John Prine beat cancer twice, but he couldn’t fight off the coronavirus and the pneumonia it brought with it. He was seventy-three.
I have a bad habit of not discovering the work of some of my favourite artists until long after they’re gone. It’s happened with Nick Drake, Laura Nyro, Tim Buckley, and too many others to mention. I got lucky with John Prine and had the chance to appreciate him while he was still here.
For a long time I knew his name without knowing his music. I didn’t know anything about him. All I had to go on was his amiable, weathered face with its mop of hair that looked like it just fell out of bed along with the rest of him. One day I saw this pop up on my YouTube sidebar and thought, “Why not?” I clicked on it. Within a few minutes I’d become a fan.
John could make you laugh one minute and rip your heart out the next. A blessed few writers have that gift. I think it comes from a deep reservoir of empathy and an understanding of human nature in all its awful and wonderful contradictions. Harry Nilsson had it. Randy Newman and Lyle Lovett have it. Rickie Lee Jones has it. Tom Waits too. Springsteen has it, sometimes, when he feels like dusting it off. Not many others do.
John had it right from the start. He released his debut album in 1971. Some of the songs on it: “Sam Stone”. “Angel from Montgomery”. “Paradise”. “Hello in There”. “Six O’Clock News”. “Donald and Lydia”. “Far from Me”.
How you can write songs like that, full of the weight of living, when you’re only twenty-four years old is beyond me. The words only grew more resonant as he and his voice grew older. You could say he aged into the songs he wrote as a young man.
If there’s some comfort to take from something like this, it’s the knowledge that he’s probably somewhere smoking a nine-mile-long cigarette right now, grinning with abandon. Trying to write your own epitaph is a fool’s errand most of the time, but you’d be hard-pressed to write one for John Prine that’s any better than the last song on the last album he made.
To me living and music are all the same thing. And I keep finding out more about music as I learn more about myself, my environment, about all kinds of different things in life. I play what I live. Therefore, just as I can’t predict what kinds of experiences I’m going to have, I can’t predict the directions in which my music will go. I just want to write and play my instrument as I feel.
It’s everyone’s favourite Hallmark holiday today, and you know what that means — time for a gooey song about holding hands and learning to understand while wearing a single leather glove and opening an umbrella to shield yourself from some stuff that’s falling from above.
I’ve kind of had my fill of love songs. Given how little there is left to say that hasn’t already been said on the subject, I thought I might provide a useful service to the world by writing a one-size-fits-all love song so no one else would ever have to write another uninspired variation on the theme.
This was one of the last things slated for inclusion on YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK to find itself on the chopping block. It’s one of my favourite songs that didn’t make it onto the album. I felt like I never quite got the arrangement right, I wanted to take another crack at singing it, and in the end time constraints kept it from finding a place on either disc.
I dumped it back onto the mixer this afternoon because I thought it would be a fun thing to polish off and share on the day before Half-Price Chocolate Day. I was a little surprised to find I liked the arrangement just fine after some time away from it and didn’t feel I could do a whole lot to improve on the existing vocal take. The mix is a bit of a quickie job, and I’ll probably fine-tune it a little, but it feels good enough to share.
Turn the lights down low, pour yourself a glass of onion juice, and let the love in.
This is an overwrought love song written for someone who doesn’t exist, given a name and attributes broad enough to allow you to project the likeness of just about anyone and whatever feelings you have for them onto this uninspired canvas so you can tell yourself the words were written just for you.
Well, if this song were a small town, it would have a population of a hundred and nine, and all of the people who lived there would dream up poetic ways to pass the time, like finding a name for a fragrance impossible to articulate. And that’s the smell of the person you love, whoever they may be.
Maybe you’d call it deceptive. Maybe you’d say it was something sweet with the breath of menace inside it —
a metaphor for something you weren’t wise enough to recognize when it might have done you some good. And now the song has grown bitter. But you’re bitter too, so it’s nothing offensive or jarring.
