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Blog

Yesterday, the Beginning of the New Record

Jen Hartry

Bobby, my friend and producer, drove us up to CatBeach Studios in San Pedro at 10:30AM to meet the engineer, Paul, to help him set up before the musicians arrived. While they were busy setting up mics and running cables, and speaking the language of engineers that I only know a few words of, I picked up one of Bobby’s many guitars and started strumming through a song of mine called Flowers, which, in my opinion, needed some major musical changes before it was committed to a recording. There was this chord in the chorus that has recently started sounding wrong to me. No, ‘wrong’ is the wrong word. The chord sounded completely stupid to me. It was a passing sorta chord, but the problem with it was that it wasn’t passing. Instead, it was calling out, “Look at me! I am an interesting chord choice! I am here to show you that the person who put me here is a master songwriter and player, capable of putting super-right-out-the-box chords right there in the box!” The chord needed to be dealt with because it was calling attention away from the flow of my lyric, which, in my tunes, is always the boss. So I changed the ole chord up to my satisfaction. Inspired, I then decided I’d lop off the last line of the chorus, as it was just way too clever. I have a problem with clever lyrics. You know the sort. The sort that, like that chord I murdered, call out to the listener saying, “Look at me! I’m a lyric that proves how clever the writer is!” When I hear these lyrics in other peoples’ songs it yanks me right out of the listening experience: I picture the writer as his or her desk, or on the bus with his or her notepad, writing the line down excitedly and then looking up all smug-like to see if anyone nearby somehow, perhaps through something quantum, picked up on just how damn clever he or she is. I hate those lines. In my case, the clever line was a summation of the song’s message. It told the listener exactly what the song is about, and that is sometimes cool, I guess, but in this case it was pure crap. If the listener can’t get the message without my explaining it then either I’ve written the song badly, the listener is an idiot, or I’m writing a country song… 

When the song was changed to my satisfaction I found I had nothing to do other than sit around and wait for the musicians to arrive, so with a little bit of anxiety, which was a result of my nervousness for the big day of recording, I walked outside, sat down, and flipped open Ellison’s Invisible Man, which I’d just bought, honestly, because I couldn’t get into Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. And the prologue was was a good thing to read before a recording session. In it, if you haven’t read it, the narrator talks about an experience he’d had while listening to a Louis Armstrong record after having smoked weed on accident. (“Some jokers” had given it to him when he asked for a cigarette.) He says, “That night I found myself hearing not only in time, but in space as well. I not only entered the music but descended, like Dante, into its depths. And beneath the swiftness of the hot tempo there was a slower tempo and a cave and I entered and looked around…

OF COURSE, Ellison was not writing this passage to inspire songwriters, but given my situation I looked up from the book and I was charged up, and in my charge, I realized that I had been uncharged up to that point, and I realized how very bad that was. First of all, here was the literal situation: I was in LA on the label’s dime: They’d flown me out here. And I was there because of the songs I’d written, and because the label believed they could record them, make profit from them, and share them with a wider audience. I was there because I’d written songs. And I was there waiting on the musicians to arrive, musicians who’d spend their whole Sunday playing my songs. So, in short, here was going to be a whole day spent concentrating, and descending into the things I’d written. I know this happens every day in artistic fields, but I also know that the every-dayness can wear away at just how great and weird and special the whole thing is. And so I began to get excited about the situation. And hell, I began to be excited that maybe someone would soon be having their own reefer visions as a result of the songs. I paced a lot for about an hour then. I changed another line in another song. Then the musicians arrived.

Aaron Sterling is one of my best friends. I’ve known him since elementary school. He’s also a drummer. He came in and, after catching up, Paul pressed record on the first song and Aaron began to play. You can call it descent, but it feels much more like ascent when a good musician starts playing parts on your song. I feel bad at those moments for everyone who isn’t a musician, cause they’re moments of hope and beauty they are. I ain’t gonna go on about it, because in a way I want it to be mine and not yours. But the moment continued on throughout the day. And roundabout 12 hours after arriving, under Bobby’s guidance, we had ourselves the foundation of a record, shored up with Jonathan Ahrens’ sturdy and sharp bass playing. My new record, which is so pleasant to say, is well under way.