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 second in a seven-part blog series detailing the various phases of its creation. Part one covers the album’s initial conception. 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 Two: Writing The Music
As I prepared to write the music for “The Exited Door,” I realized that I’d never actually sat down and written an extended, self-contained group of songs before. I’d written tons of songs over the past five years, but always one or two at a time, and never with the intention of putting them all together into an album. I knew I’d need a different approach to writing the music for this album.
I started by setting a few broad goals, sort of fleshing out the “Musical Manifesto” I created in January. For starters, I wanted to write a good deal more songs than would eventually wind up on the record – I put it at about 150% of the finished product, or around twenty songs. I had a few rough ideas for tunes, but nothing set in stone yet.
One of the first steps was figuring out how to get the most out of my vocalists. Dan and Lindsay would each get one feature song, and I wanted to be sure to make them sound awesome on those songs. For Lindsay I was thinking something along the lines of what Neko Case does on the New Pornographers albums, but with a bit more verticality and lyricism, the better to show off her vocal chops, and for Dan I really wanted to come up with a way to showcase his ability to really let ‘er rip.
I also tried to figure out how I was going to feature all of the musicians I wanted to feature, and what types of instrumentations I’d want. I came up with the following:
- A string quartet, multi-tracked
- A large horn section
- At least one song featuring extensive marimba and mallet playing
- An even split between upright and electric bass
- An even split between electric and acoustic guitars, leaning towards acoustic
- As many color woodwinds (flute, clarinet, oboe, bassoon) as the tunes would allow
I had a lot of specific musicians in mind for the parts, almost more than would fit on a single album; the trick was going to be finding parts for each one to play that would really highlight each of their strengths and give them a chance to shine. I knew, for example, that Dan Nervo’s amazing shredding chops needed to be showcased. Also, I knew that I wanted to get Brian Switzer in on trumpet, as well as fellow UMiami alum Joel Behrman on either trumpet or trombone. Kenji Shinagawa, a NY-based guitarist and old friend from school, is one of the most tasteful guitarists I know, and would be perfect playing color tones in a ballad, and Scott Foster, a fabulous jazz guitarist alongside whom I teach at the Urban School, gets a killer acoustic guitar tone. Alex Kelly is a fantastic Cellist who could lead a string section and play a mean Cello solo. Additionally, I wanted to get as many student musicians onto the album as possible – Galen Rogers, who at the time was a senior at Urban, was an absolutely amazing mallet player, and several of our underclassmen were strong string players, so I wanted to be sure to write parts that could feature them. And so on and so forth.
With that large, diverse stable of musicians to draw from, I set out writing the songs. I did most of my writing at the piano, usually while simultaniously scoring the tunes in Sibelius. The first tune I wrote was, appropriately, “The First Time.”
That song actually acts as a sort of thesis statement for the entire album. It has everything that I wanted to achieve all rolled into one song – elaborate orchestration, theatrical, trading vocals, a blasting horn section, a non-traditional songform, and an overarching sense of not taking itself too seriously, lyrically speaking. I had a concept for a grandiose chorus in 3/4 time offset by a plinky piano verse, evoking a little bit of broadway and a little bit of, well, Bohemian Rhapsody. I wrote the melodies first, and gradually filled in the lyrics. That tune was also written mostly by scoring – I learned it on piano, but for the most part, I wrote the melodies and accompaniment simultaneously, and by writing, not playing.
I took a similar approach (writing out, rather than playing on piano) to a few of the other tunes, as well – mainly the ones that had tricky time signatures. “Down By The Water,” with its 5/4, 6/4, and 4/4 time signatures, as well as the really tricky “Bird Women of Golden Gate Park,” which is mostly in 11/4, were both tunes that I didn’t have the piano chops to think about coherently while focusing on playing them at the same time.
Lindsay’s feature, eventually titled “You’ve Changed,” was one of the most elaborate, difficult, and rewarding songs to write. It actually started as a few separate musical ideas, the chorus and introduction were in one place, and the cascading chord progressions of the verse were in another. It was sitting at the piano, playing through the verses and chorus over and over again, that I finagled a way to connect the ideas. It took a good deal of time, and a lot of repetition and tweaking, to get the final chord progression right. That tune never repeats a single chord sequence, nor a single lyric (other than “You’ve Changed,” of course). Every chorus is a development on the one before it, placing the Eb7 chord earlier and earlier, until it finally resolves to Db major the last time through.