Now this is the part where a new melody is introduced to keep you engaged. The setting has changed but your clothes are the same. There’s a lazy trope you can hang your hat on. The music conveys a hint of regret, but it hasn’t collapsed into self-pity yet. That’s another song for another time. You won’t find it here. It’s not one of mine.
And here’s where a key change would happen if I cared enough to engage in histrionics common to the artistic vernacular, employed in moments such as these, but this is an overwrought love song written for an idealized, nonexistent subject, and if they were real a last-minute key change
wouldn’t appeal to their sensibilities. So fuck all that.
Two months shy of six years after I first started work on it, YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK is finished. Over the next few days I’m going to proofread my art files for the booklets and inserts until my eyeballs liquefy. Then I’m getting them printed and bringing this baby home while it screams at me and throws up on my shoulder.
It usually takes me at least a few months after the completion of an album before I’m able to listen to it in something approaching an impartial state. I get the feeling it’s going to take a little longer with this one. I feel good about the sequence I settled on. I think it strikes a nice balance between unpredictability and plotting out a clear sonic and emotional arc. But it’s very strange to hear all of these songs together in one place after all this time, and it’s beyond strange to think of the album as a finished thing. I don’t think the reality of it is going to sink in until I’m holding the first official artwork-enhanced copy in my hands.
There’s always some minor snag or curve ball that comes along to slow me down when I’m gearing up to finish an album. Sometimes an essential piece of equipment dies on me right when I need it the most. Sometimes my immune system says, “Oh, you wanted to accomplish something? Here’s some sickness! Good luck hearing through six layers of snot!” Sometimes a pony gets the blues.
This time I couldn’t seem to make a master copy of the album that didn’t have a few glitches in it somewhere. The external CD burner I’m using has never let me down before, but it’s eleven years old now. It makes sense that it would start to break down after how hard I’ve worked it in that time.
I went out and bought a new external burner. It worked like a charm. I burned a disc, gave it a listen, and didn’t hear any glitches, but it sounded…off somehow. The high frequencies seemed to be exaggerated in an almost imperceptable way.
I was reminded of the time I tried about five different brands of recordable CDs when I was making copies of CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN and every one of them sounded different to me. For all I know, my brain convinced my ears I was hearing something that wasn’t there at all. And maybe that’s what happened again with this CD burner. It doesn’t make any sense that two copies of the exact same recordable media would sound different just because they came out of two different optical drives.
It’s a subtle difference. It might be an imaginary difference. But if I went ahead and made a bunch of copies of the album with that perceived change in sound and then shared them with other people, it would bother me for the rest of my life.
One thing led to another, and I discovered my crusty old CD burner wasn’t the problem at all. It was the CDs themselves. I’ve been lucky over the years and haven’t had to deal with too many “coasters” (a common slang term for defective discs), but I finally ended up with some duds at the bottom of a spindle.
Here’s the irony of it all: my recordable CDs of choice for twelve years now have been JVC-branded Taiyo Yudens. A different company took over the production of these CDs a few years ago. I read a lot of horror stories about a dramatic drop-off in quality control. So I bought up as much old stock as I could while it was still available. A lot of people consider CDs to be a dying medium, and reliable media is getting more and more difficult to come by. I only ended up with a few batches of the dreaded CMC-branded Taiyo Yuden discs when the one store I found that still had some of the JVC-made ones ran out and sent me the new guys instead.
The dodgy CDs? They were my trusty old TYs. I tried some of the new ones just to see what would happen. The glitches disappeared.
Burn burn, spin spin, oh what a relief it’s been.
I was determined to fit fifty songs onto these two CDs. I almost pulled it off, until two songs found themselves on the cutting room floor very late in the game. Every other song that made it onto the album earned its place there. Losing even one of them would knock over the whole chain of dominoes. These two tracks, though — they could go and I wouldn’t miss them. It was a good thing they were expendable, because once I dropped them I had just enough space to cram everything onto two CDs.
