Day: March 17, 2008

Where does it come from?

I decided to try recording a song in the act of being written on video today, because I thought it might be interesting (at least for me) to be able to sit back and watch my songwriting process from the outside. I’ve been using a video camera to get down musical ideas for some months now since it’s faster and easier than recording things properly every time new ideas bubble up.

As it turned out, there wasn’t much of any process to document. This is what happened:

I picked up the acoustic guitar I brought upstairs to my bedroom a few days ago and started playing this sort of bucolic-sounding thing. I hit the record button to preserve the idea, singing words that made no sense just to get a feel for a vocal melody — which seemed to be pretty much there already, though I’d never played or sung any of this before. Then I thought I would try writing out a few lines to see if anything was there in the way of lyrics. Something about a character named “Big Brother Thomas” was in my head. Seemed like as good a way to start as any.

A bunch of words came tumbling out, and in about two minutes there were five verses. I sang through all of them, and it was clear the song had finished itself. I really didn’t do much of anything at all. I picked up the guitar, and it was as if the musical idea had been waiting for me, because it was all there almost immediately. I put pen to paper, with no real ideas in my head, and before I knew what I was doing the page was full.

This is what “songwriting” is like for me these days. I feel like some sort of conduit, and I’m just trying to be open so when the songs come I’m prepared for them. It’s bizarre. I can’t remember the last time I actually sat down and said, “I’m going to write a song now.” It just sort of happens on its own, with no real prompting from me. I’m not sure I’ll ever really be able to make sense of it. I don’t think watching it happen would be very entertaining, but it’s a nice ability to have, if you can call it that. Whatever it is. Wherever it comes from.

I’ve been wondering about this whole thing for a while. It’s funny to me that a lot of my inspiration used to come from pain, and anger, and unpleasant feelings in general. Things from my childhood. Fun with supposed friends and half-baked flings. A lot of it was music-as-catharsis, blowing things out of my system so I didn’t end up putting my fist through a window or something else instead.

Seems like I got most of the worst of that stuff out of my system sometime back, and now inspiration comes from anything and everything. Before moving, I found myself writing a song one day in which a father tells his son about what his life will be. Only, they’re trees instead of people. I would never think to write a song about something like that. Again, it just happened.

Who knows where it all comes from. I’d like to make some sort of no-budget documentary about all of this (something I’ve been thinking about for a while now) and follow the recording of an album or several, but I think watching one person doing everything and occasionally talking to the camera would get boring pretty fast. It’s another one of those things where if I could clone myself it would be more interesting in every way. Better camera angles! Three Johnnys at once!

I wonder what the plural form would be. Johnnies? Johnni?

Today I read a response from Daniel Lanois to a question about recording drums, and he said he usually uses three microphones: a U47 as a mono overhead, an SM57 on the high-hat, and a mic on the kick. No room mics. No “mic on every drum and cymbal and even on the drum throne because maybe we can use the ambient sound reflections from the drummer’s ass in the mix somewhere” approach. That kind of blew my mind. It just goes to show that you don’t need to use a ton of mics to get a great sound. All you need is a good set of drums, a good musician, and a few good microphones. And it doesn’t hurt if your name is Daniel Lanois.

Recently I was thinking maybe I should consider picking up a few new mics, specifically for drum duties, because maybe the R88 won’t work out the way I want it to, and I don’t want to use the same mics on drum overheads and acoustic guitars (though I’ve done it more than a few times in the past). I haven’t really done much of any drum recording or figured out a set-up in the aftermath of half of the mics I was using before being retired. I was looking for the “magic bullet”, as they say. But really, what I should be doing is what I always did before — experimenting with what I have, shaking things up, and seeing what sounds fall out while I’m at it.