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How to Make a Record, Part 2: The Edges of Things

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).

Carried Along (2000): Produced by the very capable Glenn Rosenstein (who had just finished producing Caedmon’s Call’s excellent 40 Acres). Since I was such a youngster (25), we spent two weeks on pre-production. That means we spent a week at Glenn’s house tightening up the songs and choosing which were the strongest. This wasn’t easy because I was bringing to the table every song I had ever written up to that point—one of the luxuries of making your first record. The second week we spent in a rehearsal studio with the drummer (Chris McHugh), bass player (Craig Young), and percussionist Ken Lewis (who happens to be sitting about eight feet from me in the Chicago Starbucks where I’m writing this. That’s him at the table, right there.

Not only is he still a drummer in high demand, he’s Steven Curtis’s drummer on this tour and he’s played on almost all my records in the last dozen years).

Back to pre-production. It was hard work. Since I was so unused to playing with a band, it freaked me out to suddenly hear drums, bass, and perc on my little acoustic songs. I thought they would lose any hint of their acoustic folkiness, which in hindsight is silly in light of how big the drums can be on some of my favorite artists’ songs. Now I’m used to imagining a rhythm section on the songs even as they’re being written, but at the time it was unsettling.

Clear to Venus (2001): We toured almost constantly between the two records, so there wasn’t much time to do pre-production. Nor was there much time to have written very many songs, for that matter. We asked Glenn Rosenstein to produce that one, too, which saved some get-to-know-the-producer time. We hit the ground running without much planning. The songs were the songs, and as often happens with a sophomore album, many of them were written on the road, about the road.

(Side note: this album has always been a bit of an underdog, partly because it released on 9/11/2001, and partly because, though I fought it tooth and nail, the label insisted that my face be on the cover—something I swore I’d never do. Still, every now and then I hear from a listener that this is their favorite of my albums. Those same people are probably Cubs fans, like me.)

Love and Thunder (2003): I have pleasant memories of this whole recording process. Steve Hindalong and Derri Daugherty (of the legendary band The Choir) produced it at Derri’s studio. Ben Shive had just started playing music with me and I asked him to come hang out for the duration of the process, since it was pretty clear at the time that he would grow into a great producer. He was a big fan of Steve and Derri’s music, and they were fast admirers of Ben’s musicianship.

I don’t remember there being much pre-production on this record, either, but we did record the demos at Andrew Osenga’s studio. I barely knew Osenga at the time. He was finishing up an album called Photographs, and played me a song called “High School Band”, which was only about half finished, as I recall. After we finished recording the demos, I asked Osenga offhand if he had any extra songs lying about; I felt like I needed one more for the album. He shrugged and played us an unfinished version of “After the Last Tear Falls”. On the way home from his house I pulled into a mall parking lot, sat in the back of my van, and worked out the chorus.

Behold the Lamb of God (2004): This one was the first thing I recorded after being dropped from my label. I asked Ben and Osenga to produce it, and there was little pre-production needed because we had been touring it for three or four years already. The arrangements were more or less complete, so we dove right in. Though we all had a fair bit of experience at the time, when I look back I realize how green we really were. Green and flying by the seats of our pants.

The Far Country (2005): I asked Ben Shive to take the helm on this one, solo. I wanted more of a band feel to this album, so the good folks at my church, Midtown Fellowship, let us use the church offices to do the pre-production with a full band. Andy Gullahorn (acoustic guitar), Paul Eckberg (drums), Andrew Osenga (electric), and Danny O’Lannerghty (bass) gathered with Ben and I in the little room and basically rehearsed for a week. It was a blast seeing the songs take a different shape than they would’ve otherwise, and we had a clear roadmap for what we’d do in the studio the next week.

