A few months ago, I had the opportunity to do a show with actress/model Arden Cho in Boston, and ended up doing a little Youtube cover of the song "A Thousand Years" with her. Go check it out if haven't had a chance yet!
So after a fun filled weekend of performing/recording, Arden asked me if I would be interested in producing an EP for her. Let me tell you, now that it's all done and the album is out there, I was TERRIFIED when she asked me. There is a healthy level of humility that I believe all artists should have, but for me it went straight past humility to absolute lack of self-confidence (which I know isn't a good thing). Not only does Arden have 100,000 + subscribers on Youtube, thousands or twitter followers, etc., but she was also trusting me w/ what would be her debut album! To make matters more nerve racking, the last album I'd produced was YEARS ago for my buddy Jason Min which was all set in his SAT prep school, where I set up all my gear between 2 of his classrooms, and we were intentionally going for an "indie" sound. I knew immediately, that wouldn't be the approach I would be taking with Arden. So with much trepidation (feeling rusty w/ recording), and as a step of faith I said "yes", and just trusted that instincts would kick in as I went along.
I wanted to write a blog entry about my approach with producing an album, because I've recorded many albums for artists in the past, but I don't think I've ever written extensively about the process of producing and what that looks like for me. So if you intend on reading the rest of this entry, keep in mind that it will primarily be about a producer's artistic and technical process and might have some geeky studio talk in it. If you're not into that, you can skip straight to the end and look at photos. :)
My recording gear was all from 2006 and before (including my computer), and I'd been running into a lot of problems whenever I was recording, so after assessing what type of album it was going to be (which ended up being a bit more full-band as opposed to a few acoustic guitars and vocals), I invested into a new macbook pro, latest version of Pro Tools, and some other necessary plugins for recording. This is how musicians/producers go broke :)
We spent the first few days jamming and going over the many songs that Arden had written over the years. To my surprise, Arden was very prolific with her writing (even more so than some other singer/songwriters that I know) and had many songs to choose from. It's surprising because most of her fans will see her acting resume, and covers done on Youtube, but it was good to see that she'd been writing tons of original material on the side, and starting to hone her craft in that area.
Since this was her first album, I was fearful of taking it in a direction where her fans would not approve, and as I prepared for this album there were many approaches I had in the back of my mind. Do I go safe, even keel and mellow, based on her vocal range? No big peaks dynamically? Easy listening? All pop? I really struggled w/ this quite a bit. Many of the songs were in raw form, so it was easy to mold them - but into what?
After a few days of narrowing down the song choices, I looked back on many of the impromptu moments there were as I observed how she performed the songs in front of me. There was a song she had written that she deliberately didn't play for me because she said it was too difficult for her to sing [Better Off]. It had an Avril Lavigne vibe to it, and it was LOUD - the type of song you can only really sing full force. But when I began playing it on the acoustic, I saw a side of her I hadn't seen before. She immediately became alive, and rocked out (almost on the verge of losing her voice) and was jumping around in the room w/ an air microphone in hand and went full blast karaoke on me. She was having fun! Not only that, but the melody was catchy and I could see it being a really fun song to produce. I'm SO glad we ended up recording it, because it became one of our favorites on the album! Skip to a car drive we had when we were coming back from lunch: Arden had mentioned to me back in Boston that she was from Texas, and that she loved country music. I asked her to play me some of her favorite songs, and to my surprise - it wasn't no Taylor Swift, Lady Antebellum cross over stuff - it was DEEP south! So as she sang along to these songs I had never heard before in my life (with southern twang and all), I scratched my head and thought to myself, "Hmm, country. Interesting". And how convenient it was, that I was also a huge fan of music that comes out of Nashville in general.
So I had some pop, punk rock, country, etc. to work with, and I had no idea how to melt it all into one style - so I didn't (not all the way, at least). In the past, I vowed never to create an album again that had too many different styles in it, but I realized that the climate of music sales have changed drastically since then. If anything, it's a very singles driven industry as opposed to full albums now. And while I wanted to help create a great album in its entirety, I thought that perhaps I don't have to lock into a theme (at least musically). [But of course, I still love albums that do this well] Not only that, but these are the styles that Arden seemed to identify w/ the most. I've always been a firm believer of creating music (art) that wasn't geared toward the market, but was something that is sincere and a reflection of the artist. I know that for myself, none of the songs I created w/ market in mind are the ones that had any staying power (at least for myself) - I hardly perform songs that I created specifically for an album or for the public anymore. From what I could tell, Arden loved pop & country (with a splash of punk and "Norah/Colbie") - and so it was decided. Why not! This is really the beginning of her music career anyway, so who knows what she'll lock into, in the years to come - but for now, there was room to experiment!
If you followed my music career, you'll know that years ago I went on tour w/ a good buddy of mine by the name of Mike Schmid [currently keyboardist for Miley Cyrus, Colton Dixon, Jessica Sanchez, etc., and in his own right an amazing Singer/Songwriter]. I can't tell you how much I love this guy, and how much I appreciate his body of work over the past decade. I'm a friend but also fan!
Fortunately for me, he has his own recording studio in Hollywood, so when it came time to record - I had a place to work! Not only that, but he ended up playing keys, singing background vocals, co-producing some of the songs, and mixing the album! (More on that later) Thanks to this project, I was able to catch up w/ an old friend, and work on music with him!
Since he is Logic based, and I am Pro-Tools, it was a bit of a challenge at first, but we got into a good flow. I never did that much file sharing for a project before! And a quick note about recording software - I still am not convinced that one is better than the other. Each has its own strength, and there were many times I wondered if I should cross over to Logic, but in the end I just ended up appreciating both for what they can do, and it looks like I'll be a Pro Tools guy for life - but would love to learn how to operate Logic as well for future projects (and maybe Ableton?).
We had some amazing musicians contribute to the project (photos below) - and it was especially great for me to be able to collaborate w/ an old friend named Joe Chai [on the electric guitar] (of Miss Vintage), and meet some new friends! Chucky Kim (bass), BC Taylor (drums), Phil Park (drums), and Brian Yaskulka (studio engineer/producer/mixing engineer) at 7th Level Productions, and Mark Chalecki (mastering engineer) all did amazing work on this project! So glad to have spent quality time w/ these folks!
As I mentioned, Mike Schmid ended up mixing the album - and more than ever in my career of producing, I LOVE to hire people for different services! In the past, there was definitely the element of ego or budget that was involved w/ hiring someone else vs. doing it on my own. But I fully accept what my strengths and weaknesses are, and if there is a budget for it - I'll always go w/ more people and more objectivity than not. It's not to say that I don't want to get better at tracking, mixing, etc., but if I have a choice, I'd rather operate on my strengths - which is more in the area of arrangements and choosing the right musicians for the style of music I am going for.
Some of my favorite songs on the album ended up being "Better Off" (one of the poppiest songs I've ever produced - Mike did some great work on the synth parts and helped me co-produce this one), "I'm The One To Blame" (you can definitely detect some country in this one, and it's the first time I ever got to play BANJO on a song :)), "Memory" (which is really more my style of production, a bit open ended in style) - and "My True Happy" which has some folky elements to it.
I can probably talk for hours about the entire process, and if any of you are curious about anything, you can leave a comment below, and I'll do my best to answer/respond to them.
So if you're an Arden fan, and have come across this blog entry - I hope you enjoyed a little bit of the behind the scenes process that went into recording, and that it would help you appreciate the album even more. Thanks again, Arden for giving me the opportunity to work on this with you! Had a blast, and I hope your fans will love it and recognize all the hard work that was put into it by you and the rest of the crew!