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Some thoughts on recording 'Rain Dance'

This past week I released my third studio album Rain Dance, and I have been thinking these past few days about some of the moments and realisations I had along the journey of recording it. To mark its release, and return to these written explorations of my work, I’d like to share some thoughts on the process and what I’ve learned from it with you.

Recording is not a straightforward process for anyone, especially for those who are not experienced with it, and to be honest it is not an experience I really enjoy. I’ve never had much interest in spending time on recording because I get great pleasure from performing and creating an atmosphere. Playing acoustically, or through an amplifier, is great because the ambience of the room affects how you feel and how you interpret the sound. Recording is the opposite of this – the only ‘atmosphere’ is in your own head, and all your flaws and errors are magnified by the recording process because your other senses are mostly tuned out. Additionally for me, the adrenaline I would usually get from an audience reaction isn’t there to spur me on. Audiences focus on the flow of a show, and that same flow affects how you play. The flow of a performance also makes allowances for small mistakes. Recording makes you focus on an individual piece of music, usually out-of-context with the other pieces.

In lots of ways, Rain Dance started coming to life before the preceding album Marrakech (2017). While some tracks were finalised and/or improvised in the studio, some of the ideas on Rain Dance date back as far as 2015. It’s a good lesson to anyone who thinks that:

1) Your musical ideas should be exhausted with each album release

2) The formation of albums (or musical ideas) happens sequentially

3) Musical ideas are fixed once they’re formed

I don’t believe that any of these are true. A great example is track #8 on Rain Dance – ‘L’Isola’. This tune started in Sicily in 2015, when I was there on a holiday with my friend Daniele and his family. I was lying on a hammock playing guitar, taking in the night sky, when Daniele’s uncle was passing by. I remember him saying “bella musica, mi piace” (lovely music, I like it). It’s a little cliché but it’s true – music is a universal language. I had a very rudimentary grasp of Italian, and he didn’t have a word of English, but the music I made and its effect on us both transcended our language barrier and our cultures. Even though it’s a simple piece of music, it took me a long time to finish it. Finding a complimentary second section was a process where I tried bringing the tune into different keys, different harmonies, more dramatic melodic lines, and in the end what felt right was a very simple idea with a very prominent melody. I felt like I had finished the piece in about 2018 or so, and I had been playing it on-and-off since then. But what I’ve realised about this piece is not so much the composition itself, but rather the feel with which I play it.

The Music Will Change Over Time

Core ideas rarely change dramatically for me, but over time I often notice changes in elements such as rhythm, emphases, section length, chord voicings - in essence nothing that would constitute classifying it as a different piece of music. I could not have played L’Isola with the same feeling back in 2015 as I do now, and it makes total sense to me – I’ve lived five years of life experience that has shaped me a person, and that has made me approach music differently. It’s also five more years of playing, writing, and improvising; five more years of comfort on the guitar neck; and five more years of being ‘in tune’ with my instrument.

Unless it’s a piece of music you have played for years, I don’t know if it is possible to be totally ‘at home’ with your compositions when you record them – I really believe it takes a lot of time to allow yourself to let your compositions develop. Recording is only a snapshot in time. When I listen back to my earlier albums, I hear so many things that I do differently now. Some of these changes are definitely for the better, and some are just different (i.e. not better or worse in my mind), but it’s something that will keep happening as long as I make music. My parents could never understand why I could never play a piece of music the same way twice, but it makes total sense to me: when you have internalised a piece of music, your musicality changes with your mood. It’s not possible for any of us to totally separate ourselves from the music; how we feel has a direct impact on how we play. My tune Marrakech is a great example of this.

Listen to this video of Marrakech shortly after I had released it:

Now take a listen to this one – you’ll hear how much more ‘alive’ the tune is in this second video. Listen for the note-bending, the neck-bending, the percussive snaps, and the overall flow of the piece – it’s much better now than it was is 2017.

That’s all down to how much I have played that piece, and now really feel ‘at home’ with it. As time goes on, I am certain that the new releases on Rain Dance will undergo the same process.

Where The Music Came From

Generally, the new tunes have their origins in travelling, or in personal relationships and my experiences as a human along the way. I mostly kept to my method of composing away from the guitar, and then adapting the pieces to suit solo guitar performance. ‘Montmartre’ and ‘Rain Dance’ are most interesting from a technique point-of-view.

