Yesterday REDWOOD SUMMER finally made its way onto iTunes which signified a kind of final touch to the release of an album. (JUNEAUREVOIR is still on its way there)…
So how does an album come about from start to finish? I’ll tell you the story of REDWOOD SUMMER…
Basically a year ago I decided I was going to record a new album… the steam had stopped whistling for MIDNIGHT DOOR and it was time to explore new songs again. Only I became distracted when making MIDNIGHT DOOR… I was frustrated that I had recorded all these songs off that album without having a real live setup for performing them. The songs were written on the road and out in the world, not the usual where you try out songs live generally before they make it on the album. I was stripping the songs on MIDNIGHT DOOR down to the drum and bass tracks and pressing play on my ipod and performing along. Which, I have come to accept, is totally legit, especially of course if it is YOUR music you are playing along to, your beats, your sounds. I used to think it was not so legit, until I saw a few performances that incorporated the same technique, and it didn’t feel or seem weird to me at all. One caveat of this is that I really think if you play along to beats it HAS to be electronic… it’s true to me that playing along to ‘real’ sounding drums from a machine is kind of cheesy looking/sounding (in my opinion). Plus, then you are truly playing with the whole organic meets electronic thing, which does yield some interesting results and feels very much a part of our times. I think I like Thom Yorke’s solo stuff so much because he is able to work with (besides the brilliantly abstracted beats and great compositions) his raw voice, very plainly effected, wafting over the top of what feels like a Bladerunner landscape.
Anywaaaaays, the point is is that I got distracted by working on beats and effects that I could perform live, without accompaniment, and most importantly, which left lots of room for improvisation if necessary. My thing with electronic music and all music really is that if there is no room for improvisation at all, if it is super super polished and things are always done “perfectly” and the same, it is not really music. It’s theater. Which is fine. But I feel like at the core of music is the subconscious and its yearning to budge in and elbow things around here and there. I feel like it’s about the emotions of a room becoming one with the music. Et cetera.
So I worked on that and played a few different art party type things, improvising cello over beats around set songs and making the beats go this way and that and using lots of effects.
How did that lead to REDWOOD SUMMER which is very organic and non-electronic? Well, I just kind of missed making bedroom acoustic guitar anthems. I got so far away from home with that stuff that I really felt sentimental about sitting down and writing poetic lyrics by a fire with an acoustic guitar. Which is EXACTLY what happened with the writing of REDWOOD SUMMER… we had the opportunity to house sit a really beautiful house in Nevada County, with vistas of the foothills and gorgeous star filled skies, and there was a woodstove and no tv and no internet and the evenings were cozy and quiet. And I just started writing songs like crazy.
Most songs you hear on REDWOOD SUMMER were written in a three week period in January (more irony). Usually the process was to just grab ideas quickly, really as quickly as possible, meaning not interrupting the flow of musical idea by writing it down… this time I just used a handheld recorder, played through a new “song”, whether it was finished or not, and then started another. If it was any good, I kept it and worked on it. I’m not sure what my lyrics sound like to you, but you might be surprised to know there was a pretty good amount of polish on them. Obviously I’m not a real storytelling songwriter, but I do like to make the words work their own story and set their own stage. I spent a lot of time on various pretentious preconditions that I won’t bore you with.
I really wanted to record these songs to album as quickly as I was writing them, but you know, life gets in the way. We had to leave that housesitting gig but actually ended up returning in April I believe it was. By this time I was anxious to get this REDWOOD SUMMER thing on tape, I had a good sense of what I was doing and what I wanted, and I didn’t want it to slip by… so I set up my recording equipment in the upstairs bathroom of this great house, which had a really big all tile shower. I fit all my mics in that shower. I liked the closeness of the sound that the mics picked up in there. I tried just doing things simply, getting good guitar takes first and foremost. A huge part of REDWOOD SUMMER was playing guitar a lot again, so it was important to lay that down. Another part of the album though was actually, really, fully incorporating the cello into the main thrust of the song, making the cello NOT a supporting instrument but the center of the sound.
So what I wanted, by the way, was a country album. Well, not a country album in the traditional sense, but an album that felt like the places I’d grown up, the woods. I’m not sure that that makes sense or that it translates at all, but that’s why you have side A with its sparkly, sunny, swaying rhythms, and side B with its darker undertones. It feels like meadows and forest to me, it feels like Northern California to me. And of course, I wanted the process to be more “like it used to be” when I wrote songs: the edge of a bed in a lonely room to sit on, a quiet spot on earth, and no “coolness” filtration, no “authenticity” filtration, no input whatsoever from the “tastemakers“.
So I got most of the basic tracks down. I recorded cello and guitar, and I sang most lead vocals.
By that time it was May and soooooo much more time had gone by than I wanted.
