Writing Process: "Nights & Weekends"

Each of our songs goes through multiple incarnations before we end up with a final version that we both agree on. This writing process has developed over many years of working together, as we learn the best ways to communicate and give feedback, and never compromise for something less than our best writing. Of course, this process can often be fraught and frustrating with each of us fighting to defend the reasons why we love or hate a certain lyric or melody.

The first track on Ballads for Trying Times,  "Nights & Weekends," started in a very different place than where it ended up. It started with Rachel having an idea about the subject matter for the song, which was born out of a fear that all of the work and sacrifice we put into our music would eventually go unnoticed. We were hitting a series roadblocks in our music which caused us to question and doubt ourselves.

The first draft of this song was written in this minor key with a foreboding chromatic walk-down, based on a guitar riff. That, along with the dirge-like tempo, gave the song’s lyrics about the disparity between artistic pursuit and practical adulthood a feeling of a long and tedious slog - familiar to anyone who has had to live their artistic passions on a part-time basis.

After Rachel heard this minor-key demo, she said, “The lyrics are good, but the melody is not quite right. This song sounds like it should be a prayer. We should re-write it as a gospel song.” So we reworked the song in the style of a spiritual or hymn, in a major key, which gave the song a yearning and hope that more accurately reflects the plea of the lyrics. In musical theater, they often talk about “the need to sing,” as in a character’s motivation to break into song - when speaking will no longer suffice. Oftentimes, this reason comes down to persuasion, lamentation or, like in the case of “Nights & Weekends,” prayer. As in, calling out into the void in the hopes that there is some greater force at work on your behalf. What originally was a song about desperation, revealed itself to be a song about hope in the face cynicism.

We always love hearing and reading about different artists' writing processes (a la Song Exploder, one of our favorite podcasts), so we wanted share ours with you. We hope you enjoy it! Here's the final song we ended up with:




#ConstantCreationProject: 30 Songs in 30 Days

For the last month, I've been writing a new piece of music everyday, with the hope of being less precious about song ideas and more prolific in the practice of writing. The benefits of prolific creation is, by no means, a new idea. In fact, I took inspiration from a few great pieces of writing that articulate these ideas in succinct and profound ways.

The War of Art by Steven Pressfield talks about the value of establishing a regimen of creativity in order to battle the spectre of Resistance, which is the invisible force that keeps us from our creative goals. Similarly, in his e-book, Mastering CreativityJames Clear talks about the value of creating in large volumes because it increases the chance of creating something great. 

So for each day of the project, Rachel would write a prompt into my journal and I would wake up at 6:00am and spend 30-40 minutes writing a song in the garage before going to work. Sometimes the prompts were very broad, like "Fear" and sometimes they were very specific, like "Fall (no lyrics, using only the F# Aeolian Scale)." The time limit was something that Rachel was very insistent upon, and for good reason too, because the short time frame forced me to get out of my head and stop editing myself prematurely.

This daily exercise has not only demystified the writing process for me, but it has put me into the habit of creating something everyday. Most days of the project produced terrible songs, some days produced interesting results, but everyday produced something new. I posted a few of my favorite ideas below for you to check out.

It is honestly very nerve-racking for me to post these, as I'm not used to sharing unfinished, unrefined recordings for everyone to hear. And these recordings are as unrefined as they come (I'm not the singer of our band for a reason) - roughly 30 minutes from conception to recording - but I think it's neat to see how the germ of interesting songs are nestled inside these rough sketches.

-Thu

The exact phrasing of this prompt was "Blue, the color (music only, no lyrics)." I am generally more comfortable thinking of myself as a songwriter rather than a composer, mostly because I don't have any formal music theory training, but I have recently gotten a lot of joy out of composing solo guitar pieces. In one way, it's freeing to not think about words, but then the song still has to tell a coherent story. So, in essence, the music has to do double duty: to be lyrical as well as musical. Since this was only the 2nd day of the project, I was still trying to get the hang of my writing process. So I came up with a musical theme quickly, and then I hit record to see what happened, which is why this recording is a bit long and unrestrained (lots of missed notes and experiments in tempo and rhythm). But what you are hearing is me improvising in the moment - of all the recordings, this one most captures the "throw everything against the wall and see what sticks" spirit.

