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Story Behind the Album: The Road That I Must Take

Story Behind the Album: The Road That I Must Take

My latest (released August 2, 2019) album, The Road That I Must Take, is dedicated to those who are at a crossroads in life, trying to process lessons they’ve learned along the way and decide where to head next. Oh, it didn’t start out that way. Rather, a combination of life events over the past year or so led me to a place that decidedly puts me in that group. The concept, or perhaps theme, for the album emerged from those events and their effects, both inspiring new songs and making some older songs feel newly relevant.

Before I get into the story behind the album, perhaps you’d to start listening while you read? This YouTube playlist will let you stream the entire album:

Early Thoughts

Even shortly after completing my 2016 full-length pop album, In and Out of Love Again, I’d had a number of ideas for potential future albums, but I decided against taking on another full-length album project for the time being. Instead I went down the path of putting out some singles in order to get some of the songs I’d wanted to record out there without having to concern myself with creating some cohesive collection. Between late September 2016 and late August of last year, I put out eleven singles, thus averaging one approximately every other month, though the actual pace varied considerably.

Somewhere in late February of last year I’d noted that a fair number of the singles I’d put out had gone in a more rock-flavored direction, and a new song I’d co-written had also gone in that direction. I got thinking maybe I was getting close to a point where it might again be time to consider an album project. At that point, though, it was mostly just idle thoughts and brainstorming. For example, I made lists of possible song candidates that might fit a similar musical style, thought a bit about how the songs might or might not fit into a cohesive whole, and considered other issues such as song quality and potential licensing issues for co-written songs. I also started brainstorming on possible album titles, looking through each of the songs I’d listed for possible title phrases. The short of it, however, was that I didn’t even start making any concrete plans for an album, no less diving into recording with that end in mind.

Distractions

Toward the end of the first quarter of 2018 and the early part of the second quarter, I was putting singles out at a fair clip, approaching once a month at one point. I had a full-time day job, but I also had a number of recordings I’d started years earlier for various projects or opportunities that “just needed some cleanup work” (if I were British, you’d be correct to classify that phrase as typical British understatement) that could serve as “low hanging fruit” (see the previous parenthesized note) to get some recordings out the door. Thus, it was mostly a matter of picking the next possibility, doing the work to get it into releasable form, coming up with some cover art, then rinse and repeat. For a while anyway…

In the midst of this streak of single releases, I’d recorded and prepared cover art for a fairly new song I’d written with a new collaborator back in 2017. I also put some licensing paperwork together, since it was a co-written song that would require my collaborator’s approval, but she was skittish about music business agreements due to some bad experiences with an earlier collaborator. Thus, plans for a single release were delayed, at least for the time being.

Meanwhile, however, that same collaborator and I had begun performing together regularly. We’d first performed together back in 2017, but the frequency started to pick up in 2018. It had mostly just been a few songs at open mics to start, but we’d begun rehearsing pretty regularly to start building a repertoire for longer shows. We did a half-hour showcase in April 2018, then a two-hour out of town show in late June. By late August, we were getting close to the point of being ready to start trying to get some longer shows, and we booked what was initially intended to be a three-hour show, but which ended up going upwards of four hours, for mid-September. That was followed by another half-hour showcase a week later, and we’d also booked another full-length show for October at the same venue as the first full-length show.

Between all the time spent performing and rehearsing, and learning new songs to perform in between, in addition to the time spent on the one recording that didn’t end up coming out, my singles output took a few nosedives, initially in late 2017, then again in the second quarter of 2018. However, I was feeling really good about the new performance collaboration. Not only had live performance always been one of my favorite parts of musical life, but my collaborator and I had really good chemistry on stage, and the reactions we were getting were extremely positive. We also had very good interpersonal chemistry, and the time we spent together rehearsing, planning, and just talking in general alongside our performances and rehearsals, and frequent dinners alongside our rehearsals, was enjoyable in and of itself. I did manage to get one more single out in August of 2018, but that would be it for a while.

Initial Seeds

The rehearsals my collaborator and I had were held at my place, and she’d frequently text me to let me know she was on the way. Instead of just texting, “on my way,” or, “on my way to your place,” there were a few times she texted, “on my way to you.” While I knew what she meant, I found the wording intriguing. In particular, I felt a literal interpretation of the words (i.e. being on one’s way to a person rather than a place) could make an interesting song. While I mentioned that to her, thinking perhaps we could collaborate in writing such a song, she didn’t bite.

I ended up writing the lyric for what eventually became the first track on the new album in late September. This was well before I had any concrete plans to do an album. For that matter, it would still be almost two more months before I’d write the music to make a song out of the new lyric.

