This post, you’ll notice is not generally in line with my typical posts here, which is good, in my opinion, I’m trying to open up the content, be more… honest, I suppose.
Tonight I’m overwhelmed. I’ve spent all afternoon working on three electro-cello tracks, and that is fine, only to realize that I have a huge pile of work I’ve already recorded just waiting for me to sort it out. I’ve probably got 25 pieces at least partly recorded for that album. And that’s the problem… partly is the key word. Sorting through them is like going into an old storage unit full of stuff. Some of it is really cool, but doesn’t quite fit into your life now. Some of it you can’t let go of, but never get around to dealing with.
And on top of that, I have probably 15 songs partly recorded for my other albums. Three are done. Three. That’s it!
It’s daunting to be working on new albums again. I’m sure most artists go through this, but after you finish your last one you forget that that isn’t… it. You always push out more.
New albums breathe new life into my purpose, both musically and professionally. I get that drive to get this music out there the more it gets actually finished. So I suppose I’m pushing for a finished record that I can get behind and give what it deserves now that I am in such a crazy city, where crazy things happen.
So… overwhelmed in a good way. Too much material… there are worse things to complain about certainly!
As I was walking along I was thinking about how much I want to release an album on vinyl. Vinyl sounds good, and almost without realizing it, I still to this day record my albums with the album format in mind: short and sweet, with a definitive Side A vs. Side B.
So that’s what I am going to do, is record my ultimate vinyl record. Whether or not it gets released as a record, I’ll keep Bruce Springsteen’s “Nebraska” in mind, as the tone. It’s not all mellow, it’s not easy listening, but something about that album with its hiss and feeling is perfectly suited for that vinyl sound.
How many of you would be interested in a re-issue of REDWOOD SUMMER on vinyl? I’ll gauge the interest and see if I can make that happen. I think that album would sound good that way…
SO… today I tidied up three songs for that album. Mostly recorded some new vocal tracks for one of them… that came out of the “point of view” question I tend to always have with the narrator of the song… should I sing “You were standing there, and you saw all kinds of rad things…” (great lyrics right? just an example 🙂 or should I sing “I was standing there, and I saw all kinds of rad things”. I am choosing the latter on this day. I feel like, despite how it makes me feel like it’s a bit more revealing, it also is more natural. I feel like people listen to songs and put themselves in the position of the person singing it, I know I do. I don’t think that I’m not actually Willie Nelson or the dude from Muse as I sing along, I just can relate to the songs more easily if I can sing along saying “I saw awesome things…”
So we’ll see. Recorded that. What do you think? Any thoughts on the lyric writing/listening process for you?
Added some drums to a big build at the end of another song. It’s kind of epic, with tons of backup vocals and lots of open chords. I suppose that’s becoming my acoustic sound.
And then I tightened up one electro-cello song. Re-recorded some cello traxxx to make them more in tune, and tidied up my arrangement, so that it is good and long and trance-y, but still interesting.
Tomorrow I get serious about a few totally new recordings… as I’m itching to get those going…
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,
Spent the weekend sorting out dramas in my world and also putting the final touches on the new Cello album JUNEAUREVOIR.
Mixing cello can be pretty rough. It’s so full of bass, obviously, but the more you pull back on that bass, the more tinny the high ends seem.
Also, it’s one of those instruments you just want to cover with the frosting of reverb. But I’ve found that it is very very easy to go overboard on cello reverb. It has its own resonance which gets lost the more stacks of reverb you throw down.
As far as dramas of my life go? Well, let’s just say that plans, even when huge and pivotal, the big boulders of plans, can slip out of place and wreak havoc. More to come on that later.
If your are interested in how I record the cello (ie you are a recording nerd like me), read on!
I’m sure some people have figured this out, and that nicer microphones can make it sound great. I have figured my own “method” out on this last album. It is simple, not profound, and is as follows:
I take my nicer mic, an Audio Technica that is powered, a fairly small condenser mic, it looks sort of like this. It’s not that one. Anyways, it has a full bodied sound and also picks up the “icy” part of the cello, those highs where the bow moves across the string. I put that in front, facing the bridge, about six inches from it, straight on, or as much as possible.
I don’t believe in mic’ing the f-hole. Too many fluctuations in tone and none of that bow sound action. I happen to like the bow sounds, even on “perfect” classical recordings. Or, I should say, especially on “perfect” classical recordings. My favorite recording of the Bach Suites is Pablo Casals’ very early recordings of them. One take, wax cylinder, lots of imperfections, no retakes, lots of real natural beauty. Perfect and authentic sounding to me. You can really hear the bow moving across the string. I like it.
And then, and this is odd, but it works, I decided that it is ok to record with a pickup if the pickup picks up some tones that a mic just can’t. So I used my Shadow Nanoflex Cello Pickup and recorded the two, mic and pickup, together. The blend of the tones allows for a more full tone. I tend to roll off the low end on the Audio Technica, and also to roll off the high end of the pickup. Low end of the mic is full of hum, high end of the pickup is full of hiss. But they compliment each other nicely.
So what you end up with is like, if you had your ear right up against the cello PLUS you have a prime spot seated in front of the cello. I like the blend of the two.
I’m super excited to report that I’m gonna get to play a show with someone I’ve admired musically for a long time!
Chuck Ragan is a member of the hugely influential band Hot Water Music. He has released two solo albums recently, which are excellent. A couple months ago we recorded; I played cello on a few tracks on his upcoming album, he sang on a track on my upcoming album.
The show is this Friday, July 10, 2009 at 9pm at the Blue Lamp in Sacramento, CA. Tickets are $12 at the door.
“Redwood Summer” was as close to being done as an album could be and then I gave it a good listening recently… I had not heard it for a few weeks, which is rare, since, when working on an album I tend to listen to it again and again and again. So I had fresh ears.
I decided it needed just a bit less on the mellow and a bit more on the uppity and so I spent all weekend recording new tracks. I was hesitant to even begin working on this again, as recording is such a different state of mind than finishing…
But I’m really happy with the progress. I’ll post a clip of yesterday’s rough work, and keep you up to date on the progress.
I’ve been working with Aaron Ross & Cody Feiler for the past 9 months, first recording an album, then playing lots of shows from Portland to the Bay Area.
Last night Dana from Station To Station put the final touches mastering the album we began recording last labor day weekend.
I’m happy to say it sounds great, and we’re looking forward to getting it out into the world. We’ll have some copies available at our CD Release/Benefit for St. Joe’s on April 24th.
So I’ve begun work on one of my next albums, which is to be all cello, all the time. No vocals, no beats. And I shall try to resist the temptation to add piano and guitar or… whatever. Point is, a sparse album.
I usually have a motive in mind with my albums to some degree, and with this one I think that the appropriate listening experience would be something like: quietly in the summer evening. Warmly by the woodstove in the winter.
Oh yeah, I was going to post a song. So here is one approaching completion, Would Dent Sky. I cannot call this finished, but it is an encouraging beginning.
I don’t think I will be posting all the songs here as I go in this case, but keep your eye on the site, or subscribe to the podcast, I will certainly not be able to resist sharing them as they come along.
Be sure to stick around for a minute or two, as the development begins to get more layered then… Thanks for listening!>
Being sick is fun. I take it as a sign to slow down, stop what I am doing. Rest.
My brain has been on overload too fast too much, not enough getting done, never enough getting done. So here I am, in my bed, writing on a laptop.
Music has been coming along though. It’s funny how it always takes a bit of chopping and reworking, no matter how long you do it. As I get more experience with recording music I realize that it is a good thing to be hyper critical of the end product.