HELP: INSPIRATION (Part 2) & THE COLLABORATIONS (Part 1)
In my “Inspiration (Part 1)” blog, I focused on the lyrics and themes / concepts behind my song "HELP". The isolation, loneliness & fear of facing death, yet ultimately accepting that fate. The analogy of an exhausted swimmer, having tread water for so long, surrendering to the tide of ineluctable destiny.
But creating the groove of the song … as well as the ambience & mood … both instrumentally & vocally … they were going to be the keys to the song, I felt. I also started imagining some collaborations that might help accomplish those objectives ... and may help me stretch a bit beyond where I might otherwise go, myself.
( Access HELP Stream & Video Options here: Help by Zeek Mitchell Z - DistroKid )
I had briefly flirted with the song in the fall of 2020 after coming up with most of the 1st verse lyrics … near the time when my mother passed. By then, I felt confident a chill, downtempo, trip-hop groove was going to serve the song. And I knew that, going in, that trip-hop direction and due to COVID limiting in-person recording sessions, I would probably want a programmed drum track. And, if it was going to be that, I knew I would want to work with my childhood-friend-turned-A-list-drummer, Steve Wolf (“Wolf” - see below). I wasn’t sure if I could get Wolf but we chatted and worked out an arrangement to work on 2 or 3 songs.
Other than that, for a while I thought I might be “stuck” during the fall of 2020. But that‘s because I didn’t knuckle down with focus, mostly due to my mother’s passing, moving, and related circumstances. Oh, and COVID limited in-person collaboration, of course. But once I got focused in early January 2021, I actually knocked out the song structure & chord progressions fairly quickly.
For the initial scratch demo, I used a canned downtempo drum groove from one of my keyboards. It worked well enough to get the song structure down and a good feel for the song.
LIA MENAKER – DRUM CONCEPTS
In the period of time when I felt I might be “stuck”, I received a message from Lia Menaker, another local Philly musician I primarily knew through social media. Coincidentally, I had become a fan of Lia’s work, especially her more recent stuff, where she was doing cool (atypical) programmed drum/percussion tracks and interesting vocal productions (which, by now, most of you know I’m a fan of).
Lia mentioned that a goal of hers for 2021 was to do more collaborations and asked if I’d like to collaborate. I mentioned that more collaboration was also a goal of mine. But these kind of conversations happen a lot but rarely is there follow through. In this case, given where I saw this song going combined with what I liked about Lia’s work, I decided to follow through.
I mentioned this song to LIa and told her I would get her something – a demo – soon to work with. In part, it was the motivation I needed to start knuckling down. By the time Lia & I spoke again, I had pretty much established the song structure, the chord progressions, a signature keyboard part, and most of the lyrics.
We had a scratch demo cooking using the aforementioned keyboard drum loop … and, at this point, I felt comfortable where the song was heading. But I decided I still wanted to follow through on the collaboration with Lia.
I decided to work with Lia using the following process. Turns out, this was the first time I worked with someone in this way (but I’ve done more of this since). I told her about my appreciation for her recent approaches to drum / percussion tracks and vocal productions. I asked her to take a little time and just try out some drum & vocal concepts … starting with the drums / percussions. Joey & I would send her stems to work with and “let’s see what she comes up with”.
I told her I had Wolf lined up to do comprehensive drum track programming … so i stressed for her to feel free to be experimental and we’d decide what does & doesn’t work. What we got back from Lia was cool & interesting … very much in the style I came to associate with her: sparse, halting, syncopated, interesting sounds.
She did not layer in our original demo drum loop when she sent back her isolated drum track and the comp track. She didn’t think it would work together well with her track. I disagreed (I thought they would work well together). So Joey & I layered it in … nudged things around … and liked what we were hearing. I especially liked the sonics of some the sounds she chose … 1 or 2 of which I made note to emulate in the final tracking.
“WOLF” – FINAL DRUM TRACK
Wolf is one of the premier touring / live recording & programming drummers in the industry. He’s toured and / or recorded or programmed for everyone from Grover Washington, Jr. to Beyonce, Alisha Keys & Katy Perry … you name it. In part, it is because he is super intuitive, smart & articulate, and knows how to “serve the song” or whatever the situation calls for. And he’s obviously great at his craft.
Wolf & I actually went to high school together. He was a couple years younger … which, back then, meant something … but he would sometimes sit in with my band as a drummer or percussionist when we would do a 2-drummer format or 2-drummer-plus-percussionist format. We reconnected on social media a handful of years ago but only started talking about potential collaboration during COVID, when it was clear that in-person drum tracking sessions were going to be difficult.
