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Story Behind the Song: “I Believe”

Story Behind the Song: “I Believe”

Back in Spring of 2011 I joined the TAXI independent A&R service in what I might best describe as a last ditch effort to try and get my songs into some paying opportunities. I’d been trying to make a living as a songwriter for over a decade, I’d been divorced for a bit over a year, I was quickly running out of money, and I’d had zero luck in looking for a day job to try and address the money side of things. I knew joining TAXI and submitting for the opportunities they list would cost a fair amount, but my hope was that doing that would lead to some paying song placements that would more than make up for those costs and perhaps provide the sort of break that had eluded me to that point in time.

While TAXI published many listings each month, many of those with fairly long deadlines, there was one category of opportunities, which I referred to as “short leash listings”, where you typically had anywhere from 24 to 72 hours to respond. Those listings might be especially interesting if you miraculously happened to have just the sort of thing they were seeking, but I almost never did. Rather, I took them as a challenge to “write to order”. That is, I would read the listing, then try to write and record a song tailored to the listing. I figured that would give me the best opportunity for hitting the target, and, as a side effect, it also turned out to be a good way to inspire new songs, especially when you consider I’m not a great “blank slate” person. (Most of my songs have either come from life-based inspiration or writing music to lyrics written by someone else. It’s been relatively rare for me to just sit down and write a song “out of thin air”.)

Sometime in the afternoon or early evening of Friday, July 8, 2011, TAXI published the following listing, due Monday, July 11th by 10 AM:

Hollywood Music Supervisor URGENTLY needs a BIG, ANTHEMIC, UPLIFTING, HOPEFUL, INSPIRATIONAL, EMOTIONAL SONG for an episode of a hit show on a large cable network. ALL GENRES could work for this, but we’d recommend avoiding Hip-Hop, Country, Dance and Jazz. OUR RECOMMENDATIONS ARE: POP, A/C, SINGER/SONGWRITER, POP R&B, ROCK, ROCK BALLADS, etc. Give them great a song that sounds very CURRENT and CONTEMPORARY–leave the ’70s sounding songs on the shelf for this one. ALL TEMPOS will be considered, but your lyrics need to INSPIRE the show’s viewers. NO SAD, DROOPY, DEPRESSING songs please!! Please submit FULL-LENGTH SONGS. Lyric themes we’ve been given are: Finding what was lost, looking for something, going for what you want, courage, breaking through, dreams coming true, following your heart, believing in yourself, searching inside yourself for an answer, looking for an answer, on a quest or journey, etc.

The closest of my existing songs for the listing’s subject matter would have been “Fly”, but I’d submitted that for an earlier listing, and the TAXI screener considered that to be dated sounding. Also, the story of the song wasn’t really close enough for this listing. Thus, I decided to try writing and recording a new song, as challenging as that would be in the sense of working against the clock. If I succeeded in getting something together in time, I would at least have something customized for the opportunity.

This might be a good time to mention that, though I can sometimes write songs pretty quickly, and deadline pressures can actually help on that front, I’ve never been terribly quick on the recording front, and this song would need a fully-produced recording. I also wouldn’t exactly have “all that time” between Friday evening and Monday morning to work on this. In fact, Friday night I’d already committed to playing an open mic, which lasted until about 10 PM. After I got back from the open mic, and dealt with a bit of email, I did start trying to work on the song, but I totally struck out, and I decided, rather than push it, I’d try and get some sleep so I’d have more energy to work on it on Saturday.

Saturday morning I got up pretty early, did my normal grocery shopping, then came back to work on the song. I started out trying to write some lyrics (most of my songs are written lyrics first), but I wasn’t getting anywhere, so I decided to try working on the music first. That led to a breakthrough. I was singing some nonsense syllables along with some chord changes to try and give a modern pop/rock ballad feel to the piece, and one thing I repeated was, “I can believe.” While that didn’t quite sound right, it did end up providing a seed of an idea, and the song ultimately morphed into “I Believe”. I pretty much arrived at the melody right away, but it took me a while working on the lyrics.

