I’ve been writing and recording songs with vocals and words for a long time. But not until today have I released an actual instrumental composition.
May I introduce “Side by Side,” which is also the first official release under the name of my duo, Pepper and Sassafras. Plus it’s the first song I am publishing as sheet music for any guitarists or flutists who’d like to play it.
The writing side
“Side by Side” began life as a fingerstyle guitar piece in dropped-D tuning, with a graceful melody that stuck with me. But then I started imagining what my multi-instrumentalist music partner Wendy Sassafras Ramsay might add to it. In particular I was hearing flute, so I sat down with my Finale notation software and sketched out a flute part. For someone who’s always made music by ear, it’s a really interesting and illuminating experience to literally write music on the staff without playing an instrument or singing (although Finale does play back the notation with a decent simulation of the instrument in question, so you can use your ears that way). I like having the ability to reshape a phrase by simply dragging note heads around or changing the rhythm.
I shared the result with Wendy, who—as an actual flutist with a great ear for melody and harmony—took my basic part and made it much more sophisticated and satisfying. The flute doubles the guitar melody at first and then harmonizes, answers, and weaves in and out.
In the early stages, I did consider writing words to this melody, but unlike most of the musical ideas I have, this one felt complete, especially as a duet. To me it is a love song with a story told by the notes alone.
The one place where words do come in is, of course, the title. I will confess, it took me a long time to come up with a title I liked (the working title was the very literal and not terribly evocative “Dropped-D Instrumental”). When we performed this fledgling piece at several concerts, I solicited title ideas from the audience, but nothing clicked. For songs with lyrics, the title is typically a no-brainer; in many cases I’ll know the title long before finishing the song, or the process might even start with a title. But an instrumental is a different matter. In the end, I settled on “Side by Side” because the phrase scanned nicely over the first three notes of the main melody. So the title is like a lyrical phrase that’s left unsung.
As often happens, the project of creating this piece spilled over into my work as a music journalist/teacher. An excerpt from “Side by Side” appears in a lesson on dropped-D fingerpicking in the November 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar. (And, as mentioned above, the complete score is available here.)
The recording side
Once I decided to release “Side by Side” as a single, the recording process went fast. Wendy and I made one attempt to capture audio and video all at once, but quickly determined that was too many things to juggle without a crew of helpers. So we opted to do the audio and video separately.
I recorded the guitar and flute in my home studio (using Rode NT5 condenser mics through a Focusrite Clarett 4Pre interface and into Pro Tools, for those who wonder about such things). Earlier this year, we’d had such a fun and fruitful collaboration on a Cheap Trick cover single/video with Vermont songwriter/producer Phil Henry, so I reached out to Phil about helping with this project.
For the video, we took a straightforward approach and recorded ourselves with an iPhone playing the piece in sync with the master track, beneath the amazing old apple tree that presides over our backyard (also the site of a Jonathan Byrd cover video we made a few years back). We taped at dusk, when the light was buttery and beautiful. Our recently adopted dog, Ezma, made her screen debut as she roamed around the yard.
The time span from the initial recording to releasing this song and video was just a couple of weeks. I love that about this era—the speed at which you can create and distribute your work as an independent artist. Of course, whether people actually see and hear your work is another matter… If you enjoy the music, please share.
Thanks to Phil Henry for the audio mix and video editing, to Genevieve Fridley for the cover photo, and to Adam Perlmutter for helping to polish up the notation.