With ‘Montmartre’, I came up with a way of emulating the lo-fi hip-hop sounds I heard atop the Sacre-Coeur Cathedral in Montmartre, Paris, when I was about sixteen years old. I remember specifically seeing these amazing street dancers, but it was the music they were moving to that really caught my ear. Finding a way to get a dull but heavy “chord-and-kick-drum” sound took a while, but in the end I found that flattening the side of my picking-hand thumb and hitting near the bridge got the sound I was looking for. With ‘Rain Dance’, I used a technique that I have seen multiple guitarists use to emulate various instruments, which is to weave a piece of stiff material (in my case, old hotel cards and credit cards) between the strings at the saddle, and to move it around until the strings lose most of their sustain. For this piece, it emulates the sounds of the African N’Goni, or the Kora. Phil Keaggy uses it to emulate the Japanese Koto, and Martin Taylor uses it to emulate Steel Drums.

The more reflective pieces of music feel much more personal to me. ‘Bluebirds’ started off as a song about new lovers, and the more I played it while working out close-voiced harmonies, the more I liked it as an instrumental. With ‘Trouvailles’, I took form into account in a way I hadn’t before. In my head, the form is a loose ABA (Sonata form). This isn’t the case in the strict definition of Sonata form, but my idea was to encapsulate the feeling of falling in love, realising the challenges of love, and returning to the beauty of love, from start to finish in a piece of music. My partner is a pianist, and she played pieces by some of the great piano composers for me for the first time when we became a couple. These always stuck with me and I did my best to replicate some of the subtle key changes and chord changes that composers like Débussy used. I also tried to use musical themes, and to manipulate these themes at different times in the sections to give it the classical/impressionistic touch.

This album is the first release on which I have recorded flatpick-only tunes, that is to say that I didn’t use my picking-hand fingers at all on some tracks. For example, ‘Grove Road’ is strictly flatpicking, as is ‘Travelling Tune’ and ‘Frontier’. Others are pick-free - using just my fingers – such as Bluebirds, L’Isola, Jumbo, and Trouvailles. The rest use my more common technique of using a thumbpick and my fingers – Momentum, Rain Dance, Montmartre, and Nightflying.

What Could I Have Done Differently?

It’s always important to keep track of what you could have done differently when recording, be it before or during the process. Keeping in mind what I wrote above - that the tunes develop over time - I could have allowed more time to feel more comfortable with these tunes by playing them live. This didn’t happen as a lot of the final stages of composition happened in the two weeks prior to recording, and in some cases in the studio itself. The benefit of leaving some of the work until getting into the studio is that the pressure of ‘having to get the crafting done’ is often what you may need to sharpen your mind and to actually finish the piece. For some, this might happen before the recording process itself (I would like to be more like this!).

Another difficulty I had was in deciding whether or not putting Trouvailles on the album was a good idea or not. Trouvailles is 8m 44s long, which is very long given that the more conventional length of a piece of music (in the current context of broadcast in particular) is between 3-5 minutes. What tipped the balance for me was realising that I had my ‘gigging’ hat on versus my ‘listening’ hat. Depending on the live setting, I may or may not perform a piece of music like ‘Trouvailles’ in its entirety. Listening to recorded music is a different state of mind to listening to a live show. For me, a live show is all about entertainment, sharing emotions, connecting with an audience, and so on. When people are listening to my albums, it could be for ambience, for meditation, for reflection - and so how we listen in these different scenarios varies hugely.

The other side of it is that you can have all the plans in the world, and things can happen while you are recording that make those plans go out the window. My guitar started creaking and buzzing in a really unusual way while recording, something I had never before encountered and could not have foreseen, and it cost us a lot of studio time trying to fix. After numerous attempts at string changes, action changes, and even trying to affix Blue-Tack onto the problematic area (where my wrist sits on the soundboard), it magically disappeared, and we were able to continue. Recording ‘Jumbo’ was a much happier deviation from the plan. A baritone guitar arrived to the studio while I was there, and we took it out to give it a go. Connor, who was recording me, pointed a mic and a camera at me and said “play something”, just to hear how the baritone sounded recorded.I improvised a tune out of a core idea I had, which became Jumbo, the bonus track. I hadn’t thought about using it for the album until people watched a YouTube video I uploaded of that same take. Their positive comments made me consider it as an album track, and I asked Connor if he could make the recording we did sound good enough for the album – which he did!

There is no one way to make an album. You can read all the blogs, watch all the videos, listen to all the anecdotal experience, and do all the planning in the world, but in the end it all comes down to your comfort with your pieces of music, what works for you as a musician, and adapting to the unforeseen challenges that arise in studio. My advice to anyone recording is to be as prepared and as comfortable as possible with the pieces before going into the studio. Performing them live (or practising them in front of others) a few times before recording is a good idea in my opinion. Becoming comfortable with the sound in the studio is also important. Finally, be open, flexible and adaptive, keeping in mind that not all deviations from the plan are a bad thing – they could even end up creating that serendipitous bonus for your album.

©2020 SHANE HENNESSY via EXCHEQUER MUSIC