I’m in the studio with one of my all-time favorite musicians, Donald Fagen (Of Steely Dan) and he’s about to produce my song. How did I get here?
My mom’s naughtiest running partner and oldest friend, Libby Titus, happens to be married to Donald and somehow my cheep little demo tape with my hedgehog, Fatty J’s scratchings on it, wound up in his cassette player and he had feedback about my song “When We’re Together.”
“The performance isn’t completely sure of itself and there are some pitchy notes,” I cringed as Mom and I hung on his every word, sharing the receiver between us. “But overall, you’re a great singer and you have a really original thing going on.” Oh phew, I thought! “I think you have two options,” he continued “#1 You let it be. It’s a great song and you can leave it as is. #2 You re-record it and you let me produce it. I’m free tomorrow and Friday.”
What What What?!?!? How could I turn down that offer?!?!?
But… I was terrified. I didn’t know if I could sing the song any better and feared making a fool of myself in front of one of the great musical legends. “I’m so honored Donald. I mean, I can’t believe I’m saying this but I am not sure I can make it to New York that soon.”
“Don’t be a fool!” Libby grabbed the receiver giving away her position, “Go to New York tomorrow and let Donald produce this track.” In a girlish teasing fun-loving way, Mom repeated all Libby’s sentiments ganging up on me “You’re a fool to turn this down.” “What have you got to lose?” “Don’t you want Donald to do your track?” as my mom and Libby’s voices tangled into a dance around my heart I admitted my insecurities just to stop their love heckling.
“You know, I am so completely flabbergasted” (yes, I said flabbergasted) “by the opportunity but honestly, I’m insecure about whether or not I can actually do it better.” This statement only baited the girls into greater peer pressure:
“You CAN do it better.” They insisted “You’re a fool.” “You’ll regret this.” “Come down to New York.” “Why don’t you want to do this?” and suddenly Pheobe Snow was on the phone too (where did she come from?!) joining in on the girl chorus with “It’s a great song, Sally. You go girl. Come record with Donald.”
And the matter was settled.
I flew from Martha’s Vineyard to New York on Friday. I did vocal exercises for an hour and then practiced the song over and over and over until the bass distorted the speakers. Finally, shaking like a leaf, I hailed a taxi to River Sound Studio on East 95th. When I pulled up, the driver didn’t have change for my $20 so I ran into a Chinese laundromat where I was promptly turned away. But miraculously, the driver told me not to worry about it! Even when I insisted I pay him he drove away apologizing to ME for not having change.
Donald was walking up the street as I was walking into his studio. I kissed his cheek in a knee-jerk nervous reaction and he laughed. He introduced me to Phil, his engineer, and showed me around his phenomenal space filled with Asian rugs and gold records and a punching bag called “Slam-Man” who I deduced was used to de-stress between difficult takes. As Donald and Phil set up I admitted to them I was nervous.
“Aw, don’t be,” said Donald “I spent years in this studio creating badly pitched tracks.” It was kind of him to say but did little to alleviate my shaking.
It took 12 takes. The whole song. Only 12 takes. “From that, we have enough to create the perfect track,” said Donald. He complimented me a lot, probably because he knew how worried I was about the whole thing. “I love your voice,” he said, and “Man, this song is really a winner,” he said, and “You’ve got great pitch” and “I think you’re going about making this CD the right and smart way.” And then he said “You can’t pay me for this session. I really enjoyed doing this for you.”
And when the night was wrung dry, and the perfect track had been mixed, Donald held his breath for a moment, turned to me, and said “There’s just one thing missing.” There in the wee hours of New York City morning, Donald Fagen donned a pair of headphones, entered the sound booth, and lay down a track of wind chimes. “Now it’s complete.”
“Do you mind if I call in my partner Walter Becker in to give it a listen with fresh ears?” asked Donald. Are you kidding? Of course I was ok with that! Steely Dan’s other half walked in with blue and white corner store coffee in hand. He gave me a little hug and a smile and then turned his attention to the song.
“Is this your song?” Walter asked
“Yeah,” I replied.
“It’s really great,” he said.
Together, Steely Dan punched and mixed and replayed my song over and over like it was a piece of molten gold that needed to be washed of impurities. When the song was done we walked down the 5 flights of stairs. We said our goodbyes as the night bled into a new day. Donald ceremoniously handed me our track on a tiny cassette and Walter, as he walked away called over his shoulder “Call me when it goes gold.”
Genius! Thank you, Walter. Thank you, Libby. Thank you, mama. Thank you, Donald.