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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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!