Taking An Album from the Studio to the Stage
As you may or may not know, my band Lula Wiles has a new record called What Will We Do coming out on Friday! (If you read No Depression regularly, hopefully you do know, as we’re lucky enough to be ND’s Spotlight band for the month of January.) Next month, we’ll embark on our album release tour, bringing the songs from What Will We Do all over the United States and into Canada.
The songs on the new record are in various states of road-readiness: A few songs were already staples of our set list when we went into the studio, but the rest were arranged in the studio as we recorded. In the 18 months between recording and releasing the album, we’ve slowly added most of the remaining new songs into our live set, but we’ve saved a few for when the album comes out.
What works for a song on a record may or may not be exactly what will work onstage. “The Pain of Loving You” (our tribute to Trio), for example, was recorded more or less exactly the way we’d been playing it live, and the few small arrangement changes we made in the studio are now reflected in our live performances of the song. We’d just begun performing Mali’s song “Good Old American Values” when we went in to record What Will We Do. The album version, which has Sean Trischka playing drums and me playing both electric guitar and fiddle, leans a bit more in a jazz/swing direction than the country-waltz version we play live as a trio, with Ellie on acoustic guitar. If you see us perform “Nashville Man,” you might notice a little ascending vocal flourish in the last chorus that isn’t on the record, and we’re absolutely furious that we didn’t think of it until we were done recording. Other songs were arranged in the studio with only the studio in mind, and we’re just now bringing them into our live set. (If you’re reading this before the album comes out and you’d like some context for these songs, you can stream the album over at NPR Music!)
When arranging the songs in the studio with our co-producer Dan Cardinal, we deliberately decided to not worry about how we’d play them onstage. At the same time, though, we were going for an organic, live sound. We decided that the fundamentals of the songs would just sound like three or four people playing music in a room, but we’d also add some of the creative, atmospheric flourishes that only the recording process can provide. Our mission statement was that we would make the record we wanted to make, and the songs would work themselves out later for our live shows.
“If I Don’t Go,” written by Ellie, is one of my favorite songs on the record. NPR correctly noted that it features a shameless Gillian Welch and David Rawlings impression by Ellie and me, respectively. The arrangement is sparse – much of it is just Ellie and her guitar. My guitar begins accompanying on the second verse, then my harmony vocal comes in on the second chorus. Then the instrumental bridge comes in out of nowhere – Mali and I soloing simultaneously on guitar and upright bass, Ellie and I singing an ascending “ah” digitally edited to remove our breaths so it lasts inhumanly long, and a deep, constant bed of Moog synth bass underneath it all. (Yes, that’s right, folks, we put synth bass on a folk record.) It’s loud, aggressive, and dissonant, but 35 seconds later, it all fades away and it’s back to Ellie and her guitar softly finishing the song. It’s a recording I’m quite proud of.
“Morphine,” Mali’s stark exploration of rural drug addiction, is similarly sparse: vocals (all three of us singing around one mic), acoustic guitar, and a minimalist drum part consisting of single hits on the kick and snare. No bass. An electric guitar shows up drenched in reverb and distortion, playing five long notes and then leaving as soon as it arrived.
I wrote “Shaking As It Turns” on clawhammer banjo, an instrument that wasn’t previously part of Lula Wiles. I played banjo for fun, but never onstage. Then this song suddenly exploded out of me, and we had to record it. I even recorded the banjo and vocal separately because I didn’t think I could execute a good vocal performance while playing a complicated part on my fourth instrument. It’s the only non-a cappella Lula Wiles song that contains neither guitar nor fiddle – we felt the song asked for only banjo, bass, drums, and voices. We sort of had to give ourselves permission to do that – Did it really make sense for the record? Would it sound totally incongruous with the band’s sound? – but you have to listen to what the song wants. Songs sometimes have minds of their own.
Bringing this song to the stage mostly necessitated me shedding the banjo part, but also the drum part is so integral to the song that we haven’t performed it until now, when we can bring Sean on the road. I’ve been working on a guitar version of the song in case the logistical limits of touring mean we need to play the song without banjo or drums, but I hope it doesn’t come to that – the interlocked synchronicity between my banjo and Sean’s drumming on that song is one of my favorite elements of the whole record.
So now, as the album release tour approaches, we’ve had to re-learn “If I Don’t Go,” “Morphine,” and “Shaking As It Turns” and figure out how to adapt the arrangements so that they will translate in a live show. We decided that the sparseness that worked on the album might sound empty onstage, so we added more vocal harmonies to all three songs, an earlier bass entrance on “If I Don’t Go,” and we still haven’t figured out what to do about that vocal line on the bridge. None of these songs have been performed yet (if you’re anywhere near Boston, you can see us debut them in a couple of weeks at our album release show!) and we’re still working out the arrangements in rehearsals. One interesting element of this process is the way that improvised parts might become “canon.” Sometimes I play something in the studio that’s totally improvised, but then I like it so much that I re-learn my own solo or fills note for note and play that live, so it becomes a composed part rather than an improvisation. Other times I rework the part and it evolves over time, a little different every night. Usually it’s some combination of both.
It feels so good to be working on new music – we’re even starting to arrange some of the brand-new songs that we’ve written since recording What Will We Do. Some of these will probably make it onto the next Lula Wiles record, whenever that happens, and the arrangements will continue to evolve. One of the things I loved the most about making this record was the way that some of the arrangements took shape quickly and spontaneously, while others were already roadworn and lived-in, but reworked in the studio. The level of focus and adaptability required to make a record that way was a huge growing and learning experience for me. I’m looking forward to seeing how our new crop of songs evolves, going between the stage and the studio and back again.
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