Rhythm • Write • Record
How I work:
I started writing songs seriously as a teenager. Some of my songs originated a long time ago, like in the 1970s, but have lain dormant in one state or another for years. This is particularly true of melodies, which were born years ago but found their lyrics much later. For example, Rainy Day Lover as a tune and as a title originated in 1974, but I finally figured out that it was to be a "spiritual autobiography" in the 1990s. The song California began being titled AWOL, and was to be a break-out song about my getting away from traditional society. I captured that energy of finding a better life for myself in the song California, adding the bridge in the process. In fact, adding a bridge has proved to be a central way for me to complete a song: Blue Sky Blues was originally developed in 1976 (idea, most lyrics), but I never felt quite satisfied with it until I added the blues bridge: this affirmed the "blues" in the title, which had been left unresolved until then. So, as an inveterate recycler and re-user, I try not to waste anything, even musically speaking.
In studio, I will usually have a set of lyrics marked up with measures indicated and chords marked in red, and otherwise annotated. I also set up a recording log, with 12 tracks on the horizontal axis and takes 1, 2, 3 etc. on the vertical. Then, I set up a "rhythm map" on my Korg 1200 Digital 12-track, where I block out the song: how many measures, what rhythm and tempo. Then I do a "song layout" where I sing the song a capella along with the rhythm track. Then I start recording for keeps, usually recording a rhythm guitar, then re-do the lead vocal, then alternately repairing these two until I am satisfied. Then bass.
At this point, I have a basic drum/rhythm track, with bass, acoustic guitar and my lead vocal. Now it's ready for professional talent. In the case of my Cancer songs, I took my 12-track over to Louis' studio. He listened to the song and notated it for himself, set up mics, and produced four tracks of piano accompaniment, some “straight”, others more jazzy. Carol came over to my studio and recorded back-up vocals. Finally, for Rest of My Life, Jim laid down his flute track. On How Good It Feels, Shark added the rock guitar with his Telecaster. He, Jim and Louis are so accomplished: they really need very little rehearsal time–are ready to record rather quickly. For example, Jim recorded his flute track, then, upon reflection we heard a couple of less-than-perfect moments, so we punched him in to re-record those spots, and bingo. Done. Maybe an hour. About the same for Louis and Shark. I am in awe of these guys. Real pros.
The last thing: production. I take my 12-track over to Benjamin Soma's studio, download all the tracks into his system, often multiple takes of particular instruments (like alternate takes of a vocal or guitar, for instance, portions of which can be used and recombined to maximize the best part of each). Ben can work his magic in mixing, for example, by synchronizing a vocal that might come in just a bit too soon or too late. He adds reverb and other effects, and, very importantly, percussion--real percussion, not the drum machine/click track I use to lay the song down. The final thing is called "mastering", making the song have the clean, polished sound that the modern ear is used to, that gives the song that could-be-played-on-the-radio kind of sound and feeling.
Thanks to everyone involved in making these songs what they are.