The last four months of album making are probably the strangest for an independent musician. You gotta understand, when you are working full time and being a musician in your other time, there is no label pressure for a drop date, there is no pressure whatever, and so it is very very easy to let albums slide along and before you know it it takes 5+ years to finish an album. I have seen this happen many times, and I just really wouldn’t like the feeling. For one, or perhaps the main thing is that I try and capture a specific window of time/my life/my thoughts/the world in my albums, and if it takes more than a year it just seems like too much input on that front, too many influences. I mean, I had already been completely influenced by the Nevada City music scene subconsciously… I really thought that the mountain melodies and rocky yuba campfire cabin ghost song vibe wouldn’t get to me through Mariee Sioux, Alela Diane, Casual Fog, Them Hills and others, but they did, dammit I admit it, they did influence me. They inspired me to return to my personal truth being the core of the music. Purity of vision, untampered. It was really playing with Aaron Ross that had this affect on me the most. I have never heard let alone met a songwriter so talented and so potent with their own truth in music. And I was hanging out with him all the time, recording albums, playing shows!
The last four months were just a matter of gathering people in one place. It seems easy but for some reason it can be maddening. I wanted a real ‘community’ vibe on a lot of the songs, and getting Aaron Ross and Cody Feiler to sing on a lot was essential. Molly Allis banged out the drums in one day (one one take mostly! she is amazing), and of course Chuck Ragan and I met up for an afternoon to trade music. There were still lots of little things missing, the cello solo in the middle of ‘True North’, a piano for ‘The First Step’… these things really just kind of slowly slowly fell in line. But the finishing magical touch was realizing that my beautiful and way too modest girlfriend has a beautiful voice. We started by recording her voice on ‘Soundless’ and I realized I needed that voice on a lot more of the album. What was good about that was that it was pretty easy to get her in the same room with me! The “choir” you hear in ‘Strobe Light’ was recorded the day before I finished off the album, layering loads of her lovely voice until a big enough sound was achieved.
So, yes, this is an epically rambling post and I congratulate you for reading this far…
So you’ve got the thought of the album, you’ve got the writing of it, you’ve got the preliminary recording, and then the tricky follow up recording. Now you’ve got to do something with it.
As an independent musician (without a lot of money) you end up doing your own mixes, and therefore listening to the songs over and over and over and over and over again. I’m not very good at mixing, I always want all elements to be louder, and have a hard time with nuance in sound, but I learned a lot with this album. In the end though I’m not sure if I would have ever landed on what I wanted, it changed too much. It would be ideal to hand off songs to an external ear that you trusted and then say “have at it!” but it’s just not possible for me. I’m a control freak about my music, and plus, I felt my tracks were a mess and wouldn’t want to do that to someone!
Basically what happens is you spend four hours straight looping the chorus of one song trying to decide if the cymbal is too midrangy and whether the cello should have a touch more reverb. It’s kind of awful and time consuming but somehow rewarding.
Lastly you just set a date to send it off to be mastered and you stick to it. Because the mixing could literally go on for-ev-er. Thankfully Grass Valley is blessed with the best engineer with the coolest studio and greatest gear and mostly an incredible ear in Dana Gumbiner of Station To Station Recording… The luxury of calling him up is not something I took for granted.
He took my final mixes and really really filled them out. He made the sound of the cello big, and the sound of the backup vocals full. He kind of technicolored the album, in short.
So, and really, this is the part I want to get to… so you are done. You have the final mix, all mastered, and in your hands.
You may have noticed that there is not a lot of time to think about promotion, with everything else going on, let alone booking shows. But that, my friend, is what you must go and do.
I make my CDs through a ridiculously great and anonymous company that cranks them out quickly for me, and most importantly, for my meager budget, does not require that I buy 1000 at a time. At that point I send them to CDBaby, which gets them for sale, and also sends the digital files off to iTunes and Amazon and a number of other digital retailers. CDBaby truly is necessary for the independent musician, especially moving forward into the digital age.
And also, because if you’re reading this deep into the post you must be somewhat interested, also you wait. You put the CD out and you wait. You wait mostly to hear the pebble reach the bottom of the well. A few friends and family casually tell you that they like the album and it makes you glow for days. You check your email and website statistics incessantly to see if it is spreading on its own. You spend a lot of time doing that, it’s true, and I bet it’s true for most artists so I’m not afraid to admit that I’m in the phase where you are rather keen on listening for whispers of feedback.
The next and perhaps last step of an album though, and don’t you forget it, is to go out and play shows. You can’t can’t can’t sit around waiting for feedback. You have to go and bring the music to people directly.
And so the life of an album evolves. I still really really want to put out a vinyl version of REDWOOD SUMMER and JUNEAUREVOIR. I think it would sound great on vinyl. I’m working on a big move, and I really would like these albums to get wider distribution. It would be great, of course, if a label with reach picked either of them up. Playing more shows will be great. Getting JUNEAUREVOIR and its cello epicness into film would be my dream with that.
But mostly you, sitting somewhere, maybe standing, maybe headphones, maybe not, maybe at home, maybe in your car, maybe with yourself or with friends, mostly you hear it. Mostly for maybe only 1 minute, it makes a dent on your day and makes your day more important and beautiful the way that music can do that. Maybe it becomes a companion for a few months because it speaks to where you are at in your life. Maybe you know someone who it seems like would love it. That’s the final, and most important step. It could be now or 20 years from now. That’s one thing I love about making things. You never know…
Wow thanks for going with me down those million tangents. In short, REDWOOD SUMMER is done but not done. Hope this inspires you to bring things to completion (but not completion)… if anything, it might be oddly inspiring that 10 songs could take over a year to get out to the world… and yes, the year is worth the effort.
Be well, enjoy October,