Step Two: Decide your words need you to sing them. Spend 15 months eeking out every spare minute to hole-up in a dark room and create a writing process on instruments you've never played before. Sing songs hundreds of times to figure out how to be a singer.
Step Three: Beg your favorite people to make a record with you. Make a record. Book a show.
Well, that's pretty much what happened. Hearing it now it sounds kind of dramatic, but it didn't feel that way at the time.
When I started playing the drums, it was sort of a similar thing. I was half-heartedly fronting a band and our drummer left. I was never going to be a musician, I was just trying it out. But I thought, well wow. If I was a drummer, I would have a job right now. Wait a minute... I want to find a career in which I can work and travel at the same time. If I was a musician, that would work. I wouldn't have to lead bands, I could just get hired to play. There were drums in my house, and my boyfriend said, well I'll show you what I know. And then a while later someone said, oh you're learning how to drum? Here's the number of the best drum teacher in NYC. I remember that piece of paper coming into my hands. I lucked out. Mostly I'm lucky to have had a completely unrealistic idea of life. I always thought I could do what I wanted to do.
I didn't know why I was playing the drums, but I just kind of had to. It's the same feeling now. Singing is terrifying to me. Being on stage isn't, but for some reason using my voice is. But now I just gotta. It has to do with a kind of desperation, a kind of unrest that comes when I've been doing the same thing for too long. I love moving and change and reinvention, and if I am the same person for too long I bog down and despair. And that place is where I always get the impetus to change. I wish I had a nice balanced mind, but anyone who knows me knows, that's not me.
Creation is a big battle made up of millions of little battles. Welcome to my war! And because I'm fascinated by other people's creative processes as well, you'll also find some interviews here of my artist friends.
Like I said, I'm fascinated by the creative process, mine and others'. It's a long boring story I won't go into here but I had quite a creative block for a long time. Working with other people was fine but when it came to being in a room alone with only a pencil and my ideas, I was stymied. Blocks are boring.
So I started reading some books on how other artists work. One very good one that Gretchen gave me was by Twyla Tharp. And in that book, Twyla says that the best book SHE ever read about the process was this book by Bacon. So that's how it came to me.
Pretty much from the first word Bacon's ideas smacked me in the head. He believed that true creative spark lies in the accidental. Now I've been a big believer in this concept from the get-go when it comes to making music. The mistakes are where the new ideas come. How an artist deals with a mistake is where you can hear their purely original voice. For instance, when playing a live show and something happens that you didn't expect: a player goes somewhere unexpected musically, for example, in that instant you're left to your own devices to make something work in that split second of time. What you say there is your pure instinct. It's your pure voice. At a certain point, I learned to embrace the mistakes and the unexpected.
The first song that I recorded for this record was "Marathon Runner." Gretchen and I worked out the chords from a vocal and drum track I had laid down. Then she played a pass through the song, sort of as a placeholder so we would remember the chords in the future. Then we decided she was going to play as if she had never played guitar. "Play wrong" might have been what I asked of her. Lovely Gretchen, such a good sport. So she did a pass through, very apologetic at the end of our short time together that she hadn't come up with anything usable.
When she left I started listening by just turning both of the tracks on to see what happened when I did that, not knowing what if anything we were going to use. From beginning to end of the song, the two tracks worked so well together that they not only became the final guitar track for the song, but also informed every song to come as far as the sound and the way we were going to work together. I was reading Bacon at this time. It was a huge AHA! moment.
Now I'll never say accident is the only way to creation. The years of time spent on technique and the natural talent Gretchen has makes it possible for her to "play wrong" and have it end up to be something so cool. She has good taste even when letting loose with the rules. Really, the real art is knowing when the accident has potential. Only work will get you there.
There are other reasons Bacon means so much to me. The fact he just decided one day at a Picasso exhibit that he had to paint, when he hadn't done so before, resonates with me. His feeling that desperation made him an artist. His outside vision. Nobody else meant more to me as I was floundering around, questioning my ideas and way of working and talent and voice. Well, Francis and Gretchen too of course, who never said no when I asked her to follow my whim.
