Wednesday, September 26, 2018

PREMIERE: Greg Hawks -- I Hope I Never Know

Greg Hawks has been playing music for 30 years. That's a long time to be doing anything, obviously, and at this point you'd hope to be good at it. It certainly shows on Hawks' latest album, I Think It's Time. The album is in part a reaction to the Trump administration -- but it also takes Hawks back to his early musical passions for rock'n'roll and retro country. On "I Hope I Never Know," Hawks channels '60s folk rock and early rock'n'roll to process one of the most hardest leave-takings of all. Hawks has a lot to say about the song and the unglamorous realities of the modern working musician, so I'll let him take it from here.

Photo: York Wilson
 What is this song about?  Did something happen that was the spark that made you write it?

I don't think it was one specific event that triggered the inspiration to write this song. The song started with the idea of how easy it is to lose perspective on the things that matter the most in our relationships with the people we know and love the deepest. We've all been there—at least anyone who’s old enough to have had a long-term relationship. You find yourself in a fight that goes around in a circle to the point where you can't even remember how the silly dance even started. Things sometimes descend into ugly, emotional places where you say things that you don't even mean, just to inflict pain. Then when the dust clears and the claws go back in, you find yourself in calm moment of regret. Most of the time, if we're honest with ourselves, it usually has something to do with fear or insecurity about ourselves—not with the person we love. When you get hurt, you want to hurt back. It's human. But you have to be careful, because words are powerful weapons and sometimes damage can be done that can take a long time to repair. This song is about the sobering thought of what life would be like if the person you love the most ceased to be in your life. And that's where the line and title originate: “That's a day I hope I never know.” It's about putting the petty, short-term things in proper perspective. The song is a meditation and reminder to myself (and hopefully the listener) to stop making mountains out of molehills. All we have is right now, and that's really everything.

Did you have an idea of what you wanted this song to sound like before you went into the studio?  If so, how does the final version compare to what you imagined in your head?

Yes, I did. I was going through a phase where I was really enjoying some of my favorite pop music over the years. I was revisiting the great ‘60s folk rock period of The Byrds, The Hollies, and The Zombies ("Odyssey and Oracle"). I also returned to my old XTC records. I'd always loved their approach to pop music and their appreciation of jangly '60s folk-rock I love so much, especially the albums from "English Settlement" on. I'd forgotten how great "Nonsuch" was! Something else always present in all this music besides chiming guitars was incredible harmony singing, which I love dearly. So all of this informed the sonic direction of the song. Then when Tom Petty passed away, it hit me hard. I started to reflect on how long and how much of an influence and inspiration he had been for me over the decades. So much great music, so many great records. I also admired him for the way he carried himself and the unwavering integrity, originality, and character he maintained for his entire career. So as I went back through all of his music, which fits right in with the aforementioned jangly folk rock, it reinvigorated me and strengthened my musical vision. I definitely wanted this tune to be my tribute and nod of thanks to Tom.

How was it working with Chris Stamey again?

Working with Chris again was fantastic! He has helped me so much in making these last two records, not just with his brilliant mixing but with many valuable recommendations on how to make the most of a limited home studio space. He advised on miking techniques, on getting the best vocal sounds, and recommendations on essential gear for best results. His work flow and schedule fit perfectly with mine. Both of my last two albums were done the same way. I wrote and recorded and built each song from the ground up, one by one, here at my home studio, and then when it felt finished, I would send the files over to Chris. Sometimes he might be busy on tour or on another project which worked great because I would be working on the next tune, so by the time he had time in his studio to work on my stuff, he would have two or three songs waiting in his inbox, ready to mix. As an independent artist, this process has worked great for my schedule and budget.

What does he bring to the table as a mixer, and what made you want to work with him a second time?

Chris has an incredible ear for dialing in crisp, clear, and beautiful sonic clarity to everything. There's a timeless quality to his mixes I like a lot. He manages to get a state-of-the-art, modern-sounding mix that ages well. It never sounds dated. Chris always finds the right combination to bring out what's best for the song. The vocals and the lyrics are of utmost importance over everything else. He gets amazing vocal sounds, and I love that that is his first priority. Chris is an aggressive mixer in that he won't hesitate to eliminate an entire track if he does not think it contributes to the betterment of the song. This can be hard for me sometimes, and there have been some cases where I've insisted on putting something back in or to putting more of this or that in the mix. More often than not, his call is the correct one. He has seen so much in his years of experience as a songwriter, musician, band leader, arranger, as well as a recording producer and a sound and mixing engineer. Chris is a true artist in all regards. He has a true empathy for the person who is creating the work because he has seen and knows in great detail all sides of it himself through experience.

How was it producing the record yourself and playing most of the instruments? What were the hardest and easiest aspects of doing most of it yourself?

Producing my own music is always interesting, but I am much more drawn to the creative side of writing and playing music than I am with the technical side of recording or engineering. It's like anything else, I guess: the more you work at it, the better you get. You just can't be afraid to make mistakes because it's the only way to learn and develop your own touch. I think I'm getting better at it. I sure hope so! It's always thrilling when things start to come together, and it starts to feel like the song has a life of its own, directing you instead of the other way around.

At this stage, I view it as a necessary part of releasing your own music. In the age of Spotify and other streaming services where most folks expect music to be free or incredibly cheap, you have to cut costs wherever you can. That is the main reason I started doing everything myself. As far as playing all the instruments, it can be a challenge, obviously, but I find it easier to get the best parts for the song when I do most of it myself. I am not at all afraid to be brutally honest with myself when something isn't quite hitting the mark. There have been many times when I've recorded something that took a long time to create and record and seemed to be dead-on perfect at the end of the session. And then after listening to it the next day, I realize what I’ve just done gets in the way of the song, or I just don't like the way it fits with everything else. So I am willing to go back however many times it takes. That way I know I've tried everything and I've gotten my very best effort and performance for that particular part. I could never ask another musician to subject themselves to that type of time-consuming scrutiny. I couldn't afford it, either! So in some ways I consider that to be quite a luxury to have that time to listen to something repeatedly and have the freedom to go back and edit something or re-record it. 

I would say the hardest part of the process is the technical troubleshooting that goes along with digital recording. Sometimes files disappear mysteriously. Once the power went out here before I remembered to save a session and I lost hours of work. Since I do record at my house there are many other obstacles to overcome as well. Neighbors with chainsaws, neighbors who hate drum kits, helicopters and low-flying planes, loud construction projects, and barking dogs have all shut down part or all of a recording session. I’ve researched and set up all kinds of soundproofing, which has more or less helped, but it’s amazing what can still cut through. You just have to tell yourself sometimes, “Well, this session ain't happening right now," because it's clearly not meant to be.

The easiest part would be the flexibility of the scheduling. It's great when an idea might hit me at an odd time and within a short amount of time I can make it a reality. Us musicians all have unusual and very busy schedules, so it can take weeks or even months to get someone booked for a session. My inspiration space is right down the hall.

 I Think It's Time will be out on October 12th. You can learn more about Greg Hawks here.

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