In March, I got a call from Richard, a former student who I played with a couple of years at Zeitgeist. He is a versatile and talented guy with tremendous enthusiasm for music of all stripes. One of things I really appreciate about Richard is that the ones and zeroes of production haven't diminished his joy for music at all. I sort of worry that if I look at the matrix for what it is too long, I end up like Neo, seeing nothing but code. For a while, I got obsessed with how much overlap there is in so much music. How "A Window Out" is harmonically similar to a Gavin DeGraw song, and also a Taylor Swift Song, and also a song by another artist that I don't listen to. It became no longer a song about a strained relationship between a nervous person and someone who wouldn't pick up the phone -- it was I-V-vi-IV-I-V-vi-IV-I-III-vi-V-IV-iv, which in itself is meaningless.
It's easy to start psyching yourself out when your thought process leads you to think in Roman numerals.
But Richard hasn't taken that bait; he flat out loves what he does, and that energy is contagious Richard is studying audio engineering at Belmont and wanted someone to sing background vocals for a song he was producing. Belmont students get to use RCA Studio B at night as part of their training; during the day, it's used for tours and occasionally (I think), some label sessions.
RCA Studio B is literally half a mile from where I work on a street I drive every day. It's on a running route that everyone I know uses and is an important historical site in the evolution of the modern recording studio. I had never even looked at the building until I arrived. So it goes in Nashville, where everywhere you go has a storied history behind it, and the allure that maybe you might be the next chain in the link is always present.
(This is where the magic happens.)
This was an evening session that began in the late afternoon and would carry on until the wee hours of the morning. The singer, Frankie Staton, was recording an R&B ballad. It reminded me of something Whitney Houston or Carrie Underwood would cut, as little as I know about their musical universes. It was a BIG song, and Richard was giving it a great elaborate production: upright bass, guitar, drums, strings, male and female background vocals, in addition to a piano with probably eight mics on it (all of which he planned on using).
I arrived around 8:00 P.M., waited in the control room for the drummer and violinist to finish their parts, jotted out some notes, and went into the tracking room with Frankie and the female vocalist to work out harmony parts. She had the changes scrawled out on a giant whiteboard in one part of the tracking room, and we just followed along. We tracked our parts for an hour, shook hands, and went home.
(Elvis Presley played this piano.)
One of the things that impressed me about working in this environment (as a guest musician, not the songwriter) was how much work Richard was saving himself for later on. We would literally sing a track two or three times and leave. There was no discussion about how to fit an individual part into the larger tapestry of the song -- on Music Row, that's primarily the producer's job. It was a vastly different role for me; over the past year, I've been managing (and learning along) every step of the process. I've set up mics, tracked, comped, edited, mixed and mastered two songs to completion, which can get absolutely maddening. To walk in, sing, and walk out underscored the disparity between the collaboration that happens "in the real world" and the fairly solitary process that I've been doing -- ceding control of the performance and trusting someone else is at once liberating and humbling
I began to feel like I was being quoted for the newspaper, trusting in a journalist or editor to help me not look stupid. But then again, the journalist wouldn't have called me if he didn't think I had something decent to contribute to this particular story.
Richard worked long into the night after the musicians had finished, a newspaper man burning the midnight oil to make the late edition. I'm sure the final product sounded great.