So What About That First Album? The Self-Interview
So… what about it?
The first album.
Yeah - what’s it’s deal? And why a 7-year gap between that and your first cassette release?
It’s a long story.
It’s not like your other records, is it?
So how much time have you got?
Just get ON with it…!
Okay, here goes. So - this guy working as an engineer and producer at a studio in El Cajon was looking for an artist. They wanted to produce a project, with the aim of shopping it to a label. This is how it was presented to us. They had done this before with an act called Limpic and Rayburn.
Carol had managed to get us a relatively high profile gig, and Limpic and Rayburn’s bassist at the time, Dave Pollard, was talked into playing with us. He had recorded our demo at this same studio, where he was on staff. I think he passed our tape to the prospective producer-guy. Anyway PPG comes to the gig, and I guess he liked us. I remember it going pretty well. Not too long after we got a call that he wanted to make a record.
Do we know Carol?
I was part of an acoustic duo called Joe Mersch and Carol Wallace. Carol is now Candy Ferner.
The Candy Ferner from your Secret Career collection?
Right. Carol had made some connections through booking bands at a venue she was managing. She had gotten us quite a few bookings, but this one was a real coup.
You must have been pleased.
It was validating to have someone interested in us, but we didn’t have the full picture - there was stuff going on behind the scenes.
What kind of stuff?
The owners of this studio didn’t actually have any interest in us as an act, or in creating a project to place with a label. Mr. Producer-Guy had become dissatisfied with his job there - long hours and low pay recording vanity projects - and in order to keep him on they offered him a creative outlet: find an artist and make a record which they would support.
Well, so at least someone there believed in you - I mean he could have picked anyone, right?
Yeah, there’s that. I think he did like us initially. But after the basic tracks and vocals were done, he split. The basic tracks were done in two days, with a third for fixes and simple stuff. It was all recorded live with superb musicians - in hindsight I’m proud I was considered good enough to play on my own record with these pros.
Anyone we’ve heard of?
Butch Lacy on keys, what a monster. I learned the most from him. Most of the keyboard parts I’ve recorded over the years are me imagining what he would do. Same for Jim Plank, noted jazz drummer and percussionist with the San Diego Symphony - he played drums on the album. I’m always thinking back to their work when arranging. Then Nathan East on bass, who’s become quite well known writing and producing with a variety of artists, and of course for playing bass with Eric Clapton.
What was he doing in El Cajon?
He’s from here man, San Diego dude.
Sounds like a good connection to have.
I seriously doubt he remembers me. But they could run through complicated charts and then get the song in one or two takes. Wrecking Crew del Sur.
So why did the producer leave?
We don’t know for sure - he said he couldn’t put up with the job situation any longer, and I imagine he was underwhelmed with our vocal performance. Being novices in the studio, we got a bit thrown singing to tracks in headphones and it took a while to get over it. The results are okay, but restrained - not what we could have done. I hadn’t found my voice yet as a singer, not to mention as a songwriter, at this point. Then again the departure may not have that much to do with us. He drove up to Escondido and took us to dinner, and I thought, “oh cool - he likes our stuff and wants to hang out.” Naive.
So where did that leave your record?
We were assured the studio owner would finish the album. There was a contract. But it was shelved for a full year before he got around to it. It put a strain on my belief in the thing. He did good work though with the finishing touches, and considering he mixed the whole record in one day it’s amazing it sounds as good as it does.
Does it sound good?
If you listen to the master - or get hold of one of the cassettes, they’re not too bad. But they used some kind of scrap vinyl for the pressing - it’s like a slap in the face. It sent a clear message they were washing their hands of us. We picked up our boxes of LPs to sell at gigs - from which we had to reimburse them up to certain amount, I believe - and that was it. No promotion, no distribution, no shopping to labels as far as I know. What seemed like our big break had turned into something very like a vanity project.
A vanity project - because it wasn’t successful?
