Studio Campfire Stories: ‘Tales From The Land Of Milk And Honey’ Edition – “Asking For A Friend”

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This song right here? “Asking For A Friend”??! As some of you may know by now, this was the first single released from the upcoming The Foreign Exchange album Tales From The Land Of Milk And Honey this past Monday night.

BUT….

Let me explain to y’all how there almost wasn’t even an album to begin with………

No, for real.

Making music is unpredictable. SO unpredictable that this entire project began with a very brief conversation Nicolay and I had during soundcheck before The Foreign Exchange’s New Year’s Eve show in Durham, NC on December 31, 2012 about possibly getting up to do some studio work. Up to that point, Phonte and I had worked closely on music dating back to the end of 2005 and I had worked with Sy Smith and Jeanne Jolly (who both toured with us at the time), but I still hadn’t stepped into the studio with Nic yet. I mean, he and I had played numerous shows together and we have done work on the same songs before by trading files, but never had we been in the same studio, at the same time, creating while trading ideas. Now, on paper it made sense… Two producers/multi-instrumentalists who both compose from scratch without aiming their final product at any genre in particular…. But what folks don’t understand is that the idea of a “perfect” collaboration can be tough when it comes down to its actual execution. For example, when I create music, I do it solo. Nobody just hanging around, no 20 people in the studio while I’m working, no “yes” men or hype men there to gas up every single note, chord, or new sound I play…. Absolutely, alone. Same with Nic. So, the idea of simply working together with another producer who creates in almost the same fashion presented itself to be somewhat of a challenge in our minds – I think because, creatively we didn’t want to step on toes. But with the May 2013 release of my solo album, ManMade and the September release of +FE’s Love In Flying Colors under our belts, we finally decided to give it a try and locked in a time to get to work. By the time we finally got up in February 2014, it was waaaay overdue. I loaded my car with some equipment, grabbed my small carry-on suitcase and hopped on 95 South for the six-hour drive from Silver Spring, MD to Wilmington, NC. I was anxious to get some new music done and to be honest, neither of us knew what to expect. On the drive down, several thoughts ran through my head…..

The hell will this music sound like?!

How will our sounds mesh together? Will they compliment or clash?

Will it sound more like a Nicolay track? ….Or will it sound more like something I did?

Let me explain one thing about art….. If you overthink it, you kill it. He and I knew not to discuss these things beforehand and I’m glad we didn’t because once I arrived at Nic’s studio, instincts took over and we just let the music happen. Three to four days later, we walked outta there with seven brand new instrumentals. Upon leaving, the only question I had while driving back home was, “Why didn’t we do this shit SOONER?!?!?!!” To me, the craziest part was the fact that the music sounded like Nicolay …AND it sounded like me – the two styles merged and the sound was literally split down the middle. With these seven new ones in the chamber, we then talked about working toward completing a “Nicolay & Zo! EP” containing some music with vocals and maybe a couple of instrumentals in there. I spoke publicly about the EP throughout 2014, we even discussed touring options once it was released and everything….

Fast forward to the top of 2015 when Phonte started recording to some of the music along with Carmen Rodgers, Tamisha Waden, Shana Tucker and Carlitta Durand… Once the music started to take shape around the new vocals that were recorded, we decided to focus on creating a “crew” album rather than just a Nic & Zo! EP… An +FE Music “compilation” project, basically. Sounded like an excellent idea to me… But, It also sounded like Nic and I needed to get back to work on some more music so that we could have a full album’s worth of material to pull from.  After coordinating schedules again, on March 31, 2015, that’s exactly what we began to do. I drove back down to NC for round TWO of marathon studio sessions in Wilmington.

The second time was a bit different mainly because we knew what to expect from each other from the jump…. At this point, all we needed to do was open up a “New Session” on Pro Tools and go in. Once I arrived, we set up quickly and jumped right into something brand new. I can’t remember why we specifically decided to knock out a House track that night for that very first song, but I DO remember being hyped up about it being as though I had never worked on one before…. Hell, I had never even PLAYED on one.

