validated, noticed, remembered, acknowledged, the recipients of our forefathers’ wisdom and blessings. As Spielberg savvies in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” we are not alone.
To capture sounds on some replicative technology is secondary. To hear your own pain, ambition, celebration, journey, fear, and untold story being uttered by a voice on the other side of the spinning black vinyl record is primary. Primal, even. It’s magic. A kind of magic that can save lives. It’s a magic that has conduit in ink, chisel, fabric, song, dance, poetry, and architecture, and resides in the heart of every man, woman, and child as a reminder that we are not alone.
I am a magician of sound, then. An architect of waves. A sculptor of experiences that have their doppelgangers in your life, in your past, in your story. Maybe buried away beneath this weeks’ schedule or last years’ trials; buried beneath a grown-ups’ responsibilities and duties; buried beneath the rote and routine of breath after breath after breath. But please breathe in deeply and listen to the space in-between – you’re out there. Can you hear me?
As I was driving to a funeral today it was raining. The temperature was about 34 degrees F and I had a heavy wool overcoat my older trift-store combing sister bought for me years ago. It has dark purple lining, silk I think. It fits me perfectly. This never happens.
So I’m driving along and I’m working out a song in my head. This is a song called Tomorrow I’m Gonna Go Looking For You and I plan on recording it in a number of weeks for the record. This is a troubled song, not showing its potential too just anyone. It misbehaves. I’ve played it for a few friends (music lovers from Oklahoma) and it made them say nice things about the song – I think I trust their feedback.
How do I choose songs for the record? A song must say something to me, have secrets that I haven’t totally figured out yet, to be included. A song must have something to say to other people, especially. I write a lot of songs that speak to me. A few of them speak to others. And once in a while, I write a song that has the same secret for me as for a new listener. Those are keepers. How do I separate the wheat from the chaff? I play them for people. At a concert, in my living room, at their house, and I can tell by how the room sounds if people are listening or not. It’s actually a late-blooming skill, I’m still not great at it. But I know that it has to happen at this stage of the process so I can put the right ones together on the album.
So, on my drive to the funeral today, I’m trying to work out a few kinks with Tomorrow. One of the tricks I use to find the cracks in something is to run the song as I know it, intro-lyrics-instrumental-whatever I’ve got, and create a space in my head for the song to live. I write songs in my head just as much, if not more, than with an instrument in front of me. And as I’m running it, I’m looking for options. Other paths that I did not notice the first time around. What if I change meter here? Does this need another verse? Does this feel right? It works sometimes.
I found the crack in the song, heard some new instruments at the end, and played the entire thing through in my head with a most satisfying new ending included. That’s where my music lives. In my head. Now, I must bring this fragile hand-made bowl through the remaining steps of the recording process to see if it will hold up. It’s a brutal process that sends many hopefuls home with no ribbons, no call backs, no last look at the sunrise before quarantine.
I tucked this new arrangement idea away in my mind and walked through the doors of the funeral home. A place built and staffed to offer perpetual consolation and reverence, organized chairs and fresh roses. I saw my friend who invited me, gave her a huge hug, and was pleased to have another day on the planet.
Let’s start at the very beginning. How many different ways are there to start the making of a record? For me, I have a handful of songs that are really special, burning a hole in my pocket. If they don’t get recorded soon, I think, they will be lost.
As of this moment, the songs are written. But I warn my participants that new material is always imminent, knocking on the door, threatening to overpower the rest of you. This is certainly not guerrilla warfare, but not far from it. Only the strongest survive. King of the hill. Criteria: The meek shall most definitely inherit the earth.
I’m working with Christian Andrews. He’s a musician, producer, and idea-man. What does it mean to “produce” a record in 2018? As an artist, I want feedback, criticism, clear paths and stubbornness. A sixth sense is important, a seventh never hurts. Christian comes from Wisconsin, so it’s somewhat predetermined that we be on the same page about many things, but completely different books. I’m reading a book of short stories and he’s been reading a sci-fi epic written by Guy Clark and Steve Howe. We’ll meet in the autobiography section.
Next steps: Rehearse the first 4 songs with Michael McGarthwaite. He’s a guitar player. He plays lots on Bird and a little bit on Broken Hearts Shine. I won’t describe his playing or gush about it because that’s not cool. I will say that his playing is sort of like real whipped cream, not the canned stuff. It comes straight from the container (his brain), gets mixed with a little sugar, vanilla, and heat (the song), takes a little time to form in the mixing bowl (about 4-5 minutes steady mixing, trying things), then dollops atop the recording to be the first thing people hear, the last thing they remember, and the goods that keep people coming back for more.
The process is everything.