Wednesday, August 29, 2012

For My Mother | From Start to Finish

On October 11th, I’ll be releasing my new album, For My Mother. It’s a record that I’ve spent more than two years on. It began on April 29th 2010 when my I lost my mother, Christi, following a 3 1/2 year battle with ovarian cancer. When she was going through chemotherapy, surgeries and countless procedures, she often used music to help her relax and take her mind off of her treatment. When she passed, I knew I wanted to create something in her honor. It seemed only fitting that I create a new album. After all, if it weren’t for her, I probably wouldn’t be making music today. Growing up, she devoted an incredible amount of time, effort and money to my music. She drove me to lessons, rehearsals, and band practices. She put up with noise at all hours, records strewn around the house, and my tendency to play the largest instruments possible. She was always the first to hear any new music I was working on and give feedback. This album is my eulogy for her.

I’d like to take a minute to describe how this whole thing came to be.

In May of 2011, I received a composers fellowship from the McKnight Foundation and the American Composers Forum. I was the youngest person ever, as well as the first hip hop artist to receive the fellowship. I chose to use the $25,000 to take a year off of work and focus full time on making this record happen. The day after I received the phone call about the fellowship, I quit my job. I began by writing a bunch of songs in the style of 70s Motown acts like Marvin Gaye, The Jackson 5, Smokey Robinson, etc. Over the course of several months, I wrote and recorded demos of about 20 songs. It was a struggle for me, as I don’t have much songwriting experience. My musical background is mostly in performance and production. I worked at a very slow pace and did a lot of learning along the way. Google was my friend.

Although I received $25k, that went almost entirely to my living expenses for the year (with the exception of a new computer, so I could actually get some work done). This didn’t leave me with much of a budget for the actual record, especially since I wanted to do a lot of live recording, professional mixing and mastering, and put the album out on vinyl. I came across this organization called USA Projects that does fundraising for artists. They’re like Kickstarter, except only for art. At the time, they were only working with artists who had received a major grant (they’ve since expanded to work with students as well). I decided to try and fund the production of my album through USA Projects. Through people’s donations and the matching funds offered by USA Projects, I raised $8,290 in two months.

Once I had a batch of songs I was happy with, I picked the best ones and sent them to a bunch of my favorite local musicians. I asked these guys if they would be willing to help me record live versions of the songs I had written. My goal was to record my songs, and then sample from them in an attempt to create a record that maintains the traditional, sample-based feel of instrumental classics like Shadow's "Entroducing" or Dilla's "Donuts", but consists of entirely original music.

These guys agreed to play on the record:
Graham O’Brien: drums
Andrew Foreman: bass
Joe Adrian: guitar
Chris Tures: guitar
Joe Strachan: Fender rhodes
Paul Colier: piano
Mike Ries: organ
Noam Feigel: percussion
Eric Blomquist: saxophone

The initial recording session was March 2nd-4th at Flowers Studio in Minneapolis. It was engineered by Peter Anderson. The first day, it was just Graham, Peter and me working on drum tones and getting a bunch of dry drum breaks and hits to work with. Graham played along to the demos, recording several different feels and options for each track.
The next two days, the whole band was there. We ran through the songs, spending about an hour on each one. We ran 3-4 takes of each song and then moved on. All eight guys played together, live, in one room. There was plenty of room for improvisation and making mistakes. We didn’t do any overdubbing. It was a very loose, very fun session. Knowing that there was no “right” way to play the songs, and that mistakes didn’t matter, led to some very creative, fun playing.

After the third day of tracking, i took all of the sessions (over 10 hours of music) back to Waterbury Studios to start making sense of it all. I started digging through the Pro Tools sessions, looking for samples. Sometimes I would make a rough mix of an entire song and then sample from the 2 track, other times I would dig deep into the session and pull out a piano chord here, and drum hit there, and start putting something together piece by piece. Throughout the whole process, I didn’t use any samples, synths, or sounds that I didn’t personally record. The only gear I used was an ASR-10, a bunch of instruments, and Pro Tools. As I worked, I brought in more musicians to help. Claire de Lune, Lizzo and Summitt added vocals. Devon Gray (Heiruspecs, Chastity Brown) added keys and flute. Erica Burton, Josh Misner and Cory Grossman added strings. I made about 15 beats over the course of three weeks, and picked the ten best to be on the album.

Quick engineer nerdery: 
Vocals: U47-Avalon 737
Flute: U47-Harrison board pre
Strings: stereo U87-Harrison M-4 board pres-CL1b for compression
ASR-10: direct to Black Lion modded digi 002
 -Overhead: Neumann M149, no pre
 -Snare: Neumann U87-API 212L
 -Kick: EV RE-20-API 212L
Guitars: SM57-Trident board pre
Bass: direct, AKG D112-Trident board pre
Piano: Neumann KM184 (Stereo)-?
Rhodes: direct i think?
Percussion: ?
Organ: ?
Saxophone: Wunder CM7- ? pre
Room: Earthworks TC 30k-?

After I had 10 beats that I was happy with, I began mixing them with Eric Blomquist at Waterbury Studios. The entire album was mixed on the SSL 4072 G+ console. Manley Stereo Pultec, Avalon 2055, UA LA-2A, UA 1176 LN, and some disterssors were probably used as well. The album was mixed in about a week. It was mastered by Dave Cooley (Common, Kanye, Dilla, Madlib) at Elysian Masters in Los Angeles. I don’t know what gear he has.

I did all the artwork and design for the album, and sent it to Noiseland in Northeast for CD/vinyl manufacturing. It was a huge pain in the ass. Copycats needs to start making vinyl so I don’t have to mess with Noiseland ever again. Anyway, the album is now done and I have boxes on boxes of vinyl and cds in my basement. In the time I was working on this album, I also got married and bought a house. I played the record for my grandma (my mom’s mom) the day before she died, she looked at me and said “nice music”. Thanks grandma.

 The album will be released on October 2nd, with a release party at The Cedar Cultural Center on October 11th. 75% of the proceeds from the album and release party are being donate to the Minnesota Ovarian Cancer Alliance. I will be performing the entire album, front to back, with a 15-piece band. Two of my favorite local acts, The Chalice and K. Raydio, will be joining me as well.
Tickets are available here.

You can listen to the first track from the album here (via soundcloud)

1 comment:

  1. I'm glad you posted the whole story about this! Looking forward to hearing the whole thing on vinyl and live!!! <3