The Challenges of Recording

Spending time in the recording studio has been one of, if not the most challenging parts of my life as a musician. Recording is inherently a vulnerable experience. Even with the most loving and generous producers, which we’ve been lucky enough to have, the nature of the studio is that every sound, every word, every idea is put under a microscope, judged, and either rejected or accepted. Sounds fun, right? That is the goal of making a record, after all: to create something beautiful that, especially this day and age, might last forever. It’s exhausting because each minute in the studio has a decision to make: do you run with an idea, nix it, or alter it in some hopefully awesome way.

As someone who has sung and played music since I was a tot but never gone to music school or really learned to improvise on my instruments, I felt incredibly incompetent when I arrived in the studio. Surrounded by a bunch of dudes who had graduated from some top-notch music school, learned to improv, and loved knobs and pedals and gadgets, these guys are in their element in the studio. In the time it takes me to compose one line, they can come up with ten different ideas and be able to execute them on the spot. I would feel completely paralyzed and more often than not, and I’m talking, every single day, would feel the need to, or actually leave the studio crying. Let’s face it, it was brutal. And you can imagine how my poor partner was feeling -- having to try to stay in the zone while I escaped out the back door to wallow in the discomfort of my experience.  

But since making new music is the lifeblood of our project, I have been working really hard to figure out what was at the heart of my anxiety and how I could make it easier. Here are some things that worked for me:

Having a baby. Bringing a kid into the studio is a great distraction. It keeps everything lighter, allows a natural escape and change of scenery, and is areminder of what’s truly important while also trying to make great art.

Vocal processing. It turns out nearly everyone cringes at the sound of their own voice. (You know the feeling when you hear your voicemail message played back at you, “Is that really what I sound like??”) So I’ve learned to ask the producer to slather on the reverb, and make whatever tweaks necessary to make my voice sound cool and altered in my headphones when I’m singing.

Getting to know GarageBand, alone. Several months ago I was asked to compose music for a documentary film by the director Ross McDermott. I was excited about the chance to write music that was all instrumental, not worrying about lyrics at all. I went upstairs with my Nord keyboard that a super generous fan had gifted us, put on headphones, opened GarageBand on my computer, and went for it. I ended up doing the entire soundtrack by myself on my computer, and that process was extremely enlightening. I was able to get into a groove and truly understand the flow that can happen when adding layers to a track. I finally understood what a creative and expansive feeling can occur. It’s sublime, really. So then I thought, aha! This is what those guys are after in the studio. And this is what I’m going to try to at least inch toward when we make our next album.

Expressing my feelings at the beginning. Sounds basic, but it’s really helped me to air my history and have the producer share his own experience. Really everyone feels the vulnerability, the pressure, and the stress of being in the studio. Knowing we all share these feelings, even the super professional guys we work with, has helped me.

Exploring the connection between art making and love making. This might be a leap, but I’m really into this metaphor at the moment. In order to make art, make love, give birth, or any physically and spiritually transformative process, the conditions need to be right. I’m borrowing ideas from the wise midwife Ina May Gaskin here, but for any of these activities to have success, most of us as humans, need a level of comfort, protection, privacy, and acceptance. When one feels threatened or fearful or judged or exposed, our bodies and our creativity clam up. No great art is made, no love is made. But when we do have these elements, we are open and exploratory and experimental and the possibility for great songs & great love are possible.

Doing it for ten years. Doing anything for ten years is awesome. I highly recommend it. You actually do get better at whatever it is you’re doing. After 1000 shows and eight albums, I do feel like my voice has a different quality and range, I’ve learned new things about my instruments, and I’m able to experiment in new ways. It’s awesome!

Not caring as much. Since it is our ninth album, I feel less precious about it. This one is one of many. It is just a chapter in an evolving journey. I’m excited about the process more than the product for the first time. I am having fun with it and really not caring about the outcome as much. And really appreciating the experience for the first time.

So there you have it. I feel like a new woman. I have made huge internal breakthroughs and am truly looking forward to our next days in the studio. It only took me ten years, but hey, better late than never, right? I look forward to sharing what we’ve made.

David Wax