Backstory on the 15 Year Journey
In 2007, after a roughly 10-year hiatus from composing (our daughter was born in 2003 and career in education was eating up time to focus on my craft), I started getting a serious itch to write music again. I knew I wanted to compose songs, but was not in the mood to write lyrics. So I thought I’d research public domain poets to see what was out there. Other than putting the words of Song of the Universal by Walt Whitman to a concert/choral piece for my undergraduate composition recital, I hadn’t had much experience taking other’s words and composing them to music. But writing lyrics has been a massive struggle my entire life, so I was willing to take a chance.
Obviously, the potential disconnect of 80-100 year old poetry combined with modern-day popular music might not work, and I was super concerned about insulting literary world at large, but that didn’t deter me. I soon discovered the works of Sara Teasdale (1884-1933), an American poet who wrote incredibly lyrical poems that seemed to be naturally tuned for music. Although many were from her gender perspective and wouldn’t work being sung by a male singer, I found numerous poems that did work. Teasdale’s life was tragically cut short by suicide at age 48. She had health issues throughout her life, was often difficult to be around at times, suffered bouts of depression frequently and was a recluse later in life. You can also read through her poems some anguish she had by missing out on love (she married for financial reasons but not for love, and that didn’t work out well). Her poems were critiqued early on as too song-like, which I obivously consider a plus, but such criticism didn’t impact her popularity. Her work attracted a large following during her lifetime. She even won the award what would be later called the Pulizer Prize for Poetry.
Over time, it seems her popularity faded, although several of her poems were set to choral pieces over the years. So it was decided: I would pick 10 poems from Sara’s numerous collections and set them to modern day music, in order to reintroduce her poetry to a new generation. In this case, I was planning on fusing her poetry with electronic popular music, or synth-pop (or whatever sub-genre you’d like to assign it). I started with her Love Songs collection (1917) which included previously published works from the past. I then reviewed her Rivers to the Sea collection (1915) and Flame and Shadow collection (1920) to find poems of interest to me. I knew early on I would call it “The Teasdale Album”, as this was truly inspired by Sara’s work.
The music flowed so effortlessly as I began fusing words with music, and I constantly tried to not chop up the poem in order to create a song. Obviously the verse-chorus-verse-chorus, etc. doesn’t always fit with a through-composed poem, I did repeat elements of her poems for the sake of song crafting, but each poem was delivered in order for the most part.
Public Domain or Not?
In 2008, I had 4 songs done, but I then began to worry about the public domain status of a few poems I had chosen. It was difficult to determine when a poem was first published or when its copyright was claimed. Also, public domain doesn’t automatically happen these days, as it had in the past once someone passed away and 70 years passed after that. I attempted to contact the estate of Sara Teasdale, which originally was Wellesley College but her collection now appears to be under the care of the special collections archive at Yale University. I attempted to contact them to determine public domain status but received no response. Even with that uncertainty, although my gut feeling was that I was in the clear, I wrote several more songs between 2009 and 2015. I then shelved the project as I began getting inspiration to write my own lyrics again. Over this time, I would revisit those Teasdale recordings, and in some cases rework or remix them as new technologies and ideas would arise. Several of these songs went through numerous revisions or complete overhauls as I wasn’t terribly happy with the original performances, although the songs themselves were okay.
When COVID hit, I got a burst of energy to write and release music, and once again, went back to the Teasdale recordings to tinker further, but was still not committed to finishing the project. In 2022, I decided to at least get organized and clean up all these versions of songs to see what was there. I realized many were close to complete and only a few songs were incomplete. I decided to touch each song, modernizing each one by bringing each project up-to-date with today’s technology (they were recorded using much older versions of digital audio workstation software, so it took time to bring them back to life. I salvaged a lot of the original vocal performances that I had re-recorded over the years, and added some new vocal recordings to enhance it. I remixed and rebalanced almost every track, as some had become too muddy from too much meddling over the years. I stripped them down and started many from scratch in terms of mixing. The original idea was for all of them to have a fairly dreamy sound, with lots of reverb in places, as the poems often depict space and a particular state of mind that felt dreamy at times. I wanted to take the listener on a journey of sorts. Vocals were also to be digitally enhanced and/or distorted throughout, but still clear so that the words were audible. As with much of my work, while a lot is electronic, there are acoustic instruments blended in as well.
In April 2023, I declared all 10 songs as complete. Earlier in 2023, I began mastering the recordings and that led to a few minor tweaks to a track or two before I re-mastered them.
Let’s Make More Work for Myself! The Music Video Idea
I also decided, very late in the project, that I would produce a music video for each track. I chose to license tons of video and effects content together to create literal visualizations of these songs (not visualizers!). This took tons of time, but while not all videos were done by the release date, all videos are anticipated to be completed within a few weeks after release. All music videos can be viewed in this YouTube Playlist for the album or via individual links in the production notes below.
Getting the Word (Sort of) Out.
