So a few weeks ago my partner and I packed up my Prius named Shmuel with suitcases, my guitar, our ipods loaded up with podcasts and music, and lots of vegan road snacks. I also brought lots of spare guitar strings and fake nails and nail polish remover, because I play guitar with my nails rather than a pick, and when my nails break I have to put on fake ones. We took two days to drive up to Seattle, where I'd be recording, stopping over to stay with a friend in Eugene, OR. We were pretty tired after eight hours of driving that first day, but we went out to an all vegan diner. I had very tasty deep fried tempeh, and T (what I'll call my partner) had a "fish sandwich" of tofu fried in a batter with seaweed that really was the closest thing we've both tasted to fish in years. One of my favorite things about traveling is trying the vegetarian restaurants in each city, and this place was definitely a highlight. That night we got to see the Shook Twins, two identical twins and their band who play indie folk. They were very engaging performers. Their voices sound very similar, and I liked it for a while, but they sing nearly everything in harmony, and after a while my ears got tired, so we headed home to cuddle with our host's very sweet dog.
On Sunday we drove the rest of the way to Seattle and settled into the in-law apartment we were renting for the week. I was definitely excited and nervous about going into the studio the next day. I recorded my first EP in a friend's bedroom, and I cut a few song demos at a recording school in San Francisco, but Empty Sea Studios is a professional studio specializing in acoustic music. I'd only visited once before to meet with my producer, Michael Connolly, go over my songs and work out the instrumentation and arrangement we wanted to do for each song. That pre-production visit was great fun, because Michael is a stellar multi-instrumentalist. So I'd play through a verse and a chorus of my song, and he'd wander around the studio (which is a converted small single family home), pick up an instrument and start playing along.
So on Monday morning T dropped me off at the studio with my guitar and my song charts and I headed in to start the big adventure that would be my week at Empty Sea recording my first album. I'm happy to say it was a wonderful experience. On the first day we recorded five guitar tracks, starting with Siren Song because it's one I feel very comfortable with. I was by myself in a small outbuilding behind the main studio, wearing headphones so I could hear what I was playing into the microphones, and also hear it when Michael talked to me. We discovered quickly that it was hard for me to keep up the energy of a live performance sitting down by myself in a room, so Michael eventually started playing bass and mandolin along with me as I played. He was still in the main studio, but I could hear his part in my headphones. We weren't planning to keep his parts on the final recording, but it was much nicer to play with someone rather than playing along with a click track, which is the metronomic beat studios often use to keep the player on beat.
I kept a chart of the lyrics in front of me as I played and sang the song in my head so that I wouldn't lose my place when I was focused solely on the guitar part. I hadn't been sure how "perfect" I'd need to be in the studio, and the answer was that obviously the better I played, the better the guitar track would be, and the less we'd need to go back and fix things. But Michael was more concerned with me keeping the energy in my playing up than he was with getting everything technically correct. We could go back and "punch in" a better version of a specific chord or even a whole verse if I messed it up, although certainly getting the best possible overall take was always the primary goal. Once we'd recorded enough takes that Michael felt we had a good one (or several good ones that could be combined), I'd record a scratch vocal track just sitting there in the chair, both to check and make sure I'd played the song form the same way I do it when I'm singing, and also so that when Michael started adding his instrumental parts, he'd know where the final vocal line was probably going to fit.
On Tuesday we continued with guitar tracking. I felt more confident going in the second day, as I knew now what to expect. Unfortunately right during the middle of a take of "When God Sets His Sights on You," one of the mics started causing a hissing like the sound of a teakettle in our headphones, so we had to stop. Michael tried to fix the microphone, but he wasn't able to, and it's a German microphone that he'd have to send back to Germany to get fixed -- obviously this wasn't going to be able to happen in time for us to keep using it on my project. He called the local music store to see if they had an equivalent microphone that we could use, but unfortunately they didn't have any comparable mics in stock. Thankfully, Michael realized he had another set of mics that we could use that would provide a slightly different sound, but he could adjust for the difference with EQ settings in the studio. So we got back in action and finished up all the acoustic guitar tracks.
Wednesday was the day that Michael started recording his instrumental parts, and my job was to "sit on the couch and have opinions," in his words. After all the focus I'd put in the first two days on getting the guitar parts just right, I was exhausted at the end of each day, and it had been really nice to be able to come home to my partner and eat dinner with him and just chill out. So it was good to have a bit of a break on Wednesday, listening to Michael add his parts to different songs -- everything from dobro on "Siren Song" to accordion on "What Is It About Me?" with octave mandolin, upright bass, kick drum and Rhodes piano in between. The first two days he'd been doing all of the sound engineering himself, but on this say his staffer Jordan came in to sit at the mixing console while Michael was in the hot seat.
At first I felt a bit tentative about giving feedback, because hearing such a high level player adorning my songs, I didn't feel that I had much to add. But over time I started to get the hang out it, pointing out places where his decision hadn't quite worked for me, or his line was getting in the way of the vocal line, or I wanted a different feel.
