Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Eric According to Ben, Part I

Since I obviously haven't had anything to post lately -- to be fair, there's been nothing to report -- I've asked Ben Shive (producer) if he would be willing to utter a few thoughts from his perspective at the head of this proverbial classroom, the dean of the college, the captain at the helm of the ship, the CEO, the navigator, his excellency...

This, to my understanding, is merely Part One of a series that he has up his sleeves. I can only hope Ben wears deodorant.

Part One: Pre-production

Eric and I have been friends since we toured together with Andrew Peterson back in ’02. I love his soul and I love his music. I thought Scarce was an especially strong record, and I’ve been begging Eric for a follow-up for some time now. So I’m thrilled that he’s finally back in the swing of things. And I’m doubly thrilled to be producing the album. And I’m triply thrilled that you have the good taste to be as excited about our mutual friend’s music as I am. So I thought I’d drop by this lovely little blog and put in my two cents for anyone who cares to read. I think I’m going to give it to you in a few installments, since I tend to go on and on about this kind of thing. Today, I’ll cover the pre-production phase of the recording.

(not pee-pee production, which is the job of the kidneys)

The making of this record began with Eric inviting me over one afternoon to hear some songs. We hadn’t talked about working together yet. He just wanted to run his latest stuff by me and maybe get some feedback. I really liked what I heard and I told him so. I’m sure I made a suggestion or two, but I was really there to be a cheerleader. I’m realizing, incidentally, that that’s half my job. You can never go wrong telling your friends how great they are.


The Songs:

By summer I had about thirteen, maybe fourteen, song demos in my possession. These were just rough guitar/vocal recordings Eric had done in Garage Band. Some of the songs were finished. Others were fragments. Now that I knew I was producing, I started listening more critically.

When I listen to a song I’m mostly trying to gauge what it’s attempting to communicate and whether it communicates that thing well. If I had to name the quality I’m looking for, I’d call it “focus.” Is the song littered with throwaway lines? Is the lyric overly poetic or overly plain? Is there an economy of well-developed ideas and metaphors? Or are words and images thrown around carelessly? Is the listener going to feel the emotion or understand the idea at the core of this song?

Focus is also a quality I look for in the music. Are there moments that distract from the lyric, seem out of character, stagnate, or belabor some musical theme? Or does the music support the lyric well, propel it forward, give it a comfortable place to sit?

In our pre-production meetings, we worked through the songs with this in mind. If you had been there with us you would have seen us staring off into space a lot, muttering to ourselves. One song that really came into focus during pre-pro is called “I Had To Tell You.” Eric wrote it about a friend of his who had a very frank and angry bout with God on the heels of some awful circumstances in his life.

It can be difficult to find an apt chorus for a story song. You look and look for the one idea that can bring meaning or clarity to the story without cheapening the telling of it. This idea has to be appropriate at every point in the story because you’re going to sing it at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end. Eric had written what I thought was a strong chorus around the lyric, “I had to tell you.” As in, “These things were eating me up inside, so I had to tell you how I felt.” It was well put-together I thought people would resonate with it.

But there was another idea vying for focus in the song. Eric was ending each verse with the line, “I was always living for myself.” In fact, the working title of the song was “Living For Myself.” Though the idea was part of this friend’s story, I felt that it was putting the song out of focus. It seemed to give the verses too much closure of their own and leave the choruses feeling random, like a needless change of subject. As a listener, I wondered whether the cornerstone of this song was the protagonist’s recognition of selfishness, or his finding of a new intimacy with God through brutal honesty?

I suggested to Eric that instead of resolving, the verses should build to the chorus, so as to really deliver that moment to people’s doors. I suggested that the last line be changed to something like “so much rage within me, I couldn’t keep it to myself,” which would lead right into, “So I had to tell you.” It’s very possible that “Living for myself” was the line that started Eric writing the song, but as Annie Dillard says, sometimes you have to knock out a load-bearing wall, watch most of the building cave in, and then get back to work.

And we did create more work for ourselves. Every verse had to be revised. Some verses didn’t seem to work at all anymore and had to be rewritten. Some of this we did together, and some of it Eric did on his own. But now with the chorus in the center, the verses started to orient themselves around it and the whole composition began coming into focus. To me, this is the real joy of writing. I hope Eric felt the same way after all the hassle I put him through!

Other Pre-pro concerns

During our initial meetings, we also had to talk about budget, process and players. I won’t get into details on the budget, except to say that it dictates a lot about the process. I’m learning it’s much cheaper to record one thing at a time, and since this is a bit of a shoestring operation, we’re going that route. There are arguably some drawbacks to doing it this way, but there’s something I love about it. Namely, it helps keep songs in focus. There’s that word again. You start from the thing that most defines a song, whether that’s a guitar part, a piano part, or something else, and you build on that. So things are less likely to get out of hand. You add a drum kit to the song because it needs one, not just because he’s in the room and on the clock.

Which brings me to players. Eric told me that this time around he wanted to hire his friends. Thankfully, his friends are my friends. So we hired Paul Eckberg and Ken Lewis to play drums. We hired Brent Milligan (who produced Land of the Living and Scarce) and Tony Lucido to play bass. Andy Osenga is playing guitars. I’m playing keys. I’m sure we’ll have some special guests on BGVs and utility instrumentation.

Feeling confident about the songs, and with a process and players in place, we were ready to get rid of the “pre” and get into just plain old production. More on that later.