Since they don’t really give away any surprises, here are those two last-minute out-takes.
I’ve talked a bit before about the experience of writing songs for other voices. It isn’t something I plan on doing again after this. I’m pretty sure at least two-thirds of the grey hair now living in my beard is a direct result of being given the long-distance runaround by so many flighty and uninterested singers. Most of the people I had in mind to sing the vocal parts I didn’t want to handle myself aren’t even on the album. Almost all of my first, second, and third choices expressed at least some interest in working with me only to turn to dust when I tried to make concrete plans with them.
I’m not at all disappointed it worked out this way. I was forced to get creative and reach out to people I might not have thought to contact otherwise, and now I can’t imagine anyone else in place of the featured guest vocalists who are on the album. I think the songs were ultimately sung by the singers who were meant to sing them.
Being able to see the positive side doesn’t negate the mind-numbing frustration I had to endure. I’ve got stories galore. Some of them are so bizarre you’d be forgiven for thinking I made them up.
I’ll save all that stuff for a post that digs into the making of the album and all its songs in a week or two. Trust me — it’ll be worth the wait.
I only mention any of this here because the first of these out-takes is one of those things I wrote with someone else’s voice in mind. I was thinking of a singer who sounds a bit like Frazey Ford. I tried to emulate that when I recorded the demo, with mixed results.
I wrote an instrumental section to graft onto the beginning, worked out a horn arrangement both for that part and for the body of the song, and brought in Kelly Hoppe to play it. When I told him my lead vocal was a scratch track and I planned on replacing it with someone else’s voice, he said, “I like your singing on this one. You should keep it.”
After a year of trying and failing to get the singer I was communicating with to commit to anything, I decided Kelly was right and recorded a more serious vocal track of my own.
There are a number of things on the album that thumb their noses at the conventional rules of song construction. This song does that too, but it was the one instance in which I felt I could see the seams between the disparate sections a little better than I wanted to.
I like the intro. It was inspired in equal part by the simple, declarative, powerful melodic statements John Coltrane made at the beginning of some of his songs (“Seraphic Light” comes to mind) and the brief, mournful saxophone interlude in the middle of David Bowie’s “Sweet Thing” suite on the album Diamond Dogs. I was trying to capture something of that quality when I wrote the melody Kelly darts around on tenor sax. I like that a lot of the singing is pretty high in my range without dipping much into the falsetto register, at least until the last section. But I can’t shake the feeling that I never quite nailed the lead vocal, and I couldn’t come up with a smooth transition between the final fading sax harmonies and the piano-driven coda.
It just felt a little too thin to me when I held it up against the other songs. And it seems appropriate that I would take what might have been one of the catchier moments on the album and chuck it right out the window.
Here’s a bit of video (from the time of Maximum Beardage, no less) demonstrating the outrageous difference in richness between my initial synth-sax guide track and the real thing.
The other last-minute cast-off is a much simpler affair. It’s not quite a fragment or a full-length song. It lives somewhere in-between those two poles.
I went through a few different arrangements for this one before settling on something a little more pared-down. There are handclaps and lap steel tracks that didn’t make it into the final mix, among other things. I thought about getting a few people together for some group vocals at the end, but by this time my patience for being strung along was at a pretty low ebb. I’m still not sure if I should have left in that random drum flourish at the end or cut things off right before it happens.
The main acoustic guitar used here is a 1932 Washburn 5200. It’s not an axe I pull out often — it’s in a somewhat weird C tuning that only works for certain things — but when I do I’m always reminded how well it records. It puts out a lot of sound for such a small-bodied instrument. And it’s got the nicest smell to it. I don’t know how to describe it. It’s sweet without being saccharine. I’ve never experienced a fragrance quite like it with any other guitar I’ve held in my hands.
Ron just redesigned his website, and while he was at it he snuck his new album in there. You’ll find it if you scroll about halfway down the page. It’s just below the video for “Ballad of Bob Probert”. You can’t download it just yet, but you can stream all the songs. The plan is to give it a more visible online release soon, and then a physical release (complete with a CD release show) early in the New Year.