The next step, which is one I still am no good at, was getting this out to the world. I still have major concerns about how the literary world might react to my applying electronic music to Sara’s works, and I didn’t want to insult any Teasdale fanbase out there. I researched poetry communities for months trying to find such communities or fans but as I anticipated, her poetry popularity had faded since the 1930s. There were pockets of fans, and numerous poetry websites quote her poems, but there was no enormous swell of popularity out there. I did discover an faculty member at Loyola University-Maryland, Dr. Melissa Girard, who has shown great interest in Teasdale over the years. I connected with Melissa so that she was aware of the new recording. Ads were purchased to rotate on Billboard.com, RollingStone.com, and numerous others, and several Spotify/YouTube playlist curators were contacted for review requests.
Production Notes: All Music performed, programmed and engineered/mastered by MBD.
- Faces [Play on Spotify | Play on Apple Music | YouTube Music Video]
I originally started working on this song in Apple’s GarageBand in 2010, tossing around ideas before eventually transferring it into Logic Pro. I used several of Apple’s built-in software instruments, but also ReFX’s Nexus and Spectrasonics’ Omnisphere (through many upgrades over the years of building this track!). I like leading off the album with this track due to its hybrid nature of electronic and orchestral elements blended together, and the low drone bass at the beginning just sets a nice mysterious atmosphere. Of course, Teasdale’s poem is about not masking emotions and I wanted to put this out front to set the stage.
- Spring Rain [Play on Spotify | Play on Apple Music | YouTube Music Video]
I use samples of “nature elements” in several tracks in The Teasdale Album to emphasize literal references to the poetry. This song starts with a downpour of rain (as you might imagine from the title), and when the lyrics reference thunder, you guessed it! Sure it’s über literal, but I’m fine with that. It adds another element for the ears to focus on and expands the stereo palette of the track. I started composing this track back in 2010 using Propellerhead’s Record software, when they finally allowed us to record vocals and audio with their Reason instruments. Unfortunately, Record didn’t last very long, but its features got merged into a later version of Reason, where the track lived for several years. I revisited the track several times between 2012 to 2018, then converted it into Logic Pro in 2022 (but linked it to Reason instruments to keep the original sounds) for easier mixing/mastering. This is actually when the nature sounds got added! In addition to Reason software tie-ins, I use a few Apple software instruments like Ultrabeat, ES2, a couple drum kits, the Sampler (bass), a few sampled beat loops, sampled nature sounds, AAS’ Strum GS-2 guitar simulator, and reFX’s Nexus 2.
- Houses of Dreams [Play on Spotify | Play on Apple Music | YouTube Music Video]
This was one of the first Sara Teasdale poems I set to music! It is also the most revised and remixed track of the bunch! I have to say it’s one of my favorites too. The first early draft of this composition was written in 2007 using GarageBand, which is often my “sketchpad” tool. It also allows me to dump those ideas right into Logic Pro if it is worthy enough to built out into a polished work. It stayed in GarageBand for over 3 years before eventually getting imported to Logic Pro. Early on, I was trying too hard to make it too big with a huge orchestral sound. That made it very difficult to mix vocals and harmony, not to mention a piano, and guitar/flute segment. So like most of these songs, I rewrote it, used different instruments and patches, upgraded my instruments and also let the song sit for a few years. This helped because I needed a beefier computer to handle the large number of tracks and East/West’s heavy-duty orchestral software engine, which drives the orchestra here. But there are electronic elements here too, like the drum machine and synth solo at the start. I also use AAS’ Strum GS-2 guitar software, and Apple’s Sampler for non-string several instruments.
- I Am Not Yours [Play on Spotify | Play on Apple Music | YouTube Music Video]
If you did an Internet search for this poem, you’d find quite a few pieces of music that were set to it. Most of it is concert choir or chamber choir work, or solo voice pieces. I might be the first to set this poem in a more popular music style! I composed this song originally in Propellerhead’s Reason + Record. While it went through some revision over the years, the overall idea remained the same, including the vocals. Some instrumentation did change since I changed software and several computers during the 15 years between this song’s conception and completion. In early 2023, I moved the entire song into Logic Pro, carefully linking the instruments in the project and exporting the MIDI tracks and putting the puzzle back together in Logic (not terribly fun). Most of what you hear is all Reason instruments except for a few Drum samples from Apple’s drum kits. It’s a very short song because the poem is quite brief, but I decided to have a little fun with vocals at the end, layering different vocals each time I took a pass at the chorus phrases. The super high-pitched voice is indeed my voice, recorded back in 2007, but also pitched up an octave in places using software (I’m not a soprano!).
- Gray Eyes [Play on Spotify | Play on Apple Music | YouTube Music Video]
This track started in Propellerhead’s Record software like a few others on the album, which required a conversion into the Reason software in 2016 when I couldn’t use Record any longer (it had been discontinued). I composed this track in 2010 and was determined to use a new Neptune vocal harmonization tool that was new (at the time) to the Reason set of software instruments. However, it was glitchy and just not giving me consistent harmonies without errors, so this song sat unfinished until software became a bit more refined (or the composer got better at using it!). In January 2023, I painstakingly exported all the MIDI tracks from Reason and brought them into Logic Pro, then linked Reason’s software instruments to those tracks to bring the song back to life. The years of waiting paid off as I was able to get an electronic harmony effect but without the issues I had many years ago. Everything you hear, except my voice, is all produced with Reason software instruments through Logic Pro.
