HMWT Episode 1 - Cat Ridgeway "Drop Me a Line"
I first saw Cat Ridgeway play at Florida Music Festival in 2015 when she was playing solo on the Wall Street Main Stage. She had me at "I have a Shakespeare song." (It's called "To the Star Crossed Lovers" by the way and it's on her "On a Windy Day" album).
We actually met that December during her show at the Imperial. I started requesting songs off her Passenger Seat that had come out in July and we chatted a bit during her set break.
Passenger Seat is front to back a really great EP. Cat is really good at writing vocal melodies and the backing music is both varied and extremely high quality. On first listen, the song Drop Me A Line really caught my attention because of it's really cool opening guitar riff and extremely catchy chorus melody.
So when I approached Cat for the HMWT project, I knew this was the song I wanted to do. I'd seen her play it a few times in concert so I knew that she handled both the riff and the rhythm guitar work live. Cat's a really good guitar player which can be a double edged sword from the perspective of a project like this. On one hand it means I wouldn't have to do much heavy lifting to maintain the character of the song and would be free to be more creative, but it also increases the chances that a song is going to be either difficult to figure out or difficult to play.
When adapting a guitar part for the mandolin I'm never quite sure how difficult it's going to end up being. Sometimes even things that aren't that hard on the guitar become brutal on then mandolin because the different tuning causes a part to become really clumsy or flat out unplayable. Other times it's a matter of range. If a guitar part uses a really large range or hovers over an mandolin's octave inflection point* it can be hard to make sound right even if it isn't all that hard to play.
* Octave inflection point is a term I just made up. It's the point when you have to change octaves to hit the right notes. Think of the Star Spangled Banner. It requires a big vocal range, from the lowest note (the words "say" and "stripes") to the highest ("red glare"). If your voice isn't high enough to hit the top notes in their normal register, there comes a point where to stay on pitch you'd have to drop the notes down an octave. Wherever that point is for you is what I'm referring to as the octave inflection point. You can also get caught in between parts. There are some songs that I can sing the verses, but the choruses are too high for me and dropping them down an octave either makes them fairly undifferentiated with the verse, or in the weirdest cases actually *lower* than the verse.
For "Drop Me a Line" I lucked out. Both the distinctive intro riff and the really cool chorus guitar melody laid on the finger board pretty well as is, so I didn't have to make decisions about how to adjust them. Also I was happy to discover that it was close enough to the midrange of the instrument that I had space under it to do some low harmonizing with the opening phrase. (You'll hear the harmony riff when the mandolin enters at the beginning).
I hewed pretty close to the electric guitar part that's on the recording. Part of the point of this project is to dip my toes into other people's styles so I don't want to just use my bag of tricks to write parts. I want to learn a new bag of tricks. And ,especially in this case, if it ain't broke, don't fix it. I think any monster adjustment I made would have diminished the song. The melodies all work together really well and I didn't want to unbalance it.
I made an unexpected discovery when I started to chart out the chords: The chord pattern is the same throughout the entire song. The motion in the song is achieved purely by changing and overlaying melodies on top of the same four chords and it's done so well that even after many many listens I didn't notice it. The song has four main melodies in it: The opening guitar melody, the verse vocal melody, the chorus vocal melody, and the chorus electric guitar melody. It would be easy to end up with a song with an elusive structure with that much melodic content but I think because half of the melodies are instrumental the brain files them away differently and you don't lose the thread of the song.
I kept the verses simple, just playing a few notes from the chord and then doing the mandolin chop mute. (A mandolin that's struck with a pick while the strings are muted sounds like a snare drum) Since we were going to do this song as a duo sans drummer I decided the snare-chop would be good to give it a little percussive drive.
We had one rehearsal before we went into Dreamwalker to record. The actual playing went pretty quickly. I had spent a good deal of time learning the song so the only real thing to discuss was a slight variant of the verses that Cat does live where it's a little more swung, so it sounds more jazzy until the chorus, when it goes back to straight time.
At the studio we overcame a few technical problems with Cat's guitar and did about four takes. Cat set up in the main studio in front of a vocal microphone and I was in the recording booth with Mike. I was being recorded direct out of my mandolin (i.e. not mic'd) through my effects board.
We weren't on a click track and so since I was on lead, I was following Cat. I had a little bit of trouble locking in on the swung verses on the first few takes; I had the volume of my mandolin too loud in the headphones to hear her guitar super well. I could see her well though, so I used that to help me sync up.
I popped into the studio a week later when Mike was mixing the audio but I was pretty superfluous. He had done a great job and I didn't really have any adjustments to suggest.
I'm happy with how the audio turned out, and Cam Freeman did a fantastic job cutting the video together.
I recorded a chat Cat and I had about her song for the B-side of the video, which will be also be a part of future HMWT sessions.
Hope you enjoy both the song and the B-side. Stay tuned, this is the tip of the spear.