I dragged myself into the kitchen some time in the middle of the afternoon and began to make myself some breakfast. “What time did you guys start yesterday?” asked my wife. “Around 3.” “What time did you finish?” “Oh, around 4.” She briefly looked surprised, as if to say, that was an extremely quick recording session! Then she did the math and realised we were at it for 13 hours straight.
When I was twenty-one I could pull off a 15 to 20 hour session and bound right back the next day. Nowadays 13 hours is quite draining. However, a lot depends on how much you get done, and the quality of it. In this case I’m very happy. We got four backing tracks down—three with bass, drums, guitar, guide piano and vocal; and one with just two guitars, Neill MacColl joining Kevin Armstrong on a couple of nylon string acoustics.
When the band are learning the song as you go along, it makes things quite exciting. You get a rough sound for each instrument, which doesn’t need to be the final sound, just in the ballpark. You need a good headphone mix so everyone can hear themselves and each other. Plus sightlines that allow you to see each other, even though you’re in different spaces. I’d routined the songs with Matthew and Kevin, but drummer Liam Genockey was playing them for the first time. The first few run-throughs are usually stop-start affairs, working out feels for different sections, where to put fills and ‘punctuation’, and so on. I kind of mumble the vocals because I’m listening to everything else. Then there comes a point where it’s feeling ready to record. There’s a magical window where the ‘tape is rolling’ (an obselete term in this day of digital everything) and any take you play could turn out to be THE take.
On a couple of the songs I opted not to use a click track. When you do, it makes it easy to add sequenced keyboard parts later in a program like Logic. It also puts all takes at the same tempo and makes it very easy to overlay takes and intercut between them—so for example, if Take 2 was generally great but you messed up the first chorus, you can cut it in from Take 3 instead. However, the disadvantage of playing to a click is that everyone has one ear open for it and that can lead to a slightly stiff and restrained feel, less natural. Recording without one is living a bit dangerously. But with the latest technology and a bit of elbow grease, you can generally find a way to add a tempo track later, cut and paste between takes and so on.
You can’t go on recording take after take. The energy and freshness start to drop off, yielding diminishing returns. Plus, the more takes there are, the more sifting though I’ll inevitably have to do, given that I like to leave no stone unturned. There might be one drum fill in Take 12, or a bit of guitar in Take 8 that has just that little bit of an edge. I don’t like ending up with so many options. If I’ve got two takes that I’m very happy with, I prefer to stop there, knowing I can always move notes around, fix timings and tunings later. So you need to have the courage to say ‘ok let’s move on!’
The main thing I’m looking for with a ‘tracking date’ (several musicians all playing together) is that intangible magic that you can never achieve when you build songs up a bit at a time. For example, one of the new songs is over seven minutes long, and has 12 verses that tell a story about a prison break, almost like a folk lament. One approach to that would have been to create a long sequence in the computer, then look for different textures and sounds for each section, perhaps adding real instruments along the way. That’s the way I recorded ‘I Love You Goodbye.’ But on this one, I decided to keep it looser. We worked on the song for most of the second day, breaking it down into different verses and joining the dots. Then we finally took a crack at playing it straight through. The first take was so-so, we were glad to get through it to the end. We went into the control room, poured ourselves a glass of wine and gave it a listen. Everything was in place, but it was somehow lacking the narrative quality that was in the lyric. Back out there—second take–bingo! The song had taken on a shape and a life of its own.
I deliberately chose to play real piano and sing a rough guide on the backing track. This means that the piano tracks will have some vocal spill on them, and vice versa, rendering them both unusable—unless, of course, I happened to play and sing absolutely perfectly. But I know from history there’s a zero percent chance of that happening! I’m just not that adept in either department. What the rough vocal hopefully does do, though, is inspire the other musicians to play at their best, while defocusing them from their own part, so they become part of the accompaniment for the vocal, rather than an instrumentalist. It also sets me a yardstick for the phrasing and tone of the final vocal. My vocals evolve as I learn to sing my own song, and as the feel and character of the track develops. When I go in to do the final vocals I often find I’m listening back to the guide vocal to remind myself of how I sang that night when I had the whole band.
The song with Kevin and Neill was unusual for me. I’ve never used two guitarists simultaneously on a song before. It’s a very gentle poetic song (you may have read an early version of the lyrics here on my blog a few months ago!) but the middle section is such a complete and utter surprise, the first time you hear it you’ll think someone changed the radio channel on you.
We did a few small overdubs, to fix obvious mistakes or to add cymbals, fills, more ‘out there’ approaches and so on, so that I have options. The next stage for me is to work through the four songs, getting familiar with what’s there, and knit together the ultimate version of each. But of course, that’s just the beginning. I will still be miles away from anything finished. There will be synths and keyboards to add, in some cases other instruments altogether (eg harmonica, fiddle), then vocals, backing vocals, and days and days of final mixing. And this is just four songs remember—perhaps one third of the album.
Still, I feel like the album is truly underway, and now when I go to work each day it’s with a clear idea of what I’m going to be working on. And I am delighted with the songs, which have really come along. There’s no way they will be a repeat of anything I’ve done in the past. After all, a big chunk of my life has gone by since I last recorded new songs. I’m older, wiser. The old adage is that when an artist does his first album, he’s had twenty years of real life to sing about. He does his second, he’s got six months of touring, hotel rooms and press interviews to sing about! But as Matthew pointed out, I’m back to the twenty years of real life thing.
And music has moved on too. I don’t believe making cool sounds and grooves is very interesting any more, because we’ve had a couple of decades of that and there’s very little left to do. What I come back to is that first and foremost I’m a songwriter. I can actually write interesting lyrics and great melodies. And that’s a rare thing these in days of bleeps and blips. So that’s where I’m focusing my energy.
A good motto for me right now is this: ‘Only do what only you can do.’