Much to my chagrin, Twitter's 140 character limit forced me to use webspeak to articulate this post (and we just won't talk about my outright capitalization faux pas). However, you get the point.
It may come as a surprise to you to hear this from a performer, but it was true. Before I made The Spark, I tried time and again to come to terms with the way I sounded behind a microphone. Take for take, there was always something. Weird enunciation. Glottal noises. The vocal fry didn't want to fry that day. It sounded too too immature. Too something. I knew how I wanted to sound, and it wasn't what I was hearing. Mostly, it was just the timbre of my own voice and the tinges of colloquial accents that I just wanted to be different. Because I KNEW what a really good singer sounded like.
And then there's the voices in your head that come with being a music student. Knowing so many spectacular vocal majors and theater students that could probably tear apart my breath support. My diction, vibrato, head and chest tones. And at the end of the day, even if I had gotten ALL of that right, I still didn't even know if I liked what I heard.
I was comfortable in the realm of the instrumental. That's what I had buried myself in for years. I picked up the piano, the saxophone, the guitar, bass, and drums. Composing, arranging, mixing. Assuming through all that time that singing would just be easy. Because everybody sings. It was just that the further I went, the more I knew what I wanted to sound like, I wanted to just be more than a "great songwriter and an ok singer", and felt so desperately hindered by what I heard on playback, despite 25 takes full of good intentions and full-bore energy.
And even in the spheres of instrumentals and post-production, I could feel the constant mental barrage of "what-if" criticisms. Because again, being a music major or even just a professional, there was always going to be someone who could legitimately tear apart saxophone tone or pitch. Someone who might know what I could have done better with guitar sounds or articulation, or who could call me out for using parallel intervals in my part-writing for strings.
But the voice. The voice remained my biggest stumbling block. And it wasn't that I never sang publicly, my vocals drenched in the maw of loud instruments and messy live sound. It wasn't that I didn't have those moments singing in the car when I thought,"MAN! If only I were doing a vocal take right now instead of singing to the dashboard! I'm ON IT right now!". But still, getting behind that ever-demanding microscope of a studio condenser just seemed to always leave me frustrated. Should I have taken more voice lessons when I was younger? Should I have taken them in college? Should I just keep waiting for my voice to change some more? I didn't just want to sound like another high-note yelling guy.
As always, I'm going somewhere with this.
Now, back when I started recording, I did not have the "proper" equipment to be doing it. I was literally recoding full-on songs with a computer mic. A Packard-Bell, "oh look, you can use this in an AOL chatroom" computer mic. With it, I would mic a Roland keyboard amp (though which, I became mad-skilled at playing keyboard drums for a 12 or 13 year old, or whatever I was) that belonged to the church or an Esteban lunchbox practice amp and record into Sony's "Acid" music studio, which was quite literally $60 at Best Buy. Recorded right onto our dell lookalike. I eventually graduated to recording guitars direct from a pedal and using an interface, but i was still using that clunky old program. And to give you an idea of just how clunky it was, EVERY take created a brand new track. And was stuck that way. And if you were using plugins like reverb, delay, distortion, etc., you had to MANUALLY copy those settings for literally every take you did. Even just volume and pan. EVERYTHING. Needless to say, I I ended up with projects with well over 100 tracks in them. And even back then, I couldn't just record songs with bare bones rock bands. I was working those keyboard string and synth sounds for everything they were worth. But I did the best with what I had.
In high school, I got ahold of Mackie's Tracktion. I could finally record multiple takes on the same track. Listen, I know that's not a big deal, but it was huge to me. Mixing wasn't so much expertise to me as it was making each element sound "cool" and hoping it all worked together. And I was still mixing on hyped computer speakers from Best Buy (but hey, they had a cool sub). Which, to be fair, was a step up from the dinky plastic "welcome to Windows 98" ones I started with.
It was during those days (or perhaps more often, nights) that I wrote so much music. Night after night in the basement, out of the sunlight and a few degrees colder than I liked it. With no one but the immediate family and the occasional friend really listening. For years. YEARS. Grabbing the guitar and playing concerts for future audiences in an empty room. I could see them. I could see the stadiums. Sometimes it was exciting, but other times, so frustrating.
It was during those days in high school that I made Premonitions. Writing and recording were one in the same thing. No physical person around me knew how to teach me to do what I was doing, to give authoritative answers to questions technical or musical. My family supported me, bought me things (for which I am very thankful), but if I wanted to learn something, into the internet hole I went. Into the abyss of forums, not knowing the term for what I was trying to do, and wrangling through search queries until I finally figured out what "it" was called. And you know what? Even now, as a 22 year old who holds a music degree, I am still enthralled by the music that came out of those times. There's stuff I wrote when I was 14 that I still plan on using. Because I was doing the best with what I had, and it was still good.
