FAWM 2015 retrospectacle
For the third year in a row, I took part in the madness that is February Album Writing Month (FAWM), writing (and/or co-writing) and recording an entire album of 14 songs in 28 days.
As with previous years, the recordings where I collaborated with others were particularly memorable, so big thanks are in order for Dave Benham, Rick Veader, Kate Fleming, Lexa, Joe Scala, and Mosno.
The Writing Process
Typically, I don’t try to dictate what type of music I end up with when writing over such a short span of time, and this year I almost ended up with 14 different genres!
Like last year, I picked two words around which to build the themes for the album, chosen at random in a dictionary (my Arabic dictionary this time … I like to make sure I’m surprised!). They were “drown” and “evidence.” You can’t make this stuff up! Consequently, I ended up with songs about water (“The Brigandine” and “Dry Town”; “Gold Rush” and “Oh Brother” also have connections to water in the lyrics), trust (broken or kept), crime (“Dakota” for a serious song and “Bad Luck, Jack” for a nonserious) , and other related themes. The “evidence” theme also led to a lot of thinking about history and how we record, reconstruct, and examine it. “The Brigandine,” “Gold Rush,” “1851,” “The Field of Agincourt,” and even “The Last of My Kind” came directly out of that take on the theme.
Unlike previous years, I ignored the weekly challenges for the most part and just focused on taking whatever opportunities to create that came along — but I did write a couple things that fit a select few challenges, the biggest being the “epic outro” challenge for “Last of My Kind.”
Here’s the entire playlist, along with some notes about each song.
1. Oh Brother (Ain’t It Hard) — A Welch/Rawlings-style recording of a song made to sound like classic American Apalachian folk.
2. Southeastern Breeze — An instrumental with guitar, mandolin, and banjo. The recording sounds like bluegrass, but the tune itself is closer to Maritime. My favorite part of this was learning the same tune on multiple instruments in the course of a day. Went to Teavolve’s Open Mic in the middle, came back and nailed the mandolin in a couple takes.
3. Dry Town — A completely fuzzed-out rocker (probably the most aggressive song I’ve ever written), but with lyrics inspired by Woody Guthrie’s Dust Bowl Ballads. It is about the current droughts in California and more broadly about our use of natural resources. It was inspired by this famous photo.
4. Dakota — With David Benham on Native American flute. This is story about a woman assaulted on the Yankton Reservation in South Dakoka. Her assailant is a non-native — reservation police had (and still have to some extent) a problem investigating, much less prosecuting, non-natives who commit crimes on reservations and then leave. Many poorer reservations also have problems with higher instances of violence against women (not just sexual violence as here but domestic violence as well). Banjo and native flute are a magical combination, and there is more material from mine and David’s session.
5. The Brigandine — With Rick Veader on pennywhistle. Peter Easton was the most successful pirate that ever lived — yet most people haven’t heard of him. This is a story about someone who joins a crew in Britsol as a fisherman, but the captain of his ship hates Easton for having cut off his hand as punishment for escaping press-ganged service. The captain pays gold as protection money to Easton (a standard bit of racketeering), and when it comes time to pay again, he fires his (no doubt inferior) cannons at Easton’s ships. The pirates make short work of the narrator’s vessel, murder the captain by hanging him from the rigging until he freezes to death and then dump his body in shallow water wrapped in the mainmast, and take the rest of the crew prisoner. Notable: It’s a folk song in 7/4, with one bar of 6/4 in the chorus.
6. (Someone Please) Have Mercy On Me — This one got a lot of comparisons to Gram Parsons’s Flying Burrito Brothers, so I guess that’s what it sounds like. I try not to talk too much about my personal beliefs, but this one’s about where we go when we die, which I believe is “nowhere,” and making the most of your time while here.
7. Bad Luck, Jack — It was Friday 13th, so I started thinking of horrible ways to go. Then I just created a couple guys going around knocking people off, and the body count kept climbing. The really fun thing with this one was the recording process, where I figured out how to make my guitar sound almost exactly like a horn section!
8. Gold Rush — A slow, majestic waltz narrated by the ghost of a California gold miner who lost everything in pursuit of riches. I think this is the first time I’ve played keys (piano and organ) on a public recording.
