How to Make a Record, Part 2: The Edges of Things

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Like I said in part one, this isn’t meant to be a definitive piece on record making, because there are a zillion ways to approach it. I just did the math and realized this is my eighth studio record. That doesn’t include live stuff or Walk or the Slugs & Bugs CDs, nor does it include occasional shorter recording sessions like “Holy is the Lord” (for City on a Hill) or the appendices A, C, or M. I only say that to say that as I look back at all those sessions, one of the only patterns that emerges is a lack of pattern. This may be super-boring, but just for fun I’m going to try and remember a thing or two about the making of those records.

Walk (1996): I mention it here because even though it was an independent record, it was my first time in a legit studio with legit musicians. It was recorded in three days by my buddy Mark Claassen, who was interning at a studio that let us use a room after hours. To be honest, I remember little about the process except that it was maddeningly rushed. Also, we had no idea what we were doing (but we felt really cool doing it).

Carried Along (2000): Produced by the very capable Glenn Rosenstein (who had just finished producing Caedmon’s Call’s excellent 40 Acres). Since I was such a youngster (25), we spent two weeks on pre-production. That means we spent a week at Glenn’s house tightening up the songs and choosing which were the strongest. This wasn’t easy because I was bringing to the table every song I had ever written up to that point—one of the luxuries of making your first record. The second week we spent in a rehearsal studio with the drummer (Chris McHugh), bass player (Craig Young), and percussionist Ken Lewis (who happens to be sitting about eight feet from me in the Chicago Starbucks where I’m writing this. That’s him at the table, right there. Not only is he still a drummer in high demand, he’s Steven Curtis’s drummer on this tour and he’s played on almost all my records in the last dozen years).

Back to pre-production. It was hard work. Since I was so unused to playing with a band, it freaked me out to suddenly hear drums, bass, and perc on my little acoustic songs. I thought they would lose any hint of their acoustic folkiness, which in hindsight is silly in light of how big the drums can be on some of my favorite artists’ songs. Now I’m used to imagining a rhythm section on the songs even as they’re being written, but at the time it was unsettling.

Clear to Venus (2001): We toured almost constantly between the two records, so there wasn’t much time to do pre-production. Nor was there much time to have written very many songs, for that matter. We asked Glenn Rosenstein to produce that one, too, which saved some get-to-know-the-producer time. We hit the ground running without much planning. The songs were the songs, and as often happens with a sophomore album, many of them were written on the road, about the road.

(Side note: this album has always been a bit of an underdog, partly because it released on 9/11/2001, and partly because, though I fought it tooth and nail, the label insisted that my face be on the cover—something I swore I’d never do. Still, every now and then I hear from a listener that this is their favorite of my albums. Those same people are probably Cubs fans, like me.)

Love and Thunder (2003): I have pleasant memories of this whole recording process. Steve Hindalong and Derri Daugherty (of the legendary band The Choir) produced it at Derri’s studio. Ben Shive had just started playing music with me and I asked him to come hang out for the duration of the process, since it was pretty clear at the time that he would grow into a great producer. He was a big fan of Steve and Derri’s music, and they were fast admirers of Ben’s musicianship.

I don’t remember there being much pre-production on this record, either, but we did record the demos at Andrew Osenga’s studio. I barely knew Osenga at the time. He was finishing up an album called Photographs, and played me a song called “High School Band”, which was only about half finished, as I recall. After we finished recording the demos, I asked Osenga offhand if he had any extra songs lying about; I felt like I needed one more for the album. He shrugged and played us an unfinished version of “After the Last Tear Falls”. On the way home from his house I pulled into a mall parking lot, sat in the back of my van, and worked out the chorus.

Behold the Lamb of God (2004): This one was the first thing I recorded after being dropped from my label. I asked Ben and Osenga to produce it, and there was little pre-production needed because we had been touring it for three or four years already. The arrangements were more or less complete, so we dove right in. Though we all had a fair bit of experience at the time, when I look back I realize how green we really were. Green and flying by the seats of our pants.

