Monday, November 21, 2011

The Making of Trees, my collaboration with Curt Smith

Last year was an amazing year of singing and meeting new wonderful people. It was a real dream come true for me to meet Curt Smith. I was introduced to Curt by James Roday (another great person I met last year), who asked me one day if it was ok to show my music to Curt. As if I'd say no! A month or so later, Curt and I had a chance to hang out for a few hours in San Francisco. We probably spent about 2 minutes of that talking about Trees. Curt basically said, "just do what you do" and his only direction was that he wouldn't mind it being a bit darker than the original. I decided to make it haunting and ethereal but drums just kept popping up in my head and over time it naturally evolved into a sort of haunting synth pop dreamscape.

It was an absolute honor to work on this song although it didn't seem real until I heard Curt's vocals on it. And of course I immediately burst into tears when I heard it. Are you serious? That's CURT SMITH'S VOICE and mine- together!! I still find it hard to believe. I still think of myself as an isolated housewife/mother who sits in the soundproof closet singing to herself. (Oh wait, I am.) But lately my voice has had the privilege to travel to places I've never dreamed of thanks to the success of last year's The Smiths Project, and now thanks to the amazing Curt Smith!

How Trees Was Made

I spent about three months on the song from start to finish. All drums, bass, synths, etc. were made from samples of my voice edited to sound a particular way. I generally never stop to document my process (there's just no time, man!) but this week I decided to go back through the track to pull out some of the elements to explain how I did it.

The intro loops were created by singing along with the original song. I'd sing a melody I liked and then turn it off and record a different melody onto a separate track and so on. I purposely turned off each previous loop so that I wouldn't be influenced by it. And because I'm singing so much so fast, I never remember what I've just recorded! When I had several loops recorded, I turned them all on at once to see what it sounded like. It's my small way of following John Cage's principals for music by chance. Here are a few individual loops, then all of them together.

I used layer upon layer of voice, created quickly by singing each line on a loop until I built up an entire choir of sound. There is a separate loop of Oooo sounds the bend up to a higher note. Each melody you hear was layered a minimum of 5 times to create a full sound. As my son says, "That's a lot of mammas."

For Synths, I sang the melody I wanted, but then I took just one small snippet of each note and placed the notes individually. I set each note's volume to include an attack, sustain/decay/release just like you would if creating a sound on a keyboard, then added a fuzz-wah effect and delay. Here is the clean sound, then added fuzz-wah, then added delay for the final sound.

Bass notes are created in a similar way to the synths, except I drop down the melody a few octaves to put it in a bass range.

Drums were created with basic beatboxing and then each sound is chopped into little pieces. I generally cut off the beginning of each sound to give it a strong clean attack. The drums are placed into a pattern that I copy and paste through the whole song. Then I go back and edit volumes, add variations to the pattern, fills, etc... I don't have any sampling gear or trigger pads, so everything is done manually. Here is a sample of drums and the bass guitar sound.

For the break, I wanted to give it an ethereal angelic feeling a la My Bloody Valentine. I created a choir of vocals and turned them on/off every 16th note for rhythm and variation of tones. I then ran allllll of that through reverb like woa. And then ran THAT through distortion to give it a really washed out wall of sound.

With all this in mind, here is the completed track.