In college I made the transition to Logic, and finally met someone who could teach me things about something I sort of thought I knew. Damon Sink took me under his wing in the areas of studio mixing and composition.
It wasn't always ideal though. We were both horribly busy in the music department and were doing this stuff as an independent study of sorts. We often met in his office and just hooked my laptop up to a couple of mini monitors to talk about mixes I was working on for other bands. Sometimes though, we'd meet at his home studio, which was much more conducive to sonic learning. But hey, did I mention that by this time I was doing work for other bands? Which was sort of astounding, given that I knew so little technically, but thankfully have been blessed with a good ear.
Through all this time I had experimented with vocals. Never happy with them. Yet, by some miracle, I was mixing the vocals of other people, and that stuff seemed to work. So what was the deal?! So I decided to put my foot in the door by doing guest vocal spots on other people's albums. it was a way to see what people's reactions would be. And if listeners didn't like it, then hey, I was just a guest vocal.
That was the first step. That was first time I forced myself to do it. But there was a sort of merit in that.
Eventually I told myself something. I told myself that all my personal excuses (all based in self-criticism) couldn't continue to stop me. I told myself that if I didn't make myself do it, it wouldn't get done. That I had to give it what I had, even if I wasn't totally satisfied with it.
It was hard, because with every take, with every edit, I felt the weight of history. I know that sounds really overdramatic, but in my head it was like, this could be the take that ends up on the recording FOREVER. And that was such a huge deal to me. And sometimes it still is (I'm working on that...). But realized that I had to swallow that, at least temporarily. Long enough to jump off the high-dive.
Now, don't get me wrong. You should do what you do with excellence. Don't use what I'm saying as an excuse to do something half-baked.
When I was working on The Spark, I'd spend hours doing a bunch of vocal work, then come back the next day and not like it at all. It was infuriating. The only thing that stopped me from putting a hole in my computer was that, if I did that, there would be a hole in my computer.
But slowly, something started happening. As I let people listen to the demos, they told me they liked my voice. Not just the music. My voice. I almost didn't understand. Because often, I didn't like it. I could have cried. It was like finding out your dog hadn't died after all. Sometimes I almost had to stop myself from disagreeing with them, saying something like "well yeah, I really like this part too, but I need to re-record this, this, and this....."
And I guess you could say the rest is history. When I listen to The Spark now, I hear places that I can improve. But that's what happens. And I don't want to just rush on to another project. I want more people to hear this.
I find myself writing vocal parts that I KNOW will challenge me live. And I've listened back to live footage in recent months, sometimes disappointed at an issue like pitchiness. But I can feel and hear myself getting better and better. Really. And I realize that if I hadn't put it out there to begin with, I wouldn't have had a foundation to get better from. To challenge myself with.
I recently got to headline at the Underground, and I was listening to the footage and getting so excited. I was impressed. By me. I was getting so excited in the car, so genuinely happy with what I was hearing. Sure, there were off notes here and there, sure, my ear caught everything that needed improvement, but man, I enjoyed listening to it so much. And one of the things that propelled me was others telling me the same thing from one performance to another.
And I'm just going to keep getting better. I'd love to do other professional singing in the future. Maybe in theatre or movies. And one day maybe I'll take some more lessons. Become one of Brett Manning's clients, hire a vocal coach for the road or something.
When I was little, my parents never lied to me. Not even about stuff like Santa Claus. You should have seen me, trying to inform all these delusional kindergarteners that no jolly old elf made an annual squeeze down their home's exhaust pipe. But the comfortable ignorance of the masses just wouldn't tolerate the strains of one lone truthbringer. Anyway, mom always told me, "At any specific skill/task, there will always be someone better than you." It wasn't a slam. It wasn't even a discouragement. She was just being honest, and would teach me to just do my best, because my worth isn't determined by a skill. Some days, knowing that was liberating. Other days, perhaps not so much. But you know what? It should be liberating.
Look, there are people who really aren't called to do things. We've seen them. The people that are just so convinced that they think they want to do music or acting or ANYTHING (doesn't even have to be "artistic") and you watch them and think, "Man, I'm glad they like doing this and everything, but they just ain't got it." It can can make you cringe. But when you know you have the gift, take what you have and use it. Even if it doesn't seem like much. Start with it. You may know that people may be able to criticize it. And YOU will almost certainly be able to criticize it, but ENJOY it too. I personally, LOVE listening to my own music. Not out of some deep narcissism, but because I just genuinely like it.
Do the best with what you have. And grow with it.