The Far Country (2005): I asked Ben Shive to take the helm on this one, solo. I wanted more of a band feel to this album, so the good folks at my church, Midtown Fellowship, let us use the church offices to do the pre-production with a full band. Andy Gullahorn (acoustic guitar), Paul Eckberg (drums), Andrew Osenga (electric), and Danny O’Lannerghty (bass) gathered with Ben and I in the little room and basically rehearsed for a week. It was a blast seeing the songs take a different shape than they would’ve otherwise, and we had a clear roadmap for what we’d do in the studio the next week.

Resurrection Letters II (2008): Once again, Ben Shive was at the helm. Since he’s been my right-hand-man on the road for all these years, he’s usually intimate with the songs as they’re being written. Either I’m bouncing the ideas off him in the hotel after the show or he’s working out a piano part for the new stuff in soundcheck. I can’t overstate how important it’s been all these years to have such a talented, song-conscious confidant to help me shape my songs. It’s only natural that he’s the one to see them into the world on an album. He’s like the family doctor who’s delivered most of my kids. We gathered at Eckberg’s studio with Matt Pearson (bass) and started recording, simple as that. This was also my first album with the good people at Centricity Music.

Counting Stars (2010): This one was sort of an experiment: what would happen if we recorded the whole thing in isolation? We flew everything to the wilds of Washington state in the dead of winter and hid out in a secluded studio in the mountains. No distractions. Nobody having to rush home for dinner. Just five guys and a handful of songs for nine days. It was magical. We worked long days (as many as 14 hours at a time), wrote some of the songs under pressure, and ended up with a record that, as Ben so wisely put it, “was like a familiar room painted a different color.”

One of these days, for my own jollies, I’m going to put down everything I remember from each record. For now, that’s a quick look at the beginning of the process for each. This album, though, has me feeling delightfully less comfortable for a few reasons.

1) A few years back we watched a documentary about Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (one of the best music docs I’ve ever seen), and Tom’s producer joked that every three records you should fire your producer, lest things get stale. There’s no way on earth I’d fire Ben or Andy G., but in light of that comment we all thought it would be fun to see what would happen if we invited our friend Cason Cooley into the process. Cason’s a great producer and a great friend, and he and Ben have wanted to work together for years. I’ve grown really comfortable with Ben at the wheel. Gullahorn’s input is vital, too. Andy and Ben are both amazing, AMAZING songwriters, but their approaches to songs are really different. They hear different things in my songs, and different aspects resonate with them. That makes for a wonderful tension. We don’t always agree, but because of a deep mutual respect, we always truly consider the other guy’s ideas. Bringing Cason into the mix stirs things up a little. He’s listening in a totally different way than I’m used to, and I think it will bring a new color to the paint on the wall.

2) The other thing is, none of these songs have been road-tested. Usually, I’m touring during the writing process. That means I can test the new songs out to see how well they connect. Playing a song for someone tells you volumes about the song. So often, I finish a song in private, feel great about it, then as soon as I play it for someone I see a thousand weaknesses I was blind to before. I think most songwriters feel the same thing. But since I was touring with Steven last fall when I was writing these songs, then I went straight to the Behold the Lamb tour, which doesn’t afford me much time to play my own stuff, and now I’m on the road with Steven again, I haven’t had a chance to play any of these songs live. (I played an unfinished version of “Shine Your Light On Me” at two Christmas shows, but that’s it.)

3) Finally, while Counting Stars was made in concentration (nine days with no distractions), this new album is practically the opposite. We started three weeks ago, then we stopped because of scheduling conflicts. For the rest of the spring we’ll be working here and there, on our days off from the tour. The bad thing is, we can’t gain much momentum. The good thing is, it gives me time to listen to the songs fifteen thousand times, tweak lyrics, mull over arrangements and instrumentation. It also gives me time to write. We have eleven songs, but it’s nice knowing that, should inspiration strike, I have time to add another few to the pot.

I said this in the last post: as soon as you think you know what you’re doing, you’re in big trouble. It brings to mind this quote from Rich Mullins, one of my heroes:

“I would rather live on the verge of falling and let my security be in the all-sufficiency of the grace of God than to live in some kind of pietistic illusion of moral excellence.”

