Everything has been recorded, except for those last few vocal re-do’s that I know are inevitable. The mixing stage has begun. It’s a weeknight and I have gone up to bed earlier than my husband Andrew, which never happens. I am listening to the first mixes from Dean on my super sounding Bose Soundlink speaker. When Andrew comes in, he catches the last part of one of the songs. I want him to say how great it sounds (of course), but instead I see a confused look on his face.
My very concentrated face while listening and making mixing notes
“It sounds different” he says, “What happened to the other version?” Andrew has heard the songs from their inception, just me singing them on guitar or piano. He has heard early demo versions, and he has heard the songs as they’ve been recorded and with parts and musicians added the way. He has grown attached to one ‘edition’ of the song, somewhere along its journey to completion. We’re both tired and I am feeling particularly sensitive, so this reaction sends me into a teeny tiny rage.
Mixing is where all of the parts that have been recorded are blended and placed, creating a cohesive song. It’s a mountain of a job, and takes a great deal of patience and an incredible ear. The songs have upwards of 30 different tracks, with vocal harmonies, keyboards, guitars, strings and percussion to name a few. Mixing is the reason you don’t usually listen to a song on the radio and say “Gee, that horn part is way too loud,” or “That lead guitar is sticking out like a sore thumb.” A good mix means you are experiencing the song as the sum of its parts and none of its parts are out of whack.
A few weeks later, Dean is done mixing and ready for my notes. I have to listen to the songs on headphones, in my car, on my monitor’s computer, and on my iPhone. My biggest challenge is how self conscious and critical I am of my lead vocal. I have to try really hard to let that go and listen to everything else that’s going on.
My first round of mixing notes
During one of my listening sessions, sitting in my favourite rocking chair in our sunroom, Andrew is within earshot at the kitchen table. After all 10 songs he says: “Yeah babe, it sounds really good, nothing jumping out at me at all. It just sounds like an album.” From my understated husband, this is as good as I’m going to get and I realize my earlier mistake: Never show your mixes to your non-musician spouse until it’s finished! Have a listen to this clip of one of the songs which had a total of 58 tracks!!
The week had finally come to head into the studio and start recording the bed tracks for the album. The beds are the main instruments that lay down the groove and feel of each song, in our case drums, bass and keys. They provide the framework that everything else is built on. For me this week was when it really home that I was able to make this record. My producer Dean Drouillard helped put together a top notch group of musicians: Mark Mariash on drums, Robbie Grunwald on keys, and Dean on bass. We were recording at the Lincoln County Social Club with the Juno nominated John Dinsmore at the engineering helm.
Dean took the gear and I walked up to the studio. It was a beautiful sunny spring day and I put my earbuds in and listened to our recording demos on the way up. I remember looking up and letting the sun warm my face and feeling like I would burst. Being a mom, it’s often hard to have those moments where you are totally and utterly doing something for yourself, so I let it wash over me.
The guys writing notes and looking very serious
When I got to the recording studio the guys were almost set up and we had a meeting about the first song. We listened to the demos, we played around with the tempo, and Dean gave some direction about other recording artists we could conjure up as influences.
Recording Studio Art – Some of my favourites from the walls of the Lincoln County Social Club
My job for this part of the recording process was singing a ‘scratch’ vocal along with the band. Although I would go back in and record my final vocals later, it helps to have the singer so the band can feel the arc of the song, the push and pull of emotion, when to scale back and when to really give it. Once I had done one scratch vocal for each song, I was then there to listen, give notes, look at John’s many odd posters on the wall, get coffee for the guys, and search the internet for obscure musical gear with Robbie.
Three 10 hour days later, we had successfully recorded all the bed tracks and I was more exhausted than I had been since having my youngest child! I was able to record some footage of us in action so here’s a little video for you to enjoy with a sneak peek of some of the songs from the album.
“No Choice At All” lyrics: a song about feeling exhausted by struggle.
When I began writing the songs for this album, I was in a very dark place. I had been struggling with lasting concussion symptoms for 3 years, I had two young children who I was struggling to look after the way I wanted to, and a husband who was working himself to the bone trying to hold everything together. Around the same time I lost a close family member to cancer, another to suicide, and I was dealing with the crumbling of my relationship with a dear friend. I was reeling from the sheer pain of it all, from living with chronic illness for so long, and from the many losses. The head injury made it difficult for me to go out and do the things that I would normally do to stay positive: see my friends, go out for dinner or even go to the gym. My once very social self had been cut off at the knees, and to this day I don’t know if I will ever be the same as before.