Saturday’s work on the songwriting was mainly interrupted by dinner then later by receiving the songs for church the next morning. The worship team leader was very last minute in sending those out, and I hadn’t heard some of the songs before, so I had to go through those and mark up my charts to prepare. I cut off around 11 PM Saturday night, at which point I needed to get to bed due to the 8 AM worship team rehearsal start Sunday morning.

Sunday started out with the rehearsal and church service, which lasted until 11:30 AM (I might note a half hour less than 24 hours prior to my deadline). I had to make a stop on the way back to pick up some couscous, then I came home and made lunch. By the time I’d finished with that, it was 1 PM, and I got started on the recording.

I did a new temp piano track to help me get started, then started programming the drums. That took through 4 PM or so, at which point I started working on the vocal. I ended up doing about eight raw takes because I was still learning the song when I was recording it. It turned out, though, that many areas of those takes were unusable due to overloading my preamp and getting distortion. That made comping a final vocal particularly challenging. I didn’t even start comping until after dinner.

In fact, before comping the vocals, I had to cut things up into phrases to make the comping go more quickly. By the time I’d finished that, I was pretty tired, and I knew I needed to rejuvenate if there was to be any hope of finishing the project. I took a short nap — probably 30-60 minutes at most, but long enough to regain some energy … temporarily. After the nap, I started comping the vocals, and that took some time. Next came tuning, and I think I finally finished that around 3 AM on Monday, with 10 AM deadline just seven hours away.

At a number of points while comping and tuning, I was ready to give up because there seemed to be no way I’d be able to finish the recording in time for the 10 AM submission deadline. I was also getting exhausted. However, I kept at it, ultimately finishing the best I could do on a mix in time for the deadline around 8 AM — two whole hours to spare! It was definitely a long night.

I went up to bed after that, but kept getting interrupted by telemarketers’ phone calls — I think I had at least five of them between 10 AM and 11 AM. I did eventually fall back to sleep, though, and I didn’t end up getting up until maybe 12:30 PM or so. That obviously made for a very short work day, but I really couldn’t feel guilty about blowing the day off as a workday after all the time I put into the writing and recording over the weekend.

After all that, the screener did not forward the song for the opportunity. However, as I started to play the song on the live front, I noticed it went over really well, with some people in the audience even singing along the first time they were hearing it. Perhaps more significantly, as I considered what I’d written, I started feeling strongly that the song I’d written was a song I needed at that point in my life. It’s easy, when rejections pile on top of rejections, to just get dispirited and give up. But that’s also the time when there is the greatest need to be still, listen to that voice within, take stock of whatever talents and gifts you’ve been given, and do the best you can to use those gifts and talents to make a difference in this world.

Shifting forward a bit over five years, that less-than-24-hour initial recording was respectable, at least for someone who usually takes a week to a month to make a finished recording, but it wasn’t something I was ready to put out there as it stood. It was a song, though, that I’d wanted to get out there since that time. There was a fair amount of “life gets in the way” in the intervening years, then the style of the song didn’t fit the pop album I put out earlier this year. I’d been thinking about the idea of doing a rock album next, with this song as one of the anchor songs, but I ultimately decided I didn’t want to do another full-length album (and take another year making it) at this juncture. Thus, “I Believe” became one of my top priority singles. Most of the tracks came from the original 2011 recording, but I added vocal harmonies, a guitar solo (that reflects how I’ve come to do the song live in the last few years), and string parts to come up with the new recording. I’ve also updated most of the sounds and processing to get the recording up to my current standards, which I like to think have progressed a bit over the last half decade. Have a listen:

My hope is that this song will be inspirational to some who’ve been through some hard times, perhaps are questioning themselves, but really need to trust their instincts and step out in confidence. You can read the lyrics here. The recording is also available on most popular digital music stores and streaming sites.