It All Started with a Twang
PART I: THE IDEA
If someone asked me when I was a kid to sing a country tune I would've belted out "Rollin', rollin', rollin', Keep them doggies rollin'...Rollin', Rollin', Rollin'...RawHIDE!" Then after thinking for a few minutes I might've started humming the theme song to Bonanza, Big Valley or The Rifleman. What I'm trying to say is, I really knew next to nothing about country music growing up. Country in my house didn't mean Willie or Dolly, Cash or Haggard. It meant that Sister Sara was about to get Two Mules. It meant there were three kinds of people: good, bad and ugly. It meant that grit was truly having courage, not a side dish to my pork ribs. I knew Country WESTERNS. I did not know Country Music, or at least I didn't realize it yet.
So who am I to write a country song, you might ask? My only answer to that question is simply: a songwriter. I have mentioned in the past that I was a closet songwriter, apparently there were some boots hiding waaaaay back in that closet that I never knew I had. Or maybe I just thought they were only made for walking. (Jokes.) Regardless, I don't think a true songwriter can or should be limited to one genre. I can't speak for anyone else but I write from experience; what I hear, see and feel. For me, this was a story of letting go (you don't say!) of trying to control every situation--even the uncontrollable ones--and listening to the (fantastic) advice of relying on faith to take care of the rest. The story played out in a conversational way, as country songs do, and that is because most of the lyrics came from actual conversations between me and my friends regarding their troubles in paradise. (Don't worry, no names were mentioned and your secrets are still safe with me.) Call it the influence of Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne, Eli Wallach and, yes, Clint Eastwood, but the only way I kept singing my lyrics was with a twang. Weird, I know, because I'm pretty sure I do not have a souuuuuthern ayyacceeeyent. That I'm aware of. It wasn't until I heard the song "Coming Home" (written by Troy Verges and Hillary Lindsey, performed by Gwyneth Paltrow) that the inspiration of how this ballad would rise and fall struck...and stuck.
PART II: THE DEMO
The first demo for "Love and Let Go" was recorded in the most leisurely fashion as motivation for this recording took a ton of smoke breaks, sometimes lasting for a month at a time. #coughcough I was struggling with the in-between work for this song - I heard it a certain way in my head and every time I attempted the demo I became frustrated with the end result. I did my best, however, and sent it off to producer Steve Catizone to shine it up a bit before bringing it to Haley Maxine - the featured artist on the song. ::::screeeeeeeeech:::: Wait! I have to tell you about Haley! ::::reverse::::
For a couple of years I had been following Haley Maxine on social media, no surprise there. That's how I quite often choose my victims, if you're just tuning in. Haley didn't post often, but the tiny, casual snippets of herself singing in her living room with her guitar or singing along to someone else's guitar or piano had me a little bursty with excitement. You know those pretty little painted, covered glass boxes that you were given as a kid to save only your most special things in? Well, that's where I put Haley's voice. This was a voice worth saving (for the perfect song). Fun fact about Haley is that she is actually from the Bay State and studied at Berklee College of Music but, like so many aspiring musicians around the world, relocated and has been living the songwriter's dream for a few years now where music's heart beats: in Nashville, Tennessee.
I need to switch gears for a second. Music City was a place that I never knew I wanted to go to until I began to really take my songwriting seriously. Nashville wasn't about country music for me, specifically, as it is for so many who travel there. For me, Nashville was about being with "my people." And by "my people" I don't mean people in wheelchairs or people with OI (no offense, but I'm not a flocker) or even people who are obsessed with cookies, as I am. I mean people who eat, drink, sleep and breathe music; creating it, listening to it, thinking about it 25/8. It might not be where I belong (I much prefer coastal living) but it is certainly a place I needed to experience and would love to go back to as soon as possible. Timing was everything for me with "Love and Let Go:" I had been saving country/blues artist Haley Maxine for the perfect song, I had just finished the demo of my first country track and I was traveling to a place (where Haley lived) that I had been longing to visit. Can you say serendipity?
PART III: MEETING HALEY MAXINE
With the second, more polished demo of "Love and Let Go" recorded and the wheels of my Sienna rolling along down Route 40, it was getting close to my meeting with the newest member of the très elite group "Arlanna Snow's Collaborators." Haley and I met and chatted in a quiet "little" nook in the lobby of Nashville's infamous Hermitage Hotel in July 2017. It was a comfortable 110 degrees outside and an even more comfortable 20 degrees inside with the air conditioning blasting over both of our heads. Watching us excitedly hug hello, bystanders must have thought ours was a long-awaited reunion of old friends. Conversation came easy-breezy and Haley and I were on the same page of an 800-page novel. That just doesn't happen every day, people. When we began talking about the song, we found that our ideas were practically identical. [Insert girly squeals of delight.]