9. I Thought You Were the Wind — This is a story of an immigrant who loses his friend/role model to a bad situation. I left the lyrics intentionally vague, so it could be about a lover, friend, older sibling, etc., and there are many different kinds of trouble that they could have gotten into. However, I will let you know that while writing it, I actually had the brothers in mind from last year’s “Hold Tight,” but told from another perspective and with a different outcome … characters are as mutable as situations, sometimes. Southwest flavor with guitars and what I think is some of my best mandolin playing.
10. 1851 (Allons Enfants) — France’s 1848 revolution had an incredibly ironic outcome: Not only did it fail to reestablish the republic after deposing the last king of France (who was comparatively reasonable as Monarchs go) but the elections that followed saw a Napoleon elected President and — wouldn’t you know it, just like the last two guys named “Napoleon,” he declared himself emperor after a little bit of time in office pretending he totally wasn’t going to do that. I realized that someone could have been a child at the time of the first revolution (old enough to remember and understand what was happening) and still be young enough to be approached to “do his part” by revolutionaries in 1851. In the song he tells them why he won’t bother supporting them, because he thinks that it will end just as badly as it did before. The arrangement has some intentional resemblance to Knopfler’s “Done With Bonaparte.”
11. This was a collaboration with Kate Fleming, called “One Little Paper.” Kate unfortunately had a cold at the time, so, out of respect for her, so I will keep it private until she gets a chance to do the vocal to her satisfaction.
12. The Field of Agencourt (King Henry) — With Lexa Hartman on bodhran. I was surprised to find that there are a dearth of battle ballads about this very famous king and battle, at least in English. So I decided to write one. I played pennywhistle on this, which was another first for me.
13. The Last of My Kind — Caveman rock! This was written for the “extinct species” challenge given by a member of the FAWM forums. I picked … Homo neanderthalensis. There is a narrated poem backed by a massive amount of percussion and chanting (Lexa helped again), but stick around for a huge musical shift for the epic outro. The song/poem/thing as a whole was inspired by — and constructed somewhat similarly to — Italo Calvino’s “The Dinosaurs” from Cosmicomics (one of my favorite books … it also gave me the title of the second Midway Fair album).
14. We Are Travelling/Compagnie Generale Aeropostale — With Mosno and Joe Scala. This is a cinematic suite of recordings we made based on an idea Joe had: a pilot crashes in the desert and is rescued by Bedouins, who he has to convince to take him back to the city. I wrote the lyrics for the pilot and then wrote the verse in Arabic, which Mosno edited and sang lead on, and then we did a live recording of both songs. Joe created the plane crash (believe it or not, that’s a bass guitar), and we made sound effects, then edited everything together. This was so much fun we’ve made tentative plans to expand it into something larger. One of the best days I’ve ever had recording music!
The Recording Process
In 2013, my first year completing the challenge, everything was done as a one-take video. Last year, I had just gotten my digital home recording setup, which allowed me to do some overdubs to enhance the recordings, which was especially important for songs that needed harmony vocals and two guitars. The recordings sounded more substantial but certainly still had a hand-crafted feeling even when I wanted a fully produced sound. Both years I thought I ended up with a few decent songs that have since appeared in my set lists both solo and with my band, Midway Fair.
This year, I went one step further and decided to create more fully produced tracks and playing a wider array of instruments. In fact, I’m downright proud of the list of instruments I played:
Guitars (of course)
Piano, organ, and synthesized accordion
Pennywhistle (first time!)
Bodhran and some other types of percussion
Lionel’s Cigar Box Guitar (see here)
Drum machine programming
And lots and lots of vocals
For nearly all the tracks, each individual instrument was an overdub. Last year I typically did the vocals and acoustic guitar simultaneously, which led to a lot of doubled vocals because I still wanted to get the lead vocals just right. This year I didn’t really use stacked vocals at all but instead went with a lot of two-part harmony throughout the song (and plenty of three-or-more-part harmony on the choruses), which gives the songs a different feel, more polished maybe. The recordings were definitely cleaner, but they were also easier to mix despite having more tracks, and not just because I’ve gotten much better at the recording aspects in the past year.