A list of all of the metaphors I could find for death. This eventually turned into a song called “I Don’t Want To Wait ‘Til Its Over”
Writing songs has always been the thing that I have turned to in times of struggle, but this time I was so far gone I didn’t even have the will to write. But something finally shifted ever so slightly, and I decided to learn how to play the piano. I got a beautiful Roland keyboard on monthly installments from Long & McQuade and the floodgates opened. Around the same time I began working with amazing songwriting mentor Debra Alexander, which helped to focus my songwriting and give me the extra push I needed to write on the piano.
All of the pain of the last few years, all of the loss and frustration, came pouring out of me. I was playing and writing every spare moment and when I felt anxiety or sadness creeping in, I would start playing to ease myself out of fight or flight mode. That piano, and the songs that came as a result, have been a saviour of sorts. I am not totally better, but a huge part of me that was lying dormant has been awakened and I have been able to work through much of my pain in the process.
A songwriting exercise where you free-write without lifting your pen from the paper to solidify what you are trying to express
Finding the right producer for an album is quite possibly the most important part of the whole process. The songs have to be there of course, but having badly produced songs is like having mushy pasta: there may have been nothing wrong with the pasta itself, it was just overcooked. I have been lucky enough to work with some amazing producers, including Mitch Girio for my last album Same Old Song. There is a magic that happens when someone brings out the ‘true’ nature of the songs, or can bring forward some truth that you didn’t necessarily even know was there when you were writing them.
I came across producer Dean Drouillard by happenstance. Although I didn’t meet him on Yelp as he likes to joke, our kids became friends in JK at our local public school. An amazing musician and composer in his own right, he is also a sought after guitar player and has played with everyone from Royal Wood to Buffy Sainte-Marie. I asked Dean if he would produce a few demos for me to use to for licensing opportunities and to apply for an Ontario Arts Council grant. Working with Dean for the demos was a pivotal time for me. I hadn’t really admitted to myself that I was ready to get back out there and record another album. I wasn’t sure I could do it with my continuing health struggles, and I felt a mixture of fear and self-doubt.
The songs however, and what Dean was able to bring out of me, told a different story altogether. Listening to the finished product, I heard someone who had both a story to tell and the drive to tell it. I heard power and intimacy and sadness and strength. It was then that I finally admitted to myself that I had to do this. It was Dean who pushed me to apply for the coveted FACTOR Juried Sound Recording Grant which I later received and which is making the dream of Living Proof into an exciting reality.
Yesterday my family helped me to record a video for the CBC Searchlight competition. I am submitting one of the songs from Living Proof in an effort to get some exposure for the upcoming album and also to possibly win some much needed prize money to put into the album! My five year old helped by singing “Let It Go” at the top of her lungs in front of the camera, my two year old helped by spilling her potty (which was full of pee) during one of my takes, and my husband helped by, well, doing pretty much everything, including very complex lighting with a kids nightlight as pictured below.
My husband helping me set up professional lighting
This kind of thing is WAY outside of my comfort zone. I don’t wear a lot of makeup, I am uncomfortable on camera, and I have actually never shot a music video before, professional or amateur. It ended up being a pretty fun family activity and we were not only able to finish, but I sent in the video later last night (working mom win!!!).
Me with more makeup on than I have ever worn in my life!
The highlight of the shoot for me was having my whole family involved, as music is something I usually go off quietly and do by myself. The best take is the one where you can hear Charlie yelling about wiping her bum in the background. Classic. I can’t share the final video for CBC Searchlight quite yet but it will be up on the CBC Website on Feb 14th at 3pm. The first round is based on votes, so I need friends and fans to vote once per day from Feb 15th-Feb 27th.
I made a two minute video of ‘bloopers’ from the days shoot, so I hope it will give you a little chuckle. Included in the YouTube description are a few sentences about why I should win the CBC Searchlight competition 🙂
A chronicle of the recording of my fourth studio album Living Proof