Making a Solo Record
So… I decided to make a real solo album after several aborted and redirected attempts, mostly as a result of seeing my brother, Joe, go through the process a couple times and realizing I could and should do it too. Joe's second solo album started out as demos for the second Blue Coupe album, Million Miles More, and some of those songs that didn't make the MMM album evolved into some of the tracks on that solo effort.
I also had perfectly viable songs that didn't make the MMM album. No wonder really because we had over 40 songs with finished demos before we chose the final 13. So my original goal was to finish these songs, add a couple more BOC covers and write a half dozen others and I'd have an album's worth of solo material that I could go to an open mic and play with just me and my acoustic guitar.
My first idea was that my solo album would be like an early Bob Dylan album, acoustic guitar, voice and harmonica but then I started listening to Mumford and Sons albums and fell in love with that sound. I also realized that my solo album could be me singing and playing any instrument I wanted and I really didn't have to limit myself to the "open mic night" concept. Creating arrangements for songs is one of my biggest strengths and I should probably play to some of those. That being said, I still wanted all the songs to be acoustic guitar oriented. I don't need to make a rock monster machine album. I have Blue Coupe for that.
Here is a track by track account:
In my quest to write the rest of the songs for the album I enlisted the aid of my friend, Kathy Vargas, who is an internationally known photographer and college professor in San Antonio, Texas. Kathy had never written a song before but from years of correspondence I knew her to be a really great writer who had a nice way of phrasing things. I wanted to do a Mariachi song about a Mexican immigrant and the horror of making the journey through the desert to come to the USA. Kathy actually knew some people with that experience so she helped me write the song. Along with that song she sent me some lyrics for songs that people might actually expect me to write. Ghosts was one of them. At first I thought it was too sing-songy, the rhymes too perfect, the concept too obvious but I decided to try and see what could happen.
For the music I had been teaching some of my students how to play the piano solo, "Bella's Theme" from the Twilight movie. I liked how the song seemed to mash together notes that weren't supposed to fit. It broke all sorts of rules to amazing effect. I started putting notes together in similar way and created the chorus. In "Bella's Theme" the songs starts out in a mysterious dissonance and then gives way to some very harmonious voicing. I decided on the same strategy with the verses of Ghosts. It was just around the end of my Christmas vacation and I wanted to get this demo done before going off with Blue Coupe to play some end of the year gigs. I had a very bad sore throat and could barely talk but I finished the demo and listened to it on my way up to Buffalo the next day. I have to say that I had a very hard time containing my excitement about the demo. I thought we really might have something here and I knew I would be writing a lot more songs with Kathy.
For the version on the album I have replaced almost all the parts except for parts of the lead vocal. There's something I like about that nasal nose cold sound that sounds compelling to me. Once I realized that I would try to keep some of the demo vocal I had to make sure all vocal overdubs had the same vocal chain. It was pretty simple really, a Blue Snowball directly into the computer with a usb cable. The guitar was a Martin PA3 electric/acoustic, guitar chain - Neumann TLM103 to UA 610 solo to EL8 Distressor to Avent A/D box, bass - a Fender Jaguar bass, electric guitar - Fender Jazzmaster, piano - Garritan Symphonic Steinway, drums - toontrack Vintage rock kit, synths - SONiVOX Dubstep Destruction tools
One that Kathy wrote for me, it's supposed to be like my story. I think it kind of sums up what I think before I go onstage, what I hope I can bring to the audience. I used my Tacoma acoustic/electric for the rhythm parts and a Gibson SG for the electric guitar. I was showing the Cadillac Records movie to my students and bemoaning the fact that Bo Diddley was left out of the movie (other than the inclusion of I'm A Man at the beginning credits). Anyway, in honor of Bo Diddley I stand in the line of a million other musicians who have ripped him off. God bless you Bo. RIP.
Kathy was good friends with Denny Cordell. Originally the producer of the Moody Blues he wore many hats in the music business including a stint as the singer with Blue Image. Denny passed away a few years ago and Kathy was deeply affected. When Allen Lanier died in August of 2013 both Kathy and I were shocked and saddened. Later in the fall Kathy confessed to me that Allen's death made her think that she had always wanted to try writing a song with me. We decided that Ravens would be the song to dedicate to our friends who had passed. After Allen's death Blue Coupe started playing his song, Dance the Night Away, at our shows. I decided that this song would have some of that feeling. I like to think that Allen guided my hands in the piano solo but I know it would have been better if he actually did it himself.
