seven days was all she wrote

848AM Sunday January 17th

well that was a whirlwind. The story Ben told me about Jim James of My Morning Jacket spending two years trying to get one vocal take is roiling around uneasily in my mind but I’ve promised myself (and friends) to give it a few days before listening to the roughs again. But I have them!

roughcd

Seven songs is a record, right?Seven songs in Seven Days! That’s got to be magical.

Ben gets here in ten minutes, theoretically, to have a goodbye coffee before i go return the car  (Thanks Hyundai you did great!!!) and fly away, fly away home so this might come in two parts. Yesterday was a bit of a speed bump as I had thought we had a full day and Ben was planning to leave at noonish – ! – to drive to a gig/workshop in Owensboro two hours away.  Plus there was a bit of a family circus as happens when you record at home…

oliver

Buddy that’s the most expensive thing in here ok

But we still managed to do vocal doubling on one (two? can’t remember!) songs, and redo guitar and put down another vocal on the year-old “Horses” (though we both agreed the scratch sounded pretty good!).  And then Ben bounced down mixes of everything before leaving (at 2PM) for the gig.

I drove back to NuLu, called a friend in the cast of ‘4000 miles’ at the mothership, got a ticket for the 4PM matinee, headed straight for the nearest eatery and put away a cup of turkey chili, a piece of cornbread and a shot of Maker’s Mark (at 3PM, you betcha), and stared at the CD trying to force my brain to appreciate all that had happened before flitting off to worry about the future.

If nothing else, dear gods and goddesses of all things, please let me live my life more like this henceforward. Let me remember this level of concentration, purpose, learning, and creation. Thank you for everything. And please let this recording rise to its full potential and find its way into the ears of many people and give them a moment of pleasure, inspiration, or awake-ness. 

We decided, separately and then together, to have someone else mix the tracks. i.e., a mix engineer because I’m not a mix engineer and also I don’t think you have the bandwidth, really, right? and I want to get this done by May if possible. Assuming I don’t decide in a  week to re-record all my vocals Jim James style.

It was so great to go by the theatre, see some art, crash the ‘matinee meal’ the actors get on two show days (which I’ve brought friends to before! Thanks Associates for the pasta dinner I wasn’t expecting!), and hug at least a few friends in the hallways before leaving.

I was back at HD’s and in bed by 930

hdbooksa little light reading. Next album?

Straightened up HD’s and bid the mattress and shower goodbye with regret. I found him Grieg’s score of  “Peer Gynt” on vinyl at PTY – !  – which honestly I’ve never heard but he directed an amazing  version of that play that I’ll never forget. I hope it will express my gratitude for the crash pad, but more for the support of this collaboration.

Ben isn’t here yet and might not be. That’s  how it is I’ve found; his focus is a laser beam not a floodlight. But I now know what it’s like to be in the path of the laser and grateful I had it for 7 solid days. My love and thanks to the Mrs. and the little guy for letting me block in your car(s), track mud into your living room, and drink most of your tea.hat

This is how I looked all week 24/7.
Shout out to my aunt Arlene (of Arlene’s Bakery) for making this hat.
{Which I then immediately left on an airplane following this post. Sigh.}

I want to say ‘that’s a wrap’ but the journey of this record isn’t over. I’ll be back here as the saga continues. But for now I want to acknowledge that something born as a whim in early 2015 actually took root and blossomed in 2016 and that gives me a really good feeling about this year.  To the airport. Come on, Hyundai.

the still, small voice

808AM January 16  – “ghost face killah” spinning at PTY, good morning

Yesterday we shook things up a little bit, let the outside world seep in.

drumsI just love a drum set. I’ll never stop being amazed that anyone can play this. Can you climb a jungle gym, run on a treadmill, build a house, and play the piano at the same time?

Price looks like he walked out of my college experience and could definitely have been in my first band, down to the wool hat and the jazz background, and I knew immediately he would dig The Magicians’ Daughter and nail the sort of loose, tribal-y feel of the verses without, you know, doing that too much. (Rebecca, any notes? Um… I don’t really speak drums.) And that Lake Saginaw would get its nasty backbone underneath the plaintive melody. And I was right!  (I did give a few drum notes,but we were all on the same page basically.)

 

priceandbenHappy listening people.

