I’VE BEEN THINKING about making a record again. I have been for a while, but now I am about to do it, and I am nervous. I took a much needed maternity leave from recording and touring after my son, Jack, was born two and a half years ago. The timing was good, and I was anxious to focus my attention on something besides playing at noon in a college cafeteria in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. I lost energy for traveling three hundred miles for some gas money and a meal, and I became increasingly weary of playing “songwriter in the round” nights to get exposure in a new city. But while I carried Jack around in my belly, some of the purity in music-making that I’d lost out on the road was restored. I wrote a host of new songs, some of them a bit too earnest for me to listen to now. They have the sound of someone writing for the first time, but I enjoy them for that if nothing else. It was a time not to be self-conscious or worried about productivity, and I look back on those months with fondness. Now, though, nearly three years into mothering, it feels like time to record again.
My husband, son, and I are living in Los Angeles, and I have a regular gig not too far from home. The Downbeat Café is a jazz/blues venue, so I put together a demo with some old blues songs I’d heard on Oxford American Music Samplers, plus my rendition of “Summertime.” The owner was a native of Austin, Texas, who said he always had a “soft spot for country blues,” so I got the gig. Working up some standards was fun, and people seemed to respond positively. I even considered doing a collection of standards as my next album, but I put that idea aside and began to focus on my own songs instead.
But which ones? What would bring a group of songs together and make them feel like a cohesive whole? With four full-length albums under my belt, I didn’t want to do another record just because I could. I wanted something to be at stake. For heaven’s sake, I told myself, don’t give the world another decent collection of songs. Give them an album.
I started thinking about the right place to record these new songs, based on the assumption that part of the intangible thing that makes some albums great is the setting. I considered a cottage in northern Alabama where we had lived two summers ago, but it would be much too cold in early March to get any work done. Later, it was looking like I might record at Victoria Williams’ house in Joshua Tree, as her tenant would be leaving soon. The tenant decided to stay indefinitely. I looked into other alternatives in Joshua Tree because I liked the idea of being somewhere remote, but with my limited budget it was impractical to get all the musicians out there for hours (or even days) on end. I got discouraged by what felt like dead ends. For the moment I did not pursue anything; I would wait and see if something fell in front of me.
One of my favorite books to read to my son before he goes to bed is Goodnight Moon. It’s a story where nothing really happens. A room is described, with a red balloon, a toy house, a comb, a brush, and a few other items—all quietly existing. A clock in the center of the room moves in ten-minute increments as you turn the pages. There is something so tranquil, so simple, so pure about this room. It feels like a place we should go when we die. Before you go to sleep at night you say, “Goodnight comb and goodnight brush.... Goodnight stars. Goodnight air. Goodnight noises everywhere.”
As a mother, I am learning that moving at that quiet, slow pace may mean not getting things done. If you really want to be in this space of reading Goodnight Moon with your child or watching squirrels at the park, you may have to let it be and not insist on capturing it. When I read essays by women writing about their days being mothers—their nuanced, very specific, very full days—I must admit that I wonder what they are like as mothers finishing up writing deadlines.
How do you make lasting work and not screw up your family?
One night I was having pork chops with my good friend Tom at his lovely, spacious house in Glendale, and he said: “Well, you could do the album here if you wanted.” His place had been like another home to us, and Tom’s way of taking in his friends like family made it all the more comfortable and safe. It made sense, and the more I thought about it, the more it sounded like the right thing. I started making arrangements for Jack to visit his grandparents.
In the past, when I’ve played gigs I’ve either taken Jack with me or he’s stayed with my husband or other family members, and usually not for more than three or four days. A week was a whole new thing—a week in Oklahoma City, a place mostly unfamiliar to me, except for two grandparents eager to get their hands on their only grandson.
It seemed right that there was some distance to cover on the airplane ride. Driving him somewhere a few hours away might not have had the finality that flying thirteen hundred miles over desert, lake, and mountain did. Though the plane ride was pretty smooth, I felt a heaviness at dinner later that night at Johnny Carino’s Italian Eatery. Tonight, our last night together before I would leave, seemed like a dress rehearsal for the real thing. Maybe Jack’s grandmother should wipe the spaghetti off his mouth. Maybe she should take him to use the bathroom and not me. I was here next to him, but I wasn’t sure of my role anymore.
