Monday, May 28, 2012

Soul Clap Its Hands and Sing: "it was a pleasure to burn" production diary

Today's offering features special guest Shanna Germain. I discovered Shanna's This Body of Work on Google Plus, and instantly fell in amazed lust with her often sexually-charged and always in-charge short work. In mid-January, she posted "Soul Clap Its Hands and Sing," and I thought "I can totally use this for FAWM material!" It never happened during the month of February, but in early March I had a track ready. Problem was, it used my low, growling baritone, which didn't quite fit with the clearly feminine point of view. So, after long weeks of gentle nudging, I got the artist herself to give me a track.

The trouble is the ship left without me. Also I cut a hole
in the sunset-tinged sail. Not a hole; a heart shape.
I almost forget they’re the same. The scissors sank like
live weights, flashing their teeth at the mackerels.
Summer ends with a settle of silver and sand.

A woman alone is an alien thing. The dock rejects her heft.
Mouths open to the sky, golden birds pray for rains
and the wormtails of truths. Wishes can break your neck
if you don’t cant your face three degrees to the right.
of the mast. Look at me, quick. There’s nowhere else to go

but down. Last night the boatman had tomorrow for eyes.
There was no place left to slot my coins. Think of that face
like the ones drawn on rice—a curio to scare the children with.
My muse slunk off with a half-cocked heel and a man
half her age. If I believed in gods, I’d fuck them all.

Once I was younger. Every word was a seaweed scrawl of bracken,
every line a breaking wave of wood. Who wants to be a bird
when I can be me? Song was never mine for pyre. My hair is spun
of golden scales. When the ship sinks, let’s say it was never my fault.
Let’s say I really wanted to go all the way.
I feel like I should tell you more about Shanna, but I also feel that I don't really have the right to pin her down like that. Besides, she's done a very good job of it herself:
First and foremost, she is a leximaven of the highest order, exploring her love of the written word through a multitude of formats and styles. Shanna (pronounced like ‘Shaun’ with a sigh of pleasure at the end) also claims the titles of (in no particular order):  girl geek, lust/slut, wanderlust-er, avid walker and biker, tree kisser, knife licker, steak-maker, book-nerd and Schrodinger’s Brat.
With a whole lot of writing years under her belt (or her collar, depending on the day), Shanna’s poems, essays, short stories, novellas, articles and more have found homes in hundreds of magazines, newspapers, books and websites.
I have long been a fan of spoken word pieces, that peculiar subgenre/step-chield of audio books and songs. But they can be tricky things; it's not a mere matter of recording a poetry recitation (which this offering led me to discover is no "mere" matter.) A spoken word piece is about ambiance, closer to Ani Difranco's ethereal jazz riffs or the wonderful weirdness of Coil.

For this composition, I went to my favorite sample junkyard: SampleSwap. Every last bit of percussion that you hear is from there; about three or four different pieces, with varying amounts of reverb and other effects. With the right groove underway, the rest of the composition feel easily into place. There's no chorus or any kind of refrain, but I knew that I wanted to somehow subtly translate the numbering of the stanzas in Shanna's poem. Thus, those pounding guitar breaks. (Over which, inevitably, I couldn't resist re-sampling some vocal parts; so, now there is a refrain.)

Musically, "Soul Clap" is all about dynamics, moving from that heart-beat thrum to a tinkling acoustic to the pounding distortion of the refrain guitars, and then back again. It's also about theme and variation, as each verse features the chord progression and mini-melody in a slightly different way. That wonderful whine throughout, by the way, is a MIDI-cello with a heap of effects on it.

I am very grateful for Shanna agreeing to do the vocals. I love to collaborate, especially with women who lend my work a much need variance in tone.

This week, real life and its real job rear their heads again, so I'm not sure what I'll be able to do in the studio. Have no fear, however, more to come!

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!

