All The Clubs That Will Have Me

Well this is very interesting. Very, very slowly over the past 8 months or so I have been researching and joining music education professional associations with the vague notion that this will test my bureaucratic tolerance for jumping through hoops and force my brain to consider a little more than the day to day of being home with a 4 year old, cooking, cleaning, laundry – always the laundry – errands, appointments, and teaching beginner piano. All worthy things to do with my time of course. My homemade muffins, soup, and bread have evolved into tasty and delicious treats instead of punishments and my 4 year old is happy, smart, sweet and funny.
My paper trail started with submitting all of my degrees and diplomas, starting way, way back in the previous century with my first foray into music school. Selkirk College was a fantastic experience and obtaining my diploma only whetted my curiosity about music and made me desperate to learn more, do more, get better, study harder.

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so I successfully auditioned for Capilano University, obtained another diploma and kept going for a Bachelor of Music Degree, Education Major

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all of these pieces of paper I had not seen in many years and along the way there were several moves and a legal name change. But I kept going, slowly, writing emails to various school records departments, and paying money, lots of money, for my carelessness and lack of organization.

With all my little duck shaped pieces of paper in a row, I applied for membership to the BC Music Educators Association which is a Provincial Specialist Association of the BC Teacher’s Federation. They took me, and that let me into the Canadian Music Educator’s Association as well. Emboldened, I set my sights on the BC Registered Music Teacher’s Association which is a quasi regulatory body for private music teachers. I had to submit reference letters for this one. It’s a hard thing to ask for (at least for me) but I did and had the unexpected side benefit of reconnecting with former students and their parents, leading to several really fun coffeeshop visits to pick up letters that left me thinking, it’s so rewarding to proactively seek connection with fellow human beings. Why don’t I do that more often?
Anyway, after more deadlines to meet and more money to pay I got this in the mail

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A heartfelt thank you to Sharlene Hertz, Shannon Halkett, Andrea Finch, Ian McDougall, and Danine Griffin for your kind and effusive letters on my behalf. I could not have done all this without your generous help.

I now have my two diplomas, one degree, and three membership certificates within arm’s reach (well I don’t sleep with them next to me or anything) and now…I told myself after that was all done I would start looking into going back to school…here we are. I sort of didn’t think I’d make it this far but I did. And I’ve told way too many people that school is in my plans to stop now. So although I feel quite reluctant to screw up my pretty comfortable life with deadlines and submissions and hunting down transcripts that is now on the agenda. It’s not that I’m unhappy with what I do, it’s that I want to do more. And I need some good teachers to inspire me and show me how to be a better teacher, helper, and human being. So I’m currently combing through Maclean’s university rankings and trying to envision myself in a classroom, 15 years older than all the other kids. Bleah. I think I will slowly, very slowly keep moving forward on this – I have a year and a half before my little one goes to kindergarten, which I think is a good time for me to going somewhere educational too. Hopefully we will both embrace learning, new places, and new people with the same enthusiasm.

CBC Searchlight 2014

Tis the season to enter song competitions. I have done so for the CBC Searchlight contest. It’s a “hunt for the best new artist of 2014”. Ok, so I’m not a new artist. I entered a song called “Every Single One” from a small collection of tunes I wrote and recorded shortly before I entered the all encompassing world of parenthood. It was my first attempt at singing my own lyrics in public, and the first solo project I completed after being in other people’s bands for nigh unto a decade. So in that sense, in the “I am a total novice at this” sense, I am a new artist.
New artists need all the help they can get. You can see my CBC artist profile here and a click on the “Vote For This Artist” button would really tickle me pink. If you love “Every Single One” please tell your friends. I will be doing exactly that, in a classy non-pestering fashion (I hope). Polls are open until April 6, and you can vote for multiple artists multiple times. You can also listen to my songs
here, at my bandcamp page and even purchase them there – a rebellious concept in the 21st century – if you like.

CBC Searchlight Bio

This is a bio I wrote for a recent songwriting contest called Searchlight, sponsored by CBC Radio. My first attempt at putting my songs “out there” after being hit by that wonderful train called motherhood. I really did feel like I had been physically hit by a train after labor and delivery, and this has since mellowed to a metaphorical train that hit my mind, emotions, and personality rendering all parts of me unrecognizeable compared to who I was before. Like most people who have been hit by trains, it has taken me a long time to recover and regain my equilibrium, hence the two year gap in the Music posts.

For a long time I played keyboards and sang in two really great Vancouver bands. The Feminists (2001-2008), which I formed and co-fronted, and Parlour Steps (2007-2010). Cool things happened in those bands. We toured across Canada and the U.S, played at NXNE, SXSW, and Bumbershoot, had an iTunes Single Of The Week international radio play and placements in film and tv.Both bands imploded when it became obvious that real success was on the horizon.

I finally realized it was pointless to blame other people for what I considered to be the greatest tragedy of my life. (Thankfully, I also realized that a band breaking up was not a great tragedy). It was a huge mistake to give my maximum effort to somebody else’s songs and somebody else’s band. I totally believed all that crap about “do what you love and the money will follow” and “if you can dream it, you will achieve it” Now I believe, sometimes things just don’t work out. And that talent has nothing to do with succeeding in music. It’s more about winning a mysterious lottery, somehow attracting someone with more money and power than you to take an interest in what you’re doing.

And so, after a long interlude of snarling “playing in bands ruined music for me”, I decided to start again and do what I should have done from the start: write my own songs, revel in the ease I feel when playing and singing beautiful lines, and make art because it brings me pleasure and it’s fun to do. And forget about being an entertainer and caring about the music industry. That is a time sucker that distracts from playing piano and singing.

Wow, she has a bad attitude you may say. Very well. I have a bad attitude. I do not schmooze very well. I suck at small talk and being fake with people I don’t really know but maybe I could use to advance my career in some way. I am excellent at big talk, but there is not much call for that, anywhere. I am neither a joiner nor an extrovert. I am done with being conventional and playing the game. Art is a personal statement. And it has to be authentic and real. It must reflect who you truly are, not what others think you should be.

I have no expectations. Mostly I operate on the assumption that nobody will read my words or listen to my music. That’s ok, because I love and need to do it regardless of an audience. I create songs, because I have something to say. I want you to listen. I felt something when I wrote the words and music. I want you to feel something when you listen. And that shared emotional experience between you and me through vibrating sound frequencies, that is what I love about music.

The song I’ve entered into Searchlight is called Every Single One, and it’s the first track from my debut EP as a solo artist. The band who performs it with me is amazing. You can read all about them on my enormous blog at http://www.alisonmaira.com.

Don’t think I wouldn’t appreciate getting a few hundred thousand votes and advancing in the Searchlight contest. I would love that. How wonderful it would be to have many ears listening to my songs and make new connections with like-minded human beings.

I can’t say it would improve my attitude, though.

Worth A Thousand Words.

This past week I chose my final photos from over 300 proofs that were generated during my album promo photo shoot earlier this month. It was difficult to narrow it down to ten final choices. Well, ok 11. I just couldn’t cut it down any further than that and wonderful Angela was kind enough to let me have an extra one.

I must say though, I’m pretty tired of looking at photos of myself. Even though these are awfully good photos. I think everyone should have the chance to get professional photos done of themselves once in their lives. It’s pretty refreshing to see yourself portrayed in the best possible light.

The shoot itself was fascinating, fun, and very productive. Angela Fama was the photographer. I had first met her at the Parlour Steps photo shoot for the Hidden Names record and I was so impressed with how she handled the shoot and the resulting beautiful pictures. I never thought I’d get a chance to work with her on my own, but then again I never thought I’d be able to write and record my own songs either. Never say never.

