Sunday, October 26, 2008

Midnight Moon

When the weather turns towards fall, I find myself drawn to Nick Drake's Pink Moon. There is something about that album... among the saddest, most brutal ever recorded... the sound of decay. The sound of giving up. I read somewhere that the whole album was recorded in two two-hour midnight studio sessions... and boy, does it sound like it.  Nick Drake's voice barely rises above a whisper and the gorgeous acoustic guitar playing is augmented by only a simple piano line on the title track. 

So... With that in mind, we spent a late night in the studio this past weekend trying to record one of the acoustic tunes for the Paper Arrows record. The tune is called Almost Gone... it's a song about fall and winter, about sitting in quiet rooms and feeling absence... But in the end, it is more about resolution, faith, and moving on than succumbing to the darkness. More about what you do to get by until you can stand on your own two feet again.

Anyhow... We have been kicking around a couple of ideas about how to approach recording Almost Gone... Jay initially suggested we start with a 12-string guitar part and build it from there. I thought that sounded a little bit too... shiny. Is that the word? A little too harsh. So I suggested we start with a classical nylon string guitar to play the finger picking part around which the song revolves.

I had initially wanted a forlorn solo instrument... like a trumpet... to fill in the 8 bar solo passage in the middle. But as soon as we started embracing the Nick Drake approach, we figured we might as well go all the way and just use some piano.

On Saturday, we popped by the studio at about 7 o'clock. I was playing a solo acoustic show in Wrigleyville later in the evening, but Jay wound up having the large room at I.V. all to himself and a free night. We quickly set up (well, Jay did) some microphones and I found and tuned the studio's beautiful nylon string guitar. After a couple of takes, we had the guitar part where we wanted it. We used a couple room mics to capture the depth of the sound and I managed to work my way through a pretty nice version.

We then headed out to my gig, which was at about 10. After my set, we stopped by the liquor store and headed back to the studio... walking in the door at about 11:30. Next up was capturing the piano solo. I worked out a single note motif that was largely built around the hook from the song Look Alive... some nice allusion, I thought. I also added a lower chord pad.

Then, we started experimenting a bit... Jay had me play an unstructured part on the high notes... kind of the sound of a kid messing around or maybe a cat walking on the keyboard. I also added some subtle ambient sounds by depressing the sustain pedal and playing the strings on the inside of the piano like a harp... something I remember my dad and I doing when I was a kid for a Halloween piece he played for church.

The results were just striking... eerie and evocative. Satisfied, we moved on to the vocals. It was now after midnight and there was a wonderful quiet about the dimly lit live room as I stood in front of the vocal microphone and set my headphone levels... I had had a couple beers and my voice was pleasantly worn from my session on Thursday, as well as the 40 minute set I sang earlier that night.

I sang through the tune once, and it seemed like I was already pretty close to getting the take we needed to make the song work... Another take, and we were even closer. On the third take, about halfway through, I could feel I was there... it felt effortless and I could hear every last nuance of my voice as well as the backing tracks... the piano solo section sounded like the fall wind at the windows... The third verse came and I felt an unexpected tremor in my voice, I felt the weight of what I had written as if singing it for the first time... I felt some presence with me and in me...

The third chorus hit, and without planning to or knowing why, I changed one word. I omitted one letter. Twice. Silence. Silence.

We listened back to what we had created in the small hours. It was after one o'clock in the morning on a quiet fall evening in the city by the lake and the pink moon hung in the cloudless sky. Back at home, sleep came easily. I don't remember what I dreamt, but I can only hope it was about tape and cotton balls.


Words mean nothing to the sea Love means nothing if you leave I'm falling fast and sinking slow I'm leaning in and letting go It's almost gone The life we lived It's almost gone from here Climbed the stairs and sang to walls Dreamt of tape and cotton balls While under winter-painted skies The noise was keeping me alive It's almost gone The life we lived It's almost gone from here Mary rose up from the salt Beneath the highways and the chalk Flowers lay around her feet From all the people who believed It's almost gone The lie we lived It's almost gone from here It's almost gone The lie we lived It's almost gone from here From here From here


Thursday, October 23, 2008


Again, I am amazed at my lack of attention to this little space here... Maybe I'm not amazed... (I guess that was a song title that McCartney didn't use) Almost every hour of every day seems to be promised to something... I'm not complaining.

A lot of it is good... This morning I was in the studio. We're mixing the new Paper Arrows album in less than three weeks, which is crazy... this project, just like the first PA record, seems to have just flown by. A lot of it is that we've again been able to get a lot of recording done in a very few hours of being in the studio.

A good example was last week... in four hours, I was able to knock out lead vocals for three songs as well as do a bunch of background vocals... unheard of production for me. Today, I sang one lead and then we listened back to everything we've done so far... suddenly, it sounded like an album.

We've got 8 tunes with the full band, and all are between 80 and 90 percent done... we spent another hour recording some acoustic guitar, filling in some spaces with textural parts... we made plans to record two acoustic tunes in the next week... quieter affairs with just guitar and vocals, and maybe a little spare piano. Not like the piano is a spare, but the playing is spare.

