29 April 2010

Breath, Wood, and Optical Fibre

by guest columnist David Partridge

It all started with a monkey.

Not an actual monkey. I don’t get a lot of musical inspiration from the residents of the Metropolitan Toronto Zoo. The monkey to which I refer is the online avatar for a singer songwriter who goes by the name of Ayewrite. Ayewrite, or Monkey as he is often called, is an online friend of mine. He’s passionate about music but he’s not a man who bestows praise lightly. But some time ago he told me that I owed it to myself to check out a singer songwriter named Dolores Dagenais.

Monkey, who resides in Europe, also said that she was Canadian and lived in Pictou, Nova Scotia. He did not ask me whether, as a fellow Canadian, I knew Dolores. Monkey’s a smart guy. He knows that there’s some distance between western Nova Scotia and southern Ontario, maybe thirty, forty kilometers, by his reckoning.

But in fact, the music that had my friend excited was significantly closer than that. It seems that Dolores had a very generous album’s worth of songs, freely available for download on the web. And the web, as fortune would have it, connects directly to my house. Hmm, I thought, this Dolores Dagenais writes interesting songs. And she can sing. That monkey is on to something.

Not long thereafter, I was participating in an online “open mic” event -yes, there is such a thing- and who should make an appearance from Pictou, guitar in one hand and champagne glass in the other, but Dolores Dagenais.

She sang and, even in that informal and almost lo-fi circumstance, it was clear that she had something to say and an affecting way of saying it. Plus, she seemed to enjoy the posted recordings of my band Postcard Comets, so you know she had taste

Dolores was in the process of assembling material for another album. She had produced and played her previous releases by herself. She was looking for a change. She approached me to see if I was interested in producing the album. Now, there is some speculation that she was at least as interested in securing the multi-instrumental talents of my co-Comet Robert “Buck” Wilburn. Buck doubts this. He maintains that she was only interested in him. This may well be true but you’ll never get me admitting it on the record and certainly not in print.

But it doesn’t take a joke from our friend Ayewrite to determine that Pictou, Nova Scotia is a long way from Thornhill, Ontario. Dolores was in the former and I in the latter. But Dolores is web savvy. A frequent poster to the social media sites, her many YouTube pieces were the foundation of our collaboration. Here’s how it worked: Dolores wrote the songs and recorded a performance for YouTube, or MySpace, or her own website, or all of the above. She also sent the clips to me. I stripped the audio from them and imported it into the recording program in my beloved Mac.

Using her playing and singing from these clips as our guide, Buck and I worked up accompaniment for each song and tracked our parts into the recording software. This way, Dol’s vision and performance dictated the architecture, the key, the tempo, the feel of the accompaniment. We sent our accompaniment sketches back to Dol at some point, got feedback and revised and polished the tracks from there.

Now, anyone who has ever captured any event with a camcorder or modest audio setup knows that the sound is not professional quality. Sonically, it’s fair to say, Dol’s recordings were not top notch. But the performances were and we tracked dobro, drums, bass and any other additional instruments to those original vibrant performances.

Then we threw Dol’s contributions away.

Now, now, don’t panic. It’s all part of the plan. You can’t make Big Girl Art without the grownup, female artiste now can you? Dolores and her husband Ross were coming to Ontario, making the thirty, forty kilometer trip from Nova Scotia to Ontario, ostensibly to see relatives but really to see Buck and me. Please don’t tell the relatives that they spent almost two full days of their two-week trip with us. No need to inflame unnecessary jealousy.

So I had two days to track Dolores’ vocals and guitar, replacing any sonically substandard elements of the original Pictou tracks Dolores did in what she calls her “gaffer tape studio”. Was the meager, two-day window scary? Only until I heard Dolores sing the first song. She’s a pro; all the work got done with time left over for Buck to eat multiple desserts at the local Mandarin buffet.

This is where technology dances tenderly with the good old ways. Yes, we traded tracks through online servers and built the tracks in software. But legend has it that the Beatles cut their first album in a single extended session. When you’re prepared, you can do that. Homework had been done in Pictou and Thornhill alike. Buck’s and my tracks were adapted to Dolores. And Dolores was prepared. She showed up, sang, played and left. And when she did, I had everything I needed. After all, she wrote these songs. But songwriters everywhere know it’s not that easy. Dolores is not just a songwriter but an accomplished performer as well. And for 2 days, she performed admirably. The result is Big Girl Art.

Not to overstate the theme of this site but Dolores is truly a multi-hyphenate. Buck’s a multi-hyphenate and as the producer/accompanist, I reason that I am too. But allow me to push the definition and suggest that the methodology used to create Big Girl Art qualifies for multi-hyphenate status of its own. Acoustic, electric, solo, band-based, online, face-to-face analogue, digital– at some point in the process it was all of the above. Big Girl Art is the sound of digital files posted to online servers, downloaded into software and mixed with the sound of a human voice and a wooden instrument, captured through an analogue tube mic that further warmed the room on those two stiflingly hot summer days.

I’m glad I had the opportunity to be there. From Pictou to Thornhill, it was a very human process. Even if it did start with a monkey.

David Partridge is an entertainment software consultant, writer and composer. He is the producer of Dolores Dagenais’ CD Big Girl Art and is a member of his own band Postcard Comets. Their music can be found at postcardcomets.com and is available through iTunes, Rhapsody and amazon.com. David is also a film buff who refuses to believe that there are living humans who prefer Lugosi to Karloff.


buckw said...

Who's Karloff?

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