I’ve had some pretty awesome days in my lifetime. High on a mountain top in the back bowls at Vail, sailing with sea turtles in Hawaii, trekking Machu Pichu, my wedding day, the birth of my daughters, countless moments on stage, the day I got my first guitar, bicycle touring down the Pacific Coast, SCUBA diving in Puerto Rico, leading sea kayaking trips in Alaska, Surfing in Half Moon Bay, and countless other adventures. All of these were stellar moments and earn an honorable mention.
My definition of happiness is pretty simple. I Am content when I Am in good health, I Am being of service to others, when I feel like what I’m doing has purpose, and it helps when the sun is shining. I also find joy in collaborating and connecting with other people. Typically I find myself in these moments when I Am engaged in creating music and art. There were multiple times during the past week when I was moved to tears of joy. My “happy place” is in the recording studio. This time with one of my musical heroes, Joe Craven.
I traveled by train from the Midwest to California to record at Foxtail Sound in Dixon, CA. I woke up somewhere in the high deserts of Nevada and we ascended 7,500 feet into the Sierra Nevada mountains. The views were breathtaking through the snowy mountain passes and sparkling lakes. The anticipation of the week was heavy on my mind. I admit that I was a little anxious not knowing if the adventure I was embarking on was a calculated risk or preconceived recklessness.
I arrived at the train station in Davis, CA where Joe Craven picked me up and greeted me with a big hug. We had met before, but it had been ten years ago at Feel Good Festival in Wisconsin. He would be producing the new album and I sent him the demos of the songs I wanted to record 3 days prior.
We wandered over to his house, which is essentially a museum of musical instruments. In a past life he was a museologist, which means he worked for a museum. In his current life his house is a museum filled with hundreds of musical instruments, mannequins dressed like gypsies, day of the dead paraphernalia, animal skulls, masks, and other random trinkets collected from around the world.
On top of being a world class musician, Joe is a true historian of world music, culture, and folk art. In the words of David Grisman, “Everything Joe touches turns to music.” A King Midas of the Musical realm. He is a vocal coach, educator, and ambassador to all things creative. He also dresses outrageously and has given himself the title, “fashion insultant.”
I was introduced to Joe’s wife, YaYa. She is one of the sweetest people I’ve ever met and one of the best cooks too. We chatted a bit and then loaded up the car for a gig Joe had with his band the Sometimers in Chico, CA. The gig was at a festival called Sherwoodstock and it was a fundraiser for a Montessori school there. I sat backstage wolfing down hummus and taking everything in, still a little dazed from traveling. There I met Jonathan Stoyanhoff, who is in Joe’s band and would be the session bass player on the album we were about to record.
I woke up to the smell of nag champa in the air, pushed the cat off of me, and went outside to sit and meditate next to the coy fish pond in the backyard. After just coming out of the brutal Wisconsin winter I felt like I was in a tropical anime wonderland eating grapefruits, oranges, and figs plucked right from the trees. We ate an amazing breakfast, the first of many incredible meals together, and got to work in the living room rearranging the songs for the studio. We worked all day and late into the night discussing the tunes and making the songs I had written more interesting by changing the keys, adding bridges, determining instrumentation, switching chord structures, and coming up with world grooves that would compliment each song. We goofed off a bit and got to know each other. Up until this point I had no idea what Joe had in mind as far as production went. I just trusted that he would work his magic, and boy did he! We ate another fabulous meal prepared by YaYa and I went to bed counting instruments hung from the wall to lull me to sleep.
This was our first day in the studio and it would turn out to be the shortest day clocking in at 12 hours. I was introduced to the owner and engineer, Steve O’Neill, of Foxtail Sound. He is a well-versed musician himself who plays bass in a world music ensemble and a western swing band. I would learn pretty quick that he has a knack for spinning dials too. The first day of tracking consisted of me laying down scratch tracks that would become the template for the rest of the band. I had practiced these songs a hundred times before this day, but because of the new arrangements we had come up with the day before it was like playing them for the first time. I played along to a click track so that everyone who would be playing along had a tight road map to the song. I played nylon string guitar, an arch top guitar, and 6-string banjo while singing scratch vocals. At the end of the session Steve sent the tracks to Jonathan, the
bass player, in Sacramento where he would work on the tunes in his home studio through the night and send them back to us the next day. As you can imagine, that saved us a lot of time. He played electric bass, fretless electric bass, and upright bass. We got home, ate a quick dinner, and my head hit the pillow and I dreamt of coy fish playing ouds.