If you’d like, you can read all about my take on the making of the album over here. Spoiler alert: I give away a few recording secrets.
I had a great time working with Ron on this one, and I think the culmination of that work is both a great Ron Leary album and some of the best work I’ve done as a producer/arranger/stuff-doer. I’m excited for people to hear it.
About the video at the top of this post — I didn’t capture anywhere near as much recording footage as I wanted to, but I did document most of the title track being put down on digital tape. I say “most” because my camera’s battery died before I could get all of Ron’s acoustic guitar track. That’s why it fades out before the song is finished. I think it’s still a neat little behind-the-scenes vignette, even if the grainy vocal footage stands out like a sore thumb (I used both the T5i and the old Flip camera for different things, and the contrast between the two is…not subtle).
For the first time since I started work on this YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK thing, I can see the finish line. It’s almost close enough to touch. Worst case scenario, I should be able to get it in the hands of the few people I’m planning on sharing it with in time for Christmas. After beginning to feel like one of those blowhards who’s always talking about some project they never manage to finish, it smells a bit like vindication. And cinnamon.
(Don’t tell me finish lines are scentless. I’ll never believe it.)
In spite of all the progress made, I’ve been wrestling with the track list for some time now. It wasn’t too difficult to work out a sequence for the first disc that felt right, but the second disc has given me all kinds of grief. I couldn’t get past the feeling that there were too many subdued, mid-tempo songs. At the same time, whenever I tried throwing in something catchy and upbeat to shake things up, it felt like it cheapened the whole album — like I was letting a song sneak in not because I felt it was my best work, but because it made for a more accessible listening experience.
It took a bit of banging my head against the wall, but I decided if the second disc wanted to be a little more low-key than the first, I might as well let it. Bad things happen when I try to force the music somewhere it doesn’t want to go.
Within a few days of making that decision, a peppy little bluegrass song I thought was an out-take became album material out of nowhere — fleshing out the arrangement really transformed it — and I recorded a ninety-second rock song called “Your Music in Commercials After You Die” that was too much fun not to include. Three guesses what that last one’s about!
So I got a little bit of what I thought I needed, but in a much more organic way.
The second disc is still going to be a less hyper-eclectic affair than the first one, but in all fairness the first half of this album is probably the most diverse collection of songs I’ve ever squeezed onto a single CD. It takes in experimental rock, progressive piano pop, sombre folk, shoegaze/dream pop, doo-wop — and that’s just the first five songs.
Needless to say, if you’re one of those folks who’s always longed for me to make a concise ten-song album that stays rooted to one place, you’re not going to find that here.
Along the way, a lot of things have fallen by the wayside. I think I’d have to go all the way back to 2003’s NUDGE YOU ALIVE to find the last album I made where every song that was recorded made the cut. As more thought has gone into the crafting of each album as an artistic statement, out-takes have become a fact of life. Sometimes a song sounds like a keeper when you’re carrying it around in your head, but when you get around to recording it there’s something missing. Other times the song is strong enough, but it doesn’t fit in with the emotional or sonic arc you’re trying to create with the album. In some cases the arrangement doesn’t feel right and you abandon the song before it even gets a rough mix.
It almost always boils down to a gut feeling for me, even with the most random-seeming segues — does this belong?
It stands to reason that when you take ten times longer than usual to make an album, you’re going to end up with a pretty substantial collection of out-takes. This YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK situation is a new one for me, though. It’s the first time in my life the out-takes have outnumbered the album tracks.
I’m going to try and squeeze fifty songs onto these two CDs. The limitations of the media will determine whether or not I can. Even if I do manage to pull it off, there are still eighty-four songs I’ve recorded for the album that won’t be moving on. And that’s not counting any of the sketches or demos. There are hundreds of those by now.
I’m not bragging. I’m a little bewildered. I expected there to be a fair amount of out-takes, but not this many.
