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Inside the Recording Studio, Part I

Andrew Bird, left, joins Esperanza Spalding during the live-streamed recording of her album, Exposure.

Two weeks ago, jazz bassist, singer, and composer Esperanza Spalding launched an ambitious project called “Exposure.” It was a 10-song album that would be, unbelievably, written and recorded with numerous guest musicians in the course of 77 hours. And the entire process would be live-streamed to the public on Spalding’s Facebook page. I was struck by the timing of this project, because it began only days after my band finished recording our second album. The intensity of the recording sessions had left me feeling simultaneously high and depleted, and I wasn’t quite ready to leave the creatively focused headspace I’d accessed in the studio. In my experience recording with my band and with a variety of other projects, every artist approaches the studio in a radically different way. I was excited to see what that process looked like for Spalding, an accomplished and innovative artist who I’ve admired for a long time.

When I first tuned in, violinist and songwriter Andrew Bird (another artist I’ve admired for years) had joined Esperanza in the studio. They were in the midst of writing and recording a duet that they referred to as “some Cole Porter stuff.” As Bird sat at a microphone, plucking a slinky bass line on his violin and crooning the first draft of their melody, Spalding was hunched in front of an enormous whiteboard, scrawling variations on their lyrical ideas.

I’ll bring a drink or a dance or a fight. There for a drink or a dance or a fight.

“Good for?” Bird suggested. Spalding wrote it down. Good for a drink or a dance or a fight. “That’s it!”

As they started recording the lines they’d written, I couldn’t tell whether I was more transfixed by the spontaneous energy of the music they were creating, or the mistakes they were making for the world to see. They sang their own lyrics and melodies incorrectly, multiple times. The interlocking violin and bass parts weren’t quite in sync at first. And I watched it all come together in real time with almost two thousand other people. I was so mesmerized that I was half an hour late leaving my house.

The livestream was particularly striking to me because of the vulnerability that Spalding and the other musicians displayed. Audio editing technology has progressed to the point that there are numerous ways to almost completely eliminate mistakes in a recording, and every artist has their own relationship to that process. When listeners hear an album, the songs don’t sound like they were cobbled together from numerous takes, each riddled with imperfections. In a live performance, those imperfections fly by, gone as soon as they’re heard. A higher standard needs to be applied to a recording that will continue to exist as the definitive version of that song. Listeners don’t need to see the nuts and bolts of how that polished product gets made, but Spalding made it visible anyway.

I imagine that for music fans, the livestream was a fascinating lesson in the process of recording. For me, it was a lesson in vulnerability. I don’t necessarily plan to livestream my next writing or recording session on Facebook, but I will remind myself to be less precious about my own work. While watching Exposure, my criticisms of everything I’d just recorded were floating around in my head: my guitar and fiddle playing didn’t express what I wanted to express, I wasn’t singing with the right tone or power, my lyrics were hackneyed and vapid.

Spalding’s project was an extreme way of shutting off those impulses, because when you have to write and record an album in 77 hours, I imagine there simply isn’t time to beat yourself up about it. I haven’t heard Spalding’s full album. Who knows, maybe the final product will still sound like a bunch of cursory first drafts. Still, it was an inspiring exercise in beautifully human imperfection and reckless creativity.

When I mentioned to ND assistant editor Stacy Chandler that I was interested in writing about the process of studio recording, she had a lot of questions for me. In my next column, which will be published two weeks from today (October 11), I’ll answer questions from Stacy and anyone else who is curious about what the process of recording an album is like. I can’t reveal the deepest trade secrets, and I can only speak for myself, but if there’s anything you’ve always wanted to know about what goes on in the mysterious cave of a recording studio, comment below and let me know!