How to Make a Record, Part 1: First Things First

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This post should really be called, “How We Make a Record”, or even “How We’re Making This Record”.  There are a thousand ways to skin a cat, or to write a song, or to make a chocolate chip cookie–this just happens to be our recipe. That said, in some ways I’m still as mystified by it as I ever was.

I remember lying on my bed in high school with two cabinet speakers on either side of my head, listening to Pink Floyd’s A Momentary Lapse of Reason, getting delightfully lost in the music and wondering how on earth this band of Brits transferred their music to two-inch tape, then to cassette, then to the record store, then to Lake Butler, Florida, to my speakers, to my ears, and finally to my adolescent noggin. (That album is still one of my favorites, by the way, and features a mind-blowing cover photograph. Yes, those are real beds, on a real beach, pre-Photoshop.)

 

So with just a few chords under my fingers and a whole lot of ambition, not to mention the absence of enough guys in my little town to really start a band, I decided to try and figure out how to make music. I saved up four hundred bucks that I earned mowing yards and stocking shelves at the local IGA and bought a Tascam four-track recorder, a machine I was certain would revolutionize my life—not just musically but relationally, since now I would be able to prove to the girls in school that I was worth something. “You see,” I imagined myself explaining to them, “I can record four separate tracks onto just one cassette, which allows me to play the bass, the guitar, the drums, and sing, then mix it all together for your listening pleasure, ladies,” at which point their eyes would flutter and they would faint to the floor in a pile of crimped hair and leg warmers.

But that was just the recording gear. I also needed a studio. Enter my pal Wade Howell, also known as the Conundrum. He was a football player who was also a part-time atheist, a sax player, guitar player, and Dungeon & Dragons player. Needless to say, we were fast friends. (For the record, Wade ended up going to seminary and is now a professor and a fine family man.) Wade’s grandfather died and left him a single-wide trailer in the woods, where we set up an old drum kit and a few mics I scavenged from the church sound cabinet. After school, while Wade was at football practice, I often sped down the sandy road to the trailer in my Dodge Omni, plugged in his electric guitar, and pretended I was David Gilmour or Tom Petty. Once, because my girlfriend liked Garth Brooks, I used my trusty Tascam to record the drums, piano, bass, and vocals for the song “The Dance”. Oh, what wouldn’t give to know where that cassette is now.

But after the first few months with the Tascam, the magic was gone. I didn’t want to just record Skynyrd songs. I wanted to make my own. But I had no idea what to sing about, and the few songs I managed to write were even worse than I thought they were at the time. I played them bashfully for my buddies, enjoying the feeling of having made something even though I was inwardly discontent. It strikes me now that I was in possession of an inner-critic even then, which agitated me. I wanted to be content with my lame songs, but I couldn’t be. Whatever pride I felt was in having made something—anything at all—not necessarily in the quality of what had been made. So I shared my songs with the few friends who cared to hear them, and felt good when they liked them, but was discontent without knowing why. Not long after graduation, I joined a rock band and sold the Tascam, figuring that I’d leave recording to the experts and focus on rocking instead.

Fast-forward two years. The rocking was safely behind me. I was now in college, married, and taking serious steps with our band Planet X to record a demo. At the time, I had no idea there was such a thing as indie music. As far as we knew, the game plan was to record a demo and shop it around in Nashville. (We were but babes in the woods.) So Lou, the only guy in the band with any money, bought some gear and we set out to record our stuff after-hours in the college practice rooms. It turned out fine enough, but it was a far cry from what it needed to be. Eventually the band broke up, I started doing my own concerts, and I realized I had enough of my own songs to record a short album. I borrowed $3,000 from my grandma, took a Greyhound to Nashville—just like they do in the movies—was picked up at the bus station by my old roommate Mark Claassen (who’s still my neighbor, by the way), and we spent the weekend recording my independent record Walk.

It was terrifying, exhilarating, and exhausting. We were in a real studio. We hardly slept. We recorded, mixed, and mastered eight songs in 2.5 days. There were no drugs involved. I took the Greyhound home (a grueling 26 hour trip, what with all the bus stops and all), a 22-year-old kid with a shiny, $3,000 CD in his guitar case and not a dime to his name. Jamie, of course, was all-in, as she’s always been. That little eight-song CD was what I sold at concerts for the next three years, and I’ll be forever glad for the way it paid the rent. But the farther I got from it the more I loathed it. I became painfully embarrassed at my voice, my pitch, and my songs, because I had come to know better. I had toured with the Caedmon’s Call guys for fifty shows, which exposed me to some great music and a much better understanding of what it meant to be a songwriter; I was no longer doing the Florida church camp circuit, but was trying to make a go of a real career, and that meant I could no longer be content with my mediocre best. I had to work at it, learn to be objective, and—this is the big one—to ask for help, help, help.

