On Facebook today I came across a video shared by a friend whose musical taste I respect, so I gave it a click, and had that wonderful experience of discovering something great and unexpected. It’s three members of a female Swedish choral group named Erato singing – beautifully – a cover of “Call Your Girlfriend”, by Robyn. The young women are sitting in underlit gloom around a kitchen table, accompanying themselves by using cottage cheese tubs as percussion instruments, with amazing, deadpan skill.
What a blast to see this after all this time – I didn’t know Betty ever made a video of it. My brother Owen wrote the song (Betty added new lyrics) and I was the arranger and played guitar on the recording.
Microsoft Songsmith has been stuck in my mind lately like, well, a bad song (follow that link at your own risk). It’s got me reflecting about the long trend towards using music technology to increase productivity, but not creativity. And that reminds me of the following anecdote about one night in New Orleans with Thomas Dolby, the Rhinestone Cowboy and an electronic harmonizer…
Just possibly, the Rhinestone Cowboy was drunk. Or maybe this was how he always danced to his own music: a contining cycle of nearly falling, forward and then backward, as if he were tethered to an invisible – and distracted – puppeteer.
But drunk or dancing, the Rhinestone Cowboy, aka David Allan Coe, looked and sounded like pure honky tonk. Black boots, black jeans, black cowboy hat and black shirt, plus, of course, rhinestones, and songs like “Take this Job and Shove It” and “Would You Lay With Me (In A Field Of Stone)”. Or as pure honky tonk as Thomas Dolby and I could tell.
Thomas, the synth-pop pioneer behind “She Blinded Me With Science” and “One of Our Submarines”, was watching the Rhinestone Cowboy from a VIP seat in the balcony at the New Orleans House of Blues on a summer evening in 2000. At that time I was the head of the creative department at his interactive audio firm Beatnik, and was sitting next to him. Our presence at this evening’s show was an odd, random encounter across what felt like a much wider gap than the distance from balcony to stage: it was the gap between rock and country, Silicon Valley and the South and, we assumed, high and low tech.
Then the harmony vocals came in. They flawlessly tracked the Rhinestone Cowboy’s lead – but seemed to originate from nowhere. None of the other musicians had opened their mouths. “What’s going on here?” wondered Thomas. We were familiar with harmonizers, devices that could digitally replicate and transpose any melody fed into them. But neither of us had ever seen one used outside a studio (good ones were expensive back then). The Rhinestone Cowboy had a harmonizer on stage, and was turning it on and off with a foot switch. And with surprisingly precise timing, what with the nearly falling over and all.
The Rhinestone Cowboy was out-teching us.
We were impressed. But we didn’t like it much – at least I know I didn’t. Why not? After all, we were music tech-heads, especially Thomas. His friends had christened him “Dolby” after his youthful habit of taking stereos apart. In his early days as a performer he rigged up a DIY drum machine by connecting a stage light sequencer to a set of Simmons electronic drums.
But I think that’s the point. Thomas’ use of technology was creative, taking things apart and reusing them in imaginative ways. His music presented technology through an emotional filter, such as affectionate parody, as in “She Blinded Me With Science”, or a haunting nostalgia, as in much of The Golden Age of Wireless. (I once visited Thomas at his seaside cottage in England, and was struck by the beauty of the obsolete radio technology collected on his mantle, some of it familiar from his album imagery and videos.)
The Rhinestone Cowboy’s use of technology wasn’t creative, just productive. He was simply saving himself the expense of hiring background singers. The harmonizer didn’t add anything new to his music, apart from the slightly creepy effect of hearing two perfect clones of the Rhinestone Cowboy.
Now we hear harmonizers on stages everwhere. Lately, a Hawaiian duo I used to like has become a solo act, one guy playing guitar and singing while harmonies are provided by a box of chips in place of his former bandmate. The hotel gets its entertainment cheaper now, and Hawaii enjoys a small productivity gain.
When I’m on the Big Island I still like to hear him sing that beautiful, gentle music in the bar down by the beach. But he sure looks lonely. And for my part, seeing two friends singing together is worth something in itself.
Something maybe even worth paying for.
Also published at O’Reilly Broadcast.
A very nice review of “Nowhere Motel” by The Desert Mothers at Australian music site duggup.com.au, which has made us their featured artist of the day – excerpt:
Today’s track is a ripper, for a whole bunch of reasons. My favourite one is that if you are interested you get to hear the stages the song went through as it was created as the recording process moves along. (this assumes that like me, you actually are interested in stuff like that). So, if you have ever wondered about how a song is created? Then today is your day because…
1. Spencer Critchley (the driving force behind The Desert Mothers) has documented the whole process from audio sketch to the finished product above complete with MP3 excerpts from the recording along the way.
2. “Nowhere Motel” is a great song (which is a really good thing).
My new band The Desert Mothers has a new release, “Nowhere Motel”, which I’m really excited about – give it a listen. Here’s our web site, which has a music player on the home page:
If you like it, give it a thumbs up! You can listen to or buy it at one of my new favorite online music stores indiestore.com or Amie Street. At indiestore, you can buy it for 99 cents, right here: http://www.indiestore.com/desertmothers. At Amie Street, they have a really interesting model under which the price rises, up to 99 cents, as the popularity of the song rises. Right now, because it’s brand new, “Nowhere Motel” is just 13 cents! You have to buy a minimum of $3.00 worth of credits towards this and other songs to get started, but they have lots of great music to buy there, so it’s still a deal. http://amiestreet.com/thedesertmothers. Soon “Nowhere Motel” will also be on iTunes and a lot of other places.
I recorded it with great, great talent from across the country, using a new web-based recording service called esession.com, which is like a virtual recording studio. My players were:
- Gina Fant-Saez on vocals. Gina is a wonderful singer and songwriter, and the engineer/owner at Blue World Studios in Austin, where U2, Sting, Shawn Colvin and others have recorded.
- Pat Mastelotto on drums. He was a member of Mr. Mister, and has played with XTC, King Crimson, David Sylvian and many others.
- Byron House on bass. Byron has played with the Dixie Chicks, Emmylou Harris, Buddy Miller, Dolly Parton, and many others. He also produced the latest album by the Waybacks.
- Bruce Kaphan on steel guitar and dobro. He’s played with David Byrne, Sheryl Crow, the Black Crowes, American Music Club and the Red House Painters, among others.
- Tom Roady on precussion. The Dixie Chicks, Kenny Chesney, Michael McDonald, Ricky Skaggs, Trisha Yearwood, many others.
- Gene Rabbai on piano. Neil Young, Willie Nelson, Vince Gill, and more.
- Me on guitar, songwriting & production (my brother Owen contributed to the songwriting).
- Marc Urselli mixed it. Marc is a 2-time Grammy-winner, including for Les Paul’s "American Made, World Played", featuring Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and others.
I’ve written an article about the whole experience for O’Reilly Digital Media, complete with MP3 excerpts from the recording process. You can find it here:
If you find that you REALLY like “Nowhere Motel”, I hope you’ll tell your friends about it. You can:
- forward a Desert Mothers music store link to them:
http://www.indiestore.com/desertmothers for Indie Store or http://amiestreet.com/artist/13359 for Amie Street
- or find free tools for promoting The Desert Mothers at:
- Or, you can even buy the attractive hat or T-shirt! You’ll find those here: