The Making of An Album

On September 28th this year, we released our first full-length album, ‘Indigo’, on Blue Elan Records. A lot of people have asked me how we did it – what the process was like, what the steps were, if we did most of it ourselves (we did), and how long it took. In this post I will answer all of those questions and tell you the full story of how I made this album with my partner, Shawn, while 6 months pregnant. 

writing on the porch in the company of chickens

I put out an initial EP in 2016 (read more about the story behind that here.

I had been writing a pretty steady stream of songs since putting out my EP in 2016, stealing time in the evenings or throughout the day to jot down ideas and meditate on feelings.

It can take me anywhere from two hours to a month to finish a song. If I am able to work on it from start to finish, it doesn’t take longer than a few hours but that rarely happens. More often, I work on songs in chunks of time spread out over a few weeks. If a song is about an especially intense emotional experience or I feel especially inspired, I try extra hard to work on it straight through, if life allows. I’ve discovered that inspiration is very important – it’s what starts the song more often than not- but true effort is what finishes it. I guess there’s something to that saying about inspiration and perspiration. But the process of writing a song is a topic, in itself.

Anyway, by the time 2017 rolled around, I had a new collection of songs that were ready for something. I had always planned on doing another EP or a full-length eventually and I was feeling ready to start that process. But there was a lot to figure out. A lot to coordinate. A lot to decide.

a song-in-process

When I told Shawn that I was ready to start thinking about making another album, he was (understandably) less than thrilled.

We had spent all of 2016 working on getting my EP out into the world and the reception had been kind of disappointing. I had had the naive idea that it would launch me onto the music scene. It didn’t.  No one except for our friends and family really heard it and, after all the time I had put into promoting it and supporting it, I  wasn’t truly happy with the way it had turned out.

The problem was that we hadn’t spent much time at all on the actual process of making it. We had recorded the whole thing in two days and had it mixed in a standard way with the instruction (Shawn’s!) that the kick drum be ‘loud and up front.’ For a perfectionist who is very self-conscious, the result was a CD that I was embarrassed to listen to even alone. It didn’t feel like ‘me.’

In our relationship, Shawn is often the one who is practical, thinking about time and space and money, and I am the one who operates without so many oppressive ties to reality. He was hesitant to devote time and resources all over again to something with no promise of success. But, to me, success would be expressing myself. Plus, I believed that this time around an album really could take me to the next level. I passionately believed in these songs, and I wasn’t going to make the same amateur mistakes I had the first time around. 

Me and Shawnie, being our truest selves.

We had many conversations about time and money (the kinds of conversations that kill my soul) and, every time, all I could say was that I believed in my music and that I knew something good would come of it. I knew that it was worthwhile. I knew that it was important. And, eventually, Shawn believed it too.

Having a joint bank account and owning a house together, I couldn’t use our mortgage money to make my artistic dreams into reality. I had to find a way to do it as cheaply as possible.

We needed a producer, a vision, a sound, and professional recording facilities. How were we going to do this?

Then Shawn volunteered to learn how to produce an album. 

Now, it was my turn to be skeptical.

We talked about it for weeks and weeks. He was extremely confident that he would be able to do it. I kept saying ‘but you’ve never done it before. How are you so sure of yourself?’ But blind confidence has its upsides, I guess. One of them, apparently, is that sometimes it gives you the ability to do something you really shouldn’t be able to do.

So a plan came together. We decided to do some preparation this time around. I curated a collection of songs that I wanted to record. We would record rough vocals on our computer at home and also lay down rough instrument parts and harmonies.

Before you sew a dress, you’re always supposed to make a preliminary version of it out of cheap muslin fabric. I thought of these tracks we made at home as our ‘muslin tracks.’ But how would I decide what kind of instruments to have on each song? How would I figure out how to create the right mood? The right sound?

Tracks

One night, Shawn asked me a lot of questions about one of the songs. We talked extensively about how I wanted it to sound- the mood, the vibe, the rough structure of sound. The next morning, there was a new track on the computer. Shawn had made our first ‘muslin track.’ It sounded, I had to admit, fucking awesome. 

