Thursday, December 8, 2011

When Music Is A Lot Like Writing

Elizabeth Zelvin

I’ve been working for about a year on a project that’s been a dream of mine for a very long time: making an album of songs I’ve written over the past thirty years. The album title is Outrageous Older Woman, and when it’s finished, it will be available in CD and download form. Recording and co-producing the album in my co-producer and sound engineer’s studio has challenged me to learn and apply quite a number of new skills. I’ve also been able to draw on everything I’ve learned in my years of writing and getting my work published.

1. It takes time and patience. I’ve wanted to be a writer since the age of 7, and my first novel came out when I was 64. I’ve been playing guitar since I was 13, writing songs that were “keepers” since I was 20, and if things go well, the album may come out before I turn 68.

2. It takes talent, persistence, and luck. I’m certainly not a pro as a musician, the way I am as a writer, but I’m proud of my songs, and they’re sounding better and better as I add the talents of backup musicians and vocalists to my own vocal and guitar tracks—just as my writing gets better and better as I allow critique partners and editors to enhance it with their own skills. Persistence? See time and patience, above. Since I’m self-producing, as many acoustic singer/songwriters do, I don’t need a record deal and may or may not try to interest radio DJs in my songs. But one huge stroke of luck I’ve had is my co-producer’s generosity in giving me studio time at far less than the going rate, without which I couldn’t possibly afford the many, many hours it’s taking. And even bigger luck, this friend of thirty years has turned out to be a dream collaborator. I’ve always been impressed by writing duos who can work together successfully and have never achieved such a collaboration myself. In the complex and demanding process or putting an album of recorded music together, we’ve been working together seamlessly and having a helluva lotta fun.

3. You need computer skills. I started out as a confirmed computerphobe, and I couldn’t have done all I have as a writer without overcoming my fears and developing skills to which I’m still adding today. Today’s recording is all about the computer. We’re using a program capable of digitizing the live performances, in this case, of four singers, three guitars (four if you count the bass, which provides those thumps that you hear when you’re trying to sleep and the neighbors are throwing a party), keyboard (programmed to sound at different times like a Steinway concert grand, honky tonk piano, harp, accordion, organ, concertina, fife, tuba, and sitar), flute, penny whistle, banjo, cello, fiddle (playing three different parts on one song), clarinet, drums, and assorted percussion. It then fine-tunes every track and mixes them so they’re balanced just right to sound as good as they possibly can. The human ear and mind makes all the decisions about how every note and breath should sound, separately and together—that’s a big part of producing. But it’s also some awesome technology. As sound engineer, my friend knows what every light and button on the gigantic sound board is for and what every menu item in the program does (more than I know about MS Word after using it for ten years). That’s all beyond me, but I’ve learned how to read the screen—for example, to look at a blob and say, “Let’s lower the volume on that note two decibels,” or at a tiny speck and say, “That dot is a breath—let’s delete it.” Yep, in a digital music program you cut, copy, paste, and delete, just the way you do in Word.

4. You have to kill your darlings. I heard that crucial piece of wisdom as soon as I joined Sisters in Crime and connected with other writers. But it took me years to steel myself to apply it to my work. It’s just the same with music as it is with words. Say, I finally hit the high note on the second verse of my hardest song. We did two takes, and I did it twice. Both takes are gorgeous—but I’ve got to throw one out, because that note appears in only one place in the song. Sometimes the darlings aren’t even my darlings, but those of my backup dream team, who play so much better than I do. For example, I’m crazy about what the fiddle, the banjo, the lead guitar, and the honky tonk piano all did on the solo (the instrumental passage that breaks up the flow of words) on my most fully orchestrated song. But only one instrument at a time can take the lead. If I use them all, even as background, the solo will sound cluttered, even muddy. It would be like leaving in all the adjectives—or more than a bare sprinkling of adverbs.

If you’d like to be notified when Outrageous Older Woman comes out, you can send me your email address at (Use the symbol, not the word “at.”)


Sheila Connolly said...

Congratulations! Of course I want to hear about it when it happens.

A few years ago I realized that a person's creativity is not limited to one medium. I looked around at all the rock stars of my age (the ones I've been listening to since high school) who are still out there perorming, and there are plenty. Sure, money is a factor for them (all that wild partying in their youth got in the way of building a nest egg), but if you are possessed by the creative urge, you can't just shut it off when the bank account is full.

Which is a roundabout way of saying, you're creating in two different media, but the voice is still yours.

Sandra Parshall said...

I've never heard you sing. I'll definitely want one of your CDs.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Thanks, both of you. The CD might be available in time for Malice. It is my voice, but the songwriting voice is also different from my poetry voice and the various voices of my mystery protagonists, not to mention my blogger's voice. :)

Anonymous said...

CONGRATS!!!!!! I'll look forward to hearing it!


Anonymous said...

Liz, I give you kudos for your pluck, courage and high marks for being unafraid to let your inner voices and talents become more devloped and mature. This is wonderful encouragement for many ages of talented people - I would encourage you to write it up as a book or an article in a national/internat. magazine! Thelma Straw - fellow and friend in Manhattan