I'm sorry, Francis Bacon, for bastardizing your name for my project. But it's just funny is all. There has to be a little humor in things too. Somewhere in the book, that's there too.
When I'm playing a show, most of the time my eyes are closed. As a drummer, I'm listening very closely to everything that the other instruments are doing. I'm not just listening to hear musical cues for expected and unexpected changes. I'm mostly trying to sink as deep into the sound as I can get, so I can play without thinking about the mechanics of it all. When I'm playing Zeppelin, I put my head down and get back to that place I was in as a teenager, air drumming and just letting the music carry me away. I'm mostly blind for the show, eyes open or not. If I do have a moment of distraction that takes me out of that place, I just squeeze my eyes shut and catch a tail of the music, and let it pull me out of myself again.
The whole time I'm on stage I'm hoping that the connection I'm making with the listener is a musical conversation. I'm hitting the drums as a kind of language that's reaching out to eardrums and, if I'm doing it right, conveying the emotion of the song. I'm speaking to the other players as well, showing my support for what they're saying and responding to what they're telling me. By dancing, I try to make people want to dance, by pounding I try to make people want to yell, by pulling back I try to draw people to the stage to want more. I know this language now... it's a little hard to describe, as you can see.
When I was recording vocals for the record, the goal was always to get inside the words the way that I get inside the music. The words have images and emotions that are very tangible to me. When I was working on the vocals, my rule was always that if I messed up one word, I would start over no matter what had come before. If I didn't get the word right, then I wasn't inhabiting the story. That's what makes a good vocalist, in my opinion. Same thing that makes a good drummer: you can have all the technical chops in the world, but if you don't know the story well enough to convey it, then you might as well be mute.
I love the frontperson I can't take my eyes off of, and it's always because they are completely inhabiting their story and their songs. I love frontpeople who stand in one place and the ones who run all over the place. I love the ones who belt it and the ones who sing in soft, lilting melodies. But I have to hear the story, and I have to believe that they're inside of it. Some vocalists never seem to look at the audience, and yet I'm captivated. Maybe it's not about reaching out and grabbing people by their collars to make them listen. Although I like those singers too.
I don't know what it will be like up there, and if I'll be able to do that. Probably not. But that will be the goal. And I'm finding that it's not just vocal practice I need to work on. It's a lot of other little mind games to play in order to get to a place where I can tell my story honestly and true. How will I connect with the listener? I haven't figured that out yet. It's somewhere in these thoughts, though, the answer.
Anyway, before I head into the next abyss of a project I thought I'd talk a little about the record, how the songs came to be. Just for the record, I am being heavily influenced here by my friend Philip Shelley. He was the songwriter/singer of the first band I ever joined, Philip Shelley and His Amazing All-Girl Band, and he has one of my favorite blogs, here: http://www.philipshelley.com/words/ He takes his extensive catalog of songs and discusses them one by one. He's promised me an interview, so stay tuned for that.
My friends have probably heard 30 versions of this song. It was the one that everything hinged on for some reason. I felt that if I could get this one right, everything would flow from there. It was brutal.
The words came from an interaction with someone who was being unwaveringly grouchy. After a while, the words kind of became global to me. Hey, I don't care if people know that I think if I ran things, I could brighten this place up considerably. Never fear when Clem is here.
Anyway, back to earth. I had a banjitar loaned to me. Gretchen and my old man Tim Moss gave me info about playing a slide. Jim Bove gave me tips on tuning that helped a lot. The banjitar rules. I put the line out of the guitar into a distortion box, and then mic'd the string sound, that metal slide on that banjo drum head just sounded so cool to me. I took that track and affected it to sound kind of like metal being hit down a hallway. I put bass on the song, distorted, one-finger bass, and what ended up was a very off-sounding song. I really liked it. It'd take me like 4 hours to tune the damn instruments so the final track was warbly and very wierd. But for a long time, I just thought that was how it was going to go.
Heading into the studio to make the record though, I knew it needed the real deal on it. Gretchen came in and played the line I was hearing but played it better and right. Rob with his fretless bass made it beefy, and kept that boing-yness I loved about the original. I still kept the mic'd banjo track though. That was a cool percussive thing that I really wanted to stay.
I must have sung this song 500 times. I was not only trying to make the song good, but also trying to become a singer. The day Gretchen came in to do her final guitar tracks for the record, Rob and I had been drinking black russians all day. We had decided for some ungodly reason that this was going to be the project cocktail. (That lasted two days, thankfully.) Gretchen was having some wine that day and in the evening the studio got very fun. I thought I was done tracking for the day but decided to try a vocal for this song. I had to cut out all of the giggling between the lines because Gretchen and Rob were dancing around and being goofy on the other side of the glass while I was singing.
Next morning, we listened back, figuring it had been a throwaway. Who knew that the missing ingredient in all those vocal tries with this song had been Kahlua.
People don't know this about her, but Gretchen really is Beavis come to life. That's why her wah-wah is so awesome. And Rob got some killer distorted bass sound going. They make the song for me.
I hung with it because this is the song that would run incessantly in my head on those lovely days when I had all the time in the world to spend in the studio, working. It reminds me of driving down the embarcadero to the studio, looking forward to closing that door behind me and entering the dark, fairy-lit room. Just my brain and a bunch of instruments. Sometimes I'd just spend the whole weekend there, sleeping on the hard floor with some Zepparella shirts as a pillow, waking up every couple of hours to try a vocal or a guitar pass. It truly was the Clementine Kingdom. I would go insane for two days, then pull it back together on Sunday night, getting ready for the week. Jim Bove saw me a lot during that time; his room is across the hall and he was in a similar state with his great songs. http://www.myspace.com/spacehatch1 We had many raving conversations, they helped me through it all. He's an amazing musician.
Going in to the final recording, the song just wasn't where it should be musically. I really wanted Ted Savarese, one of my favorite singer/songwriter/guitarists, to play on my record, and it became apparent that this was the song for him. If it was a perfect day, Ted would be there. He is the most supportive guy in the world and having him play on my record was like someone sprinkling a little magic spell over it for me. http://www.myspace.com/tedcsavarese (Isn't it funny that both guitarists on the record are vegan? Yay animals! That balances out Rob's crispy duck fetish.)
I laid down a new electronic drum track, it felt more lounge-y and sparkly. Recorded a scratch vocal and the backing vocals to give Ted two different melodic ideas to work from. Less than an hour in the studio, he nailed it. Of course. As Rob said, Ted can't play anything wrong. It's not in his DNA.
I feel a little bad for the Fuck the Kingdom lines. I never really condone tuning out and not being a part of the solution. But on those days, I didn't want to be pulled into reality. My escape was fleeting and temporary and necessary, and I wish for everyone in the world days in which they are sole master of their kingdoms.
I wasn't sure this song would come together at all, it was in fragment form when I got to Rob's studio. Once we decided that this was the song that the great Kenny Preston was going to play harmonica on, it all came together quickly. I really needed to have Kenny on this record. We had written a song together that didn't make it on the album, and I had it set in my head that he was going to play on this album. It worked out perfectly, his haunting harp running through the song, giving it some kind of ethereal and eerie quality. It informed everything else that happens in the song. Thanks Kenny!
Gretchen's guitar work on this one knocks me out too. Ask her what she does sometime, cause it's really cool.
