about "The Music of Jason Crigler"
This project began nine years ago. It's taken all sorts of bizarre twists and turns along the way. And now it's finished. I feel so privileged to have worked with all the great people who contributed to the making of this record. More than anything, I'm amazed that this project is done.
I suffered a severe brain injury in August of 2004. When it happened, this project was maybe halfway completed. There were two years when no progress was made on this record at all. During that time it was all I could do to just get through the day.
I see this record as a centerpiece of my life for the past nine years. This project began long before my injury. Now it is completed, four years after my injury occurred. I have a lot of emotions wrapped up in it, because of what I went through. Because of my brain injury.
I had to relearn basic functions, like eating and walking and speaking. For a couple of years, I couldn't do much outside of my home. I was constantly battling intense feelings of fatigue - I still do. But this record endured through it all.
Some people have asked me why I feel I need to write this history. Why do I need to tell the story of this record?
The truth is, I need to write this down for myself.
I feel proud that I have recovered from my injury beyond so many expectations. My recovery took a tremendous amount of work and love and endurance, from me and my family.
Like my recovery, a great deal of endurance, resilience, focus, and energy was required to complete this project.
So I want the story to be known. I want the people who contributed to this record to be recognized. This story is, quite literally, a death defying tale. But it's a tale with a happy ending. This record is proof of that.
Part 1: Beginnings - Goats in Trees
In 1998, I had a bunch of leftover songs that I had started to record with my band, Goats in Trees. Goats in Trees consisted of me (electric guitar and vocals), Jeff Hill (bass), Tony Mason (drums), and Monica Cohen (acoustic guitar and vocals). Monica would, three years later, become my wife, and change her name to Monica Crigler.
We had gone into a studio called Jake's Kitchen Sink in Manhattan with our friend, engineer Pete Keppler. What we recorded were the drums, bass, first guitar takes, and rough vocal guide tracks. These are known as the basic tracks. Later, we would need to record all the other parts that turn a recording into a finished album, like final vocal performances, additional guitars, keyboard parts, percussion, background singing, and any other embellishment that helps build a song. These overdubs are an important and fun part of the recording process. It's when you can really layer the music until it is fully realized.
In all, we recorded around 24 songs. Some of them ended up on the Goats record, Smoke and Mirrors. The other half were put aside.
Part 2: A New Direction
In 1999 and 2000 I was getting busier as a guitarist in New York. I began to work steadily as a sideman for other songwriter-singers. It became my fulltime job. Because of this, I was constantly around live music. I was out playing gigs, hearing music, and meeting people five to seven nights a week.
But back to those leftover recordings. In 2000, I asked our friend John Squicciarino to transfer that music from the two inch tapes into Pro Tools files for my computer recording setup. I would then be able to work on the music on my own, at home, and finish it. What then? I wasn't sure.
At this point, I was starting to play with some really great singers. I began to wonder, what if I could record some of these vocalists singing my songs? I thought that could be kind of cool, if I could pull it off. It would be like records you see where lots of different artists perform someone's songs. I could make my own tribute record.
May of 2002: Amy Correia had just moved down the block from me, and we were hanging out a lot. I really loved Amy's voice, and I pictured her doing a great version of Bush and the Tree. She agreed to try it and it was a perfect fit. Recording her vocal tracks was seamless. She did a lot of cool improvisational singing at the end of the tune, which we left in there.
I had been playing with Teddy Thompson for a year or so when, in June of 2002, I asked him if he would be into coming over to sing one of the songs. It just made sense - I knew he would nail Through Tomorrow, more so than I ever could. The amazing thing was that he did it in one take, holding the lyrics in front of him. He'd never even heard the song before.
I felt like I was hitting home runs. My experiences with Amy and Teddy convinced me that this was meant to be. This was the future for these recordings. The trick to it, though, was finding the perfect voice for each song. The successes I had had with Teddy and Amy were because their voices were so right on for the songs they were singing. That was the benchmark - the rest of the songs had to be up to the quality of those first two.
Part 3: Arranging the Songs
I was very conscious of the need to build these songs with interesting arrangements. In addition to working with a lot of talented singers, I had been getting to know a lot of great instrumentalists as well.
Kenny White came over in February, 2002. I had met Kenny through Monica years earlier. Kenny played piano on Bush and the Tree. He totally got the vibe of the tune right away. To this day, I'm surprised that the recording quality was as good as it was, considering the condition of the old spinet piano, and the overall lack of professional gear and soundproofing we had in that apartment in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn.
