At the start of 2009 I finished work on my first solo album, titled “The Exited Door.” It is a collection of thirteen original songs, and it features just about every Bay Area musician I know. It has been, to embrace the cliche, a labor of love – I began work on the record at the start of 2008, and spent most of the year shepherding the disc from conception to completion. I am immensely pleased with the finished product.
This is the first in a seven-part blog series detailing the various phases of its creation. Part two is on the writing and scoring of the music. Part three details the creation of the album demos, and part four is about the large recording sessions we did throughout the summer. Part five covers the final recording sessions and the initial mixing process, and part six covers mixing, editing and mastering the tracks. Part seven is about the artwork, photos, and design.
Part One: The Album Concept
When I talk about the concept of “The Exited Door,” I’m not so much talking about the album’s thematic concept as I am its musical concept. That is to say, the finished record is indeed a “concept album,” one that has a theme running through it (it even has a song called “Theme”), but that wasn’t my jumping-off point. I started with a pretty clear set of musical goals, a sort of musical manifesto.
It’s hard to discuss the origin of that manifesto without first talking a bit about Squaretape. From 2004 to 2008, I had spent the majority of my songwriting career leading the SF band Squaretape. We were a five-piece rock outfit, featuring Dan Nervo on lead guitar, Dan Apczynski on keyboards, guitars, and backup vocals, Brian Fox on bass, and Peter Thomas on drums. I was the lead singer and bandleader, and did almost all of the writing (Nervo and I also co-wrote some tunes).
Squaretape was an amazing experience on several levels. On the most basic one, we were a really tight band, and we gave some absolutely killer shows. A show in 2007, opening for Storm Large at the sold-to-capacity Red Devil Lounge, is probably the most fun I’ve ever had on stage, and marks the moment when I realized that, yes, leading a band and playing original music was the thing for me. Also, Squaretape afforded me a ton of experience writing for a rock ensemble, in particular doing some pretty elaborate vocal arrangements. If you take a sec to go to our myspace page, check out both “Standing Offer” and “Ragdoll.” While writing those two tunes, I started to explore the possibilities afforded by writing for multiple singers. In addition, recording and mixing our EP, doing TV and radio interviews, managing the group and booking shows, and organizing rehearsals and performances were all things I’d never done before, and I learned a ton on the job.
However, as we entered our third year, it became clear to me that my heart wasn’t really in writing straight-up rock music any more. The bands that I’d really admired when Nervo and I started the band in 2004 (Franz Ferdinand, The Futureheads, The Cars, Talking Heads, Oingo Boingo) weren’t really what I was listening to any longer, and I felt it was beginning to show in my writing. The band had found its own sound, and the tunes that I was personally happiest with did not match that sound. It was time to move on to something else.
Our last show as fittingly awesome – we played on Halloween in Modesto opening for The Tubes, and rocked the shit out of the place. Honestly, if making music were all about money and audience reaction, Squaretape would probably still be together and playing shows in Modesto every weekend. Those folks are the best.
But alas, artistic satisfaction is also pretty important. So, I decided to go for something new, more in line with my musical background and the sound I had in my head. I had realized two big things during my time in Squaretape, one personal, the other technical. First of all, I do not really “rock” that hard. I really like rock music, and can write a fairly rocking tune, but as a singer and guitarist, I’m just not really a pedal-to-the-metal, half-stack killing, high-note wailing rock star. That’s just the way of it. Secondly, and a bit more technically, I needed a third voice on top in my vocal arrangements. Dan and I did a lot of singing up top in Squaretape, but my upper register isn’t nearly as strong as his, and if we had a third voice on top, I could drop down to my comfortable register and start to get strong, three-note voicings happening.
I had re-connected with vocalist Lindsay Garfield in 2007, right before Squaretape won the B2B battle of the bands and played at Footstock. At the time, her folk rock band Or, The Whale was just taking off, and it was great to meet another UM alum in SF who was performing out here and doing well. When we first met up and talked music for a bit, she said to me, “If you need someone to sing on any projects you’re doing now or in the future, I’m into it.” I was already getting into so many girl/guy vocal groups – Stars, Of Montreal, Belle and Sebastian, Sufjan, Andrew Bird – that it seemed like a natural move to ask her to be involved with my next project. She also has a freaking beautiful, gigantic voice, so it was even more of a no-brainer. The idea of her and Dan (with his similarly big, powerful voice) harmonizing in the upper register set off my “yesyesyes” alarms every time I thought about it.
So, after the Modesto gig, I put Squaretape on hiatus. By then, I had pieced together the musical manifesto for my next project:
- Have three vocalists – Dan, and Lindsay, and me, and write to get the most out of all three voices
- Bring more instrumental color to the arrangements and make greater use of elaborate orchestration
- Be less “rock,” less “cool,” and more personally honest and true to my own musical influences
- Record as many musicians as possible, highlighting each musician’s individual strengths.
With that basic outline in mind, it was time to start writing the album. The writing process, which lasted for the first three or four months of 2008, will be the subject of my next post.