- Studio Grace: The Making of a Record
- Eric Siblin
Recently, I spoke with Canadian blues artist Paul Reddick about making music. His relationship with the blues was intensely personal, he said. It was a vehicle for communication, and he had a responsibility to express himself. As for songwriting, Reddick said it was magical, like rolling dice, and as long as one kept rolling them, something would materialize. And if it did not? "There is no great responsibility to achieve," he told me. "It's about making the choice to try."Making the choice to try.
Those words hung with me as I read Eric Siblin's Studio Grace, a workmanlike effort of non-fiction billed as "one man's journey to realize his rock 'n' roll dreams," which involved recording an album of his original songs. Siblin, the award-winning Montreal author of The Cello Suites, a story of his passion for Bach's masterpiece, had played in bands when he was younger – nothing all that serious – and he had accumulated a dozen or so songs over the years. Now, at the age of … well, he doesn't tell us how old he is.
And that's one of my problems with this book: He doesn't give himself up – there's an unavailability to him. A former music critic with the Montreal Gazette, Siblin writes in enough of a reporterly fashion that he's less than a compelling character in his own book about his own fantasy coming true.
So he doesn't want to write a memoir. Okay, fine – his choice. But we'll get back to that.
No, let's keep with it. Siblin has given us a book that really did need to be written. Most music lovers probably have only a vague idea of how songs are assembled in the studio. And, yes, "assembling" is exactly the right word to use. A demystifying Siblin takes readers on a months-long journey involving four different studios – a cramped basement facility, a mansion's attic, an indie-rocker's home studio and an analogue playground called Hotel2Tango – and employing a variety of techniques, musicians and producers. Studio tricks are revealed in an easy-to-understand way. Siblin's songs are arranged, moulded, twisted, ditched, picked back up, nipped, tucked, overhauled, rearranged and candidly assessed. As Siblin is not much of a singer, guest vocalists– an interesting cast of them – are brought in. Egos are stepped on; favours are called in.
All in the name of getting the best possible professional versions of Siblin's long-harboured songs on tape. (Hard drive, whatever.)
Thing is, there's very little drama here. A dog dies – that's about it. The process of recording Siblin's adult-contemporary album (also named Studio Grace, listenable at ericsiblin.com) is meticulous and incremental, but fairly straightforward. With the songwriting journalist-musician mostly keeping his own life out of the narrative, the focus is narrow.
I've talked to songwriters – the good ones who don't get rich, such as Reddick, Corin Raymond, Justin Rutledge or Amelia Curran – and they bleed it, need it, hearts beating in three-quarter time. They've made the choice to try, and for the long haul.
Siblin? I'm not sure what choices he's made. Is this a bucket-list thing for him? A vanity project? A mid-life crisis? (I still don't know how old he is.)
Perhaps recording an album is just a good premise for a book. But in a book that purports to take readers through the recording process, details are missing. For instance, how expensive is studio time? How much are the producer-engineers charging him? How much does it cost, I mean to say, to be the boss?
Studio Grace covers some of the same ground as How Music Works, David Byrne's rabbit hole into the social, technological and architectural contexts of music, with a dash of the Talking Heads' maestro's own life and work mixed in. A page or two of How Music Works are given over to the making of Byrne's 1997 album Feelings, which was recorded in the same piecemeal manner as Siblin's album.
Byrne notes that just as albums became cheaper to make, the traditional means of selling and distributing music have become less viable. Siblin touches on technology as well – YouTube as the new radio; free downloading the flipside price of digital invention. (Stephen Witt's new book How Music Got Free goes deeper into the age of I-want-my-MP3.)
With no real money to be made from his songs, what is Siblin's motivation then? What is his rock 'n' roll dream? It's to sing, we learn on page 259 of 295, a song he had written. "It was a visceral need," the pitchy author explains.
The songwriter wishes to be a singer-songwriter, and so he goes back into the studio to insert his vocals on a song called Grace of Love. It's a slow, spiritually concerned folk-rock number in B-flat major. On the choruses, Siblin's voice is strained; on the verses, it's low in the mix. That seems to be his style.
Brad Wheeler writes for Globe Arts.