Indie 100: Like the Speed-Dating of Music Recording

Here's a new song that I recorded as part of the Independent Music Project: Indie 100...and below, the tale of recording the song in under four hours.

THE SCENE
I’ve never been on a speed date before, but I imagine it would be something like Brisbane’s Indie 100. 

Picture tens of eager musicians wafting in and out of recording studios, making quick introductions with producers they’ve likely not met before - let alone sung in front of - being smooshed together to record a song in under four hours.

This is what I was part of a few weeks ago.

(Actually, that description makes it sound more like a really short, but thoroughly enjoyable, arranged marriage....rather than a speed-date. Let’s move on from the coupling analogies).

 The room I recorded in, and the piano I played, in the Gasworks Studio.

The room I recorded in, and the piano I played, in the Gasworks Studio.

Indie 100 is the baby of something called the Independent Music Project run by the Queensland University of Technology. What’s special about it is that it gives 72 independent music acts the opportunity to have an original song or two professionally recorded, produced and mixed in a swish studio. The ‘swish’ studio I speak of is the QUT Gasworks Studio in Brisbane’s inner-city suburb of Newstead. It houses three recording studios, two luxurious grand pianos, and a slightly unwell harpsichord, last time I checked. To let you know where this studio lies on a scale of 1 to Hipster, it’s next to a craft beer brewery.

2015 was the fifth, and last year of the project. But it was the second year in a row I was selected to record a song. (Here’s my 2014 contribution). I’m pretty sure I jumped around excitedly when I got the call to say I was in. Because it’s seriously fantastic to be given recording time, with engineers in a nice studio, for free. In the real world, that would cost a LOT of craft beers.

The other bonus? Musos get to feel like they’re part of a special music community all striving towards a common goal. When Indie 100 is on, I feel like maybe - just maybe - the sum of all of us musicians meeting, collaborating and simultaneously recording, may inadvertently create a musical movement to be known in years to come as Indiepressionism.

 Indie 100 artists being asked questions like, "If your music was a dance step, what would it be?".

Indie 100 artists being asked questions like, "If your music was a dance step, what would it be?".

THE SONG
The way in through those Indie 100 doors was to submit a song demo. My song “Somehow” started life...oh, about ten years ago. It’s always been one of those slippery tricksters that I've half-wanted to drop, but could never completely forget. 

Through rewrite after rewrite, I’ve always called my song “Somehow” and it’s always been about the closing of a chapter. What’s changed over the years, is WHICH chapter it’s been about. And it's been a struggle to get the chorus up to Wendy Standard™.  

Early last year out of frustration, I took the unfinished version to a workshop run by a visiting lyric writing teacher called Pat Pattison. It was my last resort to help me get unstuck. I played my song to the class, and Pat did what I thought was unthinkable. He swapped around verses. He also showed me where my chorus at the time wasn’t making sense. By the end, I felt disjointed and even remember staring at the floor mumbling something like, “I should just bury it”. Pat, sensing my despair, said he quite liked it. A slither of hope!

It turned out that breaking the song apart was exactly what I needed, and after the workshop, I finally finished it to a standard I was pretty happy with. (No easy feat!). When I ended up in Austin, Texas in late 2014, I then took the song to a songwriting critiquing session run by a group of Pat Pattison devotees who meet monthly in a lawyer's office. They drew my attention to a few lyrical discombobulations which I hadn’t picked up on before. I’m a fan of being pushed that extra three percent. Often that’s when the magic happens. 

 Happily listening back! (While the others are stressing over some technical issues).

Happily listening back! (While the others are stressing over some technical issues).

THE RECORDING
This is where Indie 100 feels like a speed-date (or a really short arranged marriage). Musicians are allotted a time, a producer and a producer’s assistant. You can nominate the timeslots you’re available, but you can’t pick the studio or the team. You literally walk in, meet your production team, then have to be all vulnerable and start singing in front of them about that guy who broke your heart. 

It’s pretty much like, “Hi! I’m such-and-such. Here’s my song. Shall I sit by the piano now?”. 

Reactions you DON’T want from a producer when you play them your song:
-snoring
-speedy parkouring out of the studio
-suggestions that you should rewrite all the lyrics without using the letter ‘e’

 Nothing beats the sound of a real piano.

Nothing beats the sound of a real piano.

Thankfully, my producer Adam Kharita did none of these. A jazz-pop singer-songwriter himself, he exclaimed something like “This is right down my alley” and later thanked me for not bringing in a banjo.