Wind Change

I’m going to gloss over most of the next part of the story. This is partly in the interests of protecting my collaborator’s privacy and partly because, at least at this stage, I don’t understand key aspects of what happened next. What I will say was that, in the course of all the time we’d spent together, especially during August and September, we had gotten very close, beyond just the music. I know some of our mutual friends and acquaintances had suspected we were a couple. Even if there were times where it almost felt like that, between the increasing intimacy of our private conversations and the chemistry we had, both in public and in private, that was never the case. It was something I’d hoped might be a possibility in the future. She’d known that for some time, and our relationship had gotten closer since then. The best I can characterize our relationship in late September is that, at least from my perspective, we’d become extremely close friends.

On the musical front, she’d called me a night or two before she had to go out of town on personal business to talk about some new ideas for promoting our act. That caught me by surprise, because she’d previously been very hesitant about putting information out in public due to various privacy concerns. However, it was also very welcome. We were seemingly picking up steam on the live front, having the possibility of at least monthly gigs at one venue and having had extremely positive reactions at the shows we’d done to that point. I’d felt there was a lot more potential, but realizing that potential would require a level of public presence, such as a website and act-specific social marketing. (To that point, I’d been promoting our shows on my social media pages, but she was not active on social media.)

I also had a trip for a family wedding shortly after her trip, so there was an extended period when we were unable to get together to start rehearsing for our mid-to-late October show. I assumed we’d simply rehearse fairly intensely in the period between my return and our gig, but, when the time came, she was no longer willing to rehearse with me, saying she wasn’t comfortable doing that. We had exactly one brief rehearsal for our show, but that was with a guest percussionist, and my collaborator arrived after the percussionist did and left at the same time he left, so we were unable to work through any of our own songs.

Needless to say, we were far from ready for the gig, and our performance suffered. However, this blog isn’t about that, but rather the album’s story. So, how does this situation relate? There are two ways.

First, the whole relationship thing, where we were extremely close at one point, and starting on some future plans, then, all of a sudden, she wasn’t comfortable being alone with me reminded me of a song I’d written back in 2007 called “Wishing You Well”. I may tell the actual story behind that song at some point (short version: it was written to a title for a songwriting group challenge), but the gist of the song is that the singer is about to propose to his girlfriend when she breaks up with him, and he’s basically left speechless. I hadn’t played that song, or really even thought about it, in ages, but I suddenly had the urge to start performing it, which I did for the first time at our October gig. That also led to my starting on a full recording of the song (I’d previously only had a basic demo) later in October. I figured I’d release it as a single, but, by the time I finished it, I’d already started thinking about doing a full album, and I decided to save the recording for the album.

Second, all the time that was now freed up by not having any further rehearsals meant more time to focus on recording. At first my collaborator had just said she needed a break, and we’d talk at some point about what was going on. However, as time went on, she got increasingly non-committal and distant before ultimately not returning any further communications. Ultimately, I just gave up on the likelihood of our ever performing together again and focused on the album.

Starting to Get Concrete

In late October 2018 I started thinking about possibly doing a country-flavored album since I have a number of country songs I’d written back in the late 1990s and early 2000s that I’d like to get out there at some point. However, as I started looking at what I had that was at least close to being release-worthy, I noted that I was closer to being able to do a rock-flavored album. I also knew “Wishing You Well” would go in a more rock-oriented direction, so that would add to the tally once I finished it, which I did during mid-November.

By the end of October, I was strongly considering doing a rock-flavored album, and I’d arrived at a working album title of The Road That I Must Take, which comes from a line in “I Believe” that reads:

Now I see the road that I must take
‘Cause I see a difference I can make

That line deals with purpose. The idea is that, if you see an area where you are uniquely qualified to make a positive difference in the world, you should go in that direction. (I’ve previously written a blog on the story behind “I Believe”, so I won’t elaborate on that here.)

At that point in my thinking on the album, I was mainly considering musical styles, not lyrical themes. I’d made a list of upwards of fifty potential titles, all taken from songs I’d written that I thought might fit a rock-flavored style. The working title I’d chosen, and which ultimately became the album’s title, simply seemed to resonate with me more than others in the list.

Early Progress

By early November of 2018 I was about 90% decided on the idea of doing a rock album, and I counted eight songs I felt were “close”, for example perhaps needing remastering or minor remixing, to being ready to go. That was based purely on production style, not any thematic album concept since I really didn’t have one yet. One of those songs was the one I’d previously failed to license from my collaborator, so it was at least questionable, though she’d previously expressed willingness to license it — we’d simply never gotten the paperwork signed.

