Bare Bones: Writing and Recording “Bird of Prey”

If you’ve hung out with me recently, you know that I’m recording a new project – an album length release featuring some of the most talented people I know.  The first completed track that you can listen to now is “Bird of Prey.”  It’s not the traditional choice for a “single”; the decision was driven in part by the “pared down” nature of the arrangement that made it easier to complete before we left for a two-week long vacation (with a couple gigs thrown in) to the North East.  But it was more than just a matter of convenience; I really love this song and people seem to react to it.

“Bird of Prey” is one of those songs that I was singing to myself for months before I decided it was actually finished.  I had a friend who really, really struggled with empathy and I was finding it frustrating.  Though I don’t always succeed, I try to consider the effect my actions have on the people around me, so I found it hard to understand how someone could go through life without considering the feelings of others.  Eventually, I started to grow resentful.

Then one day during one of my embarrassingly long showers (I get a lot of writing done in the shower), it occurred to me that this person’s behavior wasn’t malicious or mean-spirited.  No one had ever taught them how powerful sympathy and kindness can be.  They were just doing what they felt they needed to do to make it through their day in one piece.  The image of a hawk came to mind: the hawk doesn’t hate the rabbit and it doesn’t hunt out of anger.  It’s just trying to survive.  I started singing the first part of the chorus to myself while washing my hair.  For the next several weeks I kept humming that part of the song and steadily adding words.

I let the song lie for a little while once I moved out of Boston.  Sometimes, I feel like a song needs another section, but I can’t tell what that new part needs to be and I give it a rest before I do more harm than good.  Several wonderful teachers have told me that writers have “input mode” and “output mode,” so I’m willing to let a song remain half-finished for a little while to complete it when I’m ready to go into “output” again.

It wasn’t until I got to Nashville that I played the song again and realized I’d finished it back in Boston.  The song wasn’t waiting for some additional part I was unable to visualize at the time, it was waiting for me to realize it didn’t need anything else.

Cut to about 8 months later when it came time to start recording.  “Bird of Prey” was an obvious choice to be included in the project based on listener reaction alone.  I already had an idea of the arrangement I wanted and from the get go it looked like it would be the quickest track to get done.

We split the basic tracks for the album (drums, bass, and rhythm guitar) into two sets of six in an effort to minimize the demand on everyone’s schedules.  This way the musicians would only have to learn six songs at a time and only need to commit to one full studio day per set plus a few quick rehearsals the week before rather than asking them to block out consecutive days for recording.

I was fortunate enough to get three of the most talented people I could have possibly hoped for to perform the basics: Andrew Peebles on drums, Zach Torres on acoustic guitar (of whom I have no photos because he was locked in an iso-booth without a window), and Gavin O’Broin on both upright and electric bass.  They managed to make even the pared-down, barest-of-bones tracks exciting.  As a writer and artist, it’s an amazing feeling to hear your compositions start to come to life for the first time.  Andrew, Zach, and Gavin’s incredible musical talents made the experience of hearing my songs fleshed out with a band even more special than it already would have been.

Also, they were the tallest session players I could have contacted.  Even the producer is over 6′ and Andrew must be at least six and a half feet, but being only 5’5″ myself, they all just came across as giants to me.

Andrew Peebles, pictured here rocking the drums.

Andrew Peebles, pictured here rocking the drums.

Gavin O'Broin, pictured on upright bass - also the only person I know who plays a full-size.

Gavin O’Broin, pictured on upright bass – also the only person I know who plays a full-size.

Even naked, “Bird of Prey” was taking on an energy that it had never had when I was playing it solo.  The rhythm naturally slowed to a languid pace, which really reinforced the image of hawk slowly circling on thermal.  With nothing but the three piece arrangement, it already built beautifully.  The stops that I would play on my guitar took on a new life with the full band, transforming into these short build-ups into cold silence under the vocal.

I obviously really enjoyed the track.

I obviously really enjoyed the track.

Overdubs really completed the auditory scene we’d been creating.  Fawn Larson (a fantastic artist herself) played two beautiful fiddle parts that lifted and softened the song.  It helped build this wonderfully Old-Time-y feel that I’d been hoping the track would have.  Will Payne Harrison (another great singer-songwriter) added banjo – an instrument I have always wanted to hear on my compositions – which brought some edge back in.  The song was taking on this oppressive, dolorous energy that worked beautifully with the lyrics.

