Studio in the Rearview
From Steph -
- We were working on the instrumental track for Tillman's Wall. Chris said, "I think you need to change up the piano fill in the pre-chorus. It's too repetitive." Ugh. I had been practicing it that way for months. He encouraged me to fiddle around with it while he chatted with Justin about the guitar part. I noodled. Not much came. I looked over at Zac, who was messing around with the bass line, and tried to listen for what he was playing. He's an incredibly musical human and I'm usually better at stealing than writing something new. He played a little phrase and I half played it back. It was basically a triplet a little higher than the rest of the fill. It caught Chris' ear. "That's it." He sang it back to me and we worked it out. This new little part ended up changing up the whole rhythm of the pre-chorus, including the vocals. We tried it with everyone. It breathed new life into that section and suddenly, I was all fired up about it. This is a huge key to Chris' genius. He hears the littlest phrases and pulls them together in an immensely creative way, saves them, reorganizes them, gives them meaning. His ideas and ability to incorporate others' ideas have enhanced every single one of these songs.
- We were on what felt like the thousandth take of the chorus of Back to the Mountain. I was in the studio alone and all of the dudes were listening from the control room. Silence came through the headphones every time I finished a take. I assumed they didn't like it. I wasn't finding the right sound. The song originally came out of a little joke. Justin and I were talking about how we really needed a country radio hit that sounded something like Chris Stapleton's Traveler and I decided to give it a try. The chorus needed that tight harmony you hear in those kind of songs when the voices sound really bright and connected, almost metallic. Justin's harmony sounded great, but my voice was not filling the space above it in the way we wanted. I finished another take. This time the guys chimed in from the control room - make it bigger, be more open, relax more, belt it. Shit. My mind filled with the damaging words of casting directors from a lifetime past..."You just don't have a musical theatre voice. It's not big enough." "You're going to need to lose weight before anything happens. You're never going to get cast as an ingenue with those thighs." "I know you can act this part, but can you make a bigger sound? We really need to to be able to belt this." "We think you'd be more convincing if you shaved your head. You're just not conveying enough strength." I was not enough. I didn't have it. I couldn't do it. I was a disappointment. I walked into the control room and announced, "I'm in a cage of self-loathing!" The guys gave me big hugs and tons of encouragement and we decided to leave the song and try again tomorrow. The next day, we were in the same spot, on the thousandth take and still not getting it. I was frustrated and a little pissed. "Can you listen harder?" I barked at the control room. "You guys are terrible at this." We were all annoyed and at a loss, so we just kept doing take after take. Finally, not on purpose, I happened sing it with no vibrato "That's it!" they said. After all that turmoil and self-doubt, all I needed to do was take out the vibrato. So many feelings. I went to the car and ugly cried, but at the same time I was completely relieved because there was a small chance that we got that country harmony radio sound. We'll find out in mixing. To be continued...
- I was sitting in the control room with Chris, Cameron and Justin listening to Matt play his track for Tell My Mother. In a rehearsal a few weeks back, Cameron had added this brilliant little drum break to the last verse. Matt, in a moment of studio inspiration, suddenly played this amazing banjo riff over the top of the drum break. It was a few seconds of total triumph with this great energy that moved the song forward perfectly. The control room erupted, all three guys dancing and cheering like they were watching football and their team just scored the winning touchdown. "BANJO!!! YES!!!"
- We were joined by the Ars Nova Singers (and a few of their friends), Braden on fiddle and Maggie on cello to perform a beautiful choral/string arrangement that Chris wrote for Joanne. While everyone was still around, we asked them to sing the chorus of Tillman's Wall to give it a little extra oompf. We made a circle in the lobby around a few microphones and Justin counted us in. This giant, messy, stomping, powerful sound came out of the group. I felt so connected to everyone. We were all having a blast and singing our hearts out. As I've mentioned in this blog before, I'm not a person of faith, but if there is some higher power, it must exist in those sound waves bouncing from person to person, vibrating our beings, creating a mysterious whole greater than all of us combined. Hail to the She-Jesus!
