Monday, January 26, 2015

Stretching Out the Voice

The other day, I managed to get vocal tracks for most of the songs on the new album at Veneto West. Did numerous takes of nine new songs. I don't think I've ever felt better about a vocal session! It's become a more comfortable situation over time. While I don't believe I have the greatest voice in the world, it's amazing what can happen if you just keep doing something. I now feel that I have a lot more colors in the vocal palette, versus when I first started out. The more you use the voice, the stronger it gets, the more expressive it becomes. The muscles get smarter, and the mind gets less anxious.

Several of the new songs are character-based... And, during the session, Diego pointed out that I should probably be singing in a more dramatic/theatrical way, to try and embody the character(s) more. This was really great advice. And I really got into it. I definitely poured all my heart and soul into these songs.

Next up, we're gonna sit down and finalize the rough tracks we've got so far. And then bring in some other musicians to help round out the songs. Full speed ahead!

(Thanks to Jonas Leddington for the photos!)

Sunday, December 21, 2014

When things get loud...

Yesterday, I tracked guitars for nine new songs. The album is being recorded at Veneto West studio in Santa Monica, CA, with producer Ronan Chris Murphy (who also took the amazing photos in this post). The experience thus far has been really great. It's amazing to see the music begin to take shape right in front of your eyes and ears. We started the session off by tackling the acoustic numbers.

This album is going to have a lot of dynamic to it, in the sense of different moods, different perspectives, different intensities of expression. The working title is "Multitudes," after all... There are several themes that tie all the songs together, and it has become impossible in my writing to really separate fact and fiction. I've come to think that this is probably for the best. So I decided to let them both swim together in this music and we'll see what happens.

After getting some good rhythms, we turned to some of the more experimental sounds. I had a very refreshing time getting a lot of loud feedback in the attempt to capture some texture for one of the album's darker songs ("Marcy's Lament"). The tune is written from the perspective of a murdered woman, and she calls out to her killer from the afterlife. So yeah, it seems like some dark, swirling textures might be needed on that track! Anyway, things got loud at this point in the session.

Next up, I'll be doing the main vocals. We've already tracked the bass and drums, and I'll be posting about that a little later. I'm super thankful to be working with such talented folks on this record. And I can't wait to share this new music with the world.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

I'm back and I ain't a-fray'd. New album in the works!

I started this blog awhile back, when I started recording my first album, Seven Years Now. Basically, I wanted a forum where I could express my thoughts on recording and the making of records. And it only made sense to do that when I was in the midst of that process, content to be the weatherman reporting on the swirling storms all around me. So thus the huge gaps here in the blog: time spent writing songs, performing, living, and getting ready to jump back in to the fray. But now I'm pleased to announce I am back in that fray! YES, the fray. Except maybe "fray" is the wrong word. It connotes competition. Yeah, it's not the right word at all. Scratch that. I'm really not doing this for any kind of reward. Absolutely no trophies will be distributed in the making of this record! It doesn't accurately capture what it means to me to make (and record) music. Which begs the question, what does it mean? What does any of this mean? Why am I doing this at all? Okay, I'm going to attempt here what they call a "mission statement."

I feel that music is necessary. Necessary for life, for the proper experience of living. Just as necessary as food or air or water. As human beings we are blessed and condemned with a degree of self-awareness that opens us to particularly human ways of suffering. We are aware of our own mortality. We are haunted by our own memories. We are aware of the violence and injustice that can descend on the individual, on the family, on the group. And somehow we must live through the dark weight of that experience. Music enables us to not only live through it, but to somehow transfigure it. And perhaps, in the end, to leave us transfigured as well. In effect, music allows us to ease the burden of suffering, to lighten the weight of contingency. So that when the rhythms of life take a dark and unexpected turn, we can keep dancing. We can keep singing. We can truly be alive.

