"I will not allow this piece of my personal and musical history to be erased. I will not be gaslighted, and I will not accept a revisionist version of this story."
It's so painful to write about this that I'm consistently distracted every time I try to tell this story. Right now, I'm sitting in a Starbucks in Kensington, checking my phone every two seconds even though I've vowed to go internet-free until my computer runs out of battery life. I just distracted myself again by moving from the countertop in the window to a chair in the back of the room.
In 2007, I met a man who would become my chief artistic collaborator for several years, my off-and-on boyfriend, and, essentially, one of the most important people in my life. A man who remains one of my top artistic influences, a man who affected the trajectory of my life more than almost anyone I've ever known. The first person I ever trusted with my music. The first person I worked with musically in any kind of serious sense. The first and only person to date that I've ever written and finished songs with. (I just distracted myself again by reaching into my bag and putting on a sweater, because it's a little chilly in here.)
Back to the present day. Now my iPod died in the middle of “Speaking in Tongues,” so I'm plugging it back in and getting re-situated. My stomach is churning, and I'm feeling dizzy. I'm breaking my vow of no internet access to dig into my email to find the volumes that I've already tried to write about this record. I'm exhausted. I'm done carrying this around with me internally. I need to tell this story, and I need to tell my side of this story. I'm copying and pasting for a moment. I'm going to attempt as much as possible to keep personal and relationship dynamics out of this story because this is really supposed to be about the story of the record, although it is truly difficult to keep them separated. (I will go into more detail about relationship dynamics on my next album, I promise you, you will get to hear that side of things as well.)
Music For Smart People was recorded in 2008 and 2009, mostly in a house in Santa Monica that would affectionately come to be known as "The Delaware House." Other recording took place at my former house in Culver City, a vibraphone studio in the valley somewhere (Billy Hulting's Zero Beats Per Minute studio), at the Echo Park studio of producer/artist Rich McCulley, and in the concert office of McCabe's Guitar Shop, where both myself and my partner worked at the time.
It would not be an understatement to say that almost a certified gazillion people were involved in the recording of this album. It was amazing to get to work with everyone from people who had never played on a CD before, to some veteran session players of the LA scene. Working at McCabe's made those connections easy to come by.
As for my former partner, former collaborator, former lover, and former friend:
I met him in January 2007 after answering a craigslist ad for someone looking to start a band who listed almost every single band I loved... 60's pop, The Beach Boys, everything. I wrote back with my phone number and information, thinking nothing would come of it. I was happy to be playing in San Diego-based Red Pony Clock, but I did want to be playing more shows, especially in the LA area. I had initially found Red Pony Clock by posting a craigslist ad saying that I wanted to start a band. So I turned once again to the wild, wild internet frontier.
To my surprise, he called me back and I was blown away by his enthusiasm, which literally bubbled over the phone lines. I was also blown away by his story, which included the fantastic-but-true narrative of how he had recorded his first album entirely while living in a van ("using stolen electricity," in his own words) and using only one mic and a laptop to record the whole thing. Unfortunately, for reasons I don't understand, he's has taken down most, if not all, of his recordings from the internet (?) and so I can't really link to them. There was a great story about this record, and hopefully, someday it will be online again for people to read. It's a good record, and despite all the history between us, I still listen to it often.
We agreed to meet up in Hermosa Beach and just hang out and talk about music. The night we met, I played a gig with Red Pony Clock & Watercolor Paintings all the way out in Thousand Oaks, a freezing cold show where I played a battery-powered Casio keyboard about one foot in size and literally almost froze my ass off, and a show that was recorded for eventual release on Seattle's "Lost Sound Tapes." I hopped in my 1999 VW silver New Beetle and drove to Aviation Blvd. to wait outside in the parking lot of a Chevron gas station for a little bit. He was late, and I waited and waited, convinced that he just wasn't going to show up.