Also I realized when he arrived that he was the first person other than Ben I’d seen or talked to in 6 days. It was jarring. And, really, just in time, because I was starting to lose all perspective and maybe hate everything, particularly my vocals. You’re listening to it naked! We haven’t done anything with it yet, don’t do that to yourself.

I’ve learned a lot about my singing (and guitar too) and I think the biggest lesson has been not to push, even if I think ‘but I should be loud here right?’

 Well, it’s really hard to manage,  because people really like to watch people play hard.
Right, and I’m an actress and so I want to perform.
Right.
But there’s a way to have energy without being ‘loud’. But it’s hard!
It’s the hardest thing.

But it’s undeniable that – at least where I’m at right now – when I sing gently the notes are all there and the pitch is steady. And when I try to rock out… it isn’t. It’s just where you are right now. So I feel a little torn right now – on certain tunes do I sacrifice the quality/clarity for the emotion/’intensity’?

Well, what would I say if I were talking about acting?
Right.

We wrapped up the drums around 5PM, fist-bumped all around, and I hastily slapped some makeup on my face, changed my shirt and ran off to play a show!!

Ok see you in the morning
No work tonight?

I think he may be part machine.

I didn’t make it back to the studio that night, because it was – one of my FAVORITE things – a lovely house concert with not only an hour set by yours truly but a potluck dinner/drinks/party with the audience/community and then a sort of impromptu open mic with some incredible Louisville songwriters who just came by to hear the show.

meandJPLJason Paul Lewis is an acclaimed Louisville ‘soul-folk’ songwriter and damn fine guitar player who is also a Ben Sollee “padawan” as he put it. Hoping to put a show together when I tour this thing in – eep – the spring.

It also was not just your average house concert, as the host is a musician himself and the sound was better than most live gigs I’ve played. And because he had such a high quality vocal mic, similar to what we’ve recorded with (did I write the name down?no), I could afford to be gentle and still be heard. Which was pretty great. And that whole relaxed, communal, attentive, appreciative, creative atmosphere reminded me of shows I played in pubs and rooms in Ireland; it’s something so far I’ve really only found when traveling and I so love it. Thank you, Louisville, once again. Thanks to the people from the mothership who came out, thanks to all the new friends, and thanks especially to my dear friends Cliff & Olivia ** for setting up the gig in the first place! I”m so happy to have a community here that seems to keep growing. And to everyone who came because they thought Ben would make an appearance… my apologies. He’s a slippery one.

One more day. Let there be overdubs.

** not their real names; I forgot to give Price an alias. But that’s such a good name.

 

tears, in seven

827AM January 15

sorry I know it can be embarrassing when other people cry
Nope. Just.. pictures look different in different frames. Tea break?

I’m actually surprised it hasn’t happened yet. Then again feeling and expressing emotion about this subject matter has been… well if not ‘difficult’ just …irregular, in short bursts, as if I have faulty plumbing. I told a friend recently I’ve been crying on public transportation a lot maybe because I’m surrounded by strangers and feel private (so new york!). A psychic (yes) told me recently I need “a container” in which to let it all hang out, and maybe that’s what we’ve done here.

Then again, we were also trying to get a scratch track of “Perfume”, the final song of the record (or EP or whatever we’re making) and so I couldn’t really afford to fall apart. We’re on a schedule. The drummer (!) comes today for that track and two others and we need to have something for him to play to. So Ben gave me a hug/smack on the shoulder we musicians, that’s how we communicate, we grunt and slap each other and we hung out with these people for a few minutes.fam

It’s funny because not like ‘Perfume’ is a particularly wrenching lyric, either. It’s the most abstract thing on the record (and oddly the only tune Ben has not mentioned rewriting even a word). But maybe, like with a lot of songs, I didn’t really get it till I stepped away a little? (It’s several years old, written when my dad was still alive, though we were already estranged.) The ‘epilogue’ of the album, it is full of afterlife images I wouldn’t have predicted from myself: a taxi that comes to pick you up,  a Jamaican beach, sugar cane, a hotel bar, a party, a cigar… all of which I imagine my Dad navigating and maybe enjoying though he wouldn’t have in life… and the chorus is a series of questions that just maybe really feel like goodbye more than anything so far

Didn’t I see you move the goal posts,
Gather your roses and your wrongs?
Why did you feed me such a low dose?
Why did it take so long?

