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Creating 'Soulful Filling'


I'm going attempt to shed a little insight into the process of creating these tracks using the nifty mp3 player that I built. Click on the green links on this page to arm it with tracks. You can enable and disable tracks by clicking on the checkboxes next to the track names. You can also make the tracks loop by enabling the loop checkbox.

Eye Heart Knot

This was one of the last tunes that I wrote for the album. I was initially going to start the album with "four prophets", but when I played that track for my wife, her reaction was "wow, that was complicated." As a fairly casual music listener, she's an excellent gauge of how most people will react to my tracks. I learned from "Cool Aberrations" that its a really good idea to start an album with a fairly accessible track, so her reaction spurred me to write this one.

I started it by taking the bell sounds that are predominant in "four prophets", tweaking the line a little bit and added some pads and a polyrhythmic melodic texture underneath it. I eventually created a short rhodes melody that I found addictive, then layered other melodies on top of it until I had 4 interlocking melodies. I separated these melodies so that they would be introduced one at a time, and weaved together the track sprinkling in all the other elements - like drums, pads, and a droning bass. I put a lot effort into the drums - tweaking them until I had a fairly seamless rhythmic progression from a very sparse back beat into a more active percussive space. This is the only track I've ever written so it would seamlessly transition into the next track . . . .

Four Prophets
(Dan Lebowitz on guitar)

My last album, "Cool Aberrations", had collaborating artists on every track. As soon as I finished that album I started drafting an internal list of musicians I really wanted to work with. I'm a bit of a live music junkie, so I've seen my fair share of amazing musicians in San Francisco. Dan Lebowitz was at the top of the list, so it was a great privilege to have him come into my "studio" and throw down on a couple of my tracks.

This track, which may seem a wee bit complicated, actually has a very simple song structure: A->B->C->A. This was a slowly brewed track which I worked on sporadically for four months. I really liked the interplay between the bells and the simple, elegant piano line and used that as the base for the A section. I flushed it out with pads, a bass guitar melody (using the awesome ManyBass plugin, which was used on almost every track), and worked in a mellow drum progression. By the time I had Dan play on it, the track was entirely composed, but there was enough room left in the mix so that a guitar would enrich the track - not clutter it.

The way I record with artists on a track like this is to let them play on a short looped section for a while to get used to it. After that, I start giving more direction. I let them know what type of feel I'm looking for and when they hit upon ideas/riffs that I want them to expand on. Working with talented musicians (and especially professional ones) makes this interplay quite productive and a whole lot of fun. I then cull through the vast amount of recorded material picking out little snippets that I particularly like, and piece them together.

Oh - if you haven't noticed, I enjoy play on words. Since the first two tracks are seamlessly connected, read the names of those two tracks out loud, back-to-back.

Comfort Zone
(Ryan Avery on violin, Michele Walther on violin)

This track was composed in the order you hear it - meaning I started out with the deep pad sound, then added a rhodes line (which I'm pretty fond of), and then added the melody on top of it. This track is an example of the other way I work with collaborators - I had completely charted out the melody in sheet music, then had these very talented musicians reinterpret them. It took several sessions until I had the articulation that I was totally satisfied with. Check out the original rhodes melody contrasted with the vastly richer violin melody. I also learned how tricky it is to record a violin.

There are really only a few track groups in this song. It took a number of sessions to record the solo which takes place at the bridge of the song. It's actually comprised of lines from both Michele and Ryan. I crafted a slow breakdown and used the opportunity to bring the rhodes to the front of the mix, and created a few new melodic ideas on top of this new rhodes line. I then put the old melodies on top of the one ones, and tweaked the new melodies so that they sort of worked together - setting up the track for a smooth transition from the new melodies to the original melodies.

Mellow Drama
(Audio Angel on vocals, Dan Lebowitz on guitar, David Phillips on pedal steel guitar)

I really enjoy certain psychedelic electronic music - bands like sphongle, orbital, and carbon based lifeforms. This track was a slow cooker - I just kept plugging away, having no idea where it was going. When I had collaborators come over to work on specific tracks, I would whip this one out at the end of recording session and just let them throw down whatever they felt like on top of it. Eventually I had amassed a fair bit of material, and started placing tasty snippets all over the track. I massaged the snippets around until there was a full, thick, psychedelic feel to the track.

