Recording at Maggie’s Hill cabin near Edmonton

We had a big weekend, recording lead vocals for five songs and backup vocals for another four songs.  Maggie’s Hill cabin is a historic site just east of Edmonton.

The cabin was built by a Metis settler in 1891 and provides a blissful location for creative work.  My producer Everett LaRoi and I were joined by his sister Renee, as well as Alice Kos and Karen von Klitzing who both provided backup vox for the record.

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Tacoma ER22C SJ by brett jordan

Preproduction session 5: get back (to where you once belonged)

Tracking will start on the record in January but the last preproduction session of 2015 was about continuing to run songs and exploring ideas for arrangements.

One important point that came out of the conversation was about capturing the essential energy of a song, and how that energy changes as a song evolves from a seed into a demo and beyond.  Sometimes the seed of the song captured on a smartphone or a scratch track has a liveliness to it that slowly disappears as it is massaged into a more complete piece and arrangement.

As a result there are times when it may be helpful to scrap the demo version and go at a song fresh in order to re-energize it and bring back the sparkle of that first blush of an idea.

Philosophers and anthropologists talk about liminality, that moment of first encounter with something new and unknown.  It’s a notion that captures the idea of a threshold, of disorientation, of radical potential.  The liminal energy of a new song is vital, and trying to bring it out in a record is a priority if the track is to come alive for the listener.

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Everett LaRoi’s home studio where we will be recording in January

One of the tracks planned for the record, “Meet me in Montreal” has been indelibly etched in my mind with an arrangement I cobbled together for the first demo of it.

Everett and I had an important conversation about that song yesterday, discussing the idea of departing from that demo version and taking it in a brand new direction from a production standpoint.

And while the demo version is familiar and has some good ideas in it, I’m totally okay with trying something new as a way to recover that liminal energy and inject into it some outside creative influences.  I realize that it’s not quite a tabula rasa but it is more about returning to that original place of inspiration … or getting back to where I once belonged.

 

Preproduction session 4: the sound of silence

This session we continued to run songs, discussing structure and arrangement.  One of the important considerations as we begin to imagine the songs in production is the balance between sound and silence.

Context, as they say, is everything, and learning how to use silence to frame a melody and lyric can really bring out the most in a song.  One proverb I came across sums it up well: words are silver but silence is golden.  We frame the words with silence.  Silence makes it sing.

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Everett and I running songs in his studio

In any case, working in the modern digital studio with hundreds of gorgeous sounds at your fingertips makes it very tempting to fill up the silence with a rich but unnecessary arrangement.

We know this and so we’ve been talking about how to strike a balance in the songs that will give them an interesting sonic texture that brings out the most of the melody and the lyrics.  A golden frame for silver words, as it were.  When does the lap steel come in?  At the beginning or in the second verse?  Does it play throughout, or only at one or two points in the song?  Should we have backup vocals in this part?  What about a tone wheel organ?  Or nothing.  Just a single note the guitar maybe.  So many possibilities.

From a production standpoint, one approach may be to try out lots of different ideas and explore options before making decisions and stripping it to the essentials.  But this still comes down to a subjective decision in the process, and one where experience and a sense of discipline will pay off in the end.

 

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Preproduction Session 3: Steel sings and fat gets trimmed

Everett and I met on Sunday for our third preproduction session.  This time we set up some mics and did some initial tracking with vocals and acoustic guitar.  Everett has recently acquired a Gretsch lap steel, and we used this opportunity to explore ideas for the song “Longest Night of the Year”.

When he first tried out the slide guitar during the bridge of the song, it was almost a transcendent moment for me.  Not having heard much beyond acoustic guitar versions of the song so far, even this small contribution to the arrangements was amazing.  It was like putting butter on the bread.  The trick now will be to figure out how much of that slide guitar will be just right without overdoing it.

Everett with lap steel annotated

While we spent a good part of the session exploring possibilities for the lap steel, I also began to take a hard look at the structure of this song and what might be trimmed to tighten it up.  The initial version was coming in at over 6 minutes, which is too much to keep a listener interested–at least for this kind of folky acoustic song.  So, we’ve started to trim and clip some of the excess.  It is always remarkable to see how much better a song can be when the fat is cut from it.  And while the length of a song should not always be a determining factor, it is an important consideration especially when a first draft of the song exceeds five minutes.

In this case, the song structure revolved around a Verse/Chorus/Verse/Chorus/Verse/Bridge/Verse/Chorus, which when you look at it written out does seem kind of excessive.  And that isn’t taking into the account that the verses are structured around 3 stanzas as opposed to the usual 2 stanzas.  Anyway, we can often write a lot when a song is in its early stages and we’re not sure what is really important to the lyric or the flow of the song.  That’s not bad inasmuch as it gives us lots of material to work with.

