(The third pic has the whole gang: Left to Right: Coty, David, Alex, Brady (goofing off), Cooper, Chris)
My band (lead guitarist Cooper Carter, drummer Alex Morrison and bassist David Schroeder) and I had just played for the weekend of the 30A Songwriter Festival in Florida. A sort of live-dress-rehearsal before we drive on to Shreveport Louisiana and Blade Studios to work with Brady Blade and Chris Bell.
Brady Blade is most notably a drummer who has worked with Dave Matthews, Emmy Lou Harris, Bob Dylan and MANY others. He also recently opened Blade Studios which is a state-of-the-art recording space with unfathomably expensive equipment and a beautiful layout that would make anyone feel that their craft is of utmost importance. Brady was also to produce this album with me, in that he would bring suggestions to the table and help the SONGS shine their best without losing their essence. I will go into detail about this and how it's changed some songs drastically, in a good way.
Chris Bell is a world-class recording engineer. What that means is that he dials every little detail of the microphones and settings of a board that look likes something you would find at NASA and makes it bring out the best of what you do. He's been an engineer for folks like Eagles, Peter Gabriel, Erykah Badu, Earth Wind & Fire, Destiny's Child and more. Pretty wild resume. He might be amused to think that, at first, I thought he was a very shy person. That changed later as we all hunkered down for long days and nights in the studio. He's a great guy and, much like Brady, a consummate professional.
Must not forget Coty who was Chris' assistant engineer and helped run the board and many of our sessions while Chris oversaw the operation. Coty is also hard working and very patient which is important in this sometimes uber meticulous business of recording feelings wrapped in sound. He was committed to the mission and he and I stayed late one night to record vocal take after vocal take with me when it seemed that I was "in the zone". He will have a bright career in this industry, I feel.
It was a long 9 hour drive from 30A to Shreveport but my drive was longer in that I stopped half way somewhere around New Orleans to work out. Not just because it helps me feel good but it's also because I was on the verge of tears all day and I had to blow off steam. I had woken up that day with laryngitis. I could barely talk. I couldn't scream. No singing for me on that day. I woke up and wanted to bawl my eyes out and throw up. It was worse than not just being able to technically record with my guys, which is bad enough considering how much time, money and hard work had gone into making this happen. But what made it worse is that I'm the captain of this ship and my shipmates are some of the best a guy could ask for and I'm letting THEM down too. I have a very strong sense of leadership and vision but I have an even stronger sense of teamwork and always fighting hard for those who show up and fight for you. I was devastated. It's kind of like Drew Brees at the Super Bowl they finally won. It meant so much to the city and to the people. It was spiritual. It wasn't just a game. That's what I felt like. I'm DEFINITELY not comparing myself to his level of greatness of what he does but I felt like I was leading this army down a righteous path and right before the game, I got my arm ripped off. When the guys realized that I felt like that and I wasn't answering my phone they left me a long voicemail where each of them passed the phone around telling me it would all be ok and we'll get through this. I gotta be honest with you, I choked up a little. It was one of the nicest things anyone could have done for me at that low low point. Especially for these guys to leave that message when I felt that I just let them down so bad. I'll keep that voicemail for the rest of my life.
We arrive in Shreveport. The hotel is under renovation but I don't care. Brady sure did when he found out and we were relocated. Like I will demonstrate in this blog, he made us feel like a big priority. Time to crash.
We wake up and are due at Blade Studios at 10am. We walk in the front of this multi-office building where one of them is a large animation company. They're serious. We got to take the tour and I held a fucking OSCAR they won. It's heavy. It's badass. I digress.
We are escorted in by Sarah who's one of the gals who runs the office. I then meet LaShana with whom I've been coordinating accommodations and scheduling. She is just a pleasure. Such a nice person and has a great energy about her. We talked for a long time one of the days and I taught her how to play a D chord on guitar when she said she'd always wanted to play guitar. Well, she can play the shit out of a D now ;)
We then walk into the actual console/control room. Wow. Sitting there are Chris and Coty and we're all introduced. No Brady yet. Coty is mostly running around setting up the drum mics, amps and vocal booth mics and Chris is doing whatever it is he does to make shit rule.