Julie Bavalis, bass player extreme and stylish individual extraordinaire is great friends with Angela and wanted to style the entire shoot. Yay for me! We had a nice meeting at Angela’s house, wrote down some ideas and a few days later Julie showed up with feathers, leather string, and an armload of clothes from C’est La Vie, a fantastically hip Main St. vintage clothing store she works at part time. Julie always goes the extra mile for her friends and I have been the grateful recipient of her largesse many times.

Angela recommended a makeup artist named Marie Pierce. Marie had done makeup for Julie and I at the last Parlour Steps photo shoot and I was happy to work with her again.

We convened at Angela’s house on a Saturday night and six hours later had 300 photos to show for it. I was a little nervous, wondering how it was going to work with the wardrobe from C’st La Vie that was not materinity clothes. I’m 8 months pregnant now and I haven’t considered wearing “normal” clothes since oh, about October or so. The ladies made two chic bandeau tops for me by wrapping me in lengths of blue and white fabric and then taping feathers over top.

I didn’t even have to wear a bra, which shocked me. I thought for sure that would violate all sense of decency (and I didn’t want to take that kind of picture) but Julie made everything look so classy.
We were going for the blue/gray/feathery vibe that the ferociously talented Jim Miller had drawn for the album artwork.

Jim and I knew each other in high school. He was an impressive artist then; he is a seasoned professional now. He’s one of the only people I know who realized early what they were supposed to be, never stopped doing that, and has subsequently risen to a very high level in his career due to years of non stop effort and improvement. He’s now a storyboard supervisor at My Little Pony, for god’s sake (All the pre-teen girls I teach are impressed beyond words that I know someone who works on My Little Pony). I’m so glad Jim and I ran into each other again as grownups, and I’m completely delighted he found the time to design and paint a gorgeous picture for my album cover. Without his asthetic, this photo shoot may not have even happened.

We did a few different looks and included some full length body shots that probably won’t be used for album promo. But I wanted some nice pictures of me as a pregnant lady. It’s been an amazing time in my life and it’s worth commemorating.

It wasn’t all hard work, though. There were some girls with mustaches.

Angela had a studio space set up in her basement and we laughed, ate snacks, drank tea, listened to music, and were relentlessly productive.

It was exhilarating and completely absorbing. I think this was my first work project that was all female. These women and I were on exactly the same page and it was amazing and joyful to accomplish so much, so efficiently, in such a short time.

Angela Fama is truly a creative force to be reckoned with.

I found myself thinking, wow she’s so talented and confident. I will be like that too, from this moment on! I thought it was cool that her vibe was one of inspiration, not intimidation. She was working very hard, but I didn’t feel anxious or pressured. I had decided to do whatever she suggested and trust her professional eye.

This approach has served me stunningly well during the entire process of making this album and it’s getting so easy to shut up and take direction. It’s a relief to work with people who are skilled and confident and know more than me. It’s a joy to relax and learn from them. My record sounds a lot more expensive than it was, due to talented professionals who gave me incredible discounts for their time because of our friendship and their connections to other professionals. My photos look a lot more expensive than they were for the same reason. The final results have far eclipsed anything I could have done on my own, with my own meager resources. I am so grateful. And very impressed frankly, that so many of my friends have blossomed into very high level artists.

Here are some of those final results. Photos by Angela Fama

photo by Angela Fama

ohoto by Angela Fama

Yes well, life in general has an amazing, sparkling sheen to it these days. I think it’s mostly due to the amazing, sparkly incredibly high doses of estrogen, progesterone, and oxytocin surging through my body. This hormone bath is picking my brain. But it’s a great pickling and a lovely bath to be in. I see more tenderness, joy, beauty and humor in everyday life thna I ever thought possible. How could I have missed all that before? If it’s a temporary phenomenon of pregnancy, I’ll miss it. And I’ll never forget it.

I see more pain and suffering too. My eyes constantly well up with tears of joy, and sorrow. I feel like my heart has grown ten sizes – not that I was really grinchy before I got pregnant – that my capacity for empathy and compassion has increased to delicious, almost unbearable levels. I’ve always been a sensitive person. But now my body and mind are frequently overwhelmed with how it feels to be in someone else’s shoes.

It’s a gift that has made me a better listener, more affectionate, kinder, more patient, happier, and infinitely more appreciative of the fleeting fragility of life. All traits that might help make me a good mama. Once again, I am in awe of how beautifully the transition to motherhood is designed by nature and a few million years of evolution. Thanks, hormones.

By this time next month, I’ll probably have a baby. After so many months of being pregnant, it’s hard to believe it’s almost over. And that the biggest transition, the most massive changes and adventure are yet to come.

It’s An Album!

Hello World,
The Blackbirds EP by OK Maira is freshly completed and eager to imprint itself upon your lovely ears, much like a baby bird does on the first object it sees. Usually its mother, and I’m not saying you should be my album’s mother…I’m just saying this wee record wants to make friends with your ears. Or something like that.


You can listen to and/or buy individual songs (or all of them!) at my page on Bandcamp. Also on the Listen page is the gorgeous album artwork, created by Vancouver artist Jim Miller. You can see more of his work here. Comment, forward, discuss. perhaps sing and dance. Delve into the OK Maira blog and read the story of recording with some of Vancouver’s finest musicians who play and sing all over this damn record.


I’m seven months pregnant now, feeling good but slowing down a little. It’s going to be real interesting to see how much farther along with the digital album release I can get before the baby makes its debut.

I’ve Been Mastered

I went to Alex Degrace at Suite Sound Labs here in Vancouver for mastering. I’d been to Suite Sound before to master The Feminists records, but I’d never worked with Alex before. And, I’d never really learned exactly what mastering was. I knew it was necessary, but in my younger days I couldn’t be bother to find out why. I never heard much of a difference after a recording was mastered, due to my overall impatience and poorly developed ears.


However, when you’re in charge of a project – and paying for it yourself – you start to become more curious and invested in what exactly is going on and why. At least I did. So here is a nutshell summary of what I have learned about mastering:


Mastering is the process of preparing and transferring recorded audio from a source containing the final mix (wave files on Mike Southworth’s ftp site in this case) to a data storage device (the master cd); the source from which all copies will be produced. What’s involved in the mastering process is quite detailed.


Mastering requires critical listening on the part of the engineer; part of their job is to improve upon sound translation on all playback systems, i.e. make the record sound good on your iPod, in your car, on your living room stereo. Basically, mastering “sweetens” audio to maximize the sound quality by editing minor flaws, adding ambience, adjusting volume, and equalizing audio across tracks. Kind of like putting on your makeup and touching up your hair just before you go out for a fabulous night on the town, having already dressed to the nines and made your plans.


Anyway, Alex put some great hair and makeup on my EP. It did seem to sparkle and shine a little bit more after he had applied his critical listening skills. The recording is truly, truly done. It’s time to let you all hear it and release it out into the big world to seek its fortune.



I’m six months into my pregnancy now and I notice some interesting parallels between making art and making babies. I could never understand women who insisted that their ultimate fulfillment comes from having baby after baby. But I sort of do now. It is an amazing process, and unlike most other creative projects, so viscerally physical. Anything that’s grounded so completely in the body will feel incredibly real and immediate. And critically important, which it is. Important to the baby in particular. I feel proud of my album that I made; I feel proud of the person I am making. For me though, I am glad to have had both – creating good works with head and heart and creating a baby with a beautiful man. I could have been quite happy just making art, growing my love and knowledge, and evolving as a human without ever being pregnant. I mean, come on. That’s the lot of all men (and many women) all the time. They seem to do okay. But I’m glad I have a chance to experience this particular kind of creativity too.



