Playing In The Studio

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Todd A

, Recording Tips

When I was in Nashville a while ago, I booked a day in Jeremy Ferguson’s Battle Tapes studio to do one really Tennessee-specific song. Todd K — of the Prudish Few — joined me. We didn’t rehearse anything. I had played the song for Todd a couple of times and made a weak recording on his phone for reference. Mostly, I just wanted him to hear the mood of the song.

At Battle Tapes, Todd unpacked cymbals, mallets, sticks, and a Glockenspiel and I unloaded two acoustic guitars — nylon and steel strings. We’d talked in the car about how to proceed so we hit the ground running. I played the nylon guitar to a click track and then doubled it. Then I put down vocals and doubled them. That was all I had really. From there, we just made it up.

My only idea was the middle of the song, from the second verse section to the end of the bridge, should build and sound traditionally “rock” in its instrumentation. I imagined Todd would add a whole bunch of weird keyboard and Glockenspiel sounds to the other parts. Hearing the cymbal splashes Todd eventually played, I asked Jeremy if he could do something with that sound — extend it and make it sound unnatural to play underneath the acoustic last section of the song.

But those weird and electronic sounds never happened. Todd first laid down a shuffling beat over the verse, chorus, and bridge with no fills. Then he went back and tracked fills, playing separately: cymbals, toms, cowbell, and rims. Todd filled in the emptiness with percussion. Then while I recorded an electric guitar and the steel string acoustic, Todd found a bass harmonica in Jeremy’s control room and added that to the bridge.

I didn’t want a bass guitar in there. I thought a keyboard hitting the bass notes would sound a little more organic with the nylon string acoustic leading the song. But in my limited imagination, the keyboard was just playing the root notes. Todd played something more interesting — an actual bassline.

We all liked the build through the bridge and the fall afterwards to the bare guitar. And that was all it needed. No Glockenspiel, no weird keyboard sounds. Nothing I’d previously imagined. That was important to me. When I get to play or record with other people, I’m trying to practice letting go of my ideas of the song. I feel like I’m pretty good at making the hooks and the skeleton of the song. But the details and features I love putting in someone else’s hands.

There were several moments that afternoon when I got to sit in the recording room or the control room and just watch another person do something he was really good at. It was a great exercise in not exerting an opinion. That’s a huge lesson in being present. You don’t always have to have an opinion. When I was in a band with Todd, I had an opinion on everything, sometimes just to make sure there was a different opinion in the room. It was exhausting.

Making music is so much about play to me, in the childish sense. I wander around my room noodling on my guitar playing with ideas until something strikes me and I hold onto it. Then I stumble across something else and something else until I can start putting it into a structure and making a song. I never sit down and write entire verses out. I don’t play with lyrics or chords or melodies on paper. I do all that while pacing around with a guitar.

Doing one song in one afternoon with a friend on instruments and a friend in the control room was a really cool way to watch other people play with a song and put it into a shape. I’m looking forward to doing that again.

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