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Posts Tagged ‘Recording’

When Peachtree Publishers agreed to publish “Charlie Bumpers vs. the Teacher of the Year” my first question was, “Can we do an audio book, too?” Happily they said yes. As a storyteller, I’ve done over a dozen audio recordings of my stories, and was looking forward to doing the audio version of the book.

How hard could it be?

Well, harder than I thought. Also deeper, and more exasperating, and more interesting. I learned a lot from doing the recording, and will use what I learned it in my future recordings. The process of doing the audio version has also changed the way I look at the story and the characters in it. Now, working on a major edit of the second book, I’ve applied all that to the writing process. Recording the audio version has, I believe, made me a better writer.

Not that it’s easy. First, I should say that I also served as recording engineer and producer for the recording. I am a better artist than I am an engineer. The final product sounds good, but I know that another more seasoned engineer would have been a lot faster than I was. I will never confess how many hours it took. Good engineering requires meticulous work and I’m more of a big picture guy –  not so good on the details. Keeping track of which track is being recorded, adjusting levels, making good edits, and simply pushing the right button requires a lot of attention. I got better at that. Still, I’m not in danger of becoming a type A person.

In terms of performance, my biggest challenges were pacing, character, and keeping to the written page. Those aspects kept me going back for one more take, trying to get it right.

My mind works overtime, and pretty quickly, and one of my biggest challenges in the studio is to slow down. An outside ear helps with that – reminding the performer to take his time. But I didn’t have that. With me, hunkered down alone in front of the microphone, and pushing the buttons in solitude, I constantly had to redo passages. Rilke wrote, somewhere, “Meaning comes when images have time to ripen in the mind.” Who knew he was speaking about audio books?  Finally I took some advice from my pal, engineer extraordinaire David Correia – I hung a sign over the microphone – “SLOW DOWN!!!” I still have work to do on that (and not only in the studio), but I got better at it.

The voices for the characters present another challenge. I had no intention of being Jim Dale, the magical voice of the Harry Potter audio books, able to develop a distinct voice for each of the hundreds of characters he represented.

But I did need to distinguish different characters and have a very approachable, believable voice for the narrator. “Charlie Bumpers vs. the Teacher of the Year” is told in first person by Charlie, and so in some sense, all the voices come through Charlie. I don’t think it would do to have complete personification for each character. Over the course of the recording, the characters became more and more clear to me – and that will serve me well in the following five recordings.

In the process of the recording, I found myself thinking a lot about how much emotion we should put into a performance. As a storyteller, I am aware that it’s really the words doing the work – if we fill each passage with emotion, or too much character, we don’t leave room for the audience to hear the words being spoken. Many times, a more neutral delivery is called for – being emotional doesn’t really help the story. There’s a fine dance required in balancing the emotional undertones of the characters and the meaning of the words. Generally, a narrator’s job is to get out of the way, and let the words do their work without emotion. Characters can be more emotional, but even when a character speaks, a reader needs to be careful about over-acting.

One of the greatest challenges I faced was to say exactly what I had written. I was reminded by the publisher that every word in the audio had to be in the book. As a storyteller who tells any story differently at any performance, and as a writer who never quits editing, this was beyond excruciating. I’m reminded of the apocryphal story about a famous painter who had to be searched before he went into any gallery holding his work, for fear that he might be bringing his brushes to make some adjustments. Through the recording process, I was reminded that reading text out loud is a very important part of writing. Over the course of the time spent in the studio, I became even more convinced of the importance of  rhythm in language.

There’s much more to chew on here – I’m only scratching the surface. I’m particularly interested in the difference between hearing a book and reading it, and wonder how the method of intake influences the reader/listener’s perceptions.

Any comments about all this are welcome.

Here’s the first chapter of the audiobook of “Charlie Bumpers vs. the Teacher of the Year.”

