WHEN IS A SONG FINISHED? BY JOHN BOHLINGER
Iwas in a recording session this week that reminded me of a brilliant subplot in the
1993 film Six Degrees of Separation. In one
particularly poignant scene, an art dealer
played by Donald Sutherland describes how
some artists lose a painting. They work on
a painting for months. One day the paint-
ing is there, the next, the focus is gone.
Then he describes visiting his daughter’s
second-grade class. Every painting by the
second graders looked like the work of
genius—each one a Matisse in its own
right. Sutherland says to the teacher, “Let
me study with you. Let me into your sec-
ond grade class so I can be a genius. What
is your secret?” The teacher replies, “I don’t
have any secret, I just know when to take
the paintings away from them.”
In my own unsupervised kindergarten
paintings, I’d start with blue, then add a big
brush full of yellow and watch in wonder
as green appeared like magic. I’d add more
colors hoping to duplicate the alchemy and
then watch in disappointment as my once
vibrant painting morphed into an ugly
brown blob. My recent recording session
was going the same way, slowly creeping
away from brilliant to bland, losing depth
and color with each track we added.
We started with a haunting melody married to a wistful lyric and chord changes. We
tracked the song with drums, bass, B- 3, and
guitar, which gave us a music bed that felt
great and sounded unique—full but not cluttered. The groove was by no means flawless,
but it felt like a real band playing real music
in a room together. In short, it was cool.
We quickly added a vocal and had a moody,
Chris Isaak-inspired recording. This is when
the second-grade teacher should have taken
away the art project. Instead, everyone began
to weigh in on what the song needed.
We added a second electric guitar and
a piano part to make the track “bigger.”
There were elements we liked about these
new parts, but it felt like the song needed
more lift in the chorus, so we added a
tambourine to give it some intensity.
Although there were a lot of instruments
filling every hole, somebody suggested a
pedal steel might give the track a “Tiny
Dancer” vibe. Again, there were intriguing
elements to these additions, but now the
vocal was getting lost in the chorus. So we
added a harmony vocal to make the chorus
lyric stand out in the track.
When A&M released Patty Griffin’s 1996
debut album, Living with Ghosts, the
label wisely opted to chuck the overpro-duced record they’d created and instead
go with Griffin’s stripped-down, yet
soulful demo tracks.
People make the
mistake of striving for
perfection, staring at
each bar of every
every hi-hat so it’s
producing with their eyes,
rather than their ears.
Much like my turd-brown kindergarten
painting, this track was losing all definition as it turned to mud. The layers of
sound now obscured everything I liked
about the first pass. Although the original
track drifted a bit from the click, we all
drifted together so the groove was there.
The overdubs, however, followed the click
rigidly, which made the early parts sound
out. The engineer was forced to move
some of the original parts, lining them up
dead on the meter mark.
Once the engineer fixed the groove, we
had to begin deleting instruments in dif-
ferent sections to make other parts stand
out. After laying waste to many of our
new and original parts, the background
vocals were tuned and the engineer could
mix this mess. The final product wasn’t
terrible, but definitely not as cool or fresh
sounding as our original track, which
we’d finished three hours earlier. Nobody
was particularly happy with what we had.
Someone suggested we start over. I sug-
gested that if we re-track, we should limit
it to one voice and one piano.
John Bohlinger is a Nashville multi-instrumentalist best known for his work in television. He led the band for all six seasons of
NBC’s hit program Nashville Star, as well
as the 2011, 2010, and 2009 CMT Music
Awards and many specials for GAC, PBS,
CMT, USA, and HDTV. Watch him perform on You Tube,
and check out his new band the Tennessee Hot Damns on
Facebook and i Tunes.