Bill Leslie's Carolina Conversations

'Across the Water' album months in the making

Posted November 1, 2015

What goes into making a musical CD? I hear that question a lot. One of my favorite parts of the process is the music video at the end of the journey. The music has been written, revised and recorded and now it is time for the icing on the cake. I squirreled away photos of my 2014 trip to Ireland knowing that I would use these images to help tell the story of the music. Today's video was crafted with my pictures and the title track of my Irish-themed album "Across The Water."

What about the whole process of putting together a CD, or album, as I still like to call it? For me, it usually takes about a year and a half. That's because I already have a full-time job. The music adds a nice therapeutic balance to my life. The creative process of writing and arranging music has become a deeply spiritual experience for me. It is also very mysterious. I don't feel that I choose to write and record music. I feel compelled to do it. There is a driving force which I do not totally understand, but I am grateful for it and usually pretty obedient.

It all starts with a theme. It’s like writing a documentary for television news. The theme gives me focus and with my pinball of a brain I need all the focus I can get. “Across The Water” is the sequel to another thematic album “Scotland: Grace of the Wild.” As a product of the Scots-Irish immigration to America I wanted to return to the land of my ancestors in search of inspiration. I found it in abundance in Scotland and now Ireland.

Melodies are constantly popping up in my head, especially when I’m drooling over a gorgeous landscape or encountering some magnetic personality. I always try to have a recording device with me. It’s even better if I have a pennywhistle or a guitar with me. I haven’t figured out yet how to pack a piano in my luggage! The best scenario for me is to have a week of solitude for writing. I once wrote a whole album in one week. I put together the basic melodies for the “I Am a River” album  in my cabin near Roaring Gap in the mountains of Alleghany County. Ira David Wood has told me that is his favorite album.

Once I have crafted the basic melodies I go into the studio and lay down foundation tracks on guitar and piano. I used to handle all of these foundation tracks myself but now rely on more talented musicians to perform and arrange the piano parts. Once the foundation tracks are set I begin working with some high-end orchestral software to determine which instruments I want to add to the mix. I will play around with this process for a couple of months. For “Across The Water” I chose the following instruments: acoustic guitar, grand piano, violin, cello, oboe, harp, Celtic whistle, flute, stand-up bass, accordion and uilleann pipes. I make calls to find the best studio musicians possible to play these instruments. My latest group of musicians is a world-class line-up including legendary Irish flautist Brian Dunning. I book studio time at Overdub Lane in Durham and hire John Plymale as audio engineer and co-producer. Once I have nailed down my arrangements for melody and harmony I send audio files to Richard Flickinger who is a genius at putting together sheet music for the various instruments.

Over the course of a month, musicians will record their parts at Overdub Lane in Durham with three exceptions. Brian Dunning will mail in his parts via Dropbox from Ireland. Pianist Joseph Akins will mail his parts in from Piano Haven Studio in Sedona, AZ. And world-traveling accordionist Brandon Bush will mail his parts in from Atlanta. I finish laying down my tracks on guitar and Celtic whistle at my studio in Cary. Violinist Jennifer Curtis goes next in the Durham studio and she wows John Plymale with her precise intonation, improvisational skills and stamina in what becomes a marathon recording session. Chapel Hill cellist and studio veteran Nancy Green is next and she too shows exceptional talent and skill in interpreting the music. Oboist Melanie Wilsden and harpist Anita-Burroughs Price, both from the North Carolina Symphony, are next and their instruments add gorgeous textures and melodies to the mix. Jazz bassist and Duke music professor John Brown wraps things up perfectly by adding a rich bottom-end to the music. I will listen to everything over a couple of weeks and add my own piano flourishes and some more guitar and whistle parts.

John Plymale and I spend a weekend mixing the album at Overdub Lane in Durham. Then we send the 12 tunes off to Sterling Sound in New York for the final audio treatment called mastering. We choose Greg Calbi for the job. His legendary client list includes John Lennon, Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Norah Jones. Calbi is expensive but he is able to add a rich sheen to the final mix. We listen to the final product and are absolutely delighted.

Meanwhile Disc Makers in New Jersey takes Calbi’s master and makes a first run of 2,000 copies. Disc Makers also does an excellent job of designing the art work for the album. I write a basic narrative for the CD and give Disc Makers a few of my photographs from Ireland. Irish photographer John Miskelly provides the stunning cover photo and Cari Long adds a nice portrait shot.

Then it is time for marketing and promotion. Ed and Stacey Bonk of LAZZ promotions help me get the CD in the hands of 300 key radio hosts worldwide for an October and November promotion. They also help me line up some reviews for the album. CD Baby in Portland, OR helps me distribute the music digitally to dozens of music services including iTunes. We add “Across The Water” to our Amazon inventory and begin the process to distributing the CD to Barnes & Noble stores. But first we do the all-important CD release featuring a mini-concert at Quail Ridge Books & Music in Raleigh. I am thrilled with the crowd including reviewer RJ Lannan who drove more than 300 miles from Tennessee.

Please stay tuned. Next week, I will have another new musical video from “Across The Water.” I will talk about the extremely difficult but important job of stacking the different tracks on the album.


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Bill Leslie