I definitely now understand, with the intensity of a thunderclap, that pregnancy takes its meaning from each individual woman and her particular circumstances. It’s very easy to judge when women handle their pregnancies in ways we don’t agree with. But pregnancy at the wrong time, with the wrong man does not feel wondrous and amazing and fulfilling. The complete physicality, the raw immediate-ness of the experience is overwhelming and can be terrifying in a negative context. I’m not saying it’s impossible for a woman to change her mind about a pregnancy that happens in rotten circumstances, that of course happens every day thousands of times around the world. But for the ones who don’t change their mind, their absolute conviction that this pregnancy is a completely unwanted invasion of their body, of their life, is just as powerful as my conviction that my pregnancy is exactly right for me and a welcome, treasured expansion of my life and my body. Knowing it’s wrong for you doesn’t make it easy. Knowing it’s right for you doesn’t make it easy. I have a newfound respect for this fact. It may not solve any problems, but it does enable me to have a lot more compassion towards other women and their struggles.

Mixology 101

My mixing sessions with Mike Southworth had arrived. I’d been so busy growing a human and teaching full time and trying to regain some semblance of normal life that the weeks had passed rather quickly. Mike Zobac and I had flailed around attempting to edit vocals and start the mixing process, but a lack of experience coupled with unfamiliarity with the studio gear gave me the uneasy impression that we were making the songs sound worse, not better.


This was in fact the case. It took Mike a bit of time to undo all the half baked “strategies” and “fixes” that Zobac and I had forced on those poor little songs. But once we were effectively back at zero, things went quickly. A few days later we had a set of first pass initial mixes done.


I popped the cd into my car’s stereo and grinned with amazed delight as I drove home listening. Mike Zobac and I grinned some more when we listened to them together. Mostly from relief, I think. It was deeply satisfying to hear the songs as we originally envisioned. We knew when we were recording that everyone’s parts were really good and the songs had solid arrangements and a decent amount of catchy melodic-ness. It was worrying and disappointing to say the least that after our mixing attempts the songs were missing all of these elements.


In hindsight, it was touchingly naive that we thought we could mix a record. Being decent musicians with decent ears and some computer facility allowed us to engineer, produce, and arrange. But not mix, oh no. And it really came down to familiarity with the studio’s gear and experience. Mike Southworth sat and casually talked to me while he cleaned up, edited, and employed a thousand little shortcuts and tricks to make everything sound rad. Mike Zobac and I sat in mute despair, wondering why we couldn’t hear our keyboard parts, or why we couldn’t line up the vocal parts perfectly, or where the hell was that plug-in that we just used.



We listened carefully for a few days to the initial mixes, and passed our notes on to Mike Southworth. About a week later we had our final mixes. And I knew I hadn’t just wasted a year of my life writing and recording songs.

Here’s Every Single One a la Zobac and Maira. Meh.

Every Single One



Final mix. Yup, I hear a difference.

Every Single One




Blackbirds, pre-awesome.

Blackbirds



Final mix. Warmer, fuller, lusher, more beautiful.

Blackbirds

After a couple of weeks of feeling overjoyed with how my songs sounded, it dawned on me: I am so happy with my art project that I made out of nothing. The depths of despair had completely disappeared. Nausea and fatigue were distant memories. I’m five months now, and I feel fantastic and beautiful. I’m eating well, exercising again, hanging out with my friends, and carefully tending my teaching practice. All the things I couldn’t imagine doing two months ago.

Every day, I am happy to be me. I don’t remember ever feeling like this. I feel my little babe swim and roll around like a goldfish in a bowl and it makes me smile. I’m so, so glad I didn’t give up on making this record. Next, we master.

A New Normal

I’ve achieved what can be considered to be a ‘new normal’, although it’s a normal that I would have scoffed at before I became with child. The nausea is still there, but it’s a small, growling beast that cowers in dark corners. Not the overwhelming enormous tireless monster it was two weeks ago. If I eat small bits of food constantly throughout the day and during the night, it mostly lets me be. Go too long without feeding it however and it rears up and reminds me exactly who’s in charge here. But it’s not like the nausea is in charge all by itself. Fatigue is just as determined to boss me around. That too is improving, as long as I go to bed early and sleep late. Sleeping all weekend also seems to help.
What’s really wild about this new normal is that I ignore Nausea and Fatigue at my own tremendous peril. Too busy to listen? Oh well. A little gasping and retching or falling asleep at work in the middle of a conversation should teach me a little lesson. And by then, it’s too late to turn the tide and I’m down for the count for a few hours, enraged at my new powerlessness but simultaneously enthralled at the beautiful efficiency of this system. You will eat and sleep so this tadpole can grow. Your schedule and preferences and completely, utterly irrelevant.
If I am properly fed and rested, I can have a few hours every day when I feel…normal. And that, my friends, is a vast improvement and a blessing to cherish.
I am trying to use these precious windows of calm clarity wisely. I realized that dear Michael’s last year of full time computer science studies at BCIT and my full time teaching practice and growing a human would pretty much eliminate the possibility of either one of us being able to focus on mixing the album.
I decided to hand over the whole thing to Mike Southworth and asked him to mix it for us. Sometimes it’s best to accept your limitations (such as a 9:00 bedtime) and surrender gracefully to a professional.
To my relief, Mike responded positively to my request. Yes, he would be happy to do the mixing, but it would have to wait for a few weeks until he was finished working with Hilary his lovely wife on this years Peak Performance Project, a massive indie rock contest I had participated in the previous year with Parlour Steps. I knew that Hilary and Mike would have their hands full with the contest, and would probably work harder on it than any other contestant past, present, or future. No problem, I said. I can wait. I’m too busy eating and sleeping to much notice a delay anyway.
Maybe I should go out and see some music, I thought. I suspected that playing in bands had destroyed my love of playing music, and I wanted to see if that sour taste in my mouth was from cynicism and frustration, or just the nausea.

Hilary Grist’s Peak Performance Showcase at The Red Room:
I rested up all day for this one and nibbled on cheese and apple slices on the dance floor. It was worth it.

It was the best I’ve ever seen her. Joyful and inspiring. Mike Southworth on drums, Noah Walker on guitar and Matt Rogers on bass round out this stellar band. It’s amazing how many of my fellow Selkirk College Professional Music and Cap College Jazz Studies alumni have ended up dominating the Vancouver indie rock scene.

One of my favorite songs, Tall Buildings, from Hilary’s 2010 album Imaginings. Alas, I just missed the very beginning. A great, exciting performance. Noah’s guitar solo and Mike’s exquisitely sensitive drumming behind it give me tingles.





The Nificant, Falconett’s.

Dear Michael plays drums in this band, along with his friends Jason Krickler (guitar) and Dan Silk (bass). It’s mostly a side project I think, for all three guys. But with a high level of musicianship and very weird, very good songs.

This is “Two Teeth” a song about drunk guys at a party playing with a bear trap until somebody’s head gets caught. Quirky, funny, and a valid public safety cautionary tale.





The Deep End, Backstage Lounge.

Mike drums in this band too, and the lovely Dawn Pemberton sings lead. They do funk, soul, and R&B covers from the 1960’s to present. I always make sure I get out and shake my tail feather to their delicious get down-ness a few times a year. On this particular night they were in fine funky form. It is pretty great to have so many friends that play in great bands and sound awesome.

I was glad to realize that music could still be fun and enjoyable. My friends’ music, anyway. I’ve been playing in bands for 10 years, and it’s mostly been crushing disappointment, frustration, and heartbreak interspersed with moments of the most exquisite joy and satisfaction I will ever experience.
I was very worried I’d be totally adrift after leaving Parlour Steps. But then I started writing songs and recording my EP, and then I got knocked up. And now I’m starting to think there is way more to life than playing somebody else’s songs in somebody else’s band. There is way more to life than playing music. It feels blasphemous to say that after dedicating my life to music, but there it is. There’s fun and friends, babies, becoming a better teacher and writer, going back to school and learning new things. If I hadn’t had a total hiatus from music forced on me by the tyranny of early pregnancy, I wouldn’t have been able to gain a new perspective and become aware of what else was possible for me.
This week I started to feel the baby move. It’s not just me anymore, there’s someone else on this journey with me. And that makes the new normal totally worthwhile.

