Friday, November 22, 2013

Wrap Your Arms Around

So Good News for Love has been out a month today.

So far, so good.

And not a bad time to consider the song from which the album takes its name: Wrap Your Arms Around.

This one takes the prize (if we're giving prizes?) for "Song that Changed Most in the Recording Process," as you can hear in the demo

compared to the final version

So yeah... this one went in a little bit of a different direction.

Which is great.

The freedom to take different approaches and change up tunes in recording is one of my favorite things about Paper Arrows... and that's been there ever since the very first song we recorded, Look Alive.

It's fun for me for a couple reasons.

First of all, it allows me to write without considering production.  I can focus on good chords, good words, good melodies... all the while knowing that once I get the song with a producer like Jay or Darren and in a room with guys like Miles and Dan, as long as the fundamentals of the song are good, things will turn out well.

Second of all, it allows me to have an almost third person relationship to my own material... which in turn makes it more exciting for me to work on and hear in finished product because it's new to me.

And that's pretty much how Wrap Your Arms Around unfolded.  We had worked it a little bit in pre-production, but the final recording was largely a product of getting good music minds in a room and playing the tune until it clicked, not being afraid to follow it somewhere different.

When it came time to mix, we followed the sound completely and wound up with something of which I'm really proud... organic but produced, roots but modern.  Good stuff.

The lyrics...

Well, of course the song from which I took the album title (or rather the song in which I PUT the album title) would be important.

3/4 of it was written pretty quickly, in a day, and attached to the chorus, which was written a week prior.  The last verse (which is actually the third verse of the song: "He was grieving in the morning") wasn't written until just before the sessions and was just about the last lyrics written for the record.

While the "good news for love" line is big (wrote about it HERE), the most important line on the whole record is "love is not an answer or a battle to be won."

That's really the best news Love has gotten in a long, long time, and it's what I'll continue to wrap my arms around each and every day.



He was working on a novel and sleeping in the days
With a cigarette companion, going page by page
But somewhere in the years, he got out of the game

She was dreaming of a painting and working in the days
Looking out the window and bleeding blues for grays
But somewhere in the years, she got out of the game

What are you gonna wrap your arms around?
Who is gonna hold you safe and sound?
Who is gonna keep your heart
From sinking in the dark
You're not alone

He was grieving in the morning and leaving in the days
Singing til he whispered and nothing was the same
And somehow it was clear, so he got out of the game

What are you gonna wrap your arms around?
Who is gonna hold you safe and sound?
Who is gonna keep your heart
From sinking in the dark
You're not alone

He was hoping for a daughter, praying for a son
But love is not an answer or a battle to be won
And somewhere in tears, he got back in the game

What are you gonna wrap your arms around?
Who is gonna hold you safe and sound?
Who is gonna keep your heart
From sinking in the dark
You're not alone

Good News for Love


Monday, November 11, 2013

What Changed

I love the recording studio.

Everything about it.  The energy, the people, the collaboration, the ups and downs... The feeling of walking into a studio in the morning with literally nothing but some songs in demo form and ending the day with nearly fully-realized versions? Amazing.

It wasn't always that way for me.  I used to be downright terrified of the studio.  Maybe not terrified but apprehensive at least.  Afraid of making mistakes.  Afraid of failing.

That changed around the time I started writing and recording as Paper Arrows.  The shift towards embracing and relishing the studio environment had to do with improvements in my writing and singing, but also with a change in how I thought about the process.

I used to think: "What if I make mistakes? What if I suck?"  I remember figuring out while we were recording the first Paper Arrows record Look Alive that the answer to these questions was pretty simple: "Erase what you did and try again."

Sounds obvious, right?  The studio is consequence-free risk-taking.  Where else does that exist in life? Actually, let me tweak that.  The studio is consequence-free creative risk-taking.  There is, of course, almost always a financial risk and consequence you take when you go into a studio to record, but on the creative side? Freedom to make mistakes and try again.

Part of what helped me to embrace the recording process was that we recorded Look Alive in an attic, not a proper recording studio.  Making it more informal and also working with Jay in this setting was key in helping me turn the corner, gain confidence, and love recording.

We recorded subsequent Paper Arrows records in more formal studio settings, mostly at I.V. Lab Studios, with primarily the same crew of musicians and engineers (and, most importantly for my comfort level, with Jay producing)... so it was pretty easy for me to bring the feeling of comfort I found it the attic during Look Alive into the sessions for Things We Would Rather Lose, In the Morning, and Days of Getting By.

Which brings us to Good News for Love.

For a number of reasons I made a number of changes to how, where, and with whom we recorded.

How: after four records with Jay producing, Darren took over the captain's chair.

