Thursday, April 28, 2011

Magical Moment 448, "Singing for Ghosts"

I sang for a room full of people today in a small, dark room. They were people from my past - long, and not so long ago - and one I've never even met.

I'm in my final and most challenging phase of recording my album of original songs with Modern Vintage Recordings. Vocal tracking has intimidated me since the beginning of this project. For most of the tracks, we recorded all the music and instruments, and when that was complete, I recorded my vocals inside an intimate booth with a microphone and headphones. When doing this, you may be surprised to learn that we rarely track an entire song from start to finish. Instead, we do the verse a few times, then the chorus, and so on. This way, we can re-do any particular section as many times as necessary to get it perfect. And there is so much to get perfect when recording vocals; tone, pitch, breath, pronunciation, volume. It's quite exhausting.

But on one track, we decided to record a simple piano and vocal, live in the studio. This would allow the emotional song to be more expressive, rather than be performed to an exact "click" track. It would be live. From the first note, to the last, it would be all one take with me at the piano while singing into the ultra sensitive microphone. Needless to say, I was scared. Singing for a live show is one thing. You sing the song, and the moment passes away. But this would be on my album...forever.

I went into the studio, fully expecting to record 50 different takes of the song in order to get one that I was happy with. I was already dreading what it would feel like at the end of the day when I still hadn't performed the song well enough to be album-worthy. I tried to remember everything I'd been told by my producers and vocal coach. And I knew this song was about the words and the emotions they evoked. The magic would be in the delivery, not in the mechanics of technical and proper singing.

On the wooden piano bench, I heard my audio-engineers say in my headphones, "Whenever you're ready."

I thought about the time in my life when I wrote this song, "Sick and Tired." The lyrics play out like a woman in a bad, even abusive relationship who finds the will to say enough is enough. When I penned this song, I was emotionally and mentally beat down. It was a time when I felt like my life circumstances were drowning me and I couldn't come up for air. And then I thought about the people in my life that made me feel that way. The things they said and did that made me question my self worth. And then I pictured those people sitting in folding chairs next to the piano, watching and listening to me.

I told them where to sit, "No sir, you sit here. I want to make sure you hear this line. And you, you're fine right there. Can everyone see? Can everyone hear? Good. Listen."

But I thought that I needed at least one person on my side. Standing behind me, encouraging me. So, I chose Dolly Parton. Oh, she was so positive. "You can do it honey!" She coaxed me right along in her high-pitched southern drawl.

So I began playing. And I heard every word I sang and every note I played come through clear as a bell in my headphones. Once or twice I even looked up from the keyboard to make sure the ghosts were still paying attention. And near the end of the song, during a particularly personal lyric, I found myself fighting that inevitable, emotional lump in your throat that often comes when you're summoning the courage to confront someone whose worked so hard to beat you down. I ended the line abruptly for fear of a crack in my voice, and then the entire take would be useless. But once I finished, it felt like, that was it. That was the one. It didn't take the entire day, or the hours long that I expected. We had it in about 30 minutes.

Having trouble accepting that success could be completed so easily, I tried a few more takes since we had the luxury of time. But nothing turned out as raw and meaningful as that earlier one. You can hear the "almost crack" in my voice near the end. Even a little quiver. And I was unsure of leaving it "imperfect." But as my audio-engineer, Jason Cummings explained, 
"It's a snap shot in time. And you'll ever be able to re-create that moment you felt." 
And to be honest, that's the beauty of live music. 

Feeling exhilarated on my way home, I called my dad and told him the good news, how I was terrified of recording a live piano/vocal track, how it was the song I'd written about people who once made me feel fear. And he said it just perfectly and simply, "Sometimes it pays off to face your fears."

And now with a new perspective and a little help from Dolly, I don't feel afraid of ghosts.


~~
Lyrics to "Sick and Tired" by Elizabeth Grimes. Copyright 2009.

You walk all over me without looking back. You demean me in front of my friends.
You keep me in the dark, ignore me when I'm sad, and break me when you find I can't bend.
My knees are bruised from this floor. My eyes are swollen from cryin.
My confidence is no more. My inner strength is dyin.

I'm sick and tired of lookin like I'm sick and tired.
The rest of my life is at stake. 
How can you put me down every single day,
When I see you makin twice my mistakes?

I've been a slave to you. And I've done all you asked. And I did it willingly.
I thought it would please you and you'd accept me at last, but you just keep taking heartlessly.


I'm sick and tired of lookin like I'm sick and tired.
The rest of my life is at stake. 
How can you put me down every single day,
When I see you makin twice my mistakes?

You've taken most of my pride, but it's not all out of grasp.
I held on long enough. And it gave me the strength for this.

I'm sick and tired of bein sick and tired!
The rest of my life is at stake.
How can you put me down every single day,
When I see you makin twice my mistakes?

Like a slap in the face I found I can walk away.
And there's nothin that can make me stay.



~~~


Here are posts as I chronicle my album recording with Modern Vintage Recordings: