How to Make a Record, Part 1: First Things First

How to Make a Record, Part 1: First Things First

This post should really be called, “How We Make a Record”, or even “How We’re Making This Record”.  There are a thousand ways to skin a cat, or to write a song, or to make a chocolate chip cookie–this just happens to be our recipe. That said, in some ways I’m still as mystified by it as I ever was.

I remember lying on my bed in high school with two cabinet speakers on either side of my head, listening to Pink Floyd’s A Momentary Lapse of Reason, getting delightfully lost in the music and wondering how on earth this band of Brits transferred their music to two-inch tape, then to cassette, then to the record store, then to Lake Butler, Florida, to my speakers, to my ears, and finally to my adolescent noggin. (That album is still one of my favorites, by the way, and features a mind-blowing cover photograph. Yes, those are real beds, on a real beach, pre-Photoshop.)

 

So with just a few chords under my fingers and a whole lot of ambition, not to mention the absence of enough guys in my little town to really start a band, I decided to try and figure out how to make music. I saved up four hundred bucks that I earned mowing yards and stocking shelves at the local IGA and bought a Tascam four-track recorder, a machine I was certain would revolutionize my life—not just musically but relationally, since now I would be able to prove to the girls in school that I was worth something. “You see,” I imagined myself explaining to them, “I can record four separate tracks onto just one cassette, which allows me to play the bass, the guitar, the drums, and sing, then mix it all together for your listening pleasure, ladies,” at which point their eyes would flutter and they would faint to the floor in a pile of crimped hair and leg warmers.

But that was just the recording gear. I also needed a studio. Enter my pal Wade Howell, also known as the Conundrum. He was a football player who was also a part-time atheist, a sax player, guitar player, and Dungeon & Dragons player. Needless to say, we were fast friends. (For the record, Wade ended up going to seminary and is now a professor and a fine family man.) Wade’s grandfather died and left him a single-wide trailer in the woods, where we set up an old drum kit and a few mics I scavenged from the church sound cabinet. After school, while Wade was at football practice, I often sped down the sandy road to the trailer in my Dodge Omni, plugged in his electric guitar, and pretended I was David Gilmour or Tom Petty. Once, because my girlfriend liked Garth Brooks, I used my trusty Tascam to record the drums, piano, bass, and vocals for the song “The Dance”. Oh, what wouldn’t give to know where that cassette is now.

But after the first few months with the Tascam, the magic was gone. I didn’t want to just record Skynyrd songs. I wanted to make my own. But I had no idea what to sing about, and the few songs I managed to write were even worse than I thought they were at the time. I played them bashfully for my buddies, enjoying the feeling of having made something even though I was inwardly discontent. It strikes me now that I was in possession of an inner-critic even then, which agitated me. I wanted to be content with my lame songs, but I couldn’t be. Whatever pride I felt was in having made something—anything at all—not necessarily in the quality of what had been made. So I shared my songs with the few friends who cared to hear them, and felt good when they liked them, but was discontent without knowing why. Not long after graduation, I joined a rock band and sold the Tascam, figuring that I’d leave recording to the experts and focus on rocking instead.

Fast-forward two years. The rocking was safely behind me. I was now in college, married, and taking serious steps with our band Planet X to record a demo. At the time, I had no idea there was such a thing as indie music. As far as we knew, the game plan was to record a demo and shop it around in Nashville. (We were but babes in the woods.) So Lou, the only guy in the band with any money, bought some gear and we set out to record our stuff after-hours in the college practice rooms. It turned out fine enough, but it was a far cry from what it needed to be. Eventually the band broke up, I started doing my own concerts, and I realized I had enough of my own songs to record a short album. I borrowed $3,000 from my grandma, took a Greyhound to Nashville—just like they do in the movies—was picked up at the bus station by my old roommate Mark Claassen (who’s still my neighbor, by the way), and we spent the weekend recording my independent record Walk.

It was terrifying, exhilarating, and exhausting. We were in a real studio. We hardly slept. We recorded, mixed, and mastered eight songs in 2.5 days. There were no drugs involved. I took the Greyhound home (a grueling 26 hour trip, what with all the bus stops and all), a 22-year-old kid with a shiny, $3,000 CD in his guitar case and not a dime to his name. Jamie, of course, was all-in, as she’s always been. That little eight-song CD was what I sold at concerts for the next three years, and I’ll be forever glad for the way it paid the rent. But the farther I got from it the more I loathed it. I became painfully embarrassed at my voice, my pitch, and my songs, because I had come to know better. I had toured with the Caedmon’s Call guys for fifty shows, which exposed me to some great music and a much better understanding of what it meant to be a songwriter; I was no longer doing the Florida church camp circuit, but was trying to make a go of a real career, and that meant I could no longer be content with my mediocre best. I had to work at it, learn to be objective, and—this is the big one—to ask for help, help, help.

Which brings me to three weeks ago in East Nashville when I walked into Cason Cooley’s studio, a warm room strung with lights and fragrant with incense, jammed full of guitars and pianos and books, and sat down with the Captains Courageous to start a new project. I looked around, thinking about all the other times I had done this very thing, marveling at how little I still knew about it. What do we do first? Do we sit around and play the songs for a day? Do we record scratch guitars? Do we pore over lyrics first? In some ways, it’s like looking at a hoarder’s house and wondering where to begin the cleanup. It’s also like looking out at a fallow field, steeling your resolve to tame it, furrow it, and plant–but you know it’s littered with stones and it’s going to be harder than you think. I often think of Indiana Jones and his leap of faith in the third movie.

I’m 37 years old. This isn’t my first rodeo. I shouldn’t feel that old fear, anxiety, or self-doubt, should I? Then again, maybe I should. As soon as you think you know what you’re doing, you’re in big trouble. So before we opened a single guitar case, we talked. I sat with Ben Shive, Andy Gullahorn, and Cason and told them I felt awfully unprepared. I doubted the songs. I was nervous about the musical direction the record seemed to want to take. I wondered if I was up to the task. I told them about the theme that had arisen in many of the songs: loss of innocence, the grief of growing up, the ache for the coming Kingdom, the sehnsucht I experience when I see my children on the cusp of the thousand joys and the thousand heartaches of young-adulthood.

Then we prayed. We asked for help. Ever since I read Lanier Ivester’s beautiful post about Bach (if you haven’t read it, you must), I’ve written the words “Jesu juva” in my journal when I’m writing a lyric. It’s latin for “Jesus, help!”, and there’s no better prayer for the beginning of an adventure. Jesus, you’re the source of beauty: help us make something beautiful; Jesus, you’re the Word that was with God in the beginning, the Word that made all creation: give us words and be with us in this beginning of this creation; Jesus, you’re the light of the world: light our way into this mystery; Jesus, you love perfectly and with perfect humility: let this imperfect music bear your perfect love to every ear that hears it.

We said, “Amen.”

Then I took a deep breath, opened the guitar case, and leapt.