The Ups And Downs Of Nashville's New Digitally Distanced Songwriting Sessions
Congregating in person for concerts is out of the question this spring and for the foreseeable future, so music fans have gotten used to watching performers livestream from home. What's less obvious is that segments of the Nashville music community that work out of view have been equally resourceful in finding virtual stopgaps during lockdown.
In the industry culture of Music City, fully booked and productive work days can have the appearance of neighborly socializing, so it only makes sense that many music-makers would look to shift their standard, three-hour co-writing appointments and studio sessions to videoconferencing in comfy clothes.
Among those working this way are Stephanie Quayle, a plucky, expressive country-pop singer and songwriter whose Montana roots make her partial to ranching and rodeoing imagery, and Alex Kline, the conservatory-trained composer and multi-instrumentalist producing Quayle's music.
They'd planned to reserve a studio and hire players to record two new songs in April --that, of course, was not to be. By mid-March, Quayle was sheltering with her husband on their working farm in North Carolina and Kline was self-quarantining in her West Nashville bungalow. Together, they pondered how to carry on with the project amidst a pandemic.
During a joint phone interview, Kline recalled her reasoning: "Well, I've got more time than I usually do, and I know a lot of musicians that are dying to work right now. All the ones that I use have their own home studio set-ups. So we can still get this done."
"It was never, 'Oh, I guess we'll just have to wait.' " Quayle affirmed appreciatively. "It was, 'Let's see what we can do.' I love that sort of mentality."
On a Monday afternoon in late April, Quayle and Kline were joined on a Zoom meeting by Christine Hillman, the A&R rep from Quayle's independent label, engineer Aaron Chmielewski and guitarist Adam Shoenfeld, all of them but Quayle in Tennessee. Rather than the standard studio strategy of having an entire group of studio pros lay down their parts at once, this session would single out electric guitar.
Before the five got down to business, there was a bit of introductory banter and commiseration about the strange circumstances under which they were convening.
"Are you drinking beer down there, Stephanie?" Alex wanted to know.
"Kombucha," Quayle corrected, half-grinning, sun streaming through the window behind her, "but it'll soon be something stronger."
Realizing that the others probably remembered him as clean-shaven, Shoenfeld lightheartedly acknowledged his quarantine beard. At one point, he spun the camera around to offer a panoramic view of his home studio, with its gold record plaques, gear arsenal and flickering fake candles. "Just so you know, that's how we're rolling," he quipped.
Zoom functions reasonably well for business meetings and simulated happy-hour hangs. But with its tinny sound quality and stuttering delays, it's not exactly designed for a professional recording session, where it's imperative for the producer to be able to make out the nuances of the guitarist's performance. The solution, worked out in advance, was that everyone would log on to a separate program, called Audio Movers, that streams audio without getting glitchy.
Even so, they were in for a somewhat halting process. Without engineer Chmielewski physically present, Shoenfeld was juggling: He'd reach toward his screen to unmute himself on Zoom, consult with the producer and engineer, turn the app's audio back off again, check the chart he'd made to guide him through a song, cue up the track and, finally, start playing.
"I wish I had an engineer," Shoenfeld commented with wistful wryness. "Reach through and press the buttons, would you please?"
Stoically monitoring volume levels and tone from his own work space, Chmielewski admitted feeling phantom urges to manipulate the controls: "Every time Adam hits 'stop' and 'play,' I want to do it too."
They were working on a broody country-rock tune called "Lone Ranger," whose propulsive rhythm parts were already mostly assembled, some of them played by Kline, and Quayle's scratch vocal, which she'd then replace at a later date.The first thing Shoenfeld added was baritone guitar, whose western-sounding gravitas he knew Quayle favored, strategically positioning his arpeggiated figures and resonant chording to leave room for other textures. He switched guitars for a sinewy rhythm part, then switched again for metal-style lead lines.
During a discussion between takes, Kline sang Shoenfeld a lean, pensive counterpoint figure she'd come up with. "Try that for me, if you don't mind," she requested.
Shoenfeld mirrored it, asking, "That kind of deal?" He toyed with varying the phrasing, then resumed recording. When he was done, Kline approved: "That's got more flavor to it."
Eventually, he executed a swooping, circling lick, punctuated with brisk note-bending. He hadn't seen Quayle register her appreciation of his shredding by playfully crinkling her nose and making devil horns with her hand, so Kline, who'd been texting with Hillman and Quayle while Shoenfeld played, filled him in: "She sent melting faces in the chat."
"Okay, good direction, then?" he deduced. He tried again, searching for a smoother ending to his solo, before seeking further direction.
"I like a lot of stuff you did on the last one too, when you did a little bit of fancy footwork on the way out," Kline encouraged. "I don't think it was quite the right exit, but yeah, just keep going."
Throughout the session, the interactions seemed warm, but more self-conscious and deliberately courteous than normal. Like so many of us who've had to adjust to relying on videoconferencing, it was like they were compensating for the presence of webcams in their faces and the absence of in-person body language. Quayle took notes, bobbed her head in time and, every so often, tiptoed into the conversation between takes: "It sounds awesome. Okay, I'll go back on mute."
In our subsequent interview, Quayle laughingly described a conundrum she hadn't anticipated: "What do I do with my hands on camera? I kind of had that moment while Adam's playing his heart out, like, 'Man, I've really gotta make sure that my face doesn't say anything I don't want it to say unintentionally.' "
Kline, who gave less away while she listened, welcomed the opportunity to focus on the contributions of one player at a time. "Usually you have five or six players in a room, and it sounds really great — but you're trying to listen to six things go down at once," she explained. "They leave and you're like, 'Okay, now let me see what this really sounds like.' But this way you really get to intently listen to each part go down, which might come out a little bit more thoughtful than usual."
During Quayle's virtual songwriting appointment the following week, the attention was also focused differently than it might have been if she and her three co-writers — Tiffany Goss, David Mescon and Bruce Wallace — were all in the same place. Quayle was still in North Carolina; Goss, already friendly with Quayle, sat at her own kitchen table in Nashville, a stainless steel refrigerator behind her; and Wallace and Mescon, who Goss knew and Quayle was meeting for the first time, were set up in separate rooms in Mescon's house.
Regular collaborators, Wallace and Mescon were adept at a streamlined, pop-schooled technique — creating a rhythmic instrumental track while simultaneously shaping a melody and lyrics that fit it — that's become as common in Nashville over the last decade as the older way of doing things; recording a bare-bones guitar-and vocal demo of a newly completed song that would be fleshed out, at a separate time, by a full band. The two had prepared a rough idea in advance.
"So we started messing with this little track," Wallace told his co-writers. "It's a little feel-good thing. I was just thinking about stuff, like 'We can't be together. We're social distancing.' A covert way of saying all that, making it more of a lost-love song or something. Call it 'Closer To Me'?"
Mescon cued up a mellow, mid-tempo bit of music with a brittle beat and a fingerpicked acoustic guitar figure.
All four agreed that this was a direction worth pursuing, and Quayle supplied more personalized inspiration. Work travel often kept her and her husband apart, but she was learning more and more about him while they holed up together.
"I want it to be for you, Stephanie, but a universal, kind of light, love song?" Goss ventured.
"Yeah," Quayle affirmed. "I think that we all assume we know the other person. 'Just when you think you know someone... ' And I'm saying this in a positive light. Like, 'I never thought we would be closer.' "
Wallace jumped in with a few poetic lines: "Just when you think you know someone, you find out something else. Sometimes I think I know you better than I know myself."
"Are you writing this down?" Quayle inquired enthusiastically.
Goss held up a jumbo 2020 calendar, repurposed as a notebook, that she'd been scribbling on with a Sharpie. Quayle offered to capture the rapidly developing verses in a shared Google Doc.
Mescon sent them all the latest version of the track, while he continued tweaking its feel and structure and layering on Telecaster and synthesizer. Now that the music was on her phone, Quayle could try singing along with it, testing out a sultry, elongated chorus melody.
Later, Wallace came up with punchier phrasing for the vocal hook, and they dropped "closer" from the lyrics in favor of language about reliving the pleasing aspects of a relationship, like a song on loop.
When Wallace checked to make sure he'd spelled "repeat" correctly, Goss and Quayle reassured him with their own accounts of spelling difficulties, recalling which words knocked them out of elementary school spelling bees. They also compared notes on their love of dogs. Goss lamented the fact that none of Quayle's farm animals had wandered on camera.
"Honestly, I love my animals, but they're so distracting," Quayle chuckled.
As the minutes ticked by, there were momentary lulls in conversation while everyone privately pondered how to complete the chorus. "We would have had this song finished 30 minutes ago if we were all in the same place," Goss mused.
At the end of three hours, the song was complete enough for Mescon and Wallace to record a demo to document the work they'd done together, even though there might be significant revisions to come, and for Quayle, who Mescon invited to replace Wallace's voice with her own singing, to be validated in her optimism.
She insisted, "We have to do it again in person, though."