Later that evening, though, I felt a solidarity with him. Neither one of us could sleep, and there we were taking in the room and the texture of this new place. I could hear him trying to sing himself back to sleep on the mattress a few feet away: Buuurrrrddz without wings.... A song by David Gray, which my husband had played for him earlier in the week. Then he sang part of a Lucinda William’s song I used to sing to him when he was just a few months old: All the way to Vicksburg / I don’t think I’ll miss you much. His choices were strangely appropriate, and I sat quietly in my bed smiling. Though the blinds were closed in the window above his mattress, a streetlight nearby was coming in pretty strong—the new surroundings made it hard for him to go to sleep. Jack got into my bed and started tracing his fingers along the headboard. He said, “I like you, Mama.” I said, “I like you, too.”
A few weeks before, we’d been sitting on the floor at the library. He brought me a book about the three little owls who lived with their mother in a hollow tree. “One night they woke up and their Owl Mother was GONE.” Though the illustrations are ominous—the baby owls’ eyes are black and orange and there are dark textured backgrounds of blue and brown—the back of the book reassures: “the award-winning picture book…offers the gentle promise needed by every young child that Mommy will always come home.” I once heard a teacher at a church daycare in the Los Angeles suburbs tell children waiting to be picked up, “Mommys always come back.” Her tone was a little saccharine, and her words made me uneasy. While the children were being comforted, I felt that on some level they weren’t being told the whole truth, and I felt that from the award-winning picture book, too.
The owl babies’ mama came home that night, but what about the lioness who lost her cubs to some coyotes? I’d seen it with my own eyes (on TV) at a rest stop waiting for a train in Spain. It was a hard image to erase from my mind. I came across a quotation recently from Ernest Becker that sums up what I’m trying to say: “I think that taking life seriously means something such as this: that whatever man does on this planet has to be done in the lived truth of the terror of creation, of the grotesque, of the rumble of panic underneath everything. Otherwise it is false.” Before I was a mother, terror and panic were not words I would readily have chosen to describe life on earth, but I get it now. Bad things could happen to me and those I love, like a punch in the gut. If I am to be a functional participant in life, though, I’ve got to accept this fact and move on. One of my favorite moments in Finding Nemo is when Dory, the carefree fish, says to Marlin, the worrywart, as they are hanging from the gums of a whale’s mouth: “It’s time to let go....” Marlin replies:
“How do you know something bad isn’t going to happen?” She looks at him, open eyed: “I don’t.”
In early March, on a Monday morning, while I gathered mike stands and monitors and kept watch over the four large UPS boxes like they were my own children, John Plymale—friend and producer—was in the air somewhere between North Carolina and California, flying over this country for the sole purpose of recording my songs. Jack was in a safe place, playing with his army men on the floor of an Oklahoma City apartment, very well cared for. I had butterflies thinking of all that awaited me, and a sense of excitement that felt not unlike falling in love. By the evening, though, once John had landed at LAX and was on his way to our place for dinner, the doubt and anxiety had crept in. Would we really be able to do this in less than a week? Were the songs any good? What if they decided to do construction across the street during our first day of tracking? What if something bad happened to Jack while I was apart from him?
Tuesday morning, John started setting up at Tom’s house. He had me play the guitar in various places in the room to see where the sweet spot was. Nothing was going to tape yet, but at least we were moving in that direction. By Wednesday morning Tom had relocated to a hotel and we would have free run of the house for the next three days. A few days didn’t seem like a lot of time to record ten to twelve songs. People have done it, though. In 1965, Son House recorded eleven songs (including “Death Letter” and “John the Revelator”) over the course of three days in New York City, and in 1968 Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks was made over two days in the same city.
There’s a reason those recordings are still noteworthy. Nowadays, you don’t usually hear about records being made in two days. Modern recording studios have so many bells and whistles and fixit toys that it’s easy for a band (or a producer) to fill up a week or two just tweaking vocals and instruments even if the basic recording only takes a few days. You read in music magazines about producers who will spend a few days just on getting good drum sounds. I have no problem with getting good drum sounds, but I certainly didn’t have a budget to try my instrument in eleven different rooms eleven different ways. Two of the great things about John Plymale are that he’s quick to understand an artist’s expectations, and he can get good results in a short time. I don’t think I’ve known anyone who can work as fast, and with as much energy and enthusiasm.