I was almost ready to go home. In fact, I had begun to pull out of the parking lot when a 1973 yellow Super Beetle pulled up next to me and I saw one of the biggest smiles of my entire life hanging out the driver's side of this bright yellow Beetle. Same as mine, different color, different year. He reminded me immediately of a dear friend from college, and I felt at ease. I hopped into his car and saw that he too, drove a stick shift. Talk ensued, mostly talk of our favorite Beach Boys albums, and then our favorite 1960's pop/folk/rock music. We discovered we were in the same comedy class in Santa Monica and I left feeling pretty good. We ran into each other before classes. We hung around the same spots and spent more time together. I knew he liked me when he helped me carry a not-heavy-at-all bag of stuff to my car.
It wasn't long before we were sitting alone on Arizona Avenue, in Santa Monica, late late late, (too late), at night and talk turned to matters of the heart. He came on strong, and said, "I really think we could be good for each other." We became lovers, and we stayed friends, and then one day, after a few months, rather suddenly, he called it off. I didn't see it coming, and I was crushed. I was mostly crushed because I knew that we weren't finished. He dumped me at a cafe on a busy street in Santa Monica and then asked for a ride afterwards. I have never been more broken after a breakup in my life before or since. I cried until I couldn't cry anymore. I walked out of my day job two weeks early after my boss made a sexist comment, sold most of my belongings, took my dog home to live with my parents, got my first tattoo, which I would hide from my family for almost a year, and made plans to go on a six-week tour with one of my other main loves, Red Pony Clock. While all of this was going on, I spent obsessive days in my downtown LA loft apartment recording what would become “Healing Arts for Broken Hearts” and “Glitter Patter,” my first two EPs.
The Red Pony Clock tour ended up being a seminal learning experience in my life; a touring experience where I spent far too much money, drank far too much alcohol, and thought about way too much deep shit on tour. I came home and barely talked to anyone in the band for what seemed like ages. (everything is way cool now, don't worry) I got a new boyfriend, moved to a new place, and got a new job.
It was a couple of months after this that our paths crossed again. He invited me over to his new house and told me he wanted to produce my music, a couple songs of mine. He apologized, made some serious attempts to make things right, and I believed him.
I trusted him. After all, his debut album had been featured on KCRW, he'd toured successfully, and we liked the same kinds of music for the most part. Why shouldn't I trust him? I appreciated his enthusiasm, his Virgoan eye for detail, but mostly, his ambition. It seemed like a great idea, so we began sorting out the details and started working on it.
I started working at McCabe's Guitar Shop a few months after we began speaking again. He recommended me fully for a job that opened up. I was basically assisting the owner of the place with accounts payable. I took it on with gusto, and this also made our collaborations easier.
Everyday, I worked all day. All day, every day. Everyday was about the record. Everyday was about the music. I'd be at work filing paperwork and he'd come into the office and talk about the details of the record and the sessions. I'd go home and record demos and send them back. I'd work all day and then go to his house and arrange music until 2, 3 in the morning. He'd call me in the middle of the night. I'd go over there in the middle of the night, “to work.”
We booked sessions in Echo Park, the valley, Culver City. We made arrangements for musicians to come to the house. He used my preamps, my interfaces, my microphones on his computer, in his closet, in his bedroom, in his living room. He recorded guitars at McCabe's. I recorded vocals in a closet. We worked all the time. All the time we worked.
It got “professional,” in the sense that we filed a DBA, which I paid for, and we began keeping detailed records of how much money we were spending. It really added up much faster than I thought. $200 for a vibraphonist here, $300 for session time here, $50 for posters, $100 for a cellist, $200 for a flautist, all the while lending and borrowing money back and forth between us for day-to-day matters, taking turns buying groceries and doing the cooking while subsisting almost entirely on his homemade soups and eggs over easy with toast in the mornings.
