Someone made me a microphone out of an old telephone. Sound enters the receiver instead of the transmitter, and the results are not quite the same as what you’d hear over the phone. It’s more like life, but narrower and more lo-fi in an interesting way. I think it’s going to be a fun recording tool.
Here’s my first test of the new telephone microphone. No weird effects yet. Just a pretty straight signal path with a bit of reverb.
It’s not a proper song as much as it’s a random goof, and a good excuse to mess around with the Micron’s arpeggiator a little. The only lyrics are, “Ain’t you the finest swamp thing? Don’t you forget about me.” Which means absolutely nothing, but it was fun to sing. All the vocal tracks went through the telephone, and I layered some harmonies in there, because how often do you get to harmonize with yourself over the phone?
There’s a bit of Casio SK-1 in there too. I’ve got a lot to say about that thing (a relatively new addition over here), but I’ll leave it for another time.
Whatever this turns into, it got its start as an idea that split in a few different possible directions. If they’d been given numbers and made into a short list, those possible directions would have looked something like this:
(1) Write songs for other people to sing and “pitch” the songs to those people (softball, hardball, songball, sing).
(2) Write songs mostly for myself to sing, but bring in other voices and musicians to widen the scope of things instead of doing everything myself the way I usually do.
(3) Co-write with as many other people as possible and blur the lines separating which songs belong to who, creating some sort of amorphous collective sonic goo that would probably necessitate a band name.
(4) Record as many different artists as possible, one song apiece, their material, not mine, adopting more of a producer’s role, and fashion some schizophrenic album out of the results.
Through-line: keep everything local and under one literal roof.
From there, I found myself with a list of about thirty people in this city who were either friends I’d worked with before and wanted to work with again, people I respected but never really talked to before, or people I never had the guts to approach but saw no reason not to now.
The list of people to contact got shaved down a bit as the numbered list that was never a numbered list mutated and got shaved down too.
The more I thought about it, I didn’t feel like I was going to have the time or the energy to give a ton of people free recording time if I wasn’t going to at least have some significant creative role to play. I like the idea of stretching and recording music outside of my comfort zone, whatever my comfort zone is, but just moving mics around and pushing buttons isn’t where I’m at my best. I think that’s what most people assume they’re going to get when they hear or read the words “free recording time”. There are many other engineers who are more capable and a much better choice for that sort of thing without even looking outside of this city.
The whole writing-songs-for-other-people-to-sing thing, meanwhile, lit my brain on fire. A lot of creative energy came out of that. But the more songs I wrote with other voices in mind, the more I found myself hesitant to let the songs go or give them away. I liked them enough to want to be selfish, keep them, sing them myself.
Something interesting happened here. I wrote a song for Steven to sing (his album is at #1 on the CJAM charts right now). He’s got this great lived-in-sounding baritone, and I wrote this dark folky thing I thought was perfect for his voice. He liked the song, but he was a little more interested in something else I played for him that wasn’t a song at all.
It started out as a random guitar bit, captured the day after the Tire Swing Co. album release show via the lo-fi but useful sound-recording tool built into a cheap digital still camera.
This was how he heard it — as an idea driven by a piano, hoping it might become a song at some point. He thought it had potential, so I fast-tracked the process, made it a song, and wrote a chunk of it specifically for him to sing. I thought it would be fun to record a deliberate homage to The National (we’re both fans, and his voice can do a bit of a Matt Berninger thing when he steers it that way), so I had that in the back of my head, until I tilted myself forward and it rolled to the front of my head.
I got the piano track down for the song and Steve came over to sing his part. I recorded a guide vocal for his section, so he’d have something to work with. It was the first time he was hearing the song as an actual song with words. He listened to it a few times, I set up a microphone and handed him headphones and the spiral notebook I’d written the lyrics in, and set it up so he could hear himself but we weren’t recording. A little test run.
After two or three lines I stopped him and said, “We need to record this. It sounds too good not to.” So we doubled back and I hit the record button.
He nailed it in one take. We did a tiny punch-in for one five-second part where the timing was a little tricky, but that was it. I’m not gonna lie. I raised my fist a few times in giddy celebration while he was singing.
“What do you think?” I asked him after that first take.
“I think that’s about as good as I can sing it,” he said.
And then we both busted up laughing.
It sounded like he was meant to sing those words I wrote. His voice added a whole new depth to the song, and it didn’t hit me until a while later that I’d written something of an internal dialogue without realizing it, with him serving as the voice in my head. It all ended up working on a much deeper level than anticipated.
I added more to the song over the next day or two, but found I liked the sound of his lead vocal and my harmonies so much, I didn’t want them to get buried in a dense mix. So I pared our little homage to The National down until it wasn’t an homage to anything anymore. Decided I liked having a section of the song where the drums dropped out before the medium-large wall-of-sound coda. Contrast is the spice of life, or so they tell me.
Life is a strange chef.
