An American in Berlin
22 January, 2022
Let’s try this again. Happy New Year? I mean, it’s late for that already. But I haven’t
written posted since last year. I’d actually written a couple of posts since then, but for various reasons I decided not publish them. Time to try again.
Music continues to be interesting. Over the past few months I’ve taken some steps which have brought me from ‘guy who records his own songs in his homemade studio and dicks around with production’ to ‘(extremely) amateur producer.’ What? How? Let’s recap a bit.
Towards the end of last year, I talked Ralf and Bibi into making a demo at my place. No, let me make that sound more official. I talked them into making a demo at my Razzle Dazzle Studios. Yes, I’ve named my studio. I’m very close to finishing the first of three songs.
I have to say, personally, I’m pretty proud of my work. I’ve taken a song which, when played live, is two guitars, three singers and a bit of percussion and turned it into a real studio piece with layered guitar overdubs and all kinds of backup vocals. I also think I’ve given it some nice atmosphere, a good vibe.
Here are two measures of where I’m at with this. I played a not-quite-finished version for my dad in the car, and all I said was, “This is a song I’m doing with the band.” And he says, “This is a Leonard Cohen song, no?” Yes, I says. Then he asks, “And whose version is this?” That’s us, I say. “Really? I thought this was a professional recording.” Now, granted, my car is kinda noisy. But still, if you can play it for someone without them knowing what it is, and they think it’s a “real” recording, you must be doing something right.
I also sent a more polished version to Rob and asked for some technical feedback. Which he ably provided. I mean, some really useful notes and tips which I will definitely be implementing. But I took two things away from that. One, he started his notes with “I’m just nitpicking.” Which is good, because presumably it means there are no glaring deficiencies. And also, when we were chatting about it, I never felt like he was talking to me like a person who didn’t know what they were doing. Like, he clearly has more training and experience than I do, but I never felt like I was in over my head during that conversation. Also a good sign. Now, I’d already told him I was generally pleased with the mix, so maybe he didn’t want to rain on my parade and saw now value beating up on it. In any case, I came away from that tête-à-tête feeling pretty good about my work product and the progress I’ve made to get to this point. There’s still a long way to go. But I’m going to allow myself to feel good about things for the time being.
So that’s one project. But there’s another. Remember at the end of last year, I mentioned this friend of Deb’s? A French guy who by profession is a playwright, but who writes a bit of music. Rock, he said, citing the Stones. And we discussed him coming down to record over a few glasses of wine. But as with so many things discussed over glasses of wine, I wasn’t sure if anything would actually come of it.
Anyway, shortly before New Year’s, he gets in touch and asks if I’d still be interested. Bien sûr, motherfucker! (I didn’t actually call him ‘mutherfucker’). So I asked him to send me a rough recording from his phone, just so I could get an idea of what we’d be doing. It’s a catchy little tune, but I was surprised to hear a girl singing. Turns out it was his daughter. Nice voice, from what I was able to tell.
So they came down one day and we did some basic tracks. It was a good start, but you could tell they hadn’t really found the heart of the song yet. What I mean is, the guy had written a nice vocal line, but the girl was singing it the same way every verse, every chorus. She wasn’t yet putting much of herself into it, as a vocalist.
That’s where I got to put on my ‘producer’ hat for a bit. I started asking her to try some different things. In some cases, I asked for some very specific things with regard to phrasing or harmony. But in a lot of places, I simply asked her to ‘just try some different shit.’ You know, just go in the booth and fool around, see what comes out. And man, that was fun.
I think she has a really pretty voice. She also sings in a certain style. It’s this very breathy style that you hear in a lot of modern stuff nowadays. Wow, I sound old. So it’s a style, it’s a choice, but it works for her, and I think she does it pretty well.
But it was really cool watching her take some creative license. Because up to that point, I think she’d basically just been singing what her father had written, without really bringing much of herself to it. But with a bit of prodding, she started make it more her own.
And this is something that I really enjoy about ‘producing.’ Like, I give her a suggestion, a bit of a push, and then off she goes. And she starts creating, on the spot, out of her own being. Did all of it work? Of course not. But that’s part of the process, right? And that’s what I told her. We’re just gonna set this on a loop, and just go in there and try stuff out. Some of it won’t work. But you might hit on something really cool. And she hit on a lot of really cool stuff, I think.
What the fuck do I know about being a parent, but I think it’s almost like parenting in a way. You’re there to give support, to offer suggestions, to give honest feedback, even to give a kick in the pants when needed. But in the end, the artist – or child – has to do it on their own. And when they go in there and do something that you never expected, you’re proud, מע קוועלט אַ ביסל.
That was day one. But we had agreed to do two days. So after they left, I sent them four or five different versions with all her various vocal experiments. My instructions: live with this for a few days. Find what you like, get some new ideas, and when you come back, we’ll do some new takes and then put it all together.
Before getting to day two, I’ll say that if I had one concern, it was that maybe we were taking the song in a direction which the guy – the writer – didn’t intend. This isn’t my music. This is somebody else’s work and you have to respect their vision. What if the girl’s freestyling wasn’t what he wanted for his song? I needn’t have worried. He absolutely loved it. Maybe because it was his daughter, I don’t know. But it was nice to see his reaction. To see him smile as his song started to take on a life of its own.
Day two was mostly like day one. I got plenty of good vocal takes from the singer, more than enough to work with. But I still felt like something was missing. I wanted something bigger, more powerful for the final chorus.
So I asked her, “Do you ever sing in the car?” Yeah, I guess so, she says. “And when you sing in the car, do you every sing, like, really loud?” Yeah, sometimes I guess, she says. “OK, so that’s what I want you to do with the last chorus. Sing loud like you sing in the car. Really let it rip.” And I explained to her that I was going to turn the volume way up in her headphones, so she’d have to sing loud just to hear herself properly. Anyway, she goes in there and really lets it rip. Now we were cooking with gas!
Let me take a moment to explain the layout of my apartment and studio. The studio is in the kitchen, and the kitchen has a door with a glass window. When I record vocals or live instruments, I always close the door to limit as much outside noise as possible. (I’ve also hooked my fridge up to a switch, so I can turn it off when I do vocals so as to cut out that nasty electric hum). Anyway, when we’d done all the previous vocal work, her dad (and mom, who was also there) would be in the living room. And when you’re in the living room, you normally can’t hear anything. Anyway, we’re doing this final chorus, and she’s going all out. And next thing I know, her parents have their faces pressed up against the kitchen door window, like, “What’s going on in there?” But in a good way. They were all smiles. So that was pretty cool.
Another thing we had to figure out was this little guitar fill that the guy had written in between each verse and chorus. What we had to figure out was the timing. See, when he’s just jamming, it’s this little lick he plays between verse and chorus. But it’s not really ‘in time,’ so to speak. Not in a bad way. It doesn’t sound off or anything when you’re just listening to them play it live. But it wasn’t working in the recording context, because we were having trouble matching up the other tracks with it. So I grabbed my guitar and played along with him, and in the end we figured it out. That was fun though. Me and the dad, with our guitars and his daughter singing along, and me being like, “OK, let’s try this, let’s try that,” until we got it sorted. But I was like, “Hey, this is what producers do! Cool.”
They were over for like three or four hours, and you could tell that by the end of it, everybody was pretty beat. But when we were done, I asked if they’d be up for just jamming on the song together, for fun. They were totally into it. So we went into the living room and I plugged in my bass. The dad had his guitar and his girl had her lyrics. And we just jammed it out. Man, that was fun! I mean, it’s a rockin’ little tune, for starters. And they’re fun, easygoing people. Also, when is jamming ever not fun? But yeah, I dug that for sure. And I’ll tellya something. I don’t know how, when or where we’d ever be able to do it, but I’d love to get enough songs together with them and actually play a gig. Could that happen? Maybe. I dunno. But damn it would be great if we could pull it off.
So they’ve done all their work and now I’ve got to do mine. And it’s going to be a challenge. I’ve never ‘produced’ a song like this, music like this. Minimalist, singer-songwriter kind of stuff. This is not a song that is going to be dressed up in layered harmonies and guitar overdubs. It’s going to have to be more with less. I have enough confidence in what I’m doing at this point to believe that I’ll ultimately produce a nice product. But even as I’m writing this, I still don’t know how. I still don’t have my own complete vision for what this recording should be. And since it’s so outside my wheelhouse, I don’t even know where to turn for comparison or inspiration.
But these are good things. It will force me to grow as a ‘producer’ – which for all how far I’ve come, I’m still putting in quotes – and it will force me to be creative. But I’ve been down this road before. Just not with music. When I was doing lighting design in college, I had all the tools that a well endowed university theatre could offer. And then, when I got my first professional gig, it was, “You have twelve instruments and a manual two-preset board. Go.” It forced me to be creative in ways I never needed to be at school. But I like to think I did some rather nice work in those days. And I like to think I’ll do some rather nice work here too. I just haven’t quite figured out how yet. All in good time…
Oh, and not for nothing, it was fun working with French people. I don’t get much of that these days. Anne is gone. And Charlotte has been gallivanting around the world for gods know how long. So just a chance to speak some French was great. And while we were working, it was this cool constant shifting back and forth between languages. Just kind of a fun added bonus, you know?
Anyway, all this leads to a new question. Namely, could I ever do this for money? Don’t get me wrong, I love teaching English; I truly do. But it gets repetitive. And working from home has sapped it of some of its joy. It’s fun when you’re in the same room with people. It’s pleasant now, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s fun. So lately I’ve been asking myself, is there something else I could be doing?
And I’ve been thinking, what if these projects go well? What if I put together a really nice demo for my band? What if I do a nice job on this track with the French peeps and it leads to more songs well done with them? What if I can put together something of a portfolio of music, music that I didn’t write, music that I’ve produced for other people? Who knows? Maybe I can get people whom I don’t know down to record and actually charge money for my work.
Certainly there’s a long way to go between here and there. I still have a lot to learn. I also need to get better at what I’ve already learned. Not only that, I need to improve my workflow, I need to be faster, more efficient. And as I discussed in my last post, I need to get better at hearing things in the moment, getting the most and best out of an artist while they’re with me in the studio. So no, I’m nowhere near ready to charge strangers money for my services. But is it impossible, somewhere down the line? I honestly don’t think so.
Would I give up teaching English to produce music full time? On the one hand, I don’t think so. As I said, I genuinely love teaching English. On the other hand, teaching English is not a well-paying gig. I have no idea what the going rate is for even the most inexperienced producers, but I have to imagine it’s a helluva lot more than freelance English teaching. What just happened? All of a sudden, my head is in the clouds. If I ever make a dime off this shit, it won’t be anytime soon. But it’s interesting to think about, all the same.
What else is going on? First of all, the usual shit. Yiddish with Bartek, which is only ever a joy. George and I have been on a bit of a break, but we’ll be getting back to Greek shortly; Sophokles’ Ajax, to be specific. I try to do a few lines of Homer most nights before bed, because ABRH: Always be reading Homer. And of course, Torah Torah Torah. And no, I don’t mean the attack Pearl Harbor.
I had dinner with Akiva last week, my buddy from Yiddish Summer Weimar. He’s doing an internship in Berlin and it’s just great to have him here. After dinner, we ‘learned Torah’ for an hour or so. That basically just means we read a bit of that week’s parshah and discussed it with regards to grammar, meaning, various commentaries, etc.
But I love the phrase ‘learn Torah.’ In any other context, you would expect ‘study Torah.’ This is a difference that I often have to explain to my students, the difference between ‘learn’ and ‘study.’ See, German students will often respond to the question “What did you do last night” with the answer “I learned English.” No, you learn English in school. Learning is the acquisition of new information and knowledge. At home, you do your homework, your review your notes, you go over the day’s vocabulary. At home, you study.
So naturally, you’d think that one studies Torah. After all, it’s a text we’ve all read before, more than once. And we’ve read the commentaries too. So you’d think what we do is the reinforcement of what we’ve already learned. But that’s not the idea. It’s not the spirit of it. The idea, the spirit of it all, is that every single time you sit down with The Book, you learn something new. Every time you discuss even the most well-worn passages with somebody else, you get something new out of it. You never stop learning Torah.
For all that, it is nevertheless, quite idiomatic, quite Jewish, if I can say that. And yet, I’d like to take that approach with Homer. After all, Homer was being read before the Torah was ever written. We continue to read Homer to this day. And you can find something new in Homer every single time you sit down to read. So maybe instead of saying that I try to read a bit of Homer most nights before bed, I’ll try to say that I try to learn a bit of Homer most nights before bed. Yes, I think I like that.
As to the Homer I’m currently
reading learning, it’s Iliad Book V. It’s OK. I mean, it’s mostly just Diomedes slaughtering the shit out of any Trojan that gets in his way and Aeneas being a total puss. And a bit of whinging from Aphrodite. I mean, it’s fine. But what I’m really excited for is Book VI. That’s where Hektor (the real hero of the story, btw) says his last goodbye to his wife Andromakhe (#bossbitch) and his infant son Astyanax, predicting what will befall them after he is killed. It’s beautiful. And, uh, literally epic.
I suppose there’s one other major thing of interest going on at the moment, and that’s the family business. Yes, there’s a family business. There didn’t use to be. But there is now. It’s like this. My Great Uncle Art – whom I’ve written plenty about before – had been pretty successful in building up his father’s business. Essentially the manufacture of electrical conduits and fittings. He was the sole proprietor. Only thing is, when he died, he didn’t leave any plan of succession in place.
So the plan, in settling the estate, was simply to sell the business. I suppose that’s what usually happens in these situations. Only problem was, we couldn’t find anybody who was offering what we deemed to be a fair price. So my cousin, who has a head for these things, decided to take a closer look. And he determined that, while Uncle Art might have let things slip a little bit in his twilight years, nevertheless, the business had some real potential. I won’t get into the details, but the short version is, the family has essentially decided to try and make a go of things.
And I’ve gotten myself involved in a small way. Nothing major, certainly not a job or anything like a paid position. But I’m involved, and I’ll just leave it at that for now. But that’s really cool. I think it’s cool, anyway. Just a chance to learn more about the business, to maybe learn something about business in general.
But then sometimes I take a long view, and it’s bananas. Think about this. Over a hundred years ago, some guy leaves his home in Eastern Europe and makes his way to America, the Land of Opportunity. There, he starts a family. Over a hundred years later, this guy’s descendant – born long after his death – moves back to Europe, learns the language of the old country and is at work translating a book about where it all started. And in the middle of all that is this little business, tying together now four generations. Tell me that shit ain’t bananas.
Well. I suppose that’s more than enough. 2022, should we mirtsashem survive it, promises to be an interesting year. I dare say a year of growth. Growth as a music producer, growth as a student of Torah, of Yiddish, of Homer. And now, apparently, growth as a – gasp – businessman? Well, perhaps that’s a touch hyperbolic. But if nothing else, it ought to be an interesting ride…