In part one, I talked about the outset of the journey. Part two was a look back at the lack of pattern over the years, which explains the appropriate lack of readiness, which, while uncomfortable, can be very good thing. In this post, thanks to your excellent feedback, I’m going to try and get more specific about the process and try to answer some of your questions.
Right off the bat, let me address this question a few of you asked: Which comes first, the lyrics or the music? This question has been asked of songwriters for as long as there has been songwriting, I imagine. The answer isn’t very satisfying, I’m afraid, which may be why it keeps coming up. The answer is “Yes.” Or, if you prefer, “D) All the above.” Sometimes the lyric comes first, sometimes the music comes first, and sometimes they come all at once, like the doorbell and the phone ringing at the same time. When someone claims to have discovered a foolproof method for creating art—other than a willingness to work very hard at it—I doubt either their honesty or their skill.
I’d dig into that more, but I want to get us back to the studio. Reading through your questions, I realized the best way to approach this may be to choose a song from the new record and give you a play-by-play of what we ended up doing.
Like I said in part one, this isn’t meant to be a definitive piece on record making, because there are a zillion ways to approach it. I just did the math and realized this is my eighth studio record. That doesn’t include live stuff or Walk or the Slugs & Bugs CDs, nor does it include occasional shorter recording sessions like “Holy is the Lord” (for City on a Hill) or the appendices A, C, or M. I only say that to say that as I look back at all those sessions, one of the only patterns that emerges is a lack of pattern. This may be super-boring, but just for fun I’m going to try and remember a thing or two about the making of those records.
Walk (1996): I mention it here because even though it was an independent record, it was my first time in a legit studio with legit musicians. It was recorded in three days by my buddy Mark Claassen, who was interning at a studio that let us use a room after hours. To be honest, I remember little about the process except that it was maddeningly rushed. Also, we had no idea what we were doing (but we felt really cool doing it).
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.
I discovered this through (I think) my pal Brannon McAllister, co-founder of the now-defunct Portland Studios (click here for a bittersweet farewell painting by our friend Justin Gerard). I was lamenting the absence of Portland’s wonder-inspiring internet presence, and he pointed me to Moonbot Studios.
I don’t know much about them other than that they’re based in Louisiana and they produced this beautiful animated short film about stories–sort of. At the very least, it’s for anyone who’s ever suspected that books were magical. I immediately bought the film for a few bucks on iTunes, but I recently discovered it on Vimeo for your free viewing pleasure. There are worse ways you could spend fifteen minutes today.
It was a delight to learn just a few days ago that it’s been nominated for an Academy Award. (Congratulations, Moonbots.) And besides, won’t it be nice to seem so very in-the-know when you’re watching the Oscars with your friends and you can mention offhand that you’ve actually seen one of the short films?
I wrote this a few months back, but it came to mind today because I spent hours this week wrestling with a song. Knowing that I’m recording it in a matter of days ramps up the pressure to get it right–or, as right as I can get it. It’s a relief sometimes to remember that, as hard as I try to say what I mean to the listener, in the end, the song (or poem) is going to do whatever it wants.
Happy Thanksgiving, Rabbit Roomers. I posted this poem last year and thought I’d dust it off again this week. Reading it just now for the first time since last November, I can’t decide if I like it more or less than I did when I wrote it. I remember that I was thinking of a poem by Berryman that I once heard Garrison Keillor read (I can’t remember which), but I gave up on all that by the tenth line and let the thing go wherever it wanted. Whether or not you enjoy the poem, I pray your time with family and/or friends is peaceful and that you remember in all your feasting that it’s but a shadow of what is to come.
(A CONFESSION AND A PLEA TO THE ALMIGHTY)
O God, Magnificent Confounder,
Boundless in mercy and power,
Be near me in my apathy.
Be near me, Savage Dreamer,
Bright Igniter of Exploding Suns,
But not too near. I’d like to live,
By your grace, just long enough
To taste another perfect steak.
And to see my children marry,
And, perhaps, to pen a memoir.
Great redeemer of my lechery,
Bright Dawn of Blessed Hope,
Lay waste to every prideful thing,
Each black infraction of your law.
O Swirling Storm of Holy Anger,
Be patient with me. I’m certain
I will make a second gluttonous
Trip to the festal spread of food.
And I might as well admit, O King
Omniscient, I plan to make a third.
I just read this passage from a sermon by George MacDonald in a book called George MacDonald in the Pulpit (published by Johannesen) and it reminded me again why I so love the man’s writings. Here’s the sermon heading:
THE UNEXPECTED GUEST
A Discourse Delivered in the
Union Park Congregational Church, Chicago, Illinois
Sunday Evening, April 13th, 1873
“Behold I stand at the door and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.” —Revelation iii. 20.
Hutchmoot 2011 is adjourned. Tonight after everyone went home and we locked up the church, Jennifer, Pete, Shauna, Jamie and I sat around with full bellies and thankful hearts and read your comment cards aloud. Just like last year, it was one of my favorite parts of the event.
The tension eased from our shoulders and we spent a few hours enjoying the quiet, the afterglow of a joyful few days, and stories about our favorite moments. We made notes of some of the great suggestions for next year and were encouraged by your comments about this year. Once again, it seems everyone loved the food. You also loved the community, the storytelling, the conversations, the new friendships forged, the masseuse (yes, there was a masseuse), the coffee, the music, and the story about Thomas McKenzie blowing up the Taylor Mart. (I won’t mention Andrew Osenga’s story.)
If you weren’t here this weekend, never fear. Assuming the recordings turned out, we’re planning to post some of the sessions as podcasts in the near future, and I’m sure some of the presenters will post their talks as pieces sooner or later. In the meantime, we’d love to read about your experiences, your impressions, or your revelations. Also, if you’re a blogger or an artist or have a website and you want to share it with other attendees, here’s the place. We meant to compile a list at the ‘Moot but didn’t get to it in time.
On behalf of Pete and the rest of the Rabbit Room crew, thank you for coming. Your presence was an immense blessing.
Note: I wrote this a few years ago for a CCM article. I can’t remember if it was ever published, so I dug it out in honor of the man whose music and ministry quite literally changed my life. As of this week, Rich has been dead for fourteen years, but his music and memory are very much alive.
Today I drove across the flat, wide prairie that lies at the feet of the Grand Tetons. My wife of twelve years and our three children were with me on the journey, and as is our custom on long trips, we let the kids take turns choosing the music. We listened to Riders in the Sky (the best cowboy music around), the soundtrack to Silverado (the best Western film score ever), and some Sara Groves (who doesn’t have much at all to do with the Wild West, but who was a welcome salve after ten hours of the kids choosing the aforementioned music).
Then we rounded the bend at sunset and there before us stood those craggy Tetons, all gray stone with white snow tucked into the fissures. The clouds were gold with sunlight and long, misty fingers of rain dangled from them, caressing the peaks and the aspen- and fir-covered shoulders of the range.
Who else but Rich Mullins could write music that would adequately suit a scene like that? I asked for the iPod, selected A Liturgy, a Legacy, and a Ragamuffin Band, and we drove the next forty-five minutes without speaking. We weren’t speaking because we were being spoken to.
I’m pleased to announce the release of a new album: Above These City Lights (Live). (Get it here.)
We recorded it last fall on the Counting Stars release tour, and then things got busy. Not only did we immediately hit the road for the Christmas tour, I spent all Spring writing The Monster in the Hollows. Meanwhile, the indubitable Todd Robbins . . .