Zen of Recording

Digging for Gold (Can Give You More Than Dirty Fingernails)

Squinting into the sunny glare coming off the Pacific Ocean, I felt the realization slowly creep up on me, like the kush and sativa wisps of smoke curling through the streetlights and sidewalk signs of Newport Avenue: It’d been a very long time since I last visited Ocean Beach.

Even now, I was only here on business, having unexpectedly been gifted a box and a half of CDs that I had sold or given away prior to moving to Utah, a trip that found me returning to San Diego (sans the majority of my music collection) a mere six months later.

Since then, I have been primarily relying upon Google Play as the conduit of choice between myself and popular music. In addition to accessing time-worn favorites that suddenly pop into my memory like toast I forgot I was making, I spend quite a bit of my allotted time for music listening fishing into the murky depths of the New Releases section. This is often a frustrating exercise, fraught with red herrings, broken lines and the old tires, bulging forth like uninvited gas from a Sombrero’s burrito.

Still, I believe there is great value in this for all who create, record, mix, master, and produce music. Every lyric is a message, every beat a lesson. Or vice versa. They are maps we may follow into the unknown or that guide us out of the arid wilderness of mediocrity. Many have questioned my unquenchable thirst for the new, the undiscovered, that which has yet been unheard by my own ears. They say “why not build upon the proven standbys?” Certainly the music of the Beatles, the Stones, Hank Williams, Motown, Buddy Holly, Howlin’ Wolf, CSN&Y, Brian Wilson, Stevie Wonder, Chuck Berry… I mean, let’s face it, that list could go on for weeks, months, or maybe even years, and haven’t they already done it best? Well, yes, but not exactly. They were all musical giants who stood upon the shoulders of the musical giants that preceded them, who were in fact standing upon the shoulders of titans, goliaths, and leviathans of creativity themselves.

The point is that music is an ongoing and ever-evolving conversation and while we naturally tune in more to what we most viscerally respond to and hold tight to the way it makes us feel, there is knowledge and wisdom to be gleaned from almost everywhere, not just from the past into the present, but laterally, from adjacent genres as far afield from our comfort zones as hip hop, EDM, and teen pop.

A good example from my own experience is the NBC songwriting competition television show Songland. The show features three currently successful songwriter/producers (Ryan Tedder, Ester Dean, and Shane McAnally) who are joined each week by a popular recording artist (John Legend, Jonas Brothers, Black-Eyed Peas’ Will.I.Am, etc.) looking for their next big hit single. Each of the four aspiring songwriters bring in an original song and perform it to the four panelists. After each performance, there is some impromptu discussion from the panelists of the song and some “what if we tried this, instead of this?” styled improvising of possible improvements. Three of the four songs are subsequently selected and assigned to one of the producers, who collaborates with the song’s writer to create a finished version that is again presented to the guest artist, who must choose a winner. Each winning song is released on the night of its show’s airing and to their credit, out of 11 episodes so far, six of those songs went into the Billboard top ten. Not bad.

Not always good, either, because for every song that was admittedly elevated beyond its wildest inspiration and aspirations, I’ve seen these same folks destroy some of the most heartfelt, beautifully honest compositions into some of the most nauseatingly gawd awful tripe I’ve ever struggled to un- hear.

Still, there’s a solid takeaway for many of us: absorbing the modern lexicon of songcraft. That certainly doesn’t mean that I, for one, am going to aim what I write or produce at making it more palatable or saleable to the same audience as Macklemore or Meghan Trainor, but it does keep me informed as to what those ears expect and allows me to carry on a musical dialogue with an artist who is leaning in that direction.

I dug through the crates at Cow Records as Al Howard (my favorite local writer) tallied up the store credit for the stuff I brought and came up with some real treasures: a “lost” mid-’60s album from a young folk blues band called Rising Sons, featuring Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder; Le Noise, a Neil Young album in collaboration with noted producer Daniel Lanois; Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska; a weird Harry Shearer comedy album called Dropping Anchors, which pays homage to TV news icons; a Henry Rollins spoken-word collection from 1990 that hints at what a great performer he had yet to become; I Might Be Wrong, a Radiohead live compilation; William Shatner Has Been, produced by Ben Folds; and the pièce de résistance: Brotherhood, a fantastic Isley Brothers anthology that I enjoy playing at a very LOUD volume!

In addition to the listening enjoyment that most of these titles brought to the music fan in me, all of these selections had other little educational nuggets to impart, from the inventive guitar and percussion interplay of the Isleys to the four-tracked cassette intimacy of Nebraska to the unbridled energy of the young Taj and Cooder.

The illuminating path of the student is, thankfully, a road that never ends.

Sven-Erik Seaholm is a singer, songwriter, producer, and learner. kitschandsync@hotmail.com

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