Sometimes it is at the edges of things, at the brink of destruction, at the love-drunk moments before that first kiss, that we feel most alive. Maybe that’s where God wants us: where we’re most vulnerable, and thus most willing to ask for help, to cry for rescue, to joyously admit defeat. Then we know the work is his, not ours.

 ——————————————————

I had a few things in mind for part three, but I’m curious: what would you guys like to hear about? Would you rather I dug into the specifics of the process? Would you like a play-by-play of a day in the studio? The interplay of songwriting and song-production?

As a singer-songwriter and recording artist, Andrew has released more than ten records over the past fifteen years. His music has earned him a reputation for writing songs that connect with his listeners in ways equally powerful, poetic, and intimate. He has also followed his gifts into the realm of publishing. His books include the four volumes of the award-winning Wingfeather Saga.


43 Comments

  1. Caitlin

    i’ve got a song-writing question! i’ve found that the longer i write songs, the easier it is to slip into a pattern of writing that just plays to my strengths and is sort of formulaic. and i find that the songs maybe lack some of the vulnerability and straight-forwardness that i want. how do you approach this? do you have a handful of song structures you try to stick with? how do you approach writing in a way that’s going to minister to people?

  2. Andrew Peterson

    @andrew

    Hey, Caitlin. That’s a great question. I’ll try to answer it in the next post. (By the way, folks, check out Caitlin’s band Carousel Rogues in the RR Store. They’re pretty great.)

  3. James Witmer

    Andrew,

    Not boring, let alone super-boring. Thanks for sharing more of your journey. It’s educational to hear how you engage the process, and encouraging to see the Lord’s faithfulness to you over the years.

    I’m all for stretching this into a five-part series so you can cover everything, but if we gotta’ pick, I’d like to hear about the interplay of your songwriting and song-production.

  4. Ryan Martin

    Andrew,

    Enjoy reading these posts on the in’s and out’s of making a record and how you journey through the process.

    Three things I’d love to see highlighted in Pt. 3:

    Play-by-play of a day in the studio.
    How do you pick your additional instrumentalists (outside Ben and Andy G.)
    Which comes first the music or lyrics?

    Thankful for how God is using you to minister to the church in declaring the Gospel through your songs. Keep making a joyful noise for Him!

  5. Lonnie Crampsey

    I love hearing about the things that spark each song. The one phrase or story that grabs your heart enough to wrestle with the solution. It’s the whole reason why you are perfect for a songs and story tour. I love hearing the stories that inspire the song.

  6. Chris

    I too would like to hear about a “typical day” in the studio. Also, how would you say your approach to songwriting has changed through the years? It seems you’re an avid reader as well- are there any particular authors whose work has influenced your own songwriting and lyrics?

    And my respect for you has grown even further now that I know that you’re a Cubs fan! (I’ve been one for 25 years now) Thanks for making great music through the years. My first exposure to your music came years ago when you opened for Caedmon’s Call at a concert in Richmond, VA and my next time seeing you live after that was just last week in Lexington, KY. My wife and I (like others) used “Dancing in the Minefields” in our wedding in 2010.

    While you’re a great songwriter on your own, it’s clear you have great appreciation for Rich Mullins’ work as well. Have you ever considered including a cover of one of his songs on an album?

  7. SarahN

    Thanks for sharing all this!
    And, for the record, Clear to Venus was the first AP record I ever owned, and not only do I still love that little underdog, I credit it with inspiring me to explore the rest of your music, all of which the Lord still uses to bless me.

  8. Jaclyn

    Thank you so much. I love hearing the long story of any creative process. I look forward to hearing more about yours!

    …a few responses:

    1. I’m 25 now, and am tickled to learn I can still fall into the category of “such a youngster.” It’s comforting to know, when I often feel like I should know more, be more of a master, that I am indeed just beginning.

    2. My typical writing spot is rarely the coffee shop, and never in a Moleskine notebook. It’s typically in the minivan, leaned against the steering wheel, on a receipt or a church bulletin.

    3. The first full album of yours I ever heard was Counting Stars at the Hutchmoot album release concert. And it was magical.