We started by recording the piano - a lovely, white, sumptuous beast that I happily would have let follow me home. I can play enough piano so that I can compose on it, but I’m not a proper pianist. This became obvious when Adam sat down to give me a few tips, making the keys sound like melted white chocolate. Nevertheless, I did my plonky piano thing and we got there.

Next step was to record the vocals, which went pretty smoothly. Voice is the instrument I’ve focussed on most in recent years, and Adam and his assistant Alex Van den Broek (from the sassy singing quartet Jazel) informed me that I seem to have a talent for mirroring my own voice. That is, singing a line, then being able to sing along with that recorded line almost identically. It's my mediocre superpower. 

After vocals, I layered on some clarinet (an instrument I’ve played for decades) and some simple bass drum (an instrument I’ve never really played). Adam suggested I give it a go, and I felt mighty powerful sitting behind that drumkit. As it turns out, you need quite a bit of calf strength to play a bass drum evenly -  and my right calf just ain’t up to scratch. But post-editing, it sounded great.

 Inside the beautiful piano that I played.

Inside the beautiful piano that I played.

We had our noses to the grindstone throughout those four hours, especially during the last 30 minutes. But we got the song and all its parts recorded, edited and mixed. Exhausted but content, we packed up, congratulated each other, and handed the recording baton over to the next arranged musical marriage. A group with a banjo.

While I’m a little sad this was the last ever Indie 100, I look back on my experience with joy. Both Adam and Alex were very professional, gave useful ideas and feedback, but were also fun people to work with. I think we made a great team! And I’m happy that this song, which has been plaguing me for a decade, has been released into the wild. 

Now let us all raise a glass of craft beer to the Indiepressionists!

Thanks to the QUT Independent Music Project team for this opportunity.

Please let me know what you think of my song. Constructive criticism is welcome - it’s how I get better!

  Alex Van den Broek, Adam Kharita, and moi, post-recording. Exhausted but pleased as punch.

Alex Van den Broek, Adam Kharita, and moi, post-recording. Exhausted but pleased as punch.

Melbourne Radio and a Cactus Chorus

One Friday night in April, Melbourne's youth radio station SYN 90.7 interviewed me for the radio release of Funky T-Shirt. While at home in Brisbane, I spoke to the lovely Harry and Amy from the New and Approved program in their Melbourne studio, live-to-air via phone. It was much better than the last interview I did, live-to-air via tin cans joined by string. Who knew you were meant to take the peaches out of the cans first?

Anyway, Harry and Amy were so...youthful and enthusiastic. They asked great questions, said really sweet things, and henceforth, I want them to be my friends.

I've been slow to upload the interview because I've scared to listen back. See, 15 minutes before we were to speak live on air, Harry rang me to check that I was good to go, and also to warn me that they were going to talk about my cactus song. In one of the biographies they'd read, I'd mentioned the first song I'd ever written. It was called What Kind of Dirt Does My Cactus Need?, which I wrote when I was about 13. Back then I called it a 'song'. It was really just a chorus*. 

Before the interview, Harry asked if I remembered any of it. I did. (See above paragraph about it being just a chorus). But I'd never sung it to anyone before in my life. It had always been a secret between me, the piano, and my cactus**. 

Thankfully, I had a few minutes to practice before going on air. They were pretty eager to get into it, and suddenly there I was, on live radio, singing about a cactus. I have to admit, when I finally did listen back with butterflies in my belly, I wasn't too embarrassed. It's a pretty catchy cactus chorus. They thought it was cute.

I'm pretty happy with the rest of the interview, but I must make amends for a mistake I made later on. I mentioned my musical friend Sarah Calderwood who provided some backing vocals on the track. And I said that she was fundraising for her album on Kickstarter. In fact, it was Pozible. (Elders of the Internet, please forgive me). Nevertheless, in the time since the interview aired, Sarah not only reached her goal but kicked the ball right past it. See?! 

Big thanks to SYN 90.7 for taking a chance on me. And please do let me know what you think of my skills as an interviewee. I've interviewed other people on radio before, and been interviewed as part of a band... but this was the first time I'd been interviewed for my own creation. It was just like Sting stepping out from The Police. Or Justin Timberlake going solo from NSYNC. Or a cactus being planted into its own pot. 

*A chorus about a cactus with an insufficient supply of dirt.
**Cactus is not a euphemism. I really did have a cactus.