Recording Harrison

April 16, 2014 | Blog

The journey really started a year ago, when I saw a post about a “music developer” while looking for gigs on craigslist. I sent it to my parents, intrigued but also cautious, who confirmed with my belief that even if it is too good to be true, at least you’ll know. When I met Lynn Verlayne, we instantly clicked. She was very excited about the music I was writing, and she liked who I was as a person. She taught me the basic rules of songwriting, things that I had heard in music but had never heard voiced before, and taught me how to work pop sensibilities into my more alternative style. After eight long months of writing, re-writing, and demoing material, it was time to get into the studio. She got a band together, consisting of Misty May on keyboard, Brett Bass on bass (his last name is bass like the fish, I know what you’re thinking), Mason Ingram on drums and Andy Stack on guitar. Lynn wasn’t sure about how much I would be playing guitar on the record. She wanted me to have a credit, but we only had two days to do the entire instrumental track for all six songs. But, when I rehearsed with the band playing 2nd guitar the whole band, especially Andy, vouched for me. That empowering feeling I got from being good enough to play with some of the best musicians I’d ever seen would carry on throughout the process.

A few days later, we arrived at Dreamland studios. This was originally a church, I think from around the Civil War era, that had been converted into a studio. It was upstate in Woodstock, so we slept in the house that was connected to the church in the back. Me and Mason got in the night before recording, so that he could set up the drums early in the morning with the sound engineers. When we got up the first day of recording, the way that time worked had changed. Mason and Matthew Cullen, the sound engineer behind artists like Norah Jones and Ray LaMontagne, set up the mics in the drum booth in about an hour. To put that in perspective, we had given them a 3 hour time period to get it done, and that was considered extremely quick. Then, we set up some dividers for  the different instruments and were about to start jamming when Andy called me over to a couple of guitar cases he had brought. “I brought this for you” he said, and pulled out a 1965 Gibson J-45. I immediately knew that this was an incredible guitar, but I had know idea how amazing it was until I played it. It was perfect, in feel, sound, everything.

That day was a blur. We cranked out the first three songs in 5 hours, barely breaking for coffee or lunch. It felt exactly how I thought it would. It has been a long time since I had played with a band, having been so focused on working with Lynn and songwriting for the past eight months, and to be playing with these guys in this incredible studio… I don’t really know how to explain it, it felt warm, comfortable, and so at home.

The next day was a lot less set up, since we left everything the way it was yesterday. I was a little nervous, however, because the songs we would be tackling today are much tougher than the ones we had done the day before.  However, the first song we did went perfectly and I relaxed a little bit. The next two songs were Alienist and Let It Bleed, two of the most complex songs and definitely the most emotional. I really wanted them to be perfect, not that everything hadn’t been up to this point. We started doing Alienist, and it sounded really good, but there was something that wasn’t quite right. Before I could say anything, Lynn had walked out and took control. As a producer, she knew exactly what needed to be done, and it was exactly what I had in my head. She directed the band, who responded perfectly, and it came out as an exact replica of what I had in my head. We all decided to break for lunch decided to break for lunch, except for Andy who wanted to do overdubs (guitar solos played individually over the main instrumental track). An hour past, and I went back inside to check and see what was going on. I walk into the booth, and Andy’s got this huge smile on his face and says “Let me know what you think, it’s pretty weird.” Weird can’t describe it. The song is about possibly being crazy, and he layered the overdubs with stereo dissonant tones and these sigh motives that fit perfectly with the song.  This song I am most excited about, because it is by far the most artistic and the most unique, and Andy’s overdubs just put the icing on the cake.

Then it was time for Let It Bleed. We played through it once, and I felt awful. I couldn’t put my finger on what was missing, but the verse was too open and just didn’t feel right. The chorus didn’t have the energy and oomph I was looking for either. Lynn again came out to talk to us, and again she handled the chorus perfectly. It sounded exactly how I wanted it. But there was something about the verse that wasn’t quite right still. We talked a lot about it, and finally I took control like the way Lynn was doing, just to see what would happen. It was perfect. It captured the essence of what I wanted exactly, and everyone was jamming to it so much harder than they were before. After our first take, Misty said “I think this is now my favorite song”.

When we had finished up, it was hard to see them go. Mason and Brett were machines with personalities. They never broke tempo, and they always found subtle ways of changing their parts without diverting attention from the main track, one of the hardest skills to acquire for any instrument. Misty had the most difficult job in a way, because she had to figure out when to go from a pad (long, sustained notes that add depth to the track) to playing riffs with Andy. She did so in creative ways, and had an amazing knack for knowing when to use both styles, and even blending the two. Andy is everything you could want in a lead guitar player. Incredibly difficult but fitting riffs, always in tune and consonant and dissonant at the right places, and one of the most creative soloer’s I have ever seen, in a way that doesn’t draw attention from the rest of the track. I am honored to have worked with such amazing people, and I hope I get the privilege again.