Anyway we played through a few hundred times refining and (of course) changing the structure and finally dealing with smoothing out the change from the dreamy syncopated verses into the straight-ahead kind of rock(?) chorus that’s never really worked.  Ben made a ‘tempo map’, a phrase I’ve never heard beforetempomap

and made a click track and I put down the guitar, something right now I can’t remember doing and I hope it’s at least passable.

Working backwards, we also spent the morning (still) getting the vocal for The Magician’s Daughter.

Ok, now we’re all set to go and I just want you to listen to the scratch one time and make sure you’re reaaaallllly satisfied with all these lyrics.

So obviously we spent an hour on the floor with notebooks and a tape recorder talking about magic, religion, technology, and I’m pretty sure I gave Ben half a tarot reading before we rewrote… wait for it… ONE LINE in the third verse.

Then let’s get a little Fleetwood Mac now I did some rhythmic breathing stuff over the track briefly before moving on.

So, today is drums on three tunes – the record is a mix of human and computer – and then we’ll see.  Dare I say we are ahead of schedule? No. Forget i said that.

I could probably squeeze a whole other song in there somewhere.

Tonight: house concert!! I have no earthly idea what to play it feels like I can’t remember any of my tunes. Should be fun and there is a potluck dinner.🙂 Thanks, Louisville.

It’s also warmed up a lot! Quick shout out to Clinique Turnaround Revitalizing Moisturizer for keeping my face mobile most of this frigid week. That stuff is great.*

* they’re not paying me I just really wanted to express my appreciation. (But, hm, sponsorship…)

break on thru to the other side

810AM January 14 & they’re playing Nina Simone at Please & Thank You.

I don’t remember who played this, or why.festivalorgan

Let me take a moment to honor two (more) institutions in my life who have passed on.

1) ALAN RICKMAN, who I JUST found out about when opening my laptop, omg I loved him so much.  I’ll never forget the time we shared an elevator. Today is for you. What is going on this week?  Starting to feel like we are spending a lot of time conjuring spirits. Well that’s the vibe of your record, you know?

2) The song “water (water)” which I’ve been playing for almost a decade now despite my growing boredom with it and gnawing suspicion that, besides a great chorus,  the lyrics meant nothing. Thank you for all you’ve given me. For a long time you were my only “upbeat” song and you opened many a show when I needed to be loud. Your chorus (basically) lives on in the entirely new title track of this record, ‘The Magician’s Daughter’ for which I’m doing vocals today. Let me try to explain what happened yesterday.

ANATOMY OF A SONG REBOOT
there’s only water in the water
there is bliss in the jug wine

there are queens and penny hoarders
tell me what am I what am I
elec
  • Monday: lets recall I play thru water/water for Ben and he remarks on the great chorus but kinda winces at the “cafe blues” sound (think dar williams rocking out in a coffeeshop). Can it be more … loping? Slow it down? Or can we take it somewhere else? We both talk about a lyric rewrite. I say the subject is jealousy of other peoples’ lives and wondering who I have to be to get there.
  • Wednesday: I take the morning off partly to do a rewrite. I slow it down, it ‘lopes’ along and I work hard to be direct and straightforward in the lyrics. Subject is now the various ‘masks’ I wear in relationships and what a poet friend once called my destructive “lure of the impossible” (aargh i’m misquoting but i can’t find it). It’s not bad. However, I can tell it still kinda has a corny, cafe-blues, country-gal-tellin-it-like-it-is vibe. I also notice that the chorus doesn’t really lift off anymore because of new chord changes.I play it for Ben in the kitchen while he makes tomato soup. We talk about what it might mean to have power to do anything but save yourself. He says what about, like, “you can’t trust me cos I don’t trust myself”. I say Yeah, yeah, and “if I were you I’d put the bottle back on the shelf”, and that gets us into water & wine? He nods and goes back to the studio while I finish a draft in the kitchen.I mention this now only because this is the only place anyone will ever now see that lyric.

    Seems to me the answer to ‘what am i’ is ‘the magician’s daughter’, right?
    No, I don’t ever want to actually say that on the record.

    Cut to me writing a draft of a song where these words begin every verse. It’s still pretty straight-ahead, melodically, it’s wordy and stompy and has some new changes. The chorus still doesn’t really fit.But we’re on to something.

