Adapt Or Die – Part 3 of 4
Since I tend to write a lot of raw material, I know from experience that not all of it will make the cut. A lot of it will get passed over, or changed quite a bit from the time I write it to the time you hear it on a CD. So it’s helpful to me to stay open and be okay with the song going in a lot of different directions. There have been times where I was adamant that a song be played a certain way that just didn’t sound right to Ryan. And since we’re a duo, without him also believing in the song, it just wouldn’t get played.
Many times, many months later I’d think, “Why was I so particular about the chorus? Why did I demand it be played exactly in that way?” Over time I’d start to see that if I was willing to adapt a little, then the song would live, instead of going off to doggy heaven, never to be heard from again.
Maybe because I expect for my songs to change, I don’t get particularly attached to any particular vision for production. Ryan, however, is especially good at writing a song and hearing in his mind how it will sound in its finished form. He can hear the drum pattern in his head even though he’s playing with just an acoustic guitar. He can hear lots of different kinds of production quite well. Partly that’s due to the format of our partnership when we started. I’d bring fully-written songs to him, and he’d think of lots of cool things he could add to make them shinier, sweeter, stronger. Though it’s balanced out nicely over time, when we started I was the songwriter and Ryan was the producer.
Slowly, I’ve been learning to not get too attached to any one idea or sound. There are exceptions where I think a certain lyric absolutely “makes” the song, and I will fight for it. But overall, I’ve gotten more and more excited about how my songs may change with some good outside input.
Example: My friend Carlos Arzate and I wrote the song “Divides” together, and promptly made a recording of it. We wanted to keep it short and simple, with focus on the quasi-political words. I wrote a guitar intro and played a bunch of fun chimy, acoustic stuff during the choruses. As Ryan and I took the song into the recording process with producer Ross Hogarth, it changed dramatically.
Ross lengthened it, adding more choruses so that the listener could really have a “feast of choruses instead of an appetizer,” as he said. He also brought in heavy U2-style drums and guitar, and again he called for a bridge. Now, the addition of that bridge, (the “I’m not first/ I won’t be last to say these words/ I know it’s just a simple verse/ but sometimes it hurts” part) is one of my favorite moments in the song, and it almost didn’t exist!
Also, Ross suggested that we make the choruses uniform, saying the same words each time, so that, through the repetition of the “Be what you want to see” chorus, the song could take on the hopeful quality of an anthem.
If I’d held on to my idea for a short little lyrical tune, the song would be very different. Notice in the finished version that there’s a slightly different first chorus and a very different guitar intro.
Though “Divides” hasn’t emerged as a fan favorite, and though it was very difficult to record, it still stands out to me as one of our more majestic studio moments.
Another Example: On our previous record, Forward (iTunes, CDBaby), there’s a song called “You Used To.” I flew to Boston during a break from school, recorded my guitar and vocals, and flew back to Tucson for finals. Meanwhile, Ryan “produced” the song. He brought in some Berklee musicians and had the drummer play a rolling pattern on the snare drum, had the bassist play an upright bass, and added some banjo himself. The next time I was in Boston and heard the song, I was amazed that he’d essentially turned it into a bluegrass song! I had never envisioned it that way, but I really liked it. A nice variation on the acoustic rock sound. The songwriting itself hadn’t changed, just Ryan’s production.
Next up, the conclusion of this bloggish mini-series with some parting thoughts about the importance of good songwriting over good production, thoughts on how the process is as fun as the result, how the journey is as good as the destination, and a couple other smart sounding things like that.