Bolstered By Blue and many other tunes on this record have arrangements that are very complex, with multiple backing vocal parts and various instruments coming in and out. How do you go about composing and then arranging tunes like that?
Sometimes while I’m writing the song, I can hear other parts that are begging to be on the recording. Sometimes I have to listen to the songs awhile to think of the textures and sounds I might want. I get a lot of backing vocal ideas singing along to my tracks in the car, or while playing drums. I make notes of favorite sounds, from all kinds of instruments, and production ideas in other peoples’ recordings. Sometimes I just grab the list, oh yeah, I wanted to use such & such and just try it on the song I’m working on. Like how cool it is to hear sax & guitar in unison, or playing the melody on guitar in unison with a vocal line or putting flange on a bass so it splashes around the stereo mix, or how cool whistling or mouth trumpet sounds in a song. I’ll record the song and then start layering till I use all my ideas and the song waits for the rest, or the arrangement is finished. I play guitar bass drums and piano. If the piano part is advanced, I’m playing midi guitar, and I use the midi guitar to trigger any other instrument or sound that fits.
I’ve been writing songs since 1970 and have a giant pile of originals, most of which haven’t been released. And as years go by and I get better at recording, I’ve tended to think the toy equipment I was using before DAWs wasn’t good enough, and I can re-record and make everything sound better, sonically. BUT, it feels tremendously daunting to redo so much of my life’s work. Especially when I continue to write and record new songs. It’s also a lot of work to digitize and keep my songs accessible because the platforms and mediums to hold the music keep changing.
So I loved remixing, and mastering these songs, and the emotion in the original performance can be kept. I can make them sound like finished records now.
Many songs on Tender Ramble had been demos I’d recorded soon after I’d written the songs. They’d have a reference vocal, or still need bass, or need a new drum part. I had to focus on, “what do these need to be finished arrangements?” and added the tracks that came to mind.
There’s tremendous power in deciding. Just deciding that these selected songs would be on the next record and needed to be completed, gave me the ideas.
Some of these songs were from 2003. I’d listened to the demos many times since then. But I didn’t feel a burning desire to add anything till I decided. Finish these songs, let’s get them out into the world. And boom the ideas came.
It’s better to ask your brain better questions, like, “What would be the best sound or timbre or groove here?” Rather than, “I can’t come up with anything the song’s been hanging around for years, I don’t know what to play, otherwise it would have it on there already.”
Sometimes I say what would James Taylor have here? How would Frank Filipetti mic it? What would Pat Metheny play here? And I get into a receiving place where the right ideas come to me. How do I know if it’s right? If I love it, it’s right.
Bolstered By Blue needed new drums, so I jumped on the kit and played a new drum part. I could hear a cool piano timbre on the choruses but I didn’t know what it would be yet. I was hoping for a riff. I played it on my upright. It’s a fun quirky bit. I fiddle and sing, and search, and play until I discover what works, on any instrument that I’m adding. Infinite things could fit, and a song can be arranged in infinite ways. I just please my ears, please myself, and fill the songs with fun parts that tickle me.
When I’m done writing a song, I make sure I love every chord, every word and every melody note, and then it’s complete. Same with a production, I fill it with parts, sounds, effects, and production techniques I love. Anything I love goes in the song, (dachshunds, chocolate, kidding) and if it supports the emotion of the song, and feels right to me, it stays.
Happy Birthday is an interesting tune, your vocals were more experimental and your falsetto was a nice surprise. The tune had a Beatle infused bounce and the chorus was very catchy. What was the premise of the tune and its quirky nature?
I wanted to write a song for a friend’s birthday. She was feelin’ devastated about big changes in her life. She happens to be a great piano player who was encouraging me to write a song on piano. So I thought it would be great fun to write a song on piano to cheer her a bit for her birthday. (The second song I’ve ever written on piano. But it was real fun to find and play).
She had told me about Brother Blue, the storyteller, who had just died, and she was deeply saddened by that. So I quoted something she told me he used to say about people, in the song, “We ain’t nothin’ but music, wrapped in a body made of snow”. The feeling I got from the line was we’re only on this planet a short time. Let’s make the best of it. We’re strong but fragile, so take good care. Reinvent yourself, reboot, we are magic and we need to use our power for the good. So I came up with lines to encourage and remind, as we all need reminding, that we can take a sad song and make it better.
