INNOCENT MONSTER (2021) Full-length studio recording of 10 original songs
It was a brisk, sunny day in early March 2020. I walked out of my producer’s basement studio, and he said, “I think we may have captured a final vocal today!” I responded, “I think you’re right!” We stood there for a moment, grinning at each other. Years of work was finally coming to closure.
The “final vocal” to which we referred was one of the ten original songs on my then in-progress cd, INNOCENT MONSTER, my first studio recording since 2013 and first all-originals project ever. But both of us soon forgot which track we’d meant. The coronavirus shutdown began a few days later and the project—upon which I’d pinned so many long delayed ambitions—went into an indefinite hiatus.
As COVID-19 first-order tragedies and secondary or tertiary impacts go, this one obviously doesn’t rank. Nobody died, nobody suffered, nobody lost their life or livelihood or loved one. Still, I went into six weeks of private mourning. I had so much riding on the completion of this album. Some of the songs were over 10 years old. Others had been written within the past 12 months. They represented the absolute best of the best work I’d ever done, as a self-taught composer, as a pianist and singer, and as a lyricist with a literary bent but an ability and desire to humble herself to solid rock/pop songwriting practices.
After instigating and orchestrating MOBTOWN MOON, a huge Pink Floyd homage project in 2011-2013—with the help of singer-songwriter Ellen Cherry as my co-producer and over 40 local musicians and visual artists—I was anxious to get back to my own material, my 100% original vision. But I was also burnt out. I spent the better part of year unable to even listen to music. For a long while I’d had trouble gathering the time and focus—my son was still making his way through middle and high school—as well as a lack of funding, a need to take on various day jobs, and a certain dearth of emotional support from my husband.
Finding Pete Strobl as my new vocal coach, later my record producer, in 2017 had been a timely miracle. With Pete’s help, I worked my butt off for two solid years on a fresh, athletically wise approach to singing, and finally became the kind of vocalist I’d always suspected I might be. I just hadn’t known what kind of work to do, until Pete showed me. Then my own relentless work ethic kicked in. At the same time, I was inspired to dust off a bunch of old unrecorded songs and write several new ones, and they were all pointing in a new-for-me art or alt rock direction, still driven by a jazz sensibility, but harder, darker, edgier. It was Pete who put together a basic band consisting of a heavy metal drummer, rock guitarists, and a host of other musicians that I entrained into my clarified vision. INNOCENT MONSTER was going to be the most *100% me* project of anything I’d ever accomplished. Everything was finally coming together: my songs, my band, my artistic identity, even my new branding/marketing approach as “Sandhya,” an ancient Sanskrit word meaning the juncture of light and dark, and also my actual first name.
It fit the material so well: rockin’ tunes with lyrics that constantly hinting at or outright demonstrating a dark, cynical, philosophical, and sometimes even depressive view of the world. I’m a pretty joyful, amiable, and fun person, despite being a profound historical and political pessimist with little hope for humanity’s survival. The WTMD deejay Sam Sessa had made note of my musical duality way back in 2007 with my first released record, MEMOIR, but it had taken me more than 12 years to fully own and embody it. Sandhya, an innocent monster, operating at the juncture of light and dark.
We had recorded the basic rhythm section tracks with me on keyboard in November 2019 at Stages Music Arts studio, and had spent the late fall and early winter doing overdubs with background vocalists, additional rhythm and lead guitarists, a B3 organist, a fiddler player, a percussionist, a French horn player, an accordionist…every sound we wanted, except for the vocals.
I was practicing them all the time, of course. The ten songs had undergone rigorous examination and reconsideration over nearly 3 years. I’d spent up to five hours a week with Pete just singing and singing and singing some more.
Never before had I allowed anyone as much power over and access to my process, but the results spoke for themselves. My range increased, my resonance increased, my confidence started going through the roof. Interestingly, the stronger I got as a vocalist, the clearer I also became as a self-accompanying piano player. No longer was I satisfied with being a good-enough singer who played good-enough piano. I was finally being held to account at the highest standards. (Pete had come out of the big label music industry of Los Angeles in the 70s-80s-90s, so his high bar became my high bar.)
To have this momentum suddenly stopped by the global pandemic was, as I say, nothing in the way of a tragedy. But it did crush me for a little while.
Then, after six weeks of feeling sorry for myself, I had to make things happen. I researched mics and bought an SM7B, an excellent workhorse studio/performance microphone most famously known as the one Quincy Jones made Michael Jackson use on THRILLER. I downloaded the digital audio workstation software called Reaper and began watching video tutorials. I turned myself into my own audio engineer, gathering advice from both Pete and my rhythm guitarist Scott Smith, a wonderful Baltimore-based producer himself, who had engineered the MOBTOWN MOON cd. Every day in July and half of August, I recorded myself singing. I’d spend all day on one song, sing it dozens of times, cut the best parts out of all those different takes to create a “comp” or composite track. Pete would listen to it and give me notes for improvement. At some point, I barely needed Pete anymore: I could hear what I wanted to do better or differently, and then just make the fix or the change myself. My ear got so persnickety I could hear when I was out of tune by mere “cents” flat or sharp. I was singing 8-10 hours every day, breaking only to cook for my family and eat a little something myself, and never struggling with vocal fatigue. I probably sang each song a couple hundred times over those 6-7 weeks. In the end, I was good enough to sing each track in one take with maybe just a few quick overdubbed fixes in a measure here or there.
It is hard to explain what happened next, other than to say this experience was so deeply empowering that it led to my decision to divorce my husband.
In part this was due to longstanding conflicts and a general growing-apart. We were 27 years old when we met and became inseparable. Now at 54, we’d spent half our lives together. But it was time for me to surrender to my most daring and relentless dreams. Living the musician’s life in full, putting creative visions front and center in my life. Our son would soon be off to college. I’d soon have a new record out, despite the pandemic, and it would be the first work of mine that truly hit national or international standards in terms of production quality and overall execution.
I was ready to do what artists have to do to achieve their absolute highest work. Live on my own, as frugally as possible, with only a grand piano as my roommate/best friend.
I’d dreamed of becoming a rock diva as a child, as so many do. Now I am ready to aim straight for it. Even if it takes me until age 60.
The time is now.