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



Anonymous said...

Great post and interesting information about Nick Drake! Too Shy to Stop writer Peter Ricci just wrote an article about Drake's music and its relationship to autumn. You can read the piece here.

k. goodkin said...

can't wait to hear it. it sounds like it will have the emotional resonance of "a penny for your thoughts."