Making records and learning to be a servant of songs, step by step

Throughout the summer I’ve been working on the process of converting an album’s worth of hard-earned new songs into an actual completed record. This is my second opportunity to pass through the somewhat rarefied experience of recording an album; there’s much more I’m learning this time around, more I'm discovering about the process and more about myself. Of course it is a shared experience, one in which a collection of deeply personal words and melodies meets the ears of artists and engineers, players and a producer, each with his or her own impressions and observations, each with his or her own ideas and gifts to contribute. It’s my impression that even under the best of circumstances this is a delicate and at times painful dance.

When I set out to make A Good American Life I was fairly comfortable with recording, having had a home studio for two decades. I could play and sing and I had songs, so getting decent takes wasn’t a big issue, but I’d yet to delve into the process through which a song written alone in my kitchen transforms into something fit for public consumption.

My style of writing and performing is such that I become meditational while playing, with a strong inward focus, often doing so to the exclusion of outside things. I’d always been free to play my songs the way I wanted, expressing them unilaterally as I saw fit, but in making my first record I found myself collaborating on the birthing of something greater than a single song, something with requirements above and beyond any one piece contained therein. Although the record’s template was a collection of personal compositions, its needs outweighed the needs of any one of those compositions individually. I found this to be a strange situation, I must admit. So, what happens when your heart tells you that a song should be one way, but consensus points the other way in the studio?

Being so inexperienced in this area I perceived the recording of my first record as something of a whirlwind, with a lot of things happening really fast and decisions being made on the fly, often without laborious discussion or trial and error; there was a lot of “feel” applied to the process. When I began to listen to the finished product, I noticed that while most of the music embodied a greater realization of the feelings in my heart, other spots diverged from what my heart wanted, or at least from what it expected to hear.

As time passed a strange thing happened: I began to see that many of those “divergences” began to grow on me, with most coming to feel better than what I’d originally had in mind. There were a few things that still didn't feel right, but I chose to make my peace and simply let them go, best I could.

In time however, I began to notice that some of those things that didn’t work for me were clearly very well-liked by other people; in fact, some of my least favorite things about the record were the things that seemed to appeal the most to others. So, whereas I’d entered the process believing that no one knew the songs as well as I did, having penned them, I found that the end product was somehow better as the result of me putting my knowing aside and letting others share what they thought the songs wanted to say, at least in certain places. I found that flexibility paid dividends and produced both better individual songs as well as a stronger overall collection of songs.

Reflecting on this experience led me to see that I don’t actually “own” the songs I write, nor do I hold all the keys to their eventual best realization in recorded form. Yes, I’m a key ingredient in the process, that’s hard to argue, but others have large gifts to contribute as well. Their contributions may sound “off” to me at first, or perhaps forever, but that doesn’t make them wrong, despite the fact that they feel strange to me personally and perhaps always will.

This was an amazing realization to me, but also an unnerving one. When exactly should a writer stick to their guns and when should they acquiesce … how does one tell the difference? True, a songwriter is well within their purview in declaring, “this is my song, I wrote it and I know it inside and out, and what I say goes,” but I suppose this is a choice each writer makes for themselves ... The question is, are they writing so as to have their songs serve them, or are they writing as a servant of their songs?

It was with these things in mind, having with me a collection of very, very personal new music, that I undertook the process of recording a second record. More to come…

Americana Singer Songwriter Ed Dupas’ lived-in melodies unwind with reflective lyrics that speak to the current state of the human condition. Soothing where possible, agitating where necessary, and calling for change where appropriate. Ed Dupas creates and shares well worn wide awake music.

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