Thursday, May 17, 2012

Panacea: "it was a pleasure to burn" production diary

The story of "Panacea" comes from all over the place. But her recording process was a lesson in rhythm and just letting things flow.

From Wikimedia Commons
I wrote this song for FAWM this year (and for the curious, here's the demo). I have a hard time writing "happy" songs; I guess I take myself too seriously. But "Panacea" was one of those tunes that sneaks up on you and goes "Surprise! Take me home!" This is literally what happened; the first few lines and the melody came to me as I strapped on my helmet to ride home. I had to sing to myself the whole way so I didn't forget.

she sits all day in the sun
she's in love with everyone
she plays out in the rain
she's the cure for all of your pain

i see you

her smile can melt the clouds
her song can draw a crowd
catch a glance from her emerald eyes
watch her soar through azure skies

i see you

she's everyone's darling starling
when the sunset is drawing near
from her strawberry throne
she always goes home alone

i see you

Originally, I was drawing from the Indigo Girls, especially their early simple stuff like you can hear on 1200 Curfews. Hence the doubled vox and the bare acoustic guitar. But after cutting the quick demo during FAWM, things changed.

I was always happy with "Panacea," and it was easy to put her on the short list for the new album. While planning the full-fledged recording, I had an epiphany in the shower one morning: she's in 6/4 time. Not 3/4 time, not 6/8 and certainly not the much more popular 4/4. 6/4. It make percussion a conundrum. What does 6/4 sound like? Is there a back-beat? Is the downbeat on 1 and 3? Does it split 4 and 2 (or 2 and 4)? It doesn't help that EZDrummer doesn't have 6/4 samples.

Enter a new songwriting touchstone. I recently discovered Pearl and the Beard, and marveled at their lush vocal harmonies and unconventional instrumentation. For a long time I've planned to record a song in their style, and after one false start, I believe I managed it here. The key, actually, is the wonderful stomps and claps like in Douglas Douglass. (And so, it turns out, there is a back-beat!) It also turns out that if you tweak pre-programmed 6/8 beats, they work pretty well, especially at 160 bpm.

That's right: one hundred and sixty beats per minute. I think this is the fastest song I've ever recorded. It's also one of the most fun, and one whose recording took me to neat and unexpected places once I let it. After the weird time signature, the biggest obstacle was actually the acoustic guitar part. It's fast; too fast, it turns out, for me to strum with a pick. This is important, because recording a clean, clear finger-strummed part is hard. I fought and cried and swore, but in the end, that bloody rhythm won out. Finger strummed in full up-tempo glory. (There's all kinds of mic positioning and EQ to get that lovely tone, if you need to know.) In the midst of my guitar battle, weird and wonderful things happened. My organ tone showed up and wanted to play. A bouncy little bass line grooved its way into the chorus, but insisted on being demure for the verse. I fiddled an diddled with those turn-arounds, and the fake ending was a fluke that made me go "Ooh, nice! That stays."

In the end, the odd collection of disparate parts has come together in wonderful way. "Panacea" part folk ode, part hip-hop sampling and part Brookly hipster groove. Whatever she is, she makes me happy. I hope you enjoy!

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