Saturday, January 24, 2015

The "Elemental" Recording Diary: Demons, Dangers, and Doubts, Oh My!

Anyone who knows any kind of artist, particularly performing artists, has probably heard about some of the internal battles we fight, often on a daily basis. Sometimes I think we choose (or more appropriately are chosen by) our art in order to work through a plethora of psychological and emotional barriers in this lifetime. We express for the collective, we push boundaries, we blaze trails, and speak truths. And sometimes it feels like we're society's guinea pigs in the process. We color outside the lines and then wait to see if we'll be applauded or smacked down for it. Those who can't risk the thought of being judged either way keep within the lines and stay silent. I did that... for thirty-three years.

This drive to express opens us up to everything within and outside of ourselves that challenges what we're expressing or even our authority to express it. I won't go into all the ways that we churn ourselves into tangled masses of compromised humanity, but suffice it to say we're usually functioning in a complicated swirl of conflicting dichotomies. I want to be heard/seen... Oh God, please don't look at me... I'm not good enough... I'm better than THAT guy, why's he getting all the attention?... I have a gift and it's my purpose in life to share it... Who cares, anyway? You're just one of a multitude of people who think what they have to say is important and nobody wants to hear it... This is the greatest thing I've ever created... This is utter crap!... and on it goes.

In other words, artists are a little crazy. But then aren't we all? Some of us just recognize and admit to it. I've fought the fight, am fighting the fight, and will continue to fight all those little demons inside my head. I've done this long enough to know that once one is vanquished, another rises to take its place. That's life. You learn a lesson or heal some part of yourself and another opportunity for more learning/healing comes along. Nature abhors a vacuum.

That said, it's understandable that recording is fraught with lots of new demons, some old ones you just haven't seen in awhile, and loads of doubt. You have many decisions to make and many will take you down a different path. Each song is a blank canvas and every action a brush stroke or color that shapes the outcome of the final piece. There are the artistic decisions you make in the moments you're performing, too. Should I hold that note a little longer? Should I sing that phrase softer? Did I infuse enough emotion into that line?

Sure, you can record take after take trying to capture all the possibilities, but then you have an engineer who is either greatly annoyed or nodding off. You'll also have so many takes to listen to that you create a whole new hell for yourself later when you have to wade through them. I am guilty of this. I admit it. And I get "bark mark" quite easily (that mark on your forehead from having it pressed so hard against the tree that you can't see the forest). Being detail-oriented is a strength in moderation, but can be crippling if one focuses too closely. And baby, I can get microscopic on your ass!

Fortunately, Sean knows me well enough to know that I develop "bark mark" quite easily and need to be pulled back from the tree on occasion. He's patient, but he's also not afraid to step in and remind me when I'm taking things too seriously.

It's funny that even with our ability to comp takes so I don't need to do one solid, "perfect" performance, there's still this feeling of being on an Olympic high-dive board about to take the plunge every time that little red "record" light comes on. Performance anxiety at its worst because there's absolutely no reason to have it. As Sean so wisely reminded me, "you know that's all in your head, right?"

That said, you do need to be in the right head space. The question is, what is the right head space? It can be different for different songs or on different days. Do I just relax and pretend I'm not recording this? Do I focus hard on technique or achieving the right level of energy? Do I really put myself in the emotional space of the song?

Last week, I found myself singing to a piece of insulation in the ceiling that in the dim "mood lighting" in Sean's basement, looked like the head of a little squirrel. My mind was totally distracted by this imaginary critter -- how light and shadow transformed this material into something that wasn't really there, how it wouldn't look like that from any other angle, how I'm one of those people (to quote a line from Victoria Woodworth's "Cross Upon A Cord") who is always "seeing faces in the paint" -- and that last thought caused me to laugh out loud in the middle of the song.

It wasn't until I was headed home that night that I realized how different these recording sessions have been from my past sessions with "Crucible" and "Venus In Retrograde." Perhaps it's just experience or an example of how much I've changed over the last five years... probably a bit of both.

I still have my tendency to be a perfectionist and get "bark mark," but I also find it easier to step out of that space and laugh at myself. I don't take things as seriously. But I also discovered that I'm playing and singing A LOT easier than I did in the past. There's an effortlessness that I haven't felt since before my vocal surgery and that I've NEVER felt when recording. The best way to describe it is that I'm not trying to "do" anything, I'm just "being."

I hope this feeling of effortlessness continues throughout this project. There are plenty of elements that are anything but effortless, so having the performance element come easy is a blessing.

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