It’s been a while since I tried to record myself recording. On video, I mean. It’s also been a while since I recorded anything at all. Haven’t laid down a lick since February, and that’s not like me. I’ve been writing and preserving ideas on the little Flip camera, like always. That happens almost every day. But I haven’t done a thing in the studio since I started preparing for the Mackenzie Hall show.
At first it had to do with not wanting to muddy the water with too many new songs. Then it became something else — the familiar “what do I do next?” wandering that will sometimes happen in the immediate aftermath of a new album.
I’m in a bit of an odd place right now. I feel like it’s been a while since I released an album I didn’t feel really good about, with things really kicking into high gear with CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN. That’s five albums in a row that I think make up some of the best work I’ve ever done. While I don’t feel the weight of whatever expectations there may be from anyone else (I could never get into the mindset of trying to figure out what anyone who isn’t me might make of what I’m doing), there’s a bit of internal pressure to have the next album live up to that level of “quality”, regardless of where it goes musically. But getting too wrapped up in thinking about that stuff can lead to “recording block”, where the songs are there but it’s confusing trying to figure out what to tackle, because, as always, I don’t want to fall into the trap of repeating myself and recycling a winning formula.
Things can’t get too safe or comfortable. Things have to keep evolving.
I’ve been stuck between finally trying to finish this multiple-CD-set-of-new-material thing that’s been a few years in the making and figuring out whatever the next normal full-length album wants to be. Working on both at once is an option, but it could lead to over-ambitious confusion shit. I think it was healthy to take a bit of a break, especially after what that show took out of me. These days it isn’t like me to go a month or more without recording anything, but sometimes it can help to get a bit of perspective. I still don’t know what exactly I want to do next, but I know I need to start doing it soon if i want to stay in shape and keep the momentum going. I’d like to get at least another two albums out there this year so I can match the three I put out last year. I figure that’s a realistic goal.
Yesterday I thought, “Well, fuck it. It’s been long enough. I haven’t recorded a thing in more than a month. To hell with trying to do something blindingly different. Let’s just do something, even if my voice doesn’t feel like it’s quite back to its old self yet after that irritating baritone-inducing throat infection episode.”
So here is some of what I did.
This is by no means a taste of what you should expect from the next album. It might not even show up on the next album. It’s just what I ended up doing on this particular day. It’s an absurdly simple song from a compositional standpoint. Basically it’s the same two chords through the whole thing, making it the complete antithesis of everything I was trying to do a few years ago. It’s the kind of song I said I would never write again circa 2005. Of course, we all know where that went. I learned that, as rewarding as it is to mess with song structure and avoid repetition, sometimes simple things are good too. Sometimes simple is best.
I kind of half-wrote this thing the other night (the initial idea I captured is at the beginning of the video, recorded in total darkness, hence the black screen), and filled in some more lyrics a few minutes before I started recording it. After the fact I realized the line, “Climbing up the old blood tree,” and the variations that followed were probably subconsciously inspired by Derek Harrison’s “Barking up the Wrong Blonde Tree”, a song he posted on his blog some weeks back. Oh wait…you can hear me use that title verbatim in the initial sketch, because it was in my head and it had the right amount of syllables for the vocal melody I wanted to sing. Alright then.
Thanks to Derek for inadvertently giving me the words I used as a jumping-off point.
The arrangement still needs a little something more, I think. Maybe some Wurlitzer. Maybe some more vocal harmonies. Maybe some electric guitar or organ. Maybe all of the above. But it’s getting there. It was about time to give that 1945 Martin 00-17 some more love, and the Pearlman TM-LE continues to be a formidable secret weapon on acoustic guitars. I figured if it could make a piece of crap classical guitar that cost less than two hundred bucks sound like it was worth several times that amount, it might sound pretty nice in front of a guitar that is the opposite of crap.
One thing captured on video was this weird mechanical sound that started up out of nowhere when I was in the middle of recording the initial acoustic guitar part. You can see me looking confused, wondering where it’s coming from. I thought maybe I was having a stroke for a moment, before realizing it was something going on outside. I assumed the take was ruined, but played through it anyway. While listening back to what I’d done, I found myself wishing that noise came through louder on the track, because it provided a nice bit of buried dissonance.
Turns out it was someone using an aerator on our front lawn. I thought of grabbing a microphone and recording more from the porch, but by then they were finished. What a tease. When the song is finished and mixed you probably won’t even be able to hear the aerator whining anymore unless you listen on really good headphones or a revealing hi-fi system, but I enjoy the hilarity of something I assumed would derail the performance becoming a sound I now really like. Score another one for happy accidents.
I had some fun with cheesy video effects this time. I tend to stay away from that sort of thing, but I felt like it made some of the static shots of me doing stuff a bit more interesting in the absence of a dedicated camera person. And slowing down moments of profanity can only make them more amusing. Watch as I swear at the phone and the doorbell! Hold your breath as I potentially ding up an expensive vintage Martin acoustic guitar! Giggle at the sped-up piano mic’ing preparations!
I should warn you that a few parts get a lot louder without warning — the drums and the shaker in particular. But on the whole, this is probably a more interesting and more representative look at a bit of what happens when I’m recording stuff than the last solo recording video was, and it’s almost twice as long. I should also warn you that I use some pretty strong language when things interrupt me or fall and hit other things.
So there you go. It still needs a bit of wallpaper, but it’s getting there. Everything is an improvised first take except for the singing. I generally get down a “guide vocal”, which is what you see part of in the video, and then take another pass with more commitment, so what’s in the mix is the second take. I think I like where it’s going. Maybe I’ll put a rough mix up here for a bit once it’s finished. And yes — I do sometimes drink water and play piano at the same time. It’s not me trying to show off. It’s just how I roll when I’m thirsty.
(Edit from the future: More than two years later, when I knew a little more about editing, I took the recording footage and carved it into something much less boring, chopping out more than ten minutes in the process. Instead of watching the equivalent of an ant crawling around on video, you now get to see a bit of the song taking shape in a more tangible way. This edit can be seen OVER HERE, on the page for the album this song lives on.)