Charlie Bumpers vs the Teacher of the Year Chapter 1

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NARAS, the Grammy organization announced a couple of weeks ago that they were getting rid of a number of categories for the Grammy awards. One of them was Spoken Word for Children, which I have won twice and which I was nominated for this year. Spoken word recordings will now be included in the Best Children’s recording category. A lot of people have asked me how I feel about it, and I’ve been giving it some thought.

The short answer is I wasn’t surprised. There are a lot of categories, and there aren’t a lot of submissions for Children’s Spoken Word category. It is one of the reasons I ever had a chance to be nominated, let alone win. So, on one hand, it’s understandable, I kind of saw it coming, and I have been lucky to be there at all.

But it’s a very complicated issue and trying to separate all the elements of it is pretty difficult. It’s almost impossible for me to be objective about it. Let me try to identify a couple of strands of issues

The first thing is that children’s spoken word has been kind of a catch-all, and the people who make the decisions are probably aware of this. Historically, it’s dominantly been people reading books. In the past fifteen years, people like me who have called themselves storytellers, working with oral narrative, not necessarily with a written script, have gotten nominated. This is an apples and oranges thing, and I view my oral narrative as an art form, different from a reading of the written word. But that is a pretty subtle point to make for people who don’t pay attention. Also, there’s no doubt that it is also a category that people have entered because it seemed like a good place to get a Grammy – fewer nominees, and many of them (me, for instance) not household names. It’s an awkward thing, but I usually found myself up against a franchised character, or someone everyone knows who thought it would be great to make a children’s recording. The same thing happens in the Children’s Music category.

Along with this problem of what exactly a spoken word recording is (anything with people talking 51% of the time), there is the nature of the Grammy process. Anyone who’s a member can vote in the categories they want. A big list comes out in November, people vote where they want, and there are finalists. In each category, interested members can vote for one of five finalists. There is no proof that anyone listens to anything. NARAS asks that recordings be listened to and judged solely on their merit. But the truth is, it is often a beauty contest – you vote for who you know, and while lobbying and outright promotion is supposedly forbidden, everyone has their lists of people who vote. Big recording companies have more clout and access to voters than Round River Records in Seekonk, Massachussetts. So if Bruce Springsteen decided to do a storytelling album for children, you can kind of figure that he’s going to have another trophy on his wall. (Actually, I’d like to hear a Springsteen storytelling album for kids….)

And here, of course, I should point out, I have benefited in some weird way from the beauty contest aspect of it. Because I’ve been doing this for close to thirty years, and was first nominated over ten years ago, there are a certain number of people who know me in the “industry”, and indeed, who have been my champions. In a small category, someone like me had a fighting chance. And I like to believe that my recordings were the best, but you could certainly reasonably argue that others were as good, and that the people voted in the category because they knew me. It’s inescapable, and I’d be disingenuous to think anything different.

That part has always troubled me, and continually adds to the imposter syndrome I have, as do most other artists. And I don’t like the competition aspect of it at all – I’ve been up against friends and it’s awkward, and can make one small. Me included.

Other awards, like Parent’s Choice and the Just Plain Folk award depend on a panel of experts who listen to all the stuff – as did the late great National Association of Independent Record Distributors – I’m very proud I won a “best of” award from them. But NARAS doesn’t work that way.

Still, I should say that the beauty contest aspect isn’t the only thing . Often, a recording is recognized by peers as just being superlative, or artists will win because there is a recognition that their body of work and who they are as an artist deserves recognition. A lot of times awards are saying “It’s about time.” This was true for Bonnie Raitt and her “Nick of Time” album and Carolos Santana’s multiple wins, and Herbie Hancock’s surprising award a couple of years ago. Sometimes the good guys win, and for the right reason.

But there were too many categories, it was said. Now, here the question is whether that was an artistic decision or a commercial decision, and I think you can say pretty clearly it was a commercial decision, based on numbers of entrants and economic clout. The recording industry is in deep trouble, and trying to shore itself up. Note I say industry, not recordings themselves. At the awards ceremony I watched the presenter Kathy Griffin (comedian, ha ha ha) openly denigrate the smaller categories as worthless. No one did anything to contradict her. It was a sad display, and a comment on the Academy’s priorities, even if they were her words.

