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.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

From Yeats to Janis...a new solo record is in the works!

This blog rises from the dead once more! I've begun work on a follow-up record to Seven Years Now. Working again with Tom Eaton up in Newburyport, I hope to have a finished record by sometime in the Fall. It is looking to be a collection of nine original tunes, plus a version of "Wandering Angus," a folk song based on a poem by William Butler Yeats. I first heard this tune at a David Gray concert, as an encore song...and it was one of those songs that I immediately fell for. I had to know everything about it: who wrote it, who had recorded it, etc. The lyric concerns a fisherman whose newly-caught trout shapeshifts into a woman, sporting apple-blossoms in her hair. Catch of the day, to be sure. The woman calls his name and runs away, and he spends his entire life searching for her, in vain. Beautiful. Fruitless wandering? Endless searching? A life optimistically devoted to searching? A fish turning into a woman? This was a song I needed to learn, perform, and share.

"Wandering Angus" fit right in with the other tunes I wanted to record. Overall, it's a very different collection of songs from Seven Years Now. Where that record was more introspective, and concerned with the twists and turns of the interior life, this new project is all about other people. Some of them real, some not. But the binding thread is interactions between people. Connections made and lost. In "Wandering Angus" the Other flees and becomes a vision of beauty and meaning, for which the searcher embarks. Other tunes spin similar tales of searching: a landscaper who quits his job to sail the ocean with his wife. A female poet toasting existence in a crowded bar with her new love. A soldier en route on a dangerous mission dreaming of his lover. A man alone in the winter forest, trapped under a fallen tree, calling out to a bird for help... All kinds of desperation and determination, a reaching out, a recognition of the need for another.

I mentioned that some of the songs are actually about real people. By "real," I guess I should've said historical. This includes a country folk ditty I wrote about the author Gerard Nerval. Also, it includes a song about (or for...) Janis Joplin. The Nerval tune ("Crooked Line") isn't entirely fact we used to play it in my old band, The Jody Grind. You can check out a video of that here. (Please forgive how my guitar is slightly out of tune in that video...yikes...)

But the Joplin tune is only about a year old. I was in L.A., April before last, attending the ASACP Expo in Hollywood...trying to build up some professional development skills in this here songwriting pursuit. Anyway, I did not stay in the official conference hotel, as it was a bit pricey. Instead, I opted for a cheaper room nearby at the Highland Gardens Hotel. After having booked a room there for four nights, I was suprised to learn that Janis Joplin had died there, in room 105, of a drug overdose in 1970. Holy rock trivia, Batman! While I didn't stay in room 105, I felt like this was an interesting experience...further compounded by the fact that I visited the Grammy Museum in downtown L.A. only to find a special exhibition on Joplin! It featured her painting and personal letters to her family. Reading her letters, she was filled with such excitement at her success. As if the world was just beginning to understand her...

So anyway, during my stay there in the hotel it occurred to me that I would probably end up writing a song about Joplin. It just seemed like the thing to do. Or more accurately, it just seemed like a song was something that was going to happen. A song would arrive, and I would need to jot it down. I just needed to be open to it. All of my internal radio stations needed to be getting good reception, at the very least. And, wouldn't you last night there, after hitting the town and partying it up with a friend, I found myself in the 4am hour, alone, with bits of lyrics and melody falling into my head. I grabbed the guitar and wrote out five verses in about 30 minutes or so...then I passed out asleep.

The next morning, I looked over the verses expecting to cringe at some mindless drunken nonsense, but all in all it looked pretty good. While I tweaked the order of the verses a little bit, it looked like they had all arrived, safe and sound. I had me a new song. Strangely enough, it was actually a song to Janis, like a calling out to her ghost. I had expected something different, something perhaps more like my Nerval tune, where I am describing aspects of a life. But I was pleased with what I got. The best you can do is to bait the hook and drop it in the water. What you catch is a curious mix of chance, luck, fate, what-have-you...

The last session saw us record "Song for Janis," and I look forward to being able to share it with you when it's finished. In a few days it will be back into the studio for a mammoth session with Steve Bankuti on drums and Tom Bianchi on bass. Hopefully that will finish most of the basic tracking. Knock wood, it's all coming together.