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Sittin' in the Backseat: "it was a pleasure to burn" production diary

For this album, I have a few guests stopping in. The words for "Sittin' in the Backseat" were written by a talented lyricist at FAWM who goes by Shay. I hooked up with her work last year with "No Excuse, No Reason." That turned out so well that I knew I wanted to snatch up some of her work again.

Sittin' in the backseat, leanin' on the window
I can see your lips move but I can't hear you
Over the stereo

Puttin' all your anger down on the floorboard
You don't even realize, starin' into his eyes
You are a victim of your own accord
Upset like the weather ruffled up your feathers
It's a big ole fiery mess; can't feel my feet in this wreck,
An' it's ten seconds 'til we're severed

Sittin' in the backseat, leaning on the window
I can see your lips move but I can't hear you
Over the stereo

Tempers roared like dragon's breath, n' I came face to face with death
Couldn't run the other way; numb to the core, I just prayed
Held on so tight to my breath ...
He loves you, don't you know; promised he'd never let you go
I saw him pull you from this wreck an' I hoped for one more breath
To say I love you so ...

Sittin' in the backseat, leaning on the window
It's getting cold now, I'll see you somehow
Heaven's calling me to go

Sittin' in the backseat, leaning on the window
I don't see your lips move, no, I can't hear you
Over the stereo

A few things drew me to these lyrics. First, I like the story and its ambiguities. You get the sense of a love-triangle here, but how does the narrator feel about that? There's some distance in the chorus that stands in tension with the verses. Secondly, the imagery is great. Shay has a knack for taking up everyday images (like a car ride) and using them as ... well, vehicles for wonderful metaphors. "Upset like the weather ruffled up your feathers" is fantastic. And that leads me to the next thing that drew me to these lyrics: the abundance of internal rhymes. I love unconventional poetic play like that.

Creating what is effectively an accompaniment to someone else's ideas is always a challenge. I'm sure that Shay writes with a certain rhythm, if not melody, in mind, but she's adamant about giving her collaborator's a free hand. For this work, the particular challenge was that there isn't a clear chorus. It's all written in tercets with lots of internal rhymes. Indeed, for a long time I had little more than a tenuous chord progression. Over the course of nearly two weeks (that's nearly half of FAWM), I fished about for a "sound." Was this a folk song? The car motif didn't seem to fit that genre. A country tune? The metaphors were just too poetic for that vein.

With a mixture of counter-culture glee and dread I decided this would be a rock song, and that I'd have to ask Tom Petty over for some crooning and composition advice. It was at this point that I really found the chorus, which in retrospect is obvious: any tercet that opens with "Sittin' in the backseat." To provide some variation, I added a break/solo with a dramatic tempo change.

I finished principle recording for this during FAWM, but there are some sigfinicant changes that I've made since, especially with the vocals:

In my "Tom Petty" state of mind, I was looking for something low-key and rich on the vocal harmonies. As I put these down, I could tell there wasn't enough energy there but I couldn't find a good timbre that fit in the tempo. It felt like I was yelling or just forcing things, especially in the chorus. (You don't hear that in the demo; it didn't work, so it didn't make the mix.) This first recording was good enough for FAWM, but I knew I had to revisit things for the album. I suppose it was really just a matter of time away from the mixing board, and the decisions to put away the Petty-esque smoothness of my original intentions and pick up my signature growl.

Another significant change is the turnarounds: they're gone. I always wanted this song to have a lot of dynamics, but upon review, the turnarounds are just dead weight, especially that piano-only riff after the first chorus. It's very pretty, but it doesn't fit with the rising crescendo of the story, and the slow-down for the solo works better musically and narratively. I was kind of sad to see the first solo go, since it's hard for me to write good guitar solos, but sometimes you have to step aside and do what's right for the song.

I promised a song about Whitnet Houston this week and I'm ready to deliver. Come back soon!