Which brings me to three weeks ago in East Nashville when I walked into Cason Cooley’s studio, a warm room strung with lights and fragrant with incense, jammed full of guitars and pianos and books, and sat down with the Captains Courageous to start a new project. I looked around, thinking about all the other times I had done this very thing, marveling at how little I still knew about it. What do we do first? Do we sit around and play the songs for a day? Do we record scratch guitars? Do we pore over lyrics first? In some ways, it’s like looking at a hoarder’s house and wondering where to begin the cleanup. It’s also like looking out at a fallow field, steeling your resolve to tame it, furrow it, and plant–but you know it’s littered with stones and it’s going to be harder than you think. I often think of Indiana Jones and his leap of faith in the third movie.

I’m 37 years old. This isn’t my first rodeo. I shouldn’t feel that old fear, anxiety, or self-doubt, should I? Then again, maybe I should. As soon as you think you know what you’re doing, you’re in big trouble. So before we opened a single guitar case, we talked. I sat with Ben Shive, Andy Gullahorn, and Cason and told them I felt awfully unprepared. I doubted the songs. I was nervous about the musical direction the record seemed to want to take. I wondered if I was up to the task. I told them about the theme that had arisen in many of the songs: loss of innocence, the grief of growing up, the ache for the coming Kingdom, the sehnsucht I experience when I see my children on the cusp of the thousand joys and the thousand heartaches of young-adulthood.

Then we prayed. We asked for help. Ever since I read Lanier Ivester’s beautiful post about Bach (if you haven’t read it, you must), I’ve written the words “Jesu juva” in my journal when I’m writing a lyric. It’s latin for “Jesus, help!”, and there’s no better prayer for the beginning of an adventure. Jesus, you’re the source of beauty: help us make something beautiful; Jesus, you’re the Word that was with God in the beginning, the Word that made all creation: give us words and be with us in this beginning of this creation; Jesus, you’re the light of the world: light our way into this mystery; Jesus, you love perfectly and with perfect humility: let this imperfect music bear your perfect love to every ear that hears it.

We said, “Amen.”

Then I took a deep breath, opened the guitar case, and leapt.

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.


42 Comments

  1. Dan Kulp

    Thanks for this post. “On the Turning Away” is still one of my #1 songs – “the speechless unite in a silent accord” gives me chills.

  2. Chris

    I always count myself fortunate to have brought a group of teenagers to a retreat many years ago in Lansing, MI where a guy I had never heard of was performing with his wife and Gabe Scott. Decided to shell out the 12 bucks or so for one of those initial copies of “Walk” and have held on to it ever since. Been an absolute blessing to follow AP’s career ever since.

  3. robyn jones clark

    i’ll say it again, thank you for never ceasing to practice your craft/art. you’ve grown exponentially in your songwriting, singing, writing(books) since the beginning with “walk”. i have to say that it really makes me proud. i love to see people grow in their walks and especially artists in their art. i’m the one over here that wants to grow but is too afraid to fail. thank you for taking the leap of faith every single time, b/c it gives me hope that one day i’ll be a risk taker enough to take that leap too.

  4. April Pickle

    I started to read this and then grabbed my teens so that I could read it aloud to them. We live in a small town and they have struggled with trying to form a band and just got some recording software so I knew they would relate to your story and be encouraged by it. What I didn’t expect was for the end of the story to minister to me where I am today and cause me to fight tears reading it. Our sweet Savior just used you to bless all three of us!

  5. Jeff

    Thanks for those words Andrew, I am finding myself there as we speak, while I have been in the studio a few times as a studio musician, I now find myself in a lead roll. To hear the music and lyrics….I become my worst critic asking those same questions. Thanks for the encouraging words.

  6. James Witmer

    In the absence of a reliable inner critic, I’ve had to learn to take – no, beg for and someday probably hire – criticism.

    Once you get past the initial sting, it is invigorating to have an ideal to rise to. Thanks for sharing your stories. As RJC said, many of us draw the courage to leap from watching yours.