Most of the female singers I like are blues singers. Vocally, it's sort of my natural tendency, the blues. I love the hollerers like Bessie and Dinah, and the Billies and Ellas alike. I like vocals to be a little wrong, in the best sense. I don't need to catch every word to know what you're telling me. And I like the voice that's unique and imperfect. Tom Waits, Screamin Jay, Mose Allison, Dylan, Jagger, Richards, Levon Helm, Captain Beefheart, Plant. Rob and I were obsessively listening to Ronnie Wood and Freddie King in the studio, and most nights ended with us each picking a corner of the room to drunkenly stumble around in and sing at the top of our lungs. Rob and I love the "wrong" that happens when a performer is feeling it. It's what bonds us as producers.
I'm not sure where the words came from, but I have a picture of what the song is now. I won't share it.
We were in Tahoe, in what Zepparella's Errol Flynn, Jim Stewart, said was the shoulder season. The hotel had that bleak and empty feeling that makes for songwriting.
I think that what Gretchen did on this song might be my favorite of the whole record. She laid down 5 or 6 passes through the song, taking a different approach in each one. Then I layered them together, bringing out the voices that needed to be there.
There's a bass line that runs through the song that happened in one of the drum loops I put together. That freed Rob up to play more ambiently, and I love the sound he got with this one.
Then we started recording the record, and after the first pass with this one it was apparent that no, I'm not a guitarist and a bass player and the song needed the real guys. Gretchen played that lead throughout and it instantly became a song. We kept my original little rhythm track and the flange thing, but they're really just textures now, as they should be. Rob played what I'd been trying for but like a million times better.
The vocals on this one are a little out of my range, but that made sense with the song to me. It should have a little desperation to it, that's definitely in there.
I like the three meanings of the chorus. I intended it one way, and I think it's not the way most people will hear it. But that's cool, as long as it means something to someone.
I think I said before, this was the first song that Gretchen and I wrote together for this project. We were so excited once we had it. The only things I added in the studio were live drums and a new vocal, and Rob tied it all together on bass. I'm really looking forward to doing this one live.
Of course, that was a lot easier to do knowing I had super-Gretchen and Rob the Awesome to eventually make it all okay.
I didn't think this song was going to be on the record. I always thought it was too dark, and it might not seem so but I really didn't want the record to be too dark. But this was a piece that came closest to my pure instinct, and I felt that the song sort of earned its place on the album. I came to the studio one evening and picked up the guitar, hit record and this came out. I listened back and immediately heard what the vocal should be, and picked up the mic and sang these words with the intention of revisiting them and really writing a song. I listened back to that a few times and couldn't think of anything to do to it, so I put bass on it. I always meant to come back to it and make it "a song" but I could never hear what should be different. After a while, I just decided to accept the fact that this was the song. I was so unsure of it for so long because it had happened like that, spontaneously and impulsively.
I was in my head pretty deep that night, I remember. It wasn't the happiest of places. I guess that cut off the thinking part of me that scrambles everything up. I'd love to say that the first impulse out of Clem is daisies and frolicking. But I'm working on getting there. I promise the next record will be a little sunnier.
Musically, it was hard too. I liked the bobbing in water feeling of the drum loop. And I really wanted a choir, but a choir that sounded like regular folks spontaneously singing rather than a scripted sort of thing. It may be a song I revisit at a later time, I hear that it didn't quite get to where I wanted it. I do love the ambulance-sounding guitar line Gretchen came up with.
Ah, Bulldog, the idiot child of the record. I mixed this three times until I got to this place with it. And now it's one of my favorites. I made some dumb decisions that sidetracked us for a while, like leaving in some crappy guitar stuff I'd done. Like thinking I wasn't going to put live drums on the song. But then I sucked all the extraneous crap and wrong intentions out of it and now I like this stripped-down version. I didn't want to give up on it because I like the words. And I really wanted a song to end the record in an upbeat way. Not that it's a particularly happy song, but it is a love song, and I wanted one in there somewhere. And I really do think love does save the day. Don't you?
I love the drum sound Rob got on this one. I love that little "sine" loop. This is going to be a fun one to perform. And it's the return of Beavis! I always see Gretchen doing her Beavis dance when I hear this one. It cracks me up.