The Call to Adventure — recording the Hero’s Journey

image courtesy of Wikipedia

Our bandleader is pregnant. Our violinist may be moving away in a few weeks. Our drummer broke four vertebrae. And I can barely talk right now due to a vocal cord illness.

Now is the perfect time to record an album!

Especially a 17 track concept album based on Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces

The Call to Adventure

So wake up, wake up
You have been waiting for a chance to find you
So at the moment that one comes to bind you
Stand up, stand up
Coz you can face it or it can befall you
But either way now it has come to call you
Wake up, wake up
- Beth Kinderman, “The Call to Adventure”

There are four of us — Beth leads the band, writes the songs, sings, and plays guitar. I play lead guitar and whatever else is necessary, and produce our recordings. Justin plays drums and has been with us since the first album. Elizabeth plays violin and occasional keyboards, and sings harmony. The band originally formed in 2008, when I produced Beth’s first album. Since then, we’ve released six albums total, played a lot of concerts, and have a small but loyal following. I often describe our sound as “If Lilith Fair had a progressive rock band”. The music is a combination of typical folk, singer-songwriter, and punk influences, but with powerful love for the complexity and epic scale of progressive rock — and Beth finds her best subject matter in science fiction fandom.

In other words, if you want to hear an epic trilogy of songs about the women of Battlestar Galactica, we are totally your band!

Beth talked about this idea for years — a concept album based on Joseph Campbell’s famous theories of mythology and storytelling. This is right up her alley, and mine as well. Joseph Campbell provides the best theoretical underpinnings we have for the epic stories that provide the source material for so much of our music. One song for each of the 17 steps in the Hero’s Journey. Wow.

Then in February 2014, as a FAWM (February Album Writing Month) project, she actually wrote it all. Well, most of it anyway. Fourteen songs, with the other three to be instrumentals. And it was brilliant.

Refusal of the Call

So now the time has come to work my way into the center
Knock down a few walls so I can look at the moon
Coz the forest floor is littered with the chrysalids turned carcasses
Of all the butterflies who fell in love with their cocoon…
- Beth Kinderman, “Refusal of the Call”

Two years ago, I was in no shape to record an album. I was trying hard at the time to start a software company — I still am — and I did not feel I had the bandwidth. We played concerts of Hero’s Journey material, but the only recordings were Beth’s demos. Sure, we’ll record the album, someday, when I have the time and energy…

There’s nothing I can do about it! It’s such a long way from here…
- Luke Skywalker

Fast forward two years. Beth is going to have another baby, and Elizabeth may be taking a career opportunity that would move her far away. If we’re going to record this album, we have to do it now, or maybe never. I cannot imagine making the album without Elizabeth. It’s not just a violin we need, it’s her violin. I can’t hear another player’s approach. And it’s not just that Elizabeth is a gifted and highly skilled musician, but more importantly, it’s that she gets it. She instinctively understands the sound of the band, and contributes wholeheartedly. I guess it’s time to record.

The Road of Trials

Sun through sunset cross the sky, and then back to set once more
The far horizon to my eyes seems no closer than before
Hand in hand I trudge beside my weapons and my friends
But the way’s too long and the way’s too wide and I still can’t see the end
- Beth Kinderman, “Road of Trials”

It was a wednesday evening. Beth and I got together to record the first set of basic tracks for the album. I had hoped to be able to do a more “live” recording with the band in a room together, but given our constraints, it appeared impractical. So track Beth well enough to have something that Justin, Elizabeth, and I can overdub on, and then Beth herself can redo her guitars and vocals as needed. This is a nerve-racking way to record for me. Some of the music is quite difficult, and it’s much easier to make a groove that gels when key timekeepers can play live.

Late that friday, I got word that Justin had been hospitalized with seizures. After a few days in intensive care, we learned that he had four cracked vertebrae from a fall at work the week before, which triggered a seizure disorder that hadn’t troubled him since childhood. We didn’t know when Justin would be able to play drums again.

We kept working. Beth and I tracked more basics the next week, worried and somber. We solved some groove problems with Refusal of the Call by recording our basic guitar parts together, making the little rubato pauses between sections work. We struggled with big questions of arrangement and direction. We trudged along.

The Belly of the Whale

Ooo, there is danger in the deep, in the dark
Ooo, but somewhere down there in the depths, I lit a spark
I lit a spark
- Beth Kinderman, “Belly of the Whale”

A week later, I did a recording session with Elizabeth — or planned to, anyway. We wound up not recording anything. Instead, we listened closely, talked about arrangement possibilities, and she critiqued some parts of mine for me. I haven’t seen enough of Elizabeth lately, and I think getting synchronized on our intent was more important than just tracking parts.

We worked a lot on potential changes to Belly of the Whale, one of the most musically challenging parts of the album. Belly of the Whale has two musical phrase types — a verse with complex descending chords in 6/8, and a chorus with simpler but stranger chords in 5/4. There’s a long instrumental section (what I think of as “fighting the leviathan”) in the 6/8 verse structure. Elizabeth, who loves complexity, suggested we change the instrumental to 5/8 using the same chords. I like the sound of it, but we need to sit with Beth to get everyone in agreement and figure out all the musical implications of this approach. It’s not the only troublesome song, but at least I can do something about this problem spot.

And it’s getting better. Justin can still play. Elizabeth has more time than we first feared. Technical issues are getting sorted out. This record will happen.

The night sky held me down with stars the shape of shore
Ten million miles from home I set my shoulder to the oar
Shoulder to the oar, shoulder to the oar…

More on our hero’s journey as the album develops!

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