Studio Diary: Part 2
Watch the landing.
Day 3, February 15th
There’s traffic on the interstate and I text the gang to let them know I’ll be late. A bank of fog has descended on the Willamette River basin and cars on I-5 are behaving accordingly. As I pull up and park, though, I see that John has just arrived, too, even though he only has to come a matter of blocks. One of the few tradeoffs for being employed in one of the most famously unsustainable and unreliable careers known to man is that you have license to be late to things.
We said we would listen to the take of “Tell Me What’s On Your Mind” from yesterday, but we don’t do that. Instead, we leap directly into another new song, this one suffering under the working title of “Wasted,” though I’ve titled it “How Will Morning Find You?” on my lyric sheet. Shrug emoji, as Milo would say. It’s a strummy, downtempo country-ish jam and as I play it on the acoustic 6 string, it starts rubbing up against “Dear Avery” in an uncomfortable fashion. I bemoan: when you’re 9+ records into your career and hundreds of songs deep in your writing life, your forever dodging the Scylla and Charybdis of your previous work. I try it on electric guitar and then abandon playing an instrument altogether; Jenny moves to piano and John switches up his drum pattern. Avery who? The rest of the day is an exercise in restraint, trying to give the song plenty of room to breathe, to fight our every instinct to layer more and more shit on it. Post lunch, we’re already patching some drum fills and fixing piano bits. It’s feeling good, it’s feeling pretty and spacious. I do a handful of keeper vocal takes — something that engineer Cole will have to piece together at a later date. Then it’s time to put it to bed for a bit.
We now return to the song from yesterday, “Tell Me What’s On Your Mind,” and it breathes anew from the time away. It’s working! After a few listens-through, we zero in on Funk’s guitar part. He goes in to retrack while the rest of us hang out in the control room and judiciously “produce” him. Try playing that bit on the and instead of the one, we say. Hit the whole notes on the chorus and give it a little tremolo. No scratch that, sit out of the chorus altogether. Actually, it was better when you stayed in for the chorus with the tremolo bits. And on and on. But Funk is a good sport and by the time I leave, he’s got a good tail wind going and he’s double tracking his parts. I walk out into the dark street and breathe the cold air of NE Portland. Homeward again.
Day 4, Thursday February 16
It’s interesting; I’ve been listening to more music on my own now that we’re in the studio. I’d anticipated getting farther along in Pickwick Papers, what with this 30 minute commute in and out of the city twice a day, but instead I’ve been listening to whatever my phone coughs up over the car stereo. This morning, it’s Maria McKee’s You Gotta Sin To Get Saved, and it’s the summer of 1994 all over again. What a band on that record! Benmont Tench, Jim Keltner, The Jayhawks AND The Posies. I think Maria’s since disavowed that record — or at least expressed disappointment with it — but I have to say, it does a certain thing and it does it well.
We listen to our efforts from the day before and decide to first let Jenny have a go at overdubbing her organ parts. There’s some time spent finding the *right* Farfisa patch on the Nord, before abandoning that and trying out one of the studio’s many dusty organs. Still not right. We land on the Vox organ patch on the Nord (shhh, don’t tell anyone). When it’s run through a Leslie cabinet, which we do here, the result is very pleasing. Most of the morning is given over to this. John retracks the opening fill to the song and then we move on to another new one.
This one’s called “Angeline.” It’s a picky electric guitar number that’s been kicking around in my notebooks since 2018 or so. It’s pretty. I’m not sure what it means, but it’s pretty. It takes some time to settle in on an arrangement. People jump around from instrument to instrument, trying to find the right thing. We end up with Funk playing ebow on a guitar and Jenny on piano. Nate’s moved over to a fretless bass and John is playing a shuffly beat with this brushes. I get a decent scratch track down and then decamp to the control room while the rest of the band gets through several passes. Takes a bit, but we get there.
Cole makes rough mixes of the three songs we’ve done so far and uploads them to a Dropbox folder. I’m home by the time they’re all available and after dinner I sit down in the living room to listen to them on the home speakers. I feel pulled in different directions — I’m suddenly discomfited. Are these any good? Do they do the thing that they should be doing? Could they do more? Will people like them? What do people even like about my songwriting? I find myself flooded with uncertainty. It’s like, all these years of making music and making records and with lots of evidence that I’m good at what I do and there’s still an unknowable part about creating music. Thankfully, these are exploratory sessions — this is exactly what we should be doing right now. There’s no timeline for a release. Two of these songs I’d never anticipated showing to the band anyway. There is time.
I don’t sleep great.
Day 5, Friday February 17
It’s Friday, the last day of this week-long session. Nate has said that he wants to comp the bass part of “Angeline” (which means: finalize his track by picking all the best bits from the various takes — you can do this very easily with digital recording) so I linger at home, get some laundry done, and make it to the studio a little after 11. Nate has finished his bass comp and, with John’s assistance, Cole has made a comp of my vocal take on the same song. I listen and review. Happily, my voice has been in good shape during this week and I’m pretty happy with the takes we’re getting. Thumbs up all around.
We set up for another one of the half-finished fragments, one called “Willomina.” Funk’s not here today because he mistakenly booked a flight for Louisiana in the afternoon. He said he thought he’d booked a red-eye and then only found out this week that it left during the day. Whatever. So now we’re a four-piece. We play through the song and I find that my uncertainty from the night before is carrying over into the day. Suddenly I’m finding fault with every corner of the song. The chorus, in particular, is bugging me. After running the song five or six times, I put on the brakes. I need to fix the chorus. I try fixing it there, in the room, with everyone in their positions, waiting to play, but it’s too much pressure. I kick everyone out of the live room and try to get my head around the song.
Here’s the thing: I’ve never felt comfortable writing music in a place where people can hear me. I need total solitude. It doesn’t matter if it’s the most trusted listener I know — I can’t even write with Carson in earshot. There’s a certain unbridledness, I guess you’d call it, that you have to conjure — or at least I do — in order to write a song. You have to live inside of the goddamned thing, you have to follow strange pathways. I can’t do that knowing that other people are listening in.
Fifteen minutes later, I think I have a solution, but Jenny and John have already gone for lunch. I wait for them to return. We have sandwiches at the table in the lounge. Then it’s back to the live room to listen to this new chorus, this improved section.
It doesn’t work.
Or at least I don’t think it does. We try a few more half-hearted attempts, but I just can’t find my way around it. Maybe it wasn’t that great to begin with? I’m starting to feel like I’m trying to squeeze blood from a stone. We play around with another song but the spirit isn’t quite there and my voice is feeling rocky from singing for four days straight. Time to call it, we decide.
And so we pack up and load out. Three songs that feel pretty close to completed; six song ideas for future harvesting. Not bad for four and a half days.