Thursday morning we spent more time working on Michael's parts. Most things were starting to sound really great, and I could hear where they were headed. "When God Sets His Sights..." had just the right country feel, "Take It Slow" was intimate and warm, "I Found You" was jazzy and had a great rhythmic feel. But "What Is It About Me?" just wasn't gelling.
Michael had suggested that I play electric guitar on this song, so I'd practiced with a friend's the week before I headed into the studio, but the song just wasn't speaking to us. We tried adding kick drum and toms, tambourine, accordion, electric bass, octave mandolin... Michael said that electric guitars can rock our, but unlike an acoustic guitar they aren't percussive, and so the guitar sound was muddy. We tried re-recording it more simply, and with a cleaner, less distorted, "crunchy" tone, but it still didn't feel right.
I was starting to get dejected, feeling like it was my fault or the song wasn't going to work out, which is a bummer because it's one of my favorites to play live. He said if you're going to make a song rock, you either have to make it really big (which isn't really my sound right now, especially in the context of the whole album), or you can do "bonsai rock," rocking out but keeping it small and intentionally stripped down. I picture this kind of like the White Stripes or The Gossip, just drums, bass and voice, though I'm not sure how he'd describe it. Ultimately I suggested going back to acoustic guitar, and once I did it was such a relief. There's the song as I wrote it, with all the percussive elements of the guitar part back, making it pop the way I originally intended. I'm still interested in exploring playing the electric guitar, but I think I'm going to have to write a song on it in the first place for it to make sense to record it that way.
On Thursday afternoon we started recording the vocals, and this is where the fun really started for me. I was in the same building as the mixing console, but around the corner, so I was still wearing headphones and communicating with Michael through the mic because we couldn't see each other. I love playing the guitar, but for me it's primarily a tool for songwriting and accompanying myself. Singing is where I have a lot of training, and it's where I am most able to adjust things at a detailed level. We would do a take, me singing with everything we'd recorded for a song in my headphones, listen back to it, and then Michael would coach me about what he wanted me to do differently the next time. Some of the things, like not breathing in the middle of a word or supporting the quiet parts more, were things I heard too. Other things I didn't hear like as problems, like when he would ask me to darken or brighten a certain vowel, or transition up into my head voice with a scoop rather than a pop. But I trusted his ear and did my best to sing how he asked, knowing that it was important to do it a bunch of times so we'd have a lot of options to choose from in the end. As with the guitar takes, the goal was to get a take that had as much good stuff as possible, but we would still go back and punch in corrections when needed. Ultimately, my understanding is that he'll take the best of the best from everything I did and put it together. Then I'll be able to give feedback on if there's spots I want to be different, and he'll have other vocal takes to choose from to make that happen.
When we recorded "I Found You," I did things differently nearly every take because it's a jazzier song, and I wrote it with a lot of space to riff and change the melody depending on my mood. For the final take he told me to make it way out there, trying things I don't normally do, so I had fun trying a lot of different ridiculous vocal things -- some worked and some didn't, of course. But he was really happy with what I did on that take, saying I'd found some really interesting stuff.
Overall Michael had really positive feedback for me on my singing, saying it was fun to work with a trained vocalist. At the very end of the day Jordan the sound engineer was back to help setup for a concert they were having that night. Empty Sea is a busy place! He played "I Found You" with all five vocal takes I'd done at the same time, and it was really cool to hear how all of the different vocal lines I'd done harmonized with each other. It sounded a bit like a bunch of Manhattan Transfer vocalists competing to be the leader. Though that won't be what makes it on the album, I hope I can get a recording of it to play the choir of competing jazzy me's when I want to laugh.
At the end of the day we didn't have much time left and we still had to record the harmonies for "I Found You," "Call You Out" and "Draw the Line." I had some basic two-part harmonies worked out, but it turned out they didn't fit very well in my voice, because they'd been written with a soprano in mind to sing them above my voice, and when I took them down the octave it was too low to hear in my voice. So Michael came up with several four-part harmonies on the spot. It was neat, because he's not a big singer, but he would basically sing me a line, then run the tape and record me singing, and do it again with the next couple of lines. He was basically playing me like an instrument, and within an hour we had four-part harmonies for several songs. I'm not sure if I ultimately want that much of a sound behind my lead vocal, but it's possible. I'm looking forward to hearing what it sounds like all together when it comes time to give feedback on the mixes in the next couple of weeks.
So now I'm working on the album design with my partner, who's a very crafty guy with much more of an eye for visual art and layout than me. I hired a publicist who's going to help me promote the album and my CD Release Show -- bay area folks mark your calendar for September 28th at La Peña Cultural Center in Berkeley, CA! It will also be released to download online that day. Sign up for my mailing list below to find out when I'll be coming to a town near you to promote At The Seams.
If you didn't get a chance to pre-order the album during my fundraiser, you can pre-order At The Seams today and get a signed copy mailed to your house before it's official released. And you can