Where: after four records done largely at I.V. Lab Studios in Chicago (and the attic and a little bit at Gravity Studios), we went to The Midwest Sound in Rockford.

With whom: after four records built around me (guitar and vocals), Darren (drums/keys/etc.), and Jay (bass, backing vox) with liberal doses of Drew and Luke on piano/keys, we signed up Miles Nielsen for bass and Daniel McMahon for guitars.

All these changes were exciting but a little intimidating to me.  All three of the other musicians are not only great at their respective instruments, but also accomplished writers, arrangers and producers... so I felt a little bit of that old anxiety work its way into my preparations...

Well, I needn't have worried...

Here's a little photo synopsis of the setting and personnel...

Live room, live drummer

The crew

Setting Up

Things with which to make noise

More timpani

Control Room
Sure, why not?

Our elusive engineer

Back into the live room

Set up

Wall of something

Everyone needs one

No leftovers

Improvised equipment

Miles and Dan

More preparations

Still more preparations

Pretty much ready to go

So the studio is setup throughout an old farmhouse-type building, which immediately made me more comfortable because it reminded me of recording in the attic.

Darren and I arrived Friday night and we hung out and talked through the sessions with Dan.

On Saturday morning, Miles showed up and we got to work.

We set up in a circle in the live room and started playing through the tunes.  We'd work each tune until the arrangement felt good and then track until we got a good take.  Then on to the next song.  Some songs came a little faster, some took more experimentation, but in general we worked quickly and had basic tracks for five of the six songs by just after dinner time on Saturday.

I can't remember where we dropped What Changed, but I remember being a little bit nervous about how it would go.  We hadn't done a ton of pre-production on it... I knew I wanted to try and preserve the strummy acoustic guitar part (I think I referenced the song Sweet Thing when we were talking sonic approach) but that was about it.

In the blur of recording activity, one moment stands out:

While we were tracking What Changed, Miles muttered under his breath: "I don't even know what key I'm playing in."

I thought that was awesome.  Because when I wrote the tune, I had the same experience.  I had my guitar in drop D tuning with the capo on the third fret because I was learning the song "Never Going Back Again" by Fleetwood Mac for a wedding I was playing.  My hands found a couple of the chord shapes from that song, added the little walk up pattern, and What Changed was born.  And because I was in an alternate tuning with a capo, I never really processed what chords I was playing... I just followed them to where they sounded like they should go and more or less wrote the entire song that way.

I love the idea that we weren't thinking about the technical/theoretical aspects of the song, we were just playing it.  Listening, reacting, and playing.

Anyway, the arrangement is really excellent.  It feels super organic to me, very honest, and not overly thought-out.  I think Dan played the piano on it and Darren added the other key pads later on.

I got some nice coaching from everybody on this one as I recorded the vocals and I'm really proud of how it turned out.

Lyrically... there's been a tune on each album that has a special lyrical significance to me, which usually means I'm more excited about it than other people get... and I think this is the tune.  It's generally because it seems more intensely personal and I feel like I've somehow captured something really close to basic, really elemental, some truth I've been working through that I finally figured out for myself.

For What Changed, it's this: when you've been in a relationship and you've said the words "I love you" and then the relationship ends in spite of that... how do you say the same words again to a new person in your life and not be afraid it will also end?  When "I love you" wasn't enough once before, how do you know it will be enough when you try again?  What's different when you say the same words to a different person?

I think my take on it is pretty plainly spoken in the song... and there's another nice layer: I appropriated the lyrics from the song Fight from Look Alive as well as the melody and dropped them into the chorus.

Here's the tune from which I took:

So I'm indeed using old words and melodies and recasting them in a new song for a new part of my life...

And if you're going to do that, if you're going to use the same words and succeed, what needs to be different is you.

And that's what changed.

I also made a video for the song with a couple of stuffed badgers... some people like it, some don't but I think it's fun and somehow appropriate to the sentiment of the song...


Laugh in the night and out the front door
Sing in your sleep and let the song soar
In the name of love and truth
And all the things you couldn't see but sang before
In the hope that they'd appear

Anything you do
I won't fade into the blue
I've gone back to the start with the same words
And some old melodies
So what changed?
It must be me and you

Dream in the day and let the dream stay
Love in the light and let the love fight
Until it bleeds and fades
And then you lift it up again and make it right
And live your life for something more

Anything you do
I won't fade into the blue
I've gone back to the start with the same words
And some old melodies
So what changed?
It must be me and you


Monday, November 04, 2013

Sing It Out

Another week, more progress with Good News for Love.  More college radio stations have added the record to their playlists and play is building.

The song that we're pushing as the "single" is Sing It Out, which is track 2 (unedited) and track 7 (radio edit).

It's the first song I've ever recorded that has a swearword in it.  For whatever that's worth.  I guess I can check that box.