    Then, the next hour or so SUCKS.

    You know what.. maybe we just don’t do this song.
    It’s just that cafe blues still, and I’m promising you it is over, and you’re more interesting than that, and you’ve been playing it for years and not feeling it, why can’t we save the chorus and do something new?
    No I agree with you, but I’m not feeling this riff you’re playing, I can’t find the 1. Is it in 7? I don’t know if I want it to be that “out”.
    I’ll just loop it, you sing over it. Try to be loose with it, not so rigid.
    I can’t! I’m just not hearing it. Look, maybe you just don’t like this song. Let’s not do it.
    That chorus is great, why can’t we just try something.
    Well, why can’t it be in 4?
    You can count it in 4. Here let me loop it for you.

    And so on. I’m mad, I’m cold, I’m starting to think he’s insane, I hate the awkward riff he’s playing, I’m sad about ‘losing’ my song… Then he loops the riff and then plays straight-ahead guitar over it.  Suddenly I hear the groove and within like ten minutes I’ve written ANOTHER draft of “The Magician’s Daughter’ which is sexy and strong and spare and melodically loose and we both love it. There are tarot cards all over the floor and Ben is holding a small recorder next to my face while I alternately scribble and explain the images and I’m thinking I guess this is who I am. Ben is sampling women’s voices from Burundi and I’m looking up old Celtic poems to weave into the ending. That makes it sound terrible. but it’s not.

This sounds like the last track on that Iron & Wine album I love, WomanKing?
Oh ok good! It sounds like something you love!! That’s good.
Now it sounds like a magic spell.
Yeah!!
And now it’s about something else. The question is different. It’s not “Who am I” anymore. It’s “I know who I am, now who are YOU… to ME?”

His grey eyes twinkle.

Oh and then I got the vocal for Lake Saginaw Down cold. BOOM.*

omnimic*I think.

Home stretch! This is our last studio night because we have gigs tomorrow (local house concert – sold out!) and Sat (I sit in with Ben at the Working Theatre of Owensboro).

 

 

the shadow of the valley of doubt

835AM wed jan 13

Well what’s life without contrast.
I always say two weeks into rehearsals for anything I’m convinced I can’t act and never could, so I guess I’m right on (condensed) schedule. Last night I stood at the mic thinking WHY DID I DO THIS? I CLEARLY CAN”T SING. AT ALL. WHAT IS THE POINT? 

Well, you saw frustrated Rebecca, and that’s important I guess.
Well you saw ‘Angry Producer’. Scary, right?
Well it was only like 30 seconds so…no.

Must make this short because I have to spend the morning writing a new draft of something to see if I can bring that in at noon. I think that’ll be real good, because then we’ll be at the 5-2 mark and that’s a good thing.  5 days in, 2 left, basically a song a day.

Yesterday morning I did vocal doubling on ‘starting over’ which, I said as we listened back, is one of the best things I’ve ever recorded. I forgot doubling is a fun challenge; going back and singing along with myself but trying to match every syllable exactly so that the effect is more “the vocals are so full!” and less “we made three clones!”.  Then Ben put down a fuzzy bass line for sort of drama and humor..?  I”m trying to get a feeling maybe of a little… happiness? at the end?

Then we didn’t break for lunch, because we’re not really doing that…I’m here to work, I”m aware of the time (Stop blogging!) and  I admire Ben’s stamina and work ethic. Then again he also apparently gave himself an “outer ear infection” and a weird rash on his left arm this year from overwork/stress, which may be why I decided to sleep in a little today and maybe also spend the dinner break doing yoga instead of driving back to HD’s.

Then we enthusiastically set up guitars for ‘Lake Saginaw Dam’, a song which traverses the more familiar and lighter territory of There Was This Guy and Now I Feel Some Kinda Way, and which I figured would be easy because it’s short and sassy and has an easy guitar line. Getting the guitar was no big thing and the clear chime sound of strings filled my headphones and the shifting golden winter sunlight flooded the room. All good. Then I got to plug in Ben’s Telecaster and play (very minimal) electric over it.

Hey is that you? On the keyboard?
No that’s your electric track we did before.
Oh! Hey I sound good!
You were in a zone.

So far so good.

And then, the vocals.

