September 20, 2018
The Evolution of a Song
From an idea, to a song, to a recording
I doubt that many people think about how a song they hear changes from an idea, to a song to a finished recording. There are a remarkable series of steps involved, each with their own contribution to creating the finished product that might be heard on a CD or the radio. Most of my involvement with recording for other folks has been showing up to offer a specific contribution, like singing a back up vocal or contributing an instrumental part. With my own past projects, I really worked to keep things relatively simple, very little multi-tracking and post recording processing. I was always working within my own musical limits and technical skills to attain a recording project that would reflect a solo performance. But this year I have been enjoying the incredible experience of working with Bill Lestock who is not only a remarkable musician but also an amazing producer. This collaboration has illustrated the phenomenon of joint creativity and how the idea of a song can evolve.
Where does the idea of a song come from? I have made a few presentations on the creative process of song writing. People often ask the same questions, where does the idea come from, do you have a story that you are trying to tell, did you write that song around that expression, does the melody come first and then the lyrics or the lyrics then the melody. But, I have never been asked how many times did I rewrite the lyrics, or re-arrange the melody or even change the melody.
For me I can say that song writing experience has happened in many ways, but the song generally comes together much faster if the lyrics come first. I may hear a melody in my head or stumble across a musical line while playing my guitar and build a song around that melody, but often I experience something that brings about some sort of emotional insight and I hear, or come up with a phrase or a saying that reflects the essence of that emotion.
2017 was a very emotional year and I observed or experienced a number of things that prompted me to write the song, “One thing At A Time”. Like many folks, I use Facebook to keep in touch with friends and family, promote my musical endeavors and share some of my day to day activities and events. Over the course of the past several months, Facebook has become a forum for a great deal of visceral, mean spirited public exchange, complete with name calling, personal attacks, and intentional and un-intentional mis-information. Whatever efforts that were being offered to share insight or compelling points of view were often lost in a morass of very negative behavior. This seemed to illustrate just how overwhelming the challenge of working together and finding unity has become in contemporary society.
While I believe that many people would agree, that we as a society are facing some very real challenges, it seems in this social media forum, there is little, if any, meaningful dialog being directed toward resolution of pressing issues, and bringing people or ideas together. Instead, there is a constant re-enforcement of tribalism and polarization. It struck me that as adults we have drifted away from the etiquette of social discourse we learned in elementary school. One of the most basic, of course, is no calling names.
So in addition to this Facebook hubris, I also read a news report of a congressional action that occurred in a very late night session. I appreciate the nature of the work that goes on in the legislative process, but this appeared intentionally orchestrated to avoid or minimize public feedback or involvement, almost “hid in the darkness”.
It struck me that somehow we have to collectively come together and find positive ways to confront the challenges we as a society, as a nation, as a people, face. The need for open dialog, civility, and common courtesy is paramount, and the basic premise of respect, communication and compromise appears to be lost, and while this seems nearly impossible to bridge the growing fractures that our society is experiencing, the optimist in me believes we can make this happen, the pragmatist in me believes it must happen. But it is apparent this will take work and will be a long journey, and we have to begin with the first step.
The notion that we have to respect each other, especially those that are less fortunate or unable to care for themselves seems simple enough and I would hope, a universal belief. I would argue that most people agree with the idea that our methods of governance should be transparent. And nearly everyone acknowledges that old saying “many hands make small work”. So is it possible to focus on taking small steps toward an attainable better place?
These were the emotions that influenced the idea of the song One Step at a Time. Putting these emotions into thought, and putting these thoughts down on paper, in simple clear rhyme was the next step. The first story line that I began toying with, was the notion of seeing someone mining and moving stone and the idea that a stone can be the basic building block of a house. First, there is a foundation, and then a wall, and ultimately a building. As I was trying to capture a lyrical story line, I also begin working on a melody that could carry these phrases, complete with a refrain to emphasize the primary message, we can do more if we work together. I re-wrote the lyrics several times to condense and clarify the notions of compassion for others, honesty and transparency, and civility, until they flowed well within the rhyme and meter of the poem. As I was working on the lyrical flow, I would play the song over and over again developing a musical sense of how the song could be performed, hopefully in a manner that would be engaging in the genera of contemporary folk music.
As the song started to come together, I began performing the song at various small venues. As the song developed, I began to tweak my delivery to make it more presentable and it became apparent that it did resonate with the audience.
In the late spring of 2018, I played the tune for Bill Lestock at his house. Bill has recorded and produced several cds and has his own approach to production and building and arrangement. He captured a simple, but quality, recording of just me singing and playing the tune on my guitar. Several weeks later, much to my surprise, Bill sent me a mix of a recording of the song. He had added an electric guitar, a slide guitar, a bass guitar, a percussion track, an organ and a vocal harmony. I knew that Bill was a multi-instrumentalist, but wasn’t really anticipating he would make such an invest of time and talent in the song. Before I could ask him where he got the idea to add a slide guitar and an organ, he asked me if I was ok with what he did with my song. OF course I was enamored with what he had added. He began to tell me about how he could hear various parts as he listened to the song and began to add instrumentation one tract at a time.
I immediately sent this mix to my dear friend, Caroline Quine who is a marvelous vocalist and is immensely gifted at crafting vocal harmonies. Caroline lives in Boulder, Colorado, and we performed together in college and have collaborated on performance and recording projects over the years. We have shared music and ideas for years over the internet, and I thought she would immediately hear harmony lines that would add to the sone. There are many approaches to developing a harmony line in a song. A harmony is often developed around an interval below or above the melody. What makes Caroline such a joy to work with is her ability to craft a harmony that may change intervals to accentuate the emotion of the musical or lyrical phrase. She is a true master of this craft. In a matter of days, Caroline returned my email with a recording of a vocal track she had added to the song. As it turned out, Caroline was coming to Ohio later in the month and was able to come to Bill’s studio where she sang and we recorded a number of vocal harmonies for the song.
In addition to the instrumentation that Bill had contributed to the song, he set about the process of refining the mix of the recordings. That involved modifying the levels and tone of each track and the balance of the sum of all the tracks in the creation of the whole. After hours of listening and tweaking various levels and process effects, he invited me come to his house to review how the recording was coming together. Together we made adjustments until we had what we felt was a very good, listenable product. We made several distinct mixes, striving with each version to develop a mix where each tract added to and didn’t diminish their parts, or “clutter up” the sound of the song. We listened to the mixes on various systems and including three different cars!
Good was not enough for Bill and after several days he resumed the process of remixing and reprocessing the song. He removed and replaced one guitar part, changed the levels and effects on a number of tracks and then processed the sum of all the recordings into one final mix.
My idea for a song, based on societal observations, evolved into a tune, that was enhanced by Bill’s “audio vision” for what the song could be and how this arrangement could make the song more powerful in conveying it’s emotion and message. Caroline’s supporting vocal lines add support and emphasis at key points in the song to enhance the listeners engagement. And I am extremely happy to have such talented friends and colleagues that have made “One Thing at a Time” so much more than I could have envisioned on my own...
“Together we can move so much more when we pull”