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In the Studio with Andrew Peterson

As tourists pause to take pictures on the stairs of the Lincoln Memorial, very few notice that the careful spacing of the stairs symbolizes the years of the Civil War. Some steps represent seasons of particular intensity, so they are steep and arduous. Other steps are spaced far apart, signifying seasons when “up” seemed distant and unapproachable. These details that so often go unnoticed are a part of what makes the destination at the top of the stairs, the monument, so memorable.

Matt Conner has a theory that goes like this: An artist is never more interesting to his audience, than when he is in the midst of the creative act. We thought it would be fun to provide an inside look at the process of creating Andrew Peterson’s new album, and as I watched Andrew at work in the recording studio recently, I had the privilege of observing some oft-unnoticed details.

I parked behind the purple building on Nashville’s storied Music Row, and Andrew’s producer and friend, Gabe Scott, opened the door. Gabe led me through a narrow hallway to a small room attached to an even smaller room. The smaller room was dark, but there stood Andrew with headphones and a microphone. Gabe sat at a desk facing not the window looking into Andrew’s dark cove, but a giant computer screen. He clicked something, pushed a button, and said, “I’ll punch you in.” The room filled with sound, and Andrew sang, “I had a dream that I was waking . . .”

The most prominent initial detail was not the darkness of the recording booth, but the tone of encouragement permeating the room. It’s a grueling process, singing the same thing over and over, listening to yourself and your words, and Gabe supplied just the right amount of encouragement. Where Gabe offered praise, Andrew responded with trust. When Gabe said, “That’s the one for me, unless…” it was natural for Andrew to say, “No, I trust you, man” and really mean it.

This partnership of trust and encouragement has been built over years of friendship, and the friendship was evident as they worked through the details together. At one moment, they reminisced about the time they visited Gabe’s home and watched a deer-skinning. The conversation flowed from funny anecdotes to pointed questions as Gabe asked, “Do you experience a sense of loss and victory as we comp?”

“Comping” is a study in details. Artist and producer listen to every few seconds of vocals, and then string the best takes together into one seamless tapestry. It is repetitive and it takes time. It is a series of difficult decisions about almost imperceptible differences. Each vocal take has a personality. They are characters in a story, each telling the same story in a different way. Some takes are emotional, and others sound more vocally pure.

Andrew answered Gabe’s question about loss and victory confidently, “No. I used to. But not anymore.” His answer captured a detail that makes this album different than his others. Besides the different players, different producer, and different feel, Andrew is different. He says that once, he wanted control over every little detail. And while he acknowledges that there is nothing wrong with having an opinion on each piece of the creation, he also wisely points out that when control is surrendered, the finished product is often better.

Andrew had not yet surrendered the title of the album when I observed these details. From the hours I spent in the studio, though, I knew what the album was not called. It wasn’t titled, “Conscious of the Nasal I,” or “When the Shimmering Went Away,” or “Mesmerizing Loopiness,” although as each of these phrases came up in conversation, Andrew nearly had me convinced that one of them was indeed the title. Now that the title is revealed, I realize I heard it the first minute I was in the studio and then a hundred times more throughout the afternoon.

Two months ago, only one song of the album had been written. The rest was unknown, but Andrew says that watching the mystery unfold is like approaching a mountain and realizing it is far grander than the imagination could have conjured. In comparison to Light for the Lost Boy, Andrew says of this album, “It’s more hopeful. No, not more hopeful, necessarily, more joyful.”

After listening to the first complete version of the song they’d spent the day on, Andrew sighed, a good sigh, and said, “There are a lot of words in that song”—a lot of words, a lot of choices, and an abundance of details. During my day in the studio I witnessed just a few small steps that, like the monument in D.C., are part of an ascendance toward a far greater finished product. Some of those vocal takes will probably never be heard again, but they were nonetheless essential elements in the long process of making the album.

At one point, after an hour of comping vocals, Gabe zoomed out on the monitor. One detail met the others: bass, drums, guitar, keys. Pastel blues, greens, purples, and pinks decorated the screen like a scattering of Easter eggs. The waveforms looked like heartbeats. Gabe pressed play, and all the heartbeats formed a harmony. The details formed a song, the song was alive, and the songmakers were satisfied—one step nearer the summit.

When Gabe punched Andrew in, the room filled with more than simple sound. It filled with details, memories, friendship, and even a title. Andrew sang: “I had a dream that I was waking on the burning edge of dawn . . .”

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