  7. Laura Peterson

    This has me pondering something I’ve heard artists talk about a lot–it seems like there’s almost a necessity of discomfort that comes with creative work. I was listening to an interview with filmmaker Davis Guggenheim, and he said something like “When I finish a day of shooting and think ‘Wow, I really knew what I was doing today,’ that’s when I get really scared.” My initial reaction at that was surprise. I’ve heard many times that an element of uncertainty is crucial to creativity, but I think his word choice of “I knew what I was doing today” is what threw me. It had me thinking about other vocations out there where people DO want to feel like they know what they’re doing, and different personality types who want to be more in control (I’m one of ’em), etc. I don’t really have a profound conlusion to all this, or at least not one I can sum up in this paragraph. Just thinking about what that means and how it works out into a lot of faith and trust and risk-taking. Thanks for this post, AP.

  8. Carla

    such a gifted writer
    you draw me in, doesn’t matter if it’s song lyrics, novel, or blog
    truly gifted

  9. Aaron Roughton

    Man, I don’t get to spend as much time milling about in the halls of the Rabbit Room as I used to. But I sure am grateful for this place every time I sneak back to snoop around. Thanks Andrew.

  10. Janna Barber

    Ah, The Dance. I’m glad you had a country phase too. I’m interested to see what direction you’re talking about and how these themes are addressed. Sounds like y’all found the best way to start after all.

  11. Chris

    As a small-time singer-songwriter myself whose currently in the early part of that timeline. I can really relate to and appreciate this. It reminds me of something Derek Webb tweeted the other day. I can’t find the original quote, but something along the lines of feeling like he forgets how to write songs every time he sits down to do it. It’s a weird balance between humility and confidence, isn’t it?

  12. Mr Under Pants

    I’ve also enjoyed the progression of seeing Andrew’s fruitful labor since “Walk”. I was a new Christian when “Walk” came along – – it’s been a great ride and looking forward to ……more to come……

  13. Collin Bullard

    Thank you for this, AP. Oh the memories… to hear this story is to hear my own story in so many ways, not least because your records have been such an integral part of my growing up. Long ago in Norman, OK, Bebo Norman was playing a show. I remember hearing “The Hammer Holds” (the old school version from The Fabric of Verse) at camp one summer, and knew that I had to hear more. I wasn’t even old enough to drive. I had to find an older guy from my youth group who was making the one-hour trip from my small-town home to see the concert. I didn’t expect to be blown away by the guy opening the show, but I was… it was you, Jamie, and Gabe as I recall… and I think Gabe played just about every instrument you could imagine (from accordion to dulcimer!). I bought “Carried Along” and wore it out in my discman(!).

    Each of your records has marked a period of my life along the way, from middle school, high school, college, seminary, and beyond. Thank you for working at your art and not giving up when the soil is rocky. After each record and each leap of faith, just turn around and throw your own bit of proverbial sand out onto the ledge as a reminder for when you return to the brink. Now that I think about it, Dr. Jones should have thrown the sand out there at the very beginning (would it have been there without the faith?). In any case, thanks, and keep the sand away from the recording equipment.

  14. caroline cobb smith

    Thank you so much for this post. I was especially encouraged by your last paragraph that starts with “And we prayed…” To hear that someone who is as far along as you in your career still struggles with self-doubt and fear, to hear that you ask and pray for help all along the way and for each and every song… Wow. Again, thank you for sharing this with us.

  15. Jaclyn

    Lanier’s article about Bach has stayed with me, too– “Soli Deo Gloria” and “Jesu Juva” have been appearing on my writing as a statement of fact, and a pleading for grace. Jesus’ strength really does come through when I have no idea what I’m doing, and admit it.

    Thanks so much for sharing this, AP.

  16. Loren

    Thanks for the behind-the-scenes look at the recording process and your growth over the years, Andrew. I love your and your group’s desire to record what God is leading you to do, not just what might be “popular.” It boggles my mind that I only discovered your work a year ago, but I can see how that was God’s timing and purpose, too. So many songs resonate with where my husband and I are right now. I’m looking forward to the next album!

  17. Bob Yang

    Thank you for sharing about your struggles, insecurities, and feelings of abandonment. Your written words are as much of a blessing as your songs.

  18. Brad

    Thanks for taking the leap AP. I am learning (much later in life than I ever would have hoped) about the emotional cost of the song-making process. I sincerely appreciate you taking the risk of stepping out into the ether, trusting that your foot will find purchase. Blessings to you.

  19. Jessica W

    Whatever you think these days about Walk, as a college kid in Boston who heard the CD from a friend and then managed to make it to a small church show when you were in town, I loved that CD. In many moves across the country and around the world since, I have lost that CD, and still find myself missing it. It’s true the music keeps getting better and better, but any chance of getting a hold of those songs anywhere – especially Lullaby and Walk?

