29 Hour Music People: A Writing & Recording Collective Pt.2

(If you missed part one of the 29 HMP series, it can be found here.)

PART II: Saturday

Matty: We reconvened at 10 a.m. Saturday in a recording studio, with the plan to write music for at least 10 songs, and record them, in a single day. What were our limitations on Saturday?

Cheri: The only limitations were that we had one hour for each song, and a “No overdubs” rule. No leaving out parts on Saturday for a subsequent recording session.

Then there were rule-y things, set up by Rob: Grab a set of lyrics and start to write music. Congratulations: you’re now that tune’s “song leader.” The “song leader” should come into the recording session for the song with the basic structure already worked out. This could happen individually or in small break-off groups. Is that how you understood it?

M: Yup. I would put extra emphasis on the no-overdubs rule. That’s a huge one. Whatever you come up with on Saturday, that’s it. You can’t re-think the bass line later on. You can’t decide to add a synth tomorrow. You can’t even add it two hours later. You’ve got one hour. Go!

So with that in mind, how exactly do you write and record an album’s worth of songs in a single day?

C: I can tell you what I saw, and what I did. I think five of us picked up some lyrics and went off to our individual corners to write music. I spent the first hour in my corner cleaning up the red wine that spilled in my gear bag. Then I sat down and started to block out chords with a MIDI controller and sequencing program. After a while, a few other people came in and all of a sudden I was deeply involved in a conversation about AKG headphones, so I had to move into another room and shut the door. Not a gesture that screams “work with me,” but I couldn’t concentrate. I was a pretty unreliable witness to everyone else’s process from that point until around 4 p.m. What was going on in your wing of the building?

M: Sorry! I think the red wine spill in your gear bag had something to do with the jury-rigged napkin cork I made for you Friday night. I should have used a higher thread count napkin.

I picked up a lyric that was entirely someone else’s work and headed to the stairway outside the studio door with my guitar and iPhone, which I use as a portable tape recorder for song ideas. I thought it would be more fun, and actually easier, to work with somebody else’s words and inherent rhythms instead of my own. The lyric suggested a certain tempo and feel. I picked a random chord to start with, found a melody fairly quickly (it was a lucky morning), and then spent most of my time sweating over whether this chord should have four beats and that one eight beats or vice versa. Then I found you in the other room and asked if you had any ideas for harmonies. But you were busy with your laptop and your AKG headphones.

C: Yeah, that was before the room got heavy. I think Kate came in before I left and started to work out some melody ideas on the keyboard. I thought maybe I should make beats to offer up for any song that didn’t have a drummer attached to it, then I started to do this for the song I was working on, then I realized that it was going to take longer to make cool beats than I thought. So I finished chords and melody. Then I got back to you about the harmonies. You, me, Meave and Alan recorded some on my iPhone.

M: …and Alan suggested an alternate melody for the first line of the second verse. My first, automatic impulse was to think “b-b-but I already have a melody! I spent many minutes coming up with it!” My second impulse was to block my first impulse and go with the moment and let the collaboration happen. Like you said, it takes discipline. My third impulse was to listen and realize, “Holy shit, he just made the song better.”

By early afternoon we had something like eight songs written and nothing recorded. You were one of the first to lead a team into the recording room, including resistant-obstacle-man me, who didn’t know how to do the guitar part you were asking for and didn’t want to do it. Then I figured out how to do it, and suddenly I did want to do it.

C: I was the song leader for song number two. This was about 4:30 p.m. (!) and the pressure was ON. I didn’t have the song structure completely worked out to my satisfaction, so I was pretty stressed out. I played the “demo” and someone suggested we just use the sampled beat instead of a live simulation of the sampled drum kit. Yes, and… the technical difficulties began. The beats mysteriously began to fade out in the middle of the song, leaving everyone stranded with his or her own approximation of the tempo. The structure wasn’t sinking in. Thankfully you had it figured out, and were able to conduct a quick mini-seminar for those around you. Eventually, sheer repetition triumphed, and we had a song! Because I was so busy dealing with the technical f-ups, I didn’t notice the cool guitar and keyboard parts, or mandolin part, or gentle reggae stylings of the bass player until we were actually recording. That was a happy surprise.

M: That’s pretty much how it worked all day, though the hours seemed to get shorter as we raced against the ever-spinning clock. Some people had “their” songs pretty well mapped out in their heads, and some came in with a much looser structure. One song was four chords cycling around and around from start to finish, and five of us just started jamming on those chords until the song leader heard something she liked, which fortunately happened pretty fast. There was a much more complicated song, chord-wise, that three of us worked out beforehand in another room, so when we got into the big room it was pretty easy to explain it to everyone else. I was fascinated by how everyone had a unique way of describing and/or notating music for a roomful of people who weren’t used to playing together. Patience and having an open mind definitely helped. One big lesson for me: “Mistake” is just another word for “new idea.”

C: One lesson for me, which I apparently must re-learn at regular intervals: You will always be the one who gets the parking ticket.

Another one: If you shut the inside door very tight, distracting sounds will come in through the window. Humans will not.

I think that’s two lessons: A) Try to incorporate distractions into what you’re doing. There’s no escaping them. B) Open the door at some point, fer Chrissakes. You need help.

M: Those both sound like oblique strategies. Which is appropriate, considering how this project started. [Editor’s note: 29 Hour Music People grew out of a live performance of Brian Eno’s album “Here Come the Warm Jets”.]

Coming up in Part 3: Lead vocals, harmonies and handclaps.

-Posted by Cheri & Matty

Cheri Leone and Matty Karas
have written and played music together for as long as they have known each other, in bands including The Trouble Dolls and Lightning Kites. The Trouble Dolls’ “Giant Moon: The Difficult Neverending Second Album, Vol. 1” will be released in 2013.