The band and I are walking around in disbelief at this facility, get some coffee and see the sandwich meats, fruits and vegetables spread for us. At this point I've stocked up on a tea called Throat Coat that singers use, warm salty water gargles, Ricola and honey. I'm still mute at this point and I'm doing what I can to level this laryngitis and hopefully be able to sing enough to track with the band. You see, the method they use and sought out about this place is that the band is recorded LIVE. They're all micd up in the large room and I'm in the vocal booth isolated from the drums etc so we have the feel of performing together as a band but each of the channels are separate so that if I drop the ball, for example, the ENTIRE band doesn't have to do it again. I just go in there and re-do my part. Very awesome method and these guys are specialists at it.
We're all plugged in a had levels checked and we're ready to rock. Then I see from the vocal booth at a slight distance (all of these rooms have huge, soundproof glass so you can visually signal each other) a tall, slender black man with poofy hair and crazy glasses walk into the control room. It's Brady. He turns around to look out into the two rooms and, of course, I know it's him. We point at each other in acknowledgment and he then walks through the band room and up the stairs to the vocal booth. Our very first meeting? We both just start laughing and hug. Considering how our chemistry is strikingly similar, as we soon discover, it was the perfect way for us to say "hello it's so nice to finally meet you" in a way that we get without having to say much. Brady is a family friend of Cooper's and they've known each other since Cooper was a kid. Both he and other friends who have worked with him always said that Brady and I would be peas in a pod. Cooper is the one who made working with Brady a possibility and I'll always feel a deep gratitude for him having connected these dots. I've been accused of having an infectious laugh and his is infectious. Hearing him laugh just makes me smile. It's raspy, genuine and unshy. He also hears that my voice is destroyed. He reassured me that what's most important to him is me getting the best possible album I can. He said we'll just track the band this week and that I can come back when I'm healthy and do vocals. His commitment to the project was demonstrated right away and was unflinching in his willingness to go the extra mile for us. His name is on this too so it makes sense but it didn't come from a place where he protects himself but it was in a much more caring way to me. So genuine and understanding. If I was going to have anyone reach into my songs and want to tinker with what I feel like are my children, he's the man I would allow to do this. He also pointed out outright that he would have notes on all of the songs and that, for the most part, I had written solid songs in terms of melody, progression and lyrics. Whew. Nice things to hear from a guy of this calibre. He was quick to point out that this is my album and not his. He said, we'll try out some things and if they don't work we'll know and if I don't like them we would go back to the way I had it and "record the shit out of it". His humility in presenting ideas really opened the floor for all of us to open up the dialogue as far as suggestions or ideas and nobody's feelings were hurt if they weren't accepted. This is where magic happens. I think it did.
We get ready to track our first song and he suggests "It's You" which is the poppy love ballad of the album and might be pulling away from the other songs on the album as THE single. TBD. He suggested that we slightly change the rhythm of the song to a more driving, straight-ahead sound and that we stretch out the path to the chorus by adding another verse. I hear what he's saying and we rough-record it that way. It's great. I go away and write another verse that gels well between it's brothers and sisters in the message. I come back after 20min and the whole team agrees the new verse is a keeper. We move on a record it with these new notes. I fall in love with it this way and the band really crushes the performance. Cooper lays down a solo that I have MEMORIZED, it's so good. He's the guitar nerd in this outfit and I mean that in a sincerely positive way. He's truly a thirsty student of the instrument and it shows in his vast knowledge of the instrument but also his care in taking the feeling of the song and complimenting it by absolutely crushing his guitar parts with hauntingly beautiful tone and surgical precision. In this song, my beloved rhythm section is a driving force and Alex and David are metronomes. Alex holds this driving rhythm down and David is right on top of the groove and adds only when called for. Brilliant and contributes much the sanctity of the song. They do this for all of the songs but this is first time I see it under a microscope in a new light. I'm so impressed and proud of my guys anyway but this time I was gushing inside and still am.
Obviously, I'm the weakest link for this session since my voice sounds like a dying cat gasping it's last into a distorted bullhorn. Weak, obnoxious and so far from where it needs to be. We soldier on. Despite this, the blueprint is laid down and we move on.
