In the Studio with Andrew Peterson

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As tourists pause to take pictures on the stairs of the Lincoln Memorial, very few notice that the careful spacing of the stairs symbolizes the years of the Civil War. Some steps represent seasons of particular intensity, so they are steep and arduous. Other steps are spaced far apart, signifying seasons when “up” seemed distant and unapproachable. These details that so often go unnoticed are a part of what makes the destination at the top of the stairs, the monument, so memorable.

Matt Conner has a theory that goes like this: An artist is never more interesting to his audience, than when he is in the midst of the creative act. We thought it would be fun to provide an inside look at the process of creating Andrew Peterson’s new album, and as I watched Andrew at work in the recording studio recently, I had the privilege of observing some oft-unnoticed details.

I parked behind the purple building on Nashville’s storied Music Row, and Andrew’s producer and friend, Gabe Scott, opened the door. Gabe led me through a narrow hallway to a small room attached to an even smaller room. The smaller room was dark, but there stood Andrew with headphones and a microphone. Gabe sat at a desk facing not the window looking into Andrew’s dark cove, but a giant computer screen. He clicked something, pushed a button, and said, “I’ll punch you in.” The room filled with sound, and Andrew sang, “I had a dream that I was waking . . .”

The most prominent initial detail was not the darkness of the recording booth, but the tone of encouragement permeating the room. It’s a grueling process, singing the same thing over and over, listening to yourself and your words, and Gabe supplied just the right amount of encouragement. Where Gabe offered praise, Andrew responded with trust. When Gabe said, “That’s the one for me, unless…” it was natural for Andrew to say, “No, I trust you, man” and really mean it.

This partnership of trust and encouragement has been built over years of friendship, and the friendship was evident as they worked through the details together. At one moment, they reminisced about the time they visited Gabe’s home and watched a deer-skinning. The conversation flowed from funny anecdotes to pointed questions as Gabe asked, “Do you experience a sense of loss and victory as we comp?”

“Comping” is a study in details. Artist and producer listen to every few seconds of vocals, and then string the best takes together into one seamless tapestry. It is repetitive and it takes time. It is a series of difficult decisions about almost imperceptible differences. Each vocal take has a personality. They are characters in a story, each telling the same story in a different way. Some takes are emotional, and others sound more vocally pure.

Andrew answered Gabe’s question about loss and victory confidently, “No. I used to. But not anymore.” His answer captured a detail that makes this album different than his others. Besides the different players, different producer, and different feel, Andrew is different. He says that once, he wanted control over every little detail. And while he acknowledges that there is nothing wrong with having an opinion on each piece of the creation, he also wisely points out that when control is surrendered, the finished product is often better.

Andrew had not yet surrendered the title of the album when I observed these details. From the hours I spent in the studio, though, I knew what the album was not called. It wasn’t titled, “Conscious of the Nasal I,” or “When the Shimmering Went Away,” or “Mesmerizing Loopiness,” although as each of these phrases came up in conversation, Andrew nearly had me convinced that one of them was indeed the title. Now that the title is revealed, I realize I heard it the first minute I was in the studio and then a hundred times more throughout the afternoon.

Two months ago, only one song of the album had been written. The rest was unknown, but Andrew says that watching the mystery unfold is like approaching a mountain and realizing it is far grander than the imagination could have conjured. In comparison to Light for the Lost Boy, Andrew says of this album, “It’s more hopeful. No, not more hopeful, necessarily, more joyful.”

After listening to the first complete version of the song they’d spent the day on, Andrew sighed, a good sigh, and said, “There are a lot of words in that song”—a lot of words, a lot of choices, and an abundance of details. During my day in the studio I witnessed just a few small steps that, like the monument in D.C., are part of an ascendance toward a far greater finished product. Some of those vocal takes will probably never be heard again, but they were nonetheless essential elements in the long process of making the album.

At one point, after an hour of comping vocals, Gabe zoomed out on the monitor. One detail met the others: bass, drums, guitar, keys. Pastel blues, greens, purples, and pinks decorated the screen like a scattering of Easter eggs. The waveforms looked like heartbeats. Gabe pressed play, and all the heartbeats formed a harmony. The details formed a song, the song was alive, and the songmakers were satisfied—one step nearer the summit.

