Here we are at the end of Week 13. It’s hard to believe but we’ve just passed the quarter year mark. This year does seem to be flying by. But at the same time, this process has been a real challenge for me and the thought of writing, recording and releasing 39 more songs before the end of the year is a bit daunting (to say the least). As I keep telling myself, ‘Head down and one song at a time. We will get there.’
Before sharing my notes on The Great Divide, I was thinking this might be a good point to reflect back a bit on how things are going. If you want to bypass this self-reflection and get right to the song notes, just jump ahead a few paragraphs.
From the songwriting side, things have been going alright. Songwriting comes fairly naturally to me. I haven’t struggled too much with writer’s block (I’ve just jinxed myself) although given my weekly deadline, the blank page has been bringing about some panic. However, what I’ve found over the years (and what has been reinforced these last 13 weeks) is that if I stay with it for an hour or two, something will come. I’ve heard many writers describe it as the sh#*ty first draft. It might not be very good but it’s something on the page (or in my phone’s voice recorder) that I can come back and react to later. It starts the ball rolling. My experience has proven this to be true.
The bigger challenge has been finding the time to edit the lyrics, figure out what the song is about, get familiar with it, etc. I’m not fortunate enough to make a full time living with music, so this 52 in 52 adventure has had to be balanced with the demands of work and a young family, finding and making time to do it. As I’ve mentioned several times in this blog, I’m often tweaking lyrics right up to and during my recording of the vocals. It doesn’t feel great to be doing it this way but I’ve come to accept it as part of this deadline driven process. Another notable facet of this last minute writing is that I’m just not as familiar with the songs as I would be if I’d been singing them for a few weeks. I often have to stop recording and reference some of my phone’s voice recorder tracks from when I was first writing the song.
From the music recording and production side, this year has been a great learning experience. I don’t love working by myself, but one of hopes for this year was to develop some self-sufficiency. Everyone talks about how today’s technology allows you to do everything yourself. It’s true, although I still believe that it doesn’t give you the greatest end result. There is something very valuable and important to the idea of collaboration. That said, the things I’m learning to do and hear will be helpful going forward whatever my musical future might bring.
I do wish I had more time to play around with the technology. I spend so much time tweaking and editing the lyrics and structure of the song that it leaves little time for experimentation. A nice ratio would maybe be a week’s worth of playing around with new sounds, effects and recording techniques and then a week of writing and putting out a new song. But I didn’t commit to 26 in 52 so that’s not my lot this year. However, I do hope I can experiment a bit over the course of the year (and not lose any listeners). Time will tell, but it is my intention. I do believe that the more I know and understand about the technology, the better off I’ll be.
Now, getting back to The Great Divide. First things first, this song is not autobiographical. I know I don’t need to put that out there but when my wife hears one of my songs like this, she’ll joke, ‘What are people going to think?’ Glad to set that straight…
It all started (surprise!) at the acoustic guitar with some very simple strumming. (You really can’t get more basic than this one.) As I was improvising some lyrics, the words popped out - ‘I took the freeway east to Denver, Colorado, still a long, long way from Nashville, Tennessee.’ Of all the lines I had come up with, these were the most fun to sing. They had a certain feel to them. So after that first writing session, I decided I’d try to build a story and song around it. The challenge would come in figuring out what that story would be.
Because of the geographic references, the first thing I did was go to Google maps to get a sense of what freeways go east to Denver. (I actually call them highways here but west coast folks call them freeways and that’s how the line popped out.) I decided the character was coming from California and in my initial drafts, he was coming from Los Angeles. From there, I tried to build a story. And as I said, that was probably the biggest challenge this week.
I went through about four or five ideas. Early in the process, I had written the line - ‘It’ll be a cold day in hell before you come back home to me’. I loved singing it and was determined to keep it, so that (for me) made it a relationship song. The back and forth during the lyric writing was really around is he going to find her in Nashville or did she leave him in LA and he’s decided to head back home to Nashville, etc.
As I got to about the fourth or fifth draft, I decided that he was running from her and if I wanted to keep my fun ‘cold day in hell’ line, I had to tweak it. That’s when it became ‘It’ll be a cold day in hell before you see the likes of me.’ I also decided that he wasn’t leaving LA but somewhere in the small town desert areas of eastern California.
Also starting to develop at this point was this idea of giving some symbolism to his crossing the Continental Divide. I conveniently realized that he’d be crossing it near Denver and thought that maybe I could work the idea of how things run downhill away from this geographic point into what’s going on in his psyche. Thankfully, the Continental Divide is also known as the Great Divide. It’s much easier to sing.
As for recording this week, I thought this was a good song with which to try something new. I track everything in front of my computer. My little home office/studio does not have ideal acoustics and I do get some weird resonances which I try to treat with EQ. I know there are some things I could do to treat the room and improve the situation, but I just haven’t had time. I’ve wanted to find an acoustically dead space in the house to try out for recording.
We happen to have one closet with enough room to squeeze into with a guitar and microphone stand. Between the carpet and the hanging clothes, it’s a pretty dead space. So I lugged my stuff upstairs, and using my normal microphone connected to a portable recorder, recorded a few takes. Aside from the new setup, this is also the first time, I’ve tracked live (in this case meaning the vocal and guitar at the same time). Much less margin for error but good to try out. As a last step, I brought the recorded file into Pro Tools and added some reverb, etc.
And that’s the story of The Great Divide. I hope you enjoyed it. It’s a fun one to perform. For those of you celebrating the holidays of Easter or Passover this week/weekend, I hope you have a great one. And for those of you who might be celebrating a birthday today - Mom? – Happy Birthday!
As always, thanks for taking the time to read and listen. I really do appreciate it. Now, I feel a bit like a publicly traded company saying this but…On to the second quarter! Have a great week!