Actually, I do keep a semi-formal list of words I'd like to use in songs... some curbed from other songs, some I come across in reading... some that come up organically in the process of writing.

Sing It Out has one such word: buckshot.

On September 6, 2012, I made a list of the songs that might be a part of Good News for Love...

Noticeably present are Almost Maybe, Love and Light, and Forever, which were all subsequently jettisoned.

Noticeably absent are The Counting Song and Sing It Out.

On the facing page, I started a stream of consciousness burst of writing that lasts about 45 lines and contains the seeds of what became Sing It Out, including:

"beneath my skin"
"this song is for me and you and her and him and every single voice that whispers or shouts"
"every mouth, every face, every body"

It was like an explosion of ideas with no shape.

The week of September 10, 2012, I decided I would try to write one song a day for the whole week.

And on September 10, I started to play around with these words and phrases from my September 6 burst.  By the end of that day of writing I had the first two verses of  Sing It Out in exactly the form they appear on the record.

The chorus at that point was simply me singing the phrases "Say it now" over and over, and that was what the song was called.

On September 11, I wrote a song called Let It In.

On September 12, I wrote The Counting Song.

On September 13, I made another list of the songs for Good News for Love:

So that one week of writing more or less defined the final shape of Good News for Love.

In December, as I revised the songs in advance of our recording session, I took a good portion of the words from Let It In and put them in Sing It Out as a third verse and also shaped the chorus a little bit better.

This whole development, the way a group of songs grows and shrinks, is pretty typical of how I write.  When I'm writing for a new record, I write a handful of songs without even really considering how they fit together... just to get something out.  At some point, when that handful becomes two handfuls, I look at what I've written and try to ascertain what it is I'm writing about... and then I take those themes, which I hope have bubbled up somewhat organically, and try to write the rest of the record around them.

I think of it as writing my way into a project and then trying to write my way out... and this particular week I've chronicled above seems like the nexus of these two approaches for Good News for Love.

When it came time to record it, Darren had a couple really cool ideas for vocal harmonies and arrangement and we hammered out the band tracks of it pretty quickly.  The song only has three chords so attention to detail and dynamics are really, really important.  The chorus turns on a shortened version of the verse progression, and we did some really neat and subtle things with the accent patterns in the drums and bass throughout and added a couple small but important variations in the form.  I played acoustic guitar and Dan destroyed the guitar solos.  Just wonderful playing.  We rehearsed the background vocals all together live but I think we wound up individually tracking them... some tough stuff there, very very rangy.

All in all it seems to be the track people are most responding to from a radio and commercial standpoint...

(A personal note and plea regarding the economics of the music industry: I'm going to post a stream of the final version of each song in each blog post.  I feel like if you make the effort to come to my blog and read it, you should get to listen to the song and I hope it enhances the experience and meaning.  That being said, if you like the song, I would highly highly highly encourage you to go download it from iTunes/Amazon/CDBaby.  It means a ton to me and has real and lasting impacts on my music career.  And I would extend that to ANY song/artist you enjoy: buy the music if you want to support them.  Recorded music is now nearly virtual in its existence thanks to the digitalization of the business so it's becoming easier to forget that each recording is a THING that people worked on.  A lot of people spent a lot of time and money on making and releasing this album (as is true of almost every recording you hear) so I hope if you like it you'll support it and me by purchasing it like you would any other product that brings you value.  Of the $.99 you pay per track on iTunes/Amazon/CDBaby, a minimum of $.65 comes back directly to the artist, and (I cannot overstate) means so much to me. /rant)

So about the lyrics: I like that they retained some of the features of that first bit of stream of consciousness writing... the words just kind of pour out, the ideas and syntax are connected but sometimes only loosely... I think it gives it a feel of urgency and investment.

I also know that when I started these words I thought it was going to be a song about anger but by the time I got to the end of it, I was writing about love.

And I like the hopefulness in that.

It's not an accident that every song on this record has some variation of the word "love" in it.

Love is a much, much better word than buckshot... although Good News for Buckshot... hmmmm...


Words beneath the skin like buckshot
Sinking deeper in 'cause they're not
Ready to begin, ready to come out in the light
This is for me and you and him and her
And all the voices whisper
Shout into the dark from any mouth on any face
Of any body without grace

Sing it out, sing it out
Sing it loud, sing it loud
If you fail if you fall sing it out
Sing it out for love

I'm not scared to sing this song
To close my eyes and soldier on
until All of this shit is gone except the pale bones
And if I go before my time in simple chords and simpler rhymes
I'll leave an open code behind
To tell you who I was


The waters rise in city streets
The buildings fall we can't believe
How silence fills an empty heart until it cannot beat
I will light a light for you
And pull you close and see you through
And fight until I'm black and blue