I’m recording Dare, my tenth album. Sounds ominous, doesn’t it? Back when I did my touring with Wilma Flintstone, I did it full time and that meant putting out a new album every two or three years. While I still tour, teaching is now my bread and butter so I don’t get out as much as I used to. That and moving to Canada kinda derailed me for a while. Anyway, I’m excited about making a new album and I want to share the journey with you because I just can’t help myself. And maybe, you’ll find this as interesting and entertaining as I do.
It starts with a lot of planning. This is the boring part – putting together a budget and thinking about logistics like what songs to include, where to record and what musicians, photographer and graphic designer to hire. I’ve got a group of professionals who’ve done a great job on my earlier recordings so mostly, that’s who I went with this time. If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it. I chose Chris Rosser and his studio because I recorded a couple of songs with him three years ago and loved it. He’s fast, creative, affordable and he gets a great sound. And, he’s one of the nicest guys on the planet. If I’m going to work with someone that intensely, and see them for that many hours, it better be someone I like.
Raising money for albums is often hard. This one wasn’t as difficult for me because a family member gave me a good amount of money, I added a few dollars that I’d earned from teaching, plus my fans have been generous in helping me out through crowd funding. My Indiegogo site is here, in case you can help, too. It’s active until June 24, 2013. (Want to know more about album funding in general? Here’s an earlier post about that.)
Albums aren’t cheap. This one is costing about $8000. I could spend a lot more, especially on promotion, but I’ll still be able to put out a quality recording with what I have. I know it sounds like a ton of money, but it’s peanuts compared to what major labels spend. That amount could be their latte budget for one afternoon.
Chris and some of the musicians are in Asheville, so I scheduled recording for a time when I was already going to be in North Carolina. I needed to be across the state in Durham to teach a few days out of the week, so Chris and I scheduled two or three days out of each week to record. By the end of June, the recording should be done.
It’s been a while since I put out a full-length album of original material so I had a lot of songs to consider – 28 of them, way too many for one recording. And some of those were good for a concert or two, but certainly nothing I’d put in a permanent form. Still, how to decide? I enlisted the help of several friends and sent them rough recordings. I also got input from my partner and I did a concert in Ottawa where the audience got ballots. They all gave me great advice, helping me to narrow it down to 14 songs. Some songs were a surprise, like “The Lucky Ones,” a solemn song about war that I’ve never performed in concert — almost everyone said I should include it. My friend Kara said that “Run,” a funny tune inspired by my Facebook friends, is the funniest one I do, so it’s going to be on the album.
Once the groundwork was laid, it was time to get on the road. The drive to North Carolina was on a beautiful June day.
You can’t just walk into a studio and play. Lots of practice needs to happen, especially if you’re a singer-songwriter and not a studio musician. I’m a pretty good player, but even musicians at my level need to polish up their work. Everything is played to a click track – a simple beat – so when the different layers of music are added, all of the musicians can start and end at the same time. That means my scratch vocals and guitar – the first things recorded – have to be right on the beat. I practiced with a metronome. Some of the songs slow down at certain times and I had to wing it then and still be consistent.
The first day in the studio, we spent laying down my scratch vocals with my instrument – usually a guitar, but on one song, it was a mandolin and another, a ukulele. These are the tracks that every song is built on. Later on, I’ll replace those tracks with something more polished. I recorded the scratch for 14 songs in 3 ½ hours. Chris said that’s some kind of record and of course, I demanded a prize. We spent the rest of the time listening to what was recorded while Chris wrote up detailed charts for the musicians. I had charts too, but they only had the words and the name of the chords. He wrote out something so thorough that the musicians could play it well on the first run-through. Ah, the beauty of having a very knowledgeable musician as your engineer and co-producer.
I record on my stomach. When you’re in a studio for 7 or 8 hours, you need energy, and mine came from roasted nuts, dried apricots, fresh cherries and these wonderful fig-raspberry bars that I found in the whole foods section. Record … eat … record … eat … does it get any better?
Day two was spent laying down percussion tracks. River Guerguerian has all kinds of experience – from hand drums on Middle Eastern music, to a drum set for jazz, perfect for a singer-songwriter who doesn’t settle in just one genre. He listened to my scratch tracks, read Chris’ charts and recorded his parts. For some songs, he got it in one take, but we did two, just so we’d have a back-up. Some required a bit of discussion – should “Menopause Mambo” have congas or a drum set? (We chose the latter.) Would a cymbal sound good over the bridge of “Hold Me”? (Yes.) Should “Black and White” be “swishy” and not “back-beaty”? (Yes. That’s all drummer talk, BTW. I think I understood them.) He didn’t have just one shaker, he had a bag full, all with different sounds — some that were great for the quieter songs, and some brighter ones that were perfect for the bigger sounding numbers.
River told me my rhythm was so good on “Dare” (the title song) that we should keep the scratch guitar track. That’s a high compliment from a drummer. None of my hats will fit anymore.
I love what River did. Now, “Bellydancer” has a wonderful dance beat, with doubek (Turkish hand drum), riq (Turkish tambourine) and cajon (wooden box drum). “Yoga Teacher” has a solid rock back beat and “Menopause Mambo” has a cool Latin feel.
River and Chris are a crack-up. They’re old friends and the banter back and forth had me in giggles a lot of the time. At one point, Chris had to stop recording because a loud plane was flying overheard. River looked up and said in a matter-of-fact way, “I was just thinking about Amelia Earhart.” We joked about combining genres – folk/pop became “fop” and tango/mambo became “mongo.” All day, there was a running joke about Planet of the Apes that I never understood, but it made me laugh all the same.
At the end of the second day, Chris made me a copy of what we’d recorded so I’d have something to practice with. On Monday, I’ll record my permanent guitar work. It needs to be spot on, matching River’s beats. If we have to spend extra hours fixing my parts, it comes out of my pocket.
At the end of the day, it’s still about the food.