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-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
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.