Hey I’m realizing maybe I wrote this a little high and I think I should drop it down a whole step.
I dunno like your voice there. I like you reaching up a little, and it sounds kinda plaintive lower, which is not I think what you’re going for.
Ok we’ll keep it.

Which I’m glad we did, mostly because, at a certain exhausted point we artificially lowered the key to see if it’d go better, and it didn’t help. There are certain times where I feel I have no control over my voice, and nothing – not the warmups I did twice yesterday, not the water I drank, not singing the tune ten times – help. Once, I was doing a musical in DC and realized that at a certain time of the month my voice felt really sluggish and out of my control, as if I were at high altitude. I thought I was crazy and then a more experienced singer in the cast affirmed that yes, lady hormones can affect these things. So maybe there’s that, though I’m refraining from mentioning that in the studio (I’m a lady after all, somewhere underneath this shapeless sweater).

But it’s also a mental cross I bear about how my voice “should” be and why does it sound different at home and no one believes me when I say sometimes this note is no problem, but it is right now and I can’t seem to fix it and the harder I try…

You’re singing like you care about singing it right

And he was giving notes and I didn’t understand any of them

It should be really epic in the middle…
But I don’t think you should have to sing that hard
I want to hear what you’re going through
But the feel of this record is more private and I love that whisper sound
But it should take off

And so on. I was doing none of them.

In the end maybe you have headphone-itis a little bit we set up a regular 58 mic in the middle of the room, as if I were playing a show, and I sang without headphones to the room like Bono does it. Which helped a bit, though maybe at that point my voice was just starting to warm up. He doesn’t love the sacrifice of sound quality, I’m happier but not sure it sounds ‘like this record’, and we agreed to revisit today after working on something else.

So, to recap: it should have been easy but it was so hard, it was hard PARTLY because I made it that way, I let my self-doubt and shame get in the way and constrict my expression, I wasn’t sure what I was trying to accomplish, I kept trying to figure out what he wanted, I couldn’t understand anything he was saying, and what was once beautiful stopped being fun.

& Lord what he don’t know/Could fill up a hole/The size of Lake Saginaw Dam

Huh. So maybe I was ‘inside the song’ after all.
Today’s another day.

the death of cleverness (and bowie)

808AM January 12 2016
4 words that will get me out of bed in winter: ‘the coffeeshop is open’

Well that was a great day!  Good work.

And it was. It’s weird to simultaneously think, as I did on the way home at midnight, ‘I have no words for this’ and ‘how will I keep this blog post from being too long?’

Suffice it to say that this is certainly the most rewarding recording project, maybe music project, of my life, and I will definitely go home changed. I also don’t remember the last time I was this deeply focused/involved, body and brain and everything, on a creative project in quite this way. It’s a kind of madness that feels deeply sane.

All righty. Now maybe the facts
Part I – in which Rebecca and Ben write and record an entire song!

  • When I arrived I thought we’d start with the rewrite of ‘Starting Over’, but Ben said  maybe with Bowie’s death and our subject matter , we try writing something in here, like… something about, like,  stars? The Starman… going back to the stars… something like that? He went to run an errand and I remembered two lines of melody from something I wrote in a songwriting challenge two years ago.
  • When he got back he put an iPad in front of me with an app (need a picture) that’s basically a 2-dimensional digital accordion you can program with repeating arpeggios and it sounds weird and otherworldly and bendy and  lights up as you touch the different ‘keys’. My 2.5 y/o niece would LOVE it. You let me know when you’ve got something and we’ll get it down.  He recorded me playing the spacey ‘left hand’ chords, then recorded the squiggly ‘right hand’ part (literally me moving my right hand around madly). THEN I played guitar over it, then followed a Ben-as-mad-scientist period at the midi keyboard, adding a string section,  piano sounds, and – here we go – some odd, booming, craggy, sparkly percussion and BEATS over it that caused me, lying on the floor writing harmonies and finalizing lyrics, to shout “I FEEL LIKE BJORK!” , something I never thought I’d say anywhere.midiSee the tiny iPad on the desk behind him? I played that.
  • Four hours later we had most of the track plus a main vocal, I had no idea how it got to be 3PM and Ben almost forgot to pick up his kid.

Well, I’ve never really recorded anything like that before.
Well, I haven’t either.
Ok see you in a couple of hours.

