“I’m working on getting some more peeps.”
Gentle laughter from the sea of women (including Grammy Award winning Mya, fashion designer Eileen Fisher, a few other C-list celebs, and my mom) mitigated my feeble awkwardness. How did I manage to get here, crouched down by a pile of wires on a stage in front of a few hundred women?
The journey started three weeks earlier, when I was faced with a self-inflicted, competence-questioning challenge. I accepted my challenge in hopes that I was capable beyond my expectations. In doing so, I have learned to really take the bull by the horns, test my musical limits, work with and truly trust others, and deliver an inspired, and inspiring product full of possibility.
Regan Communications, my PR company, was doing the publicity for “Women, Wisdom and YOU”, a women’s benefit event sponsored by YOU by Crocs and Marie Claire Magazine. The event featured notable women speaking about the letters they wrote to their younger selves for the WHAT I KNOW NOW™ series of books by New York Time’s Best Selling Author Ellyn Spragins. They arranged for me to perform in the lobby during the reception. After reading about the event and how proceeds were benefiting the non-profit Girls Inc., I was suddenly overwhelmed with inspiration. I’ve always wanted to inspire young women through my music and how I am being as a musician and performer. This was a perfect opportunity to do just that; take action and deliver.
I decided the event should have a theme song. After a back and forth process with my PR folks, the production company, and others, my idea was approved a mere three weeks prior to the event. I jotted down some lyric concepts and sent them along as the first steps. After working at a jingle house for a few years, I was accustomed to quick- turnarounds, understood that the “client” WILL want to make changes, and that representation of the brand is key. So to help me focus, I took on that Ellyn Spragins and Crocs would be my “client”. I wrote lines like “put your best food forward, step on a cloud” as a nod to Crocs shoes, and “if I could tell my younger self”, a nod to Ellyn’s series of books. The rest came fairly easily. After I sent over my full lyrics, I only had one revision to do: there were four verses; each was a vignette of a girl or woman in a real-life situation, and we decided to change the setting for the last vignette. Within a few hours, I had a complete set of lyrics that was approved by my “clients” and waiting to be set to music. The final product was now up to me, and we all agreed I would have a rough recording (piano and my vocal) in a day or so for approval. I would then reach out to my band and a producer to get the song produced in radio-ready, pop-marketability fashion.
With approved lyrics in hand I was off to write the music in the garage of my Maine summer rental. That’s where my piano was set up: beautiful acoustics and no flights of stairs to drag my piano. I set out to write a pop tune. Peppy, inspirational, not too slow, not too spazzy. I wanted to keep it simple, for I knew the lyrics were fairly wordy and I would have to fit a lot in. To my surprise, fifteen minutes later, I was done. I wasn’t totally psyched, but I felt I was done. I knew the form wasn’t quite right, I had too many verses in one area, and a non-existent bridge, but I could work on it.
Now that I had a rough version of the song, I called J. Chris Griffin, producer extraordinaire. I met Chris several years back when I was mixing my first album at The Cutting Room in Manhattan. He stepped in to finish the mixes when another engineer decided to leave the studio. We’ve stayed in touch and have worked with each other on various projects ever since. When recording my second album, Chris played the role of my vocal producer, coaching me through songs that had almost become mundane for me to sing, and helped me find new life in my voice. And besides being an amazing vocal coach, he is a mega-tech; he mixes, composes, programs drums and all kinds of instruments, all in one studio. Chris quickly became my first choice for producer.
So, I called Chris and told him the situation: very little time and a very small budget (although we did work out a deal where if the song sells, he gets paid). He agreed to produce the song, perhaps because of our working history or maybe he felt my inspiration. I don’t know, but I hung up even more excited and went back to the garage to produce my rough vocal and piano track of the tune.
I set up my AKG stage mic, sent stereo ¼” cables from my Yamaha P120 piano through my Tascam US-122 audio interface, and connected the 122’s USB cable to my computer. I started up Logic and looked at the blank tracks, feeling my usual pre-composition emotions rising: one part intimidation, two parts excitement. That blank digital canvas stared back, and I heard it challenge me: “oh yeah? You think you’re going to write a hit song this time? Lemme hear it!” I swallowed my insecurities, the ones that normally prevent me from booting up Logic in the first place, set up my tracks, and hit RECORD. Six minutes and two takes later, I was bouncing an mp3 file to send to Chris. I wanted him to review it before I sent the rough version to my client. Armed with a few suggestions regarding the form of the song, I re-recorded, and had the song out the door, this time satisfied and proud of the completed tune. My clients approved in one email, told me to go ahead and produce the song, and have it ready four days before the event so that we could do a radio interview about it.
With two and a half weeks worth of sand in the hourglass, I figured it could be done easily. Except, I was leaving in 2 days to tour around the UK with my drummer for ten days. So…. Two and a half weeks minus one and a half weeks, left one week. Still doable. Enter J. Chris Griffin.