We made plans to tour the record. We talked about where we wanted to go, what we wanted to do with it. How we wanted it to go. We worked through all of 2008 like this, breakneck, exhausting, and still it wasn't done. Night after night of sleeping on his couch while he worked. We'd make breakfast for each other in the mornings, go to work together, work together on the record, come back from work, eat again, and continue to work into the wee hours of the morning. He would usually work later than me, and I was always up earlier than he was. (Why is this a constant point of contention I have with 98% of the musical people I know?) Sometime in 2008, I believe that we finished recording? I don't even remember? At some point, he began mixing.
It goes without say that it is almost always a huge error to mix your own record. If I had one lesson I'd love for everyone to get out of this cautionary tale, it is always a good idea to pass your record off to someone else to be mixed. For your sanity, for your life, for your money. The best money I have ever spent on music is for mixing.
I thought the mixing would take much less time than it did. Of course, I was wrong. Our operation began to hemorrhage money. He was working less and less, mixing more and more. Mixing is not easy work, and it went on for months. Months and months and months. I waited. I offered to mix. I offered for someone else to mix. I tried a lot of things. None of them worked to pull him out of the obsessive loop of the pursuit of perfection. I paid for his rent once. I bought us food. I was working the whole time as well. He received money from his family to cover his living expenses while he continued mixing.
I didn't know that none of this was not how it normally goes. I didn't know there was an easier way. I didn't know that a record can be mixed in a week if you really want it to be. I didn't know any better. I thought this was the only way. I kept throwing money at the situation, I kept burning money in the situation. I moved to Culver City, where I lived in the house of a compulsive hoarder (and cellist) who owned five pianos. I began writing all day, every day. I became artistically backed up. I was discouraged from releasing anything during this time, as we were “working on the record.” Working on the record, working on the record, working on the record, always working on the record.
It became the only thing in my life, the defining factor of my personality, the singularity of my focus, the only thing I'd talk about, think about, dream about. Finally, sometime in the spring of 2009, it was done being mixed. I continued to throw my own money into the project, as did he, but I do have the receipts somewhere and a lot of them have my name down as the person who paid for them. Once it was done being mixed, we weren't done paying for it, though. $100 for mastering, $500 for the CDs, $200 for the photo shoot, $1000 for the laser-cut mirrors that we used as the album covers. No, I'm not kidding.
Then it came time to mail everything. Money for postage, for posters, for envelopes and printing. And while we waited for the reviews to trickle in, we had a show to book and work out all the details for. Money for our band, for backup singers, for a saxophonist and a trumpeter. The night of the show, all the money we made on our amazing release show was already gone, paid out to everyone but us, it seemed.
Did it go the way we planned? Absolutely not. Our band, (and our relationship), broke up while in Europe on an ill-fated tour that cost me another 3 grand, easy. That's another story for another time. The record? Shelved, and eventually even taken off of YouTube and CD Baby and iTunes. The $10k easy that I sunk into this? Poof. Vanished and gone. Let me also say that while I paid for at least half of this project, I didn't have even half of a say in what happened to the songs, how they disappeared from the internet, how the site turned into a place to bash me and how it all played out publicly.
So now it's time for me to tell my side of the story. Legally, I do have the right to do this. I have been afraid to publish some of the story of this record because I am still afraid of him. There, I admitted it. I'm working on that, and hopefully I'll be able to delete this section of the page soon.
