When I had initially told my wife that I wanted to record an album, I was well prepared with a logical, in-depth and multi-layered counterargument for what would most certainly be her rightful objection. There are things like retirement planning, college funds, a mortgage and groceries that can and should take priority over my oftentimes oddball goals in life. But she caught me off guard and said it sounded like a good idea. She is truly a remarkable woman.
So I set out looking for a few months to find somewhere I could record. As a newbie to the music business, I had no idea where to start. But I knew enough to know that, as with all things in life, there were plenty of leeches out there.
I wanted someone who was not only into the same kind of vibe as me, but also would have the patience to understand where I was coming from and genuinely help me through the process. About the same time, I saw something on social media about Durham-based recording studio Silkworm Sound, posted by Ryan Johnson and Whit Wright. At the time, they both played for American Aquarium – a band that, in my humble opinion, rules pretty hard. I sent them a message asking if they’d be interested in some business. I didn’t know either of them at all, but this was the first step in what I felt might be the right direction.
Ryan and I talked a few days later over the phone and I explained my goals – play my songs, get some help in recording them and walk away with something sounding halfway decent that I could be proud of. I’d sent him a few demos to check out, and when we spoke, he mentioned having some of the other guys from American Aquarium play on it as well. It was, to me, a very kind offer – one that I readily accepted.
I sent Ryan more demos over the next week or so, and we agreed to meet up in Durham in June.
To be honest, I’m not really a musician. I’m a full-time pilot in the U.S. Coast Guard who happens to play some guitar and sing some songs in my downtime. I haven’t toured, I haven’t lived out of a van, and I haven’t had to count beer-soaked dollar bills out of a tip jar to buy some dinner at a gas station. I worried that I lacked credibility. So that morning in June, I walked into Silkworm Sound, which also doubles and Ryan and Whit’s house, wholly unsure of what to expect.
What I was not prepared for was the sight of Whit strolling up to the house with three coffees from a coffee shop around the corner. We talked a bit about nothing in particular for a while and then promptly got down to business. I played guitar, sang my songs, and over the next 11 hours we methodically went through each verse, chorus and chord until we had a rough arrangement of 10 songs.
Ryan and Whit were laser-focused on my every word and Ryan was asking me to change one particular aspect of a song that didn’t feel right to him. For just a split second, I thought to say no. “These are my songs,” I thought. Then I remembered the whole reason I’d driven to Durham. I wanted to tap into the raw emotion that these guys are so damn good at capturing. From that moment on, I let go of my own preconceived ideas of how my songs should sound and welcomed not only their help, but also their influence.
I left that night with 10 songs scribbled down on yellow legal pad paper. I had chords, notes, scratched-out lyrics, bridges, verses, choruses and more scribbled notes that I never could quite remember what they meant. But we were off to a good start. Between their touring schedule and my flying schedule, it was a challenge to find a week that we could all carve out to record, but the stars aligned and one week in August looked promising.
A month or so later, I had some work in Mississippi and caught up with the guys in Baton Rouge at an American Aquarium show. Afterwards, I spent a bit of time talking with Ryan and Whit, along with Kevin McClain and Bill Corbin, who at that point had all listened to my demos and sounded genuinely excited to be part of the project. As we talked, it became more and more apparent that they were genuinely excited to make some music. It was both energizing and a relief to see how their enthusiasm matched, or even exceeded, my own.
Back to Durham. The first day started out around 9 in the morning as I helped Kevin and Bill unload their gear from a trailer and into the studio, where Ryan and Whit had already assembled a labyrinth of mics, amps, guitars, keyboards and home-built acoustic dampening panels. As Kevin set up his drums and Bill tuned his bass, I sat on a couch, picked at my guitar, and watched partly out of curiosity and partly in awe as all four worked like a well-oiled machine.
Day two goes well, so does day three. Every so often, one of them asks about a particular line and I take a moment to explain the background to some of the more somber points, including the death of a friend. As a writer, there is no better feeling than your words having an impact on someone, so it goes a long way to see theses guys mulling over my lines.
Unbeknownst to me, day four doesn’t cooperate. The morning goes slow and we barely get through one song. The afternoon completely falls apart. One line of one song just isn’t working for Ryan and Whit. We spend hours playing around with it, but to no avail. By the end of the day, I’m a mental wreck. I feel broken and wonder to myself if this whole project is destined to fail. Ryan just smiles and tells me we’re doing fine. He reassures me that bad days are inevitable, and I can see in his face that he knows what the hell he is talking about.
As luck would have it, day five is smooth sailing. We’ve got 10 songs and more than enough material for them to start the mixing process. They both ask what kind of timeline I’m looking at, but by now I know enough to say I’ve got none. After I leave, I’m certain that when the time is right, Ryan and Whit will keep working through their own creative process to solidify 10 songs that started out years ago as just a dude with a guitar.
Listen to the finished album, “Unknown Rider.”