The time has come to make this record…and we are off to the races. We arrived in Music City Wednesday morning at 10:30 after taking the very early 5:40am Westjet flight from St. John’s to Pearson and then on to Nashville. My cousin and longtime musical compatriot Barry LeDrew is along with me to play drums, and his company/talent are greatly appreciated as I take on this daunting new venture. We wasted no time getting down to business, going into Resistor Studio at 2pm on zero sleep from the night before and a hurried lunch at the Turnip Truck on the way.
We spent most of Wednesday working through arrangements. We sat in a semi-circle in the main tracking room with my producer Joshua Grange and went through each song organically and methodically. Josh’s musical experience is deep and wide, having played and recorded with the best in the business. As a result, his demands are very direct and specific. This is nothing like Barry or I have ever experienced before. He is already pushing our boundaries and not compromising at all with regard to what he wants from us as musicians. His no-nonsense approach extends to lyrics as well. About ten days before the sessions started, Josh slashed many of the songs I had put forward for the record, stating very matter-of-factly that these songs were just not going to cut it for his tastes and purposes as a producer. I was taken aback at first. My initial response was, “there must be something wrong if you’re not seeing potential in these songs.” But after a day or two of licking my wounds (and at one point almost pulling the plug due to my wounded ego), I realized that Josh was truly committed to taking me out of my (admittedly isolated) comfort zone and into a brand new realm. And the only way to do this was to move beyond what I’ve been doing all these years musically. So I agreed to take his guidance and put my trust in him 100% going forward.
Fortunately there was material that he liked, and much of it came from our writing sessions in May. There was a cohesiveness he heard in this material that sounded more like an album than the mishmash of songs I had put forth to him weeks before. The only issue was that many of these ideas were yet to have lyrics, and the arrangements were not yet finished. Undaunted, Josh assured me that all would be well when we started and that the goal was to work our asses off for ten days and make a killer record. He reminded me that this was not a spa holiday and that I’d be spending a lot of my time pulling my hair out over lyrics while he and Barry were working out drum sounds or doing overdubs. After only two days in the studio, I realized that he was right. I did spend a lot of time in the past week or so working on lyrics for the new material, but after hearing these lyrics Josh is still pushing me to revisit certain lines, sections, concepts, etc. It shall be a challenging ten days lyrically, but the end result will no doubt be worth it.
Wednesday clued up with seven of the ten songs mostly arranged. Barry and I left the studio around 9pm, had some sushi, and hit the sack for the sleep of the dead – about ten solid hours. Our hotel was too far from the studio, so Thursday morning we moved to the Knight’s Inn in East Nashville to get closer the central goings-on. The only problem is that this hotel closely resembles the one in No Country for Old Men (yes, the last one where the big shootout happened). So after dropping our luggage to the front desk this morning (and praying it would be there when we got back), we headed to the studio to start in on basic tracks. I spent most of the first hour on the phone trying to cancel the Knight’s Inn reservation. Josh had set up a lyric-writing session with singer/songwriter Lera Lynn, who was also kind enough to get on the phone when we arrived and find Barry and me a room at the nearby Extended Stay Hotel. We actually started our writing session while still on hold with Knight’s Inn, who were initially adamant about not letting us cancel the remaining 9 days’ reservation but eventually relented.
Barry and Josh went off to Fork’s Drum Closet to look at some Ludwig snares while Lera and I started combing through some of my lyrics. She explained to me the concept of “hook fatigue,” which means, among other things, driving a melodic hook to death by adhering to it too closely or being too repetitious with it. Turns out I’m a master at this. Fortunately a lot of my lyrics were salvageable by tweaking lines here and there, moving some things around, and generally trying to loosen them up and not be so rigid and religious with the melody. It was an eye-opening and valuable session. Lera told me that while writing with T-Bone Burnett on the soundtrack to the series True Detective (in which she also acted), he told her that a song should not say the same thing in multiple verses. In other words, once you’ve expressed an idea or concept in a verse, move on. Lera is also very good at economizing phrasings and getting rid of the chaff in a song. Joshua produced her last two records The Avenues and Resistor, both of which showcase her deep talent as a singer and a writer.
As we were wrapping up our writing session, Barry and Josh were just finishing mic’ing and checking the kit. We went out and grabbed some lunch before getting down to business with a bed track for the first song on the list, “Fool to Stay.” This is a very old unreleased song of mine that caught Josh’s ear in our May sessions, and it’s getting a workover for this record. It is the only song on this album from another era in my writing. The rest are brand new. Lera and I reworked the lyrics quite a bit for this one today, and Josh leaned it out with a sparse, slower groove. After several takes (with Josh on bass in the control room), we decided that we had a solid one for referencing. Josh and Barry worked on a few drum overdubs, and I went off to another room to have a beer and work on some more lyrics. We then finished off the session with an acoustic guitar track, which I played. Josh was insistent that I was speeding up; it didn’t feel that way to me. After some disagreement on this issue, it was determined that earlier we had strayed a bit on the click during the beds and that I was stuck somewhere between the click and the main track. The stray was hardly noticeable yet throwing off the groove ever so slightly. We were all feeling the fatigue of a long day, so we decided to end the session at that point and disperse for some food and rest.
Before leaving, Josh sat at the grand piano for a minute and played the progression for “Fool to Stay” in very dramatic, beautiful flourishes and runs. Barry and I just stopped, listened, and smiled. Josh said, “Yeah, I can really hear this on the track. And Hammond.” We all nodded in agreement and walked on out of the studio with hugs all around and a bon voyage until tomorrow when we work on more bed tracks and…you guessed it: lyrics.
(See my Instagram feed for daily photo and video updates on my Nashville experience: @chrisledrew)