Okay, rant over. The high horse has been sent back to the stable. The soap box has been re-filled with soap and is back on the soap truck, headed to the next soap store... But the fact is I am back making a new album. And I'm very excited. Please stay tuned to this blog for updates, digressive meandering, and the random slipshod musings of a songwriter who doesn't know any better.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

an elemental understanding of guitar amps

We've been tweaking the rough mixes as of late, and it looks like I might have a finished record by early November. Last session, Tom and I addressed some of the lead guitar sounds I'd made on a couple songs. Something was just a bit off with the guitar tone in the mix, and it needed more Orange and less Fender. Let me explain... I've gotten in the habit of performing with two amplifiers: an Orange AD15 and a Fender Deluxe Reverb. This came about because, when playing with Dogs on Television, I create loops and wanted to isolate them in their own channel. Using one amp only, the samples get kinda squashed when I played over them. It was just one speaker after all. So, the solution was to get a second amp and an A/B switch so that I could have an isolated signal just for the loops.

Over time though, I've really grown to like how the Fender and the Orange sound together...two very different tones. The Orange is an earthy, warm, dark, overdriven sound. Sometimes growly, but always rich and luscious, spilling currents of sweet rumbling energy. I use the Fender as the main lead amp, often over the loops coming from the Orange..and it has a lighter (yet still warm) sound, airborne, even piercing at times. It can cut through a storm of loops with unrelenting perseverance! The Fender can soar and swoop, with a tone that rings like a bell over mountains. Ahem. I'm getting a bit carried away here... So the bottom line is that these amps really work well together, and it led me to an elemental analogy. Orange = Earth. Fender = Air. To complete the analogy, I plug the amps into the wall socket (Fire!) and I plug my guitar in and play them using my body (which is 90% or more, yup, you guessed it: Water!). Ha! So, I've got all the elements (of my sound) in place. Each has their proper place in the universe of music. :-)

Anyway, a lot of the phrasing I was playing in the studio was (to follow the analogy) more earthbound, and my fingers were relying on the Orange tone more than the Fender. So, we dialed back the Fender here and there, and I think the guitar mix is vastly improved now. You can hear a lot of the weird nuance I was going for... In sum, I think 2 amps are better than one. You just need the right balance. And, to pursue another analogy, when mixing, one often needs to put on the Sherlock hat when revisiting the scene of the crime. To (re-)solve the tonal mystery. "It's elemental, my dear Watson."*

(*yes I know the original quote is "elementary"...but that's how i roll)

Saturday, August 13, 2011

wrestling with names

I now have rough mixes in hand. After a long session of sorting through a lot of basic tracks last weekend, Tom and I have now finished the important step of getting the roughs. Next step will be mixing the record into it's final shape...and that will happen over the next couple of months.

Recently, I've been consumed with naming the record. Naming things can be tough! Be it a song, a project, or a dog (!), offering up a name can be a difficult challenge. There is the opportunity to clarify elements within the named, but also the danger of obfuscating, or distracting the audience. For this reason, I like to trust my subconscious when it comes to naming things. My subconscious seems to operate according to an aesthetic logic that often trumps my waking mind. An idea will pop into my head, and then my conscious mind will find all sorts of cool reasons as to why that idea is good. This is the ideal situation, as sometimes the subconscious mind can turn out some pretty terrible shit! So, it's a balance I guess, between synthesis and analysis. All elements of the mind need to be working together, like tag-team wrestlers hungry to get back in the ring.

The first name I came up with was "Gallery of the Graveyard Heart." It fit my idea of this record as a series of character-driven snapshots, and directly dealt with the heavier subject matter of the songs. But then, as this title stewed in the noggin, I came up with alternatives...first was "Misfit Melodies." Now that seemed to be a lighter title, less laden with the darker aspects of the songs. More like an invitation, a hook, to invite the listener in. But Tom remarked that it reminded him of the cartoon series Merry Melodies...and seemed to him perhaps too lighthearted.

Randomly, the title "Book of Shadows" popped into my head one morning, while I was at work. That seemed cool, until a Google search let me know that it's also the title of a key religious text for Wiccans (!) and also the title of a solo album by Zakk Wylde, former guitarist for Ozzy Osbourne (!!). Nothing against Wiccans, or Mr. Wylde, for that matter, but I needed to look elsewhere.

