Writing and recording music "Conversations" was an extended series of surprises, some with the creative process, and others with relationships in my life.
The song was born in a haphazard way. One night I felt like recording, but I didn't have a song to work on. I pulled out a snare drum, some brushes, and other percussion instruments. I set about recording a groove. Since I had no preconceived idea of what I was doing, on each track I’d stop, start and change my parts at random. By night’s end, I had eight or nine tracks of messy percussion. I gave the session a non-descript working title, then I shut down my machine and forgot about it.
Sometimes it's as if you subconsciously plan little surprises for yourself. Months later, I saw that title, had no idea what it was, and I opened the file. "Oh, yeah, it's that weird percussion jam…" I decided that I liked parts of it, so I picked up my dulcimer and recorded the first chord progression that came to mind. Now it sounded sort of like a song, so I ended up spending quite a bit of time editing the percussion to make it sound like a real jam. It took…ahem…a surprising amount of editing, that's for sure.
Like most people who record, I listen to my works-in-progress while I drive, and I sing along with them. I decided I wanted a flute to play a melody on this thing, so I was driving along, singing a high part, trying to approximate what a flute might do.
The part was actually too high for me to sing comfortably. When I got home, I experimented with electronically changing the pitch of my voice, and I recorded an interesting, weird-sounding reference track for my future flautist. I wasn't too careful, because I assumed the track was going to be replaced with a lovely-sounding flute.
When I played the new mix for my brother with no explanation, it certainly surprised him. His head snapped around when the vocal came in. "Who is that?" I told him it was just a temporary guide track for a flute part, and he almost hit the ceiling. He said, "It sounds amazing - don't re-do it! I thought it was a little old Chinese lady!"
I can't say I was entirely sold on the concept of sounding like an elderly Oriental woman, but I promised Doug that I'd think about it. In retrospect, perhaps it's not that surprising that I took his advice and used the track. His instincts are usually pretty good.
But the biggest and best surprise was that I got to use my mother-in-law's joyful laughter as a lead instrument on this song. Around this time, I'd begun to carry a hand-held digital recorder everywhere I went, recording stuff for fun. One night, we'd finished dinner with the in laws and were hanging out, drinking wine and talking. I had my little recorder running. Otto made a joke and Diane apparently thought it was the funniest thing she'd ever heard. She began laughing, and she laughed until tears came. Whenever she stopped, it was only a shaky moment before she started up again. Otto began imitating her, which only made her laugh harder.
I had already recorded various other conversations, because I'd been thinking of turning the song into a mellow folk version of those Sixties pop records which sound like a party going on during the session. There was one by Marvin Gaye. "Here Comes My Baby," and "Rainy Day Women Numbers 12 and 35," and various Beatles recordings also had that party vibe.
I took all these conversation tracks into my studio, and I mixed them into the arrangement. I got yet another surprise. Diane's laughter was obviously the magic ingredient in my mix. You couldn't possibly rehearse or plan such a great "performance." I knew she had to be featured, so I rode the fader and had her rise up in the mix, as if she were an instrument playing a solo during one section of the song.
I didn't tell anyone except my wife what I'd done. When the Exotic America album was released in 2004, I played "Conversations" for Otto and Diane, as a surprise. Otto cried when he heard it.
Today, Diane is in the final stages of dementia. She still occasionally shows traces of her loving personality and free spirit. Most people capture moments that honor their loved ones in home videos and photos. I make instrumental music, which is a little more open to interpretation, but in this case, causes and conditions in my life allowed me to create a loving tribute to the exceptional mother of my wonderful wife. I'm very grateful that I could do it, and I'm very proud of "Conversations."
Guest Post by Andy Robinson