Meanwhile, I’d been progressing on my recording of “Wishing You Well”, and it would fit he musical style of the album. I finished that in mid-to-late November, and I wrote the music for “On My Way to You” and started working on recording it shortly after that.

By early December I considered myself to have “officially” (whatever that means) started on the album project. I approached my collaborator about licensing our song, hoping we could get that done in time to release it as a single by year’s end, then include it on the album when that was released. I was targeting an album release during the first quarter of 2019. That was probably overly optimistic, even at that point, but the point is I was feeling pretty positive about the progress I was making.

Crossroads

I’d been working at the same IT industry day job for upwards of six years by this time. I’d had misgivings about the job and the company on the front end, and those misgivings had proven well-founded over the years. However, I’d been desperate for a job when I took the job, after some life changes and a decade and a half of having tried unsuccessfully to make a living as a songwriter. While I’d had some minor successes during my music industry stint, those weren’t paying any bills, and the company that offered me the job was the only one I could even get an interview from. I’d resolved a number of times over the years to look elsewhere, but the truth was that the day job and its commute took so much time out of my week that I wanted to spend my time outside the job working on musical projects and performing live. At least the job was paying my bills and allowing me to save a little.

At the end of the Friday before Christmas, however, I was informed that my job was being abolished due to the company’s financial difficulties. On the one hand, there was an element of relief in that. I knew I needed to move on at some point, and this would necessarily get me off the dime for considering a way forward. I’d been extremely unhappy at that job, and especially with the company, for a long time. On the other hand, there was the matter of making a living. I got a bit of a reprieve on that front, though. A couple of my former employer’s key customers contacted me pretty much immediately upon learning of my no longer working there, offering me some short-term consulting projects. The largest of those would start immediately, with an initial small project due prior to the end of the year.

With the end of 2018 less than a week away now, it felt like I was at a crossroads on just about every front. My primary musical collaboration and closest personal relationship from the last year had ended. The job that had paid my bills had ended, and I really didn’t know what would be next on that front, or even what to look for. This feeling, in combination with some of the key songs I felt would definitely need to be on the album, as well as the working title for the album, gave me some dots to be connected, and my thoughts on the lyrical theme for the album started to emerge.

On December 29, 2018, I wrote a note on my personal Facebook profile entitled “Twisty, Turny Roads”. It started out saying, “2018 has been a strange year. There’s a temptation to say I’ll be glad to see it left behind, but the truth is parts of the year were pretty amazing.” It went on to talk about the forward momentum on the situation with my collaborator, then having the bottom suddenly and unexpectedly fall out, leading to my taking advantage of the extra time to start work on an album. I elaborated a little on the album concept, including alluding to the theme of “On My Way to You” (albeit without naming the song):

My working title for the album, which I expect will be the final title, is “The Road That I Must Take”. It comes from a line in “I Believe”, one of the songs that will definitely be included on the album. The line says, “now I see the road that I must take, ’cause I see a difference I can make.” It is set in the context of needing to listen to your heart in terms of life directions. For example, the line leading up to it says, “but there’s nowhere to go where I can hide from my own soul, so I’ll listen close to what it has to say.”

While not all the songs on the album have themes that directly relate to choosing life’s directions, a fair number do relate, at least indirectly, at least with a bit of rationalization. For example, the song I’m recording now has a theme that specifically deals with how past life paths, including things that seem to have gone horribly wrong at the time, lead to the present situation, and getting to something wonderful in the present would not have happened without all the wrong turns on the way to that point.

Later in the note I also mentioned the job situation and consulting, as well as an unrelated music business project that had unexpectedly come back to life after a year or more of dormancy.

New Year, New Challenges

I wanted the album to include twelve songs. By the end of 2018, I’d had a tentative playlist with eleven songs. One was the song with my former collaborator, who still had not (and has not as of this writing) replied to any of my communications regarding licensing the song. That was a key song I’d wanted to include on the album, not only because it fit musically, but because it was about being in an uncomfortable place in life, knowing you needed to move forward and that you would eventually, but having a tough time taking that first step. In other words, it fit my emerging theme perfectly. Two of the others were songs that had no licensing issues, but weren’t very good fits for the album concept as it was now starting to crystallize.

Between not being able to license the one song and ultimately deciding the other two weren’t good fits, I needed three more songs to complete the album’s track list (in addition to doing the work needed to remix and remaster any of the tracks that were not up to my production standards for this album, which ended up being all but one of the existing recordings). Alongside this, there was the IT consulting work to do, and I also had to do various things related to starting a job search for the first time in over a half dozen years.

