1/21/09 Wednesday, aboard flight from LA to Taipei
Having just finished two very densely packed weeks of production in LA, I’m now aboard a flight back to Taipei. What made the two weeks even more challenging was that I was also moving out of my current residence in LA so there was a major amount of organizing and packing. Over the past few years, it seems that whenever I’m back to LA (however short the duration of my stay) I’m always very inundated with errands to run and things to take care of. As much as I’d like to relax and enjoy my time there, it seems more like a rat race for me. My friend and engineer, Craig, describes it best as “cramming a year of living” into a few weeks time. It can be very energizing and euphoric but it’s definitely not something I plan for nor something I necessarily always enjoy. Unfortunately, it’s a product of having too much to do with too little time. So what’s new, right?
As the concept and production of the album weighed on my mind, I officially began my overdubs last week with several musicians at Glenwood Studios in Burbank. The early stages of production of an album are very much like the early stages of a love affair. You don’t quite know how you stand with the other person nor do you know how you even feel. There is this great rush of emotion but at the same time you feel trepidation and fear in making the wrong move or losing everything. Things become magnified ten times, exaggerated, and often putting things into perspective becomes very difficult. If the saying “love blinds you” is true then in my case the creative process blinds me during production. And like in love, I am filled with all the similar emotions all at once: passion, fear, elation and confusion. Henceforth, the term “tortured” is often synonymous with artists and the creative process.
Our first two days of overdubs was with a drummer named Shawn Pelton. I’ve been an admirer of his playing for about 8 years but only until now had the chance to work with him. Now let me clarify one thing for all of you who aren’t familiar with album production and especially working with musicians. Hiring these top musicians doesn’t always guarantee success or what you want. The musician may have a ton of credits up his sleeve and be technically amazing but he might not be suited for your music. Some musicians play a certain style with ease yet stumble through another style of music. A few years ago, I was looking for an acoustic guitar player for one of my songs and a friend of mine referred me to his guitar professor. This guitar professor had quite a lot of sessions under his belt and was also a music professor at one of the leading music universities in the US. You can’t go wrong with a guitar professor, right? Well, turns out everything went wrong because he simply couldn’t come up with parts for the song or even play the ideas I had sung for him. In his defense, his attitude was very professional and he was willing to do take after take to get things right. However, studio time was ticking at over a hundred dollars an hour and so I had decided to end the session early letting him go. In the end, I realized that I should’ve went with my gut instinct and not hired him because he was actually a jazz guitar professor (which I did know at the outset) and not a rock or pop player. You might ask why can’t a jazz player play rock, pop or even classical? There are no set rules, of course, but musicians (like any other people) have their own styles, personal likes and dislikes, and idiosyncrasies. A jazz guitar might possess the technical ability to play a rock tune but he might not possess the right feel or attitude. Therefore, matching the right musician with the right style of music is very important and one of the key roles of the producer. Just like casting an actor for a part in a movie, the director and casting director must study and understand the nuances of an actor before knowing if he or she will be right for a part.
Shawn was flown in from New York to LA especially for this session and so I definitely didn’t want a repeat of what happened with the jazz guitar player a few years back. With both anticipation and trepidation, we started our session in the morning at 11am, as I first picked up Shawn from his hotel. After an hour of dialing in our sounds (setting up real drums for recording involves a lot of mic placement, level checking, drum adjustment, EQ’ing, etc.), we started on our first track “Just Can’t Believe” (working title). At that point, all my concerns were relieved as Shawn simply sounded amazing and just like I had hoped for and more! His feel and groove was laid back sitting perfectly in the track and his drums had a very signature tone that I’ve always craved for in my productions. Kudos also to Craig for his great ears and engineering! I had also worried that Shawn might be difficult to work with especially since New Yorkers are known for their edginess but he was a sweetheart and also very methodical which I didn’t expect. All in all, the two days with him in Studio A were a dream and I can’t wait for you guys to hear the final results. Over the course of the week, we did bass, guitar, pedal steel, organ, electric piano, vibraphone and even real marimba overdubs with some incredible musicians as well. It was the most musical fun I’ve had in a long time and it was such a pleasure and learning experience working with all the musicians-many of which I’ve worked with for the first time. I could go on and on in detail about the sessions, however, a picture is worth a thousand words and, so, I’ll be posting video up on various websites for you to watch. The most painful part, however, was that I was juggling packing and moving the last few days which not only was tough on my body but also on my hands which I needed to use in the evenings playing guitar. In the end, I had to cut a couple sessions short as my hands were simply out of strength.
It’s interesting to note that this album has the least amount of MIDI and sampled instruments and more of the real stuff. I didn’t purposely choose to go this direction but it’s just the way things turned out. Perhaps I felt I was returning to my roots and playing in a rock band that I wanted to keep everything live. Musicians now live in an age of constantly debating which way to go or which seems to be better. The computer age has definitely changed the way music is made and heard but it doesn’t always translate to better music. Going into the studio and recording live drums, bass and guitars (or anything real instrument for that matter) really reminds you what music is all about. The imperfections and individual touch of each instrument and musician breathes life into music and which is something the listener might not technically understand but definitely feels and appreciates on a gut level. I often like to say that a live recording of a not-so-great quality piano is still better and more organic than perfectly sampled 100GB software generated piano. Unfortunately, in Chinese pop music (and the majority of pop music for that matter) that is what we hear 90% of the time. It has come the point that a lot of younger musicians and producers don’t even know what some of these musical instruments look like let alone how they are played and used in music. What we are left with now are digital copies and snapshots of the real things. If everything eventually can be digitally cloned or imprinted, does that mean we can also “copy and paste” the meaning and emotions behind them? How does one thing exist without the other? Or are they, in fact, separate things?
With that being said, technology has always co-existed with the creative process and it forever will be. The key, however, is how it is utilized and whether it in turn generates something empirically original.
All the songs have been written and I will be working on lyrics as well as some programming and guitar overdubs over the next few weeks. This is what I call the “fleshing out” phase at which I put the meat and skin on the bones. The skeletal framework has been laid out and it’s some of the finest and most solid work that’s appeared on my albums. Even though Chinese New Year is around the corner, I’ll be working through it while spending quality time with my family. For some strange reason, I enjoy working during the holidays, as it seems like the only time I’m not blanketed with phone calls, emails and other distractions. It’s a tranquil and quiet period in which I can completely escape into my little world from the big world we live in. I hope many of you can experience this sense of serenity and relaxation during the upcoming weeks as well.
I wish the Year of the Ox brings you less “bull” and more genuine moments of joy, awareness, prosperity and love.
Happy Chinese New Year