Recording MaevenSong

by Elizabeth Cunningham

A few months ago Tim Dillinger announced to me: We are going to Nashville to record your album. It sounded natural and inevitable. Though I am not a professional singer and have never recorded anything but nine minutes of my voice a capella, it did not occur to me to think twice or do anything but set a date and be grateful for having an experienced guide and companion who has produced two of his own albums. I didn’t even get nervous until a couple of days before the trip. Then I wondered if I was crazy.

I would have been more worried if I had known that three days is considered a very short amount of time to make a full length recording. But I knew Tim had arranged for an expert guitarist, Dave Martin, to create accompaniment for the eleven songs I had sung into Tim’s phone in August.

On Monday morning, we all met at Colorblind Soul Productions, the excellent studio Mike Torino runs from his home. Before going upstairs to the studio, we sat around Mike’s dining room table.

“So,” said Mike, looking from me to Dave, the guitarist. “You two have never met before? You’ve never rehearsed?”

Dave, who was having surgery later that day, remained calm and said that he’d heard the songs and had some ideas. I sensed that Mike was thinking something like: here’s this lady who wants to make an album and doesn’t have a clue.

“Do you know what key and tempo they’re in?” he appealed to Dave.

“Some of them don’t have a tempo,” Dave allowed.

“Elizabeth has perfect pitch,” Tim interjected at one point, perhaps picking up on Mike’s skepticism.

“Some of them do have tempo,” I spoke up. “Some of them have very standard forms, like Mountain Song. Let’s start with one of those.”

“Mountain Song?” said Dave. “I don’t remember any Mountain Song.”

It seems Mountain Song somehow got dropped from the songs Tim sent Dave.

“It’s easy,” I told the other three as they searched for the lost recording. “I’ll just sing it.”

And then the collaborative magic of music began to unfold. Dave and Mike brainstormed and found cords, and I soon understood that Mike was not just a sound technician but a brilliant and imaginative musical director with a perfect ear. I instantly forgave him for treating me like a dotty old lady. Dave’s guitar playing was rich and supportive, and when we began to work on Pentecostal Alley blues, I was in heaven hearing his blues guitar. In less than an hour we had a rough arrangement for three songs including harmonies created by Tim, and we headed upstairs to lay down Dave’s tracks so he could leave for his appointment.

Mike was thrilled to have a chance to work with a guitarist of Dave’s caliber and he admitted to Tim that that I did indeed have perfect pitch. It made me feel a little better to be considered a dotty old lady with some natural talent, but I was worried about the songs that did not have a conventional form. I was especially worried about Miriam’s Lament. I had never been able to sing it the same way twice. I was doing some short pieces a capella, but Miriam’s Lament seemed too long and uncertain.

“I think I’m going to have to scrap it,” I told Tim. “They’ll never be able to find a tempo or a structure.” Things both Dave and Mike had insisted were essential.

“No,” said Tim. “You’re not going to scrap it. It’s a preach, and I know just what to do. I’m going to go get Ron. I’m going to get my son!”

Tim is not only a brilliant vocalist of immense range, he has another genius: people. Knowing people, loving people, seeing their gifts, encouraging their gifts, bringing people together. Everyone Tim loves becomes family. His son, Ron, is a young musician he met and has mentored since Ron was sixteen.

“I don’t know what I’m doing,” I told Ron when he arrived. “It goes something like this.” I sang a bit. “But it never comes out the same twice.”

Ron didn’t bat an eye or respond in any particular way at all.

“It’s a preach, Ron,” explained Tim. “You’ll know what to do.”

So we went upstairs. Ron sat down at the keyboard. I sang a phrase, and a miracle happened. I knew just where the notes were, and Ron supported each one with rich, complex, soulful sound.

“Let them do this live,” said Tim. “They need to do this live.”

So I stood up, put on the head phones and went with Ron, as Tim later put it, to the foot of the cross. When it was over, we all wept. And remembering that moment still brings tears to my eyes.

That was Ron’s first miracle. The next day, he also played with me on Psalm, which despite its Biblical form, lacked the requisite tempo and structure. The Prologue, which was to have been sung and spoken without accompaniment, now has blues piano all the way through. It was done in one take.

The biggest challenge was Resurrection Song. Dave had valiantly returned the day after his surgery to lay down the rest of the tracks. He has found some beautiful hypnotic chords for Resurrection Song and created a structure. It was taking all my concentration to stay within it, and I was having trouble building the intensity the song needs.

“I haven’t raised him yet,” I said to Tim at one point.