Anyway... my point is that... the record is basically done. I'm so impressed with how the collection of tunes came together, from the 25 or so we had to start, to these particular 9 or 10 that will comprise the final product. The sounds are miles above Look Alive... not that LA sounded bad... but whereas LA had this low-fi winter attic-vibe to it sonically (which suited the songs), the new record sounds bigger... sounds like it was tracked in studios, like it was recorded in the summer and fall... it sounds like a progression.

Lyrically, it is, to me, the most cohesive thing I've ever done. It's thematic without being repetitive (I hope)... it's mostly personal and direct but still complex... there are words, ideas, and images that recur and are connected but in each context mean something a little bit different...

Which is kind of the point of the record... it's like Magnolia Electric Company's What Comes After the Blues... it's about the process of recovery and claiming yourself again after loss... which I've come to understand as one of the most complex experiences you can have...

The hardest part of doing the record has been the vocals... Not hard technically... I've been very comfortable singing in the studio and my voice has grown in range and depth since Look Alive... the new songs are written with a vocal confidence that I'm very proud of, and Jay has again been an incredible producer in terms of pulling performances out of me that I didn't think I had.

The difficult part has been revisiting some of the lyrics... which were largely written during 2007 and early 2008, when I was in a much different place emotionally... Some of the lyrics are angry... and I've worked so hard to get rid of my anger, that going back to these words and emoting them... is exhausting and complex.

The song we tracked today, Explosions Below... I wrote the lyrics as a stream of consciousness type thing... I think I blogged about it last September... I was on a plane with Andrea coming back from L.A... and I just had this out of body writing experience where all sorts of feelings and thoughts and words I had been just holding below the surface for months... came out.

And I left almost everything about it intact... I built the song structure and the music around the lyrics. And I find it such a profound piece of work... not in an egotistical way, but more personally profound... like the conclusion I drew at the end of the writing of the lyrics... was actually the experience of me drawing that conclusion... I don't know if that makes any sense.

This was not a song that was intellectualized, like some are... written about like an object. This is a song where the process of writing and what is expressed in the song were literally simultaneous. Maybe other people write like this all the time. But for me, it was a revelation.

As gut wrenching as it was for me (and Andrea, I think) it ultimately left me (and us) healthier and better. I think I wrote these out before, but having just spent time singing them this morning... they are burning a hole in my brain so I'm going to type them out again and be done...

EXPLOSIONS BELOW Explosions below and still lingering dreams Of funerals and arguments and trying to breathe As water runs in from impossible seas Saying goodbye never leads where it seems to lead Burning my skin til it peels away And hoping the coast gives me something to say In the end it turned out I was borrowing days And I opened my eyes just a little too late It's drifting away It's fading to grey And I'm watching her go And I'm checking the phone And I'm waiting for love But it's not enough And I'm drying her eyes Like it means we'll survive Like it makes it okay That she's leaving today And taking her things But leaving her rings And I'm missing her laugh It's echoing out In the hollowed out rooms It's echoing loud And I'm sick of the ghosts And I'm tired of hope And I'm tired of tears So tired of tears I'm forgetting the days They're slipping away I'm letting them fade Into shadows and graves And thunder and rain And sunshine and planes And explosions below I'm hiding my face I'm trying to breathe I'm catching my breath I'm ready to leave I'm burning her name With my hand in the flame I'm turning the page of the last piece of love That she gave me The last thing that she gave me The last thing that she gave me The last thing that she gave me


Wednesday, October 01, 2008


I swear, I don't know where months go. Where have I been? Oh... right: ducking in and out of the studio and traipsing up and down (mostly down) highway 101, from nearly Canada to San Francisco... Tracing the route Ben and I took during our fateful hitchhiking escapade, some 10 years ago.

10 years ago.

Sometimes that trip seems like yesterday, sometimes it seems like forever ago. This time, instead of hitchhiking, Andrea and I had the services of a trusty Jeep Patriot. And instead of camping on Oregon beaches and in the California redwoods, we stayed in hotels... although two of the hotels were so close to the water, we fell asleep to the billion year old song of the waves crashing on rocks and sand.

The trip wrapped up with a 12 mile run in San Francisco, which was wonderful and really cemented the fact that I'm ready to do the Chicago Marathon a week from Sunday... I'm so much better prepared this year, and with a little help from the weather... it should be a lot of fun. Monday, we rose at 4:00 a.m., caught a 7:00 a.m. flight, landed in Chicago at 1:00 p.m., and were home by 3... after a couple of hours of downtime, I packed up my acoustic guitar and headed over to Schubas, where I got to play a solo acoustic opening set for the lovely and talented Gemma Hayes.

It was one of my favorite shows I've ever played. The crowd was incredibly attentive and I don't believe I've ever connected with my material quiet as well as I did. So... all that made it especially hard to get back into reality this week.

Luckily, I get to head into the studio tomorrow to cut vocals for the second Paper Arrows record. For all two of you regular readers, you may have noticed a lack of lyrics here recently... Well, it's by design. I've been kind of hoarding musical ideas, waiting to see what this new record turns into, before I really start writing the next one.

And I'd like to experiment more with writing an album in a confined time period, possibly in a different locale... maybe check into a quiet motel or cabin somewhere out of the way for a couple days, and put pen to paper.

Intriguing. So...

That's what I've got right now...