Reach Me had a really nice mix of acoustic guitars. Can you elaborate on how you went about recording those guitar parts?
Reach Me was written in the early 80s. I recorded the two acoustic guitars in ’07 to revisit and record this song in Logic. I recorded the vocals just a couple of weeks ago. I used two, M-Audio sputnik, condenser mics. When you’re the engineer and Artist, you can put headphones on and position the mics any way you’d like that gives you a sound that works for your song. Just play the part and listen and put the mics in different places around the guitar, close, far, above, behind, in front, towards the bridge, the center, the strings, anywhere at all. Hear the differences; when you find yourself smiling because you love the sound, hit record. They were positioned aiming at the twelfth fret on an angle, and slightly above the sound hole about 8 inches away. This was my Martin 00028H, double tracked, so I played and recorded it twice. It depends on the song, frequency range and actual guitar part which mic placement sounds best. And every decision is taste. Have it as you like it.
Press On has a 6/8 time signature. Do you have any preference for any particular time signature when you write or do you let the song emerge, as it wants to.
There are happy accidents, and inspirations and stumbling on a big, surprise, cool, idea where the song comes out as it wants to, but mostly, we do what we always do, It takes conscious effort to look for something new.
Creativity is a muscle and it needs to be exercised and used, so it becomes dependable. It started for me, with writing assignments for school. I’d write songs that fit the teacher’s wishes but also worked for me. And I loved that a new song happened with certain parameters to narrow down the infinite choices and start somewhere. The song wouldn’t have happened without the assignment. So you learn that you can turn your creativity on anytime you want to.
I tend to come up with 2 and 4 bar phrases and often write in 4/4. That’s one of the reasons why I love writing music to other people’s lyrics. Because non-musicians write what they want to say, even if the lines aren’t the same length or shape. They’re not thinking 8 bars and another 8 bars, and it forces me to write different shape music. It’s only been when I’m making a lyric line fit with smooth sing-ability that I write a 2/4 bar or 5/4 bar or 10 bar verse. And I love it because the measures float by and you hardly notice because you’re following a flowing melody and listening to a lyrical thought. I’ve written a few through-composed songs that way, like Honeywine, and my friend Stefanie Mis wrote the lyrics. click to hear Honeywine. The Sea Road, this was a poem by Kate Chadbourne that I put to music. I loved that she had words like Somersaulting into a cloistered garden, how the heck am I gonna sing that?! I played with rubato and there were added beats. It turned out very Joni (Mitchell) I loved it. click to hear The Sea Road
Sometimes I take another structure, blueprint or shape of a song as a template, and write my lyrics to fit that song’s melody and form, then I write my own melody & chords to the new form of lyrics and I brake out of my usual 2 and 4 bar phrases.
A good example of that is John Lennon’s, Across The Universe. It’s basically run on sentences. I was on the train writing new lyrics to Across The Universe matching strong and weak syllables to fit his melody. Then at home I wrote my melody & chords to my new lyric. (That song still needs to be recorded and released.)
I had a student years ago who wrote in 6/8 all the time. That was his 4/4. So I was reminded of how much I love 6/8 and wrote a few in 6/8 ‘round that time, on purpose. This was one of them.
To Be Sure is a somewhat dark sounding and brooding track. Many of the tracks are different stylistically in vast ways. How long did the album take to write and record?
Since they were already written the album came together quite quickly. About two months, just choosing songs, transferring tracks to digital, adding new parts, mixing and mastering. I do it all myself these days. Super cost effective, and I love making sound pictures.
I was definitely brooding in that one. A family member had died, one of my dogs was dying and it was a rough time. But I was falling in love at the same time. It felt so strange to feel such elation and grief at the same time. It felt like I might split in half. So it was good to write a song to try and feel better. And that’s why a lot of these songs got delayed till now, because I wrote Blast of Love, a whole album of love songs, and recorded and released those first.
click here for Blast of Love samples
What Falls Apart is a trippy journey that takes the listener on a ride through the many twists and turns of the chord progression. Backing solo guitar lines lay out the form harmonically and the vocals are rich. My personal favorite, it’s a little different from the rest. Where did that tune come from?