“Let Ron accompany her live,” said Tim. “In addition to the guitar.”

It took more than one take, because of the complexity of the rhythms. Ron turned to Mike between takes, and asked for a pad. I think that’s the term. They searched around. At Ron’s suggestion, they decided on strings.

I sang the next take carried on a swelling river of sound, and at last I was able to go where I needed to go, to the tomb, to the beloved. At last I raised him.

The night of that day, only the second day, a day in which time must have been suspended, Tim’s friends Pam and Jerry came over to sing on Thou New Moon, an a capella piece. My idea was to go from a straight singing of it to a jam, perhaps with drums.

“No,” said Mike. “I can’t record that. That would be chaos. I thought you wanted a choral piece. Let’s record it that way and then you can improvise over it on another track.”

In record time, Pam and Jerry learned the tune and the upper and lower harmonies Tim had created. Together we laid down three tracks. Mike looped them to make it sound as though we were a huge choir. He had no way of knowing that this song was the one the entire druid college sang to Maeve went she was sent beyond the ninth wave. The effect was gorgeous, and I happily let go of my idea improvise over it.

“So,” I said to Mike. “Maybe it could be a solo voice, then unison voices, then harmony?”

“No,” Mike said bluntly. “The purpose of this song is to be a break between some of your other songs. Once is good, but three times, no.”

By this time I had learned Mike was almost always right, and I appreciated his directness. That night when I woke at 3:00am to lie awake for two hours, as I had every night, I remembered what he said about the song’s use, and the whole structure of the album became clear to me. I knew exactly how to group the songs.

When I woke up on the third morning the sky (which for two days had been as dark as the crucifixion, in Tim’s words) was a brilliant blue. We went to the studio where Tim laid down harmonies on two more songs while enjoying a visit from Reba Rambo McGuire and Destiny McGuire, more of his beloved kin, his mother and sister.

Later Mike added percussion to two songs. I didn’t have to do anything but sit and listen. I remember thinking I wanted to spend the rest of my life in a sound studio making music with wonderful people. At last Mike played us some of all the songs, marvelling that they sounded as good as they did when he hadn’t cleaned them up yet. Tim and I cried again.

After a warm parting with Mike, and a late lunch with Lenny, another brilliant musician and the one who led us to Mike, Tim and I went to see sacred Nashville sites, first one: the shelf in the library where Tim found The Passion of Mary Magdalen some fifteen months ago. It was there on the shelf in very battered condition, which Tim admitted was probably because of him.

I remain in a state of awe and gratitude for the miracles that led to MaevenSong. I will close with thanks from my heart to Lenny, Mike, Dave, Ron, Pam and Jerry, Reba and Destiny, brilliant musicians all and so welcoming and encouraging to someone new to their world. Thank you to Midori and her children and to Crystal for a celebration full of riotous laughter. Thanks also to David and Kare for sparing Tim for a week as they all get ready for the Soulkiss concert at Don’t Tell Mama in NYC on October 23 and 30th. Most of all, thank you Tim, for MaevenSong, for your friendship, for your genius at generosity. Sing on! Write on! I love you!

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Tim Dillinger October 10, 2009 - 6:30 pm

Elizabeth–This was a gift to me. The greatest gift. You once again gave me a template by which I have to work going forward. This was spiritual, full of comaradarie, healing, creative, spontaneous, and rich in feeling. This was the experience I'd always DREAMED of having…and I'm so glad we got to have it together.

Your songs will touch so many…The feeling that was conjured in that room transcends the differences that humanity has with one another. And I can't wait for people to hear them.

Thank YOU for taking this leap…and for being such a beloved friend in my life. There is NONE like you…

faerian October 10, 2009 - 6:45 pm

i am writing this sitting on my couch in New Zealand, the sounds of domesticity, blackbirds waking up, washing machine clicking clothes over, the odd early morning car going past…

and yet tears are streaming down my face because i have felt your work, your joy, the birth of this exciting gift…

Unknown October 11, 2009 - 2:29 pm

oh yes! i'm soo happy for you elizabeth.

i sit here myself in sweden remembering a time when i belligerently asked you 'how, how do i take a leap of faith' and you responded calmly, 'maybe you already have.'

namaste, nicole

Anonymous October 13, 2009 - 12:59 pm

What a marvelous, magical adventure you and your musicians and technicians had together–with the Mystery presiding over all. I can't wait to hear the final result: your voice is stunning and the magic you evoke is exactly what the world needs now.

Kelli October 16, 2009 - 5:43 pm

Ooh, Elizabeth, I can't wait to hear it!!
love to you,


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