Warm Steel
(David Phillips on pedal steel guitar)

David Phillips is an AMAZING guitar player whom I discovered through JP Cutler - since David often plays in Jesse's band. David has recorded with Tom Waits, Mike Patton, and countless others. It also turns out he lives two blocks away and has a heart of gold. He enjoys playing in polka and swing bands with his pedal steel - needless to say, he's demolishing the traditional boundaries for pedal steel.

uch like "Comfort Zone", this was a track where I composed a melody section using the piano, had a musician come in and rerecord it, and then had him solo over the bridge. It's a fairly straight forward A->B->A tune, very laid back and sunny. I put in the most effort tweaking and layering the pads to get that lush, slightly trippy flow, and working on the subtly complex drum patterns. David took four passes over the B section, each time I had to scrape my jaw off the floor - very potent stuff.

Go Inward

Again, this track came together in the order that you hear it. I first dialed in that "ping" sound with a huge reverb tail to it, and then crafted a slightly longer melody line with lots of space in it. Piece by piece, I added all the other elements - the pads, the rhodes, and then the resolving B section. The track structure is A1->B->A2->B.

The A2 section is where things get really interesting. I folded more and more melodies into the mix with interlocking downbeats. Then I introduce this really solid bass where the downbeat is pushed around, creating a "spilling over" feel. On top of that I put a drum line which morphs from one pattern to another in a seamless way - it took a LOT of fine tuned tweaking to get that to happen. To do this over a really long melody took a lot of work, but it was totally worth it. This section is one of my proudest achievements in a composition.

Starry

The structure of this one is A->B->A, where the A and B sections were written completely independently. After working on the two song files for a while, and having no idea where either of them was going, I got curious to see if I could merging them together. I tweaked B to be in a related key to A, and got to work.

A major theme running through this album is interlocking melodies, and this track is no exception. I pushed it a little further in the A section, with the rhodes and square synth playing a lot of notes on top of each other, while still leaving room for a main melody on top of them. After massaging those pieces, I flushed out the section with bass, pads, and drums.

The B section has a beautiful melodic hook, though totally unrelated to anything from the A section. I constructed the transition from A to B through an iterative approach. I restricted myself to using only instruments from the two sections, and eventually massaged a really subtle transition. Going from B -> A was much more difficult, but I eventually weaved the rhodes line into the other melodic elements.

Second Thoughts
(Ryan Avery on violin)

I've been really into playing around with the downbeat, and I enjoy how this song initially throws the listener off where they expect the one to be. This song really has two parts - A and B, and I wrote the B part first. I really started with a very addictive rhodes melody and constructed a section around it. I intentionally kept the drums very simple through out the song.

I then offset the underlying bell line (which ties the whole song together), and constructed a totally separate A section in the same key. After I flushed out the section and stitched them together, I felt the song could still use a climax at the end. I mean, everyone loves climaxes, and hopefully at the end. So I had Ryan try out a couple ideas when he was over, and MAN, that guy was full of great melodic ideas (and serious skills to boot). He is an AMAZING electronic music artist in his own right - be sure to check his violin fueled electronic tracks under the moniker Chance's End. I assembled a short sweet solo from his takes, and BAM, climax achieved. Aww yeah.

Walking Home

This was the last song I composed for this album, and though it seems very peaceful it was a really stressful experience. I thought I had wrapped up the album, and then I found it was only 45 minutes long. It felt a little short on my first listening. That feeling nagged me, and when my friend Dave SG (the one person who got a preview) expressed the same opinion, I had to fix it. I only a had a small window of time left where I could complete the album, since I wanted to have copies in hand in time for Burning Man '08. I frantically set out to do what I do not do naturally - compose a song in a short period of time in a specific style to fill a transitional gap on the album.

I went over all the musical snippets that were labeled "revisit", and came across a short piano melody. I took the beginning of the rhythmic piano line and constructed a new section with some laid back, signature (at least for this album) interlocking melody lines that would lead into this snippet. I made the snippet the chorus, or the B section for this song, and flushed it using the same instruments I introduced in the A section.

I purposefully ended this tune with solo piano since I wanted to develop a sparse, intimate space for the next tune, was is a scared song to me . . .

Fuzzy Prayer
(Audio Angel on vocals, Steve Sparapani on cello)

This song, which clocks in at only 2 minutes, took a lot of effort to get it to its final form. I composed it initially on the rhodes (like usual), and even then it felt very spiritual and personal.

Audio Angel (Rashida Clendening) is someone I've seen in a variety of different groups, and she is the embodiment of positivity. She also has an AMAZING voice to boot. She was on my internal collaboration list, and I sought her out and convinced her to work with me on this song - even though it's not really her normal, more upbeat style. I actually had shivers while we had our recording session - I haven't experienced that before.

