Monday, May 7, 2012

The Story Behind My "Oh Susannah"


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Toward the end of April, while I was getting myself ready for my comeback to live music performance, I had wandered by Thrasher's Wheat, the de facto Neil Young fan site/blog, and saw something interesting. I knew that Neil had just recorded a new album with Crazy Horse to be released rather soon, and that the album was comprised of classic American songs (hence the title Americana). What I didn't know was that Neil had put together a contest for people to cover one of these tunes.

Now, I'm not a contest kind of guy. In fact, on an overall basis, I don't believe that music should ever be judged as a competition. But just for fun, I took a look at the list of eligible songs that could be covered. The choices were as follows: “Oh Susannah”, “Clementine”, “Tom Dula”, “Gallows Pole”, “Get A Job”, “Travel On”, “High Flyin’ Bird”, “Jesus’ Chariot”, “This Land Is Your Land”, “Wayfarin‘ Stranger”, and “God Save The Queen”.

Obviously, there are a ton of true classics in there. In narrowing the list to one I thought I could do well, the problem was that there are so many great definitive versions of these tunes to the point that I felt it would be pointless to cover them again. Johnny Cash did an amazing “Wayfarin‘ Stranger”, while Zeppelin's “Gallows Pole” and the Kingston Trio's “Tom Dula” are both superb. There are many more examples I could cite, and it wasn't going to be worthwhile doing unless I could bring something new and cool to the party. I didn't have much interest in most of the other tunes, but then I thought about what could be done with a song as open, honest, and simple as "Oh Susannah". Hmm.

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Old Song... New Direction
I knew that Neil, when performing the song as he's done occasionally, used an arrangement from 1963 that was originally done by a folk outfit called The Big Three (singer Cass Elliot, banjo player Tim Rose and guitarist Jim Hendricks). While it's a gritty and cool version, it wasn't the one that resonated strongly with me. I also knew that I didn't want to do an ultra-traditional rendition per the original 1847 music that Stephen Foster wrote.

I suppose the best way of describing what I did was to take Foster's words and melody (and basic harmonic structure in places), and add them to the type of music and overall vibe that I'd create for one of my own tunes. I don't know that this was a conscious decision; it just kind of happened that way. In fact, heh heh, the whole song just kind of happened. I really didn't plan much; just picked up the guitar and magic came rolling out. I don't know how it happens any more than anyone does.

I created a rough demo and shared it with a few friends. They supported the direction I was going, so I decided to go ahead and record the tune "for real". I mean, what the hell... why not? It was a good reason to get some recording done and give my friends/fans something new to listen to after 2-1/2 years since my last album came out.

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How I Did It (For Recording Geeks and Others)
The one thing that I am unable to do well here at Frothy Studios (my home recording setup which is amateurish at best) is record live drums. The problem is not so much that drums are loud; I have cool neighbors. The difficulty is that I'm right on a fairly busy street, and the external noise of brakes squealing, engines revving, kids playing ball, and life in general makes it hard to get good, clean tracks with a bunch of open microphones on drums.

So, having no choice in the matter, the one thing I did non-organically was to program the drums using samples in Pro Tools. I do this in a way that some others don't; I am incredibly tedious with the placement of each drum hit and the velocity at which it's played. Over the previous weekend, I had jotted notes about the final arrangement, and over the next few days when I had spare moments, I'd work on those drum tracks, making sure that everything sounded as natural as a computer drummer could be.

The entire remainder of the recording was done on Saturday May 5. I woke up, showered, had coffee, and then got to it right away. Because I'd used sampled drums, I made sure to layer a good number of acoustic percussion over them to bring back a little of the organic vibe I desired. The basic recording setup for "Oh Susannah" had me using good-quality studio condenser mics into a Groove Tubes Brick tube mic preamp (which is sadly no longer made). From there, it went into my little Mackie mixer (bypassing those preamps), then into my ancient Mbox audio interface, and then into my MacBook Pro and Pro Tools software. Bass and electric guitars were recorded direct through the Brick. In case you really want to geek out audio engineer-style, here's a track list. Unless otherwise indicated, all individual sources were recorded in mono.

1. Drums -- stereo submix
2/3. Acoustic Guitar -- doubled and panned
4. Bass
5. Djembe (hand drum)
6. Tambourine
7. Egg Shaker percussion
8. Glockenspiel (bells)
9. Electric Guitar lead (w/leslie effect)
10. Slide guitar (w/delay effect)
11. Lead Vocal
12. Harmony Vocal
13. Backing Vocal 1
14. Backing Vocal 2
15. Backing Vocal 3
16. Backing Vocal 4

The acoustic guitar was my trusty Martin D-18V, the only high-end piece of gear I used other than the tube preamp. The bass was my Squire P-bass, while the electric guitar was my son's little Squier Strat. You'd be surprised what kind of sounds you can get from cheap guitars if you work at it a little.

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How I Sound Like "Me"
My sound, if such a thing exists, is an amalgamation of all the musicians whose music I've loved over my lifetime. On this song, though it certainly wasn't intentional or pre-planned, I think it's pretty obvious that my years spent listening to the Grateful Dead, Joni Mitchell, and Neil himself shine through rather clearly.

Oh Yeah... the Contest
Since the song was inspired by Neil's "Americana" cover contest and it came out pretty good, I went ahead and uploaded it as an entry. You can listen to it any time at the Talenthouse link for now. The actual voting for the contest starts June 5, so while I won't be doing a massive campaign about it, I do hope that some people like it enough to give it a vote. Who knows? Maybe I can win the thing and get some more people exposed to this and my other songs as well. After all, most songwriters only want one thing: to be heard. I'm very appreciative of the folks who have already listened and given me their feedback. It was fun to work on and the result is cool, which is really all I wanted from it. Anything else is just gravy.