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Bea is our dog. She is a gray and white Shih-Tzu and we rescued her abaout 5 years ago, and we love her to pieces. Sometimes, when she lays in the sunlight there's a little halo of light that reflects off her fur causing her to glow a little. I was writing this little waltz number and then I suddenly was struck with the sadness of what it would be like if she wasn't around, and then I got something in my eye and stopped writing.

Rachel thought of this prompt after seeing the painting, pictured here, at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena. After studying the image I wrote a draft of the song, but  when I listened back to it, I realized that it was completely wrong. The first draft sounded as if it was capturing the mood of someone looking at this painting and not the actual essence of the painting itself. So I started over and and I really love the result, which, to me, sounds like ocean and sky, but also like the brushstrokes of the painting.

Our dearest friends (and tour companions!) moved away to Tucson this year. The phrasing of this prompt sounded just like an old country tune to me, so I wrote it as an ode to our friends' journey to the desert. I imagine them listening to this while sipping margaritas, surrounded by saguaros, looking off into the endless blue skies in the horizon.

All music and lyrics (c) 2015 Thu Tran

Mixing at New Monkey Studio

We had the privilege of mixing our new EP, Ballads for Trying Times, at the legendary New Monkey Studio in Van Nuys, CA. Bought in the 1990's by the late Elliott Smith, the studio sports an original vintage 1970's Trident Triad A-Range console. Believed to be #3 of 13 total A-Range consoles that were built, it was used previously on recordings by Rush, The Police and Cat Stevens (and many more) before being purchased and installed at NMS by Smith.

We worked with engineer Nick Luca (Iron & Wine, Neko Case, M. Ward) who did an incredible job not only making the songs sound great, but also establishing a relaxing, productive and creative environment for us.

It was our first time mixing in-studio (previously, we had only mixed our first album remotely with Mason Jar Music) and it was so enlightening to be able to do the detailed and nuanced work of mixing and editing in real time. We discovered an interesting dynamic during the editing process, in which Rachel focuses on the many meticulous, intricate details, while Thu focuses on the overall big picture. We never noticed these things when we were editing remotely - listening to mixes in isolated spurts and writing long paragraphs of notes. It was a joy to take all of the guesswork out, and allow the studio to provide the forum for critical listening and decision-making.

We are so incredibly thankful to Robert and Nick at NMS for welcoming us into their space, and giving life to these songs. Each song has the richness, complexity and immediacy that we always imagined when we wrote them.

Behind the Scenes - "Someday" Music Video

Our friend, David Janove, came to us a few months ago with an idea - he said he wanted to use our song "Someday" for a music video. He pitched us the idea for the video, and we said "Of course!" Dave made it a point to tell us that this was just something he had been dreaming up in his head for a while, but that he had no timeline for making the video - so we shouldn't really expect the video to be made anytime soon.

Cut to barely a month later, we get an email in our inbox from Dave saying he's making the video and he was shooting in July and he wanted us to make a cameo. 

We arrive on set expecting to see a modest shoot with a handheld camera or something to that effect. We arrive to find a full production crew - lighting, extras, producers - the whole nine yards! 

We had so much fun on set meeting some very talented kids, working with a kind and amazing crew, and we can't wait to share the magical video with you. Stay tuned!

In The Studio - Ballads for Trying Times EP

We spent 5 days in the studio with producer Griffin Rodriguez (Beirut) recording our new EP, Ballads for Trying Times. In addition to Griffin, we collaborated on this record with Reena Esmail, Alira Strings, Will Logan and Evan Vidar to arrange and record 5 brand new songs of which we're incredibly proud. We can't wait for you to hear it - stay tuned!