There were all of the expected instruments – guitar, piano, bass, but there was something else; a synth line that stitched the high and low ends together. I called it the ‘moist-maker’ after the element of Ross’ sandwich in ‘Friends’ that unites all of the ingredients into a magical cohesive whole, greater than the sum of its parts.

One by one, we made ‘muslin tracks’ for every song. We went back and forth again and again, editing the songs until we were happy with them. It was through this process that we became a duo. We were working so closely together on a shared vision, both putting so much energy into it. Sometimes it felt like Shawn was the only one who could translate my crazy-talk into concrete sounds. I’d say ‘this song should sound like I’m flying through a dark blue, endless expanse of outer space and flashes of light are coming at me and then disappearing into the darkness.’ and, somehow, he’d do it. Sometimes it felt like I dreamed up the plans and he executed them. I handed down dictums and platitudes and he put them into action. 

Me, taking no shits from nobody.

After a few weeks of this, we were ready to record. We had booked two studios for a total of a five days of recording time – two days for the instruments at Nada Recording Studio with our friend John Naclerio, the place we made our first EP, and three days at a studio called ArtFarm for the vocal parts. 

We brought all of our work with us on a hard drive. We also brought our three-year old daughter. Did I mention that, by this time, I was also six months pregnant? No big deal.

Here’s how we made it work: Shawn did all of the instrument parts, one after the other, for two days while I hung out with our daughter.

When he was finished, John put all of the new tracks on our hard drive and we went to Art Farm a few hours away. For the next three days, Shawn did the majority of the child-wrangling while I sa1ng all of the main vocals and harmonies in the studio.

By the end of our marathon recording session, we had all of the pieces of our album. The only thing left to do was put them together. Some assembly required.

This next part was the longest. Shawn was in charge of the mixing and, since I didn’t want to repeat the mistake I’d made last time around by rushing the mixing process, we were METICULOUS about each track. 

We probably went though 80 rounds of mixing for each song. I truly thought this phase of the process would never end. 

But then. One day. One day we listened to a mix and even I, a true perfectionist, could find no flaw. I almost cried with joy. 

After we had finished the mixing, it was time to work on artwork. I had made the artwork for my last EP and, for this one, I wanted to get someone else involved to broaden the scope of the project a little bit. I did a lot of research and daydreaming, trying to imagine the best medium.

Meanwhile, I was setting up photoshoots so that I’d have some new press pictures. I live in the middle of northern New York which is, admittedly, kind of in the middle of nowhere, but I have many talented friends. One such friend, Sarah Valliancourt, is a photographer and offered to take some pictures for me. We spent the day together at my house and went to town. 

We took pictures in lots of different settings (Ooh, I forgot. Did I mention I had a brand new two month old in addition to a 3 year old by now? Welcome to the world, baby!) One of the places we shot was on our third floor on an attic bed. Sarah put down a black drop cloth and I laid down on it. I had the idea because my mom, who is a photographer, had taken many pictures of me from this vantage point when I was a kid.

When we got the pictures back, I had a flash of inspiration. What if we layered two two of the pictures together to create a double-exposure effect? 

I used my rudimentary photo editing skills to see what it would look like. I loved it. We decided to add some galaxy imagery into the mix, too. It was just right.

I contacted a graphic artist I’d been put in touch with named Jessica Straw. She totally got what I was going for and, over many conversations, we came up with a design plan. She sent me some options:

I mixed and matched to create something that felt just right. After a few weeks, the artwork was done. I wrote up a blurb for the inside and collected all of the thank-yous and credits and sent them into her. Soon, we had the final product. I was over the moon. It was just what I’d imagined. It looked like this.

By April 2018, two years to the month after the first EP was released, the album was done. It was unbelievable. Shawn and I had both put so many hours of work into it. But, in some ways, I knew that this was when the work would really begin. Because, now, I was going to get us signed to a record label, but more about that another time.

You can watch my vlog post about getting signed here.