I make music. Most of it gets released and disappears after a few weeks, because: 1) I don’t promote it very hard, and 2) I don’t promote it very well. Fortunately, my musical aspirations have never had much to do with getting famous, so the discouragement that always comes with having your music ignored is typically minor for me.
This summer, however, I spent a few weeks (just under a month, in total) in the studio, working with the usual band of good-for-nothing crazies with whom I’ve previously made the hard-rocking Paris and the Hiltons tracks. But we weren’t doing Paris and the Hiltons: we dropped the “band” thing, dropped the hard rock thing, and just focused on making pop-rock music.
Listening back, it’s not quite pop-rock, but that was the intention. To make something accessible, uncomplicated, without the constant irony of the old stuff, without the wacky growling. Just straightforward rock with a bit of acoustic guitar.
We put a lot of work into these tracks. Not only did we want them to sound good, but we knew they were going to be mixed by a high-profile engineer in the States, who’s worked with the Seriously Big Names: Prince, Bob Dylan, etc. It was very exciting, but it also meant that the work we did over the summer before sending it out to him had to be fucking good. It had to be well-recorded, with a clear structure, good singing, strong harmonies, and enough variety in it to make it worth sending out to a big shot elsewhere. I have not released any of this stuff yet, but it’s mastered and ready now.
The most important thing that I learned about making music this summer — something I had known in theory, but never in practice — is that it is REALLY hard to make a good radio-friendly rock song. We, the so-called artistic snobs of the world, can easily scoff at the shit that gets played on the radio, because it’s so bland, so boring and predictable. And that is certainly still true to me now. But to make a 3 minute song that really works, that clearly knows where it’s going, is hard work.
It involves constant simplification. Simplifying something artistic is, of course, not always simple, as anyone who’s tried to edit their own novel will know. But simplifying a track so that it’s really as ready, as accessible as it could be — that’s the hardest damned thing. Paring down all the ideas to see what really works — until you have ONE good hook, ONE clear lead vocal track, and a really good sense of flow throughout the song — paring the song down to its basics in this way is the ultimate reality check. Yes, your various ideas may be clever, but try making just ONE of them work on its own.
Try taking the big idea, the heart of the song, and making it work without using the other good ideas as crutches. And what you may quickly discover is how often we generate a bunch of “good ideas” because we don’t trust that there is a single “great idea” that can stand on its own. We think, well, this project has this going for it, and this, and that as well; so if someone doesn’t like this part of the project (this character, this melody) at least they’ll probably like that one instead.
It’s bullshit, of course, because it amounts to a lack of faith in the strength of the guiding idea. And spending a few weeks in a dark studio, sometimes until midnight, getting a project ready for someone else’s close scrutiny — that will force you to find the good idea, and run with it.