It’s hard to enjoy one’s own recordings. I check in periodically, listening to one of my albums, ostensibly to understand “what the hell happened.” I get about five songs in and then stop. I feel as if the music is sitting in front of me rather than it taking me on a journey. Hopefully you have better luck with them!
The fact I don’t “get off” on the experience of listening to my own albums is probably common among musicians. Lately I’ve had to relearn songs I hadn’t played in public for a long time, if ever. I’ve rediscovered a few new favorites. I am proud of my records more or less. However, the point is that I would rather listen to something else.
What is it about other people’s music that feels so much better to me? Why do people get more excited about the cover songs at a show? My first assumption would be that my songs aren’t as good as other people’s. And that might be true, but that can’t be the whole reason. It’s the emotional connection to the song that matters, and I imagine that when you launch into a song people really know, they’re hearing the original record in their mind playing along with you. In that space, a magic trick happens. By the same token, if someone is butchering the song they’ve triggered you to recall, you can feel offended.
Every month I have an hour-long show to play for a hospital audience, and I choose a good dose of known covers to add to my CvS repertoire. Last month I dug up "A Whiter Shade of Pale" by Procol Harum, a band whose name I never understood. Their version cuts off abruptly, even though it’s plenty long! It’s been a hit, used in films, and recorded by many. The lyrics were “mysterious,” (they lost me at fandango) but I knew the tune. And that organ part has always captivated me. I looked it up and found two extra verses- one I added, but I left out the other lyrics about cardboard. I like this song.
Drummer Prairie Prince was working in my studio recently, and so we did a couple songs for the camera. We played “Whiter Shade” live, once, without any fuss. I’ve learned how to play with PP over time. I know to stay out of the way of his fills with my guitar and don’t fight him on the tempo, like some dog on a leash. I sent it to Dave Amels to put on the essential organ part, and Pete Straus did his bass guitar at home. It was not labored over and I actually put more time into editing the video.
Of my recordings, I like the ones I made with other people on them. I prefer hearing the ones that I didn’t fiddle with endlessly. And of course, the equipment — how fancy the mic or guitar is — has yet to make a big difference on the final result.
So I share this as a single release this week for your entertainment. I can listen to this! Am I enjoying hearing my friends playing? Or is it the magic of cover songs?
Looking back on the breakup songs I’ve written, the sad aspect now is to consider the passing of those youthful years. Granted, I don’t want to have to do it all again, but it sure looks sweet looking back. Performing these songs gives me a chance to revisit the lyrics and really see what I was feeling and what I was denying to myself with the word play.
The premise of the song in the chorus section is that I am moving on with my life’s focus and leaving behind someone overly sentimental- “you can keep your picture book,” - yet the whole time I am creating a sentimental paean to our entire relationship.
These days I like the chords to this song. It changes key with every verse couplet. Around the time of writing this song, I used a lot of chromatic movement in the melody that employed major to minor chord changes rather than a completely different chord. Those changes often imply key change or mode change and while I don’t completely know what I’m doing, I know how it sounds. It’s not that I’m good at finding my way around, I’m just not afraid of getting lost.
On the demo I played the main instrumental figure on guitar with a Leslie speaker. When it came to making the album in New York, we used a harpsichord. There’s one note on its keyboard that didn’t always work, so there’s a rest where there might have been a note. I remember we used a Coles ribbon mic on it instead of a condenser mic, and it’s much duller sounding. Those harpsichords, they’re so bright.
The mix, like most on Wood + Wire, is heavily compressed on the Pye limiters, so the bass, the harpsichord, my voice, are all squashed together like pressing your face against a screen door to talk to your cousin.
The last lines of the song make more sense now than before-
“Like any photograph, see back in time so easily
I wrote a paragraph on what I think, but never see”
“Animal” is the accident child. It comes along last, and stays in the house a long time.
All of my records have at least one oddball song, one that doesn’t appear to fit. I get requests to play some of these outlier songs and think to myself, “...really, that one?”
I can’t immediately know what to keep and not, especially when I’m producing my own album. Worse yet, I might take advice from someone else: “Walking Endlessly” was suggested to be cut from Sight & Sound, then I took “Circles” off the Go! album and put a remake version of it out later. I could talk myself out of the whole thing if I think too long.
“Animal” came out of a for-fun session with drummer Michael Israel. It was my birthday and for part of the day, I thought I should make some music. I was experimenting with new ideas, and this one was just a jam, really. I wrote the music after hitting record, so it’s very simple and repetitive.
Instead of using a click track, I had us playing along to our own slow repeat echo. That would keep us sprocketed in time, like a click. If we got a little ahead or behind, the echos would follow our error but keep the old tempo from that point forward. To hear the band adjust their playing to “get back on the click” is not a groovy thing.
Being so slow, there’s so much space for the sounds to spread out. The lyrics came later- bleak but hopeful. The longer I make music, the deeper I find myself going into whatever comes to me in the moment rather than trying to make it sensible or ideal. And that might be an answer to the question the film asks, “Why Isn’t Chris von Sneidern Famous?”
The first version was about 15 minutes long, and I got it down to a brief 11 minutes.