In April of 2002, my new friend Chris Cunningham came over to play electric guitar on Different Clothes. He played my Les Paul through a vintage tape echo device called a Multivox Multiecho. It instantly gave the song a huge burst of energy. Chris has such diverse musical influences. That's what makes him sound so unique. All of a sudden Different Clothes was launched into a whole new space, some crazy African-sounding rockabilly thing.
Soon after that, I called up my old high school friend Peter Delano. Peter and I have been friends since the 1980s. Peter mainly plays jazz piano, but I knew he could stretch out and add a nice soulful, flavor to We Fell Down. He played the Fender Rhodes, which is an old electric piano. We recorded it both straight into an amplifier and also through that same tape echo machine for some atmospheric sounds.
I had recently done some gigs with the band Gloria Deluxe, led by Cynthia Hopkins. Cynthia is a really talented singer-writer-accordionist, and I wanted to hear her sing "My Alien Friend." This was an unusual song, that seemed, at first, hard to cast. For most of the song, you hear just lead vocal and guitar. The band doesn't kick in until the very end. So it had to have just the right vocal personality for it to work.
In March of 2003, Cynthia came over to record and it came together really fast. Somehow it seemed really natural for her to be reminiscing about an alien abduction. The whole spoken word bit in the middle was all her - I told her to just go for it, to imagine she was remembering her time in the spaceship. I remember thinking, after she did that bit, how cool it was that her alien was "made of light and peace." Right on.
Michelle Casillas was next. I had been playing in her band Ursa Minor with Robert DiPietro and Rob Jost. We recorded her vocal in January of 2004 at Robert DiPietro's place. Robert engineered that session. I just hung out and listened. It was cool to hear Michelle, a beautiful and intense singer, sing lower than she normally does. She has a real intensity in her lower register that's very captivating. This would actually be a recurring theme with this project, singers singing in keys that they normally would not. It can bring out something new and special in a good singer. You hear vulnerability and an intensity emerge.
Part 4: Unexpected Injury
August 4 of 2004: While onstage performing, I had a massive brain hemorrhage due to an Arteriovenous Malformation, or AVM. The stroke left me hospitalized for over a year. After that, I had about two years of rigorous outpatient work, seeing physical, occupational and speech therapists every day. A lot went on during this time. Monica gave birth to our daughter Ellie, we moved from New York to Massachusetts, I had to relearn how to walk and talk and eat. It took me a long time to be able to play the guitar again.
Nothing happened with the record for about two years.
I came home from the hospital in August of 2005 and for the following six months, I was pretty out of it. I could really only focus on small, mundane tasks like eating breakfast, doing exercises, seeing doctors and so on. It was a very, very gradual return to any semblance of a normal life.
I learned that there had been benefit shows put on for me while I was sick, and that some of the songs from the tribute record had been performed. I had had many visitors while I was recovering, but very little of that did I remember. However, as I started to reestablish my friendships with people like Jeff Hill, Kenny White, and Teddy Thompson, I began to listen again to some of the stuff we had recorded together two years earlier. It flipped some switch in my mind, turned something on. I began to start thinking about the "tribute" record again.
Part 5: Back to the Project
In March of 2006, I invited Erin Mckeown to come over and record We Fell Down. I had done a fair amount of touring with Erin a few years back.
I remember it was a real physical challenge for me to record Erin. It was the first time I had done any recording work (or any work at all, for that matter) since the brain injury. I was having trouble with my vision, and I got tired very easily. On top of that, it was hard for me to use the computer keyboard, because my hands were clenched like claws as a result of the bleed.
But Erin sounded so great doing We Fell Down that it kind of cancelled out the hardships I was experiencing. She has an edgy sensitivity that really helps this song. It was great to hang out with her, too, and really great to just be working on music again. It had been a long time. I was amazed that I remembered how to use Pro Tools. I even remembered the keyboard shortcuts. This session kind of re-lit my fire about the whole thing.
I had worked with Marshall Crenshaw as his guitar player for several years right up until my injury. I knew I wanted Marshall to sing on the tribute record. I picked Different Clothes for him to sing and sent him CD-Rs containing the audio files. Swapping files back and forth had taken off while I was in the hospital. Suddenly it was much easier and more commonplace.
