Monday, March 31, 2014

Working on music for They Stole My Crayon (03.30.14)

Of the infinite number of analogies one can use in regard to the making of an album of music, I just thought of a good one. Imagine that you are behind a train, and you have to push the train forward using your own strength. It would take a superhuman effort to get the train moving, and chances are that you'd have to build up your muscular power for years and years to even hope to move the train an inch. So finally, you manage to start the train moving very slowly. Eventually, though, momentum takes over and the train begins to move. However, you're at the back of the train. You have no idea what's ahead of you. It could shift tracks, it could start going out of control on a downhill, or even derail around a curve.

What the hell was I talking about? Oh yeah, making an album.

Anyway, train analogies aside, making an album isn't easy for most people. It takes a completely focused effort, and let's face it: very few people have the luxuries of time and money to see it through. But the thing to keep in mind is that if you have songs, and you have enough creative vision to preconceive what you want the recording to sound like when it's done, you just have to keep pushing that train steadily, and at some point you will make it to your destination.

Such is the case with the work we've been doing on the debut album for my band They Stole My Crayon. It's an interesting dynamic at work here. All three of us -- Bunny Knutson, my lady Kat Claxton, and myself -- can contribute to the process in a variety of ways, all of them important, and you never really know who will come up with what, or what direction it will go from there. I spent much of this weekend working on a song that Bunny had already "completed". That is to say, he'd written and recorded a very good song for one of his solo projects, and then showed it to Kat and I thinking that it had some potential as a Crayon song. We both strongly agreed.

Seeds and Stems
So, the seed for a Crayon song had been planted. It usually doesn't come in the form of a completed song. One of us will write a lyric, or some music, and then on our own, we'll create some kind of demo. Then, assuming we like what we hear, we begin working on the song in earnest. For the song we did this weekend, called "Longing On", Bunny's version of the tune was already very cool, and easily stands on its own. But there's a particular vibe that we're consistently putting on the songs for our TSMC album, and I knew Bunny's tune could be more Crayonified.

The first step was having Bunny send over the stems of his recording. For the uninitiated, "stems" are the individual tracks that make up a recorded song. The bass part has its own track, as does the lead guitar, or the harmony vocal. The semantic difference between a "track" and a "stem" is only that a stem might include multiple tracks that might have already been submixed together, like the stem for the drum kit as opposed to the individual tracks for snare, toms, cymbals and so on.

So Bunny sent over the stems of "Longing On", and from the moment they arrived, I was engrossed in making the song more Crayonish than simply Bunnyish.

What Does That Even Mean?
I can't tell you. Crayon music is like the cliché about art: I know it when I see it, or hear it in this case. But describing it isn't easy. I will tell you, though, what we did with Bunny's "finished" song. Kat and I wrote and recorded an entire backing vocal part that wasn't in Bunny's original composition. We then did some deconstruction of the song, changing small parts that gave it some more sonic interest. I also added some synthesizer lines, and some textured guitars. We liked how it sounded so far, but since Bunny lives toward the other end of Los Angeles from Kat and I, we needed to show him remotely what we'd done. After all, it was his song that we'd been mangling.

By Saturday night, we had a rough mix of our additions which we shared with Bunny via FTP. He really liked the direction we were going, which is what inspired me to wake up early on Sunday and keep going. Remember that "creative vision" I mentioned earlier? This one was so clear that before I went to bed on Saturday night, I wrote a list of additions and tweaks for the next day. I ended up spending nearly all of Sunday working on the tune.

That afternoon, I had another mix to send Bunny, this one much closer to the final vision that I'd had. He really liked it, but it's at this stage that you start getting very focused on details. He mentioned a couple of mix ideas that I thought were right on the money, and I did those tweaks pretty quickly. By that evening, we had a song that was really great, and fit in with the vibe of the other songs we'd done.

For the time being, that's all I'm going to write. I could talk about what happens next, but keep in mind: I'm still pushing from the back of the train, and I have no idea if there are dangerous curves ahead. For now, though, it's smooth sailing, and a great ride.

No comments: