September 30, 2014

Say Something

I first heard this song on the radio back in February, I think. For some reason I thought it was a Civil Wars song at first, probably because it was a sad, intense duet. The voices were so passionate in their aching, that I only really listened to it ONCE, and every time after that I immediately changed the station if it came on, for fear I would break down. So it took me awhile to discover that it wasn't actually a Civil Wars song, but a song by a new band (plus Christina Aguilera) called A Great Big World. And so I listened to it more, and analyzed it, and decided it was just about the most wonderful song ever, and bought their whole album.

The album is really good, and if you like happy, heartfelt, energetic pop music with tight harmonies and standard pop-rock instrumentation like piano, drums, and electric guitar, that's what you'll find on the majority of their full-length debut. It's pop music with soul.

But I digress. I studied the song, I bought the album, I watched the video. The really amazing thing about the song is that it's pretty simple, but incredibly powerful. It's not a hard song to play, sing, or grasp lyrically, which is partly why it's so effective in delivering its universal emotion. It's lyrically broad enough to be applied to a multitude of scenarios: a lover being stonewalled, a friendship fading away, a family member slowly dying and losing the ability to be lucid or coherent.

And I watched the video. OMG, you guys. The video had me in tears. If you haven't seen it, go watch it. If it doesn't move you at least a tiny little bit, you probably don't like people or puppies or emotions or poetry or hot chocolate in front of a fire on a cold November night. What is even wrong with you. Are you a robot.

That video is just incredibly sad. I mean, Christina Aguilera is looking gorgeous; wearing 4-inch heels and false eyelashes under hot lights and probably had a camera jammed right up in her face, which is all pretty distracting probably, and she was still crying. Even the dog looks sad. And I just completely lost it when the old man climbs into the hospital bed with his dying wife.

So I figured the only way to get this song out of my system, so to speak, was to record it and make a video of it. One, I thought since it was a slow, simple song, that would be relatively easy to do, and a good song to help me learn mixing and video editing. And two, I figured if I forced myself to break it down, play and record it, and make a video (a process which necessitates listening to it approximately a bajillion times) it would stop affecting me so much.

So I started back in March recording the song. I really tried to emulate the vocals and instrumentation as best as I could, as a way to hopefully learn more about recording and mixing in the process. Other than adding some parts such as the dulcimer and extra harmonies, I strove to stay faithful to the performance and production nuances to the best of my abilities, so I wasn't distracted when I went to mix those parts specifically, and could compare them to the original.

I know my equipment isn't up to the standards of a real recording studio, and that became apparent when I noticed a hiss coming through all my live tracks. On each individual track, it's hardly noticeable, but played altogether, it had a cumulative effect which was hard to ignore. I finally isolated it to channel 1 of my Preamp, but no matter how much I played around with reductive EQ techniques, I couldn't get it to disappear entirely without compromising the sound quality of the vocals (they started to sound muffled, like they were underwater). I finally mentioned the problem to my good friend Kim at Whitfield Audio Post, and she was able to remove the hiss from the tracks for me. Thanks, Kim!

So, after weeks of recording and mixing, I finally was able to start making a video. Hooray! I shot some test footage and discovered all the lighting in my house is pretty crappy, no matter what time of day I shot video, or where in my house I was, or how many lamps and strings of Christmas lights I pointed at my face. So after a week or two of constant irritation with the low quality of the video footage, I finally invested in some semi-professional lighting. Hooray! After that, shooting the video footage only took me about a week, working on it off and on in my free time. I was pleased that the lighting really did make the video quality better, but I soon realized I needed to wear a LOT more makeup, because every freckle was glaring, while simultaneously making my skin look paler and washed out.

I was trying to capture the same vibe of the original video, despite the fact that I don't have access to a ginormous warehouse and camera crew. I had to make do with rooms in my house and rely on mostly medium shots. I put up black fabric. I sat next to a bed (the ceilings weren't high enough to get a wide enough shot of actually lying on the bed. Instead of recording B roll of slow-motion water, I used a rose, taking shots of it about every 24 hours or so, as it slowly decayed.