Then, after editing the instrumental tracks to make sure they were all set up properly with Chris Montegomery, (another amazing sound engineer who works at places like Dubway Studios and The Bitter End and became my friend after learning he lives blocks away from me) it was time to do vocals at Bunker Studios in Brooklyn. While I was a little nervous about playing guitar, I felt confident that my experience singing would make the vocals go quickly and smoothly. I have never been more wrong. There were so many little mistakes that I had to fix, so many words that need to have a different vowel sound, all of these things I had to remember to do while pouring my heart into every track. It was exhausting in every sense of the word. After about two hours of doing vocals, I then had to listen to every take, rating it and listing all of the parts where I had made a mistake. There were times when I was surprised I could have made sounds that sounded so terrible, it was devastating after the exhausting process I had just gone through. After decided which takes we would use where, which Lynn again showed her prowess in, the engineer at Bunker, played a take that was all of the best moments of the two hour session. It sounded great, but kind of like karaoke, like the voice didn’t fit with the rest of the tracks. I was a little discouraged, but I knew that it still needed to be mixed and would sound different so I kept my head up. The entire process took five hours, and by the time I got back to my apartment at 5 o’ clock in the morning I had a bowl of cereal and fell asleep.

The next four sessions were more of the same. We had one hiccup, where Lynn was in a situation where she couldn’t show up for a session. I went into confidently, however, and me and Andy  recorded the track by ourselves. I’m very happy with how it turned out, and I would be surprised if anyone would be able to tell a difference at all. Even Lynn was surprised at how great it went.

The last song we did was Let It Bleed, just like for the instrumental sessions. I had been recording for three days in a row, and my voice was shot we did a couple of takes until my voice completely gave out. We then edited what we had, just in case, and called it a day. I felt terrible. Lynn said it happens sometimes and not to feel bad, but when I realized we wouldn’t be able to get the studio for another two weeks it didn’t help my feelings of inadequacy. I rested my voice for the two weeks, doing only vocal exercises to keep it strong. The night before the last session where we’d finished Let It Bleed, I had a dream. My dog Scout, who we had to put down at only three years old, was in it. We were playing in my backyard, and then all of a sudden he disappeared. When I woke up, I knew what I had to do. Even though I had written Let It Bleed four years ago, when I had been rejected from Fordham for early admission, the song was about the feeling you get when you feel empty inside, and nothing makes sense. For this song right now, that feeling comes from thinking about the fact that I agreed to kill my dog.

When I came into the studio, I sang through the song a couple times, taking notes from Lynn on what to do. Then, I told Lynn and Andy my plan, took off my watch, and meditated. I thought of Scout, and the reason we put him down. I thought of all the things I loved about him, and all the guilt I feel. I wasn’t sure how long it would take me to get into the mindset I’d need to be, but it was no more than five minutes before I was ready. All we needed to do were the chorus’s and the bridge, because we decided that the verses we did last time were actually a lot better than we thought. I came up to the mic, and before singing each take I said “I’m sorry”. It got me to the mental place I needed, and as soon as I started singing Lynn’s jaw dropped in the way it does when I do a good take. For an hour and a half, no one said anything. Andy asked me if I was ready for the next take and I’d say yes, then “I’m sorry”, and then I’d sing. We had a couple water breaks, but for the most part we just dug down and cranked them out. After the last take, Andy said that’s it, and I went and sat in the chair away from the window that connected the sound room to the booth and I cried. I’m not a big crier. There was a time I didn’t cry for three years. But after all of the emotions I had felt with the recording, from the fear of inadequacy, from the songs, and especially from that last song and Scout, it was all over and I was overwhelmed. That feeling, raw, exposed, powerful feeling, is what music is about. If you can’t tap into that, then your audience won’t be able to feel it either. I’m proud, and to be honest a little embarassed, to tell you all of this, and I hope that you can feel at least part of the emotions I feel in every one of my songs.

Last week I got the tracks to the mixing engineer, Scott Jacoby. He’s an awesome guy, and let me hang out with him while he mixed some of the songs. He works with John Legend and the Roots a lot, and recently did Vampire Weekend’s new album (for more money per song than my record apparently). All of the anxiety of not being good enough, of the songs sounding like karaoke tracks disappeared in an instant as I watched him transform the kick drum from a thud to boom that vibrated my chest. When he did a similar effect to the rest of the tracks he finally got to the vocals, and after compressing them (which is something I don’t fully understand) and putting some effects on them I felt my voice melt into the rest of the track. I am so happy with the two tracks that he’s done so far, and those are only drafts! I can’t wait to hear the final product and share it with you.

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