Friday, May 25, 2012

Other Ways: "it was a pleasure to burn" production diary

During FAWM, I pull from anywhere and everywhere for inspiration: the message boards, other artists, my dreams, my library, even the headlines. And this past February marked the sudden and tragic death of a pop music icon.

So, "Other Ways" is a song about Whitney Houston, or my imagined version of her.

she had other ways

i once knew a woman
she would not tell me her name
she lived down in Atlanta, an' every night
she burned that town with shame
with the voice of an angel
but a soul as black as pitch
should could sing for her supper
but could not love herself rich

she had other ways

oh she had one them mansions
ponce de leon midtown way
an' all that she ever wanted
she had to fight for every day
she was proud of them bruises
she could take the abuse
her nose, her veins, her heart, her tears
all dried up from use

she had other ways

up on the TV there
are a million of her ghosts
the pundits all mourn her passing
the divas raise a toast
so we all held a party
to come 'round and crown her heir
long live the queen of sorrow
from her snow-white chair

she had other ways

I started this past FAWM with the idea that I could generate the most amount of songs by only recording demos. After all, it's not "Album Recording Month," it's "Album Writing Month." The thing is, years of Song Fighting have made it so that recording is part of my songwriting process. It's like a ritual: get the bare bones of a tune down with an acoustic guitar, then open up my recording software and start laying tracks: drum, bass, guitar, (other instruments as needed) vox, lead, backing vox, pretty much in that order most of the time. So, for "Other Ways," I gave up on the idea of just doing a demo. It felt much more comfortable anyway.

As always, there are a few touchstones for the sounds I was going for. Though I had never even seen here in the city, I knew that Whitney lived in my new hometown of Atlanta, and I wanted to stay with a southern-rock vibe, like "Sittin' in the Back Seat." Instead of Tom Petty, this time I drew from some Black Crows, especially with the organ tone and sparse but rocking guitars. The organ actually isn't my usual MDA ePiano, but rather DSK's B3x with a liberal dash of my favorite reverb.

There's a lot of very uncool things about Whitney Houston the real person: drug abuse, spousal abuse, alcoholism. But there's also a lot of powerful and uplifting things about her as well. How strong do you have to be as a black woman in today's society to pull yourself up to the zenith of pop-culture stardom? I wanted to focus that mixed myth of a powerful woman with a shadow that she couldn't shake.

This chorus really stretches my vocals. I can't count the takes it took me to hit those right. (In fact, if you can keep a secret, those four choruses are actually only two takes. When you nail it, you can just copy paste, flip the backing vox any no one's the wiser.) Whoa unto me should I ever attempt this live.

I'm most proud of the dynamics of this song. It starts very strong, and the chorus is very simple, but not facile. And I feel that I've succeeded in maintaining the listener's interest throughout with varying levels of volume and a mixture of instruments. In fact, at the moment, this is the main contender for the first track of the album.

Plenty more brewing for next week. I have my final FAWM composition in the works, as well as another special guest coming on board. See you then!

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