Well, they do help, especially when they’re coordinated with the instrument I happen to be recording. It was ukulele day right off the bat.
Of course, it takes much more than shoes. First, you have to have the money. This is my eleventh album and I’ve raised money in a multitude of ways. In the old days I announced at shows that I was pre-selling CDs. I got the money $15 at a time, plus collected the names of a few fans who could loan me larger amounts of money. One time a woman gave me a thousand dollars. Costs vary. I’ve spent as much as $25,000 for one recording. That’s peanuts compared to Sony who probably spends that much on lattes for the musician’s entourage. With the modern age we have crowd funding. That’s how I did my last album. For this new one, a family member left me a small inheritance. It wasn’t enough to buy a new car but it’d been five years since my last album so …
Second, you’ve gotta have songs. Fortunately, the muse has been very kind lately plus I had some older songs that never made their way to an album. I made a list. Thirty songs. Uh-oh. I got input from friends and whittled it down to seventeen songs. It’s probably too many but we can always kick one to the curb before the album’s done. Or as James, the engineer and co-producer likes to say, we’ll kick one off the island. Yeah, it’s like Survivor, only the music’s better and I’m not covered in bug bites.
Third, you have to have a killer engineer and co-producer. James Stephens was highly recommended by two Ottawa area musicians that I greatly respect, Ann Downey and Chris MacLean. Both went on about his great ear. And his great vibe. Oh, and he’s one of the best fiddle players on the planet. So, I met with him in May, saw the studio which is located in a building next to his house in a lovely patch of woods in Chelsea, Quebec, only 20 minutes from my house. They were right about the vibe. He and I were on the same wavelength about a lot of things. I sent him a song from my last album plus a home recording of the new album’s title cut. He said yes and I didn’t have to get down on one knee. I’m married already anyway.
Now, if only we weren’t so damn busy. Between our touring, teaching and the myriad of plates most musicians have in the air, we weren’t able to start recording until September. During those summer months, I had a book to write – why not do it all at once, right? (For more about the book, see this post.) I also needed to make sure the songs were as polished as they could be. I practiced to a metronome. My ukulele and guitar parts would be recorded first and all the other musicians would add their instruments one at a time. A solid beat keeps them on track.
I’ve done live recording where all the musicians were in one room together. If the bass player plays a big doink (that’s a musical term) in the middle there’s not always much you can do except for everyone to record the whole song over again. If the parts are recorded separately, the bass player will get to live another day because only he has to redo his part.
I recorded part of one album live and I can still hear some of the mistakes. No, I am not going to tell you which album.
Recording separately has its dangers, too. Layering the parts can result in a sterile sound. When you’re all in the room playing together, you can get that live vibe, like a really good show. At any rate, I prefer overdubbing (layering) the parts and these days, that’s how most people record. A good engineer knows how to capture a live sound even if you recorded your portion weeks apart. I’d rather not knock off a bass player anyway.
The drive to the studio that first day was beautiful. I love driving over the Ottawa River into Quebec. The blue-gray water is so peaceful. The bright green of summer is fading, still, there was plenty of it along the banks and roadway. The quiet in the car allowed my mind to wander and contemplate the possibilities of this new recording. Even though I’m an old hand, I love this moment before the songs fully reveal themselves.
James and I spent a couple of hours discussing arrangements. I wanted a more acoustic sound than previous recordings. He had some terrific ideas, like putting trumpet on one jazzier number. I’ve never worked with a trumpet player so I was excited about that. He knows lots of great musicians. I know a few. And of course, he’d play fiddle.
Next, he set up a couple of mikes and we were off to the races. On that first day we nailed down scratch tracks for all the ukulele songs. A scratch is just my voice and instrument, played to a click track (metronome). Eventually I’ll replace my vocal and ukulele or guitar with something more permanent but this gives us something to work with right away. My timing was pretty good and where it wasn’t, we re-recorded it. If it was just a beat or two James could also perform digital magic and move the errant strum over to match the beat. It’s all a mystery to me.
Walter, the executive producer, made sure we were getting it all right. He snored in time.
I also recorded the permanent ukulele track for four songs.
Driving home was wonderful, too. I love how Ottawa looks from the McDonald-Cartier bridge.
On the second day in the studio we completed scratch tracks for the guitar, then finished the permanent ukulele tracks. It’s always funny to me what takes the longest. The song that I’ve played a million times is not always the one that goes quickly in a studio. For “Out of Time” we decided it should have an instrumental break after the bridge. It sounded best if I only waited 2 beats instead of the normal 4. (For you music geeks, the song is in 4/4 but for the break, I needed one measure of 2/4. The Beatles were fond of inserting just two beats so I joked that I was just like them only I had better hair.) I started playing like a seven-year-old who’s never held a guitar before. After 10 minutes or 10 hours, I dunno, I finally got close to doing it right and we decided to keep it. It’s only the scratch so that means when I lay down the permanent guitar it’ll be perfect … right?
We recorded several songs in a row, with James taking a minute or two to set things up on the computer. When we needed a break, we walked outside or had a little nosh. Or we talked. At one point we got to talking about Joseph Smith and Mormons. I have no idea how that transpired. Musicians aren’t normal.
I have four more days booked in the coming weeks. I’ll finish my permanent guitar tracks before Ken Kanwisher, the bass player, comes in for his parts. He’s a great local player who’s toured with Canadian country artist Charlie Major as well as a plethora of jazz and bluegrass ensembles. He played with me for my last album release concert and he blew my hair back.
The album is tentatively titled “The Truth Appears.” It’s a line from one of my songs. I thought about calling it “The Truth,” however, I was afraid everyone would think it was shmaltzy New Age music where it sounds like someone’s cat was let loose on a piano.
Since we’re recording a little at a time it may be 2019 before the album is released. You’ll hear me scream when it arrives at the palatial offices of Tsunami Recordings. In the meantime, I’ll post updates here, especially if they include photos of my shoes.