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.

 

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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.