I’ve been trying since Friday to find a way of summing up my afternoon in the studio. I knew it would be a day to remember but had no idea just how monumental and life-changing an experience it would be.
Suffice to say first off that musically, it wasn’t the great success I was hoping it might be. I thought I was well enough prepared to clinch at least one or two near-perfect takes of any of the four songs I thought were “ready” – but in the end of course I had a massive bout of nerves to deal with and with so much to focus on at once, plus the unfamiliarity of the circumstances and the distraction of hearing my voice back for the first time, we did manage to get some half-decent takes of two of the songs but it’s definitely not going to be a case of hammering out an album in 4 days, or anything like that.
When I left I was feeling pretty despondent about that and hit a low point – after all, I’d spent this whole year practising and planned to get the album done within the next couple of months so it was a shock to come out with a realisation of how much MORE work is still ahead of me – and also financially, whether the project is still viable – I might be able to afford to record once a month and complete the album over the course of the year but then there’s mixing and mastering and so much other work that would need to be done. And that’s IF I ever master the singing part of it. Still, those doubts were short-lived, and probably the result of extreme tiredness and low blood sugar after an incredibly intense day. So what if it takes a year or two? In some ways it takes the pressure off, I can have more time to prepare between sessions, and more time to write – as I learned that only the songs I am 100% emotionally invested in are going to work up close in a studio like that. The songs I had that were space-fillers or there to lighten the mood are going to get culled!
Anyway, all of that is kind of after the fact and beside the point in comparison to what actually happened in the session. We started out and I unpacked and we chatted a bit about my guitar (she’s pretty stunning 😉 and always makes a good first impression!) and then the sound engineer asked me to just sit and play a song for him, which I did, trying to pretend I was less terrified than I actually was. It wasn’t too bad, I got through it and he got the basic idea and listened very calmly and respectfully. It’s kind of crucial to the story to explain that I’ve been blessed with a complete legend of an engineer – which was what kind of sealed the deal on my choosing this studio. Overflowing with ideas, masses and masses of experience and the ability to draw out the emotional content of the songs and create just the right atmosphere, he led me through take after take with patience and although I was a bundle of nerves and could see the deficiencies in my own performance, I never once felt ashamed or like a fraud for being there.
So we got set up in the booth and soon I was sitting on a stool (foot on a box, naturally!) surrounded by mics and wires and generally feeling like a superstar 😉 and all the time this was being set up I was just playing through the song so he could get the placement and the levels right. Then finally I got headphones of my own and heard my own music for the first time (there’s a certain amount of added reverb added in through the headphones) and it was just such. an. amazing. feeling. And I think I did start to sing better after that and got into it much more. We did about 8 takes I guess with various breaks for tuning and toilets and listening. And although on the one hand it was daunting trying to think about chords and remembering tricky bits of vocals that I’d been practicing, when were listening to it all I was thinking was THIS IS SO COOL!!! And that’s what it should be like the first time, I’m sure.
By this point we were probably about halfway in and we sat and listened and chatted about what needed improving and some of the glitches. The engineer said most of what he was hearing was nerves, but that if I could generate more of an emotional connection through the song then that would probably override the more minor mistakes. And then he asked me to talk about the meaning behind the song. Which I did, as openly as I could given that I was feeling pretty much out of my depth. And he told me if I could harness THAT emotion and put it in then the song would work. And this was where it all got a bit mind-blowing, not just because on the whole, my songs are so personal and drawn from my own very specific experiences, but because I thought I WAS putting emotion into it. I mean that’s the very reason I sing, to release those emotions – and the idea that virtually none of that was coming across was probably the biggest disappointment of the day. It’s not an easy thing to do in front of strangers, even one stranger who has your best interests at heart.
After that we had a little bit of a break and I went off and (admittedly) had a little bit of a cry (!) and then we came back and did a few more takes which were more emotional, but worse technically. And then we moved on and spent the last 45 minutes or so on a different song which seemed to work a bit better, probably because I wrote it more recently and am still emotionally connected with it. We both just kind of knew when it was time to move on and try something else. By this point the pressure was off and it was just fun – I don’t think I will ever get tired of just sitting in a small padded room singing! It’s very comforting and personal and kind of spiritual in a way.
