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Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Song order

Having grown up musically when record albums were considered art, the order of songs is important to me. I remember June 1, 1967, the world release of Sergeant Pepper's. My buddy Steve Lambert and I rushed to the record shop, got a copy and went home and listened reverently. As the songs unfolded, one to the next without spaces, it felt like entering a mystical trance or an exotic journey. The order was significant—and still is—as the Beatles introduced the listener to people, stories, feelings, and ideas about life and society.

I approached the song order for "At Home" with the same idea. I did an initial list that made sense theoretically. Then Jane and I hooked up my laptop to the stereo and proceeded to listen—and feel—the transitions of one song into another.

It was amazing how things I thought would work simply didn't. The transition was either too much of a stylistic leap, too abrupt a sonic shift—or too much the same. Sometimes we would notice a discordant feeling because the new song was in a slightly different key.

We attended to stylistic movement, tempo shifts, mood changes, and subject matter. There are very quiet, sensitive songs and also very light-hearted, raucous songs. We discovered that rather than bounce between these moods, we had to have the courage to stick with an atmosphere for a number of songs in a row and give the listener time to fully experience that.

It took us about four hours to get something that felt right. By that time our brains were so tired we had to leave it to the next day!

Yesterday we had a final listen and approved the order. I burned a CD with that order and listened to it in the car today (Tuesday), as I drove to Toronto to pick up Jesse at the airport. He just came back from two weeks with his musical cousins Virgil Muir in Halifax and Ashley Condon in PEI.

As I listened to the rough mixes of the songs in order, I started to feel happier and happier. It's working, and I can't wait to share that journey with you.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Final mixes

Nik and I have been very busy, but we're now digging into the final mixes for the CD. Yesterday he send me an mp3 of "Ain't Gonna" via an FTP site and I downloaded it—technology can be a wonderful thing! I recall horror stories from the "good old days," of reel-to-reel tapes being ruined or lost, but that's not a worry here—as long as the files are backed up!

I listened to the track on two different stereo systems via speakers, and additionally through three different sets of headphones. Every sound reproduction device will translate the sound differently, and a variety of sources allows the producer to make the best general conclusions, given that every person who buys the CD will be listening on a different system.

Right away, it was the best "first final mix" I'd ever heard, in that it came very close to my recommendations and personal tastes. Besides a few tweaks, it won't take much time to finish it, which bodes well moving forward into the rest of the songs. 

The blues harp playing of Larry Kurtz features prominently in "Ain't Gonna," so here are a couple photos from those sessions.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Out-takes #2

As I mentioned in an earlier post, we recorded out-take banter to use as segues between songs, to capture the flavour of the "At Home" sessions.

As I listened to out-takes from the sessions, I was struck by how light-hearted we were—even doing deep and heavy songs! It certainly allowed for a release and a balancing of the mood, and at times I was laughing out loud as I listened. Then it started to dawn on me that it might not be a good idea to place a humorous out-take in a section between two serious songs.

This is going to be an interesting challenge!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Hound Dog

One of the co-writers of "Hound Dog," Jerry Leiber, died yesterday, which is awakening a new interest in the song. I've been playing a slide guitar blues rumba version of that song since Christine Bougie and I started a duo in the late 90s. It's so much fun, that last fall Jane suggested I include it in the "At Home" sessions. Now people are going to think that I just put it out as a tribute to Jerry Leiber!

Nonetheless, it might not be a bad idea to release a video on youtube. Yeah . . . that's the idea, yeah . . .

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

photo shoot!

Jane shot a ton of photos today, which means we definitely got about three keepers! Here are a few you won't see on posters (well, one is pleasant enough . . . )

Jane thought that standing in front of my living wall of pole beans would be cool, but it's a little too "Farmer Sam."

"What dumb pose do I take next? Oooops!"

See, I can look friendly . . .

"I can play Pinball Wizard on the National . . . "

"I saw ya!" At the end of what Who song did Pete Townshend say this—to who, and why? First correct answer gets a free CD.

The feet of my photographer sweetie.

Sunday, August 21, 2011


Producing a CD is one thing, and making sure people hear it is another. That's the promotional side, and like most artists, I'd rather not have to deal with it.

The good thing, however, is that I have a fine arts degree and was a professional graphic artist from 1978 to 2000. Jane is a professional writer, designer, and a damn fine photographer. We can do quite a bit of the promo ourselves, but it takes time.

Jane, James Dean, and Kate Vanderhorst took quite a few shots during recording, but promo/poster stuff is of a different nature, and now it's time to get it done. We spent part of today (until it got dark and rainy) shooting. I'm not very photogenic, so Jane shoots a lot and we choose a few! We'll finish tomorrow, but here's an out take from today -

We have this big antique hutch that looks very Tibetan painted yellow, red, and green, so I put on my favourite hat and a red shirt and sat in front of it on the wooden floor. Jane moved around, told me what to do and made me laugh. This one is from a series with a dark setting, so I removed the colour, balanced it in black and white, and then put a golden colour back in. Not bad for a start.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Getting the lyrics right

I'm sure you've read lyrics while listening to a song and noticed that they were different. That's because the artist made a change from the original version either during the recording or while performing it—and someone forgot to edit the changes. 

