building on the vibe

The kids and I have been laying down tracks for an album during quarantine, my daughter providing lyrics and vocals, and my son playing guitar. Music production isn’t my area of expertise, but GarageBand makes it pretty easy to assemble something coherent and euphonious. And, despite its shallow learning curve, the software remains powerful: stars like Rihanna and Usher have used GarageBand to produce songs.

Recording music for this little pandemic project has sparked my interest in the craft. I’ve been memorizing common chord progressions and dipping into books like The Mental Game of Music Production and How to Write a Song (Even If You’ve Never Written One Before and You Think You Suck). (That guy should also write How to Title a Book (So Readers Know Exactly What It Does and Who It’s For).) As I’ve found with computer programming, songwriting offers fascinating parallels with prose.

In this fascinating video, longtime David Bowie producer Tony Visconti recounts the development of “Heroes.” The creative process Visconti describes runs counter to my assumptions. I’d have imagined a songwriter, whether Bowie or a collaborator, sitting down at a keyboard to cobble together a melody and lyrics before bringing the finished result to a recording studio. Something like the songwriting scene from Ishtar, Elaine May’s criminally underappreciated box-office flop.

Instead, “Heroes” was built in layers, beginning not with a melody or even a title but a sonic base. The process was flexible enough that, when Bowie spotted Visconti kissing his girlfriend behind the studio, it became a key lyric.

Creating so haphazardly might seem overwhelming, leaving endless avenues to explore. To keep the process on rails, they used creative constraints:

[Even] in those days people said, “Don’t put any effects on the tape because you can’t take the effect off.” That’s exactly what Bowie and I did do. We always put the effect on the tape so we couldn’t take it off. We didn’t want to change it because we would start creating a vibe from minute one. We’d start creating a vibe that was unchangeable.

Using an outliner, I write books in layers, too. In a way, I even “fix” each layer in place before proceeding to the next. That said, I’m terrified by the idea of truly committing to my decisions, making each subsequent iteration a point of no return as Bowie and Visconti did with their guitar effects. It gives me flashbacks to editing video on tape, where fixing a mistake meant rewinding to the spot in question and re-building the entire thing from that point.

Bowie understood that ideas have a shelf life. Momentum kept the fire burning:

David’s quite impatient in the studio. If we want a cowbell, and there’s no cowbell around there, we’ll start hitting things. It’s quicker to hit things and find a cowbell for simile rather than phone up for one and wait an hour or two for a cowbell because already the idea will be old.

In the absence of a proper cowbell, Visconti banged on an empty metal tape reel with a fork. It’s in the final mix.

Bowie saw the danger in letting the “perfect” tool stand in the way of the creative process. Even a minor delay allows doubt to creep in. Improvising his way through logjams instead of fiddling with tools prevented his rational mind from second-guessing his instincts.

Watching the video, notice Visconti’s facility with his mixing board. The recording studio has become an extension of his body. I’m mapping out my next major book project, and I’m struck by how much more fluid the development process has become now that I’ve established familiarity with my current book-writing toolchain. In contrast, I still don’t know where anything is in GarageBand, so I waste a good portion of my creative energy stumbling around the interface and googling for answers, “phoning up for a cowbell” while the musical idea cools.

Study your tools. Engage in deliberate practice with them. Believe it or not, I’ve read books like Microsoft Word 2010 In Depth cover to cover—it matters. Your choice of tools is less important than your mastery of those tools, whether you write in Word, Scrivener, or simply TextEdit. Even Google Docs has its secrets. Whatever you use, its use should become second nature. In this TEDx talk, Imogen Heap, famous for the innovative use of technology in producing her music, talks about mastering these complex tools as crucial to “drawing the creatures out of the software.” Don’t let your creatures slip away while you fiddle with formatting.

Work on the album proceeds despite my near-complete lack of skill. In the meantime, I’m on my way down a Visconti rabbit hole. He’s my kind of artist. Not only can he clearly articulate his creative process, but he also tours in a David Bowie tribute band. Are there any UK readers out there willing to put up a family of four Bowie fans in March 2022?

p.s. If you enjoy the creative deconstruction of classic songs, subscribe to one of my new favorite podcasts, Strong Songs. And if you didn’t read the classic blog back in the day, The Daily Adventures of Mixerman is now available as a book.

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