When the Song Plays Itself

I just got back from a week spent in a recording studio in Northern California, a singer-songwriter session with Alice DiMicele. The band was absolutely smoking and we tracked 16 tunes in four days (complete with horns). The band included some guys who have been around the block quite a few times and have recorded and played with just about everyone from Ray Charles, Ricky Lee Jones, CSN to the fusion gods of the 60’s, the Grateful Dead… In other words, these guys are the real deal.

The session took place in a studio that was attached to a house isolated at the top of a mountain, so we spent each night hanging, eating, sharing music we love and talking about the day before heading off to our respective rooms for the night.

I wanted to share a few things that came about during the late night conversations about music and the recording process.

This session could have gone any number of ways, but we decided to not rush through every track and to really hone in on the spirit of the music. Before each new tune, the songwriter would explain to us where the song came from and what it was really about. Every take seemed to become a meditation on the spirit of the music and we all tried to really listen to the song as we played it.

All too often (especially while on a session), we focus far too heavily on execution and/or making sure a few tasty licks make their way on the record. Basically, we’ve all been guilty of leading the session with our ego instead of our love of what really makes great music.

On this session, we experimented with grooves, feels and over-all vibe until something really felt right. Then, we all focused on letting the song dictate what went where. Generally speaking, we would find a vibe and go for one or two takes.

Then, we’d stop and listen… focusing on what was working and what wasn’t, making our mental notes before recording another take or two.

After this process, and having taken the time to do it right, the music became magical. Each song struck us either in the heart or the gut. Not one song went by without leaving someone’s mouth agape for one reason or another, and we refused to abandon a tune and settle for a take. We took each tune until the take had that magic “thing”. The beautiful thing was, it usually only took a few takes after listening through some rough attempts. It was because we were all trying to hone in on the song and what would support the story.

After all of the tracks were finished, we listened to each and every track, back to back. The album spoke to each of us in a way that really struck us all. The music soared and spoke. It was hard-driving when needed and as sensitive as a snowflake in the desert sun when it felt right. There was nothing extra, nothing that didn’t mean something. It was a wonderful experience. Musicians were literally crying during the ballads and dancing and grooving during the groovy tunes during the final playback. I’ve personally never seen or felt that before in a studio.

And the cool thing is, there is plenty of great guitar work, fancy bass grooving, killer drumming and even a few bass solos. We got all of the ego stuff in that we would have normally hoped was in there but it all fits the song now. Nothing sounds out of place or “showy”, only musical.

I wanted to share with you all my new love and focus when performing with a band. Listening not to myself, not to the drummer, but to the song. My new longing in music is to best be able to share fully in a complete musical statement with wonderful musicians. When you play the song only in service to that song, you reach people emotionally and you elevate your own sense of musicality much more than any blazing diminished riff ever will.

Even fantastically technical fusion can be approached this way. If the song wants it, give it. But, if you’re trying to cram a square block into a round hole simply for a “wow” effect, the song will suffer.

Music will allow us all of the flash and dash that the ego can take. The trick is, doing it with passion, intent and in service to the music first and foremost.

Just some food for thought.

Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to [email protected]. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

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  1. Skip Bowman

    I could hear this in your playing when I first met you at Produce Row, lo these many years ago. And, I agree 100%. The best music is made, whether performing or composing or jamming, when the ego is put aside and out of the way of the music.

  2. Manoel Ricardo

    man, i can feel passion in your words.

    and im glad to note im living this sort of experience. just letting it go… but im sure its cause i have some confidence in my technique.

    it makes me think if it wouldnt be worthy take a time as a proud and ego player, overplaying here and there, taking confidence, and just then the break down to the big thruth: its all music! the mistakes, the people dancing, the feel that soars between the musicians in the stage during a jam or show… feel all this and realize how stupid we were when we forgot to listen! huahuahahha…

    man, i feel really blessed too in moments like these!