Monday, May 21, 2012

Where You Can Go: "it was a pleasure to burn" production diary

Ever had an unhealthy obsession? One that you would follow the ends of the Earth just to stop off the edge? 'Fess up, we all have. "Where You Can Go" is the next track for my album-in-progress it was a pleasure to burn. She was written for a January Song Fight! Like any good, fiery obsession, I begged, borrowed and stole to make her what she is; this essay is my post-modern musical mea culpa.
 Picture by zetson:

oh i look for wisdom
in every word you say
but there is only madness
when you lead me astray
you don't really mean it
your intentions never cruel
but you are made of matches
i am made of fuel

wherever you can go
whatever you may need
whatever you may want
however high the fee

my good friend leo tolstoy
wrote of anna based on me
he said you gotta be perfect
he said you gotta be free
and chuck bent over backwards
that soused up albatross
well, he said much the same thing:
steal away from loss

wither thou would go
i will follow; i am blind
however hard the blow
these are the ties that grind

wither thou would go
i will cleave to thee
however hard the blow
however deep the sea

Songs usually have a specific flash-point for me. "Where You Can Go" was a combination of a cool bass line and my songwriting surroundings. For the guitar riff and overall feel of the song, my main inspiration was the Toadie's "Possum Kingdom."

Turns out that for the bass line I stumbled upon Midnight Oil's riff in "Beds are Burning."

Hey, if you're going to unintentionally rip something off, make it something good!

When not humming to myself on my scooter ride home, I do most of my songwriting in my library. For this tune, all I had to do was turn my head to the left:

Yes, that's Tolstoy's Anna Karenina wedged at the end of all that Tolkein. Anna and her unhappy marriage; Anna and her fatal obsession with sex, happiness and freedom. Since my mind works my association, I lept from there to the Book of Ruth and Ruth's devotion to her mother-in-law, Naomi. Ruth has one of my favorite lines from anything, "Wither thou goest, I will cleave to thee." I love that mixed implication of love and violence. Finally, no post-modern mash-up of mine would be complete without some reference to Charles Baudelaire's Albatross, that melancholic raison d'ĂȘtre for poets. This is more than just a pedantic assortment of borrowings: they come together to highlight the desperate longing that I want to express.

Since this song debuted at Song Fight! I was able to receive some constructive criticism. Originally, the verses were flipped: I opened with the "Leo Tolstoy" line. Many reviews noted "This is a rock song; why are you opening with classic literature?!" Well, the references stay, because they are the heart of the lyric for me and I enjoy the contrast of Pop and "High" culture. However, such a specific reference, especially right out of the gate, can be limiting. The second verse is equally strong, so I decided to lead with that for this new version.

This song always wanted a guitar solo to round out the composition and make it fit better in the rock genre I'm using. I have the hardest time composing solos, which are always more about tone and rhythm than melody. I probably spent more time writing that simple line than the lyrics. Lyrics are easy more me; interesting melodies - no matter the instrument - are hard.

This is one of the few songs I've written with a prechorus. Songwriting competitions have taught me to get to the good part of your tune and don't meander about with the unnecessary. But I've been stretching my composition muscles lately, and from the beginning I knew that I wanted something of anti-chorus, just a pure vocal melody. (Also, Nirvana's "Lithium" is awesome - and there's another thing I've stolen.)

I promised up-tempo songs last week, and Panacea certainly delivered. Technically, "Where You Can Go" is only 104 bpm, but it's much more intense, darker and rocking than the other songs I've finished so far. Plus, it was a good break from the tumultuous time that was recording "Panacea."

Plenty more to come! For the next offerings, I'm planning to head to Atlanta (I wrote a song about Whitney Houston, how weird is that?) and other things southern (Tom Petty stopped by with a guest lyricist).

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!

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Occupy My Heart: "it was a pleasure to burn" production diary

"Occupy My Heart" was written for a November 2011 Song Fight! She's evolved significantly since her inception and, for me, has become as a study in songwriting concision and making choices that serve the song and not an arbitrary set of goals.