So then I went fishing in my songs for titles. This ploy can often prove successful, as the landscapes of my tunes are littered with curious phrases and verbal jumbles that might "have legs" (as they say in journalism). I flirted with the lyric "prayers of fortune" (from "New Year's Day") but it seemed too pedantic and borderline pretentious. Seemed more like the title of a magazine for mercenaries! (ha ha) Then I came across the phrase "shook the shadows in the heart of night" from "Song for Janis." That seemed promising, especially when shortened to "Shadows in the Heart of Night." A Google search of "heart of night" revealed that it was the title of an episode of the television series Miami Vice. Awesome. That made me laugh! Also, it is the title of a poem by a Canadian poet, William Bliss Carman. I'd never heard of this dude, and was thus intrigued:

O doubter of the light,
Confused by fear and wrong,
Lean on the heart of night
And let love make thee strong!

(from "The Heart of Night")

Cool. Light and dark, love and fear, weak and strong...Carman seems like a legit player when it comes to the world of dualistic struggle. I can dig it.

But I keep coming back to my original title, "Gallery of the Graveyard Heart." Even though it's one syllable longer than "Shadows in the Heart of Night," it just seems to flow better. I dunno, maybe I need to trust my instincts more. Whatever the case, I plan on delaying this decision as long as possible! The wrestling match continues... If you have any thoughts on this, let me know.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

When Animals Talk...

Everybody loves a talking animal, right? Ha ha. One of the songs on the new record, "Fallen Tree Song," is basically a conversation between a man and a little bird. The man has become trapped under a fallen tree deep in the wintertime woods, and he enlists the help of a bird flying by. I'm really excited about sharing this song once it's finished. The arrangement is shaping up great, into a kind of train-beat folk-romp hootenanny party-vibe of a song...lots of instruments just loosely playing along as the story progresses. Last Friday, my friend, the ever-talented troubadour Greg Klyma, laid down some mandolin on the tune. This coming Friday, Abbie Barrett will lend her vocal talents to the song. I'm excited about that last fact, because she has a voice so smooth and warm, it could bring peace to the Middle East. :-)

But: talking animals. They're everywhere. From that YouTube dog that says "I Love You" to the most recent Disney seems like they are an enduring part of our culture. Folk music has its share, of course (the traditional song "Henry Lee" comes to mind with it's taunting bird). I don't know where the idea for my song came from, exactly, but I can say that talking animals have played an important role in shaping my worldview. A talking seal, to be exact.

When I was a wee lad of 2 or 3, my mother took me to the New England Aquarium one fine day. We were greeted outside by the seals in the seal tank, one of whom jumped up to actually greet us with a big "Hi, how are you!" I kid you not. A talking seal. That childhood memory followed me around for a long time, and when I'd mention it to friends, I was often met with disbelief and/or mockery. (Go figure.) In particular, I remember an entire college party screeching to a halt, as one friend loudly confronted me about it. Ah, fond memories! But I decided that I knew what I'd seen, and I made a fundamental decision: it was better to live in a world where a talking seal was possible, versus a world where it was not. And the disbelievers could go suck it. I could make room for that kind of "magic," if that's what others wanted to call it. And how glorious a day it was when the Boston Globe ran a story a few years ago on talking seals at the Aquarium! Apparently, Hoover, the seal I'd known, had had a grandson who could also mimic speech to some extent. Wow was I elated to read this! The seal had actually existed, and I had solid proof! And you can bet I made sure all of my friends saw that story... May Hoover rest in peace.

So, anyway, back to the song. It's nearing completion and I'm thrilled about it! Here are the lyrics, in case you'd like to check out the story yourself:

dear little bird on high
please bend to hear my cry
this old oak tree
has fallen on me
go tell the world what you see
go tell the world what you see

my wings are good and strong
and i will sing the song
from every height
from noon to night
i'll tell the world of thee
i'll tell the world of thee

pray, fly, as storm clouds come
i hear the thunder drum
and cannot last
while held down fast
beneath this heavy tree
beneath this heavy tree

with a heavy heart i fly
through stormy bands of sky
i'll fain to speak
though i grow weak
to tell the world of thee
to tell the world of thee

now tell what word you've brought
dear bird, is rescue sought?
in this cold and chill
my heart grows still
pray, have you news for me?
pray, have you news for me?

