5/10/18 - finishing touches.

The album's almost finished now, and we've received draft 1 of what's known as the "master" from our engineer Piper Payne. 

At this stage of a record, it's all about those tiny little tweaks that take it to perfection. What you're hearing above could basically be the finished product, but we'll still ask for tiny little changes, like bumping up the overall volume just a tad, tamping down some of the high end on treble-y instrumentation like the violin and saxophone, and smoothing out the sound overall. But in spite of all these little sprinkles of perfection yet to be made, the album is essentially finished.

This song, which we've played live but never shared in recorded form, is a pure unabashed love song, albeit with a dsah of the troubled mood that permeates the whole record. More than anything, it's a poem about the way that love can survive the hardest of times, and the way that survival sometimes depends on love. We really enjoyed playing in some weird wild audio spaces with this one, including incorporating some innovative vocal sampling, ghost compressed synth, and other witch house-y FX. It's one of the album's flagship songs, and in these final days of preparation, I'm proud to present it to you in rough draft master form. 

-Jason.

5/4/18 - the journey from demo to polished song.

Well, time for a long-belated update from your friendly neighborhood Great HIghwayan Jason! 

The album is out for mastering! It's official. Rise is in the hands of our dear friend and super-amazing talented Bay Area mastering engineer and recording academy member, Piper Payne, who runs Neato Mastering. While she puts the finishing touches on the project, I'm also excited to announce that the album will officially be released the first week of June, and we'll be holding a big album wrap party at Neck of the Woods in San Francisco. Glorious!

While Piper takes us around the final lap, I thought it would be a good time to take you back one last time to an early demo in my ongoing 'making-of' story. This demo comes from our guitarist Sean, who wrote our wistful whimsical Side-A-ballad "Far Away."

Like me, Sean often brings demos in to the band with a few layers already built-in to the recording. In this case, he had a solid rhythm guitar line on his semi-hollow Epiphone White & Gold Royale, accompanied by two lines of vocals (a solo and a harmony), a whole-chord backing synth, and some demo percussion. If you're a non-musician and I just blew your mind, basically in 2016, he gave the group an idea for a song recorded at home with his voice, his guitar and his keyboard. 

I'm sharing this early work with you in a special presentation: you'll hear the original demo recording for the first minute and a half or so, and then I've faded in the final studio track, which also represents how we play the song live. Between these two versions is two years of hard work on the part of the band to bring the demo into full fruition. This is how Great Highway composes music; we start with these early demos and basically pick at them, add parts, subtract parts, change it around, each member bringing their own experience to the table until one person's song becomes a composition from all five of us. 

To Sean's demo we gradually added and embellished layers of music until the final product you hear in the 2nd half of the above track. Sarah added to Sean's original synth with a bouncing, Vampire Weekend-esque electric piano and a wobbly roaming They Might Be Giants-y lead synth track in the instrumental middle section. Meredith revamped the percussion, adding in a bopping down-tuned snare sample with a sound like a Paul Simon album, and some glowing radtastic 80s synth toms. Makiko played a supportive violin throughout with a fantastic roaming solo over what used to be empty space in the track. And I filled it out with a roving bass line, lush three-part harmony, and an overhauled chorus, turning the long phrases ("You go where you wanna be") into punchy staccato intensity ("Do you ever need anybody, going where you going where you wanna be").

The result was an elevation of Sean's very catchy, mid-tempo sleeper hit, into an urgent, insistent and intensely brooding single. I think we succeeded beyond our wildest dreams with this one, and I'm really proud of what Sean wrote and what the band composed around his writing. It's a poetic and poignant exploration of the rising and falling resentment that's jettisoned from a relationship at the end, punctuated by musings on the artificial comforts of drugs and alcohol. A few of my favorite lines (we changed very little from Sean's original lyrics):

"You left me to decide what you want to be. I hope you find what you believe you know."

"I tried to deny what I saw was in front of me." 

"Here in my room, when I replay our words one more time, then I reach to the bottle to comfort."

"You never showed me the beating heart under your clothes."

"This room, it was full, now it's emptied out like an hourglass."

Enjoy this little romp through the years, and I'll see you once or twice more. And then, it's finished album time! 

-Jason

4/12/18 - Learning to get out of the way.

Today marks a big day for the album. All of my work is done as-of today. The record officially rests in the hands of others: the rest of the band is reviewing and making comments on the final produced track, then everything goes into the capable hands of our good friends McKay and Piper for final mixing and mastering. The last time I was in this place, handing off an entire album's worth of material to the pros for polishing, it was almost 4 years ago.

Needless to say, it's an emotional moment. So, it's appropriate to post a particularly emotional track. This song, called "Fault," is special in a distinct way from every other track on the album (and almost every track in Great Highway history). It's special because, I had basically nothing to do with it.

