A little over two weeks ago, at about four in the morning, I thought it would be fun to write sort of an old-timey country waltz about a couple who’ve sold their souls to the devil to stay forever young and are coming to understand maybe it wasn’t such a wise decision. Because these are the kinds of ideas I get when the world makes it tomorrow but in my vampire mind it’s still today.
So I did that, and recorded a rough GarageBand demo using the laptop’s invisible built-in microphone. It came out sounding like this:
I tweaked a couple of the words a few minutes after recording that, but the gist of it was there. The lyrics go like so:
When we are old and well-preserved from all the deals we made
with slick old scratch to keep our youth, the Polaroids we take
will seem a little funny to our least convenient friends.
Dance, soft tissue. Realign. Some crooked kindness kissed us blind.
Help yourself to nothing.
It’s everything we’ve got.
Don’t you fret about the distance
between the guarded and alone.
And every orchard keeper’s rendezvous will get the demon gunning for his due.
All we’ve lost to memory’s erosion will crystallize and flush anew
when fire ants discover you.
It was one of those songs that happened fast, and I was pretty happy with the way it came out. Even the random yodeling in the middle felt like it worked. It isn’t always this easy, but sometimes you say to your brain, “Hey, I’d like to try doing something like this, even though it’s a bit of a change of pace,” and your brain says, “Cool beans. Let’s do it.”
I had a few ideas about who I was going to ask to play a bit of country fiddle on it. In the meantime, I asked Darryl Litster if he’d be up for laying down some upright bass. He was game.
(As with some of the other people who’ve become a part of the “solo album with many guests” adventure, I didn’t know Darryl before this, but having met and played with him now, I can tell you he’s a great fella and a great musician.)
I put down some bed tracks, using microphones that aren’t so small the eyes can’t find them. Couldn’t quite get the singing where I wanted it, but there was a good enough foundation to work with. I was adding some harmony bits last Tuesday afternoon just before Darryl came over when something happened that’s never happened before in all the fifteen and-a-half years I’ve been recording music with this obsolete digital mixer.
The mixer ate part of the song.
I was working on yodeling harmonies when I thought, “Hey, this specific chord sequence is only supposed to happen twice. Now it’s happening three times. And the first line of the next verse disappeared. What’s that about? Am I losing my mind here?”
I wasn’t losing my mind. The mixer’s hard drive decided to extend part of the bridge section and chop out four bars of the last verse to compensate. A chunk of the song was just gone, out of nowhere. Nothing I did could bring it back. All the work I’d put into it had been for nothing. The whole thing was ruined.
When you’ve got someone coming over in less than an hour to play some upright bass and the song you were supposed to work on has turned itself into toast at the worst possible time, you need to figure something else out. Quick.
I thought of a song that was hanging out on the growing pile of “things I like but I’m not sure if they’re album material right now”, called “Hollow Mast”. I couldn’t really tell you what was in my head at the time I wrote it. It uses a sailing vessel as a metaphor for…well, I’m not altogether sure what. A broken relationship, I guess. Whatever it’s about, mizzen-mast goes on the list of “words I never thought I’d find a place for in a song”.
Truth be told, the main reason I wrote it was because I thought I might get lucky and convince Great Aunt Ida to sing harmony on a song. I wanted it to be something in her wheelhouse, and this was the thing that came out when I was thinking of her. As much as I’ve enjoyed keeping it local with everyone who’s been a part of this stuff, I figured it was worth taking a shot at a non-Windsor-dwelling guest. Why not?
She read my Facebook message but never acknowledged or responded to it.
That’s why not.
After that, I tried to get someone local to sing on it. Figured my chances were better there. They seemed enthusiastic about it. Then they blew me off six million times. I tried a second Windsor singer. The same thing happened again.
I got fed up, said, “To hell with this song,” and pretty much forgot about it for a good half a year.
What I’m saying is, I traded one doomed thing for a different doomed thing. Smooth, man. Smooth as silk pajamas.
As far as the structure of “Hollow Mast” goes, it’s a very simple A-B-A-B form, but the second time around the A and B parts both double in length, and then there’s a little C part that acts as a turnaround (it’s a little too brief to be a real bridge) before our friend A comes back again for a few seconds to say goodbye. There’s nothing in it that resembles a chorus. Hey — if you’re going to write a song with a repetitive structure, it doesn’t mean you can’t mess with it a little.
I chose this song as a last-minute backup because of its simplicity. It’s only made up of a few chords. There’s a lot of space in there for floating around and improvising, where some of the other songs I’ve written for this album jump through a much more complex series of flaming hoops and leave less room to wander.
I wrote out the lyrics with the root notes so Darryl would have a bit of a road map. Then he showed up and I gave him the news. We ran through the “new” song maybe three times with me singing. After that, I stopped singing and we started recording.
We recorded piano and bass at the same time, the same way I did it with Max way back when — two Neumann KM184s on the piano and the Pearlman TM-1 in omni on the bass. The best upright bass sounds I’ve ever been able to get have been captured this way. Something about the bleed that happens when the bass is inches away from the piano is really pleasing.
Another nice thing about doing it this way: we’re both playing acoustic instruments that put out a lot of volume, so there’s no need to monitor on headphones. We can play to the open air and kind of mix ourselves. Then we can put on the headphones and hear what we’ve done a different way.
The first proper take was just a run-through. The second, third, and fourth takes were incomplete. The fifth take came out sounding pretty nice. The sixth and seventh takes broke down when I kept hitting a chord I didn’t want to hit.
The eighth take was the one. It was perfectly imperfect. It ambled in all the right ways. We could both feel it.
We could have kept attacking it, but it would have started to lose some of its soul. Maybe we’d have a better grasp on what we wanted to do and it would sound a little bit tighter a few more takes in, but the searching quality, where you can hear the music kind of finding itself in real-time, would be gone. And I like being able to hear the search.
So we have the guts of the thing, and I think I’ve got a take I’m pretty happy with for the lead vocal. I’m not sure if I want to leave it naked or layer it a lot. Feels like it could work either way. One thing’s for sure: I’m not ever asking anyone else to sing the harmony part again. I’ll do it myself.
And there you go. One thing ruins itself, and something else rises up in its place. If the old-timey waltz cooperated with me, I probably never would have recorded “Hollow Mast” at all. Now I’m pretty glad it worked out the way it did and fate conspired to bring it back from the abyss.
In other news, STEW is at #1 on the CJAM charts for the second week in a row. I think just about everything I’ve done over the past dozen years has charted somewhere inside of the top ten at some point (except for the MISFITS compilation, which I never expected to get much airplay), and a few things have hit #1, but I’m not sure I’ve ever had anything stay at the top spot for two weeks running. That’s just nuts.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: subliminal messages work!