Marshall nailed Different Clothes. That song is perfect for him. It's got a bouncy, chugging, rock and roll quality to it that Marshall is an expert at. He really got the spirit of the song. He added all those nice harmony parts, too. I remember listening to his vocal tracks for the first time and just smiling.
In the summer of 2006, Kenny White rejoined the effort. I was now living in Cambridge, MA, going to Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital pretty regularly for outpatient work. Kenny would come up to visit. On two occasions he recorded some parts with my Farfisa organ and the Fender Rhodes on several tracks. Once again, it just brought everything to a new level.
Because I am a guitar player, the overwhelming sound throughout all these songs was the guitar. It still is, I think. But having Kenny play the keyboard parts that he did just made everything feel rounder and fuller. More like a band. Certain songs even became dominated by keyboards, like We Fell Down and When the Morning Comes. I'm happy about this. It suits those songs well, and makes the record more interesting.
I have always loved Kenny's voice, too. I knew he would sound great singing Mr. Important Person. He wondered about the key of the song, though. It was a little higher than usual for him. As soon as I heard him start singing, I knew it had to stay as it was. Because it's a little high, it brings out a vulnerability in him. The way he sounds... it breaks your heart... in a good way.
There was a song of mine on the first Goats in Trees record called When the Morning Comes. This was a song that I wrote in 1997. Suddenly, in 2006, I remembered that we had re-recorded When the Morning Comes at the Pete Keppler sessions in 1999 but had never transferred it into Pro Tools as I had the other songs. It suddenly came to me like a bolt of lightning that I should include that song on the tribute record...and that Holly Palmer should be the one to sing it.
I had known Holly for years. Once again, I met her through Monica. She is an incredible singer, and I knew she would have just the right spirit for When the Morning Comes. I called up John Squicciarino and arranged to transfer this last song.
Part 6: Jeff Hill
Enter again my good friend Jeff Hill. As I mentioned, Jeff plays bass on this record. It was at this point that he really went above and beyond anything I could ever imagine.
The first thing he did, in September, 2006, was record Holly singing When the Morning Comes. I think they recorded it at Jeff's place in Brooklyn. When I heard it, I was thrilled. Just as I thought, Holly had the absolute perfect vibe for that song. It was another home run.
Then Jeff went a step further. Finding someone to sing The Game had been impossible. The song has a lot of rhythmic twists and turns. The high vocal parts required a really strong singer. In my mind, though, it had to be a guy singing. That just made sense to me with the lyrics. Who could tackle this?
Jeff called his former band mate from Hazy Malaze, Neal Casal.
For me, the coolest thing about this whole project has been the gift of hearing my songs sung by other people. If you are a songwriter, there is something really cool about hearing your song performed by someone else. You hear your own material in a totally new way. You can rediscover your own writing. And when it is just the right singer, the experience can be exceptional.
So Jeff recorded Neal Casal singing The Game. I will never forget the feeling of listening to the mp3 Jeff emailed me right after they recorded. Unreal. The hardest song to cast was nailed! Neal really owned it. I remember I called Neal the next morning to tell him how into it I was.
Neal told me he had really spent time thinking about the lyrics. He realized that even though it is upbeat musically, the lyrics are pretty intense. I was so glad he said that. I have always loved songs that have that duality, the upbeat music and the heavy lyrics. Think of Tracks of My Tears by Smokey Robinson, or Lonely Boy by Andrew Gold. The Game was written with that in mind. The lyrics were written about something I used to do with summer friends when I was a kid - build card towers. I used that game as a metaphor for childhood rivalry and competition while growing up.
From a musical standpoint I wrote The Game trying to do my version of a Rod Alonzo song - hooky, melodic and infectious. Rod is a good friend and prolific songwriter who I have known and loved for many years.
Part 7: Me and the Blues
I love so many different kinds of music, from all over the world. For a long time, though, I have been fascinated by the blues, seduced by the primal quality it has, the immediacy. A lot of my songs wind up being my interpretations of blues music. That is, I try to write a song that gives me the same feeling that I get when I listen to the blues. But I don't want to write in strict blues form. It has to be different from that somehow. It has to be in my own language, whatever that is.
Dixie was written with that mentality. It's got the combined vocal and guitar melody line, as a lot of blues songs do. Think of Robert Johnson doing Come On In My Kitchen, or Led Zeppelin doing You Shook Me. The verse of Dixie is just one chord. It's aggressive; it rocks in an over- the-top kind of way.
