Friday, March 16, 2007

The story of Human Voices, the second Tree People recording

If you are a new guest to this blog, welcome! You can find the story of the reissue of The Tree People by going to the archives and I will continue to update any new developments of that story in future posts. But now the story moves on to the second Tree People recording, Human Voices:

Jeff and I continued to perform as The Tree People after the 1979 album was history and Rachel had finished school and put Eugene, Oregon in her rear view mirror. We performed mostly in Eugene with a variety of guest artists over the next 5 years. Our flute player was gone, so Jeff, who already was playing recorder and percussion, and has always had the ability to learn new things quickly, learned to play the flute in short order.

We performed at the WOW Hall in Eugene many times over those years, in live radio concerts, as headliners and as opening acts. We opened for John Fahey, who said he would love to have us on his record label, Tacoma, but he didn't have the label anymore. After the performance I found John Fahey and Jeff in a back room having a spirited converstation, not about music or the music business, but about an obscure Catholic philosopher that they both had read. That exchange summed up our music business luck and sense at the time- we were more interested and knew more about philosophy than the business of music, and in retrospect I think that might be a good thing. We also opened for the John Renborn Group, which was a big thrill because we were both big fans of The Pentangle, Renborn's innovative British folk group from the sixties, and his new group had many of the same wonderful musicians back from the Pentangle.

We had a few women singers who sat in with us over that period: first Janne Underriner, who is now a linguist and director of the The Northwest Indian Language Institute at the University of Oregon, and later, for a short spell a woman named Victoria, whom I had met in art school at the university.

Janne added a quiet dignity and beauty to the musical proceedings. During the time Janne sang with us a man from Los Angeles, who had just moved to a beautiful house on the MacKensie
River, saw us at The Home Fried Truck Stop (see the archives for more about The Home Fried Truck Stop, Eugene's long ago place for music), and became our publicist and unofficial agent for a short time. He looked and spoke well and had big ideas and plans for us, but, as happens so many times in the music business, nothing much came of it. Years later I was passing through Corvallis, Oregon and needed to mail some music materials that day. I saw a man on a cane who was obviously a burn victim- you could see it on his face and he was missing some fingers. When I asked him for directions to the post office he recognized me and told me who he was and how his house on the McKensie had burned down with him in it- it turns out there is more to that story, but it is probably best to get back to the Tree People.

Victoria also played violin, recorder and just about anything else. I remember a summer performance at the music stage at The Saturday Market in Eugene where she sat in with us: there was a warm breeze, blue skies, and nice people everywhere. On one particular song,
"A Woman Whose Face Was Found," we gave Victoria the vocals. She was either able to copy my off beat singing style almost exactly or just sang that way too- I never found out the answer because she soon moved back to San Diego.

Unfortunately we have no recorded history of Janne or Victoria's brief stints with the Tree People
. We also did some performances with a high school classical piano prodigy named Soria Meadow (pictured above to the left), whose mother, a fan of the Tree People, wanted to see if her daughter could branch out into some improvised music. We composed a piece for Soria with guitar, piano, percussion and flute, but never recorded it. Once we booked a concert at a theater in Corvallis, and I drove the 40 miles with Jeff, Soria and her mother, only to find a nearly empty concert hall because whatever publicity that had been arranged either hadn't gotton out or hadn't worked. So we played a long, heartfelt set for whatever few people were there and drove back to Eugene. The thing I remember most about that evening was a conversation with Jeff and Soria and her mother on the late night drive back- words about life, meaning and purpose filled the car like music.

We started performing a lot, especially at some local festivals, with Denis Mochary (pictured above), a drummer. He added
rhythm, color and depth to the music and played on a very interesting looking drum set that was curved and had drums coming out at you like trumpets. He also was reading some of the same novels that Jeff and I happened to be reading at the time, including "Things Fall Apart", by Chinua Achebe. We decided to call an instrumental that me and Jeff wrote "Things Fall Apart", an instrumental where things do fall apart and then come together again.

As 1984 approached, we felt it was time to do a second recording. I had written two songs, "Thomas", and "Grandfather", which always struck an emotional chord with our listeners in performance (I recorded another version of "Thomas" years later on a solo recording and won several national awards with that song, including an award at the Kerrville Folk Festival in Texas in 2000), and we had several instrumental pieces, such as "Things Fall Apart", that we knew were ready to record, plus a piece called "Rain, Rain, " which we felt put all the elements of what we were doing together. I also had written a song called "If That's Entertainment", which was totally different from the Windham Hill (a California music label) new age kind of things that were big in acoustic music circles in those days (a Tree People fan once described our music as "new age with an edge") . Although some of our listeners at the time thought "If That's Entertainment" was too negative and intense, we knew we wanted to include it in the recording.