The Depths Of Despair

I was, and am a big Anne Of Green Gables fan. As I child, I lost myself completely in the entire series of books and re-read my favorite passages until they were memorized. Anne refers frequently to sinking into “the depths of despair” and I felt like now, as a grown woman I could for the first time truly, deeply empathize.

I’m almost 3 months pregnant and my whole life is “the depths of despair”. Also a “perfect graveyard of buried hopes”, another choice Anne-ism.

Not because I’m unhappy about being pregnant. My sweet husband and I are really, really thrilled to be expecting. It’s just that I had no idea that it was possible to feel this dreadful physically, week after week.

I am nauseous. All the time, constantly feeling like I am about to throw up RIGHT NOW. Sometimes I actually do throw up, like I did today, in the shower. Oh god. A terrible morning. At least it was easy to clean up. Throwing up provides no relief, and I continue to feel incredibly nauseated immediately afterward.

I am exhausted. I can’t get enough sleep and often stay in bed until I absolutely must get up, throw on some clothes and stagger off to work. Or to the studio. Or both. I get home and go back to bed.

But the worst part is, I don’t recognize myself. The things I used to do have completely disappeared from my life. Reading, writing, playing with my band, practicing piano and guitar, daydreaming, socializing, exercising, watering my plants, errands, cooking, cleaning, lesson plans for my students, research about teaching, website maintenance, brainstorming, singing, having ideas, being inspired, listening to music – all gone. I have no motivation or desire for anything beyond staying in bed with a pillow over my head to block out the audacity of the soft summer sunshine and those inconsiderate neighborhood kids with their stupid giggling.

I have a book that I write down ideas about ideas for teaching, recording, writing, whatever projects I’m working on. I’ve filled half a filing cabinet with these books over the past 10 years. I started a new book in July. There is one entry, scrawled rather unsteadily:

“What has become of me? I used to do a lot of things I don’t do anymore. My activities have changed and it’s not
great
challenging
exciting
an adventure
interesting
What does it feel like work on an absorbing project?”

And this is while I’m supposed to be making a record – which I remember being really really excited about when I started it -and now I can’t even force myself to care about it. This would normally cause me great distress. But not now. I’d rather just go back to bed.

I don’t look pregnant yet (just sick). We haven’t told anyone. I’ve dragged myself out a couple of times so my friends don’t think I hate them or anything, and I’m still going to work. The idea of sitting down and focusing on mixing the album is completely out of reach. I’ve realized it is impossible to concentrate on anything when one is constantly nauseous and/or vomiting.

I learned about chronic nausea recently during a quick internet search for nausea remedies. I am horrified, absolutely horrified that such a condition exists. In my case, there’s reason to hope that it’s likely temporary and I’ll soon feel better. I feel deep, deep empathy for anyone who experiences this for months or years at a time.

It would be enough to make you want to stop living I think, knowing that there’s no end in sight. Give these people prescriptions for all the best quality, high grade medical marijuana they need. It works and they deserve to feel human again.

It’s hard to believe that this teeny tiny tadpole is the reason I feel so terrible. My brain understands that if everything goes well, I’ll end up with a baby next spring. My body understands that something seismic is shifting, my entire system has been turned utterly upside down. My heart hasn’t quite put these two things together yet.

Please, please, please let it get better.

Just One More Thing

I don’t quite remember how this came about, but Mikes Zobac and Southworth collectively agreed that adding some synth pads (to thicken and warm up the songs, much like a comforting winter soup is thick and warm) and some percussion would be a nice idea.

When they broached the subject to me, naturally my first instinct was to wail “Oh no! COME ON! I thought we were done recording! When are we ever going to be done? More studio time, more scheduling, are you guys NUTS? What’s next, a timpani solo and a gospel choir?” This record will never be done, why did I ever start it, oh woe betide me. Drama? Only in my internal monologue these days, dear reader. A key difference between my 20’s and 30’s and a welcome one.

My policy these days is to listen carefully, breathe before I speak and say yes to the suggestions offered by professionals who know more than me after they have explained themselves compellingly.

These two Mikes have never led me down the garden path, so I pasted a demure smile on my face and said “Sure. When can we do this?” A few days later, Mike Zobac and I were in the studio for two more short sessions, one for synth parts, and one for tambourine and shakers.

Our keyboard session went pretty smoothly – Mike Southworth has about 100 000 sounds in his hard drive – and miraculously we hit upon the perfect warming and thickening agent. I played some simple chords (with impeccable voice leading) and everything was sounding good. We moved on to find a nice Tom Sawyer/churning of the universe sound and sprinkled a light, tasteful dusting over the last chorus.

Satisfied, we leaned back and listened back to our efforts. A terrible, distorted crackly awfulness came wafted back from the speakers. My heart sank, a little. Mike started adjusting settings and talking to himself. Refresh, reset, reboot, restart, still nothing. My fists began to clench, a little. We messed around with the computer for a couple of hours, and finally in despair we started over and I re-recorded the initial keyboard parts. We still couldn’t listen back to the parts and Mike tried everything he could think of to restore them but to no avail. We went home and made arrangements for Mike Southworth to take a look at our files when he came in the next day.

When we came in the following afternoon, all was well. It was a latency issue that sometimes happens and Southworth resolved it quickly. Not for the first time I observed that deep, intimate familiarity with the gear, the programs and their quirks is totally invaluable. Mike Zobac and I have good instincts and a willingness to troubleshoot and experiment, but that is no substitute for knowing the tools and the gear inside out when faced with a quirky random problem.

Our keyboard parts turned out pretty well. It’s kind of subtle without the tracks being properly mixed and mastered, but it actually does sound fuller and warmer in the verses now.

Every Single One

We quickly set up some percussion instruments and I got to engineer (that is, press stop, record, and restart) while Mike Zobac laid down some tasty rhythmic goodness on short sections on a couple more songs. “Are we really done recording?, I asked Mike. “Yes, we really are”, he said with a grin. All righty then. I was smiling too. On to mixing. How long could that possibly take?

Ch-ch-ch-changes

Recently the OK Maira lineup has changed from the original group who played on the recording. Contrary to many other band member changes, this one happened calmly, efficiently, and with no angry screaming whatsoever.

Mike Zobac informed me that, while the bass playing experiment was fun, if he was going to continue playing in this band he would need to play the drums. He didn’t feel that his bass playing would come along fast enough to be worthy of performing, possibly in public, possibly in front of judgmental strangers.

Besides being a barely adequate bass player, Mike is a great drummer and had the good sense to marry me. I would do anything (not harmful to self or others) for him to increase his happiness. He is my favorite human being. So there wasn’t really any hesitation on my part to agree to his request.

This left the bass playing position vacant, however. Good bass players are very hard to find. Well, good bass players who are willing to rehearse for free are hard to find. I thought of Julie, but she had been pretty underwhelmed about playing the bass for awhile and had no qualms about leaving Parlour Steps behind to focus on her optician/vintage eyeglasses collecting and design/blogging/online business/well-paying and inspiring career not related to music. So I didn’t ask, for a long time.

One day, I played my demos for her. And she said, “Oh, I would play these songs”. “Really?” I said, trying to play it cool. “Well, would you maybe consider jumping in here and there, in case Mike’s not available or something?”She said yes to that. I was emboldened. When Mike asked to be transferred to the drum department, I told Julie this. And from there it was a short leap to her agreeing to join the band.

So, ladies and gentlemen: meet the lovely Julie Bavalis. At first glance, she appears to be merely a very cute woman with impeccable style and amazing glasses. And she is all of these things, as well as smart and funny and kind. But she is also a really good bass player. Julie has such good time and good feel (and great intonation and tone).She and Mike had enjoyed playing together 100 years ago when we were all students in the jazz program at Capilano University. They were stoked to play together again. And I was delighted that I had a solid, tasteful rhythm section that liked and respected each other. Not only that, they speak the same language…they can communicate well about feel and groove and they understand each other. This is a luxury, having a drummer and bass player who actually talk and listen to each other. They really really care about making the song sound as good as possible and they’re willing to try a lot of different ideas to get there. Be still, my heart.