Some of these songs are destined for a second “misfits” compilation somewhere down the road. A few might sneak onto THE ANGLE OF BEST DISTANCE if I ever finish that thing. A whole whack of them will probably never see the light of day at all, or else I’ll re-record them from scratch at a later date if it feels like they’re right for a different album.
Some of my favourites still haven’t been given a proper mix, but a handful of them have. After all, I thought at least some of these things were potential album material at one time or another.
Here’s a little taste of what didn’t make it out of the kitchen.
I wrote more piano ballads for this album than I knew what to do with. Somewhere around half of them made the cut. This one didn’t. I like it — especially the way it starts out so sparse and then ends as an overdriven wall of sound — but my dreamy, hazy side is already well represented in a number of other songs that take more interesting turns.
A song written in Spanish, sung with a straight face when the lyrics are secretly ridiculous? That’s right up my alley. So why isn’t it going on the album?
It’s fun, but it feels a little thin to me — more of a novelty song. I also never quite got the arrangement the way I wanted it. The plan was to punctuate the end of each verse with mariachi trumpets. By the time I got around to fleshing this one out, I was pretty sure I never wanted to bring another outside musician into my music again. I settled for singing into the Yamaha VSS-30 and utilizing the oversampling function, creating some silly lo-fi operatic vocal harmonies where the horns were supposed to be. The highlight of the recording process might have been singing “chin to chin” through a child’s voice transforming toy and layering some grimy harmonies.
In English, the title is “Night Is Alive with the Folly of Men”. If you’re curious, this is what the lyrics translate to:
These gifts you bring me —
they are such abysmal shit. You do not know me at all. You make my anus weep such tears of disappointment.
I want to walk naked on the moon and urinate in silence as God would do if He drank a lot of beer.
I want to eliminate your nipples from my memories and visions, but life is long and hard, so spank me gently.
This is one of those catchy little tunes I tried to sneak onto the second disc before realizing it was best to leave things alone. The swearing at the end was inspired by my neighbours. The afternoon I sat down to record the basic tracks, everyone on the block decided to cut their grass. But they didn’t do it all at once. They took turns. As soon as one person finished, another would start. This went on for hours. It got pretty irritating after the seventh or eighth person decided the world was going to end if they waited another day to mow their lawn.
It might not surprise you to know I did a little internal celebration when we got our first real snowfall of the season the other day. No more lawnmowers until next year. Hallelujah.
As many different places as this album goes musically, “excerpt from a futuristic soft porn soundtrack” felt a little too random even for me. This one is all Alesis Micron and VSS-30. The Micron supplies the synth bass and the percussion that sounds a little like it’s short-circuiting. Everything else is the VSS-30, and the sound that holds everything together is my voice, oversampled about a hundred times (okay, maybe five or six). It’s kind of funky, isn’t it?
I always try to end an album with something that feels like an ending. There’s usually one song that jumps out at me and grabs that spot. This time a number of tracks were considered. This one got voted off the island, but I still like its unpredictable harmonic movement.
I wasn’t able to nail the feeling I wanted here. I was going for something with a bit of punky energy, and it all came out sounding pretty bloodless. I didn’t have it in me to push for the more aggressive vocal performance the song needed to put it over the top. It didn’t help that I ran out of tracks on the mixer and couldn’t add the group vocals I hoped would punch things up a bit.
The initial GarageBand demo somehow got a lot closer to what I was after:
Now, this is a tiny song I like an awful lot, even if there isn’t much to it. A bunch of guitars do melodic things while love is interred and finds itself more appreciated as a cadaver. Sounds like a winter rom-com hit to me. I really tried to find a place for this one in the album sequence. It wasn’t meant to be.
There’s a lot more, but I think that gives you at least some idea of the sheer breadth of stuff we’re dealing with here. It almost feels like a miracle that I’ve been able to pare things down to a lean two-disc set. I’ve had to kill some of my darlings along the way, but sometimes that’s the cost of doing business.