I had picked up my acoustic and just played that opening riff. One of those happy findings. I remember playing the song for Jane (Miller) and she smiled and said, “Where’d you get that riff!” She was enjoying it. I just sang along and words popped out me mouth. The riff went down so I sang a melody that went up. Little contrasting, easy ideas. But here’s the thing, once you put all the bits together, it makes something whole, and it’s often infused with your best intentions if you worked thoughtfully, and it sounds cool all together. You can’t just isolate one bit and decide to throw away the idea because it’s simple. You can’t possibly put everything you know, feel, and understand about music, writing or improvising in one song. It would be like using too many spices in one dish, it probably wouldn’t taste good. And it may sound contrived or forced if it isn’t done to support the song and only done for show.
I was going through changes as we all do, and was reaching for feeling back towards my center. “Take me back, hold me there, talk me clear, pour me love (which was a cup of tea), reach my shaken path, catch what falls apart.”
When I was ten and I wrote my first song, it felt like a veil had lifted or a curtain opened and I was inside this wonderful place where all this magic happens with sounds, and emotions, and guitar! Something that didn’t exist before was now here, a new song. It was thrilling. And it still feels the same way when I write today. I feel like I’m ten, and everything is exciting. The blank piece of paper or recording is filled and something new is in the world that wasn’t there before. It’s a blast. Years ago, it was difficult and expensive to get your music out in the world. Now technology makes it so simple and the waiting for musicians, money, or ability is over.
This album seems more introspective than prior albums. How has your writing style changed over the years?
Well I do have a lot of introspective songs. My album Shadow Language has a lot of deeply emotional songs. Although I did experiment with letting the takes stay if I was feeling edgy when I played a solo like in, To Be Sure, or was actually crying in, Where Are You, because my dog died, but I wanted to record the song I had written while I was waiting for her to be delivered to me three years before when she was a puppy.
I’ve been intrigued with playing crazy things and singing at the same time. It came from touring with the Beatle band that I was in for 12 years. Playing the little guitar melody in Michelle while singing the ooohs, the guitar part at one point goes up while the oohs sing down; doing the guitar riff for Drive My Car while singing the beeps, completely different rhythms, playing the Eric Clapton lines in While My Guitar Gently Weeps while singing, woke up the side of my brain that began to understand drumming. At the same time 921 was our new building, complete with drum sets in every classroom. Score! I’d stay after school and play drums. When I realized I had real potential, I bought a drum set, and I’ve been playing drums to my songs ever since.
The Beatles taught me infinite curiosity, and how to find something new. So I like to write something that stretches my guitar playing and vocal range. When I was kid I’d write quietly in my room in my family’s house. I didn’t realize that the melody notes that were easy to sing with soft guitar would be impossible to hear over a band. So I remember purposefully writing songs that had higher melody notes so that I could sing them with a band.
They say it’s easier to write a sad song than a rocker, so I’m often intrigued with writing funky or up-tempo songs. Middle of Me, was inspired by I Saw Her standing There. What a great riff in that song. I was playing my Dillion Duo Jet with the dynasonic pickups that sounded like every song on the Please Please Me album and I had to find a fun riff. Middle of Me is also a Brother Blue saying. “From the middle of the middle of me to the middle of the middle of you”, Like, be sincere, man. That riff had been hanging round for about seven years before I finished the song in ’09. So I made it sound like a 60’s rocker.
I like using the guitar in all its glorious ways. Different string sets, alternate tunings, capos, counterpoint within the main guitar part, I’m often arranging the main guitar part as I’m writing it. Its not just all six strings or one lead note at a time. There’s lots of delicious bits to explore, like a piano player would fill in here and there. I like getting the compliment that this doesn’t sound like an original song, but something that has always been, and using different keys that one wouldn’t expect to hear a guitar player write in.
I was a performance major, I can play the three parts, walking bass line, melody, and chords at the same time. Between the Bill Leavitt awesome technique books and playing classical pieces with a pick, I have a great groove and can skip strings in fun ways even in my own songs. I love what deep practicing and guitar virtuosity has done for my playing.
I purposefully make songs sound different from each other, even if they’re in the same tuning so if you hear one of my solo shows, you don’t get bored with my guitar accompaniment. You can use tempo changes, grooves changes, different registers of the guitar, different tunings, pick & fingers, just pick, just fingers. The guitar is capable of so much and in any style. Don’t settle for limitations, over come them.
I love when singer songwriters take my pop rock songwriting lab and leave saying, “Wow, I can write songs and be fluent on guitar.”