We arrived at the studio well fed at 9am. The day was pretty easy for me. I just sat in the control room and watched Joe crank out one amazing track after another. He is an animal in the studio, a workhorse to be more specific. He is enlivened when put in the hot seat. He ripped through world beats on every percussion instrument imaginable (Latin, Cuban, Merengue, Waltz, Reggae, Soca, Afro, Cha Cha, Hip-hop) and after four hours of that jumped right into strings. He laid down tracks for fiddle/violin (gypsy jazz), octave mandolin, mandolin, tenor banjo (old-time), cajon, snare, cowbell (yes the joke came up), Korean talking drum, mouth percussion (beatbox), djembe, shakers, kick drum, bongo, and other worldly percussion instruments that have names I can’t remember or can’t pronounce. That night we ate a quick dinner prepared by YaYa, who was already sleeping, and said goodnight.
We skipped breakfast and headed to the studio early to meet John R. Burr there who would lay down the piano and organ parts for the songs. He had to be back in San Francisco to teach a lesson and then fly to
New York for a gig. John is about as pro as it gets when it comes to hired-gun session musicians. Most of what he recorded was done in the first take and he had only heard the rough demo songs I sent one time on his drive over. We cracked a few jokes and sent John home early. YaYa brought over snacks and we skipped mealtime and worked straight through the day and into the night. I re-recorded all my vocal tracks with the help of Joe’s coaching. The new arrangements of the songs had me stretching my comfort zone and I found myself singing in ways I never thought possible. It was the first time I ever worked with pitch correction and I was glad for it. This would be our marathon day clocking 15 hours in the studio. We skipped dinner and grunted goodnight to each other.
I woke up refreshed and excited for what we had accomplished so far. The big stuff was done. Today would be about fine tuning and adding a bit of spice. We started with me on flutes and some more stringed parts of Joe’s. Then we went back and worked on redoing my guitar scratch tracks now that we had the full band recorded. We went out for lunch at this great Mediterranean deli and I had the falafel plate. After lunch YaYa and Joe’s daughter Hattie came into the studio and we laid down some vocal harmonies. By 9pm we were done tracking and headed back to Joe’s to celebrate with some margarita’s and chips & salsa.
Before I got back on the train Joe and I decided to stretch our legs and go for a walk at the UC-Davis Arboretum after sitting in the studio for so many hours the past few days. 12-15 hour days in the studio seems like a lot, but for me time doesn’t exist there. I forget to eat. I forget if it’s light or day. I Am in the present moment. Focused. Engaged. Enthralled. Our walk gave me a chance to ask Joe all the things I ever wanted to ask him; what was it like to work with Jerry Garcia, how did you land a gig with David Grisman, how did you get the train sound on the “Not for Kids Only” album, what’s it like to MC at Telluride Bluegrass Festival…? I believe we have become friends.
The album is not done. It needs to be mixed and mastered. Then there is figuring out the graphic design and album art. I will need to find a company to duplicate and print the album. Then I’ll need to find a publicist to promote it and get it reviewed. I will also need to hire a person who knows the business to get it out into radio-land, particularly to public, college, community, and folk stations.
I Am so proud of this album. I know people are going to ask me what it sounds like so I will attempt to compare it to popular music; it is a mix of Paul Simons “Graceland”, Avett Brothers “I and Love and You”, and any John Prine album. It takes you on a journey around the world using instruments and rhythms from many cultures. It is my story. It is your story. It is the expression of the idea that no matter how different we may appear we are all in this together. This album and the adventure it took me on inspires and reminds me of what is truly important, to follow your dreams, to be fearless when afraid, and to bring out the best in others. It is the search for who we are and what we will become. Seeking truth & our place in a world that is not always friendly or welcoming to strangers.
This past week was a profound experience. Joe, who never even heard a song of mine before I sent him the demos, agreed to produce my album purely on the premise that I was willing to learn and experiment. He was drawn to the idea of a concept album where each song is a chapter in an autobiographical tale of an injured bird who flees the nest, has many adventures amidst friends and foes, and comes home transformed. This album will soon hatch and soar to heights unimaginable.
This recording session was hella, wicked, phat, dope, & tight!
Now I’m back on the train homeward bound (note to self: Blog about train travel) sitting next to a Frenchman on holiday named Francois who makes wine for a living. I Am excited to see my family, but sad to leave such an amazing and life-changing experience. I will ride this feel-good wave for a while.