After spending 42 hours over 4 days at KMG studios I can look back personally and say that that session was undoubtedly one of the most fun and fruitful learning experiences I've ever had. I've always thought about producing as sort of filling in the gaps to make the album happen; If there's no drummer, you hire one. If there's no studio, you find one. If there's no piano solo where there needs to be, you write one.. but until this last weekend, I hadn't thought too much about the role in the actual recording process. It ended up being very similar; when the engineer is also the drummer, you're the engineer.
There are certain things as a producer that one can only learn through experience. The balance between taking charge and letting things flow naturally in a session is one of them. On one extreme you have the tyrannical and the other you have the wet noodle, your style is what lands you somewhere in between. I hadn't thought about that balance until confronted with some unexpected moments where I realized that I needed to relinquish some control and be a passive supportive presence so my artists could do their thing. There are going to be moments in the session that are emotional and very challenging. How do you navigate a situation where a vocalist is struggling to find the sound they want? Do we do 5 more takes, or do we take a little break to breathe? Are we managing our time well enough to get everything done? These are questions that can only be answered by intuition, which is honed by experience. I'm hugely thankful for this experience.
I'm thankful that so many people came together and worked passionately and professionally to get this session done. The mixing process is going to start very soon and I'm looking forward to revisiting the songs and getting them radio ready.
From Badger -
It’s been a week since we finished our forty-two hour recording session. I’m still tired. Not so much because the recording session was exhausting (which it was) but because my body & my brain are still comprehending the last eight months of preparation. It has been a time of extremes. At one moment joyous from the musical discoveries being made. At another dark and desperate due to a healthy weakening of ego.
In the couple of months leading up to recording I wasn’t sleeping very well. I was tossing and turning through the night while my brain ran at 100 mph, constantly thinking of all that could go wrong, questioning if we had prepared enough and doubting that all the pieces would come together. As soon as we got into the rehearsal space with the full band however, my fears began to be replaced by an unextinguishable excitement. Hearing these incredible musicians help Steph and I breath even more life into the songs we had been sitting with for some time (twelve years in some cases) became both addictive and reassuring. By the time I went to sleep on the eve of our first day in the studio there wasn’t a nervous cell in my body. I was completely surprised by how calm I felt driving to the studio. It was a crazy combination of both eagerness and willingness. Eager to put all of this preparation into practice and willing to allow the songs to grow and evolve even more in the studio.
With a fridge full of beer, some boxes full of wine, a copious selection of tea and six bags of delicious pre-popped popcorn we gathered with Chris (our producer), Cam (our engineer & drummer), Zak (on bass), Matt (on banjo), Braden (on fiddle), Maggie (on cello) and Janet & the Ars Nova singers to finally make this record happen.
It was a trip. Even though we have yet to really hear all of the pieces together at once, I am filled with an otherworldly confidence that we accomplished what we set out eight months ago to do. We Don’t Live There is going to be an album that Steph, Chris, myself and everyone involved in it’s creation can be proud of. The title track drips with vocal precision. Steph and I painstakingly worked with Chris & Cam to get every last syllable of tight two-part harmony sounding perfect. Insisting that we go back and back and back again until we knew we had the take we needed. Back to the Mountain became an exercise pop patience. A study in how to get a specific stylized sound that really hits when Steph’s chorus vocals kick in and Braden’s fiddle follows it up with a beautifully complimentary melody. Near the end of the forty-two hours when almost twenty of us screamed out a chorus in the studio lobby, Tillman’s Wall found it’s woeful angst against a baseline that Zak continued to beef up with numerous variations. After twelve years, Olivia has been given new life with a weeping accordion line that fits perfectly with the heroine’s story. Holding Place has become a delightful head-bobber that showcases Steph’s incredible songwriting versatility. Matt & his banjo made us all rejoice on Tell My Mother, another tune that has been around for over ten years and is now reborn as a raucous funeral celebration. It was magic to finally hear Chris’ string & choir orchestration come to life with all 14 musicians in the room together creating a wall of sound that lays a foundation of wonder on Joanne. Cam brought some insane swing to Who Fears the Devil with a drum beat that will close this album off with a riot.
To everyone who came to play: I can’t thank you enough. To Cam, Chris & Steph: I can’t wait to start mixing all of these sounds we made last week. To those of you who will hopefully listen to this album when it’s finished: you’ve still got a few months, but I am encouragingly hopeful that it will be worth the wait.