  9. Brad

    Yeah, not boring, all good stuff. Relieving actually to see all the different ways things have gone for you on different albums. We are in a friends studio recording our first EP and we had hoped to get in for a solid 5 to 7 days and knock it out. Instead, we’ve only been able to get the studio one day a week, so the process has stretched out over a month and a half instead. Maybe it reveals more about my insecurities than I would like, but it was comforting to me to hear your recording process is being broken up some as well. I mean, if AP is recording an album that way then it must be OK. :^) Thanks so much for sharing all this Andy. It really does help.

  10. Michael

    I also enjoy hearing about the stories that inspire each song. One reason why I love your songs is because they give me positive and good things with which I can fill my mind. Learning what goes behind some songs can give more meaning to those songs.

    Also, over the years, are there any particular songs that you have written that have more meaning to you than others, that you hold most dearest? Do you show any partiality to any of your “kids”?

    Lastly, have you had any “eureka” moments in the writing process in which you thought: “This is exactly what I wanted to say and the best way it could have been said or expressed”?

  11. Brad

    Oh, questions for the next part. I would love to know if you ever track multiple instruments or vocals at the same time, or if you just lay them down one at a time. If one at a time, what sequence do you tend to use? Drums first, everything else, then vocals, or does that change? Thanks!

  12. Jess

    I love this post. 🙂 I second what Caitlin said, because while I’m not a songwriter, I have the same experience when I’m writing poetry.

    And there’s no way I could pick a favorite AP album. It kind of tends to be the one I’ve listened to most recently, so it changes day by day. Doesn’t help that every single song resonates with my heart every time I listen.

  13. Jeff Smith

    Andrew, Thank you so much for doing this series! I love the recording process but I tend to be more technically minded so it’s great to know whats going on in the mind of the artist on the other side of the microphone. As for part 3, I would love to know more about your specific recording process. To me, your records are not only rich in substance but are sonically excellent. I may be the only one who is interested but I would love to see a studio track sheet for a song or two (past or present) if you can. Thanks again for taking the time to share this process with us.

  14. Lindsey

    I concur with many other commentators; I would love to hear more about the inspiration behind the songs. I know some may be experiences too personal to expound upon, but some of the literary references are especially intriguing to me.

  15. yankeegospelgirl

    I’m not an experienced songwriter, but so far I seem to be most inspired at around midnight when I’m suffering from insomnia. Seriously, that’s when my best ideas tend to come.

  16. Brad

    yankeegospelgirl, I’m with you, late at night, in the shower, driving on the freeway…waking up in the middle of the night. Just rarely when I’m somewhere I can easily jot it down. Thankfully my wife bought me a small digital recorder to carry. I guess that’s another question then AP. Is your experience similar or at this point in your career has it become more methodical?

  17. April Pickle

    Just reading this and all of the comments and thinking of your upcoming work in the works, I am struck by how ALL of it (the scheduling conflicts, the interruptions, the Rabbit Room posts, etc., etc.) will be used in the making of THIS record. Stories within stories within stories that make the story what it will be. “All shall be well,” to quote you, Mr. Peterson. “All shall be well.”

  18. Margo

    I’ve often wished I could be a mouse in the corner … to see how a song gets from a-guy-and-a-guitar to an arrangement with other people contributing. And maybe it’s not even really charted out, it just happens?

    My favorite AP album is whichever one I’m listening to right now. Can’t wait for the next one!

  19. Zack

    Thanks for writing this series! I am curious about all three aspects you mentioned in your feedback question. I’m a bit overwhelmed by all the things I think there are to do and how to schedule it all, and what’s the best order to put my efforts into. Where do you draw the line between perfectionism and delivery? When you block out a week for pre-production or a day for tracking drums, do you ever start to feel like you’re not going to get done, or is that simply not an option? Is it always ok with you if a song takes a 180-degree turn from where you imagined it would go before showing it to anyone?

  20. Jonathan

    I’m excited about this cycle of blog posts! Songwriting/production interplay as well some technical specifics would be wonderful. What have been some “stuck” moments in the studio, and how did you get through them?

  21. Seth

    What happens when one of you has a strong opinion of how a certain song should sound? Has it ever ended in a wrestling match with Andy and Ben while trying to record – and who won?