My interest in sampling should have started with the Casio SK-10 I had as a kid. Here I had the ability to record and warp short bursts of any sound I could think of, and the best idea I could come up with was getting the built-in demonstration songs to play symphonies of armpit farts. I sampled the TV a few times, but that was as creative as I got.
In the mid-2000s I heard a Bjork song in a restaurant. I think it was right before I really got into her music. I’ve never been able to figure out which song it was, but I remember there was this sound swimming through the whole thing — something like a field of wind chimes being upended by a swarm of locusts.
“Sampling!” I thought. “Yes! I must get a sampler! I must make sounds like this! No more farting with my arms! I’m a grownup now!”
I could have had a lot of fun with the SK-10 right about then, but it was collecting dust in a house full of people I never wanted to see again. So much for an emotional, armpit fart-free reunion.
The Roland V-Synth looked like an attractive option for a while. Then I discovered I already had a synthesizer with sampling capabilities — a Korg Triton LE. For a fraction of the cost of a V-Synth I could get an EXB-SMPL sampling board, slip it into the guts of the Triton, and go nuts.
I can’t remember if the sampling board came with instructions. If it did, they weren’t very helpful. Johnny Smith helped me wedge the thing inside of the Triton, but we had no idea what we were doing. We couldn’t get it to work. One of the high A# keys stopped functioning not long after that, and I’ve always wondered if it had anything to do with my little sampling misadventure.
A few days ago we opened the Triton up for the first time in close to fifteen years. I thought it was about time I got some use out of the EXB-SMPL. Thanks to a helpful YouTube tutorial, it wasn’t going to be so difficult to set up this time.
What we found was…well, this:
What you see there is an empty space where the sampling card is supposed to be. We must have taken it out when it didn’t work and chucked it back in the box. I guess that high A# stopped working all on its own.
Maybe I was never meant to sample anything with this synth. The way it worked out, I found other solutions.
In early 2014, a few months before work began on YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK, I bought a circuit-bent Casio SK-1 off of eBay. An unbent Yamaha VSS-30 followed a little while later. For the last five years, I’ve been having a blast sampling all kinds of things. As great as the SK-1 is — and most of the time I’m not even engaging the bends — it’s the VSS-30 that’s become an indispensable sonic weapon. From here on out, I can’t imagine making an album that doesn’t feature it in a pretty integral role.
There’s one specific sound that’s always appealed to me. It’s what happens when a human voice gets chopped up and bent out of shape. You hear a lot of this in different strains of electronica-driven modern pop music.
A few examples:
That’s right. I just posted a song featuring Justin Bieber, and not in an ironic way. Be afraid. The high-pitched distorted synthesizer-sounding thing you hear during the instrumental choruses is the Biebernator’s voice, believe it or not. That’s what sampling and mangling can do.
Now, if I had access to something like this, I would be in heaven:
Disembodied voices, all primed and ready to be manipulated? Sign me up.
Alas, I don’t use a computer to record, so software like this isn’t an option for me. If I want to get sounds that live in that world, I have to create them myself.
(I know I said I was done sharing excerpts from the SLEEPWALK documentary thing. I lied. Jesus, look at all that grey hair.)
I’m loving the Zoom H1 for voice-capturing purposes when I’m recording video and my face needs to be on the screen. It’s easy to put on a mini-stand and point in my general direction, allowing me to speak freely regardless of where the camera is. Whenever I was using one of the Flip cameras, I always had to try and get my face as close as possible to the camera if I wanted to get something resembling clean, present sound out of the built-in microphone. Now it’s not an issue. Even when I point the H1 at the monitors so the playback takes precedence over my voice, what I’m saying still comes through loud and clear.
Compare the above video to something like this and I think you’ll hear what I mean. You might notice a bit of a difference in the visual quality as well. Three cheers for the Canon T5i (and for opening the blinds to let in some natural light).