While not having to spend ten hours (including commute time) each weekday at my old day job helped immensely in freeing up time for recording and mixing, I’d also taken on some separate music-oriented activities that involved writing and recording to target various opportunities, such as for film and TV music, ads, and artists looking for material. For example, one such opportunity was seeking jazz-based music to provide background for a Super Bowl commercial that would show a high-end cocktail party featuring various celebrities. The opportunity was listed as having a high-dollar payout of the sort that, had I gotten the placement, could have held me over for a year or more on the income front. The musical style was something I felt I could do, so I recorded a jazz quartet arrangement of one of my songs to pitch. I knew the odds of getting the placement had to be tiny, but I also knew they were zero if I didn’t try. I didn’t get the placement, but I did end up with a new instrumental I recording I really liked, so I released “Like a Lover Would (Cool Jazz Mix)” as a single in early February 2019.

There were various other opportunities of this sort that I targeted that could not do double duty with progressing the album. Unfortunately, they also failed to yield any placements, and none of those resulted in songs or recordings that made sense to put out separately. The upshot was that my progress with the album slowed, almost to a halt, during the first couple of months of 2019. It took me until late February to finish recording “On My Way to You”.

Filling Out the Song List

By late February, I had mostly resigned myself to being three songs short of my needed twelve, despite my hope that my collaborator might come through on licensing the one song. I had one conceptual idea for a new song, but I wasn’t quite sure where to go with it on the musical front, nor was I even sure where to take it in fleshing out the lyrical side. The basic idea, which I expected might end up being called “Stories”, was that, in the case of a relationship breakdown between two people, especially of the sort that takes one of those individuals completely by surprise, there are likely stories we tell ourselves about what is happening that are not apparent to the other person. At the point where I came up with the idea, however, I was still balancing a number of other things, so the idea just sat in a folder of other ideas.

Somewhere around the time I was finishing up the “On My Way to You” recording, another music business opportunity came around that was seeking what they called “modern blues anthems”. I had no clue what that meant, but I listened to the songs they listed as stylistic references, one of which was “Human” by Rag’n’Bone Man. I would never have considered that to be blues of any sort, and the same was largely true of the other reference songs. However, I decided that it might be worth the challenge, and that the subject matter of my “Stories” concept could be well-suited for this. Beyond some ideas on production style, what this challenge gave me was some very different models for song structure than I’d have been likely to have used otherwise. I didn’t finish the song and recording in time to meet the deadline, but I did finish it in early March, so now I was down to needing two additional tracks.

At this point, I started searching through my song catalog, trying to determine if I had anything that could both fit the theme of the album, especially that might relate to life and/or relationship changes, and that I felt I could produce in some guitar-centric, rock-flavored style. I came up with a couple of possibilities, both from overseas collaborators. In one case, a song written with two Swedish songwriters, my collaborators initially agreed to licensing the song, but ultimately decided not to license it due to feeling they needed a lawyer to review the agreement and that my use would not justify the cost of engaging one.

The second possibility was a song called “Seasons” that I’d written back in the late 1990s with an English songwriter named Derry Jones. I approached Derry in mid-April about using the song, and he quickly agreed. I’d never done a polished recording of it, so I was starting from scratch here. Since I’d still have one more song to go after finishing it, I decided to release “Seasons” as an early single (it came out on May 31st) since it had been a while since my previous single, and the album would still take some unknown amount of time to complete.

Seasons cover art

Wanted: One More Song, Not Just Any Song

Once I had “Seasons” in the distribution cycle awaiting its release date I still needed to come up with one more song. It wasn’t going to come from my song catalog, so that meant writing something new. The problem was that I really had no clue what I was going to write about, other than I wanted it to be on topic for the theme of the album, relating in some way to life changes, crossroads, etc. I also wanted something other than a ballad, as I already had plenty of those.

I may tell the more detailed story behind the song at some point, but the short version is that, since I didn’t have any concrete ideas on the lyrical front, I started from the musical side. I finally started to get some early lyrical ideas on the second day of writing, but I still did not have a chorus, or even a title, at that point. That would emerge on the third day.

It took a total of seven days of elapsed time to finish writing “Find My Way”. Ultimately, the song turned out to be a pretty accurate “state of my life” snapshot, being at a crossroads, especially on the career and relationship fronts, trying to remain optimistic with respect to a brighter future. Perhaps this outlook is best summarized in the first pre-chorus and chorus:

Now I’ve come to a crossroads
On this crazy ride
Not sure where I’m headed next
Or how I should decide

But I’ll find my way
Though I might make mistakes
Find my way
However long it takes
I’ll choose a road
Though there’s no knowing where it’s gonna lead
Gotta take it day by day
But I’ll find my way

Once the song was written, it was time to record it. I finished recording “Find My Way” on June 23rd.