I’d scheduled an upright bass player for two days, and he and I would track in the same room. Recording studios typically make use of isolation booths, so that parts may be recut if need be. The beauty of tracking live with other players, where there’s no turning back, is the urgency it can add to the performances. With our days limited, it felt right to go this riskier way.
When I sit quietly and give myself over to the world of Goodnight Moon, the book gets me in touch with something that I was trying to evoke in the new songs I’ve been writing. What do you see and feel and hear when you slow down? It seems laughable to dream of tranquility with a toddler running naked through the house, but when Jack was an infant, something brought back the simple pleasure in the music. I felt less like I was in a race with time. I was more able to be in the moment. Be here in this room. Don’t even look at the clock. When you look up next it will have moved ten minutes forward, but you are not concerned with that. You are here in this room, this simple room, like Van Gogh’s room: a bed, a table, a lamp. What more do you need? Be here now.
Now I am sitting in the spacious living room with the high ceilings.
We have not even selected all the songs yet. I have about eleven definites and six contenders. Domenic, the bass player, has arrived. He’ll be with us today and tomorrow. He and I have played together a couple of times before—once in a recording context and once in a rehearsal a month ago. In the past, I might have suggested parts or offered Domenic suggestions. But I have learned that the producers who get good results let the player play first. They wait; they listen.
I had planned to track guitar and bass together and then do vocals later, but John has set up a vocal mike “just in case.” While he got our levels right, Domenic and I played through the songs a few times.
“Okay, you’re rolling,” says John’s voice in my headphones.
It’s remarkable how those words can make your heart palpitate. What was just playing around is now a take. This must be one of the things I like about recording. It is intense, it is performing; your heart and soul are being laid on the line, not just for those few other people in the room, but for anyone who hears it after that. I know that if Domenic can hear me sing, can hear me get into it, we can make better music.
So I sing.
In Tom’s living room, you can turn the lighting down so that you can just barely see the other player. Over the fireplace hangs a beautiful painting of a train crossing a remote field. Having the upright bass playing along is still somewhat of a novelty to me, and I find those rich, deep notes inspiring. I like the way they play off my guitar lines, especially on “Wedding Day,” one of the songs with stark, high vocals that I’d practiced on many evening walks with my dog.
I close my eyes and try not to think, just let the music go through me. I feel a little silly saying that now (I’m no Jimi Hendrix), but I do think the goal is to be as natural as you can. Something I felt I hadn’t done well in the demos I’d recorded a few months earlier was to enter into the stories of songs, instead of just trying to hit all the right notes. I think it’s obvious when singers lose themselves in the worlds of their songs, like Tom Waits on his album Closing Time, or Patti Griffin on Living with Ghosts. Those records set the bar pretty high. This was what I hoped would happen in Tom’s living room.
At times, I am completely in the moment. At other times, I start to think about how well it’s going, and the train derails. Sometimes I just can’t get in the zone and I have to take a break. Often I have to fight the urge to keep going even when it’s obvious that I need to walk away for a few minutes.
Eventually we are hailed upstairs to our makeshift control room (Tom’s bedroom) to listen back. I have worked with John on three other records, and I can tell when he thinks a take has some magic. If he says, “Not too shabby” or “Sounding pretty good,” then we are not there yet. If I hear “Whooooo” or “I think you should hear that,” then we may have hit it. After listening to the playback for “Wedding Day,” I say: “Well, if we do nothing else, then getting that down was worth it.”
Making a record feels like staying with a very long run. You rely on your body to remember what to do, even when everything in you wants to collapse. I had forgotten how much energy it takes to make a record. I am conscious sometimes of acting, of performing my way into a song when my heart just isn’t in it. It’s mysterious how this works, and I don’t have a formula to explain what I do when it does work. I don’t know why the seventh take lacked the quality that the eighth one had. If I were to think about all the things that must come together for it to be good, I’d be paralyzed. So I try to just play and sing and stay focused.
It is hard work, but it is the kind of work that I can wrap my mind around. It is linear, and there are no interruptions (of the kind I’d become used to as a mother). Two days in, I am just having fun, not wanting it to end. We all have our cell phones, but we keep them silent most of the time. Lunch might be at eleven a.m. or at two-thirty, whatever we feel like. I run down to the Taqueria for tacos al pastor and a large Coke. This is a world that I once knew well, and it has come back to me fairly easily. The headphones. The tracking. The playback. The Chinese take-out. The beer run. The musician talk.
