The Casual Observer Songblog


Posted by Casual Observer under CO Music, Haven

The era of the concept album would seem to have ended at some point during the stretch where the LP was replaced by the one-track download. Still, we couldn’t help it.

“Haven,” the first track, bears the title of the song-cycle. Befitting the episodic nature of both the story and our releases, we will be building out the story of Haven song by song. The story itself: Hoping to escape his possessive and increasingly delusional girlfriend, Coie (pronounced cōʹ· ē), our hero impulsively abandons his city life for an anonymous rural retreat. Coie, however, will not let him go that easily.

Steve: Let’s start with the important question: is Coie real?

The answer is no, but with qualifications: Coie is real in important ways.

Back to the beginning: We hadn’t been doing this music thing for a long time. I missed writing songs, though, and one day I asked myself: what would inspire me, and more importantly Rick, in the same way we had been back way back when?

I reflected on some of the motivations that I discussed in our last post. I thought about some of the women we had encountered, together and separately, who had inspired some of our most passionate songs. I considered a few more whom friends had brought into our lives in the intervening years. If you had known them, you, too, might have needed an alternative form of expression to deal with the feelings they provoked. One of the rules I live by is, “You can’t win an argument with someone who is insane.” You can, however, sing about them.

Fortunately, those types had long been displaced to the fringes of our lives by happy marriages, well-loved children, successful and diverting careers. As I often tell my younger colleagues who are still threading this portion of their lives, real love is the easiest thing you will ever undertake. If your relationship is difficult, it’s probably because you’re trying to force something. In other words: crazy women, I was wrong to ever want you.

And yet, crazy women will always be my weakness, and even in this settled and somewhat satisfied phase of my existence I can still relieve the feelings that they provoked. My past is never far away from me, and I realized it would be easy to project myself back to those days, to imagine one more tortured affair, the worst one ever, even if I hadn’t lived it. And in that moment, Coie was born. She was a fully-formed adult, complete with a life history and some very interesting quirks, some inspired by the aforementioned women we had known, some all her own (and some surprising to me once I stumbled across them).

As suggested above, concept albums have become passe, but as I began to write about Coie and what it was like to know and be in love with her for the first and (as we shall see) second times, I could see that the story of this relationship would require some space in order to explore all of its aspects and its inevitable endings — as would have been true in the real world, Coie was just too interesting to let go of easily.

We join our story already in progress: our protagonist has found that despite her exterior charms, Coie’s interior contains something ugly, dangerous, and tenacious. He’s taken off in hopes of putting some permanent distance between himself and his former inamorata. Coie, though, always knows what she wants and she has some unconventional ways of getting it…

So is Coie real? She’s real to me, and she’s real enough to the people who, like me, have had the simultaneous glory and misery of loving her for a time, and who ever after carry the scars for the privilege of having had the experience.

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Rick: I first saw the lyrics for the collection of songs comprising “Haven” on October 20, 2008. It was during a short period between jobs, so the timing was fortuitous for me to sink some quality hours into it. In fact, the music for the first five songs from the set came to me in the space of the first month — the most densely prolific stretch I can remember. It had been something like twelve years since we’d been focused like this on a project, and though there were a handful of tracks here and there in the meantime, I was quite pleased (and relieved) that the musical ideas flowed so easily.

As for the music in “Haven”, the acoustic guitar part is played without a pick, which allowed me to emphasize the theme more easily. During that summer in particular, I had invested a lot of time studying fingerstyle guitar, improving to the point that I could comfortably play pieces by the likes of Michael Hedges, Kaki King, and Preston Reed, so I was frankly more comfortable without the pick. To digress for a second, I owe a lot to Stropes Music for their incredibly detailed Hedges transcriptions, which are replete with insights into techniques that I would have been hard-pressed to figure out on my own.

This was the first song Steve and I recorded together in over a decade, and I admit that I’m a touch sentimental about it as a result. I specifically wanted it to be a “dual” vocal at the start (similar to early Lennon/McCartney), but developing into harmonies as it progressed. As you’ll see in the Recording Notes, I spent a long time catering to my inner perfectionist, adding tracks (drums, strings, woodwinds), adjusting effects/settings, and generally tweaking the heck out of this one before I was finally able to let it go. Hope you enjoy it.

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Recorded in Aug 2009, in Rick’s Home Studio

Steve: Vocals
Rick: Acoustic guitar, bass, synth/drum programming, vocals

Here’s a selection of the conversations that we had in the course of converting the raw recording into the final song. All sorts of commentary that took place via phone or IM is left out, but hopefully it gives some insight into the process.