But That’s Not All

Now that I had all twelve tracks recorded and ready to go, the next challenge was deciding the order of tracks on the album. I’d had a tentative playlist order for quite a while, but that had included the collaborative song I couldn’t license and another song I’d dropped because it didn’t fit the album’s theme. That was also before I’d written “Find My Way”.

Sequencing tracks on an album is a bit like doing a crossword puzzle in the sense that making one change can mean other things need to change. For example, I generally try to avoid having songs in the same key back to back, and I generally want to mix up song tempos to keep things interesting. If I’m going for a flow of topics in some higher level “story”, using the songs similar to chapters in a book, that can also come into play. “What if we move this one up to here? Oh, now we’ve got three ballads in a row and two songs in A minor. Okay, what if we…?”

In the end, I decided to try sequencing album “sides”, similarly to how vinyl LPs used to be sequenced. “Side One” (i.e. the first six songs) tends toward the philosophical side, even in the songs that touch on romantic relationships. “Side Two” (i.e. the last six songs) focuses more on the romantic relationships. It starts out with the unexpected breakup and the darkness that follows before getting sort of tongue-in-cheek philosophical then moving toward a bit of a happier note and ending back on the philosophical. I finalized the track sequence on June 26th.

Then there was the necessity of cover art. I’d had initial drafts of that back in early to mid-April, but those drafts weren’t quite working. While I’d come up with a revision that I was thinking might be final on April 17th, I really wasn’t fully satisfied with it. In particular, I’d had a background image of a twisty, turny road, taken from up near the top of Whiteface Mountain near Lake Placid, New York. I’d tried variants where I superimposed an image of myself on that, trying to capture the notion of someone’s looking back and/or forward on life paths, but the specific implementation really wasn’t connecting with the people I’d run the versions with and without my photo by. The version I’d settled on in April removed my photo, but I got some comments after that from people I really respect that made good cases for including my photo. What to do?

When I revisited the cover art in late June, I decided to try another way of superimposing my photo, trying to make it look more natural, and less like the ghostly, semi-transparent image I’d used previously. I think that ultimately worked much better than the earlier drafts, but, whether it did nor not, I dubbed it final. We were now at June 27th, a quarter year after I’d hoped to get the album out.

I ended up needing to take a break for a few days to work on other things, and it was July 5th by the time I submitted the album to CD Baby for distribution to the various download and streaming sites. I picked a release date of August 2nd to provide time for various other things I needed to do, both to be ready for the release and on other fronts.

Album Tracks

Here is the list of tracks on the album:

  • On My Way to You (Rick Paul) – Sometimes it takes having gone down the wrong roads, with plenty of wrong turns along the way, to lead to where we’re meant to be in life and love.
  • Find My Way (Rick Paul) – If the most convenient path through life doesn’t lead to fulfillment, it’s time to step out of the comfort zone and find a path that does.
  • I Didn’t Think (Mary Lou Sudkamp, Rick Paul) – Important words left unsaid won’t be heard and may not be assumed.
  • I Believe (2019 Remix) (Rick Paul) – When we’ve lost our bearings it’s time to listen to that still small voice within and take the road that leads to making a difference.
  • What Are We (2019 Remix) (Rick Paul) – Is it just friendship, or is it destined to be more?
  • Seasons (Derry Jones, Rick Paul) – There is a time for everything in life and love.
  • Wishing You Well (Rick Paul) – When things go in a polar opposite direction from how you’d intended, and you’re left tongue-tied…
  • Stories (Rick Paul) – Our reality is based on the stories we tell ourselves to justify our actions. Pain emerges when those stories differ markedly from those of loved ones.
  • Undertow (2019 Remix) (Mary Lou Sudkamp, Rick Paul) – You can try to avoid it, but the undertow of love will sweep you away when you least expect it.
  • Like a Lover Would (2019 Remix) (Rick Paul) – When logic tells you she’s wrong for you, but your heart says otherwise…
  • You Make Life Easier (2019 Remix) (Rick Paul) – The right person can make this crazy world at least somewhat more sane.
  • Sweet, Sweet Color of Love (2019 Remix) (Rick Paul) – Mature love seeks the intuitive vibe of a soul mate rather than the outward signs of romance.