No, I stand by the principle that good art is good art - regardless of whether it’s known. I mean, Van Gogh sold how many paintings in his lifetime? Just the one bought by his brother? And the time factor - that’s irrelevant. This attitude that music has an expiration date like a dairy product is laughable - that’s just the marketplace. We all live with the reality of the marketplace, but art takes us beyond the marketplace.
So is it good art?
Well, I wouldn’t go that far.
The year ours came out, Tom Petersen released his self-titled album - that’s good art.
You don’t like yours?
I don’t disavow it, but I’m glad I didn’t get known because of it - it’s a false start.
It has its moments. Carol did a fine job and sounds great. I like the one we wrote together, "Change." It feels genuine. Same with "And I Love You," which I later remade. But at 19 I was just half-baked as a songwriter. I didn’t know very clearly who I was or what I was doing.
Why was that?
Well if you really want to get into it…
As James Taylor once said, that’s why I’m here.
There are a couple of reasons, one of which is that I was sincerely going about a kind of Christian music while not really liking Christian music very much.
That’s weird - are you not a Christian songwriter?
What I am is a Christian writer of songs, not necessarily a writer of Christian songs. You don’t even have to be a Christian to write Christian songs - like Aida Turturro’s character on The Sopranos. [Aida Turturro played Tony Soprano’s sister Janice, - Ed.]. But at the time I was trying to write songs in CCM subculture. It’s the arena I was in and the audience we envisioned ourselves having.
How did that come about?
I started writing songs really young, in the 6th grade. A song would stick around for maybe a week or two until I wrote a better one. Gradually they stuck longer, more or less tracking my development on guitar. Whenever I learned a new trick I tended to get a song out of it. The problem was always the words: how am I going to fill in all these syllables? As a sheltered 12 to 15 year-old I didn’t have much to say.
So what did you do?
I used a lot of the stock phrases you hear in songs. I paid much more attention to the music anyway and didn’t understand the importance of the lyrics until years later, and the real purpose of words in a song not until long after that.
The real purpose of words in a song?
Song lyrics are related to poetry, but aren’t really the same thing. That’s why they often sound flat when read aloud. They can use the same tools - rhyme, alliteration, enriched language - but they don’t have to. What they have to do is give meaning while contributing musically. It’s like the words have to be part of the music. Not just the singing, the sounds of the words themselves are musical. And while they add to the music of the song, the music has to deepen the impact of the words. It’s a reciprocal relationship, and I didn’t think about it - though I’d been responding to it on a gut level all along.
When did you start noticing the importance of the words?
No question - Joni Mitchell, 1975. "A helicopter lands on the Pan-Am roof like a dragonfly on a tomb "- that line from “Harry’s House/Centerpiece.” That woke me up. Not only because it’s such a vivid, perfect image, but it encapsulates the whole idea of the song in one line before going on: "And business men in button downs press into conference rooms." Poetic and musical. I couldn’t do it, but I started to notice.
But what does this all have to do with your situation in Christian music?
Carol and I met in high school when I was a freshman and she was a sophomore. We were both music nerds and connected through our shared interest in guitar and vocal harmony. She had started a band with a neighbor friend who was just starting out on drums and her boyfriend who was older and played piano. Did I want to join as a guitar player, write songs and sing? It was a Christian band, and being a Christian it seemed like a good fit, a door opening. It was a step that put me on a path which I think was the right one for me then; it wasn’t taken cynically or insincerely, though in hindsight there were probably a couple of factors beneath the surface.
Being in a Christian band would let me pursue music and still keep peace in the family. My parents were never going to let me hang out with musicians in bars and dig the gritty side of life! But this wouldn’t cause conflict. And there had been a lot of conflict and upheaval in my family up to that point.
You weren’t prepared to be a 15 year old rebel rocker.
Exactly. And the other factor: struggling for what to say in my songs was suddenly solved - there was ready made content and an audience. But I wasn’t really thinking consciously about these things.
So, let me get this straight - filling your songs with stock Christian phrases instead of stock regular phrases made you a good songwriter?
Uh... aha, no. It certainly didn't turn me into a good songwriter, but it's fair to say it pointed me in a direction.