In July of 2006 I went to Monkey Boy Studios in Brooklyn to record Teddy Thompson singing Dixie. Through Tomorrow happened so fast for him, but Dixie took a while. As Teddy later noted, It's really the type of song where the singer needs to be singing and playing the melody on the guitar at the same time. that's what I did when we originally recorded it. The timing is always changing because it relies on feel instead of a predictable pattern. Teddy had to match the timing of the guitar line exactly in order for it to work. And that took some time - but he eventually nailed it. He is such a flawless singer that it was kind of cool to see him have to work so hard.
Part 8: Life. Support. Music.
Question: What do you do after you recover from a near fatal brain injury? Answer: Make a movie about it. In 2006 my family and I invited filmmaker Eric Daniel Metzgar to make a documentary film about my recovery. I figured Eric would be into the story. Tremendous recovery despite overwhelming odds. It was right up his alley. I had known Eric for years, and I knew he would make an amazing film. He did. It's called Life.Support.Music.
Eric would make frequent trips up to Cambridge to film me with Monica and Ellie, and interview various family members, doctors and hospital personnel. I was constantly telling him about the progress of the tribute record. I think it was Eric who came up with the idea to gather all the singers to perform the songs in a live concert setting as a celebration of my return to playing music. The performance would be filmed for use in the documentary.
With so many singers and musicians' schedules to juggle, organizing it was a huge challenge. But eventually it came together on February 15, 2007. What a magical night. It's amazing it turned out so well considering there were only a couple days of rehearsal.
Anyway, the February Concert took place at the Living Room in New York City. In addition to being filmed, it was recorded directly to Pro Tools. I was so thrilled when I snuck downstairs in-between sets to listen for a second. It all sounded so good.
There were many great performances that night. I put two songs from the February Concert on the tribute record. One is Commonwealth Row, sung by Noe Venable. That song needs a bit of a haunted feeling to it - It's a creepy, sad story. Noe gives it a dark quality that is beautiful.
The other song from that night is the one song on the record that I sing, The Books on the Shelf. This was the first song I wrote after I regained my general awareness and started focusing on music again. I will say, though, that the seeds of this song were planted years earlier. I had bits and pieces of it, unformed. But that's kind of what the song describes - returning to your old self, to the process you started. "The poem I wrote, stuffed in the cracks and left."
The Books on the Shelf came out so well that it still amazes me. Everything about it works. The band fell into this natural groove and the song practically played itself. Also - and I just have to point this out - Chris Cunningham's guitar playing just blows my mind. I don't even know what that is. . .what do you call that? It's like some kind of . . . spider . . .crawling around the song. Listen to it, you'll see what I mean.
Monica and I thought it would be cool for Rachel Loshak and Morgan Taylor to sing See the Sun. Morgan has the perfect voice for this kind of pop tune, and Rachel adds the most angelic harmonies. It came out so well that I began to think that it would have to be the first track on the record.
I was still working a lot on all these songs at home, filling in the gaps in the arrangements. Kenny came over again to play more keyboard stuff. I had Paul Ahlstrand come over to record the horn parts for The Game, which Jeff Hill and I had mapped out. I recorded a lot of the extra guitar parts - the solos on See You, When the Morning Comes, and My Alien Friend. John Mettam added tambourine from afar via emailing. Monica and Jeff sang a lot of background parts.
Part 9: Mixing
It seemed only natural that I should seek out Pete Keppler to mix the record. For those of you who aren't aware, mixing a record is a very crucial part of this process. To take everything that's been recorded and make it all fit together just right is a true art. I knew Pete would be the perfect guy to do this. I felt like he really got my music. Plus he was there in the beginning, eight years earlier.
It was so great to reconnect with Pete. It had been years. I was surprised and touched when he told me that he had actually gone to visit me in the hospital in New York. He said he couldn't get in to see me because I was still in the ICU, but had run into my mom and introduced himself. We talked about how crazy the past few years had been.
Pete and I started a routine that would last about a year. I would come down to New York for a couple of days at a time and work with him at his place, mixing. Well, he was doing the actual mixing and I was there producing - giving direction and making sure the songs retained their original intent.
It was a great way to work, actually. We had a lot of time in between our sessions to each listen and think about the songs. You can make little revelations this way, when you have time and space.
I remember having a revelation about the horn part in the game - we chopped out a part of it that was in the chorus, and it totally opened things up in a good way. But it took about six months of listening to figure that out. I also remember figuring out on "Bush and the Tree" that the mandolin and the piano had to be panned to opposite sides. Once we did that, the song came to life, it became more three- dimensional. None of the sounds conflicted with one another.