My job as bandmate on stage during this tune is to play a very subtle line on keyboard, written by our keyboardist Sarah, who moves off of the keys to sing a spotlight solo.

Similarly, my job as producer of the studio track was to basically step out of the way of the performance - edit it, produce it, sure, but with no bells and whistles, no extra synths or bonus effects. The instrumentation features Sarah playing keys and singing; Makiko on violin as usual, and Sean on guitar. Meredith composed all the drum sampling herself in a session in late 2017. She even helped me edit the studio tracks just last week.

This is only the second time that I've had no hand in composing, arranging and playing a Great Highway studio performance. The first was all the way back in 2012 with Summer's "Sad Songs," but that track featured only two people, Summer and our lead guitarist at the time Earl. "Fault" is a unique full-band performance that I get to step aside and watch, an ensemble Great Highway song for which I play the role of the audience for the very first time. It's a testament to how far the band has come in 6 years of playing, since those early scrappy days when I sat alone composing most of the music myself on a half-size keyboard, a pair of shitty borrowed headphones, and a free copy of Ableton "Lite." 

In the above 'redux' of Fault, I highlight the performance of Sarah and Makiko, the closest friendship in probably all of Great Highway's history and the duo responsible for doing our show bookings and online marketing. These two really carry the weight of the song's drama and power, between Sarah's lush harmonies and the four (!!) layers of violin that Makiko recorded. Before we release the track with the supporting guitar, synth and drums, I hope you'll enjoy this soft yet dynamic performance from our leading ladies. If you need me, I'll be in the audience, front row, listening. 

-Jason

4/6/18 - Loudness experiment.

The track above is our first "master" for the upcoming album, of my 2017 love song "Love As A Lion." For anyone who doesn't know what a master is, it's basically a final version of a produced song that polishes, cleans and refines the sound of it while also making it louder. How much louder? Well, that's a subject of some debate out in the music community. 

Throughout the last ten or twenty years there's been a "loudness war" going on in the world of produced pop music. Mastering engineers, the people who touch a track last at the very end, have been pumping up the overall volume and noise of tracks to compete with other artists, record companies, etc. It's a little akin to how sometimes when you watch cable TV, a certain commercial will be way louder than others to try and grab your attention. 

Well, tracks have been getting louder and louder to the point where now, many modern tracks are actually a bit distorted and hard on the ears. There's a thing called "listening fatigue" where if you listen to enough pop or electronic music produced after say 2012 or so, your ear gets tired because they jacked that shit up. (That's the technical term anyway...)

We tried the 'jacked up' hat on in the above demo master of Lion to see what it would sound like and we agree - distortion and ear fatigue aplenty. So this master you hear above is just an experiment - the reality is our final album will be quieter, and it's not just because we don't like the loudness on principle.

We've also learned recently through our mastering engineer Piper and our additional mixing guru McKay that the loudness war is making a sharp turn off its relentless march. Streaming music services like Spotify, Pandora and Soundcloud are already looking into ways to tamp down the noise and then unify sound across different genres, so that a 1940s-era jazz tune carries the same weight as a pumping 2018 EDM track. I'm intentionally avoiding any technical terms (the big one being compression) so that folks who've never dipped their hands into audio production will get the basic concept: essentially, your Alexa wants you to hear all your favorite tunes at the same volume level, without you having to turn each track up or down depending on the genre and year of release.

As a result, the loudness war doesn't make any sense anymore - why make one track all loud and in the process, distort it if streaming services are just going to bump it right back down again? 

Now, this doesn't apply to music you buy on iTunes or on a CD or something. But as us old grumps have to begrudgingly admit, nobody is really buying music to own anymore. Streaming is the way to go. So expect a softer, gentler Lion to come out later this year...but for now, enjoy this bumping hotness. 

Lecture over. Now back to the music. -Jason

3/31/18 - Two Lenses.

Meredith and I are hard at work in the studio, making progress on her uptempo edgy dance-y track "Lenses." We've been performing this song for a year or so using some pretty 808-y old-school tinker-toy samples in the backing track, and I told her this past weekend I really wanted to up the percussive game on the song for our upcoming album. 

What you're hearing above is an A/B test; the first 1:40 is the original presentation of the song, the way it sounds live. After the 1:40 fade-out you'll hear the revamped overhauled track. I think the percussion and bass has great new energy with these new samples. It's amazing how much this stuff can change a song, even when the lyrics and melody don't change. Take a listen and let me know what you think! 

Almost done with this crazy whirlwind album...

-Jason

3/25/18 - "Really loving those harmonies."

We played a Saturday night show at Neck of the Woods this weekend, and there was joy and laughter all around. I could almost forget I was struggling with over a year of doctor-confounding cancer, though of course the fact that I had to be seated on a stool through the whole set (chest surgery last Thursday) served as the painful reminder. But in spite of these dark times, there were surprise flowers on stage, anniversaries to celebrate, a cameo appearance by a large stuffed yellow owl, and lots and lots and lots of great synth rock music. 

Among the many delights, a music blogger surprised us by taking professional photos of the event (hope to be able to share those with you soon). He also asked to interview us after the show and posed questions on video about our Rise blog, the upcoming album, the founding of the band, our creative process, and more. He was very generous and complimentary about us and our sound, and said several lovely things about the set he heard. One of them, and I hear this a LOT, is "I really, really love your vocal harmonies." 

This is a funny one for me because, our band used to write really complex, intricate harmonies to a lot of our old songs. If you go back to the earlier records, you'll hear these lush almost college-a-cappella style layers of vocals in the backing tracks. Somewhere around 2016, between the last record and making this new one, we realized we were putting in a monumental effort to maintain these harmonies live. Anyone who has ever been in a vocal group can tell you that harmonies are tough - staying on pitch together, aligning on breath support, tone, phrasing, is an "ah" really an "ah" or is it more of an "aw" or an "oh," the debates can rage on endlessly. 

There are still lots of great harmonies on Rise, but it's a little more about lead vocals and instrumentation this time. And yet, though we've also scaled back in harmonies on stage as well, we still get this compliment a lot from our audience, "you guys are great at harmonizing." I think that no matter how much we reign it in, people will always be able to tell that our band really enjoys singing together, and really enjoys the process of bouncing vocals off each other.

To celebrate that unique little piece of us, listen to the track at the top of this page to hear our most intricate vocal arrangement on Rise, presented in rough form without backing drums or bass. These are the choruses to our slow jam Once & Gone, a song about the inevitability of heartbreak and how we process and move on from it. We supported these weighty themes with a detailed 5-part harmony sung by all 5 of the band's members. Since you'll never hear it this stark and forward on the actual record, I'm presenting it here in its raw form. Hope you love it! 

-Jason

3/19/18 - The Stomp.

This past week I met with McKay Garner, who is providing additional mixing and audio consultation for Rise. Our goal? To finish an album version of Great Highway's most popular single to-date, The Chase. 

This final version of the song, which adds live saxophone and new percussive and bass elements, is the culmination of a long fun story. As many of you know, The Chase was turned into our very first professionally-filmed music video, shot at the famous Bergerac bar in the SOMA district of San Francisco. (You can watch the awesomeness here.)

What you may not know is, before the original single was released and the music video produced, The Chase was just a scrappy 2 1/2 minute instrumental I created in the studio using old jazz samples pasted over hot hard EDM percussion. At various times I called it "The Stomp" (because it had such a stomp-y upbeat movement to the drums), then "The Sky Stomp" when I added one of Sky's favorite Gramatik samples to the end, and then "The Great Highway Stomp" when it was time to present it to the group. I played it as an instrumental to everyone, to see if the group was interested in this new EDM / swing fusion sound. 

Once there was enough interest from the members in giving it a shot, I wrote some upbeat swing-y lyrics with a lot of catchy slang from the '40s. Sarah took a shot at a 2nd draft in which she toned down the slang and silliness and made it edgier. And then we began to add all our signature elements - guitar, violin, live synth, stage sampling. Now it's one of our best songs of all-time, and I'm really proud of it.

Take a listen above to the beginning, the very first instrumental version of The Chase from 2016. Don't forget to get outcha dancin' shoes! Stomp away, my friends.

-Jason

3/13/18 - Let's pause in the garden.

These are some pretty tough days, but today was a reminder that sometimes, good times can still be found, at least in the music.

At a recent mixing session, we polished off the beautiful, dramatic ending you hear above, to Sarah's new song Winter Snow. In this climactic outro, Sarah repeats the final chorus phrase with power harmonies behind her, accompanied by driving violin and guitar. It's a musical moment that fulfills one of my own secret nagging desires: to write a bittersweet, string-intensive lush "English garden" of sound a la Penny Lane or Strawberry Fields. 

When the track is fully produced, this section will be accompanied by extra FX and an array of electronic drums which will give it that signature dance beat that is a trademark of all new Great Highway songs. But I wanted you all to hear it stripped down, without the effects and percussion, so you could enjoy this lush little forest of sound that the group created in the studio. 

Vocal Solo & Song by Sarah; Strings by Makiko; Guitar by Sean; Drum Pads by Meredith; Synths & Production by me; Harmonies by Meredith, Makiko and me.

-Jason