Tuesday, May 17, 2011

My Approach To Recording This Album

Right now I’m taking a break from comping vocals. For me, in the process of recording this record, this means that I spent a good chunk of the day today singing my song “Something You Could Say” into a microphone in my kitchen, and now I’m going through the takes (there’s about 25 of them), slicing them up, pulling out the best parts, then pasting them together as the performance that you’ll hear. Yesterday I did this with electric guitar, tomorrow maybe I'll sing again if my voice feels up for it.

One of the best things about making art is that it lives in a world that, if you allow it to, functions without ethics. Almost anything can be art if you treat it as art, and I’m always fascinated by the multitude of definitions people scrape up for the word, the action, the state of mind. That fundamental lack of right and wrong, though, makes a task like the one I’m currently getting some space from, a challenge. How can you know if you’re on the right path when there is no trail to follow! Sure, there are some rules, like pitch and meter, but sometimes the best performance is a little out of key, a little off the beat - and that’s okay, that may even be what somehow makes it great, but you have to be strong enough to allow yourself to break those abstract rules (theory, training, genre, the politics of what’s “cool”) that have been hammered into us. Having a producer helps on a project like this, an outside ear, another vote, but I’m at it alone this time.

One of the goals for this recording is to use it to further refine my ability to know what I like and don’t like, to execute on what I'm stoked on and follow through without second guessing myself too much. This includes knowing when to stop, when to take a break, when to give myself a pep talk, when to go take a hike, or meet a friend for a drink, or take a few days off. I’m working on this in all aspects of my life. There really isn’t ever a reason to be hard on yourself, or work harder than you have to. You can never be “perfect,” but you can always be “perfecting,” and a bad attitude won’t do you any good with that - though it will often try to convince you not to shake it. Better to step away for a while and enjoy the world outside, keep the balance.

When I was tracking in Sacramento two weeks ago with a bassist and drummer, we recorded some songs together in the same room, completely live. This means that we didn’t isolate our instruments, that all of the microphones in the room were picking up sound from everyone... You can hear my vocals on the drum microphones, and the drums cut through on the mic that’s pointing at my acoustic guitar, and so on... This is great because you have to live with what everyone played on each take, and there is no worry about “what’s best,” only “what happened.” I always think that the emotion gets across better on recordings like this as well - you’re all there together, feeling it.

This leads me to another of my themes for this project: Documentation. Music is obsessed right now with mining the past for all its resources. So many bands start off by deciding who they will be influenced by, or what genre they will be in, and weighing each decision against the canon of American pop culture from the last eighty years. I’ve done this. I do this. It’s hard not to. But I’m interested this time in just documenting what the process of this album sounds like, instead of trying to force it into some sonic state that's come before. I’ve been pushing myself to simply capture what my friends and I sound like playing in a room, how my voice echos off my kitchen walls... my guitar, the upright piano at my parent's house in Oakland, the strange old Sears, Roebuck & Co organ that an ex-roommate left in the garage here... It will certainly sound like other records that have come before it, but I think it will also have a sound of it’s own, of the houses and studios it was recorded in. And however the final product, I know that I will have grown through the process - every day I'm learning something new, having fun with it, taking it slow, and staying curious as to what will happen next...