My voice is actually starting to bounce back. A lot. My falsetto is still shot for the most part but the rasp is kinda nice and I can get my diaphragm into it and belt through the parts I get into with some volume. Holy crap this is awesome. This is the day that starts to be the most difficult for me. There are two songs on this album "Where We Want To Be" and "With A Little Love" that were written for or about my feelings revolving around my brother's suicide in April. The material is difficult but it's really brought home with the melody that makes you feel the words on a spiritual level right in your gut. First on the table was the song "With A Little Love" that we've been playing with a Sam Cooke sort of vibe and a slow, Motown rhythm. Brady reached into this song and pulled out what is to me one of THE gems of the whole album now. He suggested a completely different rhythm that none of us wrapped our heads around at first and we were all apprehensive of at first. But remember, we go all the way to explore the possibilities and if we don't like it, we can always go back to the original. Cooper brings up an etherial, beautiful guitar sound that is starting to feel like something Sting or U2 would have released. "Fields of Gold" was brought up as a comparison. That song is so beautiful and special to me that I just about died when that came up. So we dial in what to do and cut the track. Oh my God. We all go back to the control room to hear it on the big speakers so you can hear every detail, good or bad. I'm floored. I mean, I wrote the thing and I never ever felt this emotional over my own words. Brady was right. I could see that some of the guys were a little taken a back by how different it was at first, but it's a whole new animal now. I start playing it to myself and and working out the new way to sing the words and I get emotional. I play it over and over again to work out the words that I'm saying and, for the first but not last time, I have to excuse myself. I rushed to the bathroom and locked myself in it. It came back and it came back hard. I borderline hyperventilate when it hits me. It's not quite outright crying, although there are certainly tears, but it's more of a panic. It's a frantic feeling that's sad and desperate. I started thinking about my brother and I really felt that I was talking to him in these lyrics. The feeling was powerful. I stayed on the bathroom floor for a little while, composed myself and came back.
Cooper lays down a solo that breaks my heart, David helps drive this new song and bubbles just below the surface to bring texture to the song but it's Alex that I'm most proud of on this song. Alex is young but he's almost a drumming prodigy in a lot of ways. He, like Cooper and David, are obsessive about about their instruments and have a huge passion for it. This is combination that the greats come from. You gotta remember that Cooper is the best in the room at what he does, David is the best in the room at what he does and so on; however, Alex is a drummer in the room with one of the best drummers in the world. This is intimidating stuff to anyone. No one can deny that Alex is a stone solid drummer and can do extremely difficult techniques and keep time but he's young. He's come to my world from a speed-metal drumming background. It's amazing to be that precise but it might not leave room for feeling or dynamics sometimes in songs that don't have even 1/3 of the drive or rhythm that you're accustomed to. Less is more is something that many drummers don't understand and I wasn't sure he would when we first started working together. But the talent is there. No question. He's come a long way since he's been a part of the team and he's been nothing but a great contribution to this band. I was impressed with him to no end especially in this session. Brady told Alex to step aside so that he could show him the pattern and type of drumming he suggested Alex do for this song. It didn't take much coaching. Alex fucking nailed it. This is a totally different style and feel from what he came from and what we've been doing for about year. He had an opportunity to learn from one of the very best and expand his horizons in his craft. Not all people have enough humility or really care about anything but their egos enough to want to grow. They do what they do and don't care to get better, assuming they're any good to begin with. The guy went in there and delivered. I was impressed but so were both Brady and Chris. Very impressed.
We're working through "Heavy", "Up The Wall" and "Give Me Something To Believe In" which are upbeat and fun. The voice is extremely cooperative by this point and we knock out band and vocal takes. Boom. Didn't see that coming vocally three days ago but here we are. We're all excited but tired and we have to take breaks on occasion to both get away from the project to cultivate objectivity but also to get out of the rat cage of critiquing each other. It's a great environment we've had but it can still get stressful. I tell Alex to go blow off some steam and destroy his drum set a little, then Cooper said "fuck this let's go play". Chris is totally down and starts getting ready to track the guys. You see Cooper has his own band called Cooper Carter and the Royal Senders, of which David and Alex are members. They played down on 30A and crushed. They're so good. They get micd up, Chris is live tracking and they DESTROY their performance. Brady and I both started laughing with excitement, as is typical for us, and both started filming. Then Chris took the video camera into the band room and got some video of his own. It rocked. Hard. It was fun and they were all into their performances. Cooper was tearing it up, Alex was slaying and David was crushing his bass walks and wearing that grin he always has when he's playing live. It was one of the high points of the whole experience. It was the perfect break from the labor of going over everything with brutal critique, although out of love, it can still be tough. Just like at 30A I couldn't help but laugh and rock out to their music. Even if I didn't know these guys, I would enjoy watching them but as my band mates and dear friends I can't help but gush with pride when I see them do their thing. We are all total equals but since I'm older than these guys and I'm the leader of the band, when I see them play I feel kinda like an obnoxiously supportive dad watching his kid play his first soccer game. Video camera out, T-shirt with the kids name and voice cracking from yelling encouraging words at the top of his lungs. We needed that. I needed that.