4. Do You Believe In Me
This great song was written by my dear friend David Roter. RIP. It was the first song I thought of recording for my solo album. I recorded it at my friend, Mark Barkan's apartment using his daughter, Bridget Barkan's lovely Taylor acoustic/electric. I used a 40 button concertina and my Ibanez mandolin for the extra color. If I have any say about it, you will not disappear David Roter.
5. Prayer (Light the Dark)
Here's the protest song on the album. I have a whole bunch more but I figured that I'll take my time redefining myself to everybody who thinks they know what I'm about so this is all you get for now. I am trying to write songs that are simpler but sometimes I just can't help myself.This song works with a simple progression that changes key in the chorus. Then I have to add another strange chord to get back to the verse. It turned into a cool thing at the ending but it wasn't planned. The message is really the thing. Most people just want be able to have some dignity in their lives. None of us asked to be born but now that we're here we want to be useful somehow. That's pretty much it.
When my children or students tell me that they are bored I always reply that that's great because every great idea was born from boredom. Of course, most of the terrible ones were too but hey, that's how it goes. I got the idea for this song when I was proctoring a Regents exam. Regents exams are tests that high school students need to pass to graduate from high school in New York State. It's high stakes testing and there's lots of scrutiny concerning the proctoring. So proctors can't do anything except watch the students for the 3 hours they are taking the test. No reading, eating, texting, writing, talking, nothing. I deal with it by writing songs in my head. When I get a bathroom break I quickly write down everything I've thought of. I was looking at my tattoo and thinking the different things it means to me and seemed like a good idea for a song. It's a personal song about the child of immigrants and life here in the United States of America. I used the Martin and Tacoma guitars, the concertina and a lap steel in the chorus.
7. Cry 3X
Way back in 1984 I wrote a whole bunch of songs with Robert Gordon, the rockabilly singer, and Mark Barkan. Most of the songs still sound pretty viable but they were far outside the rockabilly style that Robert's fans expected. Only a handful have been recorded. This is the very first song we wrote. Robert and I keep talking about making a real record together. God willing it will happen soon.
8. Voyeur (Pt. I)
I wrote this song twice. This is the second attempt. The mandolin part evolved out of that first version. I realized that it had that sweet but cutting sound that fit all the convoluted feelings we have about voyeurism. Kathy had the idea for the lyric from a former colleague with some serious behavior issues. Now that the song is done I can hear a truly amazing version of the chorus using a hundred voices. Next album might include the original version with all the crazy ideas I have about it - now called (Pt. II)
9. Face In Your Mirror
This song is based on the book, "Face", by Cecile Pineda. Kathy befriended her when she created the cover photograph for the book. A few years ago Kathy sent me a copy and I enjoyed it tremendously. I literally could not put it down and suffered a few tired days at work because I'd stayed up half the night reading. I won't give up any spoilers about the story but it takes place in an exotic location and takes unbelievable twists and turns. I used the Tacoma guitar plugged in for this track. The chorus is what inspired the title of the album. I liked the phrase "Metaphysical Incantation" so much that I have the chorus repeat it over and over at the end.
10. All Dreaming
Not only is this song inspired by Cecile's book "Frieze" but the chorus is comprised of actual words from the book, page 52 in my copy, at the end of chapter 43. Much of the book is poetical and elegant. The music is meant to match that grace and flow. I hope that Ms Pineda is pleased.
11. Career of Evil
The song Patti Smith wrote for Blue Oyster Cult, I do an Americana arrangement that is no less evil than the original. This would be a killer open mic song.
12. Death Valley Nights
I feel this song is another of my under-rated BOC songs. I give it the M.Ford&Sons treatment here. That's me on an Epiphone banjo, flat-picking it because I can never get the hang of those finger pick things. This was the second song I recorded for this record and even though it's another cover I thought it wouldn't hurt to make a few nods to my past. For those of you who say, "Oh there he goes again trading on some ancient stuff he wrote when he was 20." I ask your patience. I have a ton of new material and if all goes well I'll put another one of these before you know it.