Tone Talk with Rachel Garlin

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Photo by Irene Young

Hey there, thanks for sharing our “Boys of Summer” video with your readers. It’s been a strange summer, of course, but we’re grateful to be releasing music and sharing it with new audiences. I’ve been spending a bunch of time doing Sidewalk Sessions (be-masked, socially distanced concerts from the edge of my garage in San Francisco) and doing some online shows for my new album Mondegreens (produced by Julie Wolf). “Mondegreen” is a word that means “misheard lyric”—the kind you sing out loud when you’re listening to the radio, even when the actual lyrics are something else. In other words, it’s you singing along in your own way, in your own voice, and with a different interpretation. I think that summer 2020 has a “mondegreen” kind of flavor to it. Many, if not all, of us, are improvising and also making new meaning of things, not to mention resisting the structures and systems that are unjust. Music can be a starting place for reinterpreting and reimagining things as we try to find a different way.

“Boys of Summer” is the only cover song on the album. My friend and longtime collaborator, Kate Isenberg, had the idea that we should cover it, and my producer Julie Wolf wrote the harmonic arrangement before the three of us recorded it at Fantasy Studios in Berkeley. The original Don Henley version is a classic boy-meets-girl summer love anthem, but in our version, we flipped the script and told the story of female desire and longing between women. With three women playing and singing, the video is also a window into how women collaborate in the traditionally male-led environment of the recording studio. So yeah, the summer of 2020 is about opening things up (while shutting things down), bringing new perspectives, challenging the old stuff, and being a part of the changes that feel essential to everyone’s well being. Music, art, imagination: I think they’re important ingredients for that kind of change.

What is your definition of tone, and how has it changed over the years?
I’m a singer-songwriter who plays acoustic guitar, so, for me, the tone is about how integrated the guitar is with the vocals. My songwriting almost always starts with a chord progression on the guitar. After that, I improvise lyrics and melodies simultaneously while playing the progression. I’m not the kind of songwriter who can write songs while walking down the street or driving. I pretty much need to have an instrument in my hands. There are vibrations (yes, I’m from Berkeley, but I’m speaking literally here) from the guitar that affect the melodies and words. The guitar—with its particular tone and feel—is a partner in the songwriting. Sometimes the tone needs to be warm and familiar; other times, it needs to be bright or muted or clear. I’ve learned a lot about tone from producer Julie Wolf. She’s a master at hearing a song in its starkest form and then knowing what the song needs in terms of playing style, tone, and production. When she first heard an early version of “Dry Creek River” (on our album), she felt that it needed to be a slow waltz rather than the rousing boom-chuck song I had originally written. In the end, we co-wrote a new version and she guided my guitar tone, making sure it stayed understated while supporting the story of the song.

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Which guitars, amps, and pedals are you currently using and why?
The most important guitar in my life is a Gibson J-50. My dad bought it from a pawn shop in NYC in 1951, a few years after it was built in 1948. He used to go to folk music jam sessions at the fountain in Washington Square Park and play his Gibson alongside musicians like Erik Darling (who later replaced Pete Seeger in the Weavers), among others. My dad gifted me his Gibson a few years back, and I’ve toured coast to coast with it. I played it on the mainstage at the Newport Folk Festival, and after one of my songs won an award there, I received a new Gibson guitar as part of the prize money. So I have two consequential Gibsons in my life. For songwriting, I’ve always played my Big Baby Taylor—it’s the right size to tuck in and compose with—but recently, I’ve started performing and recording with it too. For a long time, I thought it was too small to play on stage—thinking that the live sound would be compromised or something. But then I realized that if a guitar is the right size for playing at home, it can sound good on stage too. A few years ago, I found myself performing in front of Patty Griffin (one of my songwriting influences) and she commented on the rich tone of my small guitar. At that I point, I committed to making it a stage instrument and installed a Fishline pickup. Now it’s one of the guitars I bring on stage with me every time (with Patty’s signature on the back).

What about strings?
I use D’Addario light gauge. I’ve tried lots of different kinds, including coated strings, but I always come back to the strings I started on. And so it is. I’ve never played with a guitar pick, but I put plastic reinforcements on two fingers and a thumb so that I can move from strumming to finger-picking within the same song.

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Are there certain recording techniques you prefer in the studio?
For recording, I like to play live in the studio, meaning that I play guitar and sing at the same time rather than overdubbing. I try to play as if I’m sitting on my stoop or performing in a coffeehouse or small theater. I like to keep it intimate in the studio and stay in the moment of the song. I’ve made so many mistakes in the studio over the years, but I’ve learned a lot too. Each album is like getting a graduate degree in humility. When you enter a studio and the recording lights go on, it’s hard not to psych yourself out or get overstimulated by all the people and gear and big rooms and fancy equipment. What works best for me is just a basic recording booth and a couple of mics.

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How do you keep your sound consistent onstage?
I’m not sure that I do! Playing in all kinds of different venues and settings means allowing for some flexibility. Over the years, I’ve learned to take my time during soundcheck and ideally have a bandmate or friend sit in when the sound person is dialing in my voice and guitar. At the end of the day, though, you have to be ready for anything, and if you need to unplug from the system and just go acoustic, that’s an option too.

What does your practice consist of?
Since I’m primarily a rhythm guitar player, I stretch myself by learning little riffs or licks and practicing them to develop finger strength and muscle memory. Years ago, I had a guitar teacher named Caren Armstrong, who gave me some good advice. She said you should always run over a song at least once before playing it in public because as you write more and more songs, you’ll be surprised how many need a little refresher before you perform them. I think of those words every time I write a setlist or rehearse for a show.

What is your advice for young women who hope to work in the music industry?
Go for it! We need you! Bring your unique energy and perspectives to this field and help widen the lens on what we can do and how we can do it. For the past several years, I’ve had the privilege of working with young songwriters at Upstar Records, which is a youth-run record label housed at Sunset Youth Services here in San Francisco. During weekly sessions, I collaborate with and mentor young womxn who are either honing their songwriting skills, coming up as the next generation of DJs and rappers, or interning as recording engineers within our studio. What I tell them is what I would say to anyone interested in the field: try to work for and with people who won’t just answer your questions but who truly get enjoyment from sharing what they know. And remember that you have so much to offer. The most powerful partnerships are the ones that help both artists grow.

For more on Rachel Garlin, visit her official website at https://rachelgarlin.com/

 

 

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