Three 13 hr days down and we're into the fourth day. My voice is almost 100% at this point. I have no idea how I did that but I will always swear by my treatments. Even Brady commented that in all his years of touring with singers he's never seen someone bounce back this quickly. No one is a shocked as me. We start laying down vocals and "With A Little Love" comes out great and later that day it's time for the big one: "Where We Want To Be". This is the most personal song I've ever written and it's directly singing to my brother about what happened. It's raw and it's my heart spilled onto paper. The band track is solid and I can really feel this song now. In the vocal booth are my guitar for the rhythm tracks, a bottle of water, cup of coffee and a picture of my brother that I brought with me. It's my comfort. It's my simple shrine to his spirit and the biggest reason I'm in Shreveport with these people working so hard to get this out. I crack several times during the many takes of this song that I do. I'm super critical of the performances and obsessively go over this performance of all of them. This must be perfect. This is my only path to talk to Doug. This has to be right. I almost blow out my voice a couple of times and had to walk away to lock myself in a dark room a couple of times. It's also the most dynamic song vocally as it starts out very quiet and soft and gradually builds to a huge finish. This has soft vibrato, falsetto and belting at the end. Time to do what I came here to do. I have to try. Voice or no voice. I'm singing through most of the song, looking at the picture of my brother while I'm singing these words to him and I think it translates into the takes. I guess. I'm singing the song and as we progress into the bigger parts of the song, my voice clears and I'm able to hit notes that were absolutely impossible even the day before. Through the distance of the vocal booth to the control room I can see Cooper, Alex and Brady jumping up and down with encouragement as I get to the huge finale of the song and I'm hitting the notes. I know this whole passage makes me sound like an emotional basket case but it's just a huge experience for me to have these guys in my corner for some of the most personal and painful feelings of my life. I can't explain it. It's like being held tight and softly in some part of your soul that nobody can reach. We got it.
I can't believe it's all over. We go through the songs top to bottom one last time and make production notes. Voice went flat here. Missed a note there. We still need to add saxophone and keys and figure out fade ins, fade outs, etc… I'm going back in late February with notes on what I hear when I get away from the project with fresh ears. We all say our goodbyes. Chris. Coty. LaShana earlier that day. But Brady says that he's coming to our hotel in the morning and that this is not our goodbye. Oh, I forgot to mention that this whole time Brady was dealing with an excruciating infected tooth and had to juggle taking care of his kids as his wife was traveling during our sessions. Even with all that, he made us feel like we were a big priority and he made his time there count. We're packing up our gear and we're saying goodbye to Blade Studios. It was a good feeling but sad. Very sad.
Alex, Cooper, David and I get some crappy casino diner food and listen to the album when we get to our rooms. I feel like we just climbed Everest together. Months of planning, care, bumps and mishaps but we stuck together and we did it.
The following morning we checked out of the hotel and up pulled Brady to shoot the shit with us one last time and it was great to hear his infectious laugh one last time before the long road home. Cooper, Alex and David hopped into Cooper's van and we all parted ways. We each left with a rough mix copy of what we did that week. It's enough to be proud of as we can hear where it's going and there's plenty that shines on it. My guys did such a great job. They did such a great job. The long ride home was a tearful one at times. In the passenger seat was the picture of Doug and I was listening to the bulk of what I've been working so hard for all this time. For him. For me. For you. Brady, Chris and Coty will never understand what this week meant to me and I've spent lots of time trying to tell my guys how much it's meant that they really stepped up and killed their performances but they're probably tired of hearing it as I must sound like a crazy person past a point. It was a joyful but sad ride home. The catharsis has begun and the hope of the future is ringing in these six tracks.