I also think the biggest strides I’ve made in recording and writing since last year are improving what parts I play on each instrument. Too often in the past I would overdub a part and either scrap it entirely because it was messy or try to bury it in the mix … leaving a messy part buried in the mix. Recently, I’ve started simply avoiding the EQ for a lot of parts and focusing more on playing the right thing. Granted I don’t always succeed and there are times when I could have stopped playing or one instrument is stepping on another, but I think I’m getting there, and the result is recordings that sound a lot fuller but not as messy.
My mixing skills overall still need a ton of work, but that’s a lifelong pursuit.
I’ll try to keep this brief, but for the gearheads, this is what I used:
1. Interface and DAW: Scarlett 18i8 with Logic Pro X.
2. Plugins: I used no third-party plugins.
Nearly all of the compression is the “Vintage FET” and “Vintage Opto” plugins. These were my primary tone shaping tools in post as well. — I used almost no EQ throughout, except as an effect (such as the vocals on “Bad Luck, Jack”) or to correct shortcomings in an instrument (such as the piano on “Gold Rush”).
I used the rotary cabinet simulator in a couple places, which I find to be a very useful effect, but it was also the “amp” used for the acoustic on “Bad Luck Jack.”
For reverbs, I stuck mainly to the presets for the vocal plate, short ambiance, and large hall with very few exceptions. Most often I would turn on a preset and then delete the EQ and redo the compression settings just to keep the reverb settings, which usually required very little adjustment for my purposes. I do think the reverbs are still the least convincing aspects of Logic, but this is likely user error on my part, as they allow you to shape them in every conceivable way. I was at least much better about it this year than last.
I used the Tape Delay plugin in a few places (especially the vocal on “Last of My Kind”) and also used it as a “tape head” filter in a couple places. It adds a nice compression and distortion when set 100% wet with 0ms of delay and will also do through-zero flanging when needed.
The Spectral Gate plugin got a couple seconds of use in “The Last of My Kind” for the utter insanity at the end. Man, I want to turn that into a pedal, but it would be hyooooooooj.
I used a stereo tremolo plugin on “We Are Travelling” and on some sound effects.
One of the vocal tracks on “Bad Luck, Jack” used the pedal plugin for a treble booster.
3. Amps: Every electric guitar and bass track was recorded using Sakura, the 5W amp me and my dad built. I never felt like I wanted anything else, and despite the low wattage, I thought it worked just find on bass!
4. Acoustic guitars: I used my Crafters of Tennessee mahogany dreadnaught (similar to a D-18) for all of the acoustic parts that used a pick. I did use it on one or two fingerpicked parts when I thought the sound was more appropriate. Most of the fingerpicked acoustic parts were done with my Koa Larrivee D-05.
5. Electric guitars: On “Dry Town” I used my 50th Anniversary Sheraton for the rhythm and lead, and the red tele for the secondary lead. The Sheraton reappears as the “horns” on “Bad Luck, Jack.” The red tele also makes appearances as the lead guitar on “Someone Please” (middle pickup) and “Allons Enfants” (neck and middle). All other electric guitar parts were the DonQuixotecaster, usually on the neck and middle pickups.
6. Bass: Epiphone Viola bass.
7. Keyboard: My Roland FP5 provided the piano, organ, and accordion sounds used on the album. I did have to do a lot of post production for the piano and organ (EQ for the piano and a rotary cabinet sim for the organ), but overall it was more than adequate for my needs.
8. Microphones: I really abused the Sennheiser MK4. It appears on every track, and there were several tracks where it was the only microphone used. I did use a Sennheiser e609 for a couple guitar tracks, an AT2021 when I wanted a darker sound for something, and an AT2020 for the acoustic on “We Are Travelling.”
9. Pedals: For the most part, I didn’t need to deviate from my main pedalboard.
Compressors: Nearly every electric guitar and bass part used my Bearhug Compressor first in line. I also use compressors a lot in post, so there are typically multiple layers of compression.
Delay: I used the El Capistan for the delay on most of the tracks that have it, though I did use some post-processing delay on a few things. The “chorus” pedal on “We Are Travelling” is the other delay pedal on my main board, a Malekko 616.