Part II – in which Ben performs lyric surgery, I rewrite Starting Over AGAIN, and we get my parts down
 I’d been proud of my rewrite; I’d killed some clever ‘darlings’ and gotten at the heart of things, following what I once heard a Nashville songwriter call his songwriting rules: “Say just what you feel, and make it rhyme.” But …

  • Ben you are a Task Master! I thought this was done!
    It’s almost there! I just want to look at that line in the second verse still. I don’t think it’s saying what the real point is. (and etc)
    We spent 40 minutes sort of staring at each other and intoning potential phrases back and forth like hipster Sphinxes. I talked about my father. I got mad. I got uncomfortable. I refused to say certain things and then said them differently. Ben – and this I REALLY value – insisted on nothing but also didn’t let it go, and also didn’t try to get in there and just write it himself (which I’ve been guilty of in the past with collaborators), though sometimes he’d say something and I’d say yeah! and when I hit on something even if it was different from his suggestion but still fulfilled the goal, he’d say Well, yeah, that’s something. And we peeled away another layer I didn’t know was there.
  • And then we FINALLy set up the ribbon mic (I just learned that word) for the guitar and got the level and my butt went numb in the chair and my right leg cramped up during the process and then I played THREE PERFECT TAKES (or, at least, correct), something I am going to brag about because the process of recording acoustic guitar used to be a Festival of Self Loathing Which Took Forever and Involved Comping Many Tracks Together and that isn’t what happened. May it continue.
  • then it was 1030PM  and I was definitely kinda bleary but heard myself say I think I could get this vocal tonight
    Well, I think you could.
    Oh good, I thought, he’s down to work long hours. And then I thought, Who am I? And then I zipped up my snow boots and went to the kitchen. One plough pose and black tea later my butt was back in that chair and I was sort of leaning forward, curled almost, around the vocal mic, singing the main vocal in a half-whisper that curled into melody and back again as it went on.
    Good. Again.
    Again.
    Again.
    Can you ‘sing’ less?
    Can you sing it more?
    I like hypnosis, I’m not gonna say much here, just do it again.
    Do it again.
    It’s a good song.

 

get up to get real

827AM January 11 2016
*update: just found out about David Bowie’s death. RIP great and singular and enormous being. today is for you in some way.*

resolution: get up earlier tomorrow if possible now that you know how to turn up heat, pending how late we go tonight.

today we were just getting our bearings. now we’ve got ’em.

winterstudio

Studio in winter. 

Tasks list:
* strip old verses from the “water” song/rewrite to say what I said it was saying. find a more “loping” blues groove to avoid “cafe blues’ sound trap (hilarious)
* finalize complete (!) rewrite of new song, talk directly to my father instead of to Sufjan Stevens** (eep). Practice new picking pattern, new ending.

Shit is getting Real around these parts.

 I think  … there’s this thing with your songwriting where maybe you’re afraid to be direct sometimes?
(With my songwriting?)
Yeah I’m afraid if I just say what I feel it’ll be bad. or maudlin or embarrassing or boring.
No it’s what we want to hear.
Yeah but like who wants to hear about oh boo hoo my alcoholic dad, I’m sad/mad, and he’s dead, you know?
Well who wants to hear about Sufjan’s mom?

(In his Kentucky drawl he says “Suf-Jan”, like Jan Brady, and I think Yeah, Hart, maybe cut the shit. Or maybe my dad said it.)

Firsts: agreeing to dismantle an old song that feels like an institution, rewrite a new one that feels like the honeymoon, and to do this process in front of/with another human who both is stepping in and leaving me alone to do it.

Ben Sollee I thought I was just coming down here to record some tunes now I have all this work
I do this with my own stuff too every time I go in the studio and other elements occur I start cutting and changing

I brought dad’s tarot cards down here with me, on a whim, in the ragged, silver-duct-taped original box. Or, what used to be his tarot cards, since I have the same deck, and in what I believe was otherworldly interference just after the new year, both decks opened in a drawer and got mixed up and now that’s what I have.

I’ve always been afraid of those.
They’re just pictures. Of us. Pick a card, any card.

Ben’s on the left.

tarotBen

**references to Sufjan Stevens in this blog have to do with the album “Carrie & Lowell”, his record about his estranged mother’s death, which became important to me this year and if you haven’t heard it yet I suggest you do.