I had exactly 24 hours to move my summer life in Maine back to my place in Harlem, pack for the UK, record my piano and vocals for this song, say hi and bye to my family, and get on a plane. Chris and I decided I should just come into his studio to produce the vocals so that while I was away, he could work on a drum track and guitars. We decided to ask Oscar Rodriguez, my band’s guitarist, to record the bass and guitar parts for the song. He has the ability to record top-notch tracks from his place, so he could do it on his own time. After playing on my second album, Oscar proved to be the best at taking my very basic charts and extremely rough piano tracks and laying down the most beautiful, thick, gorgeous guitar parts that rock your socks off. So I wholly trusted him to work with Chris to build up the song while I was gone. All I had to do was record the vocals. Chris always inspires the best studio performances out of me, so I had no objection to fitting a recording session into my already-jam-packed 24 hours.
After laying down a complete lead vocal, we layered up some smooth background vocals. Chris was really great at saying “okay, we’re done, we could go on forever, but we’ve got time and budget limiting us here”. With that, we took a final listen and agreed we were on our way to a good track. I was letting go and trusting the song in the hands of someone else.
Fast-forward one week, far away from New York City checking my email in a diner somewhere outside Manchester, England I was excited to see a rough mix from Chris. I was blown away by how far my little tune had come; the drums were amazingly powerful and when the guitars and bass kicked in, I nearly cried. All that was left was the mix, which Chris insisted would have to wait till I got back, giving us yet another 24 hours to deliver the completed song to my clients.
Back in New York for just six hours, jetlagged and exhausted, I dragged myself downtown. A radio interview about and the women’s event and the song would be in two hours. When I first saw Chris, he looked as though he wanted this process completed as well. I knew Chris was a little bit of an audio perfectionist, like myself, and I guessed he spent many more hours than anticipated on this song. As he pointed out the Wurlitzer track he added and the auxiliary guitar tracks, and as he described programming the drums, I knew I guessed right. This guy went above and beyond the call of duty. I was ready to approve the mix.
I took a few listens, and felt terribly guilty when I had the idea the band should drop out during the bridge, making the last chorus a little more powerful and less redundant. Reluctantly, Chris agreed to tweak the track, agreeing it could better the song. Luckily, we both felt it was the right decision and we didn’t waste any time with my experiment. Soon, we were bouncing and emailing and I whipped out my laptop to send the track to my clients and the radio producer the track. After a big hug to Chris, I ran out the door to find a quiet café for the phone interview. Just as I called in, they were playing the song. It worked.
When I finally shut my apartment door behind me, I took in a big breath of accomplishment cut short by the realization that the women’s event was in three days and I had never played this song live or even practiced it since initially recording the piano track. I rushed to my Henry Miller spinet, and tried to remember the chords.
At the event, sharing a green room with Mya, getting makeup done by Trish McEvoy, and watching hundreds of women pour into the Times Center, I was very aware of my nerves. It had been years since I was nervous before a show, and those outdated nerves were usually caused by the stress of wondering if the booker was going to kill me for not having a huge crowd. This time, it was because of my star-studded audience, the newness of the song I was to perform and the comprehension that I took this on. I was the one who declared a theme song was needed and I was bold enough to offer to pull it off. Sure, the song was produced, radio-ready, and had all the makings of a hit. But how could I show that to these people today? By myself? It was just my digital piano and me.
It didn’t help that Mya performed first, had a guitarist and several people ready to help her move the stage setup for her. I was told to pull my piano over to the stage, plug it and all the cables in to the floor inputs, and then perform. I was mortified. No matter how fast I did that, it wouldn’t look smooth or professional. I finally was able to convince the stage manager to scrounge up a few extra hands to move the piano on stage, which left me to plug in all the cables. Okay, no big deal.
When I was cued, I walked through the stage door, greeted by applause, which quickly melted into silence. I bent into the microphone and said “Hello”. I started to plug in my ¼” cables and realized the awkward silence. I went back to the microphone and said “I’m working on getting some more peeps”.
So here I am, using laughter as my timer; when it dies down, I should be sitting behind the keys, ready to play.
Besides the fact my left leg was shaking the whole time and that I occasionally glanced at the cheat sheet of lyrics I had taped to the keyboard, the performance went well. I was welcomed afterwards into a reception of women telling me how they teared up, how they were inspired, and how it was a perfect conclusion to a perfect event.
Can I breathe now? Almost. Over a month after sitting in my garage writing “Nothing To Change”, weeks after performing it live, and a few days after getting it up on iTunes and into the digital world, I started to contact Girls Inc. themselves, to see if they’d be willing to take on working with me to expose the song, raising both money and awareness for the organization. (I had decided that a portion of the proceeds would go to Girls Inc.) After finally drafting and signing an agreement, the process was close to done. My next steps were to document the process (which you’re reading now), and promote the heck out of the song. Podcasts, pitches to TV shows for licensing, pitches to perform it on radio stations and daytime TV shows- the works.
For some reason, I have this idea of reaching out to a million girls, and getting a million downloads. When this is accomplished, I might say the process is complete. Until then, I will be satisfied in knowing the following things: (1) I will no longer be intimidated by my composing software; (2) my songs are beings that can exist on their own and don’t need the help of fancy production; (3) fancy production is not hard to come by when I trust and work with the right people; (4) those people are worth their weight in gold to me; (5) There is no stopping me when I get inspired.