Distortion: “Winnie the Pooh and Some Bees” fuzz, the one that Luke from Luck Duck pedals built me a long time ago before I started building (and the fuzz that lives on my main pedalboard) is the main dirt pedal (besides the amp itself driven by a MOSFET booster) on the outro to “Last of My Kind.” The Snow Day OD makes an appearance during the solos on “Dry Town.” A couple fuzzes I built appear on other tracks: the Rust Bunny is the primary fuzz sound on “Dry Town,” and the Tea and Crumpets fuzz is part of the “horn” sound on “Bad Luck, Jack.” Lots more clean electric on here!
Volume pedal: Ernie Ball VP for volume swells.
Filters: I don’t use filter effects very often, but when you need ’em, you need ’em! A major part of the “horn” sound on “Bad Luck, Jack” was the Something’s Fishy pedal, an FSH-1 clone, set to a short decay and short attack.
Tremolo: The Tap Tempo Cardinal makes an appearance on “Dry Town” on the Sheraton lead track.
10. Drums: Unfortunately, for the most part, if you hear a drum, it’s programmed. However, there is some improvised hand percussion on “The Last of My Kind” and “Bad Luck, Jack,” and Lexa’s bodhran on “The field of Agincourt” is of course real.
11. Other stuff: No idea what the pennywhistles were. The harmonica on “1851” is a Hohner. The cigar box guitar on “The Last of My Kind” was made by Lionel on the BYOC forum.
I think that’s everything!
Out of the three FAWMs I’ve done, I ended this one feeling much better about the output than previous years. I had a few clear favorites in previous years, and a couple songs each year that I thought were pretty lousy, but I can say pretty confidently that this year I have no regrets. Sure there are a couple places where I wish I’d had more time to really nail a certain part (particularly vocals, which are tough on songs I haven’t internalized), a couple vocals that could have used more practice, and some mixes that could have been improved with more time, or a couple lines that I might revise in the future, but what album isn’t like that?
Now I have to decide what to do with the recordings, if anything. I have considered having the backing vocals replaced with the other people in Midway Fair and overdubbing real drums for some songs to use on future recordings. Of course, then they would need to be remixed, and I’d probably want to redo a few things in a real studio … and, and, and. I’ll just live with it for a while and see what happens!
I also want to link to two people’s albums I was very impressed by.
The first is Gardening Angel from Spokane, WA — this was her first FAWM. To me she sounds like Beth Orton and Tom Waits got together to make an album together. Fantastic heartfelt writing and voice. “Big Blue Jar” is my favorite on here.
Another is Lightning Streak Dave, who wrote a concept about the robot dystopian future, with the opposition led by Donald Duck, told from the perspective of a dozen characters including what must be the last living DJ. “Steamboat Cleanup Crew” in particular is utterly spectacular, some sort of marriage of industrial, blues, and chain gang music. Exceptionally creative and expansive recordings.
Joe Scala of course also completed his 14 songs, taking a different tack from previous years and working on several songs at once. He actually wrote 3 songs on Saturday the 28th and recorded 6 in the same day, so he totally Please Please Me-ed it! It’s a shame the recordings with Chris Durm and Tony Colato had some technical difficulties, because they were cool songs that I am excited to play at Marksmen shows. Also, check it out: Katie Scala has a co-writing credit on “Let Me Your Light”!
Song Sources – “(Can’t Swim in the) Harbor”
This is part of a series I’m doing on the tracks on the new EP, Baltimericana. To read the other parts of this series, simply click on the tag “Song Sources” above.
The song started with a riff that came to me while driving down Calvert Street one morning a few years ago. It got stuck in my head on repeat and eventually the words “Can’t swim in the harbor” came to mind. I think I had read a news story about how for all intents and purposes the Baltimore harbor might never support life during my lifetime due to the pollution levels that have been present for centuries. That or maybe I was just remembering the bilge water and floating trash caught in one of the little nets that run in the miniature canals that abut the streets in Fell’s Point. Sometimes I look at those and think that jumping into the water a mere five feet down is about as dangerous as jumping from the top of the Bromo-Seltzer tower.
I can actually remember the first time I noticed just how polluted the harbor was. I must have been about ten and was coming home with my parents from some function downtown. We were walking near where the Aquarium is and crossed over a small bridge; there was just tons of trash caught in a net there. Continue reading →