The making of any recording project, be it an album, EP, single, or demo, is a journey, an often protracted, sometimes arduous, but always (insert another big word here). Bottom line: it takes a lot of work if you’re gonna get it right.
At the beginning is when we’re most truly engaged and focused on a recording project and time falls away (unless you’re paying hourly). You immerse yourself in the project’s rhythm, not in the sense of cadence or beats, but in its overall flow. Over time, you develop a sense of how easily or not the music is coming forth. Perhaps you’ve even taken note of the conditions that seem most conducive to getting good work and great performances from the artist. By this point, let’s call it the second quarter; things are going smoothly. Communication is clear, down time is minimal, and we’re all busy little beavers in the studio, happily enthusiastic in our work.
Then comes the third quarter.
In my experience, this chapter of a recording project is the most trying. Here we are, having done all of the tracking we wanted to do, even adding some inspired overdubs along the way, but now everyone’s gone home, going about their lives until the next opportunity to work on what means most to them. Here you are. Staring at the canvas and wondering “What’s missing?”
It can’t always be worked out immediately. Some ideas need to incubate. They require undisturbed space to flourish within your subconscious. Sometimes it’s about walking through your life and letting those inspirations find you.
One time, I was really stuck on an EDM (electronic dance music) track. I mean, everything was sounding good, but it just wasn’t inspiring me or anyone else to, well… dance. Then I went out to a random show at a random club and heard some random drummer from some random band play the perfect beat. The only real difference in what he was playing, compared to what we already had, was an open high hat on the upbeats. It had been two weeks and I still hadn’t figured out something that took me two minutes to fix!
I’m finding this dilemma more bearable as time goes on. Nothing instills confidence more than knowing you’ve been up against similar difficulties and persevered before. So I suppose I at least come to expect those dire straits, where my sails are sagging and the water is choppy and I’m secure in the knowledge that the wind will pick up and I will sail to a creative solution… but it’s always a little hairy.
There is, of course, a darker side to this phenomenon.
Nearly all of the unfinished projects I’ve ever stumbled upon were at about this same place in their evolution. Usually, someone just decided it wasn’t happening and simply moved on. Sometimes, it’s because, upon further reflection and with the distance of perspective, it just wasn’t good enough. Or maybe the answers just never revealed themselves and the project was abandoned. Regardless, at three-quarters of the way through a project, you’re pretty invested in it. Emotionally, creatively, and ohhhhh… financially. It probably takes more guts to call the whole thing off then to soldier through and find those answers, but if money is tight and/or you’re trying to make a living from this… that just isn’t an option.
So you pick up your brush and paint a little. One color suggests another as the brush strokes continue to propagate; you fill, shade, and highlight what has come before and what emerges next. Suddenly, you step back to take it all in again… perhaps you’re not done yet, but you finally see the way. It’s a path toward not just completion but also of excellence. This is one of my favorite moments in the process. It’s as if you were blindfolded for little bit there and then someone lifted it off for you to see again. You’re not just happy that you can see the way, but you’re also happy just to see!
My favorite way of powering through that third quarter block for the last 15 years has been pedal steel player Doug Meyer. He was the right balance of talent, creativity, positivity, and calm.
He’d try just about anything, too. There have been dozens of songs that I couldn’t envision creative solutions for, but Doug did. He’d just start playing what came most naturally to him and as he did, it often seemed as though he was lifting us all up higher, so that we could all see the bigger picture from a better vantage point. Genre was irrelevant to him: country, pop, Cajun, art rock, or folk; it was all just music to my friend Doug, who died last month.
He always brought me some new music to listen to at every session, too. Sometimes it was an obscure artist that slipped through the cracks; other times something more current and, usually, it featured some amazing guitar playing. He often gracefully accepted invitations to jams and other shows and, just as often, was simply there to support from the audience.
I loved him so much — for his honesty, his truth in being. His “I’m okay, you’re okay” poise. I’m glad I’m left with all of his amazing colors that still enliven the vistas of so many recordings, both for myself and others.
I’ve often said Doug’s playing is like ketchup, it tastes good on everything. My cooking will never be the same without him and those hard parts will be even harder to get through now.
Sven-Erik Seaholm is an award-winning producer and recording artist. His latest album The Sexy comes out this month and features some of the gorgeous pedal steel work of the late Doug Meyer. (See review in this issue).