Sort of related, a little bit, maybe:
For years I had this itch in the back of my brain. I couldn’t stop myself from wondering what would happen if someone else produced/recorded my music. I was pretty sure I would try handing the reigns over to someone else someday, if only for a song or a quick EP, so I could satisfy that curiosity.
It’s not something I wonder about anymore.
For better or worse, I’ve developed a recording aesthetic that’s very specific to me and what I do. By now it’s as much a part of my music as my voice or the way I play piano. Strip that away, put someone else in charge of dialling in the sounds they believe are appropriate and keeping the performances they like best, and I don’t think the results would sound a whole lot like me anymore.
Very few of the sounds coming out of professional recording studios right now do anything to move or inspire me. That’s just my own personal taste. The few producers I would have an interest in working with are nowhere near Windsor, and they charge such a disgusting amount of money for their services, I’d maybe be able to afford five seconds of studio time with them. Even if I won the lottery, after all the time and work and money that’s gone into building my studio into what it is today, it would make no sense to pay someone else to bark orders at me and spend two hours getting a drum sound they’re only going to obliterate later on with samples they bought in a bundle from Waves Audio.
I want to make it clear that I’m not dumping on this way of working. I’m only saying it isn’t what I’m after as a producer. I think any way of working is valid if it gets you the results you’re after.
Earlier this year, Ryan Lewis (owner/operator of RadSouls Studio) came over to record some piano and vocal tracks. When he told me to do whatever I wanted with the basic tracks, I saw it as a unique opportunity to compare my work to another producer’s. Though the song wasn’t my own, this was the closest I was ever likely to get to hearing what someone else would do with my music. We both started with the same source material and took it in very different directions.
As dissimilar as our mixes are in terms of instrumentation and arrangement, what really stands out to me is the use of compression. In my mix the piano is allowed to breathe in a natural way and the snapping is treated as just another sound. In Ryan’s mix the snapping is emphasized, the piano is pumped up with a ton of compression, and everything is a lot louder.
I’m not sure I could come up with a much better demonstration of what I mean when I say my sensibilities are almost violently out-of-sync with what most other producers seem to want to achieve. It’s right there in black and white.
Here’s a bit of a breakdown of some of the elements I added to my take on the song, showcasing some of what the VSS-30 can do when you take the time to create your own samples.
Ever since I acquired the ability to record overdubs twenty years ago, I’ve always enjoyed layering vocal harmonies. It’s come to feel like a pretty personal thing. Even with all the vocalists I’ve managed to involve in YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK, most of their work has been limited to singing lead parts or contributing to group vocals.
I did try to get other people to sing harmony on a handful of songs, just to see what would happen. Only two of those people bothered to show up. One of them was Kaitlyn Kelly, who made time for me when she was in town for the holidays a few years ago and did some beautiful singing on a song that’s going on the album. The other was Leanna, who also sang a lead part on one of the “musical dialogues” I wrote.
The first session with Leanna was great. She came in and sang that part like she owned it. She said the song brought something special out of her. The second session was…not so great.
Five times we made plans. Five times she stood me up. The sixth time she managed to make it here. I was still doing my musical barter thing at the time. I offered to record a song of hers to thank her for singing on one of mine. She brought along her then-boyfriend, who I’ll call Chocolate Bar (his stage name is something pretty close to that), and an additional guitarist I wasn’t told was coming.
We attacked the harmony part on my song first. It was slow going. She hadn’t bothered to learn the song and didn’t seem to be nearly as into it as she was the first time. We recorded it piecemeal. I would sing her a line. She would sing it back until it was good enough to move on to the next line. After about an hour we were done.
The second guitarist asked to use the bathroom. After waiting a few minutes and not hearing a flush, I took a look to see if he was dropping off some kids or something. He never set foot in the bathroom. He was hiding around the corner, taking pictures of my gear with his phone.
If you’re over here working with me and you ask to take a picture of yourself singing into a microphone, playing an instrument, or giving me bunny ears, I have no problem with that. But to lie about having to take a piss so you can catalogue my equipment without my permission…that’s some sketchy shit. It makes me think you’re casing the place so you can decide whether or not it’s worth your while to try and break in at a later date.