I sunk years of my life into these songs, I sunk my entire bank account at the time into these songs, and this entire project was a joint record (although the liner notes don't totally indicate that). I have a right to tell my side of the story. These songs have a fucking right to see the light of day. I think that the majority of these songs are horrendous, honestly. The production is fucking awful. You can barely understand the vocals on the majority of the songs; even the songs that I wrote I'm not happy with. I am not at all happy with the way that my songs Contract Between Us and Dirty Shame turned out. I'm also not happy with the treatment of I Won't Leave You Behind. My favorite songs on the record, and the only ones I'll listen to without cringing are Friends & Lovers and my favorite song that Sebastian ever wrote, A Better Combination of Words. I love that song, still do, always will. The record could have had a shot at being commercially viable for licensing if someone else had mixed it. I've been trying (unsuccessfully) to get a hold of the masters for this record for a long, long time, and I've accepted that it's probably not going to happen. I would love the chance to recoup my financial investment by getting a song or two placed or at least used as background music somewhere. (When I sent him an email asking him to do this, I got the response: "Let Go. Move On." YEAH? FUCK YOU TOO)
I was told NO so many times on this record. NO your songs can't go on the record because we don't have enough room. NO you can't play clarinet on this song. NO you can't produce this. NO you can't engineer this. NO you can't have a say in how your own songs are produced. NO your opinions don't matter. NO you don't get to share anything of your own during this time. NO you can't play piano on your own songs. NO your vocals aren't good enough. NO your songs aren't good enough. NO your piano playing isn't good enough. The overarching message I got during the making of this record, which nearly destroyed me:
NO, NO, NO, NO, NO, NO, NO, YOU'RE NOT GOOD ENOUGH
So maybe you can understand why it's so hard for me to talk about this, and maybe you can now start to understand why I literally seethe with rage over the way this record went down. Maybe now you see how it kills me to continually watch my name and my reputation be dragged through the mud by this person. And maybe now you can understand why I need to tell my side of the story, because my partner took everything offline. I have no idea how much money this album did in sales, because I didn't see it. I have no idea how this performed. That's beside the point, I don't care that much about the sales, but I do care about this piece of work being held hostage. It's not fair, it's not just, and it's not right. I will not be punished anymore. I will not be held back and I will not be fucking silenced. I sank my time, my life, and my money into this record, and I'm going to tell my version of how things went down. People have a right to hear these songs. People have a right to know what happened. No one - NO ONE - gets to act like this album never happened.
I will not have this piece of my personal and musical history erased. I will not be gaslighted, and I will not accept a revisionist version of this story.
The main thing that makes me angry looking at the liner notes is that my name isn't included on the engineers list. I engineered a lot of Denny Croy's bass recording at the Delaware House. So I'm going to take this moment and give myself credit for that, since it's not included in the official liner notes.
Another thing that makes me angry is that, so many musicians put in some really great fucking work on this album, and in this album being virtually erased from existence, there are a lot of musicians whose contributions are being ignored. And that's not cool. We had some amazing people work with us, and they deserve to be credited and recognized. Amateur production can only hide so much musical talent.
I'm going to upload a .pdf scan of the album liner notes for another page, but I just want to list out all the amazing musicians who worked on this record and give them credit.
Ellen Burr - flute, piccolo
Denny Croy - bass
Ricardo Davila - classical guitar
Geoff Erwin - backing vocals
C'Lesa Kay - backing vocals
Jack Kovacs - electric guitar, mandolin
Tayler Lynn - backing vocals
Michael Lopez - trumpet
Nick Mancini - vibraphone
Ariel Mann - bass, piano
Maraiya McFadden - backing vocals
Tanya Nunez - bass
Steve Mugalian - drums, percussion
Isaac Parfrey - percussion, piano
Sean Rainey - drums, percussion
Emma Ruth Rundle - harp
Kevan Torfeh - cello
John Whoolilurie - saxophone, throat singing
Alexander Wurmbrand - violin
and of course:
Sebastian Clark - lead/backing vocals, charango, percussion, guitar, whistling, banjitar, bass
Normandie Wilson - lead/backing vocals, trumpet, glockenspiel, piano, harpsichord
The one thing I will say about the album (another thing I'm uncredited for) is the arrangements are pretty killer. He was meticulous about arranging songs, and I would often stay up late at night scoring out all the arrangements while he yelled them out, note by note. So the musicians who brought these songs to life really deserve to be credited, as I scored out all the arrangements and they were not easy parts for most things. Everyone nailed their performances and there wasn't a single person who made a sound on this record that didn't do their absolute best and give their 100%. I want to thank everyone who recorded these songs. You all went above and beyond what was expected of you.
I'm working on an album right now that will give me the courage to tell the rest of this story, but this is it for now.