It was industry, not art that was behind the decision. Let me be clear on this – spoken word is an art form, and the recording of spoken word is an art that has been practiced ever since Edison. Caedmon and Weston Woods pioneered spoken word recordings for children, and they cared passionately about what they did. I am, still, deeply influenced by Bill Cosby’s recordings I listened to growing up, and those of Stan Freberg, and Gene Shepherd, and Dylan Thomas, and Carl Sandburg.

I think something is an art if practice and study makes one better at it, and the possibility of improving is open-ended. I am a better storyteller today than I was twenty years ago, and I take great care with my spoken word recordings. I have an approach to recording stories that has evolved over the years. The last recording I made, just under an hour in length, probably took 70 to 80 hours of work on my time – recording and re-recording, editing, listening, adjusting, rethinking, and mixing and mastering. And that was after the years spent developing the stories in the first place. If I were smarter, I could have done it faster, but sometimes it just takes time. Anyone who has ever listened to Jim Dale read the Harry Potter books knows that a master is at work. And it is a significantly different art than music.

Because the recording industry is almost exclusively about music, I sometimes hear musicians dismiss the spoken word as something anyone could do.

And anyone can play a piano.

Also, it’s part and parcel of working with children to have your work discounted. A very typical experience for me is to have someone fawn all over me when they hear I’ve won a Grammy, and then suddenly lose interest when they find it was a storytelling recording for children. Suddenly, I’m just not very interesting. That’s more of a comment on them, but there it is. Is recording for children an art form or afterthought? Hmmm.

So, I’m saying if this was based on artistry, there was no reason for it to happen. But having been to the Grammys numerous times, I also know that it is mostly about the industry. That’s okay. There is still something exciting about it, and art continues to assert itself, even where Mammon rules. Us little guys get to hang on the fringe, and in some cases have some say. Here I should note Cathy Fink’s dogged determination to have the Grammys mean something to us, and for that I am deeply grateful. She is, really, amazing.

So, I’m sad but understanding of it all. I was very lucky to be there. Spoken word recordings will receive even less attention, and NARAS will have less to do with that one aspect of recording. It is an art, and a fine one, but there is not much money in it. And not a lot of people do it. And my guess is that we’ll never see another spoken word album for children win a Grammy.

Unless, of course, the Boss decides to make one.

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As some of you who read this blog know, I was nominated this year for a Grammy in the Best Spoken Word Recording for Children category.

And if you know that, you may know that Julie Andrews won in that category for her reading of a book of poems she wrote with her daughter. Spoken word is an odd category – it’s mostly people reading books – as before, I was the only storyteller in the category, who works by and large without written text – so it’s a little apples and oranges. We need to work to get more spoken word artists into the category. I’ll think about that.

And then, well, the winner of a category often wins not because of a particular recording, but often because of their body of work. This is a little unfair for someone who has a truly great recording, but it’s the way it is. This year, for instance, I think Justin Roberts richly deserved the Grammy award in children’s music – Jungle Gym is a wonderful recording. But Pete Seeger (one of my biggest influences) was in his category. If you didn’t know the recordings and looked at the lineup, who would you vote for?

But, like they say, getting nominated is already being a winner, and there are a lot of other things that go into determining who wins other than artistic merit of the recording. That said, winning is more fun – I love Julie Andrews, but I would have liked the award.

I digress. I went this year, knowing my chances were pretty slim. I was disappointed when they didn’t call my name. But getting to go, I met some pretty interesting people. The night before, I got to sit and watch Julie Andrews get a lifetime achievement award. She was gracious and eloquent, and I felt a nail in the coffin as far as winning goes. The Ramones that were left and their various family members were still rebellious, and that was heartening. I had a nice talk with Roger Linn, another honoree, who revolutionized the music industry with his drum machines of the late seventies and early eighties, and is still creating stuff. He explained some of the projects to me, and I really wasn’t sure what he was saying, but it sounded cool.