Now I have a delicious, solid lineup of players who like each other and aren’t planning to leave town. It’s ridiculous how awesome this group of people are. Gradually I feel the thick layers of cynicism about music melt away from my heart. Maybe it’s worth it to try one more time, make a band out of nothing and see how far it can go.

Besides, I’ve have found the perfect program at UBC that will educate me for my future not related to music career. Might as well cover all the bases.

If At First You Don’t Succeed, Book More Studio Time

I knew as we were recording the lead vocals for the second time that it was much better than my first attempt. A few days later we edited the new vocals and I got to hear them. And I was relieved, very very happy and relieved that yes, they did sound very good. Well, very good for me. I wouldn’t say that I sound as good as Aretha Franklin or anything. Does anybody sound as good as Aretha Franklin?

Here’s a bit of Blackbirds with the initial vocal recording.

Blackbirds

It’s ok, but it sounds kind of robotic to me. No color or life to the words, no story being told through the lyrics. No phrasing, and not a great blend with Dawn and Hilary. Competent but nothing more than that. And mere competence will never do, as my friends have already laid down tracks that are beautiful and tasteful.

Here’s the same excerpt after the vocal re-dos. I like it a lot more. The blend between Dawn and Hilary and me is way better, there’s phrasing and dynamics. Better color and personality in the voice. I hear the story more in this version.

Blackbirds2

Where I really hear the difference is on Every Single One. Here’s the barely passable first version. When I first recorded this, it felt like a really hard song to sing and I was worried that I wouldn’t even be able to get through it. And now that’s how it sounds to me. Tense, cautious, and completely devoid of emotion.

Every Single One

And here’s the new version. Lots of bounce and rhythm, better blend with Hils and Dawn, better tuning, and way more life to the story. I think it sounds much more relaxed and dare I say, genuine.

Every Single One2

I’ve learned many things along the way during this recording process. One of the biggest lessons has been, take your time and make it good. At first I just wanted to get everything done as fast as possible and slap it up on the internet. I’m a very impatient person. Always wanting to get shit done and then move on to the next thing. I have a perpetual to-do list that I’m constantly adding stuff to.

And now I think, that really doesn’t make sense. Not with making a record, anyway. You need to step back and listen, lots of times, at every stage of the recording process. And very frequently what sounded fine initially sounds less fine after a few days and repeated listenings. I’m so grateful to the Mikes, Zobac and Southworth. They have repeatedly put the brakes on me and suggested re-dos, fixes, additions and subtractions. I respect those guys a lot so I’ve been gritting my teeth and following their advice. Gradually this EP is becoming something that exceeded my wildest hopes and expectations. So that’s another big lesson. Listen to people who have a different viewpoint and try some things they suggest for the purpose of making the project better. I mean, why not make it as good as we possibly can?

Now we mix! Who knows what wild and crazy suggestions will come about after a few days with the Mikes going over the songs with their enormous ears and impeccable taste?

Give Me Your Head

“Give me your head. No no no. Let me move it. Give me your head.” Why is this so hard, I wondered, lying on the floor in a spare room at Creativ Studios. My head was in Hilary’s lap. We were warming up for the first of two studio sessions to re-do all my lead vocals for the EP. I had now become one of those people who could tell a crazy story about vocalizing (Once I had this teacher who had me lie on the floor while she moved my head around…)

I really wasn’t supposed to be thinking about anything, except completely relaxing my head and allowing Hilary to gently turn it right to left, up and down, around in circles. And I just couldn’t do it, I couldn’t let my head fall into her hands. This made no sense. I trust Hilary totally – it’s not like she was going to quickly break my neck and leave me dead on the floor – (I was pretty sure) so what exactly was the problem here?

My brain added its two cents to the situation. Oh great, it snarled. I can’t even relax. I won’t be able to warm up, I won’t be able to sing any better than I did last time and we’re just all going to waste our studio time ALL BECAUSE I CAN’T RELAX JUST RELAX RIGHT NOW MAIRA DO IT NOW! Ah, yes. So helpful. So soothing. Sometimes I would give anything to have a different brain. Mine tends to freak out regularly and needs to be kept on a tight leash.

“Give it. Give it to me. Give me your head”, Hilary kept murmuring calmly as she reminded me to breathe deeply, and practice some vowel sounds. I told my brain to shut up and listen to her. And it worked. With every breath tension flowed out and calmness flooded in. I sank into the floor and began to hope we could just do warm-ups all night.

“And this is the room where we do make-up” said Jim cheerfully as he led the makeup artist for the next popstar video birthday party into the darkened room where Hilary and I were sprawled out. Jim owns Creativ. Hilary and I scrambled to our feet. “Just doing some vocal warmups” Hilary said brightly as I stood mutely, feeling utterly disoriented. “We’ll find another room”. No need to feel sheepish, I reassured myself as we staggered out the door. They probably didn’t expect to see head twisting and lap sitting and dolphin sounds, but no matter. I’m a singer now! We can get away with doing eccentric singer things.

After a few more rounds of “Give me your head”, some visualizing about a deep mysterious swamp of emotion, and a bit of lip flapping Hilary deemed me ready to sing. I felt fantastic. I suspected it was going to be a great session.

We started with Every Single One. “You’re in charge of the talkbalk mic”, I told Hil. “Mike will engineer and push the buttons – you tell us how you want to approach this”.

“One complete pass first”, she said. “Then I’ll know what sections to work on next”. Ok. You tell it, lady. I sang all the way through and it felt way better than my last vocal session. Then we broke it down to Hilary’s specifications. After singing the first half of the song a few times, I timidly said “Hey, is this way better? I think it might be quite good”. “It’s much, much better””, said Mike in the control room. All right then. I wasn’t imagining it.

We did the two hardest songs, Every Single One and Sometimes that night. Hilary was calm and decisive. Mike and I did what she said. I’ve never sounded so good. I was thrilled. “Hilary, I love you”, I blurted out when we were taking a water break between songs. She laughed. “You’re doing great”, she said. ” No, this is because of you”, I gushed. “I could never have had a performance like this on my own”. She laughed again. I knew I was being uncool, but I was so happy with the takes we had done I didn’t care.

Three weeks later we went in and finished the other three songs in about four hours. We got performances that were above my wildest expectations. At Mike’s suggestion I tried a little improvising at the end of Go Away. It turned out excellently. I was dumbfounded. Hilary said I should do a before and after snapshot – actually line up the same clips from the first vocal session against the results from our re-dos, because the difference was so dramatic. I will do exactly that, as soon as we’re done editing, I thought. How cool will that be?

In the meantime here’s a couple of video clips Mike filmed during the recording of Blackbirds. Believe me, it sounds a lot better than our first recording.

Last part of the bridge

Verse and chorus

I Have To Admit It’s Getting Better

I practiced. I sang the songs over and over. At home with my piano, outside while walking in the rain, alone in the car traveling to teach piano lessons. But my first real leap of progress came when I booked a vocal coaching session with Hilary.

“The first thing I would suggest is more bounce”, she said as we sat at her piano with my charts.

“Oh, yes?” I said politely, remembering all the wild and unbelievable stories that my singer friends have told me about crazy voice lessons with crazy voice teachers where they tell students things like “all you have to do is imagine a rainbow, that’s the sound we want”, or they perform the Heimleich maneuver on your diaphragm to help you breathe, set books on your chest while you lie on your back, carry you across the room, say things like “inflate your inner tube”, “think vertically”, etc., etc.