I learned that even after working for months on recording and mixing the song, actually performing it on camera ("performing" = "lip syncing" in this instance) still made me cry. Watching the footage play back, I learned that crying isn't a good look for me; I am not one of those people who can cry and look sexy. I am painfully, embarrassingly, ridiculous-looking when I cry. My face does that weird distorting thing and my nostrils flare out and my nose starts running. Nobody wants to see that. I had to really dial it down after a few takes. It's hard to not think about a video that makes you cry when you're trying to emulate said video. I think there are still some shots where the makeup has washed off and you can see the freckles and red nose, but I only had so much footage to choose from, so some of that still made it into the final video. I guess that means I am ALL ABOUT KEEPING IT REAL. Except when I'm not. Heh.

So, after finally shooting all the video footage, I was ready to load it onto my computer and start editing it all together. Hooray! But first, I went out of town. And then I went out of town again. And then I learned once I got back, that my computer wasn't compatible with my video editing equipment. And my video editing equipment wasn't compatible with my video camera.

So, another month went by while I consulted the internet and tried everything I could think of.

Finally, with the help of the internet and my resident hottie/roadie, I was able to get my video footage into the video editing program and edit it together. It still didn't work 100% smoothly, but it worked well enough to get the job done. It took me awhile, as I had a steep learning curve to figure out my software.

And then, I showed it to some friends and asked for their advice, and wound up editing out all video footage of me singing the back up parts. I was wearing wigs (similar to my Traveling Song video, but with less ren-faire costumes and more makeup variety. I really wanted to show those back up parts being sung, but alas, it became obvious the moment I showed it to other people that it didn't fit with the style of video I was going for. So, a day's worth of filming had to be cut. Now I know why directors of movies make "Director's Cuts." All that work! That you'll never see! Oh well. I think it's a more cohesive video when it's all said and done, so thanks to my friends Pedro and Melissa for giving me feedback.

And then, I researched and applied for the licenses to legally cover the song. It was important to me that the songwriters get compensated for providing me the opportunity to do my own version of their beautiful song. This took a few more weeks to secure, and now I know I should have done it before I even started recording the song. I needed a mechanical license, which means I could record the song and distribute it to the public. Guess what, y'all. It costs money to get a license to cover a song, even if you aren't selling it. And I was also supposed to get a synchronization license, which is different from a mechanical license. A "synch" license would grant permission for me to synch up the song with video. Normally one has to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars to do this, because one is using the original artist's recording of the song (such as in a movie, tv show, or commercial). But when you are synching your own recording of it, you still need to get a synch license. The law, however, was written decades ago when only major corporations wanted cool awesome songs in their movies and to hawk their products in commercials. Thanks to the rise of the internet and YouTube musicians covering popular songs for nothing more than their own egotistical purposes, the law is a bit outdated. I did ask about a synch license from the publishing company in charge of handling synch licenses on behalf of the artist, and they said it would cost at minimum $500.00 for me to synch it IF it was even approved, which was a long-shot, as far as they were concerned. So I did more research and got in touch with A Great Big World's manager who said I could run an advertisement on YouTube before my video, and YouTube would "claim" it on behalf of the publisher (this is what most YouTube musicians do when they cover a song). So, that's why there's an ad before the video. The more you know (star swish).

Then, I filmed the Traveling Song video and edited that together and released it before releasing my cover of Say Something, because I really wanted to share that one before PAX Prime. Needless to say, despite filming the Traveling Song "on location" in the Eyrewood, with costumes, wig changes, and even branches in my hair, it was relatively quick and painless since I wasn't dealing with as many technical or legal issues.

So that's the ultimately boring saga explaining Say Something was released months after I decided to record it. I had a lot of fun making it, and learned a ton, both about my audio/video equipment, and about myself in the process. So big thanks A Great Big World for writing the song.

And the original version still makes me cry, dammit.