However, having some distance from it now (I wrote the original song in March/April), it has become easier for me to take a critical view and cut out a stanza in the second verse, remove the verse before the bridge, and drop the chorus at the end altogether.  (I realize that dropping the last chorus might seem unusual but it works because the last verse is a repeat of the opening stanza, creating a cyclical effect with a sense of instability in the ending, which corresponds with the mood I want).  The net result has been to bring the length to under 5 minutes and arrive at a song structure that will be more likely to hold the listener’s attention.

I’m learning that the songwriting continues well into the preproduction phase, as lyrics get revised and song structure gets reworked.  I’m also realizing that it’s a lot easier to do some of this when I have some critical distance from the song, which suggests the value in coming into the studio with material that maybe isn’t too freshly minted.

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Preproduction session 2

Everett and I are continuing to run songs and explore ideas for the upcoming record.  Here we are in his home studio working on parts for “You, Me, and the Almighty.”  At this point, most of our effort is focussed largely on playing the songs together, listening to them in a raw form, and then talking about structure and arrangements.

For this song, we’ll likely keep things relatively simple with guitars and possibly a slide steel.  I’m keen to try out some unusual sonic elements to give the song a darker quality, and Bry Webb’s album Freewill is something we’re listening to for ideas.

Photograph by Renee LaRoi Design.

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Let’s make a record

I’m excited to be starting work on my first record with Edmonton-based musician and producer Everett LaRoi.  We will be setting up the production schedule soon and should have a record ready to release sometime next year.

I’m going to take my time and enjoy the process, so we haven’t set ourselves any hard deadlines.  Right now we’re planning on recording a 6-song EP.  We’ve got a shortlist of songs and will get started on pre-production in October with Spicy Tomato Music.

Everett is a really interesting guy with lots of song writing and performance experience stretching back to the mid-1980s with his former band Idyl Tea.  His recent production credits include work with ManRayGunGoldtop, and Alice Kos.  It’s a real honour to have him be a part of the Selkirk Range project.

Getting the record together: budget time

Now that I’m contemplating a self-released album or EP, I need to think about the inevitable costs.  Like any other project it’s important to think through the details because, well, that is where Devil lives.  In those details.  To help me work through this process, I’ve drawn on a great resource online for artists looking to release their own record.  Among other things, there is a link to a resource on creating a budget.

Categorically, the costs divide up into (1) music production and recording; (2) artwork and packaging; (3) marketing and promotion; and (4) “other” expenses, which include online distribution. I’ll start to work my way through these and share some of the details in upcoming posts, including any additional resources I might come across.

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Tracking your digital song files with the ISRC

I’ve embarked on a learning journey as I begin preparations for making a record.  Among the things I’m learning is the ISRC (International Standard Recording Code) is the system for royalty collection with digital song files.  The ISRC is a 12-character identifier associated with each unique song, that allows it to be traced back to the owner for royalty payments.

The code consists of a 2-digit country code, registrant code, year of reference, and designation code.  For Selkirk Range the code for the first song on the record will probably look like this:  CAX0V1600001, where “X0V” is my registrant code and identifies me as the independent artist that owns the rights to the song.  “CA” is Canada, and “16” is the year I expect to release the song (2016).  The designation code 00001 might be the first song on the record.

The owner assigns the codes to the songs and includes them with the metadata of the files as well as the master CD.  The owner also provides them to agencies that need them for tracking and paying royalties (e.g., iTunes, CD Baby, etc.).

There is no cost for obtaining an ISRC Registrant Code and it’s quick and painless. As an independent artist you will likely have to do this yourself.  Each country has its own domestic organization that administers the ISCR, and in Canada it is Connect Music Licensing.  You can learn more about Canadian ISRC administration here.

Two Nights in Toledo

One aspect of songwriting that I enjoy the most is the element of surprise. There is a thrill that comes from not quite knowing where an idea might go as it develops from a song seed into a finished result. It’s a bit like a write-your-own-adventure story without the ability to skip to the ending!

One of my approaches to writing lyrics is to simply to play guitar and let words come out of my mouth. I record multiple takes and listen. It’s a bit like stream of consciousness writing because during these sessions I’ll just sing stuff. Much of it is nonsense but every now and then an interesting expression comes out and becomes the basis for a lyric.