It was time to discuss the process. Haley explained that she would record her vocals for the song exactly the way I wanted and send the files over so that Steve and I could work on them; my usual process for so many years, for so many songs. Then she presented another (unanticipated) option: what if she worked with Nashville players on this one and recorded and produced the entire song in Nashville? I wasn't prepared for the question but I was even less prepared by how quick I was to answer -- option B, please. Why? Because it's what the song deserved. I have no doubt that Steve could've created another masterpiece with me on this song. I know I would have loved it, but it wouldn't have felt authentic. It might have sounded it to someone else but it wouldn't have FELT it. I finally understood what it meant when Moms say "I did what was best for my child." #truth
PART IV: THE PRE-RECORDING PROCESS
When recording a song with a producer it's helpful to start with a reference track (or tracks). This means that you "refer" to a certain song that may have inspired you in some way and will help a producer find direction for your song as you work together. As previously mentioned back in Part I of this novel-blog, the song "Coming Home" from the Country Strong soundtrack played a part in the way I heard "Love and Let Go" as a final product, if you will. The build to a powerful last chorus - I craved that climb to the top and hoped we could find our own version of it.
In the months that followed, Haley and I had lots of songwriter-ish conversations. We talked about lyrics and how they flowed as they told the story; we talked about style and form and we talked about the instruments and players to get the song where it needed to be. Haley sent me voice notes of herself singing pieces of the song to get the thumbs up from me and I would respond with voice notes back with any changes or new ideas of my own. I welcome new experiences in this journey and this was definitely a new way of working for me. As I told Haley in the beginning, if I were to give her the production reigns on this, I didn't mind this new way of working as long as I was involved as much as humanly possible. This meant I wanted FaceTime recording sessions and lots of phone calls. So far, so good.
Once it was time to start the FaceTime recording sessions I could sense Haley's hesitation. Haley wasn't convinced that my being FaceTimed in for the recording sessions was going to work. I listened to her concerns and although I could appreciate what she was saying, I one-hundred percent disagreed. Lesson time: I have learned along this journey that people may think they know what is best for you and your project. Whether it's because they've had more experience, they don't have enough experience or they don't have the same experiences you've had, there may be some head-butting. Let's just say I have a few old bruises that I can show you from past head butts. It can be frustrating getting back on the same page but that's the beauty of creating. Disagreeing leads to negotiating which leads to finding new ways and new sounds that, ultimately, turn into better projects in the end. I remember when Haley used the familiar expression "too many cooks in the kitchen" as a way to explain her concerns with dialing me into the sessions. My response was that we are in the kitchen because of my recipe and, well, I am the Head Chef here. I've backed down in the past, regretted it and vowed to never travel that road again. Luckily, Haley and I are both professionals and despite our differences in opinion, we scheduled the session.
PART V: RECORDING SESSIONS
When recording day arrived I was told that this would be the one and only recording session (I like to call it the "Love and Let's Try This Again" session) which seemed totally unrealistic to me. Then again, I was working with completely different people in a completely different way. Unbeknownst to me, the musicians would be recording each of their parts through a headset, with the exception of the drummer, so I wasn't able to hear them playing or Haley singing in the ISO booth. This was due to the studio design and set up. I was used to recording studios with the Live Room separate from the Control Room with the soundproof window between the two. This studio was one room. There are all different methods of recording and this was one I hadn't experienced before when recording with a full band. After only hearing the crashes of the drums, which sounded a bit too crash-y, and a few of the keyboard's chosen church-y, whirly sounds, Haley's phone needed charging and she had to disconnect before I was able to hear any of the recorded parts. This prevented me from giving any feedback or input. Then again, Haley and I had spoken so many times and knew the direction prior to this session so I hoped that it would be okay. I have to admit, though, I was a bit uneasy. Before hanging up, I expressed again to Haley how imperative it was that the piano be prominent in the song. I wanted slow, ballad-like, classic, rich piano throughout but especially spotlighted in the intro and at the end. We were supposed to reconnect before everyone left the studio so that I could hear what was recorded but I only received a text on Haley's way home letting me know that I would be receiving a rough cut -- I was crossing my fingers and toes that I would love it.
[Insert Family Feud's "X" sound effect.] You know the one.
Not only did I not love it, it wasn't even close to what I had in my head for months...years, even. I'll never forget how my stomach dropped when I heard the first 30 seconds of the recording Haley sent over to me. How could this have gone so wrong? This wasn't a country ballad, this was a foot-tapper; a head-bopper, even. Instead of swaying, I was dancing and snapping my fingers. I couldn't respond to Haley right away because I honestly didn't know how I was going to tell her "Sorry, but no." I had extremely talented musicians here, this didn't make any sense. All I could think was if I could have been there or at least stayed with them on FaceTime, it would have been okay. Haley, Evan (bass) and I had a phone call that ended in much frustration for all of us. We sort of talked in circles, not quite understanding each other. I remember saying "I'm going for pretty, here." I knew it was such a simple word but it was the perfect word. The version of the song we had was not pretty. It was upbeat and clucky. Haley and Even kept using the word "rock ballad" which I didn't hear and couldn't understand - I never wanted a rock ballad. I felt like I had officially hit a wall and I didn't know how to get around, under, over or even through it. So I did what I do best - I wrote out my thoughts in an email and sent it to Haley and Evan later that evening.