I prefer to write songs and perform them live first so that the songs have a chance to grow into their final forms before being recorded. On "At Home," the only song I haven't performed live is the instrumental, "Chapter 11 (T'ai)". "Just A Little Bit" was performed twice before I recorded it, after which it went through a considerable rewrite before recording—so I hope it sticks!

Many of the song lyrics did change slightly during the performance period, often because certain words would just pop out because they were naturally easier to sing, and I would leave them that way. In "Hard Task," I wrote:

The flames in the furnace are belching
The steam will burn the flesh off your bones

But when I sang it, this is what would come out:

Flames in the furnace are belching
The steam'll take the flesh off your bones

Even though lyrically I preferred "burn" to "take," "take" rolled off the toungue easier, so I left it.

When those natural changes happen I usually don't remember to return to my original lyric file and update it. So if I were to record the songs and then copy and paste the lyrics into my CD booklet, you would read things like "burn" when I'm singing "take."

To make sure the final printed version is correct, I copied the original lyrics to my CD production file, opened it, and read the lyrics as I listened to the final recorded version, correcting whenever I saw a change. It was tedious, but important, because when a song is first recorded, that's the definitive version.

Sometimes singers will make accidental changes while recording and decide to keep them. In "Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da," McCartney did not intend to sing,

Desmond stays at home and does his pretty face
And in the evening she's a singer with the band

but all The Beatles loved the weird switch, and the rest is musical history.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

promo, oh promo

It's one thing to record music and a whole other thing to promote it. Thank goodness Jane and I have professional backgrounds in writing and graphic arts. At least we can create and do the work—but then we have to find the time!

This evening we started the big meeting to completely organize all aspects of everything we have to do between now and Christmas. Needless to say, the meeting will continue tomorrow!

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Outtakes, banter and bloopers

We love bloopers because we get to see the human, fallible side of performers and performance. I've always liked hearing the unscripted sounds of musicians captured before and after polished takes, like Ringo screaming, "I've got blisters on my fingers!" at the end of "Helter Skelter." Here are a few more -

The Beatles: Taxman. The intro captures the sounds of the studio.

Bob Dylan: Bob Dylan's 115th Dream. Dylan starts, the band forgets to come in and he cracks up.

Humble Pie: Thirty Days in the Hole. This starts with some of the vocal rehearsal - it's my favourite part of the whole song!

Howlin' Wolf: The Red Rooster, from the album "London Howlin' Wolf Sessions" with Eric Clapton, Bill Wyman, Charlie Watts, and Stevie Winwood. This is one of my favourites, and starts as a long outtake where we hear Clapton and the others encouraging Wolf to play acoustic on the track.

The "At Home," project is as much about the experience of playing together as the finished songs themselves, and I wanted to capture that in as many ways as I could, from the in-house sound of the recording to candid photos and film. I also asked Nik to record what we were doing before and after the takes themselves, so that some of those natural moments could be used on the final CD.

Now I have to listen through hundreds of outtakes. Wish me luck!

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

"Oh Jesus" Part 2

In "Next Time," the chorus reads:

Oh Jesus, next time make it easy
Give me a cold, cold heart of stone
Or Mama, next time
Don't you leave me
On my own

"Oh Jesus," can be felt both as an exasperated curse and an actual ironic request for Christ to grant reincarnation! I refer to "Jesus" to emphasize just how dire and intense the experience is. The magnitude of this reference also acts as a contrast to the truth of the matter, which is that much of my suffering would have been avoided if my mother had been able to stay with me and do what a mother is intended to do. I believe that when our needs are fully met as infants and children, no religious "heroes" are needed.

The second reference to Jesus is in the song "Sinner's Child," where I focus on the suffering and shame experienced by the children of criminals and any violent or antisocial individuals. One of the most damaging aspects is that these children usually have no support and no choice but to hold their suffering in silence.

When Judas turned on Jesus
Were his orphans meek and mild?

To emphasize my point I needed a major historic criminal—and you can't get much bigger than the man who betrayed the "son of God"! Can you imagine, within a Christian culture, being the son or daughter of Judas? What would a child do with all of that shame, hurt, and anger? Would they be able to be meek and mild like the baby Jesus was supposed to be? What happens to these children? Does anyone notice? Does anyone care? 

The song, "Hard Task," is a lament to the exhausting and painful aspects of modern life. In the first verse we see a single mother, in the second, a factory worker, and the third, a man about to commit suicide. The third verse reads:

Fifty years is just too long
For nothing good to come down
A lonely ledge on the tenth floor
Is Jesus gonna catch him when he hits the ground?

It's bad enough that people are driven to suicide by the alienating apsects of modern life, but even worse when they are conditioned into thinking that a saviour is there to usher them into a better "life." It's sad to me that instead of applying efforts and funds to making modern life better, billions of hours and dollars are spent on building and maintaining the illusions of saviours and heavenly states. What more powerful cultural icon could emphasize this sad contrast than Jesus?

To sum up, when writing about the contradictions and challenges of modern life—within a blues-gospel musical environment—there are few images as powerful as Jesus of Nazareth.