Finding that "ah-ha" moment
Sometimes, I have an idea for a song that sounds great in my head. And dammit, if I could just get it to sound that way in Pro Tools, I know I'd be on to something. But try as I might, it never quite matches that vision in my head.
After working on Scan Lines from the upcoming album for nearly two weeks, I hit a point where, though it sounded close to what I envisioned, it still felt like it was missing something to really get me excited about it. I had completed recutting the vocal layers for a third time (13 layers each time) to try and make it all gel together the way I envisioned. I was stumped, and starting to really get down on the song. I'd heard it way too many times at this point and was looking for a new addition to re-spark my interest.
Sometimes, when I'm in this point, I simply create a few new blank audio tracks, hit record and start to freestyle new vocal layers without much thought. I did this with the track, and sure enough, I stumbled across an addition to the chorus that got my heart beating again. It was an ah-ha moment, and something that I was hoping to find.
A few more rehearsals and revisions on that newly created part and I had nailed down what ended up being a key signature to the chorus. What's funny is before that freestyling, I thought I had the signature of the song nailed. But this new inclusion that practically came out of nowhere took the reigns and gave me new vision and inspiration for completing the track. I've since revised the vocals nearly 7 different times and have finally landed on a final version of the track that I can be proud of. Needless to say, I've spent more time on this track than any other on the album, and I simply wasn't ok with letting it die after all that hard work.
Another track from the new album that encountered this resurgent ah-ha moment is Fade Away, my attempt to take a song I wrote nearly 20 years go and make it more current. The risk you take when doing something like this is that, quite simply, you've heard the song a million times over in that old style, and trying to give it new life has you at odds with the fact that the song already has a form that is engrained in your brain. It's so hard to hear a track like that through new ears.
I initially recorded the track with vocal harmonies almost identical to what I had done years before. Given that I now have practically infinite track count versus my trusty four track back in the day, I was able to pile on a few extra harmonies that I had always envisioned in my head over the years. But it simply wasn't enough. The song felt stale to me. Too familiar.
I went back and forth on if the track would even make the album, until one day I had the sense to scrap the vocals and force myself to track them with a different approach. Scrapping the old and forcing something different was just the fire it needed and it took me down a two hour road of rediscovery. I've said it before on this blog. No one idea is sacred and they can ALL be rethought.
I find it's those kinds of ah-ha moments that keep me passionate about producing and recording music. If I'm not excited about where I'm going with a track... if it isn't making my heart race while I work on new ideas for the song... if I'm bored with the track even as I'm writing it, then I'm just not having fun. The quality of the track is assured to suffer as a result.
Ah-ha moments are the kinds of things that can't be forced. And this certainly isn't the only way that they happen. But sometimes, doing something completely unconventional can be a window to something inspiring.
You've probably heard of Oblique Strategies? It's a deck of cards created by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt that act as inspiration queues or game changers for your production. Actually, they work for anything creative but were initially created with the recording process in mind. If you get stuck, or run out of ideas, you pull a card from the deck and it poses a rather open ended idea or question for you to answer within your production. Things like "What to increase? What to reduce?" or "Only one element of each kind."
Tools like this force you to evaluate your production through different eyes, and change your normal course of work. That unexpected thought might actually be the defining element your song needs. You simply never know. And that's the beauty of it.