After remaining on the sidelines for 2010 and 2011, this year, I am once again going participate in the RPM Challenge.
For the unfamiliar: RPM stands for Record Production Month – the challenge being to write and record an album within the month of February. I have previously taken part in and completed the challenge three times, yielding my first three albums.
In each of those years, I set myself a sort of challenge within the challenge. In 2007, it was to abandon the guitars I knew and restrict myself to an unfamiliar drum machine/synth combo. The following year, I went in the opposite direction, banning myself from using any electronic or electronic instruments. For 2008, there was no prohibition on any instruments, but I did challenge myself to focus more on the sound of the album – spending much more time on the mixing and mastering.
The resulting albums may not have been masterpieces, but I found each RPM experience to be hugely rewarding. I think my fourth – and only non-RPM – album, People Person, definitely suffered from a lack of direction and focus. There was a thread running through the subject material, but it was quite tenuous. The songs varied quite a lot in quality. And there was a distinct lack of cohesion in terms of its sound.
Deadlines, it seems, bring out the best in me (or the better, at least).
In February 2010, I was still readjusting to life back in Ireland after my move home from Japan at the end of the previous year. Last year I was buried deep in my dissertation. This year I’m actually quite busy again, but I’m endeavouring to do it anyway.
And what’s this year’s challenge within the challenge?
Well, I’ve decided that for this RPM, I’m going to split myself in two. You see, for me, writing and recording music has always been – apart from a couple of very rare exceptions – one process. Coming up with ideas, creating arrangements, laying down tracks – it has all been part of the same thing. The songs aren’t really planned – they sort of just come into creation as I record bits and pieces.
This year, I’m challenging myself to not do that.
This album is going to be written first. All of it. I will record bare sketches for each song – one acoustic guitar track and one vocal track. Only after I have accumulated enough of these demos (the requirement is 10 songs, but I’m going to aim for 12) will I begin to arrange instrumentation and record them.
While my usual methodology has served me well enough, my hope is that by dividing up the process into distinct parts and focussing on specific, isolated tasks, I might, well, do them better, i.e. by channeling all my energy into writing, I’ll hopefully write better – and likewise with arranging and recording (I’m going to keep those two as one stage).
The main inspiration for this move is Depeche Mode’s seventh album. Prior to that album, when Martin Gore would write the songs, he would create almost fully-formed demos. The arrangement would already be in place, not leaving much room for manoeuvre when the band assembled in the studio. When it came time to make what would become Violator, Gore was requested to keep his demos as sparse as possible, to allow them (“them” being mainly Alan Wilder and the producer, Flood) more creative freedom with the songs.
And boy did it work out well. The most famous example is how Wilder turned this:
Obviously it’s easier to have radical transformations of songs when the writer and the arranger are two different people. Alas, I am but one person. But I’m going to try and create as much distance between the two stages as possible. As I said, recording will not begin until all the songs are written. To maximize space, I will record them in the order they are written. (And I will work on each album track one at a time – something I did not do on any of the other albums.)
Will it work? Who knows.
I guess we’ll find out soon enough…