in the fall of 2014, before we knew we were working on something that wasn’t going to be a tire swing co. album, steven came over here with some chords, a few vocal melodies, and an idea for a song. something about a guy who’d hidden himself away inside an abandoned-looking house, and a woman who wondered about him.
i’m not sure if what i was starting to do with musical dialogues for male and female voices on YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK rubbed off a little, or if it was just divine inspiration, but he had the idea to see if we could get natalie to sing the part of the good-natured voyeur. and he had a title: “trespassing”.
so there was a concept and a skeleton. but there weren’t any words. i set up a few microphones to record our acoustic guitars and we played through the half-formed haze of a song that wasn’t written yet, steven improvising words and not-words, me doing my best to harmonize without knowing what he was singing, introducing a bit of harmonic friction with my guitar-playing and ripping out a solo just past the four-minute mark that was more confident than it had any right to be.
(whatever i improvised for that little solo there when i had no idea what i was doing, i was never able to replicate it once the song was nailed down.)
later that night, i sat down and listened to the improv. a few lines stuck out and felt like solid building blocks — “if we find that we’re not…”, “we were talking about the thorn bush”, something about caring for trees, “it’s just that i don’t want to see you sleeping”. so i went a little nuts, and wrote a lot of lyrics of my own to go with them.
the whole thing took on a darker hue as i was fleshing it out. started to sound like maybe there was some history between these two characters. maybe the woman wasn’t just curious about someone she didn’t know. maybe the man was a ghost haunting that house, and maybe that explained the place being so rundown. maybe it was a sad kind of love song, the two of them singing to each other from opposite sides of life and death, his memories of whatever they shared eroding in a sort of death beyond death, hers as clear as they ever were, both wanting to connect but not knowing how.
i recorded a rough garageband demo at about 4:00 in the morning and sent it off to steven. i had no idea how he was going to respond to it.
lucky for me, he didn’t mind that i pretty much hijacked the song, and he liked the words i came up with. so i sent it to natalie too, and she said she was up for singing on it.
i changed “thorn tree” back to “thorn bush” about five seconds after recording that demo. liked the ring of it better. and i think that closing verse is one of my favourite verses of anything i’ve ever written. i don’t know. it just feels like it brings things full circle without resolving anything. there’s this weight of sadness there, with a bit of hope tugging at its shirtsleeves.
(side note: i ended up hijacking other songs after this. i’ve learned if you give me a skeleton of a story, or even just a few chords and a vocal melody, it’s going to light my brain on fire. once i snap into fill-in-the-blanks mode, songs happen pretty fast.)
we got down the guitars first. with the odd exception, i’ve been recording acoustic guitars with steven the same way since INAMORATA. first i record him in stereo with a pair of neumann KM184s. usually he’s playing my old gibson LG-2. after that, i’ll play something to accent or shadow what he’s doing. instead of recording myself the same way, i stick the pearlman TM-LE in front of my guitar and double-track it. a lot of the time i’m playing the newer martin 000-15.
some people have complained about the KM184s being bright and hard-sounding compared to the KM84s they succeeded. i don’t doubt that the originals are great microphones, but my 184s have never let me down no matter what i’ve stuck them in front of (acoustic piano, guitar, mandolin, banjo, ukulele, wurlitzer, hammered dulcimer, toy piano, and who knows what else).
the LG-2 has a bit of a darker, rounder sound to it. the martin is a brighter, punchier guitar. those guitars and those mics just seem to play well together. it all makes for a nice bed of sound to build on.
i added bass next, and steven recorded a lead vocal (we would replace it with a new take later on). then natalie came in to record her part.
with all the writing i’ve been doing for voices that are not my own, i’ve had the great fortune to record more than a dozen different singers over the last year or two. no one shows up with the song they’re going to sing committed to memory. ever.
that’s not a problem. it’s never been a barrier to getting a good performance out of anyone. it just isn’t a thing that happens.
it happened with natalie. we’d recorded a fair bit of CAT & CORMORANT by this time, so there was already a comfortable recording rapport there, and i knew she was going to do something good. what i didn’t know was that she was going to show up with all the words memorized. she’d absorbed the song to such an extent that having the lyrics in front of her threw her off a little. she didn’t need them.
her voice gave the whole thing a great kick in the heart. she brought this quality of vulnerability to it that didn’t exist before she sang on it. and she altered the vocal melody just a little, leaning up on the end of the words “trespassing” and “sleepwalking” for the choruses-that-aren’t-actual-choruses instead of dipping down the way steven and i did when we were singing those parts. kind of like one of those freed flowers the song mentions, stretching to see the sun.
right about then, i asked steven, “is this a tire swing co. song? or does it feel like maybe it’s supposed to be something else?”
i get to contribute a lot of musical and arrangement ideas to the tire swing co. material (at least with the recordings — the live band is a different beast), and it’s really rewarding work, but the songs themselves aren’t mine. those are steve’s babies. i’m just the tailor, giving them nice things to dance around in.
this was different. this was something we built together, before even thinking about what clothes it was going to wear when it grew up.
“i think it needs to be an O-L west song,” he said.
and that was it. just like that, the O-L west became a serious collaborative project.
“trespassing” wasn’t the first O-L west song we recorded. it was the second. but it was the one that made it clear we had the makings of something interesting here, and we’d be wise to see how it played out.
(how it played out was, we made an album with fifteen songs on it, both of us sharing the writing and lead singing duties. it could have turned into a double-CD if we didn’t hold ourselves back a little once we had all the material we wanted in place. but the album isn’t quite ready for public consumption yet, so more about that another time.)
i added my high harmony for the verses. it’s a lot easier doing that once you know what the words are. toyed with some third-part harmony and decided i liked it enough to keep it. we added the leg slaps when we weren’t sure yet if the song wanted drums. the lap steel and fender rhodes were things i added in the course of throwing a bunch of stuff at the wall, after the song said, “go ahead and give me some drums. i can handle it.”
for whatever reason, i’ve found myself playing harmonica on quite a few of these songs. that instrument’s rebirth as a meaningful tool for me began with STEW, and it’s carried over to just about everything else.
i’ve only been able to teach myself how to bend one note, and that’s only happened in the last year or so. a lot of the sounds someone like the magnificent kelly hoppe can coax out of the harmonica are way beyond me. but i feel like i can do a lot more with the instrument now than i ever could before, minimal bending and all. i know my way around better these days, even if a lot of it’s still guesswork for me.
i’m not sure what changed. it’s not like i’ve been practicing much.
the point is, it’s fun to be able to drop the harp into a song where it feels like it fits, and to be able to have some options beyond the old “blowing sloppy chords like young bobby dylan with numb lips” trick.
here i thought there should be some lead-like thing happening over the mid-song instrumental break. a guitar solo like the one i played for the initial improv was going to be a little too busy with everything else going on in there. improvising at the piano didn’t feel like the way to go either. so i pulled out my D harmonica — the first harp i ever bought — found a few notes that felt right, and there it was.
watching that, i’m realizing i sometimes move the harmonica around like i’m trying to generate vibrato after a note has already trailed off and i’ve stopped blowing. it’s not a conscious thing. come to think of it, i do the same thing with an electric guitar sometimes, minus the blowing. i guess i just like to shake things.
here’s what the song sounds like now in finished form. not sure if it’s a final mix, but it’s probably about as good as it’s going to get. if we were signed to some satanic record label and releasing singles, this would be the track we’d send out into the world as a lead-in to the full-length album.