Steven (unzeugmatic) wrote,

Backstage at the Recording Studio: Art Isn't Easy

I so want to say that my new CD came out this week, but even at the furthest stretches of joking that's just wrong. What came out this week is Bob Walser's new CD, "Outward Bound on the J.M. Carpenter", on which I sing in the chorus for three tracks. The experience, beginning to end, was wholly new for me and it was great. I am thankful that Bob asked me to be part of this.

Besides being a musician and dancer on my Morris team, Bob is a folklorist and ethnomusicologist. He's currently working with the James Madison Carpenter collection at the Library of Congress, which consists of sailor songs that were collected in the early 1930s in the British Isles. This CD contains songs that Bob has been transcribing and piecing together and interpreting from the snippets of recording and manuscripts in the collection. The songs are new to us, yet somehow wonderfully familiar. My friend Nat refers to them as all coming from "The Island of Lost Shanties".

For a chorus, Bob gathered the local singing group The Eddies, some members of the Morris team, and some assorted other friends. We met a couple of times at Bob's house to sing through what Bob was putting together. I really loved this part of the process. I do think we helped Bob figure out how to make the songs work, just by singing them and listening to his instructions. This is actually work, rather than a casual group singing session, but even so the beauty of some of the songs stopped us in our tracks and called out to us as we learned them. At the end of our sessions we would insist on singing "Saucy Anna" one last time, just for the emotional fun of it. That's the gem of the collection, if you ask me.

We sing the choruses with the simplest of harmonies, but even so there was a lot to work out. The other singers were pretty much baritones in timbre, and Bob sings a little bit on the low side, so with no women on the choruses the empty space in the musical air that seemed to require a harmony from me was a high harmony. Usually I'm not the one finding a harmony and I'm not particularly skilled at this, but this was fun. Still, it turns out that what Bob wanted from me was to stay on the melody line -- not because there was anything wrong with my harmonies (I don't think -- I know the Eddies liked them, as we faced each other directly and worked things out), but because what Bob called the "brightness" of my sound was needed to fill out the sound of the melody line. And this I liked very much -- having somebody in charge, producing the record, knowing what they want and making the musical decisions. Once somebody tells me what I need to be doing I can just go with it. I certainly trust Bob's ears a whole lot more than I trust mine.

Now that I'm listening to the recordings I can hear exactly what Bob meant about filling in the sound of a melody line with different voices of different timbres singing technically in unison. I definitely heard what my voice was adding, although (to my relief) I didn't particularly hear me standing out from the group the way I have sometimes heard my voice on recordings of large Sacred Harp Singings I have attended. I told Bob I couldn't even hear me distinctly and Bob pointed out that he certainly could so I listened again and of course he's right -- but if you heard these cuts on the radio, say, you would not think "Hey, that's Steven on the chorus".

A couple of days before the recording session Bob distributed rudely-recorded CDs he'd made of the songs we'd be singing, for us to practice with. They included some commentary by Bob discussing what chords he was looking for. I listened to this as much as possible. It's great to have this recording -- it's like having a first draft manuscript of a book, with an editor's blue-pencil remarks.

The hardest work of all -- hard, but fulfilling and certainly enjoyable -- was the recording itself. I was able to attend only one of the recording sessions, which is why I am on only three cuts. I tell you, it's just like every making-of-the-music documentary you've every seen. You are in a room designed to have no resonance, so the feel of where you find your notes and how you tune in the other singers is something you have to get used to. You do take after take after take, often single verses in isolation -- so any sense of song buildup needs to be pulled from nowhere. You sing with headphones cocked casually over one ear. The record producer (in this case not Bob, but Dakota Dave) provides guidance and commentary that can feel like criticism (but of course it is not, not per se).

Here is a group of us in the studio working hard, looking weary, in a photo Bob took from his phone:

My first thought on listening to the recording was how different it seemed from the outside than it felt from the inside. It is, of course, Bob's CD, so the chorus is background. Which is as it should be and what we were going for. But when you are working on this, and practicing, and recording multiple takes, you are wholly and completely inside the chorus. Bob's singing was there for us to work against. You have to turn your perspective around when you hear what this actually produced.

So now I have the CD itself, and never has a recording held such resonance for me. I doubt that I have a career in the recording industry to look forward to, but to feel as if you were a part of the process that produced something like this is a very nice feeling indeed.
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