Yet, and more often than not, I’ll sing or mumble something that makes me think of something totally unrelated. I now realize that this is less like stream of consciousness and more like one of those inkblot tests where the blob lifts an idea or image from out of the realms of the subconscious.

Songwriting, as many have noted, is only 20% inspiration. The 80% perspiration part comes from thinking and listening, trying and testing ideas over and over until something clicks. “Two Nights in Toledo” is one of those songs. It began as a passing thought while I was packing for a business trip to that city a couple months ago.  It seemed like an interesting sounding word combination so I wrote it down.

Then one evening I started singing the phrase while playing a guitar riff similar to “Sweet Home Alabama.”  Some mumbled lyrics during this take that I recorded yielded interesting results later on:

“Two nights in Toledo/could change a lucky man” later became “Two nights in Toledo/could make you a different man”.

The other phrases I sang didn’t actually say very much but they prompted some ideas based on the way they sounded and turned into “A good day in Las Vegas” and “Three Days in the Dakotas” and “Two weeks in Missoula”.

But what about two nights in Toledo? How could that make you a different man?

I had one idea–that travelling to small towns can lead to big changes.  Not bad, but it needed more to it.

So here’s the perspiration part, I guess.  I did research on Toledo (Ohio, not Spain) looking on Wikipedia for something interesting I could tie it to.  Here’s what I found aside from it being Maxwell Klinger’s home town in the series MASH and the namesake of the exclamation “Holy Toledo!”:

  • John Denver denigrated the city with the song “Saturday Night in Toledo” performed in 1967 on the Tonight Show, leading to a large public outcry at the time;  Oops.
  • the prog rock band Yes mentions the city in “Our Song” from the 1983 album 90125;
  • the city has hosted a baseball team dating back to 1896 called the Toledo Mudhens;
  • the Maumee River runs through the city, connecting it to Lake Erie;
  • and the inspiration for the 1970s song “Lucille” (sang of course by Kenny Rogers) is associated with the city;

And that’s where it got interesting.  Out of curiousity, I looked up the source to that last bit of trivia and discovered it mentioned in a March 22, 2010 story from the Toledo Blade newspaper about the recent closure of Caesar’s Show Bar, a historic location with a notable reputation as “the stiletto-heeled stomping grounds of local drag queen legends.”

The story says that although “it wasn’t the first drag bar in Toledo nor the only place with female impersonators, it was the best known and had the longest run, strutting through three decades of diva acts.”

Moreover, the story goes on to report that prior to its run as a drag bar, the location had previously been called the Country Palace bar and was where songwriter Hal Byman stopped in for a drink in the summer of 1975:

Mr. Bynum wandered across the street from the current Greyhound station at Michigan Street and Jefferson Avenue. Thirsty for beer, he stepped into the Country Palace bar that was then in the building.

As he sat at a corner table, Mr. Bynum said, he heard a conversation between a man and his estranged wife. There was an angry exchange, and the man got up and told the woman, “All I can say is, you picked a fine time to leave me.”

A song idea hit him, and Mr. Bynum grabbed a napkin and started scribbling words. With later help from Roger Bowling, the idea evolved into the 1977 chart-topping Kenny Rogers country song “Lucille.”

“In a bar in Toledo/ across from the depot/ on a bar stool, she took off her ring,” the lyrics begin.

Although I personally have no substantial connection to drag queens or divas, or Kenny Rogers for that matter, the Blade story did suggest to me how two nights in Toledo could make you a different man.  From there I’ll leave the rest up to the listener.

The point is this: that bit of informal research took the song into a direction that I could never have anticipated.  The original inspiration from a passing thought combined with some mumbled words sung during a writing session, came to fruition with patience and persistence, and a bit of perspiration.  The reward was a journey into a theme and set of lyrics that I had no idea was coming.  And yet it did.  This is for all you Toledoans.

The image “Eye on the prize” is by darwin Bell courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons.

“Country Girls” to the rescue!

I’ve started to experiment with a TC Helicon VoiceLive Play GTX vocal processor.  It’s a great little unit that gives me the opportunity to add harmonies and other effects to songs as I’m developing them.

I’ve had a blast with it so far and am impressed with how quiet it is when going direct to my DAW.  One of the first songs I tested was my own “That’s What You Do”.  This has a country feel to it and I sensed it needed some talented backup vocals to bring out the melody.

Voila, “The Country Girls” (preset number 212) to the rescue!  Here’s an excerpt from a working demo.  This was recorded with my vocals and acoustic run straight as a stereo pair out of the VoiceLive Play into my Focusrite preamp, then captured using the StudioOne DAW.  Not bad for a quick setup to test ideas and arrangements.