Recording in Nashville
During my summer holidays in Denmark in 2014, I happened to run across an old friend of mine, the very well known Danish singer-songwriter Peter Vesth. I had known Peter Vesth from the Svendborg and Bornholm music scene, where we had played a bit together in the early 1970’s. I went on to finish my nautical studies to become a merchant marine ship’s officer, and eventually settled in Thailand. Peter Vesth on the other hand continued writing and performing music and has of today recorded a total of 50 albums, and has had numerous DANSKTOP hits.
For a number of years, Peter Vesth and his brother Thorkild were the musical directors in Tivoli’s VISE VERS HUS in Copenhagen.
Peter kindly invited me and my wife Kannikar to dinner, that, being single, he cooked himself, in his House in Soroe. After dinner, Peter played some of his new songs on his guitar, and I played some of my songs. Peter immediately became quite agitated ‘You must come with me to Nashville and record those songs’ he said. ‘I am going in September next year. You must come with me’ I politely turned down the idea, and had a good laugh about it. I had written some pretty nice songs I think, but had no intentions of performing for others than my wife and our little dog, who normally hid under the bed when I started playing. Recording in Nashville was definitely not something that ever entered my mind. That summer we kept in touch though, and Peter would often bring up the Nashville subject, and asked me seriously to reconsider.
However, after returning to Thailand, Kannikar eventually convinced me to go. ‘Why not’ she said‘. ‘You should go’. ‘You write some good songs’. ‘It could be fun’ And so on.
Back in Denmark for Christmas, I met up with Peter Vesth again. He took it on himself to fix the dates in September, book the studio and the A-team musicians. Peter had by then recorded 11 albums in Nashville over a 20 year period at the same studio, so arrangements were safe in his hands.
Well. September was still a long way off, however it was soon rapidly approaching, and I was starting to have creeping second thoughts. I had played a very small part in the Danish music scene in the early 70’es. I had even tried to make a name for myself in the Bars in Bangkok’s Patpong road in 1973. That was when you could still park a car in Patpong. Before guitar players gave way for ago go dancers, and the audience was mostly American soldiers on R&R from the Vietnam War, and the hostesses wore long black or red evening gowns. However that was a very, very long time ago.
Peter Vesth left for the US early September. He was taking a group of 20 people from his fan club ‘VESTHVENNERNE’ on this trip. First to New York, to retrace the footsteps of a young Bob Dylan. Then on to Nashville, where they toured the famous music strip, Grand Ole Opry, the Nashville Country Hall of Fame, the newly opened Johnny Cash museum etc.
The Peter Vesth fan club group returned to Denmark on 15th September, and I arrived at the Hilton Garden Inn Nashville with butterflies in my stomach late in the afternoon on the 16th, and met up with Peter.
Nashville is the indisputable Capital of Country and western music. Arriving in the airport you are met with guitars hanging from the ceiling and C&W bands playing in the airport restaurants from morning till late. Down at the city center, bars with live bands are lining Broadway left and right playing nearly around the clock. Not many are paid a salary, but relies solely on the tips bucket being passed around very frequently. They all have CD recordings for sale to the audience, most of whom are dressed Nashville style in Cowboy hats and Leather boots. Nearly everyone you meet in Nashville, from a bar waitresses to the taxi drivers introduces themselves as working at least part time in the music industry. One taxi driver I drove with showed me pictures of him touring Denmark as a drummer with a well-known heavy metal band called King Diamond. It is kind of like Los Angeles, where everyone is a sort of part time actor while still flipping hamburgers in the local diner.
Next morning after breakfast, a taxi took us to the County Q recording studio, where we met up with the Danish accordion virtuoso Kristian Rusbjerg, who was also going to record an album with mostly Peter Vesth’ compositions. Eventually Kristian also ended up playing accordion on one of my songs.
I had never been in a recording studio before, and had not much idea what to expect. However, I could not stop myself from spending some time lingering over the decoration in the reception room. Lining the walls were framed gold CD’s and thank you letters from various famous artists like Randy Travis, George Strait among others, who had recorded their hits at the studio. I felt quite small in a huge and new world.