When Gabe punched Andrew in, the room filled with more than simple sound. It filled with details, memories, friendship, and even a title. Andrew sang: “I had a dream that I was waking on the burning edge of dawn . . .”

 

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13 Comments

  1. April Pickle

    Great job, Sarah Geil. I’m so glad you shared this with us.
    And, sigh, I’m about to be brutally honest here.
    Andrew Peterson’s music is my favorite, favorite, favorite, so when I read “different players, different producer, different feel,” I feel like I am experiencing a sense of loss.
    I am afraid of change, afraid I won’t like the new album.
    I must decide to either throw a fear-driven fit or put my trust in what I know to be true, and that is that Andrew Peterson makes good stuff, and that what he is doing with this new project is nothing short of courageous. Perhaps it’s his courage that makes me love his music so much. It is courageous to be honest, to name the dark places and tell a true story; it is courageous to tell everyone about the edge of the dawn burning in a dream; it’s courageous to do new things.
    Oh for grace for that same kind of courage.

  2. Loren Warnemuende

    This is terrific, Sarah. I never realized all the details that go into this process.

    I also didn’t have a clue about the steps to the Lincoln Memorial and now I want to see it again….

  3. Kelsay

    Sarah, thank you for the insider’s-take on the creative process, with insights applicable to other forms of art-creating as well. As an aspiring writer, this was very encouraging to read.

  4. Peter B

    So much longing springs up in me upon reading this. April’s concerns were mine as well on Light for the Lost Boy, and probably again today — but I’ve learned to trust this guy and his trustworthy team, so I can wait like watchmen for the morning.

    “Now that the title is revealed, I realize I heard it the first minute I was in the studio and then a hundred times more throughout the afternoon.”

    This resonates in a thousand caverns under my soul.

    Thank you for such a thoughtful, joyful piece.

  5. Allison

    Thanks, Sarah, this is a wonderful glimpse!

    To April: different producer, yes, but one not new to AP’s music. I feel like bringing Gabe in to produce is like the best of everything: the “old” AP and the new coming together beautifully. There is redemption there & his mention of”joy” makes me all the more eager to hear the new album, with these songs that were collaborations, really between 2 old friends & talented musicians. I have great hope!

  6. Catherine Gruben

    So glad to be able to read this. Thanks for taking the effort to share the feel of the making of this new album. Beyond excited to get to hear it, and especially to get to read those lyrics! Mr. Peterson is one of my favorite theologians and poets.

  7. Keith W

    Thanks for this peek into the process of making the new record!

    Sorry to hear that Ben Shive is not producing this one, but I really enjoy Gabe Scott’s work also. I loved his work with Bebo Norman so it gives me confidence that this will be wonderful too.

    Very much looking forward to hearing the final product!

  8. Matt Black

    Having Gabe at the helm will probably change things but if there is any resembelence of the kind of sound and textures that they had together they were opening for Caedmon’s way back in the day it will be a very “kid brothers of st.frank sound”…hopefully. (I’m officially old)

    Can’t wait for the new record…and Andrew should being back the pony tail… 🙂

  9. Laure Hittle

    This album means so much to me already.

    Gabe, if you’re reading this: Thank you so much for slaying (pouring life into) this album, and for slaying Andrew, too, all this long spring. You were my first favorite thing about what i know will be my next favorite record. i thank G-d every time i remember you.

    Jesu juva. Trust and joy. Praise G-d.

    You’re almost there, boys.

  10. Haylie Allcott

    This Rabbit Room is a dear dear place… but sometimes reading these wonderful entries simultaneously fills me with a bubbling excitement paired with that feeling I used to get when my older sister and her friends were having fun together and I was surely missing out on something epic… so whatever that feeling is… Anyway- together, those two flammable feelings near the dangerous point of combustion. (So my husband will know who is to blame should they follow through on this threat.)

    Aka I can’t wait for this album. Thank you guys for doing what you were made to.

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