Pete had his moments too. He got the idea to go down to a studio in New York City and run my guitar through their Leslie speaker for See You. A Leslie speaker is a vintage speaker that rotates, creating a grand, celestial sound. You can hear it kick in after the first chorus when the next verse begins. It was Pete's idea to wait to bring Holly's background vocals in until the last chorus of When the Morning Comes. that's a great touch _ it helps the songs build. Pete's very good at this kind of thing - waiting, building, editing. He did this with Kenny's organ part in Dixie, and the Fender Rhodes in When the Morning Comes. This is all really important stuff. It gives each song a real shape that helps tell the story.
Part 10: The Home Stretch
Once everything is mixed, then you're ready for mastering. This is the last step of the process, where all the songs get adjusted to have similar depth and volume. This process includes finessing the frequencies in each song and across the whole album. Mastering has always seemed a little mysterious to me, but when It's done right you sure can tell. And in some ways it really makes sense. I mean, there are thirteen different songs on this record. Some are from live performances . . .all were recorded in multiple studios, over a span of nine years. They are bound to sound a little different sonically from one another.
But they all have to fit together as part of one record. Mastering is the art of making that happen. And it is an art. Gene Paul, at DB Plus, had mastered my record Down Like Hail. It was great to see him again, and of course he was amazed at how I had spent the past few years. Recovering from a near fatal brain injury is a good conversation piece. You really can't beat it.
Anyway, Pete came with me to the mastering session with Gene. It went pretty smoothly. I was really glad Pete was there. I think we went back in and did a few final tweaks, but not much. Finally, at long last, after nine years, this record was done!
Will Sweeney is an illustrator and storyboard artist who Monica and I have been friends with for years. It was Monica's idea to ask him to do the cover art for the CD. I was really into super hero comic books when I was a kid, and Monica allegedly asked Will to make me look like a super hero. So he did. Kind of fits with the story, I guess.
Part 12: Reflections
It's weird how this whole thing has become something . . .more . . .to me. Time can change your perspective on things. When I hear these songs I remember an...urgency...in myself. I had to write these songs. It was extremely necessary for me at the time.
And somehow the next step of the journey became just as important. I had to find the right people to sing these songs. It couldn't be me - I didn't want it to be me. The project established itself, and it had to be completed in that very specific way. These were my songs, but I had to let them go - give them to other people to interpret. I knew that that's what would bring them to life.
The thing that makes the whole journey so poignant to me is thinking about my brain injury. There is a year and a half of my life that I don't even remember. To think that I returned to this project after all that makes me really . . .emotional. Why did I keep going with this? I had to. It was that important to me.
I labored a lot over the order of the record, as people who make records always do. Pete also had some good thoughts about what the order should be.
When I look at the order, I notice that The Books on the Shelf is in the middle of the record. I didn't put it there for any deliberate reason. It just seemed to fall there naturally.
But there's something kind of right about that. The Books on the Shelf is, in my mind, a central point in all of this. It's the song that I wrote about my recovery. It's the first song I wrote after my injury. It was my bridge back to songwriting after two years away from the conscious world.
It seems appropriate that it should be the central point of the record. What happened to me is, in my mind, a gigantic turning point in my life. There's my life before the brain injury and my life after. This project started before and ended after. It endured through the muck and drudgery of recovering from the AVM.
I see that song there in the middle as a symbol of me...standing up, after this crazy, life-altering injury.... surrounded by my friends.
"The poem I wrote, stuffed in the cracks and left." Returning to that thing you made, that painting, that song . . you tucked it away because you had to deal with this ordeal, this illness...you had to recover yourself. But then here it is . . .You found it again, that poem, that song . . and you're so glad, because it helps you so much . .
We're all on our own journeys in life. I've become acutely aware of that in the past couple of years. My recovery has put me in touch with many incredible people who are struggling to overcome their own severe injuries. I'm in a unique position now, because of what I've been through, to offer help to these people. that's part of my path now.
And this record is part of my path. I've lived with it for nine years. I've let it go, grabbed it back, obsessed, worried, wondered, rejoiced, hoped, dreamed. Why? I don't know. It's just how it is. Everyone's got their thing. Someone else needs to go climb Mt. Everest. Someone needs to swim the English Channel. I need to take nine years and create my own tribute record. And then sit back and listen to it. And share it with the world.