I initially thought I would have a male voice sing the lower harmony section. I had my friend Lars come over a couple times - and he's got a great voice and really nailed the section, but in the end it I just kept shaping his voice more and more like a cello. Therefore, I decided to see how a cello would fit - and called up my friend "cello" Steve to have his take on it. I liked how it sounded, and had him come over a couple more times so his inflection on the cello would match Rashida's vocal inflections. After a lot of intense production, I got the two lines to really match up. I left in the originally composed rhodes at the end since I liked how it wrapped up the song.

Goodbyes
(Michele Walther on violin)

This a piano composition that I tooled around with for many months, refining and adjusting until it felt natural to play it. I'm never going to abandon my principal instrumental, the piano. I love the piano, and do not play it often enough.

I orchestrated the song with some strings, and met Michele along the way. She is a truly fantastic violinist, a graduate from the prestigious Berkelee school of music - meaning she's got both classical and improv chops. Her approach to playing the lines were right, adding some extra flourishes and being very fluid to my fairly messy sheet music. It was a great experience working with her - she was able to tackle some music in 9/8 I had written without batting an eye.

The Artwork

The Cover Art

I took a different approach this time for album art. Instead of hiring an artist to design the art, I decided to harness the power of the internet - more specifically, deviantart.com. I cruised around that site for month, favoriting different pieces that I thought would make a good cover (or that I just REALLY liked). My first choice was little sunrise by werol, or Michal Mierzejewski, an AMAZING photographer who resides in Poland.

I contacted him, and he was willing to license his photograph to me. After some follow up conversation, he was also willing to design the CD itself. I had no idea he had Photoshop and design skills, since all I had seen were his photographs, but after just two iterations, he made a beautiful CD design. It was really fun to work with someone across the world.

Final Thoughts

I tend to compose tracks as if I was working with clay. I generally do not have any idea how they will turn out, but I have a general vibe in mind after it gets started. I'll try different approaches, melodies, and rhythms until I stumble upon something that gels with what's there. I found Ablteon Live's session view works really well for my style of "self jamming".

I took a new approach when working on tracks for this album. I'd start a song, and as soon as I began to get frustrated with it, I would start a new one. Once I had a couple tracks started, and I'd get frustrated with a current track, I would revisit the previous ones. It would fall into one of three buckets: worth working on, possibly worth revisiting, or deleted. If I decided it was worthy, I would work on it until I got frustrated, and then move on to the next started track. I kept iterating through tunes like this - and I discovered that I felt a lot less frustrated overall. I used to just pound away at a track that I knew was going to be a keeper, but my mood would often be dark if I wasn't making progress on it. I found this new approach kept me fresher - as soon as I hit a road block, I'd just move on to something else. Songs didn't progress as fast as they used to, but by having multiple tracks to turn to I found I was more productive musically and a happier guy all around.

Life is amazing in how opportunity presents itself. Joe, a great guy who I hired to tape my first ever live general fuzz show, accidentally botched the recording. He felt really bad, and invited me to the show he was producing - a guitarist (Dan Lebowitz) and a bassist (Michel Marring) playing in a church. I hadn't heard of either musician, and was treated to a truly beautiful concert. This led me to check out ALO, which I became a huge fan of. My friend Rachel randomly asked me one afternoon if I wanted to go the local cafe to watch her friend play - and that's where I discovered Michele Walther (playing with Rachel's friend) AND bumped into Dan Lebowitz (where I introduced myself and gave him "Cool Aberrations.") I initially met Ryan Avery at a Backlit Lounge, and then Michele recommended him when she was unavailable to record - clearly the universe was sending me a message.

This album was really special to me - it's the first time I've released an album with so few insecurities about how it turned out. I eliminated a couple tunes that didn't fit the mellow feeling that I was attempting to maintain, and in retrospect I'm really glad I did. This is my most consistent album in vibe, and I'm really proud of all the tracks in their finished form. Don't expect the next one to be this chill though.

I'm quite impressed you read all the way to here. Seriously. You rock. There's a whole geeky story about the struggle to build my own special brand of mp3 player in flash using open source tools, but it's a lot less interesting to read (and write) about, and you've earned a rest. Possibly a cookie.

Let me know if this page gave you more insight into the composition of these tunes. Also any feedback on other things you'd like know more about would be quite welcome.