In the email I started at the beginning, explaining how I heard the song, where it came from, re-referencing "Coming Home" and even re-attaching the demo I sent Haley in July to show just how far away the song had strayed from it's home in the country ballad world. The email was a bit long but it was important for me to clarify any misunderstandings. It was also important that I didn't give in and accept the song the way it stood just to be easy and agreeable. My confidence builds with every new project and I have learned to trust my own instincts and stay true to my craft. I knew that if Haley, Evan and I could just get back on the same page where we once were, it would be okay. Never in a million years did I anticipate what Haley's response would be to my email.
PART VI: RECORDING - TAKE TWO!
As previously mentioned, the song I had been referencing for "Love and Let Go" was a country ballad called "Coming Home" sung by Gwyneth Paltrow from the Country Strong soundtrack. Somewhere along the way Haley confused the name of the album with the name of the song. The title track "Country Strong" was, indeed, a rock song also recorded by Gwyneth Paltrow on the same album. As soon as I read Haley's explanation of what happened, I breathed a sigh of relief big enough to reach Nashville and back. Haley felt awful, I felt awful, we e-hugged and got back to business!
A second recording session came and went and I was FaceTimed in for bits and pieces plus stayed in contact with Haley and Chris Condon (studio owner, part-producer, engineer and guitarist) in between, giving them a thumbs up on the progression of the track. Due to scheduling conflicts this time around, there were a couple of different players. You are now hearing Spence Erickson on drums instead of BC Taylor and Will Houchens on keys instead of Alex Wright. A huge thank you to them - it was an honor to have all of these guys play on my track in some compacity. Evan Coniglio was still on bass, Chris Condon on guitars and Haley, of course, continued blasting out those gorgeous vocals of hers. I was able to FaceTime with Hayley on the third session - her "tweaking" vocal session - followed by a fourth session - the "harmonies" vocal session. I thought: Now this makes a bit more sense - four or five recording sessions is what I'm used to and what I've been told is the norm by many producers.
Part VII: THE COVER
I am by no means a graphic designer. By no means. But I do enjoy coming up with ideas for my record covers, creating them myself or working with others to create the image I have in my head. For "Love and Let Go" I was certain that I wanted a photo from Nashville. Whether it be a photo I took on my trip or something Haley could capture, my heart was set on it. One of my very favorite spots is the Ryman Auditorium. The place itself is gorgeous but the history inside those old church walls left me with goosebumps that stayed long after I rolled away. Rather than trying to recreate the story of the song on the cover I simply wanted something that symbolized the experience of the song creation itself - the girl who created it and the place that brought it to life. I hoped Haley would be that girl, it only made sense to me as she was the voice and, well, she was closer to the Ryman than I was. Although it didn't turn out to be the Ryman, Haley and her friend combined their efforts and captured the perfect shot - a girl with her guitar overlooking Music City.
Part VIII: THE RELEASE
In the past I have tried to be as creative as possible with the release of my songs. For "Love and Let Go" I decided to continue the theme of doing things a little differently. I attempted the scary and intimidating (to me, anyway) "Facebook Live." After posting the link to the song on social media, I "went live" to talk about the song and answer any questions to whoever tuned in. I actually had sweat rolling down my back when I started and if you watch the video (I made the mistake of doing that once) my face is all twitchy and I'm super forgetful when trying to think of simple words. But it was something I never thought I'd try, and haven't used since, but I did it. For, like, 30 minutes or more. It honestly felt like one of the bravest things I've done so far. In my entire life. Ha! I have to say, though, I wouldn't recommend it. Nope, I wouldn't. It's super strange.
"Love and Let Go" received (and continues to receive) lots of love and, so far, nobody has let go quite yet, that I know of. If you have any love-and-let-go stories of your own, please share! I'd love to hear them.
Part IX: WRAPPING THINGS UP
Although I haven't sloshed whiskey over the rim of my red solo cup onto my well-worn cowboy boots at a day-long Country Fest (the only cowboy boots in a child's size 11 are bedazzled, naturally), I do know that "I Will Always Love You" was a Dolly original before Kenny and Whitney put their stamp on it. I have tried holding my child-sized guitar like Johnny Cash when I try my own rendition of "Ring of Fire" and I absolutely understand why Mama's should NEVER let their babies grow up to be cowboys. (I've seen what happens to The Duke's family when he thinks his neighbors lost their cattle in The Searchers. Damn you, John Wayne!) I love country music. I wrote a country song. Oh, and I have been to Nashville. With my puppy. You could say I kept that doggie rollin'.
Part X: SIGNING OFF and WISHING YOU ALL LOVE!
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