I had in advance mailed demo recordings including lyrics of the songs I had decided to record. However, this first day, I was just there get acquainted with Paul Scholten, the Studio owner, the musicians and sound engineers, and to observe how Peters recording session was progressing.
What you do in Nashville is that you book the studio for one or two sessions. First session is from 10 am till 1 pm. Second session is from 2 pm till 5 pm. The Recording Studio will book the Studio musicians whom are mostly working freelance. Bookings must be done well in advance if you want to book specific musicians.
The A-team, which Peter had booked for us, had played on several of his previous recordings. So he knew each of them well. They were quite old, and they really knew their stuff. They had all been on the road with several famous artists, and could tell many funny stories from their tours with celebrities like Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson among others. Maybe too old for the rigorous tour schedules, they had now settled in Nashville and made a living out of being studio musicians. They were very professional. They all arrived early at the studio, and had their instruments ready, tuned, with new strings when the session started.
I was scheduled to start the next day. But having seen now how the recording was done, and the laid back attitude of all involved, the butterflies in my stomach had now completely disappeared, and I was ready and eager to get started. That night I went to bed early and slept like a baby.
Next morning Peter was at the breakfast table. ‘So, how are you doing’ are you ready to give it a go? Was his way of saying good morning. ‘Ready and eager I said ‘can’t wait, let’s do it.
At the studio, Paul Scholten, who also was to be my drummer and co-producer, gathered everyone in the sound engineers big room equipped with sofas, chairs and coffee. A demo of my song to be recorded would be played while Paul would make what is called the Nashville Number System Chart for each of the musicians. In Nashville they don’t use the chords C-D-E-F-G-A-B etc. Instead they use a The Nashville Number System, which is a method of transcribing music by denoting the scale degree on which a chord is built. So effectively in the key of C would be.
C=1,D=2, E=3, F=4, G=5, A=6, B=7. In the key of B♭, the numbers would be B♭=1, C=2, D=3, E♭=4, F=5, G=6, A=7
The musicians, having heard my song only once, and armed with this chart would then each go into a small sound proof room with a big glass window, and I would go into my own little room. We would all be connected through headphones.
Setting it up this way, meant, that if anyone would make a mistake, only this particular instrument or song line would need to be tracked again.
Tracking is essentially the process of recording songs. The name comes from the fact that each instrument is recorded individually and given its own “track” in the mix,
I was pretty amazed, that they were able to play my songs just armed with this number chart, and the specific tempo. The solo instruments would do some additional adjusting, Paul would come with some special sound effects, and I would do the singing 2-3 times, and basically that was pretty much how each song was made.
The engineer could then mix from 2 – 3 takes, to get the best result.
On average one song would take close to 1 hour to do. So after 2 full days of a total of 12 quite exhausting hours, I had completed the 13 songs that I had chosen for this album.
I had booked another 3 hour session on the third day to add choir and harmony vocals to my album. I was blessed with having two outstanding singer-songwriters in their own right to be my choir. Julie Burton and Jess Leary. I had met Jess Leary in Denmark the previous year, where she toured with Peter Vesth on his Grand Christmas tour. Jess had written a Number 1 hit called ‘Where the Green Grass Grows’ for the American country and Western artist Tim McGraw, so I was in really good company. I had chosen 3 songs for each of them, which I felt would match each of their distinctive vocals. They had obviously done this kind of work often before, and did not need much guidance. A few takes, and they had elevated my songs to a whole new level.
My album was finished by now. Nothing more I could do, though I still had to spend a lot of time with the Sound engineers doing the mixing and mastering. Mixing is the process of blending all the individual tracks in a recording to create a version of the song that sounds as good as possible. Mastering is the process of turning a collection of songs into an album and combining them to create a final master for manufacturing. Or – it’s making your music sound the best it can be.
It is quite amazing, sitting next to the sound engineer with your headphones on, listening to how Nashville can transform the simple music you make, sitting alone in your private bedroom in Pattaya to, in my own humble opinion, the quite fantastic soundtracks now flooding my ears. Definitely worth the experience and effort, but also worth the considerable expense to work with some of the best musicians in the industry.