This concerned me. How was I going to get better as a singer if I didn’t understand the instructions on how to do so? I’m not much of a “think of a waterfall” kind of gal. I’m your basic cold fish when it comes to achievement. Explain what I’m doing wrong – clearly, with no extra words – and tell me how to make it better – succinctly and logically- and I’ll go home and practice that until it’s awesome.

“Yeah, like this – WE’re all HUN-gry here/ STARving and SAd/ LOOking for COMfort/ there’s NONE to be had”, Hilary sang the first lines of “Every Single One”. Yes! Yes, of course. Bounce. Bouncy phrases, emphasis on syllables to make it sound more like how you would just say it to somebody. That was what was missing from my initial vocal takes. I was so concerned about singing in tune and delivering a good technical performance that I ended up with a completely lifeless result. And that wasn’t readily apparent (to me) until I heard the harmony vocals, shimmering with life and bounce and emotion. Then I realized, I have to do better. Otherwise it’s going to sound like somebody poured very expensive chocolate over a dry soda cracker and hopes no one will notice the cracker.

I felt a rush of gratitude towards Hilary. She was going to help me, really help me figure this out in a way I could understand. The mark of a great teacher, by the way. If you find a teacher like this, hold on to them. Chances are incredibly high you will learn something.

Things went quickly after that. I dropped deeply into that happy place where everything is clear and easy and time slows down completely. We went through all the songs and mapped out all the phrasing and dynamics. Then Hilary had me explain the story and the feeling behind each song, and had me visualize a setting. Where does this song take place? What do I see around me? I realized I hadn’t considered any of this. But as I started to think about it, the songs became more real to me. The story of each song came to life. The characters gradually came into sharp focus.

Now close your eyes, think about all of that, apply the phrasing and dynamics, and sing.

Much, much, much better. It was obvious, right away. Armed with this new information plus the warm-ups Hilary had shown me, I marched out of her apartment at midnight, afire with enthusiasm and looking forward to the weeks of practice ahead.

A Thick Layer Of Sparkle

Every Single One
Blackbirds

Another weekend in the studio, and this has been one of my most favorite sessions yet. Dawn and Hilary came in to do all the harmony vocal parts. We’d had a couple of good productive rehearsals in the weeks leading up to recording. They composed and arranged all their parts together and I was really looking forward to capturing it all.

And apparently Mike was looking forward to doing some choral conducting.

I realize that we’ve been making this little album on our own, with no outside help or input. Sometimes that worries me a little. Maybe it’ll be terrible. But maybe there’s something to letting a group of really good musicians come up with their own parts and play them together. That is, after all, how an enormous amount of good music has been created over the past hundred years or so. Good musicians have good ideas, especially about their own instruments.

Hilary and Dawn are great musicians. They were very sensitive to each other and thus blended beautifully into one Super Beautiful Singer when they sang together. Individually they have lovely voices and they made me sound much more awesome (thank goodness) when they sang with me. The parts they wrote made the songs come alive. It was like a thick layer of sparkle and color had been spread over the guitars, organ, piano, bass and drums. And I became wildly inspired to learn how to sing better and decided to re-do all my lead vocals. I’d been considering that for awhile, I knew I’d already learned stuff that would produce a better result.

Here’s Dawn recording her part on Every Single One.

And Hilary.

We had one gal record in the big room while the other sang along in the control room to help with balance and blend.

This is Hilary singing along, curled up on the couch with her book. Aw.

There’s still some fixes left to do, but now we have a general idea of how the songs are going to sound. I’ve been listening to them and I can honestly say now, there’s very good moments in all of them. I find the more I listen, the less weirded out I am by hearing my own voice. I’ve got a couple of weeks to practice singing in preparation for my re-dos and this time I’ll be enlisting the help of my dear vocalist friends for some coaching. See, so right there I know it’s going to be better than the first try. Yay for growing and learning.

Sing, Sing a Song

Every Single One
Blackbirds

This weekend we finished all my lead vocal tracks. This is getting serious now, this album-making idea. I feel like we’ve past some kind of point of no return. I mean, any time up until now I could have just pulled the plug and walked away. A bunch of instrumental unmixed tracks, who cares? Doesn’t exactly sound like much of anything. But now I’ve sang the words to all the songs. It’s stored in Mike Southworth’s computer (and a back-up in my external hard drive. Maybe I do want to finish this. At least, I don’t want to lose it). There’s no mistaking it, these definitely sound like songs now.
I’ve never done this before, sang all the words and been the lead singer. Our first vocal session we recorded all the songs in about 7 hours. I was very pleased that I felt fine all day. No sore throat and my voice didn’t give out. So I must have ok technique. I was able sing mostly in tune, yay. We did a few fixes, but they were mostly on Every Single One, which I realized too late (after the bass had been recorded) is a half step too low for me.
I didn’t want to rely on the auto-tune…let me rephrase that, I would have rather died than rely on auto-tune to make me sound good. I’m old school. I’m a musician. I believe in practicing your ass off and playing as excellently as possible, live and in the studio. If you need a computer to take over and compensate for your lack of skill, you suck. And you’re lazy. Too lazy to work and practice and learn how to sound good on your own.
Now, having said that, I realize that I’m not nearly a good enough singer to record a song all the way through with perfect intonation, phrasing, and attitude. Piano tracks, yes. Vocals, maybe in my next life that I devote to singing. I practiced for weeks, but I knew it wouldn’t be enough. I still didn’t want to use the auto-tune though. So we compromised. Mike had me do lots and lots of takes, one verse and chorus at a time. As the day went on I was able to sing longer sections and stay pretty consistent tuning wise. We had a massive editing session to piece together the best takes and I was able to (mostly) avoid the dreaded auto-tuner. I think it sounds like a human being singing, not a computerized robot so I’m pretty happy about that.
I must admit though, I’m fairly unsettled. I’ve never heard my voice so prominently, so naked and alone. I felt ridiculously vulnerable the first time I listened though to the tracks at home. I wanted to crawl under the couch. And the lyrics, oh god. They are definitely audible. I’ve taken to listening to bands I dislike on youtube, trying to reassure myself that my songs aren’t THAT bad. Sometimes it works.
Now the only recording left is the harmony vocals. I had to send my vocal tracks to Dawn and Hilary so they can practice their parts until our rehearsals and recording session. And they are really, really good professional singers. I cringed a little as I pressed ‘send’, but whatever. They haven’t called me up to tell me they have to shampoo their hair and won’t be available to record. Not yet anyway.
After this next recording session it will be editing, morning noon and night. I’m looking forward to that – I do love editing – then we’ll mix, and master. I think that’s a big part of why the songs sound so weird to me. Right now they’re unmixed and the vocals are super loud. Plus the harmonies are missing. I’m hoping I’ll feel better about them once things are balanced out a little and Hilary and Dawn’s parts are added. And then I’ll really have to decide. Do I want to put these songs out there for people to hear? Do I want to draw any attention to this album whatsoever?
I’ve been telling great songwriters (who are sometimes plagued with uncertainty) for years that they’re the worst person to evaluate their own work. Let the band, the fans, anybody else do that for you. You can’t possibly be objective about your own work. Just put it out there and be proud you’ve created art from nothing. It’s bound to resonate with some people, maybe lots of people. So just enjoy the journey of creating it and then let it go, blah blah blah.
For myself, I can’t seem to believe that and follow that advice. It’s so interesting, now that the shoe’s on the other foot. I want to push myself, do things that frighten me so I can grow into a wiser, more beautiful little flower. Now for the first time, I’m not sure if I’ll be able to do that.
And then I’m like, fuck it. Get over yourself, Maira.
These songs aren’t the best in the world, so what? They aren’t the worst either.

