Over the past few months I’ve been writing lots of songs. This isn’t really uncommon, as music is (and will always be) my first love, and writing is just part of the territory.
And with each song I’ve written over the years, while the format that the ideas are captured on may have changed (ie, back in the 90s, I used to carry around a little mini-cassette recorder, followed by a ‘micro cassette recorder’ for melody/lyric ideas; prior to that, it was just a pad and paper) the overall way that the tunes come together hasn’t changed at all. In fact, all of my ‘best’ ones (the ones that finally make it to the proper recording stage) have all been composed almost exactly the same way. This typically involves either ‘dreaming up’ the entire melody or lyric (just as McCartney did with ‘Scrambled Eggs’ which became ‘Yesterday’) or simply coming to me whilst doing something else.
SO…I thought it might be cool to share the work-in-progress recordings of my latest track entitled, Sabi Sabi. In true fashion, the tune came to me while sleeping, en route to New York from South Africa. Unlike Pirate Teeth (where I actually began singing the lyric on the plane into my iPhone so I wouldn’t forget it) this time I had just arrived at my hotel, opened my ‘voice recorder’ app, and let loose. Again, formerly micro-cassette, now iPhone; it’s what 17 years later in technology will do for you.
Now, before I begin detailing the process, I must say that the song was without a doubt inspired by one of my long-time favorite artists from Africa, Nigeria specifically…Fela Kuti. My first exposure to Fela came in 1988, when a friend of mine and I stumbled upon a recording by Ginger Baker (of Cream fame) where the vocals and additional instruments (minus drums, played by Ginger) were all performed by Fela and his group, the Africa ’70. The album was called Stratavarious (1972), and it’s still in my collection today (and remains a favourite). Following this initial taste of the magic and power of the original ‘Afro-beat’ creator, I went on a quest to find (and purchase) every Fela album I could find…and he made many. (note: if you search the blog for some of my ‘FAME’ posts, an old record store in Amsterdam, you’ll see pictures of where I purchased remastered Fela CDs over the years).
Here’s another classic from 1971, purchased shortly after I found Stratavarious
In any case, Fela’s music continues to be in an almost daily rotation for me, and he truly inspired this song (and many others I’ve written).
Here’s the very first ‘idea’ of the song, recorded 26 June 2012:
As is often the case, what follows the original idea (which in this case was more rhythmic, with a minimal amount of words and melody) is a series of ‘pieces’ of the tune. Days later, I was envisioning a ‘bridge’ (also known as the ‘Middle Eight’) and without having any words at all (save for ‘Africa’) I thought of three separate harmonies that I wanted to sing. Here are those harmonies, recorded while grilling outside in 43c heat:
As I continued to hear the harmony in my head, the words (once again) came to me while sleeping. This time, I basically had the whole middle-eight written (note: it’s called the middle eight because it’s effectively an 8-bar phrase, which in this case, is repeated twice…and it naturally falls in ‘the middle’ of the song). I scribbled it on some note paper and began, acapella, singing into my echoey hallway:
Immediately following that, and still without a defined ‘key’ for the song, I sat down at the piano and literally worked out what would be the accompaniment for the lyric I had just sung. Note that I took the key I sang it (which happened to be Eb) and this became the key of the tune. With piano and vocal:
Over the next few weeks, I continually worked on the lyric for the verses, but I needed to ‘feel’ the groove to really get inspired. I was making my way up to San Francisco (to record some videos for AdobeTV) and had a chance to visit my friend and fellow collaborator Fred Fung at his studio. Fred is an accomplished percussionist, drummer, dulcimer player and literally has just about every type of drum you could think of. He also had a bass.
Having just recorded the middle eight at home and essentially establish the key, Fred was able to tune all of his drums (basically in fifths, creating a kind of ‘sol do’ resolution) so that all the percussion would resonate in the same key. We mic’ed up, plugged in, and without separation I began to sing to him what the groove should be. He laid down some amazing percussion parts while I played live bass and sang (again, largely mumbling words, as I still didn’t have them completed yet)
Here’s a shot taken last year, better look at the drums:
We would eventually overdub a few different parts on several different drums (against my bass/vocal track) and all of Fred’s percussion was kept. In the end, I wound up replacing the original bass part (with my Rickenbacker Bass) and re-sang the vocals, keeping a few ‘snippets’ here and there…but they were there as a guide until the end of mixing. Here’s the original first take where you hear me telling Fred how the groove should feel:
And here’s the ‘final groove’ with replaced bass part, an added shaker (coffee can with dried pinto beans and rice) and the addition of Dunbek and Djembe:
Following the groove assembly, I spent two days over a weekend (prior to leaving for IBC in Amsterdam) recording all of the additional parts which included Hammond organ and Fender Rhodes Suitcase ’73 (Fela often used electric piano and electric organ, so it seemed fitting for this piece), several lead vocal tracks and about ten backing vocals. Here’s what the final middle-eight sounds like with new leads and mixed BGVs:
Something else you might find interesting about the rhythm track is that it DOESN’T contain any ‘western’ Drum Kit. None. All of the percussion instruments are African/Indian hand drums (played either by hand, with mallets, and in one case an actual pedal)…but no hi-hats, no cymbals, no toms…all percussion.
The journey of creating this track (as a tribute to one of my favourite places on Earth) was truly a memorable one. The single (with some recently created artwork) is NOW AVAILABLE on iTunes, Amazon, and everywhere else.
Lastly, here’s a look at the final assembled session in Adobe Audition CS6
It’s nearly impossible to see at 500 pixels wide, so here’s a larger version from Flickr.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this inside-look at my creative songwriting (and recording) process. I’m actually thinking about making the master tracks available for a remix, possibly hosting a remix contest. The winner would have their remix released under my label (BoodahJooMusic) and it would be featured in my upcoming music show, Just Play Music. But until then…