  20. Josh Kemper

    I didn’t know the word, even though I have studied German (so thanks for the link) but Sehnsucht has been a very common emotion in my life, especially as a teen, and now in recent years as I’m raising a kid of my own. Your music tends to trigger that emotion in me and I’m sure I’m not the only one.

  21. Joy C

    Andrew,

    You described much of what I often feel as I go into the prison to do outreach and discipling. It is so far beyond what I can do. But I will make the effort – then pray like crazy for God to do His good will. “Be available and dependable” – that’s what my mentor told me. And when the women pray for me, it’s usually in thanks that I “keep coming back.” (Beyond that, who knows what happens – that’s in God’s hands.)

    Just keep doing your part: step up to the plate, through thick and thin – and we will trust our good God to do the rest. As your heart is seeking to serve Him – and seeking again to seek to serve Him – well, there it is. And some day there will come an end point. Probably not yet.

  22. david

    i’m really looking forward to hearing some of these songs soon… it was nice to glimpse one during the BtLoG tour!
    i love the picture of the songwriting/recording experience that’s in the movie Once – although Hansard’s character doesn’t seek help from God necessarily, he certainly models what it’s like to seek help from fellow artists.

  23. Tammy Rosenfeldt

    That little Walk album was the reason that I started listening. Saw you open for Caedmon’s at Grove City College (think it was ’98?) and once I heard you sing about your loss, I had to buy the cd. Recently, Lullaby hit home for us and even though you have had many amazing albums since then, thank you for that song that helped us through a difficult time years later.

  24. Brad Griffith

    I’ve been listening since Carried Along, so I missed Walk (although I did hear Carolina somewhere – is that on there?). What a blessing you are, AP. I thank Jesus for answering those prayers. I know He will again, and I can’t wait to hear those new songs.

  25. S. D. Smith

    @sdsmith

    Wonderful. It’s so humbling and inspiring to think of how many people there are who, like me, have experienced the results of our Father answering your prayers.

    That field you hoped and prayed to clear is a garden now, with room still to grow, but feeding so many. Bless God.

  26. mark

    I’ve ben writing songs since I was old enough to listen to songs.
    My older brother played guitar and I got stuck in his album collection for several years.
    We played and wrote, but since I am a drummer, I mostly wrote what was in my head, but very few have ever heard even a sample of it. I think of what someone said about writing.
    “I hate to write, but I love having written.” Something like that. For those who havent’ suffered through finding just the the right combination of words and in the correct order, well, God bless you anyway. Writing, when genuinely inspired, is better than any buzz I can imagine. A series of words, stating a truth is a surprisingly potent thing.
    God bless you, Andrew for sharing your journey.
    Peace…

  27. Dave Gerhartz

    Andrew….Thanks for sharing your thoughts and journey into writing and recording. As I wrestle over new songs and themes for upcoming music, it’s comforting to know that I’m not the only one wrestling! Your reminders of the ultimate source of joy and direction in your music encourages us all along the way.

  28. EmmaJ

    Andrew, thanks so much for sharing these thoughts. I really appreciate this look into the humblingly raw reality of creating something good. I feel encouraged to be more courageous in such endeavors.

  29. Tom and Anne Fisher

    Thank you for putting “Learning to Fly” and “On the Turning Away” into my head tonight! Andrew, the many many many times we have gotten to see you (or you and the Andys, at the Neighborhood Theatre in Charlotte – thank you for that amazing evening!), a quote repeatedly comes to mind: Michael Card on his live album, introducing Phil Keaggy, says something to the effect that he’s not the kind of genius that makes you intimidated, but rather inspired. For all those of us who are still toting around our first CD that we occasionally get to sell (and more often give away!), thanks for continuing to inspire us to keep creating. If Jesus is the only one tapping his feet, that’s enough.

  30. Josh Kemper

    Andrew the song you sang in Dallas that you said you recently wrote for your son was amazing. Really moving, maybe because I have a son and another one on the way. But I really hope it’s on the next recording. Your passion and love for your family is contagious, and it inspires me to be a great father.

  31. Lydia

    Wow, I knew a little about how you started out, but not that much! I see God’s hand on how he laid out your life to teach you and others.

  32. Mike Brown

    Since I bought Carried Along when I first heard the Chasing Song on the radio I have patiently anticipated AP’s next album. I’ve bought every one since and I can’t wait for this one. Thanks AP for giving your best every single time.

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