Friday, November 4, 2011
In medias res
Seattle's settling in for a long, probably mild (though you wouldn't know it seeing all the people who busted out their scarves when the temperature "dropped" to 60º) winter, and I'm...in the middle of something.
Demo recording for my next album continues at full steam, and the fact that I've got two sessions booked with stone cold recording engineer Justin Phelps (who mastered my last album) in Portland for the beginning and end of December means I don't have much time for fooling around. As I continue the demanding but exciting task of bringing the often fragmentary sounds and ideas that have existed only in my head into the real world I'm continually confronted by both challenges and delightful surprises.
Something of which I'm constantly aware is that this isn't my first rodeo. In some ways it was so easy to make decisions on the last album; it's almost easier to try and avoid clichés when your only competition is every other artist out there. Now my worries are equally focused on my own very modestly-sized canon. Is this guitar riff/lyric/vocal melody/song style basically the same as something I did before? How can I make it distinctive? I'm finding that it's continually challenging to keep things moving and avoid excessively repeating myself, and that eventually the methods for achieving new directions often take some serious thought and concerted effort to expand my perspective. When you're making a first record, it's hard to imagine how great artists always eventually produce substandard work, but after getting back on the horse again and again it's become apparent that simply running out of new ideas is an almost an unavoidable inevitability. I suppose it's either a matter of eventually accepting some repetition or considering the extra work part of the fun!
One great way to keep things moving is to expand your palette, which I'm certainly doing--the tentative lineup is somewhere between 23 and 25 songs, many of which are miniatures and discrete song experiments with a range of styles (including ones I've never tried before) and compositional themes. In addition to adding bass clarinet, to my wind arrangements, there's going to be a lot more electric guitar on this album, as well as some contributions from an extremely accomplished drummer school friend of mine, Portland's Drew Shoals, whose jazz/rock chops I'm hoping to put to good use on several of the album's songs--his late December session is the one for which I'm working hardest to prepare, which means a lot of the electric-heavy songs are in the forefront of my mind. Though I haven't actually been recording a guitar amp (a little to noisy for the home recording environment) it's been really fun to reacquaint myself with my electrics and remember that, although the harmonic timbres of an acoustic guitar are more organic and rich in their own way, the great part of a good electric guitar/amp combination is how much control you have over the timbre with pickup, EQ, overdrive and distortion parameters. I'm still planning a number of acoustic-only songs to utilize both the instrument's more delicate and "heavy" (in the way I tried to explore on In Not-Even-Anything Land) aspects, but I think the diversity will be even more satisfying and enhance the eclecticism.
In arranging, one of the biggest challenges has been replacing bass--adding drums and electric guitar, it's inevitable I'll need some kind of bass texture to balance the songs (though I'm still open to not having bass--some great recordings consist of just bass and acoustic guitar), but I really want to avoid having to play much bass myself--I've bitten off enough as it is when it comes to brushing up my woodwind chops. So, it's been fun thinking about filling the bass necessity with bass clarinet, piano, synth and detuned guitars. On the detuned guitar subject, I've most recently been working on a two-guitar piece that's extremely counterpoint-heavy with one guitar replacing bass tuned to A# instead of E, which seems to be low enough but is difficult to keep in tune--time to buy some heavier strings. It's been a funny couple of days, piecing together both parts, with a lot of passing back and forth between guitars to record two-second-long bits, but it's always fun to listen to the whole thing together once it's taken on more of a real shape. Based on the arrangements I've fleshed out so far, there is some busy stuff happening here! Another fascinating part of the arranging process is the gradual sense of awareness that comes about the vibe of the whole thing--already knowing I've got a few complex and chaotic songs has me thinking about some ways I can balance out with some space and simplicity in other places; this process goes on well after the songs start showing themselves--there are still things I wish I could change about my last album, which is why I'm trying to give myself more time with this one to hopefully notice a few of the things that will later annoy me and change them before they're permanent. At least you can always make another record if you're not satisfied with choices you made! The excitement continues...