Late October/early November last year was was a high-tide moment for the Occupy Movement. In typical Song Fight! snark, the Fightmasters gave us the chance to be topical, personal or both. The latest version is significantly different from my original.

there ain't no permits needed
no one's wearin' riot gear
i don't have a sign to wave
i just want you here
but i'll take your red tent cities
i'll take your 99
i'll take your white-hot anger
i just want your hand in mine

and it's funny cuz you're next to me
but we're a long time apart
come on over, the space is free
why don't you occupy my heart

the world is going down (in flames!)
and i spend my nights alone (drinkin' whislkey!)
there may be a body there
but you are long, long gone
come back for the revolution
come back and sing along
come back for the retribution
come back - i was wrong

and it's funny cuz you're next to me
but we're a long time apart
come on over, the space is free
why don't you occupy my heart

I was always satisfied with the concept behind this tune, which allowed me to both be topical and craft a personalized twist on the politics of the moment. The simple but fun guitar riff forms a great foundation, and I get the chance to break out my slide guitar obsession again. However, at the time, I was seeking to challenge myself as a songwriter and singer, so the Song Fight! submission had several elements that I've removed or rearranged. In the end, I decided they were present because I wanted something that seemed sophisticated and unconventional; they didn't serve the song best.

There are two major structural changes. The first draft had a bridge:
i've been drinkin' these long nights
drinkin' whiskey all alone
drinkin' down to the bottom of my soul
i don't know what's got you so riled
but i know it' was wrong of me to say
"wait a while"
But the melody isn't all that different from the verse, and it basically says the same thing as the second verse but with less poetry. I ditched the singing for a break-down section that let me do some minimalist guitar noodling. Also, while the basic guitar vamp is pretty nifty, the best part of this song is the chorus. So, why not lead with that, giving me a chance to highlight that slide riff? Besides, it starts the song on an upbeat note instead of a typical low-key intro section.

Overall, the first draft is busier and (overly) energetic. The slide guitar has an overblown delay effect that chews up real-estate, and there's my favorite organ tone again, adding a nifty back-beat emphasis to the chorus. The vocals are hotter, more desperate and simply more fragile.

Still, those harmonies with the background vox are pretty cool. Those stayed, but for the remix, I went in with the mantra that less is more. I pulled back the desperation of the vocal performance for a more resigned feeling that played to my strengths rather than challenge them with few dividends. I removed the organ entirely; it worked, but not completely, and I have plenty of other tunes that feature it in more interesting ways. It's replaced with a MIDI harmonica bit that feels more appropriate to the country-blues genre I'm evoking.

What remains after the gutting and transformation of the original tune is something a lot less ambitious, but more direct and engaging. I was able to nail the conflicted melancholy of the protagonist more effectively, and I'm rather proud of the lead guitar parts since my proficiency with such things is rather limited.

With these first three entries, there's been a distinct laid-back country vibe. It's the running theme for it was a pleasure to burn, but I don't want to fall into that trap where each song on an album sounds too similar. Next week, I'll shake things up with a few up-tempo offerings from this year's FAWM.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

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

These past two days, I've been visiting with an old friend: "Gravity." I wrote this song for swim for shore, an album I released in Fall, 2008.

There's so much that I like about "Gravity" that I wanted to revisit it, tighten up my vocal performance and give it a fuller production.

Here's the original recording:

And here's the version I just finished:

the world has come together
the world will fly apart
seeking dreams we chase the shadow
that lies within our heart
word for word I know the story
the tales in colors stark
down the path unknowing known
we stumble in the dark

and your gravity
how it pulls at me
does my gravity
pull you free

in orbit round we circle
this azure mass untamed
the heavens all a-singing
our passions all aflame
oh supplications muted
we strain to hear the tune
that single chord we have forgot
that rest we left too soon

and your gravity
how it pulls at me
does my gravity
pull you free

what have you forsaken?
my god e'er lost in pain
suffer long the quiet aching
and listen to the rain
blood will wash our misdirection
as it falls upon the ground
we are now all pulled together
by one divine sound

and your gravity
how it pulls at me
does my gravity
pull you free

Lyrically, I was inspired (and continue to be) by the work of Leonard Cohen, the way that he blends Judeo-Christian imagery with longing and Existentialism. I also have a long-standing fascination with physics and the way that our mathematical understanding about the universe can serve as a metaphor for how we relate to each other as flesh-and-blood human beings. The changes I made in the new version are pretty minor; I tweaked a few words, especially in the chorus for variety. But I was always happy with the core of this song.

The chord progression in the verse is somewhat symmetrical:

the [C#m] world has [E] come [B] together
the [C#m] world will [E] fly [A] apart
[C#m] seeking [E] dreams we [A] chase the shadow
that [C#m] lies with [E] in our [B] heart

This was tricky to record since I prefer cyclical patterns, like in the chorus (a simple F# - Emaj9 - B). The whole thing is capo'd on the fourth fret, so these fancy chords are actually pretty simple: Am - C - G (or F) for the verse and D - Cmaj9 - G for the chorus.

I'm a sucker for slide guitar and definitely wanted to keep that slinky lead, but decided for a new intro that is more dynamic and even a little mysterious. After losing my old slide in New York last year, I finally cracked and picked up a new one. It sounds so much better than the cigarette lighters I've used in the meantime.

In the original recording, I achieved that lovely distorted organ sound with a Shadow acoustic pickup, kind of like this one, and then ran the output through Florida Music Company's free TubeAmp VST plug-in. It was a neat trick, since I was able to record the same performance: one input from the pick up, another from a USB microphone. TubeAmp returns in the new recording, still processing the overdriven guitar in the chorus. But that's my trusty ESP Ltd electric guitar now, and it's doubly overdriven, since I record through a Line 6 Pod UX1 and use a great preset I've dubbed "Prince Corvette power chords."

Since 2008, I've accrued several tools beyond the Pod UX1. The most important are a pair of GLS Audio microphones, but the toy I'm really excited about is EZDrummer. I'm still learning the finer points of this program, but it has made creating engaging, dynamic percussion so much easier than before, when I was programming every last hit by hand with leafDrums. (You can hear a leafDrums composition on "Only You Behind," the subject of Entry the First of this production diary, and on the original recording of "Gravity" as well.) I've always struggled with fills and simple-but-interesting drum parts and now EZDrummer's vast library of samples gives me all sorts of great-sounding bits. Plus, tweaking the samples is a piece of cake; just crack open the MIDI editor in my DAW (I use REAPER) and add the touches I need or shave the bits I don't want.

The other newcomer is MDA's ePiano VSTi, which sounds nothing a piano, but produces a fabulous organ tone that I then ran through an string ensemble pad effect from DaSample's GlaceVerb. That's the wonderful glow in the background.

There must be something about the keys of E and B, because I've always felt very comfortable singing this melody, even as it stretches my limited, low range. Recording this, I tried a new method, placing the microphone higher than my nose-line, forcing me to sing upwards. It made achieving strong, clear notes a lot easier. I still have a funny stance with my right leg way out in front, like I'm getting ready to run or attack someone, but that's my "energy stance." It works.

Interestingly, the new version of "Gravity" is one of my most populated. Most of my songs have eight to ten individual tracks. "Gravity" has sixteen! Some of them are very small: a few bars for those organ crescendos or the third verse backing vocals. Still, there are many elements and it was a challenge to blend them all appropriately. I'm very satisfied with the end-product, which has a full texture but manages to highlight different parts as needed.

Looking at this entry, there was a lot of recording technique at play, more than I normally employ. Because "Gravity" was such a set part of my repertoire, I think that I was able to focus on that aspect of song-craft. Thanks for coming along! Follow, bookmark, what-have-you, there's plenty more to come!

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.