Johnny Smith happened to be here when this was happening. When he saw what I saw, he told the budding photographer he could delete those pictures from his phone and sit where we could see him, or he could get the hell out of the house. He did as he was told, but he seemed to find the whole thing funny.
I recorded a song Leanna and Chocolate Bar took turns singing lead on. I let Chocolate Bar play my 1951 Gibson LG-2. He hammered on the guitar like he was trying to break all the strings. It was his passive-aggressive way of shoving a middle finger in my face.
I never mixed that song.
Leanna later apologized for what happened. As for Chocolate Bar, not too long after that he had a short-lived stint as a cashier at Remark Farms. One day he had to check us out and bag our groceries. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen someone look more uncomfortable. Funny how people who have no problem disrespecting you in private turn into cowards when you see them in a public place. I’ve seen it happen a number of times now. All their arrogance vanishes, they try to avoid making eye contact, and they look like they want to run away.
I enjoy those moments.
A year or so ago, Chocolate Bar sent me a Facebook friend request. I ignored it. I mean, are you kidding me?
Anyway. I had a lot of trouble working out the arrangement for my own song. I couldn’t quite duplicate what I liked about the demo’s piano part. I tried some soft brushed snare, Wurlitzer, and lap steel with a backwards delay effect. None of it felt right.
In late 2016 I took another crack at it. I got rid of everything aside from my acoustic guitar and the vocal tracks, added a bit of third-part harmony, recorded brand new lap steel and piano tracks, and started to like it a bit more. I made a rough mix of what I’d done.
It still didn’t feel finished, but I didn’t know what else to do with it.
A few days ago I thought it would be fun to give it another look. I dumped it back on the mixer, only to discover I erased most of the tracks without thinking. My only option was to use an earlier backup. Hearing those original lap steel and Wurlitzer parts again, I found myself liking them more than I thought I would. I ditched the acoustic piano, didn’t bother to sing the third-part harmony again, recorded a new drum track, and added electric and acoustic twelve-string guitar.
All at once, it felt like the whole thing came to life.
I almost never use a high-pass filter on anything unless I’ve got a vocal track with some plosive sounds that are a little too powerful. Here I broke with that tradition. There was some irritating mud in the lap steel and Wurlitzer tracks. A little filtering did a nice job of cleaning it up.
I haven’t decided if this one’s an out-take or not. I like it well enough. I just don’t know if there’s a place for it on the album. If nothing else, it’s another example of the crappy twelve-string I inherited working its strange magic. That guitar may be a hunk of junk, but every once in a while it’s exactly what a song needs.
Almost everyone can remember where they were and what they were doing when they first heard A-ha’s breathless pop classic “Take on Me”.
Post Malone was in his parents’ basement, tattooing a portrait of Louis Althusser on his left ass cheek with the aid of a stolen compact mirror. Willie Nelson was alone in the back of his tour bus, trying to smoke a breadstick after burning through his entire stash of pot. Britney Spears was giving her sister’s Barbie Doll the evil eye and contemplating drowning it in the bathtub.
Someone you might not expect to be a fan is Gordon Lightfoot. In a little-known interview with Canadian Tire Magazine, Gordon once opined, “It really is the quintessential love song. It grabs you by the throat and forces you to eat a pile of hummus, whether you’re hungry or not.”
Dive deep enough into the Dark Web, past the secret Fifth Harmony porn films and the failed standup comedy of Donald Trump, and you’ll find a bootleg recording of an intimate show Gordon played for a small but appreciative audience in the mid-1990s, backed only by a pianist. For the only time in the great man’s long and storied career, he chose to put his stamp on a number of obscure covers, from Sepultura’s “Ratamahatta” to Swing Out Sister’s “Breakout”. Tucked away at the very beginning of the show like a quiet prayer is a song that has touched the lives of so many, written by some very photogenic Norwegian dudes.