Fawn blew my mind with her fiddle playing; she had a vision for the parts and it was amazing to see them come together.

Fawn blew my mind with her fiddle playing; she had a vision for the parts and it was amazing to see them come together.

I have always wanted someone to play banjo on a song for me.  Lucky for me one of Will's many instrumental talents is banjo playing.

I have always wanted someone to play banjo on a song for me. Lucky for me, one of Will’s many instrumental talents is banjo playing.

The last tiny detail we added was an electric guitar played with an E-bow, a device that uses two magnets to make the guitar string vibrate so that it sounds almost like a violin.  Pete Jacobs, who engineered, produced, and mixed the entire track personally added the effect.  It served as a pad, very low in the mix to subtly fill space and add depth.

Part of me feels like I need to shout the Captain Planet catch-phrase, looking back on how perfectly all of these individual elements combined to create a track that I’m really happy with and proud to call the “flagship” for the rest of the album.  Pete did an incredible amount of work to blend everything together into a cohesive package.  I can’t overstate how important his role as engineer/producer and as mix engineer was in creating a finished product.

It takes a lot of talent to turn a console into an instrument.  Pete has that gift.

It takes a lot of talent to turn a console into an instrument. Pete has that gift.

If you want to hear everything I’m talking about click on the embedded link below to listen.

And as one parting glimpse into the recording process, below is the most dramatic photo of our basics session, at which point Gavin played one very, very wrong note:

The less-than-quiet tragedy of a wrong note.

The less-than-quiet tragedy of a wrong note.

I can’t wait for the next track I can share with everyone.  Hopefully getting to see some of the steps involved in actually making it happen is an interesting perspective to read.

Peace out for now!

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Living To Work

Almost two months ago, I left an internship that I was really convinced was going to be a day job.  It was going to be the coolest day job ever.  For six months, I arranged in-store concerts for bands at amazing venues like Amoeba Records; set up promotions with Other Music, Everyday Music, and Rough Trade; and organized on-air performances for independent artists.  I even assistant engineered a video shoot for Roland.  But I wasn’t paid and, when I finally made it an ultimatum, it became clear I was never getting paid.

Nope.

Nope.

For the last half of the internship, I was tired all the time.  It was really hard to get up in the morning and I started main-lining coffee to try and seem enthusiastic and stay alert (which had its own set of side-effects).  By the end of the day my eyes would be blurry from staring at a computer screen.  There were a few evenings where I was seeing double so bad I couldn’t reliably dial the phone.  My back injury flared up sitting in a chair all day, and I had to start going to a chiropractor again after spending one weekend unable to sleep because laying down was excruciating.

Have a friend kick you in the back a few times then repeat this mantra and you can understand why I maybe wasn't the chipperest employee.

Have a friend kick you in the back a few times then repeat this mantra and you can understand why I maybe wasn’t the chipperest employee.

Meanwhile, my stress level was through the roof.  I wanted so badly to be great at that job.  And I wasn’t bad at it.  They had never had a relationship with Amoeba before I established one.  But I studied songwriting, not business, and I didn’t know anything about distribution or promotion.  All I really had were great phone skills from Phone-a-thon in college and the pig headed determination to fit a square peg through a round hole.  I was pouring as much – if not more – emotional energy into my work than I was physical energy.

This made me realize that I can’t work to live.  I live to work.

I don’t know how to half-ass things.  On the rare occasion that I do, I feel miserable about it – nausea, headaches, sweating.  When I do something, I pour all of myself into it – even if it’s a spreadsheet.  It doesn’t make me a great multi-tasker and it means that I’m not always the fastest worker, but it does mean that I work really hard for the best possible product.  I’ll practice until my fingers bleed, run until I get shin splints and then run some more, dance until I fall down.

When I left the internship, I started waking up earlier – naturally.  The chronic pain I was experiencing subsided.  I had been pretty depressed and not even realized it.

Wait, this isn't what job satisfaction is supposed to look like?

Wait, this isn’t what job satisfaction is supposed to look like?