We went in to The Recording Arts Center, the best studio in Eugene at that time (it no longer exists), with engineer Don Ross (a wonderful engineer who now runs his own studio, Don Ross Productions, in Eugene). The recording featured myself on acoustic guitar and voice, Jeff on recorders, flute, bells and percussion, Denis on drums and a few guest musicians. Rob McIntosh and Laurie Brown, a local and regional folk duo at the time, added a beautiful vocal arrangement to the song, "Human Voices", (Rob and Laurie, a married couple, were starting to make a big musical splash in the Pacific Northwest but a few years later they divorced and Laurie moved to Seattle. I don't know where either of them are now, but it seems like every city I go to has at least one folk couple in the spirit of Rob and Laurie). My brother Jeremy, a longtime professional bass player in Berkeley, California, added bass parts to "Grandfather" and "Thomas".

We put our hearts, minds and souls into Human Voices, but we didn't know what we were doing when it was done. Vinyl was on the way out then, and CDs has not yet arrived, so we made a limited edition cassette of only 300 copies. We had no real connections in the music business and we really had no idea of what to do to get the recording out to people, so other than some local radio play and press, and local sales of most of the 300, we did nothing. Denis, who also worked as a carpenter, moved back East soon after the recording. A few years later Jeff moved to Washington, D.C. and the story of The Tree People seemed over. The 2" track tapes sat in my basement for 12 years and moved with me to Portland in 1996 and sat in the basement here for another 11 years. But now, with the successful reissue of the first Tree People album, Tiliqua records of Japan will be reissuing Human Voices later this year as a CD and in limited edition vinyl, and those 2" track tapes are being put to use!

The Remixing of Human Voices:

It has been a nice process remixing Human Voices, with Jeff, my fellow Tree Person, who co-produced and worked on the original mix with me in 1984 (Jeff and I are pictured above at Dead Aunt Thelma's Studio in Portland. I am holding Flat Stanley, a cut out character who joined us for my nephew Jonathan's school project in Maryland). What we thought might be the master tape of Human Voices turned out to be a 1/4" tape with a few unfinished pieces and one finished piece called Sketches. As I now remember, at the same time we were recording the rest of the material for Human Voices, we did Sketches on commission from Jack Good, a producer from England who I had met in Santa Fe, New Mexico when I lived there before coming to Eugene (I worked as an extra in a movie, called Catch My Soul that he produced in Santa Fe- that experience and the life of Jack Good are stories in themselves). He was going to use Sketches as part of a soundtrack for a television show he was producing in Los Angeles. I don't know if he ever did use it, but after listening to Sketches Jeff insisted that we had to include it as a bonus track to Human Voices, and after listening to it some more I couldn't agree more, so it will be included as a bonus track at the end of the reissue recording, where it fits perfectly.
The 2" tapes (pictured below) were baked (a process in reissues that prevents the tapes from being too brittle) at Dead Aunt Thelma's Studio in Portland. The music was then transferred to Pro Tools on the computer there and we were ready to go. We were lucky to have two wonderful engineers involved: Don Ross, the original engineer in 1984, recorded the music clearly and left detailed track sheets (pictured below as well) to help us; and, as always, it has been great working with my Portland engineer Dean Baskerville. And with Jeff on board again as co-producer it was a perfect situation. We wanted to keep the remix as close as possible to the original, while using the modern technology and wisdom we have now to make it sound just like we always wanted it to sound, and I think we succeeded in that goal.

Serendipity: the story of a signature of a Tree Person

Jackpot Records here in Portland bought some of my 7," 45 rpm singles (released by Ethbo Music of London in 2001 with two songs from my real life and fiction CD from 2000) the other year and asked me to sign them. Tiliqua Records of Tokyo now has a representative, Piotr, living in Portland. Piotr will be working with us and Tiliqua on the artwork and layout for the Human Voices reissue and is also helping get the first Tree People reissue CD into some of the local stores here. Soon after moving to Portland from Japan, Piotr had seen one of those singles at Jackpot and bought one. When I met with him recently, he commented on how cool it was that I signed the record Tree Person in Japanese. I had no idea what he was talking about: I just sign things with my usual signature that has become a small scrall which doesn't look much like English anymore but has no known relation to Japanese. But he insisted it said Tree Person in Japanese, and you can see why.

From a recent e-mail from Piotr: "And finally, as promised, I've attached a JPEG file of a scan of the signature from the single I got at Jackpot, with the Japanese letters below and their English meanings. The signature looks so much like handwritten cursive Japanese, I was convinced!"