I learned that there’s much more to recording songs than I thought. You see videos of people singing in studios and it looks like they just went in and sang (and the one previous time I’ve been in a studio we were in a group and we pretty much did walk in and do just that) but there is SO MUCH that has to come together to get a good take. You have to be on top of your nerves and feeling completely comfortable and confident, no matter who else is there and regardless of the prospect that what gets taken down could be heard over and over by limitless numbers of people. You have to be technically PERFECT, because mics of that quality pick up EVERY little sound, breath, every release of every note and every slightly shake in pitch. It’s not enough to say “I can probably do it on a good day” – you have to be able to do it perfectly, over and over. I have a LONG way to go here, especially if I’m determined to play and sing together – it’s so beyond easy to get distracted by a little bit of off-tuning on the guitar or a tricky chord. And THEN you have to be right at the edges of your emotions, and yet be able to control and channel them and let them flow in through the music that you’ve (obviously!) mastered technically. You literally have to have the tears stinging at the back of your eyes and yet still need to be able to focus and control the sounds you’re making. And again, you have to be able to hold on that edge for hours, take after take, giving it 100% genuine emotion each time. It’s a real artistry, to be able to bring all those things together.
I am still a long LONG way from all of that, and we both agreed that it was “too soon” – although I think my first session would always have been “too soon” because I had no idea of the level involved. But with all that, I loved every single second. I could do it all day and sing to exhaustion because it’s just one of the best feelings in the world.
The other aspect to all of this is the emotional one – I’ve realised several things that have made life in general make a lot more sense. I can hear in the takes, the difference in the levels of emotion before and after the break and I can see for all the singing I’ve been doing, that all I’ve been doing is packaging up emotions in a way that means I can deal with them without having to actually feel them. I’ve been going out of my way in my daily life to avoid feeling things, to distract myself whenever I started to feel anything too deeply – because a lot of what those feelings are is just pain and I haven’t known how to deal with that and live with it – I can’t go through life bursting into tears at every opportunity. But in a way that’s what makes it all the more important to be able to learn how to sing and properly incorporate all of that, because if not then what is the point? Where does all that emotion go? What am I hear for? It’ll only eat me up inside otherwise. It’s made me more determined than ever to conquer this and use it for something good. And I think this links in directly to the thoughts I was having about eating disorders last week – I’ve been using food to suppress those emotions as well and I think the rule will hold true that the more I can allow myself to feel what I feel and just accept it, the less I will need to overeat. Friday was basically the first time in maybe half my life when I’ve been not only given permission to feel what I feel, but asked to do so. And nothing bad happened – the world didn’t end, I didn’t get depressed – in fact the opposite was true, I felt this incredible high of being open and honest and witnessed and just free. I have been afraid that living with my feelings all laid out open would mean living with constant negativity, but all it means is I get to be ME, wholly and truly. And there’s been enough love in my life to balance with whatever pain I feel, and if the pain is always there then so will the love always be. And so that was really my big epiphany that I took away from the session. It seems absolutely ridiculous to me to say that what happened in there could never happen in my regular life because I have basically no-one who challenges me to be open about my emotions – but if that’s true it’s by design, I have been trying to bury all of that so that I could function.
In the face of that, the matter of not getting the album done “on time” seems a little bit trivial. I feel like I’m learning how to live my life all over again. The first thing I’m trying to do is just to be more emotionally open in general, like within reason letting my emotions flow at night rather than watching movies to forget about them, and then also making space and time in the home studio so I can just safely sit and feel and cry and sing and learn to reach that point of emotional intensity where I can still control and channel it, without falling off the cliff. Learning to sing in that zone is my main target for now.
I also think on the technical side that probably the strain of holding all my emotions in is at least partly responsible for the tension I hold in my throat and my breathing difficulties, and that hopefully will improve in general as I start to be more relaxed and at one with myself. Obviously I have a lot of other technical practice to do – chords and notes and runs and lyrics! – as well.
What I believe now is that if I can knit all this together, I can have a much healthier and more purposeful life. It all seems to be part of this process of changing and becoming that I’ve been trying to embrace this year. And if I find in time that my singing does improve to previously unknown levels, I could have an awesome album as well (eventually!)