Resurrection Letters II (2008): Once again, Ben Shive was at the helm. Since he’s been my right-hand-man on the road for all these years, he’s usually intimate with the songs as they’re being written. Either I’m bouncing the ideas off him in the hotel after the show or he’s working out a piano part for the new stuff in soundcheck. I can’t overstate how important it’s been all these years to have such a talented, song-conscious confidant to help me shape my songs. It’s only natural that he’s the one to see them into the world on an album. He’s like the family doctor who’s delivered most of my kids. We gathered at Eckberg’s studio with Matt Pearson (bass) and started recording, simple as that. This was also my first album with the good people at Centricity Music.

Counting Stars (2010): This one was sort of an experiment: what would happen if we recorded the whole thing in isolation? We flew everything to the wilds of Washington state in the dead of winter and hid out in a secluded studio in the mountains. No distractions. Nobody having to rush home for dinner. Just five guys and a handful of songs for nine days. It was magical. We worked long days (as many as 14 hours at a time), wrote some of the songs under pressure, and ended up with a record that, as Ben so wisely put it, “was like a familiar room painted a different color.”

One of these days, for my own jollies, I’m going to put down everything I remember from each record. For now, that’s a quick look at the beginning of the process for each. This album, though, has me feeling delightfully less comfortable for a few reasons.

1) A few years back we watched a documentary about Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (one of the best music docs I’ve ever seen), and Tom’s producer joked that every three records you should fire your producer, lest things get stale. There’s no way on earth I’d fire Ben or Andy G., but in light of that comment we all thought it would be fun to see what would happen if we invited our friend Cason Cooley into the process. Cason’s a great producer and a great friend, and he and Ben have wanted to work together for years. I’ve grown really comfortable with Ben at the wheel. Gullahorn’s input is vital, too. Andy and Ben are both amazing, AMAZING songwriters, but their approaches to songs are really different. They hear different things in my songs, and different aspects resonate with them. That makes for a wonderful tension. We don’t always agree, but because of a deep mutual respect, we always truly consider the other guy’s ideas. Bringing Cason into the mix stirs things up a little. He’s listening in a totally different way than I’m used to, and I think it will bring a new color to the paint on the wall.

2) The other thing is, none of these songs have been road-tested. Usually, I’m touring during the writing process. That means I can test the new songs out to see how well they connect. Playing a song for someone tells you volumes about the song. So often, I finish a song in private, feel great about it, then as soon as I play it for someone I see a thousand weaknesses I was blind to before. I think most songwriters feel the same thing. But since I was touring with Steven last fall when I was writing these songs, then I went straight to the Behold the Lamb tour, which doesn’t afford me much time to play my own stuff, and now I’m on the road with Steven again, I haven’t had a chance to play any of these songs live. (I played an unfinished version of “Shine Your Light On Me” at two Christmas shows, but that’s it.)

3) Finally, while Counting Stars was made in concentration (nine days with no distractions), this new album is practically the opposite. We started three weeks ago, then we stopped because of scheduling conflicts. For the rest of the spring we’ll be working here and there, on our days off from the tour. The bad thing is, we can’t gain much momentum. The good thing is, it gives me time to listen to the songs fifteen thousand times, tweak lyrics, mull over arrangements and instrumentation. It also gives me time to write. We have eleven songs, but it’s nice knowing that, should inspiration strike, I have time to add another few to the pot.

I said this in the last post: as soon as you think you know what you’re doing, you’re in big trouble. It brings to mind this quote from Rich Mullins, one of my heroes:

“I would rather live on the verge of falling and let my security be in the all-sufficiency of the grace of God than to live in some kind of pietistic illusion of moral excellence.”

Sometimes it is at the edges of things, at the brink of destruction, at the love-drunk moments before that first kiss, that we feel most alive. Maybe that’s where God wants us: where we’re most vulnerable, and thus most willing to ask for help, to cry for rescue, to joyously admit defeat. Then we know the work is his, not ours.


I had a few things in mind for part three, but I’m curious: what would you guys like to hear about? Would you rather I dug into the specifics of the process? Would you like a play-by-play of a day in the studio? The interplay of songwriting and song-production?


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