Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Only You Behind: "it was a pleasure to burn" production diary

It's time to dust off this empty loft, wipe away the cobwebs, open the windows and fill it again. It's also time to compile my annual anthology of songwriting. Two birds; one stone: I'd like to invite you on a journey down a country road towards my latest album it was a pleasure to burn. I've been prepping and simmering this idea for a while, as songs have accrued since last September. At the moment things are kind of a mess: some of the tunes are nearly complete while some of them just need to be tweaked; others need a completely new pass or to be recorded at all! (And one zygote of a song needs a lot more gestation, but she's a fighter so I think she'll be fine.)

Art courtesy of Denise Hudson's nephew.
I plan on working on this project most weekdays, and every time there's progress I'll share a bit of something with you. And not just the music, but the story, too. Basically, this is blog will be a kind of ever-evolving set of liner notes. Pay attention to the man behind the curtain: he's gesturing for you to come inside...

"Only You Behind" is one of those "nearly complete" songs, and it's evolved to be something of the cornerstone of this album: a kind of contemplative, bitter-sweet journey.

here's the back road i have been walking
and it never seems to end
twists and turns 'round mountains and valleys
like a lover folds to river bends
takes me on past lone empty diners
through vast desserts and plains
leads me deep into accented bayous
'long tracks saggin' with trains

and i don't know what it is
thought i left you far behind
that same old dream again
you're always on my mind

here's the last station where we once parted
its hollow and wind-swept seats
vaulted ceilings echo whispers of lovers
salted windows count their heartbeats
the platform is for entrances & exits
each of us has their part
but i don't 'spect much for applause
another another day, another broken heart

and i don't know what it is
when the train don't arrive on time
that same old dream again
you're always on my mind

here is a trail of storms and forgetting
high in the mountain range
watch the clouds kiss the peaks like a lover
hear the thunder sing my pain
feel the rain wash away all my sins
cleanse the earth, cleanse my soul
feel the wind dry all my tears
let this hollow make me whole

and i don't really understand
the rain has left only you behind
your phantom come again
why are you always on my mind

a burning serpent of asphalt and tar
human hubris baked in black

Many of my songs are written with a clear outside prompt: a title from Song Fight! a challenge from SpinTunes or just the pressure to produce for FAWM. Not so for "only you behind"; she came unbidden to the guitar, as I channeled as much Johnny Cash and Hank Williams, Senior as possible. I lifted the lick from a guitar method book, but it fit with the simplicity of the message and journey I wanted to take. At the time, I was specifically challenging myself to stretch the length of my melodic lines, and I believe I succeeded, though there isn't a lot of tonal variation. It's almost a country rap, but it still works, and there's a long tradition of this style anyway. Since I wasn't forging new musical ground, I wanted to emphasize the lyric, and especially metaphor, pulling from the Romantics and my adolescence in the Blue Ridge of the Shenandoah Valley.

As for the composition, I'm most proud of the drum track, of all things. For quite a while now, I've been poking about looking for a way to make my drum programming sound more natural and interesting. These drums are messy: I've manually tweaked hits to be off by a few fractions of a second here and there. And it sounds pretty good. Which actually poses a small problem for the album as a whole: I've recently purchased EZDrummer and it's far and away a better tool than my old drum program. So, I may revisit the percussion or I may just leave it be.

I don't normally slather on sound effects, but the thunderstorm seemed a logical touch. The midi violin... that may be first on the chopping block, but I want something unconventional to pop music while natural to the folk/country vibe I have here. Any violin players out there?

While this is a prominent song at the moment, I'm not sure that it's the album leader. In fact, its laid-back feel and rather lush instrumentation may make it a better closer. Sequencing is one of the last steps in making an album, so we'll just let that simmer.

Entry the First now draws to a close. Stay tuned; follow; bookmark: any of those things because there's lots more to come.

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