The coda came together pretty organically; my thought was to put some sort of atmospheric denouement at the end of the tune, possibly as another track. The piano parts were mostly taken from a favorite minor maneuver of mine, playing an ascending minor scale in quarter notes a la “Hall of the Mountain King,” then changing it up on the way down. The final chord progression and piano line are a little bit of Muse, a little bit of Gershwin. Getting it all to stick together took a lot of playing on the piano – in fact, I mostly recorded myself into MIDI by playing the tune, then exporting the MIDI into Sibelius and cleaning it up after the fact. Because that was possible, “You’ve Changed” was one of two songs on the album that evolved entirely at the keyboard.
The other all-piano tune was “I Know, I Know, I Know.” Initially, I had no concept of that song at all – it was late, I was tired, and I banged out a few notes on the piano. They sounded good, and I got ready for bed. Then I though, “No, wait. Go back. See if you can make something out of it.” There was no inspiration, no melodic idea, just me hammering at it on piano. I kept at it late into the night and eventually came up with a complete song, and one of my personal favorites on the final record. It worked so well on the piano, and the vocal came so naturally, that it was apparent early on that it would be an unaccompanied piano song, and would most likely close out the album.
Other tunes, like “No Crow, Scarecrow,” (with a string theme inspired by the work of the fantastic Andrew Bird) and “Lock you In The Attic” evolved similarly to the other tunes. “Lock You” was really fun to write – I sometimes think that song fits the entire album into two and a half minutes of music. The middle rubato section with the Cello solo was inspired by a similar trick pulled by Elliott Smith on Figure 8. In the middle of “Stupidity Tries,” he drops the time and goes into a harmonically unrelated digression. It struck me how little he cared for the rules of song form, and I really wanted to do something like that, right smack in the middle of a tune with a defined groove and chord progression. I really like how that turned out.
I wrote Dan’s feature, “The Mayor,” almost entirely in my head. It was the same way that I would write most Squaretape tunes; because the harmony is simpler, for me, it’s less a matter of writing down and working out melodies and chord progressions and more a matter of closing my eyes and envisioning the sound and energy of the song in its finished state. Hearing the marching drums, the driving quarter note power chords in the guitars and Rhodes, the buildup to the chorus, the horns at the climax… That song got scored out way later in the game, closer to the final recording sessions than any other tune.
Only two of the songs had been conceived before I sat down to write the record. The first one, “Theme,” is a piano piece that I have been working over for at least the past three years. For a long time it had existed in a state quite different from what it became on the album, and to get it ready to record, I sat back down with it, set aside my preconceptions, and really tried to hear it anew. The first thing I thought, upon playing the opening piano phrase, was “We need to get someone to speak over this part.” Khamara Pettus, an actress friend of my sister’s, came immediately to mind. After that, it was a matter of opening the tune up to leave space for narration while also adding a third “act” to the song to bring it to a suitable climax. Given that the theme of the song, as well of the entire album, is the passage of time, it seemed fitting that the piece dedicated to stating that theme was one that has been with me for several years.
“Oh, Brother” was a song I wrote quite a while ago which I always liked but never had a chance to record. It was far too much of a ballad and was too personal to fit with Squaretape, and I didn’t really have anywhere else to put it. I actually added the song to the album after I had recorded the demos of the other material, and it was clear that the album needed to come down a bit to re-find its center, or it ran the risk of feeling too scattered and unfocused.
I also had four or five other tunes, which don’t need to be detailed here because they didn’t find their way onto the album (or, indeed even to completion), as well as a song that Dan Nervo and I had written for Squaretape called “Sweet Revenge,” which really fit well with the general vibe and flow of the new songs.
After I had everything worked out (it came out to seventeen songs, all told), I spent two months or so finding a writing groove, going over the songs every day, making changes, starting to write the lyrics, changing keys, starting over, and beginning to figure out how they would flow together, and trying to hear in my head the way that the album would work programmatically. It was a really, really fun time, and the sheer feeling of possibility was one of the most incredible feelings I’ve ever had for such a sustained period of time.
By the time April rolled around I was in pretty good shape, tune-wise. Most of the songs had scores and lyrics—or at least defined lyrical ideas—and set melodies. It was time to arrange the songs for a real instrumentation, write and complete the lyrics, and record demos of the whole thing. That process, which lasted through the months of May and June, will be the topic of my next post.