Now that I’ve figured out something to focus on I seem to be getting some momentum going again.
For four months I didn’t really record anything serious at all. I haven’t taken a break anywhere near that long since the “lost year” that was 2007. I finally decided (not for the first time) to put some genuine effort into finishing a ridiculously ambitious album that’s been years in the making, and in a short period of time I’ve gone from having a mess of about a hundred-and-fifty songs in various stages of completion I had no idea what to do with, to putting together rough sequencing ideas for the first two discs and realizing I could have a rough assembly of the first disc finished within a week.
Up until a week or so ago, I had no idea what I was supposed to channel my creative energy into next. Now I find this projected album that’s been a huge elephant in my closet for a very long time is coming into focus in a way it never really has before.
The secret, I’ve found, is ignoring the fact that there’s a BIG FUCKIN’ PILE OF MUSIC I probably won’t live long enough to finish or release, and just picking something from that pile to work on without being intimidated by the full scope of the workload. Sooner or later I end up tackling a song that’s been puzzling me for years, having a eureka moment in which I figure out what was missing all along, and the whole thing starts to look a lot less daunting.
Example — there was a piano idea I came up with back in 2006 or 2007. Like many of the ideas I wasn’t sure would ever become proper songs, I gave it a title just for fun. I called it “She’s an Alligator Girl”, because it was a phrase that was the right amount of syllables to sing along with the main melody.
It took me a long time before I bothered to write any lyrics. Once I had some words, I recorded it as a glorified tiny song in February 2009, during the sessions for IF I HAD A QUARTER. I left it alone for a while until the summer of that year when I was recording CREATIVE NIGHTMARES, and then I added drums, bass, and some electric guitar. I mixed the song, but it didn’t feel like album material to me. It felt like it never got to wherever it was supposed to go. So I let it be.
This is a song that’s vexed me for more than two years. Normally I would consider it a write-off and save it for an out-takes collection somewhere down the road, but yesterday I thought I’d dump it back on the mixer and mess around with it for fun. Couldn’t hurt anything to try.
Instead of taking what was there and trying to pile more sounds on top of it, I got rid of everything but the bare bones and started all over again. I always liked the drum performance (at least until the flubbed fill near the end, which could have been covered up with a fade-out), but I felt like it was limiting what else I could do with the music. The triple-tracked vocals went away too. I kept one vocal track, the piano, the bass, and threw the rest away.
I recorded about half a dozen tracks of leg slaps (which are sometimes easier to sit in a mix — and always less taxing on the hands — than conventional hand claps when you don’t have anyone else to clap with you) and bounced them down to two stereo tracks to give myself a bit more play. I liked one particular melody from the guitar part that existed in the first mix, so I sang it while slapping my legs to keep it around.
Then I messed around with the Telecaster Travis lent me and was reminded how difficult it was to figure out an appropriate guitar line the first time around. Something about the circular piano part seems to resist easy accompaniment. It wasn’t until I completely simplified what I was doing and stuck to letting a few harmonics ring out that it started to feel like something interesting was happening.
I left it like that until today, when I tried a few different approaches behind the drums and recorded a new vocal track far away from the microphone using an insane amount of compression (I didn’t end up using it, but it was worth a try). Still felt like I could do more to flesh the song out. Add some organ or synth, maybe.
I thought about recording some acoustic guitar, using it as more of a percussive thing and trying to play a drone that would work against the linear harmonic movement of the song. I’ve pretty much avoided using a pick in my guitar-playing for years now, but here it seemed to work really well as an accent. Probably didn’t hurt that the guitar I was playing was the 1945 Martin 00-17 and the mic was the Pearlman TM-LE.
You can bet if I’d gone to the trouble of fleshing the whole thing out two years ago the acoustic guitar would have been distant-mic’d, the vocals would have stayed multi-tracked, I would have stuck with brushes on the drums, and it would all sound very different.
This is what it sounds like now.
I don’t think it sounds like a whole new song as much as it just feels…finished. While it probably won’t be an album highlight, it’ll work just fine as a segue or a quick curve ball. And I think the two mixes do a decent job of illustrating some of the ways my production/recording methods have changed over the past little while. A lot has shifted. The rough edges are still there, but in different places. The first version is also louder than the second, because I was mastering things a bit hotter a few years ago.
There are a lot of songs like this that have been sitting around, waiting for the right clothes to find them. I’ve been dreading trying to dress some of them, because I hit a wall at some point in the recording process and became a bit of a reluctant tailor where certain songs were concerned. Now I’m beginning to see it isn’t always necessary to break that kind of creative wall down with brute force. Sometimes it’s easier to leave the wall intact, paint it a different colour, and take a running leap over when no one’s paying attention.