Express Yourself

We find ourselves once more in the dark cave of Mike Southworth’s studio at Creativ, this time to record guitar solos. I’ve really been looking forward to this session. I always enjoy listening to Rees play. Unless it’s overpowering my piano solo, in which case I wish his volume knob was closer to me than to him. But that’s pretty typical of every guitar player I’ve ever worked with. I know, it’s wrong to stereotype. I will say that Rees is a very sensitive guitar player, who rarely tramples on others (musically, at least). Sometimes the music sweeps him away though, and he expresses his joy and excitement by playing more and louder. Hell, I do the same thing. That’s why people play rock and roll. Because you get to play very, very loudly all together and it’s so much fun that you don’t care if it’s dynamically sensitive or fits the song or whatever other bullshit detail you’re supposed to be aware of.
There were three big solos to record, and it took all day to do so. As usual there was a ton of good material and as usual Rees was willing to do hundreds of takes to keep making it better. I made sure Mike and Rees both were well caffeinated, which led to a lot of loud excited talking, and a river of swift-flowing ideas.

No E’s, Please

Every Single One

What shall we do this weekend? I know! Let’s record organ parts. Oh, how did you know that would be my favorite thing to do?

Playing organ is an entirely different animal than playing the piano. If you think like a piano player when you’re playing organ, you will sound lame. This is a fact. Although both instruments have white and black keys arranged in the same linear fashion, their physical appearance is about the only thing they share. When recording organ in the studio, using a real leslie speaker is also important. And incorporating the drawbars is a must.

Drawbars are little rods that you pull and push, each one can be set a different length to change the sound of the organ. Don’t even get me started about drawbars. They’re a whole world unto themselves. Here’s a brief summary: (obviously I can’t help myself) Drawbars can be pulled out towards the player, this corresponds with an increase in volume. There are usually 9 drawbars on most Hammond organs. Each one produces a different tone. One will be the fundamental (the pitch of whatever keys you’re playing). The others are: an octave below the fundamental, a fourth below, an octave higher, 2 octaves higher, 3 octaves higher, a octave + fourth, an octave +fifth, and an octave + seventh higher.

Drawbars coupled with the two different keyboards on most Hammonds, in conjunction with the leslie speaker which alters the pitches via the Doppler effect create a vast, endless world of organ sounds which can be specifically tailored for each song, for each different section of a song.

So we set up the leslie and the organ in the studio and I tried to get familiar with the drawbars so I could make a whole bunch of different organ sounds. Keep in mind, I don’t own an organ or a leslie so although I knew what I wanted it to sound like, I was basically flying blind with somebody else’s equipment. But every time I record organ parts I learn more about how to do it better. And I think jeez, I should get myself a real organ.

Mike settles himself in the control room and we begin. Before every take I have to position the leslie speaker in front of the mic. Then I play, turning the leslie on/off with the foot switch while my left hand adjusts the drawbars to a different setting for each section of each song. It’s all very invigorating, keeping track of all that stuff while thinking about notes and chords and so on. Every take was easier and more comfortable until…

“Um, there’s a something really jarring in those chords, try it again?” Mike says. I do. “It’s that E. It totally sticks out, it’s way louder than the others. Can you avoid it?”

Okaaaay. Yes, I can. I think. Sometimes that happens with recording organs, particular notes are way out of whack in relation to the others and you can hear it instantly on playback. Playing it live, probably no one would notice. Except Mike.

I added “avoid the E above middle C” to my mental list of things to keep track of while playing and we recommenced. Soon I was feeling comfortable again, although I had no brainpower left for conversing or assessing the quality of each take. But that’s why you have a producer, right? He’s more than happy to say “Do it again. Nope. Do it again”. So, every single take for me was like a mumbling crazy conversation you might hear from someone on the bus you’d rather sit far away from.

“Ok, set the leslie to mic. White 8, brown 5, brown4, white3, white2, white,5, black2, black4, black6. (drawbars) Foot on leslie switch. C, Am, Em no E’s. Turn leslie on. Turn leslie off. Bridge! White 8, brown3, brown2, leave white, change blacks 4, 4, 8. Leslie on. C, Am no E’s, leslie off.”

Beam me up, Scotty.

After 6 hours of this, we had all the parts recorded. I’m actually a little afraid of the editing session that will have to follow. What if a rebellious E snuck in there and we have to go back and do it all again? The organ sounds fantastic though, and those drawbars and the leslie are always worth the struggle. Hopefully all my burned out brain cells will grow back too.

We Bring Good Things To Life

Every Single One
Blackbirds

This weekend Mike and Rees recorded all the guitar parts, while I was recovering from surgery at home. The drugs were some consolation, although they did not make the awful feelings disappear as effectively as recording piano parts.
There was a great variety and plethora of guitar ideas. It was kind of overwhelming to see how many takes we ended up with. Truly this will require a most tremendous editing session. I have discovered I love editing. Well, I always knew that. Creating the raw material wasn’t really my thing until recently but I’ve always loved to mess with someone else’s raw material that needs shaping, a little snip here, a sprinkling of Maira-fluence there.
But messing with my own raw material is even more fun! It’s been a revelation to create a song out of thin air and then smash it merrily about, adding then editing vocal parts, drums, bass, piano, and now guitars. Once again Mike’s job as a backline tech has come extremely handy in the recording process as his bosses have allowed him to borrow whatever guitar amps and gear he wants from their warehouse for our sessions.
Rees played great. I’d given him charts and demos to listen to well beforehand and I was pretty pleased with what he came up with at the band rehearsals. The volume of takes that he and Mike came up with in the studio was impressive. And I found myself singing along with some of his lines on the second listen. A good indication of catchiness, that elusive and essential quality of all good music. Almost instantaneous catchiness is very encouraging.
For the first time I can get a sense of how these songs might take shape. The guitars have added so much color to the bass, drum and piano tracks. A lot of it wasn’t what I was expecting to hear, and for that I am grateful and delighted. That’s why it’s so fun to work with wonderful musicians who are also close friends. I can trust them to think hard and come up with something good that is in their own voice – their unique musical expression that I have come to know and love over the years, as I have also come to know them as friends. It boggles the mind to think how these beautiful people will sound all together.

Oh Loverboy…

Blackbirds
Every Single One

Got some surprise studio time! Somebody’s cancellation is our delightful gain. We recorded and edited all the piano tracks in 8 hours. The piano at Creativ Studios once belonged to the keyboard player from Loverboy, an excellent omen. I loves me some Loverboy. Especially the keyboard parts.
It was really lovely to play an acoustic piano all day. There’s something so satisfying about playing precisely and firmly, feeling the hammer strike the string. I can feel the impact from each hammer travel through my fingers and hand, up my arm, into my elbow and shoulder. It’s jarring, but in a familiar reassuring way. I’ve been playing piano since I was 7 years old and I’ve always loved to feel the notes go twang! into my joints.
So I played for 5 hours and was deeply, deeply calm and mellow afterwards. But also totally refreshed, like waking up after a satisfying sleep. I wish I could do that every day. Play piano until I fall into a waking dream.
We knocked out those songs one by one, very quickly. Sometimes on the first or second take. Well, I’ve been playing those songs on piano for months now. I would have been kind of horrified if it had been super difficult to play the parts well. The piano at Creativ sounds just gorgeous, which helps a lot. The only thing I was remotely concerned about was the one solo I allowed myself (all the other solos will be guitar). But we ended up with a really good one, something I’ll be happy to share with the world.
All in all it was one of the best days I’ve ever had in the studio. Although I can’t help but notice, each day in the studio is a best day. It’s like going on a fantastic weekend vacation, every time. No matter what other horrible tragedies are going on in my life, it’s amazing that being creative and having access to a mode of personal expression affords me some breathing space, some relief from the awfulness of real life.
I think it really comes down to the ability to concentrate fully on the task at hand. Something as challenging as performing and composing music requires every brain cell I’ve got. There’s just no room to spare for anything else. This doesn’t solve problems, but it does make them disappear temporarily. Sometimes that’s all you can hope for.

