15 tunes, 5 days

That pace is, on paper anyway, comfortable by my standards of tracking. I've done some records a bit faster than that, 6 or maybe 7 songs cut in one long day, but that is pretty tough, unless you're Ray Price or Bud Powell and it's 1962. On Monday, Robbie Gjersoe and I showed up at Electrical Audio in Chicago and started the week with two quiet, mournful duets. On Friday, Shad Cobb joined Robbie and me for two faster trios. In between, we were joined by Fats Kaplin, Jenny Scheinman, Todd Phillips, Wayne Horvitz, and Alex Hall. Fats, who is the ultimate utility player in this solar system, played pedal steel, mandolin, violin, and accordion. The others played the instruments they're well-known for playing. Tuesday and Wednesday were twelve hours long without a break to leave the studio. Thursday was as long but we broke for dinner. The other three days were only about eight hours each. By week's end I was feeling kind of bedraggled, although things really went as smoothly as they could have.

On Thursday, Todd Trainor, who drums for Shellac, called. Steve Albini, who was recording, answered the phone. After a minute of chatting, he said, "I can't talk longer, I'm recording a Robbie Fulks session." Because Steve then said, "No, not really," I imagine that Todd asked if it sounded like Gone Away Backward. "It's fairly eclectic," was how Steve summed it up, and I suppose "eclectic" is the mot juste for Upland Stories, as I'm calling the record.

In fact, I had wanted to follow GAB with a record that was clearly related to it in instrumentation, sound, musical mood, and lyrical voice, because I liked how that record came out, and its reception and sales reinforced my personal valuation. But GAB 2 is not what was emerging, as I wrote there in my spartan chamber. Most of the songs that were ringing the bell were mournful, reflective, and not of a clear genre designation (although, because of the way they and most other songs sound when I sing them and play them on my guitar, and because they're non-idealized stories of everyday life, I still stubbornly maintain that "country" is the go-to term). They didn't strongly suggest country-oriented instrumentalists, and not all of them called for an entirely acoustic setting, to my mind. The melodies had more inflexible shapes -- were less blues-derived, more European-derived, I suppose. The chords, and here and there some of the metric stuff, were a bit outside what's usually acceptable in country.

By last September I had the total number of songs I wanted, fifteen. But by October I was down to twelve, and so it went until about late February, up and down. I'd come up with two or three to replace the rejects, and they'd initially convince me, then reveal themselves as once again unworthy, or just as odd fits with the bulk of the material. Worse, the songs that dropped out were always the gay, uptempo ones, the ones I most needed to round out and diversify the set. Going in to track this week, I was still a little lukewarm about the idea that the writing was all done and the best possible set was to hand, but I decided to stop worrying it -- time to fish or cut bait, as they say.

This is my 12th record, if you start the count at Country Love Songs and include 50-vc. Doberman. I might not be the best record-maker in the world, but it's too late to get much better at it. I have my methods, the ones that work to my satisfaction. I work whenever possible with players and engineers with whom I'm strongly and personally familiar, because I've gotten burned relying on reputations, high hopes, and people's talents as gleaned off other people's records. I record live performances (including my singing) because the properties of in-the-moment group interaction, though sometimes subtle, are crucial and unsimulatable, because that's how I play outside the studio, because it's fun, and because most of the records I like to listen to were made that way. Each song mix lasts one to four hours. I use headphones as little as possible, and when I do use them, I keep one ear off. I record multiple performances of a song, making editorial adjustments as I go based on playback, and edit together composites using ProTools, more often than not. That's the great thing about having done lots of records -- having some comfortable habits like these removes thought and, thereby, stress, and there's enough stress already.

For instance, what happens when playback leaves you with strong disappointment, when you need to make immediate and radical changes to get the song in a good or even acceptable place, while the clock is running? It's funny that this happens to me so continually, and that even though it always works itself out, I still feel lost and panicked at first. There was an interesting event on Wednesday night. Jenny and I had a banjo-fiddle duet to knock off. It was a short song, simple and repetitive, one vocal -- the kind of song you schedule at the end of the day, thinking, "We'll knock this off and go home." We sat down facing each other, downtuned our instruments to play in F#, and went at it. We were having fun; she was playing her butt off, and even I as a limited banjoist was feeling pretty free and creative. Then we went in to listen -- what do you think, it was just junk! It happens: what feels great on the floor sounds bad in the playback. Well, she and I eyed each other rather grimly. I wasn't thinking about how to get from the Point A of Utter Junk to the Point B of Deathless Art. I was panicking, silently. "What am I doing, thinking myself a banjoist?" I thought. "How can I tell her I don't like the way she played this? Or is she playing it right and something else is amiss? Is this a song my voice is unsuited to, after all? Did I miscast it? Or is it just possibly, like so many of my songs, the ones I endeavor to leave off my records, a shitty song?"

The problem resolved itself in very short order, as I should have known it would, because everyone in the room was old and smart. "I think we need to play less," one of us, I can't even remember if it was she or I, said. We returned to the tracking room, played less, and there it was, a nice-sounding song. Always play less.

My concept of the record was very explicitly tied into underplaying. A couple times during the week, I asked the players for less, but the remarkable thing to me, as I think now in retrospect, is how they all cottoned to that concept without direction. Song by song, everyone tended to start from an unflashy if not minimalist place. Because in this and other ways the musicians and I were pretty consistently on the same page in our idea of what a given song should ultimately sound like, I think that this is my best-cast album. (Excepting the first disc of Revenge, which is a quartet polished by several years of roadwork, and not really "cast" anyway.) There's little soloing, little ego-enhancing playing. The players had evidently not only listened well to the forms and made charts, they thought about the meanings of the songs and how they might be best realized in the full performance. Wow!

At times it really seemed a little absurd -- Wayne Horvitz coming all the way from Seattle to play two-finger chords on a harmonium, the bassist from the David Grisman Quintet sneaking in four soft quarter notes on the bridge of a song and remaining tacit for the rest of it -- but for me the payoff these days is in music that aims primarily to evoke life as opposed to other music. Life as we know it isn't punctuated by prodigious soloists, but when a group makes a unified sound, each part folded consciously and gently into the whole, each ego vying to be humbler than the next, the pulse steady but not metronomic, then the evocations are of outdoor ambience, smoothly functioning social units, patterns in nature, breathing. I don't want to scare away potential listeners, though -- I've definitely written songs, words with tunes almost anyone can memorize easily and sing, and I don't think anything on the record exposes some shocking new facet of my personality or interests. My desire to yoke a musician's impulses and expressiveness to the boundaries suggested by the piece to be played becomes sharper year by year. Older, smarter.