I was pouring that full-on, all-of-myself energy into the wrong thing.  Working as hard as I possibly can unpaid is fulfilling when it’s for my passion (i.e.: my music career) but is soul-crushingly demoralizing when it’s for someone else’s business.  I spend more hours a week working than I did before on things that often feel make-it-or-break-it to me, yet my stress-level is a fraction of what it was.  I”m sure part of that has to do with escaping a toxic living situation, but a lot if it also has to do with not spending myself on work that didn’t benefit me at all.

Looking back, I knew the job wasn’t the right fit for me for a while.  The only reason I hung on for so long were the regular mentions of hiring me.  Every time this came up I’d initially be very excited.  But as I’d lay in bed that night, I’d start crying.  Somewhere in my heart I knew it would never happen and I felt like an idiot for allowing myself to get strung along, but there was also a part of me that was terrified it would happen.  I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life in actual physical pain for someone else’s vision when I had such a clear one of my own.

I really wish I knew how to work to live.  I’ve wanted to be a musician and fully commit myself to my passion since I was a kid, and as long as I’ve held that dream I’ve had people suggest that maybe it should be a hobby.  Surely there must be something else I would rather do for a living.  When you hear something enough, you start to internalize it.  I suspect that’s part of why I was so determined that I could enjoy and be successful at a part of the music industry that wasn’t making music.  I started to believe – like so many people seemed to be hoping for me growing up – that music was a fun side activity until my actual career started.

Because apparently in the real world you're only supposed to enjoy your work if that work is posing for stock photos.

Because apparently in the real world you’re only supposed to enjoy your work if that work is posing for stock photos.

But here’s the issue with that logic: I don’t make music because it’s fun or pleasurable or easy for me (it’s not), I make music because it’s a bodily function that I can’t resist any more than I can resist breathing.  I need to make noise – sometimes more than I need to eat; I’ve missed meals, appointments, sleep – all while deep in some weird zone of playing or writing or even booking shows.  It’s anything but a hobby.

And, contrary to popular belief, I’ve made more money making music than I have at any of the “real jobs” I’ve worked over the years.  Even while people were telling me it wasn’t a profitable career choice, I was filling the savings account that allowed me to move to Nashville and pay to work at various “real jobs” in the industry.  The craziest part of it was that I totally bought what people were telling me – that I couldn’t make money in music – even while I was cashing checks and counting the tips I made at gigs.

This isn’t to say I’m raking in the dough.  Right now I’m trying to reestablish my performance calendar after not gigging regularly for a couple years which takes time and patience.  But I sense that there is a million times more potential for growth and success making music than there was in a system that thrives on unpaid labor.  And at the end of the day, I’d rather go hungry for my own art than someone else’s.

You still can't eat passion, but you also can't eat

You still can’t eat passion, but you also can’t eat “college credit” so it’s not really a loss.

Now, talking about unpaid internships is a whole other blog post, but I have to say that I’ve had great experiences at all of the internships I’ve had.  I’d do every single one over again.  But there is something deeply flawed in a system that tells young people their work is worthless, that they don’t deserve to get paid for what they do.  Even pouring coffee and taking out trash.  We pay people for both of those roles: they’re called baristas and janitors.  “Experience” and “credit” don’t strike me as fair compensation, especially when the employers is directly benefitting from the intern’s work.  One of the events I arranged at Amoeba Records resulted in the on-site sale of 150 CDs.  If each CD was $10, that’s $1500 in sales in the space of two hours, but I never saw a cent and as a college graduate, credit doesn’t really mean anything to me anymore.

Look at all that

Look at all that “experience” she’s got there! Must be awful heavy!

I’m very fortunate to have the opportunity to attempt to live to work rather than work to live.  But whichever arrangement of those words works best for you, they all need to be present to be functional.  By this I mean, if you’re doing some kind of work, you should be making some kind of living.  For me, “experience” and “credit” don’t qualify as a living.  My utility company certainly doesn’t accept them as payment for my electric bill.

Apparently, they also refuse to accept IOUs.

Apparently, they also refuse to accept IOUs.

I guess, the ultimate moral of this story isn’t that unpaid internships are bad or “live to work” because not everyone is able to or enjoys living for their career.  The real moral is, listening to yourself is harder than it seems and incredibly important.  It can be challenging to differentiate the messages you’ve adopted from years of hearing them repeated and those that come from your true moral compass.  But once you sort the wheat from the chaff, you might be amazed by what you hear.