I flew both far and wide
and from every perch I cried
but there was not a one
who said he’d come
to end your misery
to end your misery

oh woe is lonesome me
to face death’s honesty
and alone with you
I wish I knew
a song to make me free
a song to make me free

come join your voice with mine
and sing with a heart sublime
a verse that spins
through stormy winds
in love with eternity
in love with eternity

in moonlit shadows soft
a song was borne aloft
and through heavy snow
the winds did blow
a hopeful melody
a hopeful melody

Monday, June 13, 2011

Crazy Sounds and the Big Picture

Last night we tracked some accordion courtesy of Mr. Jake Bush, a member of both Pesky J. Nixon and the Baker Thomas Band. (I encourage you to check out their music!) During the session we got some really crazy accordion loops that created quite an effect: cavernous echoing, spooky undulations, and other sonic adventures that may or may not end up in the final mix. It got me to thinking about how this record is different from Seven Years Now, and what I'm actually doing with music. The Big Picture. I will confess right away I don't know what the Big Picture is, exactly. (It might not even exist! HA!) Seriously though, I don't really know what I want my music to sound like in 20 years. Or 40. All I have are a series of little pictures, snap-shots of where I've been and where I want to go, but on a more gradual basis and smaller scale. I feel a certain necessary impulse to continue on with all this, despite not knowing exactly where I'll end up with it all. So in a sense the Big Picture is very important and in another sense it is a distraction. Music has become necessary for me, in a way that tends to dominate all other aspects of my life, for good or for worse. And right now the focal point of my life is this record.

So what's going on with this record? Well, to put it bluntly: it's going to be a little weirder than the last one. Certain desires of mine to incorporate new sounds and vocalizations are surfacing here. I tread slowly in this direction, though. Whatever we add or change in the studio must be necessary to the song. We're not going to add a lot of really neat sounds just because they're fun... They must contribute to the expressive potential of the original musical/lyrical idea(s). The core of any song must be illuminated by any arrangement, effects, etc., and not obscured.

This is something I often mull over, chew in the ole brain. As a spry lad in his early 20s, I had long been suspicious of how electronic sounds and studio manipulation could alter or change music to the point where it became the dominant force within the creative dynamic of a particular sound. In other words, by using certain sounds (not made by humans), the humanity of the music was lost somehow, in my ear. For me it somehow obscured whatever was at the core of a song, or rendered any expressive potential mute and lifeless. What was supposed to be a peripheral element ended up defining the sound for me. It was like eating a cake made entirely of frosting. Yuck. Gimmick.

This all changed about eleven years ago, when I first heard the Radiohead album "Kid A," in particular the track "Idioteque." The record overall was definitely like nothing I'd ever heard before, and I was initially overwhelmed by all the sampling, loops, crazy sonic textures, etc. And this song specifically was quite jarring at first. A spastic drum loop colored with an almost disorienting chord progression. Weird blurps and frenetic percussion sounds move in and out. It was like some kind of apocalyptic disco music. But there was a certain point during the vocal track: right where Thom Yorke's voice slightly cracks singing ""this is really HAPPENING..." where everything seemed to change for me. Something about the passion in his voice and the intensity of his delivery really got to me. It was a bit of rock and roll leaking through all that electronica. The song came to life in my ear. And all of the crazy samples seemed to work in support of that energy, like all of those sounds needed to be combined in just that way to help reveal that passion in Yorke's voice at just that moment. It was really happening! This was a revelation for me: that electronica could be put to work in the service of an artistic vision and (human) expression. The more I listened to Kid A, the more I heard how all of the looping, sampling, etc. was completely necessary to the sound of the songs and the record overall.

Since then, my ear has been to some crazy places via many other bands and performers such as Wilco, Tom Waits, Pink Floyd, Kinski, Bon Iver, A Place to Bury Strangers and My Morning Jacket, to name just a few off the top of my head... But I can trace back to that moment hearing Idioteque, a profound change: the beginning of the death of the purist in me. All bets were now off. Any sound was now game.

I hope to infuse the current record-in-progress with a bit of this adventuresome spirit. Of course, some tunes resist being warped and manipulated into seemingly unrecognizable contortions of mad beauty. But other tunes welcome it... Overall, I am trying to stay focused on what each individual song wants, and what seems possible in trying to bring the listener into the heart of each moment, each idea, each image. Hopefully when it's done, and the dust settles, it will help on the way to understanding the Big Picture.