Better Than That

I just had a fairly major revelation on I-35 between Des Moines and Ames, Iowa. My new record, “Heartland,” sounds fucking excellent.

That might sound a bit arrogant. But I’m as surprised as anyone to hear myself say so (or see myself write so).

It was either absolute serendipity or complete randomness that made this record what it is. 50% of the tracking was done alone in my apartment. I was just recording demos with no objective of releasing them. But a funny thing happened when I got to Iowa to record with The Nadas this summer. I had expected them to a) have learned all of the songs prior to my arrival and b) be available to record all of the songs in one fell-swoop with me.

If I’ve learned anything from spending a few weeks on the road with a working rock band, it’s that getting all the members in the same place, at the same time, and on the same page is almost impossible. As an example, we learned the grand finale of last night’s Nada Silent Night performance over the course of two sound checks. Damn near everything they do is done on the fly. Not because they’re not organized or motivated. I haven’t seen a more motivated group of people in all of my travels. But the logistics alone make it impossible.

And so The Nadas’ contributions to “Heartland” were recorded in fits and starts. Mike would pop in to lay down some lead guitars, Jason would roll through to record some rhythm, while Justin, Jon and I worked every minute we weren’t all performing.

But there were other factors working against “Heartland.” For one, the thousand or so miles between producer Jon Locker and me. The record was 75% tracked, at best, when I left Des Moines in July. Jon added bass and keys in my absence, then sent my rough mixes via email. We’d IM ideas back and forth during the day, then he’d work some more, and repeat. Eventually, all the elements — including guest vocals from Josh Davis, Paul Wright, and Stephanie Walsmith, plus mandolin parks from Mike — were accounted for by mid-September. So it was on to mixing, which was also handicapped.

Given Jon’s schedule, though, and the fact that The Nada’s new record, “Listen Through The Static,” and the subsequent tour, were imminent, I tapped my buddy Kevin Anthony to mix it. Trouble is, Kevin’s in Minneapolis. And mixing is all about dealing with an infinite number of finite details. It’s a super hands-on process. But I couldn’t hang out with Kevin, so I sent him all the Pro Tools files and said, “Knock yourself out.”

To be fair, Kevin was reticent from the outset. He had just moved, so his Control One Studios — where we recorded and mixed both “Almost Home” and “Love & Other Indoor Games” — was scattered in various storage spaces. Plus, he never considered mixing his strong suit. (And I drove him nuts mixing the last two.) But I lobbied heavily, and he relented. We worked the same way Jon and I had: Kevin would mix, send email me MP3s, I’d comment, and he’d take another crack. It was slow going. Making matters worse, he had to help his parent’s deal with two hurricanes nearly blowing their Galveston home away. I don’t think either of us was thrilled with the process, or the results. In fact, The Nadas — at this point my Authentic Records label chiefs — were in town when the first mastered version of “Heartland” was delivered. They were cool about it, and said nice things, but we all knew (including Kev) that the mixes were all over the place. It sounded like a collection of twelve songs recorded in two places and patched together too many cooks.

With all of the press, tour, and radio preparations set into motion exactly two weeks before the official release of “Heartland,” I scrubbed the mixes, and commissioned New York producer Mark Christensen to remix the entire record from scratch. Once again, though, I couldn’t attend the mixes. I had to work the day job. So I gave Marc full reign, and crossed my fingers. I gave him a few edits, some of which he caught, others he missed. Example: there was a hideous “yeah!” during “Milk & honey” which made me cringe. It’s gone. Other artifacts, however, remained. Itty bitty things that only I’ll notice. Forever.

Mark finished the mixes and the masters on November 14th, the day before the official release. There wasn’t enough time for to replicate a full run, so Amy Hills ran off a hundred of ’em, and hand delivered ’em to my show. The full shipment arrived at the Authentic offices on Tuesday morning, just a few hours before I arrived.

And so, in all honesty, I hadn’t sat down and really listened to the record straight through until just now. I’ve been too busy, too anxious, and way too close to the process to listen. It’s not that I would put a record out that I didn’t believe in, or that I didn’t think was good. It’s just that I hadn’t micromanaged every tiny detail, every last note, as I had on every other record I’ve ever made. Which in the end, it would appear (or sound), is just fine. Because “Heartland” is fucking excellent.

I’m driving to Waterloo, Iowa, for the last of my Midwest dates. The scenery is straight out of “Fargo.” It is a near-total white out. You can’t tell the earth from the sky. The interstate is down to one lane. Traffic is moving at about 50 miles an hour. But the stereo on my rental is outstanding. And the record sounds fucking excellent.

I never doubted the songs. Their narrative arc is right where I wanted it. The protagonist (Me? You?) passes through a complete lack off faith, hits rock bottom, then picks up and moves on. It’s in every song, and in the whole record.

But until today, I wasn’t sure the sounds were there. But they are. It starts big, gets quiet, then builds again. Jon came up with some amazing sounds, and parts. He steered me towards some creative places I would never have gone.

Listen to “Cry.” Listen to “Better Than That.” It’s all in there: the open spaces, the barren fields, the stormy skies, the heartbreak, and the hope.

And quite frankly, I’m really fucking relieved. We not only pulled it off, we killed it.

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