Everyone Needs A Hobby

Every Single One

Mike and I finally had a weekend off together that coincided with the studio being available so yay, we edited drum tracks and recorded bass tracks. I admit, it was pretty weird to see Mike strap on a handsome deep cherry red 5 string bass and play it. I’ve just never seen him play anything other than drums and very rarely guitar. The novelty of it was deeply amusing to me.
I got to push buttons to record Mike while he played. That was fun. It was really fun to be the one who pushed “record”. I think we got some good stuff. I’m having a really good time in the recording process. It’s very satisfying to spend every weekend we possibly have in the studio, recording or editing. I wish we could spend more time in there. I think I’ve found my hobby of choice.

Drums and Mikes

Whereupon Mike Zobac has returned from a wild summer of lady-rock on the Lillith Fair 2010 tour! And what a pleasure it was to share a day in the studio with drums and Mikes. In a radical departure from the usual, Mike Zobac was in the engineer’s chair and Mike Southworth was on the other side of the glass at the drum kit.
I recorded some scratch vocal and piano tracks for Southworth to play along to. After the drums were miked (in so many ways) to the satisfaction of both drummer Mikes, and many exclamations of delight and mutual congratulations (“That snare drum sounds awesome” “I know – SO DEEP!” “I love your china crash”, etc. etc) we hunkered down for 8 hours of drumming. Both Mikes were excellent and we ended up with the loveliest drum tracks a girl could ask for.
And I must agree, those drums sound damn good. Now we edit for hours and hours and hours.

That’s really Southworth playing in this clip, but the camera couldn’t see him through the glass with the reflections:(

Meet The Band

Blackbirds
Every Single One

It’s a delicate, patient process to schedule a rehearsal with 6 people who work full time jobs, go to school, play shows, go on tour, etc. In our case Mike Zobac is going on tour with Lillith Fair as a backline tech for the summer so I really wanted to get everybody together a couple of times before he was gone. So by booking about 3 weeks in advance we were able to find some time to play the songs and come up with ideas for parts and arrangements.
I had a good time at all the rehearsals. I think we had 4 in total. It was interesting to hear my friends play music together. I’m really grateful they made the time to do this. I’m not sure if the songs are good enough, but then I think what qualifies as ‘good enough’ and what does it matter? It will be fun to record songs and play them with these people. If I keep writing and recording and playing, the songs are sure to get better and eventually I’ll feel more confident about them. Yes. Of course.
When I think about the band I’ve assembled I get so pleased that I feel fine about the songs. Even if there are too many Mikes, which require me to identify them by last name. Southworth is playing drums. He’s sheer pleasure to watch with his band Scatterheart. He produced and engineered two of The Feminists albums and we’ll be recording these songs in his gorgeous studio space in North Van. I enjoyed every studio session I’ve ever had with Mike and I am perpetually awed at the deep level of his talent and how hard he is willing to work, always. To be honest, considering how busy he is as a producer and with Scatterheart, I was completely surprised that he said yes to playing these rehearsals. Asking him was a ‘what the hell, why not’ kind of thing. Note to self: Sometimes it pays to aim stupidly high.
Zobac is playing bass. This may come as a surprise for those who know him as a drummer. But he offered, and I became very curious to hear what he and Mike Southworth would sound like together. Zobac was Southworth’s drum teacher another lifetime ago, back in the late 20th century. So they go way back but haven’t played on a band together, seeing as how you don’t generally need two drummers at the same time. Mike and I played together joyfully in The Feminists for 6 years and I know very well how thoroughly talented he is as a musician. I knew he played bass too but hadn’t seen him bust it out until now. He’ll be producing and engineering this record as well.
Rees Haynes is playing guitar. Rees and I have played together in Parlour Steps for the past 2 years, but we first met at the Jazz Studies Program at Capilano College where we were both students years ago. It didn’t take long for me to realize, making songs with him in Parlour Steps, that I love his guitar playing. So melodic! So catchy! Such good parts, such good arrangement ideas.
Hilary Grist is playing keyboard and singing harmony. She’s working away on her own record, which we are all dying to hear. After hearing her parts at our vocal rehearsals, I am newly appreciative of lovely voice. It reminds me of clear, pure cold water flowing. Refreshing and quenching. Plus her mad keyboard skills. And did I mention the wicked vocal parts?
Dawn Pemberton is also playing keyboard and singing harmony. Dawn’s voice is instantly arresting, even your first time hearing her. It’s so familiar to me I have a hard time trying to describe it. I would say it’s a voice that makes people feel safe and loved. She’s always in demand as a session singer and plays in about 7 different groups, all kinds of music. I hadn’t really heard her play keyboard before, and it’s a thrill to hear how good she is.
We recorded all the arrangements at our last rehearsal, with seconds to spare before getting kicked out of the practice space. With one microphone and Dawn’s laptop. Excuse the ungodly distortion. Nothing more to be done now until Mike gets back. Then we’ll record drums.

And Now We Have Vocal Parts!

Blackbirds
Every Single One

I’ve been to probably 500 rehearsals since I started playing in bands.  The first one I remember was at age 16, in Mike Southworth’s basement, for a band called Funky T Franklin & The Clots.  I was a Clot.  So was Mike. Certainly I had not attained the lofty heights of Funky T, whose privilege it was to put her name out in front. It didn’t matter. I was happy just to be there, playing covers of old R&B songs.  We played one show at the Centenoka Mall in Salmon Arm for a fundraiser for the Red Cross.  I thought that was really poetic.  We Clots were playing to help raise awareness and money for blood donations.

Some rehearsals are boring.  Some are maddeningly frustrating, with essential members strolling in an hour late and sloooooowly setting up their gear. Some are emotional, as personal turmoils burst out in a sneak attack and everybody ends up yelling at each other for no apparent reason. Some are magic, where you are in the middle of great music being created for the first time.

But these most recent rehearsals were something different altogether.  Dawn and Hilary came over to work on vocal parts for my record. We’ve known each other for years, met in music school at the jazz program at Capilano. They are my true lady friends and I’ve had so many good times with them. But we’ve never worked together professionally before.  Played together a bit in school, but that was all. So they show up to my house a few times and we head up to my attic practice space and get cracking. No one is late and there is no yelling.

And I realize, again.  These gals are fantastic musicians.  Sometimes you can forget, that your best friends are also amazingly skilled and are out in the world doing their thing with great aplomb.  Maybe I have doubts about my songs, but I know for sure that Hilary and Dawn have already made them better.

Evolution

Blackbirds
Every Single One

I definitely believe in taking risks.  Trying new things. How else can one evolve?  And I guess that’s really what I consider to be my greatest purpose. To keep changing, growing, getting smarter, becoming a better human.

So today I did something I have never, ever done before.  I booked a session with my friend Ryen, who also happens to be a professional sound engineer with a home studio. I brought my keyboard and some rumpled sheets of paper that served as my charts for a batch of songs I started writing last summer. Then he recorded me singing and playing my own songs. Now I have demos. Now I have something to give the musicians I hope to be making a record with.  And did I mention these are my own songs?

It’s one thing to think about doing something.  You know, something you’d like to try, something you might even be good at (given enough practice and effort). I’ve thought about writing songs and forming a band to play my stuff. I know I love playing shows, arranging songs, recording, and being in a band with lovely people like my current situation in Parlour Steps. Would I also love creating songs from nothing?

Turns out, sort of. Despite being tortured during every writing session with thoughts of “no one will ever want to hear this”, there were also beautiful moments of barely being able to write down great gushes of ideas, melodies, chords, lyrics. I was proud of myself for sitting down and actually doing something I had daydreamed about.

Now I can hear the songs without me playing them. My singing sounds alien and weird. How can I offer these little scraps to the excellent musicians I want to play with? Fortunately these people are also some of my closest friends. We’ve never played all together in a band before, but we’ve all worked together in various combination. They’re not going to judge me too harshly, right?