Funny story. As a guy re-emerging in the music scene in my 50’s, I was a bit nervous asking Wolf to work on my songs, given his A-list credentials & reputation. But, as we got talking, we naturally fell into nostalgiacally reminiscing about the “old days”. Doing that, Wolf mentioned how intimidated he was sitting in with my band back in the day. (I laughed but we were, in fact, “the band” in high school). We also chatted about our musical tastes & influences, many of which were mutual. For me, it took the edge off. Remembering, we are all human … we all have our insecurities … we are, at heart, music fans, etc.
When it comes to musical tastes & influences, Wolf & I are both huge fans of the Trip-Hop genre: Portishead, Massive Attack, Tricky, and later iterations, like Phantogram & Zero 7, etc. Turns out one of his all-time favorite albums is Massive Attack’s Mezzanine, so I knew I chose the right guy to work on HELP.
The point of all this background is that it was very easy for Wolf & I to talk about what I wanted for my songs. And by the time we worked on HELP, we already had a previous song collaboration under our belt. So, even easier.
We had several discussions about where this song was going but I also am known to provide fairly detailed notes, plus we had a demo track, which included our distilled version of Lia’s work, to refence and discuss what we like & don’t like in that track. For instance, we both loved one of the nautical sounds from Lia’s demo track and one of the “wood block”-ish sounds … so we knew to incorporate something very close.
I made sure Wolf understood the meaning behind the song and, therefore, the mood & ambience I was trying to create in each section and transition. Because of our mutual trip hop interest, it was easy for me to give him plenty of reference track ideas. I like the groove in “ABC” song but I don’t like the snare sound. I love the snare sound on “XYZ” but too much swing in the groove. I don’t think song “123” has either the right groove or specific snare sound, but it is an example of range of dynamic fluctuation I want between the verse-choruses and the transitions sections.
What we ended up with from Wolf was epic. Basically, a composition unto itself with lots of nuance (things like radio static that gives some isolation vibe without you even knowing it) and great transition sounds (for instance, that gave the feel of waves washing over the song, which fit the lyrics and ultimately the video).
LIA & GAIL – BACKGROUND VOX
Similar to the drum track, I had Lia provide background vocal concepts as a scratch demo track. Like Wolf, Lia was a trip hop fan, so she knew many of my references (both drums & vocals).
We discussed a number of concepts:
· mirroring but harmonizing my lead vocals in certain places …
· echoing & “dancing” in between lead vocal lines …
· stretching out the “Help Me” phrase (& other phrases) over top of my shorter phrases … particularly in the choruses … and then
· free-form vamping in the “transitions” (post-chorus spaces) and the ending, with the potential for epic compositions like we’ve heard from Portishead, Massive Attack & Pink Floyd
The scratch demo we got back from Lia was brilliant … just the kind of stuff I was hoping for. Joey & I, of course, did our usual thing … nudged things around for better alignments and composition … comped it in a way that we felt was ready to use as a basic template for final tracking.
We brought Lia into the studio for final tracking, because we knew there was going to be too much instruction and back & forth to handle remotely. It was one of those days of magical creation. The mix of Lia’s voice and mine … as well as the interplay between her own parts plus mine evoked all the emotions I was hoping for.
Had Gail Ann Dorsey not offered to sing on this song … an offer I could certainly not turn down … we already had a song we were incredibly proud of.
As will be discussed below and in future posts, the combination of Gail, Lia, and my voices ended up as good as it gets, in my book. In order to make sense of and have a theme (or “groundrules”) for mixing the 2 female Background Vocal tracks as a “package”, Joey & I considered the distinct qualities of their voices and came up with the following groundrules:
· Gail’s voice would be the primary voice of the BGVox “package” when mirroring my lead vox
· We imagined GAIL’S voice as “the more mature” ghost-like voice (“voices calling”) who “knew things”, whereas LIA’s was imagined as “the younger, mermaid-like” ghost-ish voice, often wailing out in isolation & loneliness
· When their 2 voices were out in the open together (without my lead vox), Gail’s would be mixed as primary and Lia’s would be secondary, almost acting as an icing ‘verb, EXCEPT …
· … WHEN Lia’s voice was either alone or performing something special in the “package”, her voice would get bumped up to equal Gail’s
I think these groundrules worked well to make the best sense and mix of 2 incredible vox tracks into a single, cohesive package that “told a good story” … which, I think, is what we are always trying to do.
THE BOWIE CONNECTION – GAIL & MARIO
In addition to the collaborations with Wolf and Lia (and the usual workflow with Joey), I felt particularly proud of collaborating on HELP with 2 of David Bowie’s inner-inner circle during the second half of his career: Mario McNulty (mixing) and Gail Ann Dorsey (bass & BGVox).
I’ll be posting a separate blog / post about this collaboration aspect, as this Bowie connection (especially with these individuals), to me, represents a particularly special collaboration worthy of a separate breakout.