At the nominees reception the night before the awards, I ended up in line with a Nashvillle writer (you can tell by the hat) there for the first time. I gave him the rundown of what would happen in the various lines, having been there before, and we had a great time. Halfway through the line, I learned he was Allen Shamblin, up for best song of the year for “The House That Built Me”, and also writer of “Don’t Laugh at Me” – a great song on bullying that I have sung, and “I Can’t Make You Love Me” – sung by Bonnie Raitt – which I think is just about a perfect song. We were pals before I realized who he was, or otherwise I would have been a little tongue-tied.

Later that night, I ended up in a conversation with someone else in a line. I had voted for Gregory Porter in best jazz vocals because I loved his music – didn’t know anything about him or what he looked like. There he was. We took pictures and traded e-mails. He’ll be more famous than he is now – he can really sing.

And finally, after I lost to Julie (no, didn’t meet her) I sat in the Staples Center to watch the show next to a very elegant couple, and shortly found out I was sitting next to Albert Bell, the head of Stax records during the sixties. Present at the creation with Sam and Dave, Otis Redding, and Booker T. and the MGs. Then, I was tongue-tied. I finally said, “You were the soundtrack for my growing up.”

He said, “Glad to hear you have a little bit of soul in you.”

I responded, “Some folks are even whiter than me.”

So – tell me who the winner is here.

A lot about the Grammys is ridiculous. Completely ridiculous. It’s inevitable that there is a grasping for attention in the entertainment business. The posturing and preening is stunning, as is the sycophant aspect. If you’re famous, people want to be around you for very weird reasons. (Not that such a thing happened to me for Spoken Word for Children – kids just shake hands with me and give me their cold viruses)

But watching Mavis Staples break down into tears when she learned she had won her first Grammy, you knew that there was something else going on other than fame, fortune and glitz.

Just lucky to be there. And glad to head home.

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Duncan, in Balmullo, Scotland, where I met him years ago


In 1986, I first heard Duncan Williamson at the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee. I followed him around like a puppy the whole weekend. A traditional storyteller from Scotland, he did not attract the huge crowds that some of the American tellers were attracting (I’m one of those now), but to me, he was the very heart of storytelling. In a very small tent, before a small crowd, I heard him tell “The Happy Man’s Shirt” – my single favorite story – really a story I’ll carry with me through my whole life. (And yet to record…)

Duncan was not a flashy teller, but his language was beautiful; the Scottish burr, the slightly unfamiliar vocabulary, and the slightly different syntax of his oral delivery was so arresting I really didn’t care what the stories were. But it was , of course, the stories that attracted me – there was no artifice or trickery in the delivery, it was just the story, and told so that it could be remembered. Many times, I’ll hear a performer and like the performance, but not really be able to tell you what happened in the story. Not so with Duncan – it was the story first.

Duncan was one of the Travelers of Scotland – that country’s gypsies – outcast and disenfranchised like gypsies elsewhere. Born into a large family and out on his own at an early age, Duncan early on was recognized for his amazing memory and ability to recount stories. Folklorists collected stories from Duncan for decades, and every time they thought they were done, he seemed to find more no one had ever heard.

I visited Duncan several years after I first met him, and he was very gracious and kind to me – I sat at his kitchen table (having brought some Boddington’s Ale as a peace offering) and he told me stories for a couple of days – he was just as animated and direct with me as he was with an audience. From him I heard stories I had never heard before, and have not heard since. “How many stories do you know?” I asked him. “Fifty-five hundred” he said with certainty and without a blink. A storyteller’s answer.

“Jack and the Singing Leaves”, a story on my new recording “The Best Candy in the World” is a story of Duncan’s he told me at his kitchen table – it can also be found in one of his books, “A Thorn in the King’s Foot”. Maybe because of my own Scots-Irish background, or some psychology, I’ve always told Jack tales, though not usually on a large stage – more frequently in schools where I want to make sure that kids hear traditional stories along with my original work.

I love the story of the Singing Leaves – I’ve been telling it for ten or twelve years now. Over the years, I’ve accentuated Jack’s ADD nature, and I see the nods of kids and adults when I describe who Jack is – Jack is forever, and there are usually seven or eight Jacks in each audience. In the story, when Jack finds the bird with the broken wing and picks it up to save it, I look out at an audience of kids and see their heartfelt reaction – with that kindness shown, they’re on his side wherever he goes.

While “The Singing Leaves” seems very much a variant of Cinderella (with the genders reversed), it takes a huge left turn as we near the climax, sending poor Jack out into the world again, hoping to keep his head, quite literally. This is shocking, hilarious, and very interesting. Duncan didn’t emphasize that parallel, but I’m too much of a wise guy to ignore it, and my comment “Just like Cinderella!” becomes a keystone phrase in the story – something I always look for in a spoken tale.

I’m really happy with the recording of it on The Best Candy – it’s a good long piece (of course, likely to be even longer in performance), but it’s a reminder that kids, and even easily distracted, Blackberry-addicted adults, will listen to something if it’s compelling.

I hope that my recording of the story serves as some tribute to Duncan and his effect on me. When I showed up at his doorstep he asked, “Where’s your tape recorder? How are you going to tell my stories when you go home?”

“Duncan,” I said, “If you can remember fifty-five hundred stories, surely I can remember one or two.”

Here’s one.

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My new recording of stories comes out this week, and I thought I’d post a couple of blogs about the stories and the process of recording.

This was the first recording I’ve made in which the bulk of the recording was done at home. Over the years, most of my work has been done at Celebration Sound studio in Warren, RI, with my longtime conspirator David Correia, serving as engineer and observant listener. This time, after having finally cleaned up my workplace and gotten a couple of good mikes, I did most of the spoken word work out back of my house. I’ll post some pictures of my place next week, when I get back from Oklahoma.

After I was finished with the basic recordings, I took them over to David, who helped me edit them together, adjust levels and turn some knobs I don’t know much about. The stories that have guitar on them were done with David at his place.

Recording myself had a big learning curve. I would estimate that the first long story I did there (The Best Candy in the Whole World) took me about twenty-five hours of my own time – for twenty-four minutes of story. Part of that time was spent learning to get the levels right, and then trying to get a take of the story I liked to edit together.

The editing took hours and hours – if I made a mistake while recording the story, I just paused, backed up and started again from before the mistake. I end up with about forty-five minutes of raw material, which I have to snip and splice together on the computer. It’s very time-consuming, but very much like an addictive computer game – nudging, pushing buttons, recording some lines over. I sit down at 7 pm by myself, and before I know it, it’s 2 am. And I have a 9:30 am school show. Uh oh.

What I’m looking for is a very intimate feel – I’ve learned in recording stories that the best approach is to imagine telling the story to just one person, or a very small group. The hardest thing, as it is always is for me, is to slow down and take my time. This is a lesson I have to learn every day, and probably will until I’m done here on this mortal coil.

I learn a lot recording my stories. By listening over and over again – a very painful process – I find better ways to say things, focus more on the emotional core of the story, clarify images with some added detail, and get rid of things that shouldn’t be there. Debbie and other friends listen to the recording and give feedback. At the end of the recording process, I know the stories better – even the ones like “Jack and the Singing Leaves” that I’ve been telling for fifteen years.

The stories on this recording were pretty much ones I have in my head (one exception the new story “Sillier Than You” – more on that later). As a result, there’s no paper in front of me, it’s just the picture in my head – that I’m trying to put in the head of someone listening in some other part of the world, at some future time.

Next: The shaping of “The Best Candy in the Whole World”

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