28. The Fishbowl
On Monday, I went into a small studio in Nashville to record the demo of a song I wrote, called “Jenny”. It’s a pretty personal song; the story is inspired by my first blog post.
We got to the studio and I sat down at a huge MIDI keyboard. As my hands pressed down, I could hear a cued-up C7 concert grand sample being piped through the loudspeakers, simulating the ambience of performing in a vast, empty recital hall. Having practiced my new song like a madwoman over the past five days, I laid down the piano track in one take, each note showing on the screen as a gray, manipulatable tick on a large grid.
The next two hours went as normal, at least as normal as recording music has become for me. All the tips, tricks and mental block-breakers line themselves up at the forefront of my mind: I know I have about three vocal takes before you can audibly hear me thinking in my performance; I know that auto tune exists and is my friend; and I know that the more I just say the words of the song with as little emotional affectation as possible, the better it sounds. People don’t want to be told how to feel, as my genius of a vocal coach has said on numerous occasions.
But I remember a time when I had no such knowledge; I can think back clearly to the feelings I had when I was a novice at all things studio: be it a living room in Flower Mound, a home studio in Colleyville, or a multimillion-dollar complex where Justin Timberlake had recorded only the month before.
The very first time I ever stood in front of a microphone and sang for a computer was when I was about 13 or 14, having already begun writing music and in the deep, muddy trenches of boy-craziness. I had a crush on our neighbor, who just happened to be into Ben Folds Five too and knew how to work GarageBand on his home computer. We were at his house when I played him one of my very first finished songs, “One State Down” (about yet another boy who lived in Oklahoma—and I was in Texas...get it?), who I was also obsessed with. Neighbor boy sat behind his drum set (I winced at how loud it was in the room, having never been around one in real life up to that point) and he patted out a simple beat to cover the length of my song. To his first track, I nervously played my diligently rehearsed piano part, one I had painstakingly learned how to sing over while playing at the same time. Keeping my lips tightly closed, I swallowed the fear bubbling up inside me and made it through the song in a few takes. After many hours, vocal takes, and layered background oohs and aahs, I was dropped off at my house at 11pm on a school night (mom and dad were not enthused), but with a burned cd in my hand. Bounding into my parents’ bedroom with a boom box, I placed the cd in the tray and coaxed the machine to play the song. When my voice appeared in the air, I cherished the look of genuine surprise on their faces. Triumphantly, I had made my debut as a recording artist. Within a few months, my dad found me a great vocal coach in Dallas and drove me the 30-40 minutes each month for regular lessons.
A few years later, at age 15, I had racked up enough original songs to warrant what people told me was called an “EP”, or a CD consisting of 5-7 tracks. Through my vocal coach, we were connected with a man in Dallas who produced such recordings out of his home, with multiple instruments and a polished sound for an affordable price. Over some weeks, I was driven to his house to lay down the vocal and piano tracks for my songs. I was once again staring down the barrel of a mic, this time with a pop filter (mesh screen to catch harsh syllables or rogue spit) attached. This time, with no boy my age in the room to impress, I was self conscious. The art of singing into an inanimate object, for no one in particular, was daunting. How was I supposed to conjure up the feelings necessary to sound believable? How was this song supposed to come alive if everything around me felt lifeless?
The following summer, I was crammed into the tiny back seat (a fold-down tray big enough for one butt cheek) of a miniature pickup truck coming home from the Oklahoma church camp I attended every year. My friend driving told the passenger seat rider to reach inside a thick pouch full of organized CDs to search for the one with my face on it. She slid it into the disc reader, and the sound of my EP filled the car as we flew down the highway. I felt proud as they listened.
The final stage to my solo-recording orientation was massive: Maximedia Studios, the big kahuna for all your recording needs in North Dallas...if you had the cash. I did not, but my fledgling band had an awesome new drummer who worked there and could squeeze in an hour or two of free recording time. I remember sitting at a cream-colored baby grand piano, shining in spots where the artfully choreographed spotlights overhead worked their expensive magic to mood light the soundproofed booth. There was no other vibe in that tiny cube other than intimidation, as the recording engineer had just informed me that Evanescence had used the same piano three days ago, and Amy Lee chose to keep the lid closed while SHE sang and played, like I was about to do. I felt the blood seep from my hands as I laid them on the keys. To this day, I know I’m really nervous when I’ve got cold, clammy playing hands.
Even now, almost fifteen years later, I still hear that click track tic-tic-ticking me in and know that what’s coming next out of my mouth or what notes my fingers play are out of my control until the man behind the faders hits STOP. Anything I could have done to prepare myself for the best possible take is in the past; all that matters now is me, there in the void, swimming through an untamed ocean of creation. I may have learned a few things by now: just three takes; that I like the click on halftime if possible (helps me feel the groove better); and that I need to stand/sit still, and save the choreography for the stage. Apart from those little aphorisms play through my mind, like a tennis player straightening his right sock prior to every serve, I have no say over where things go from there. What comes back to me over the net is never what I expect, but I stand ready for the next big backhand, the second verse coming up fast, or the final, show-stopping high note. In the end, I just find myself happily back in the fishbowl again with a single spotlight, a pencil on a music stand, and a microphone ready and waiting for a long conversation. This is what I love to do.