Here’s a bit of that one part of the song as it sounded before it was scaled back, along with some of my guide vocal.
Hearing another voice singing words I wrote and having it work so well changed things for me. It put an idea in my head, and it wasn’t an idea I’d ever had before: I could write songs for multiple voices, including my own, and the voices could be treated like actors in a play. And there went the brain, burning all over again.
Now the numbered list of directions that isn’t really a numbered list is looking more like this:
(1) Make an album that’s my creative vision, but open it up to others (meaning: weave in other voices, other sounds I can’t generate myself, other personalities).
(2) Make an album that’s a collaborative thing with a number of different songwriters involved, but find a way to give it a somewhat cohesive sonic/writing identity, and give it a band name.
#2 is probably much more of a long-range project, if it’s realistic, given all the unknowns where others are involved — who will want to or be able to commit to the project, how much time they’ll have to commit to it, how soon things will click when it comes to bouncing creative energy off of one another, if things will click at all, how many licks it takes to destroy a candy cane, and on and on. I’m open to pretty much any collaborative possibilities that might present themselves with anyone, but I’ve learned it’s better not to think too far ahead when it comes to that sort of thing.
#1 is already happening. There’s been a lot of writing over the past little bit, and now it’s time for the recording process to catch up. How much writing is a lot? Twenty six finished new songs written over the last month-and-a-bit, plus another dozen that aren’t quite finished yet but are closer to songs than sketches, plus however many ideas there have been that haven’t become sketches or songs yet.
That’s what happens when I put a years-in-the-making thing that’s stalled a bit on the back burner and let myself get distracted. Maybe distractions aren’t always such a bad thing.
Pitching songs to other people probably isn’t going to happen anymore. Not in the way I thought it would. But I really like the idea of bringing in other voices, and having a female voice take the spotlight for a song or a few, Dirty Projectors/Bark Psychosis style. I’m also thinking maybe I should be a little more selective now with who I involve in this. Stick with people I know I can count on to show up and care about what we’re doing. Since what I want to do has come into sharper focus, what was a list of thirty is looking more like a list of a dozen. And that’s good. That’s a lot saner and easier to work with, and will lead to a tighter-knit feeling of…things…being…tightly knit.
I’ll eat any costs involved, and chew them well, and swallow them down as deep as they’ll go. But whatever comes of this, whether it’s one album or three, there won’t be any profits to share, because there won’t be any profits, period. Nothing is going to be for sale. Any resulting album(s) is/are going to be given away for free, because that’s the way I operate. Everyone involved will get as many physical copies as they want, or as many as I can afford to give them — whichever tops out first — with the understanding that they can’t sell any of them. They have to be given away as gifts. There will be a pretty prominent message in the liner notes making it clear that the music is not for sale, just in case anyone tries to be sneaky there.
This is where recording other people comes in. I’m going to use it as a bartering tool. I don’t expect everyone to be crazy about the idea of playing or singing or involving themselves creatively in something without making any money, doing it solely as a labour of lust (though the response so far has been insanely positive). Money and music don’t mix for me, but a lot of people are out there trying to make it their livelihood, and I respect and support that. I do think they should get something for their time and talent if playing or singing with me doesn’t feel like it’s recompense enough.
So my workaround is offering to record a song for them that’s their own creative thing, for free. I’ll play or produce as little or as much as they want me to. When it’s mixed, that song is theirs to do with whatever they want. They can release it as a digital single, sell it, send it into space, use it in an adult film…whatever. But in exchange, I get to ask them to sing or play on something of mine. It’s the old “I scratch your back, you scream into my bellybutton” trick.
First: stockpiling songs for an ambitious monster of an album, buying new equipment for it, shaping and preparing and then losing the ability to record anything for a protracted period of time thanks to the noises made by others.
Then: a new house, lethargy, time and opportunity but no motivation to make good use of either, the feeling of staring at something insurmountable and lacking the limbs necessary to get on top of it, lacking even a mouth to make a meal of its dirt.
The Then after this Then: stuffing the monster in a linen closet to concentrate on less intimidating things.
The Then after that Then: eight full-length albums in three years, rhythm, confidence, an out-takes collection thrown in just for fun.
The next Then after these Thens: return to the monster, gradual loss of confidence and rhythm, a lot of writing but not enough recording, more thought than action, no new albums for two calendar years.
Now: locking the monster back in the closet to concentrate on less intimidating things. Rhythm and confidence returning. Did they dye their hair? Get a tan? It’s been a while.
Whatever comes out of this specific pocket of time and inspiration, there’s a feeling calling itself a need that wants to document as much of the process as possible — in words, in sounds, in images moving and still — because it might not happen again like this. There’s no way of knowing how many times the monster can be lulled into submission before it wakes up all wild-eyed and drooling, demanding satisfaction, refusing to sleep again.
And there’s something less insular about this time. It’s a quality that might not belong to any other time but this, here, now. It feels like something worth preserving. Maybe this is the place to preserve it.