- Peace [Play on Spotify | Play on Apple Music | YouTube Music Video]
This was one of the last tracks to be completed but was one of the early tracks to be composed! I tinkered with the music and a quick vocal track back in 2008 using GarageBand and that concept was kept, but it was left unfinished for many years until I converted it to Logic Pro in January 2023, refreshed the instrumentation and remixed the vocal (it is mostly my 2008 voice track with a few punch in edits from 2023). One new edition from the original track was the sample of the night sounds (crickets). This is by far the most simplistic track on the album, with only 13 tracks used and one vocal track. All instruments were internal Apple software instruments including the ES2 (pad) and Sampler (English Horn, percussion, bass, various beats and beat elements).
- Lights [Play on Spotify | Play on Apple Music | YouTube Music Video]
Here’s another 2007 early composition for this project, originally sketch-composed in GarageBand. The song shifted to Logic Pro at some point around 2018, but got corrupted (as did the back-up), so the song was recreated from the original GarageBand track into a newer version of Logic Pro and that held up over time to present day. The overall premise, including form, beats, and even much of its current instrumentation have remained in place since the GarageBand version, with only a few elements being adjusted or updated over the years. I used some city sidewalk sounds at the start to set the mood before the beat kicks in. This was mainly because it follows the very calm track, Peace, so I was concerned about the jarring nature of coming into a fast song. I used Spectrasonics’ Omnisphere instrument for several instruments, and actually combined a couple of Apple beat loops together to create the overall beats you hear throughout the song. The female “Oooo” vocals are produced from a nice vocal loop in Apple’s sample library.
- Sleepless [Play on Spotify | Play on Apple Music | YouTube Music Video]
2007 was a busy year when I latched onto Sara’s poems! This was another song I composed that summer (most were written between March and August of 2007 of that year) also using GarageBand to start. It got moved into Logic Pro early on in order to try and wrangle it. This song has gone through a ton of rework and remixing…probably the most of all songs, due to the enormous amount of sound from many string/pad tracks, 6 vocal tracks, several beat tracks, and a few other tracks blended in. It was just a nightmare to mix, but I was determined to do it. I gave up several times (a reason this track sat for several years). This was also the reason it was one of the last I chose to work on in 2023…I knew it was going to be a challenge (causing some sleepless nights!). In 2023, after doing a remix, I finally decided to get rid of the original beats that were adding too much mud to the mix. The beats you hear now add some thump, but are far simpler, letting other elements come through. I also reduced some vocal doubling in the original mix was turned out to be unnecessary. All software instruments used here originated in Apple’s Logic Pro software (the Sampler, Drum kit, Bass, ES2, and a few legacy instruments). There’s another environmental sample (rain) as the song/poem references rain a bit! Vocal effects are impacted by Antares AVOX Warm effect and Palmary Collection’s Vocal Finalizer effect.
- The Years [Play on Spotify | Play on Apple Music | YouTube Music Video]
This song was one the last to be composed fully and had an odd journey. Its origin started in Propellerhead’s Record software in 2010 but was only partially composed (just part of the poem). I never came back to it until almost 8 years later when I realized I needed to get it out of the Record software (discontinued) and into Reason. That worked fine, but I still didn’t have much inspiration to finish the song, so it continued to languish. Fast-forward to 2023! The MIDI content of all tracks was moved to Logic Pro, instruments in Reason were linked to those new tracks and I got that song back up and running. Now I needed to finish the song. For whatever reason, I decided to shave a bit of electronic sound off this song, and go with a more progressive acoustic drum kit performance here, even with a bit of a drum solo, so you might hear elements of progressive rock (which I’ve been shaped by growing up listening to Genesis, Yes, etc.). There’s still synth pad running there, but there’s guitar and bass driving much of it with the drums. It’s definitely different, but it just felt right with the words and tempo. All of the music you hear is from Reason instruments, except for the Southern Cal acoustic software drum kit I use.
- Barley Bending [Play on Spotify | Play on Apple Music | YouTube Music Video]
The most sparse and fitting end to the album would be this final track, which also had a neglected past. The musical idea you hear is from its original 2010 origins created in Propellerhead’s Record. The recording then got moved to Logic Pro that same year, but nothing really happened to it. The poem is very short and I just wasn’t sure at the time what I wanted to do with it, so after the poem was sung, the music just stopped. So I shelved it at that point. I revisited the recording several times between 2010 and 2023 to make sure the file still worked. In 2023, determined to finish it, I chose to rework some instrumentation, but still keep it in the same tempo and sparse nature. However, in 2023 I did add a new element that few would anticipate: a female ethnic vocalization-like solo that concludes the song. It’s not really in any foreign language. She is just vocalizing like a jazz singer might do. She is of India descent and I just was captivated when I heard her voice. In full disclosure, I performed her vocalization using East/West’s amazing Voices of Passion software instrument. The other instruments heard are mostly from Reason except for a small drum segment from an Apple drum kit sample.
–Michael Barrett Dixon, June 15, 2023.