Nicolay sat down and began to program the drum track. In the final version, listen to the way the intro for “Asking For A Friend” comes in piece by piece. It’s perfect because that’s damn near how I heard him make the drums. First, was the four-to-the-floor kick with the open hi-hats, then, the toms…. percussion pieces, the snare ….and finally the claps to round it all out. As he was getting everything together drum-wise, I sat down on the Rhodes just to see what would happen and the very first thing that came out was the melody line you hear (right as Phonte’s vocals begin in the final version)… I then hopped on one of my favorite weapons in the studio, the Moog Little Phatty keyboard to work the bassline out until finding something that we both agreed with and from there it was back to the Rhodes to knock out the chord progression for what was to become the hook. Once the hook progression came THAT’S when things seemed to tie together, musically. By this time, Nic had the drums KNOCKING along with all of the intricacies placed and polished. Once we layered that hook up nicely with synths and strings, we added a fully extended vamp out and called it a night. While sipping coffee at damn near midnight we ran the song on repeat, satisfied with the new ‘nod’ to old school house music we had just created – Shit felt like a party in there. Meanwhile, two hours west in Raleigh, NC… Phonte and Carmen were getting ready to set up shop in the studio as well. With two spots running simultaneously for three to four days, we KNEW there was gonna be something special to coming out of this. So we sent the music to them to hear and write to if that’s what they felt, etc. Honestly, I really just wanted to hear their initial responses…

The next day, when Nic and I got back in the studio… Phonte had already called excited about this new record…… BUT, with the music that we already had for the album, he was thinking that it may have been too “hard” of a house record to include in the album batch. No problem… Hell, I knew we would use it somewhere down the line, the joint jammed too hard. We then moved on to start creating the next piece, which we would also send to Phonte and Carmen along with a third joint later on at the end of that day. In total, we ended up creating and sending 5 or 6 new ones to Raleigh, NC that week. ….But they kept going back to listen to that first one.

Once we wrapped, I drove back to Maryland on that Friday, April 3rd …and I’ll be damned if on APRIL 6TH, Nic and I didn’t receive an email from Phonte with the subject title “Asking For A Friend” that read……

“This shit went from “maybe it’s too hard” to “this could be the first single” REAL QUICK.”

I KNEW he couldn’t turn away from that joint!! I clicked the attachment and listened to the long introduction while nodding hard as hell….

“Work….Work….Work…..Work………..”

Heeeeell yeah… I was completely locked in wondering what would happen next once the verse started. Then the vocals came in …..and when them vocals came in??!?! ….WHEN THE VOCALS CAME IN?!?!?

My response: “Yoooooooooooooooooo!!!!!!!!!!”

The last time I responded like that to some vocals Phonte sent over to me, it was our “Africa” remake. I got him on the phone immediately and said, “You were on your Rockwell ‘Somebody’s Watching Me’ shit with this one…” He explained that it was more of a Talking Heads “Once In A Lifetime” feel, which works completely because this is meant to be a FUN joint, so be fearless and go ALL the way in. We went from talking about the song itself, to this brand new collection of music we were now sitting on. He told me that after talking with Nic, the project went from an +FE Music compilation….. to an +FE ALBUM, to which I responded, “Hell yeah… RUNNIT!” I got hyped up not only because I felt the collection of music was CRAZY, but also because I knew I had production credit on all of it right along with Nicolay and Phonte – a first for an +FE project.   …..To make it even better, y’all get to hear the stories behind it all.

2 thoughts on “Studio Campfire Stories: ‘Tales From The Land Of Milk And Honey’ Edition – “Asking For A Friend”

  1. This reminds of the posts you used to put on your MySpace page, back when I was like 19. I’m glad that you still have fun creating amazing music. Maybe one day they’ll start putting this positive music back on the radio, but if not I’ll keep supporting y’all by buying the albums and going to the jamming shows.

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