The making of "Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?"
I’m trying to keep creating in COVID times. I’ve been a huge fan of jazz vocalist Andy Bey ever since I heard his outstanding version of the Depression-era standard “Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?”, and it’s never stopped giving me ideas and inspiration.
I just posted my recording of “Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?” from my home studio. I recorded/programmed everything on the track myself. I decided I'd write out some of my thoughts about the process of making this, since it's the kind of thing I like to read myself.
You’re still here?
Ok, then. With this recording, I was trying to create a live feel, as if a jazz trio and vocalist were in a room together. But I don’t play drums or bass. Even in 2021, this is still an obstacle. I played the bass parts live on the keyboard, using a decent sample of an upright bass. But the drums I actually had to program. I’ve seen people with great keyboard drum chops, who can play drum samples live like an instrument, but I can’t do that. So every time you hear a little fill on this recording, I had to go in and select the timing, and the velocity of each note, and line them up like you might do it on a typewriter or Microsoft Word. Not the most musical thing to do. So I’m kind of proud of the way it turned out.
My favorite drum nerdy bits:
I changed ride cymbals in different sections of the song, like a real drummer. It’s not that I actually thought about this before, because drummers always take care of that part. It’s something that I noticed in the process of recording…’gee, a good drummer would switch to a darker ride here…”
I’m super proud of the way I got the initial drum beat. I took an alt-rock drum loop, turned the swing feel way up, and reduced the velocity of the whole thing, and I got something that sounded like a funky drummer in a coffeehouse. I felt good about that.
My main take away from this was: “gee, I feel a lot better about doing this in the shower.” I heard a story where someone asked John Coltrane how he felt about his last set, and he said something like “It goes better in the practice room”.
When I started working on the vocals, I found myself instinctively trying to imitate both Mel Torme and Andy Bey: Andy, not very successfully, because he does a bunch of gospel sounding fast riffs that I have no idea how to even make come out, and Mel, unfortunately, because he does a sort of nasal, round vocal thing that I really don’t like but somehow manage to gravitate to (he’s still great, though).
In the end, I decided I wanted to try and find a sound that was more ‘modern’ and suited my own voice. I didn’t really know what that meant, but I imagined it in my head as I worked. I tried tracking vocals about fifteen times before I recorded a part that I thought was okay. I didn’t do much editing at all. I did fix the pitch on maybe five notes, so a teeny bit of cheating, but it was to save a take that was otherwise good.
I do some really weird stuff when I scat sing. If you’re paying attention, it’s going to sound like I cut the record and fixed some part, overdubbing it, splicing it together wrong, and making a mess of it in the process. No, it’s just me making weird noises and choking off my notes at odd times. Seems like the right thing to do at the time, but then you listen back and feel differently. At some point, though, you just have to accept what you’ve recorded and leave it in. Also, gosh, I said ‘baby’ way more than I wanted to.
Since this is my main instrument, I was super critical about it. But I wanted to have my performances be as much of a single take as possible, rather than creating some kind of Frankenstein’s-monster sort of part. So I ended up recording the piano solo probably 20 times. I didn’t have too much trouble creating accompaniment parts for myself singing, but it was so interesting to see how much change in the perceived drama of the vocal performance I could get by making changes to the piano. I could make it seem like my singing was really boring or really exciting in the same passage. Mostly that’s by creating contrast: harmonic or rhythmic movement when the vocals are more static, and less movement when the vocals are moving a lot. I can also make the vocals seem like they’re doing something more or less dissonant by changing the harmonies underneath. There’s a more dissonant section right before the piano solo that, to me, sounds like a live performance, and I like that a lot.