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


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