In this section, I’ll take apart songs from my new album, and walk you thru the process of how they were made.
I wrote “Moon House” on the hike in and out of McCloyd Canyon on Cedar Mesa, which holds a multi-room cliff dwelling named Moon House, in an area of Bears Ears which is no longer protected. The ruins date back to the A.D. 1200s. It’s the first time I’ve written an entire piece of music without an instrument in front of me and is one of the more involved productions on the album, existing in many forms before its current (and final) incarnation. Recorded with James Gadson on drums (Bill Withers, Marvin Gaye, Beck).
I had the idea for a project/album called Vanishing Places on December 28th, 2017. Here’s my entry from my journal:
The pulsing beat you hear at the top of the song, is the sound of a raven flying overhead as I started out hiking that morning. I recorded that onto my Sony Clear Voice tape recorder which I later slowed down in Elastic Audio to match the tempo of my hiking pace (I also recorded my footsteps, and matched tempo in Pro Tools). Those two elements together, established the tempo of the piece.
Here’s what the unprocessed field recording of the raven flying overhead sounds like, gained up so you can hear it (it’s still very quiet):
And here’s that same piece of audio after I was done processing it with Soundtoys Tremolater Plugin, a tape machine and a spring reverb:
By the time I left the canyon that night, I’d come up with every element I needed to finish the song, as well as a clear vision of a sound pallet — celeste, tape drones, syncopated low end, 16th note pulsing, kick, snare, and processed strings.
Once I got back to Nashville, I started recording the melodies I’d written in the desert. The first melody that enters the track is a celeste, which I recorded at Sound Emporium Studios in Nashville (there are actually only three I could find in Nashville, Sound Emporium being the only one available for rent at a commercial studio).
Here’s the original voice memo of the celeste melody I sang it into my phone during that hike:
Here’s how that same melody sounds after I recorded and stacked three Celeste’s back home in Nashville (notice I stuck with the original notes and key from the voice memo out in the desert):
In next section I introduce four new elements, which you can hear in the clip below. The first is a French Horn I cut on a Mellotron, followed by Mellotron strings and a bass line I dumped on and off the tape machine (all three of which I sang into my tape recorder as voice memos as I hiked out of the canyon, then dictated once I got back home). The percussion are samples from my friend Richard Swift’s studio, which I pitched down, and sent out thru two old spring reverb units. I sequenced a syncopated bass line on an old SH-101 mono synth to give the existing low end some movement (which enters at 0:58) and then two auto harps whcih enter at 1:20 (Ennio Morricone style!). All of these were recorded in Protools, then dumped on and off different tape machines in my studio, so I could print effects and commit, without looking back. For me, dumping audio on and off the tape machines became a big part of this record, as it forced me to commit and thus keep moving forward.
And here are the sequenced arpeggio’s I programmed on the SH-101 outlining the chord changes. What I like about this kind of programming, is that it’s all notes I sing first, so the programming is all by hand, the “performance” during the take then becomes riding the effects and filters. There are also 4 bars of strings I arranged, edited and looped that enter at 0:48. In one incarnation of this song, I arranged this piece for a string quartet, but the quartet who was hired to record, were so out of tune and without feeling, that almost everything was un-usable. It was a real disappointment to say the least, especially because I only had enough money to cut strings once. I still paid them, and I learned an important lesson — a bad quartet can ruin a string session, no matter how well they’re recorded. I spent an additional $400 dollars on Autotune and spent two full days tuning the strings. I was able to salvage 4 bars worth of music from the string session, which I then combined with fake strings in Kontakt, all of which I then sent thru a bunch of guitar pedals, and dumped onto the tape machine. Lesson learned. It makes me even more appreciative of great session musicians who pour all of themselves into each and every project. Fuzz bass enters at 1:49, that’s an old Harmony Bass from the early 60’s. I own two of the same pedal, they’re made by a guy out in California and they sound insane. I EQ all the low end out of it on the way in, basically everything below 800, and it ends up sounding like a chainsaw.
James Gadson cut drums on this track. Musicians all know and respect him, and you love the music he’s made too. Gadson is a great artist and session musician, originally from St Louis who now lives in California. Over the years he’s worked with Bill Withers, Marvin Gaye, Paul McCartney, Beck. I’d asked him for 1-2 takes if possible, cus I didn’t want to wear him out, but he wound up cutting the track 7 times top to bottom because he was really chasing after something he was hearing, and put all of himself and then some into the track. When I think about session musicians whom I want to model myself after, its musicians like Gadson, who are 65+ years into their career, and still give it everything they’ve got, every time. Jonathan Wilson was out on the road, and graciously opened the doors to his studio for us to record Gadson. Thanks JW.
Tape machines were a big part of this album — 4-tracks, 1/4” 2 tracks, 1” 8 tracks — and for all of the sampling software and wonderful pieces of contemporary gear I used on this album, tape machines were the one piece of hardware that allowed me to move forward thru almost every step of the way. We printed all final mixes to 1” tape at my friend Brad’s in Minnesota.
Lastly, my friend John Baldwin mastered the album just before Christmas at his studio in the RCA building.
To take a piece of music all the way inception, out to the desert, then back to Nashville, out to Gadson, then back to tape, felt so free and empowering.
And now, here’s “Moon House” in it’s entirety.