  22. Joel Cotten

    A day in the studio narration would be great. I always enjoy and find tidbits that help me in my writing and performing when I hear how other artists approach their work. That was part of what was inspiring to me about the songwriters workshop in Indiana last year. Hearing you and the others there talk about your creative process spurred me on to record my first album (currently in process).
    Keep on sharing this way, it is great.

    Keep serving God through your music.

  23. miles365

    I’m seconding Caitlin, Brad (in #11), and Margo. Do you start out with a sort of lead sheet of lyrics with chords? How do you get from melody+chords to a full arrangement with all the different instrument parts?

  24. Andrew Farmer

    Music has always been about lyrics for me, but what a beautiful thing when you discover the right word and the right chord and somehow that marriage of language and sound brings two unique mysteries together and they can never again be separated. I think of the song Amazing Grace. The lyric was written by Newton, a man who knew of grace, but the music is ancient and claimed by almost everyone. King David himself may have played it on the hammered dulcimer. We have no idea where that petatonic melody came from, but we do know that the melody and John Newton’s words were wed right here in South Carolina and the rest is History. For me Rich’s Ragamuffin Record, was a marriage made in heaven. Never before had such lovely words met such great music. I felt the same about Counting Stars. There seemed to be a quality where you know the artist and musicians must have been surprised and in awe and grateful to make a discovery that would lead to a treasure hunt. A word that brought to mind another and a Ninth Chord that played in just right rythmn would make trees grow and people grow and comminicate a truth that we all catch glimpses of, but can never seem to pin down. All the songs from Counting Stars were truths penned down and and captured on tape. Personally, I would love to know more details about the hunt and the surprise. It would be great if you shared some chord secrets—chords stolen from a Bon Iver song, a new voicing that gave extra wonder to a thought, etc. A complete chord chart would be even better, but since I know most are not musicians, I would like to know what truth surprised you the most and if the right voicing or melody made that truth come to life. Mostly I can’t wait to share in that Awe.

  25. Dave Siverns

    I’m really enjoying these posts… great to see how the albums were made and good to know that there really is no magic formula. I’d love to hear more about your songwriting/song producing relationship…

  26. mark

    Thank you for sharing the gift of your music and words.
    I feel very bad for those who haven’t seen and heard you live. I was one of those until last year at Atlanta Fest. I knew you were gifted, talented and I expected to enjoy your performance, but I was blown away. Your stories, your readiness to play requests, yoru sense of humor, you and Ben’s chemistry and musicianship were way more than we expected, but that’ll teach us to expect “more” from our concert experiences. Your openness to relate the studio process and the growth of a song from inspiration to recording is all appreciated. Having been in the studio once many years ago, it’s fun and it is work, but it’s really rewarding when you work through the process and come out with something that was inspired and is inspiring.
    God’s good that way.
    One question I would ask is if you’ve ever had an integral part of a song that you’ve performed or rehearsed a certain way, but after recording it and listening back to it, decided to edit something out or reposition parts of it to get it more “right”?

  27. brent

    My question:

    I’ve often been blown away by performers in a live setting, purchased their music, and then brought it home only to find that the recording lacks… well, something.

    Modern recording technology offers almost unlimited opportunities for constructing, deconstructing, tweaking and manipulating. When you record, do you have any conscious strategies for ensuring that the song is not rendered sterile and lifeless?

  28. Libby

    Andrew-
    I’d love to hear about the interaction between writing and production.

    I have a specific question for you: how much emphasis do you put on word painting during the writing/producing process?

    Thank you for posting this. It’s such fun to get to know your writing/recording process!

  29. Kyle

    I’d be interested in the recording process itself. Do you record live with the band members playing simultaneously? Do you record one instrument/part at a time and just add layers until it feels complete?

    This is great, Andrew. Thanks.

  30. Jen

    Loving these posts and how in-depth they are. This wasn’t boring at all! I enjoyed the retrospective on all of the albums and their processes. Knowing what goes into making a record always makes me appreciate it that much more.

    I’d cast my vote for some more about how songwriting and song-production work together, and I’m always curious for insights on the writing process. Like how do the initial songwriting sessions evolve into finished songs, and how do the players on the album contribute their parts? I’m learning how to co-write songs with a friend (and I’m a solitary word girl…. not a musician :)), so insights on the collaborative process are especially interesting to me now. It might be fun to hear from Ben about the producer side of things too.