One day toward the end of the week, I forget to call Jack. My phone ringing late in the day reminds me that not only have I forgotten to call him, I’ve forgotten about him. This is not the kind of thing you want to admit to your child’s grandparents. When I call back, Jack has already gone to bed. I do not confess that I’d forgotten to call. The voice on the other end is happy and reassuring: “Oh, he’s doing fine. He asks about you, but we’re doing just fine.”
Are they on to me?
I used to be out on the road a lot before Jack was born, and I was often asked, “Does your husband come with you?” I always found that a funny question. Did people want a window into my personal life? Was a twenty-something female traveling by herself to gigs an invitation to all manner of disaster? Something in that question feels related to my ambivalence about admitting this: at times during those recording sessions, I didn’t miss Jack. It was somewhat unsettling to see how easily I could fall back into life without a child. Was I less of a mother for getting lost in this project? Music has a way of drawing me into its world so that other things go out of focus for a few moments, and I am grateful for that. But it doesn’t come without some tension. Other artist friends who are mothers have talked about a dividedness with regard to their work and their responsibilities to their children. Does one job suffer when you throw yourself wholeheartedly into another? During my week in Glendale without Jack, did the letting go go too far?
I do think that each of my jobs, mothering and music-making, at its best, feeds the other. When this topic comes up in conversation, one of my pat answers is: I think I’m a better mother because I’m a singer, and I’m a better singer because I’m a mother. Looking at that sentence now, I don’t know if I believe it. It sounds nice, and I’ve been convinced of its truth at times, but often I’m not so confident. When I listen to my earlier recordings, pre-Jack, I hear the voice of a young woman who thinks she has things figured out. There is a freshness, but at times a lack of, well, pain. Jack and his dependence on me tap a new area of my heart, one that hadn’t been put on tape before. But if I am a better singer now, so what?
One of the top guns at my former record label said something to me a few years ago that stuck with me: “If the material is good, that’s great. But if there’s no one to hear it, if there’s not an audience waiting for it, what good will it do you?” What if the time I devote to my son leaves no room for building the audience? Will it be enough for me to be happy with the work, whether it is a successful release or not? How I’m feeling about all this on a given day will determine whether or not I resort to my pat answer.
In the end, I am happiest when I am working toward something—and when I have accepted that I have little control over results. It is the work itself, whether it’s putting a Band-aid on my boy’s leg or tinkering with a guitar part for a song, that I find to be a good distraction from dark, worrisome, unhelpful thoughts. As I write this, I don’t have a record contract. If all goes as planned, I’ll have someone shop these songs to interested labels, but I may have to put the album out independently. I am always trying to rethink my strategies: I want to keep a significant presence in the ever-changing world of music, and in the ever-changing world of my son. I don’t know how all this will pan out. In my better moments, I hear the words: have faith. In my best moments, I take that to heart. If God could grow a baby in Sara’s seventy-year-old womb, then what other possibilities are waiting out there?
The day before John leaves to go back to North Carolina, he makes me a CD of rough mixes of the eleven songs we’ve tracked. It is the first time I’ve listened to them as a whole, and I find that I am a little disappointed. I’d had a lot of fun recording them, so I expected to like them more played back one right after the other. I feel very conscious of how it is holding up as a record. Did greatness happen? Admittedly, I am still very close to the songs. These are rough mixes, and more will be added later—maybe it isn’t time to be making judgments.
I decide to take some time away from the songs. For the next four days, I don’t listen to them at all. I’m not even really tempted. When I finally do, I am on my way to a gig in Los Angeles at the Unknown Theater, playing on the bill with someone unknown to me (except through MySpace). I am heartened by how much I like the songs. I wanted to hear some of them again, and I stay in the car a little longer to keep listening. I am not so hard on myself, and I don’t feel as worried about the album question. These songs pretty well represent where I was in my life at the time I wrote them. I am grateful to have gotten them down as documents of that time and place.
And where is that place? It is somewhere around the paths outside of that cottage in Alabama where we lived that summer, or in the gurgling water of the river down below it. It is a simple meal with my husband. It is me facing my demons and telling them to go away. It is my son’s voice on a night when he can’t sleep, and it is the great green room with the red balloon. I am reading Goodnight Moon with my boy beside me listening, and this time I picture myself walking into that room, laying down my fears in the middle of it, and saying goodnight to them.
Visit Claire Holley as Image Artist of the Month for April 2009