IM: Sat, Aug 08, 2009 3:14 PM

Rick: This second mix will sound pretty similar except for a little variability in the drums, and I inserted a compressor on the bass to tone it down a little, as well as a little bit of mastering/compressor on the whole thing. The vocal is just out of the air on the built-in mics, just there to help me identify where I was in the song.
Steve: The “especially Coie” gets swallowed each time… “Coie” kind of disappears. I wonder if we could take better advantage of the fact that Coie is all open vowels.
Rick: I agree on the name getting swallowed up. You’re probably onto something.
Steve: That’s why she’s not “Dunwallop.” I think about this stuff. :-) I think you left room in there that it can be done without having to change anything.
Rick: Yes, agreed…one thing I’ve been consciously trying to do is “leave room”, so that we don’t end up cramming too many words in too short a space.

R to S: Sat, Oct 03, 2009 8:27 PM

I spent a little more time with Haven today, primarily perking up the guitars in places, fixing vocal levels, adding a separate reverb track to the vox, and re-doing the entire drum truck. Give a listen and let me know how it fits you.

S to R: Sat, Oct 03, 2009 9:43 PM

Snap reaction… The whole thing sounds much crisper, especially the guitars. There’s not enough of you on the harmonies. They were better blended in the last version. I’m not sure about the drums. I miss the maracas or whatever that was. The current ones are a little too homogenous.

R to S: Sun, Oct 04, 2009 11:48 AM

I think you’re talking about the open hi-hat cymbal, which is actually still there. Difference is that the previous version used a drum kit that was played with brushes instead of sticks. I agree that I like the cymbal with the brush better, but I don’t like the brushed snare so much. Maybe I’ll make a hybrid of the two later on. The main thing I was trying to do was make the drums less of a distraction — they stuck out too much in the other mix to me… As for the levels, I focused on getting your vox to have more presence, and on further listening agree that I didn’t bring myself up enough. Will do.

R to S: Sun, Oct 04, 2009 10:34 PM

I re-did the drums and adjusted the levels, but it’s mixing kind of weirdly. I’m tired of listening to it, to be honest, so my objectivity is gone. Need to get away from it for a couple of days. Listen to this version, and we can discuss what things are good about each and try to come up with a happy medium.

S to R: Mon, Oct 05, 2009 12:12 AM

I think just about everything is right, actually. Part of the problem with the last one might have been that the drums were just too loud. I think the vocals now need to be a tiny bit louder compared to the music, or something. I’m starting not to trust my ears either.

I still think there should be a high note on that last Coie going a little longer. Co-EEEE-eeee…

R to S: Wed, Oct 13, 2009 10:43 PM

I felt inspiration and spent just a little more time with “Haven” last night. SONAR crashed a few times because Haven is getting complicated — lots of tracks, etc.

Anyway, I brought up the bass a little and reduced the pan spread on our voices (they were R-30%/L-30%…brought it down to 20%…you’ll probably notice that in headphones), but there are also some subtle changes that start around the 1:15 mark [ed.- I’d added the backing strings].

R to S: Sun, Jan 10, 2010 10:32 AM

I went back and redistributed the tracks/instruments across the stereo field a bit more distinctly, finished off the strings and woodwinds, and touched up the mix in general. I decided to make the strings enter a few lines earlier than before — the “so I gathered up my things” part needed something to distinguish it from the first verse….I had been thinking backup vox, but MIDI is simpler, so the strings win. ;-) I don’t think it needs the backing vox anymore. My computer is going to melt from all the tracks and plugins, anyway…

R to S: Sun, Feb 7, 2010 11:15 AM

I made the handful of final tweaks the we discussed in this one this morning… In particular, I finally figured out how to correct the first set of woodwinds. There was this one note in the guitar part that was causing an audio “illusion” when combined with the woodwinds that was causing me great pain. I was able to notch the guitars out for a brief spot there to fix it, and I don’t hear it anymore. I’m very happy about it now.

I also (a) took a couple of notes out of the bridge and ending woodwinds, (b) nit-corrected timings here and there, and (c) EQ’d away the really super low frequencies so that the bass doesn’t buzz. I’m done with it now, really.

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The cabin by the waterfall
Was a once in a lifetime chance
I said, your majesty, I think I’ll sit out this dance
For the rest of my life

So I gathered up my things
Threw my phone out and quit my job
And I didn’t tell her majesty exactly where I’d gone
For the rest of my life

    I bought this place
    Sequestered from the whole human race
    Especially Coie.

Coie was a masochist
But she also liked to share
And her majesty’s anesthetist must always be prepared
To numb her with his pain

Where Coie went without me
I didn’t know, but boy, I cared
In her majesty’s illusions it could have been anywhere
They’d numb her with their pain

    A fairy land
    Sing “Hallelujah!” and execute the band
    Especially Coie.

In love with her despite myself
A strangely addictive drug
And I pray her majesty crawls under some rug
And never, ever comes back

Here beside the waterfall
Shaded by the trees
My time with her majesty hardly seems real to me
I’ll never, ever go back

    It’s an uphill climb
    Forgetting anyone takes a bit of time
    Especially Coie.
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