    Thanks for this series!

  31. Jen

    And YGG (#16): YES. Isn’t that how it always goes? Shower, driving, or trying to sleep. The best ideas are never convenient, right?

  32. Sam Lacy

    I’ve not read any of the above comments, so this may be a repeat. And perhaps this is the wrong forum, but I’m interested in hearing about how your wife and kiddos inform the process–from conceptual origins to how they interact during the long haul of recording, mixing, and producing. Maybe they don’t figure all that prominently in the actual recording, but I’m curious how it is connected to life on the ground in Peterson household, esp. juxtaposing those two worlds–the (perhaps) ethereal, creative world of lyrics, bridges, and harmonies with the duties of father, husband, trash-taker-outer, kid-shaper. Again, maybe best for a different thread. Thanks for the good tunes over the years!

  33. Zach

    Andrew, I love these type of posts, keep ’em coming! I like hearing both about the inspiration of the songs, to the actual technical details of recording.

    One of my favorite things you’ve ever done is post the videos of the making of “Resurrection Letters” on youtube. That was beyond cool, a glimpse of what goes on behind the scenes.

  34. Matthew

    Great post, I love your music. I have to be honest though, I’ve only heard the last four, with my first album being “Behold the Lamb of God” (unless you count Slugs and Bugs first), then “Resurrection Letters” (which my wife bought me because I missed your concert due to a sick child), then “Counting Starts”, and finally “The Far Country.” I’ll continue to be honest that I’m still trying to get “The Far Country,” my taste haven’t matured enough, but “Counting Stars” hit the spot for me. I don’t think I’ve been hit that hard by an album before, and I may never again, we will see. The seclusion aspect seems to come out now that you have told us, but it makes it more personal and the compositions still are wonderful, subtle and wonderful. Keep up the good work, I’m still trying to decide if I’m more exited for the next album or the conclusion to the Wingfeather Saga. When I anxiously awaited the third book I had to admit I was disappointing when I heard you had set it aside to finish Counting Stars, but that melted away after listening to the very first song the night I downloaded the album (note it was night time and perfect for it).

  35. yankeegospelgirl

    It’s funny when I know I need to record an idea, so I carry a recorder way over to the other end of the house and whisper-sing directly into it, trying to preserve the melody without waking anyone up.

  36. Jeff Smith

    I’ve voted already but I wanted to second Zach’s comment on the videos you posted for Resurrection Letters. Not only informative but Hilarious! My favorite line (from Ron Block Part Deux):

    Ben: “I’ve played too much really amazing stuff on this record…today”

  37. Ben Regenold

    Great post.
    I have enjoyed watching and listening from the sidelines for over a decade now. Each one of your album descriptions brought me back to the anticipation of that new music. I can’t wait for what’s to come.
    No pressure.

  38. Joy C

    Andrew,

    It’s nice to read whatever you choose to write. There’s always something to reflect on. Also: we (your listening friends) sometimes “Hear” from God thru your music, so there’s some kind of appreciation and connection there beyond what the limits of this current world affords. (That must be weird, except that we know we also live in another world.) So what you write kind of “fleshes something in.” Thanks.

    Also (for what it’s worth) re your thought:
    “…. I finish a song in private, feel great about it, then as soon as I play it for someone I see a thousand weaknesses I was blind to before….”
    – in a way, one could substitute the word “sermon” or “message” for “song.” And two thoughts on that:
    1) We don’t want to drive ourselves completely nuts, bc we’ll never reach perfection in this world. We know it’s the Holy Spirit (not us) Who does the work of connecting.
    and
    2) For sermons and messages at least, it’s good to hold them loosely- have a general outline and know basically where you’re going, then also be aware of the unspoken listener vibes and be able to adjust the communication to perhaps better connect. It’s daunting… but kind of like surfing if one (intentionally or completely accidentally) “catches the wave…”

  39. Andrew Peterson

    @andrew

    Thanks for all the questions and comments, folks! I just made a list of the questions you guys have asked, and I’ll do my best to answer them all in the next part. Hopefully after soundcheck today I’ll get a few hours to dig in. Thanks again!

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