New York City – Donald Fagen is Producing My Song – July 12, 1998

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.

New York City – Mom’s Birthday – June 26, 1998

It was Mom’s birthday yesterday.  She sits so tenderly inside my soul these days.  I can feel her hand on my hand guiding me tenderly into this scary world of music.  She took me into the living room in the early morning light, overlooking Central Park.  She told me she was proud to watch me producing my own record saying “You have to pass the torch on at some point, you know.”  Her eyes twinkled with restrained emotion. The fabric of her, I cradled in my arms.  How can this brilliant, pioneering, sweet angelic spirit be part of my makeup I thought.  She asked me if she could play me one of her new songs and when I said “Of Course mama!” she sat me down on the red velvet couch, fiddled with the dat recording device, and made unnecessary disclaimers about the sound quality and vocal performance before sitting beside me and holding my hand.  Of course, the song was beautiful. It was deep and soulful.  I felt so close to her and feeling close to her I felt closer to the sky.

Ben made focaccia bread birthday cake and lit a votive candle. We sang Happy Birthday which Mama couldn’t help but sing along to in harmony.  By mid-day, I had to get down to BootsTown Studio to finish up mixing with Wendy and Michael. When I got there they gave me the bad news:  “We’re not going to be able to finish all 11 songs.  You got to cut one.”  They recommended “In My Mind”  saying it just didn’t sound as “quality” as the rest of the tracks.

I asked for a moment to think and went into the drum booth to reclaim my stolen breath.  I was confused.  I felt so attached to “In My Mind” being on this record.  Who knows if I’ll ever make a second one, this might be its only chance to shine.  I walked back into the windowless control booth and announced “I want ‘In My Mind on there.  Let’s do what we need to to get it done.”  I felt the wind knocked out of my colleagues who’ve been killing themselves with 18-hour days to get these tracks done.  My guilt at their herculean efforts led to my relenting ½ way through the mix, “Maybe you’re right. Maybe the song’s not worth it.” I said.  “We’re all tired.”  I felt sick to my stomach leaving the song dead like roadkill on the battleground of the studio floor. It seemed to yelp as it joined the other discarded 2-inch tape on the chopping block.  By 3 am I was home looking through old drawings from 1979.  In the morning  I met up with Wendy on a park bench near a hot dog vendor.  “I’m afraid we might have to—“

She knew what I was going to say.  “Whatever Sal.  We’ll do whatever you want.”  I could have kissed her on the mouth.  We returned to the studio where Michael threw a silent fit but finished “In My Mind” in only an hour and a half.  Ahhhhhhhh.  I feel so much better.

Mixing is completed

New York City – Mixing at Whitney Huston’s Studio – June 24, 1998

I’ve decided to mix “Tomboy Bride” in New York at Whitney Houston’s studio.  Kipp connected me with Whitney’s engineer, Michael White, and he’s agreed to take on my project as long as we can finish all 11 songs in 5 days.  I’m here now, in the hot city with Wendy Woo and at the moment we’re working on “Sign of Rain.” 

My mom made a special trip down to the studio today.  It’s such a role reversal.  I spent my entire childhood and adolescence traveling to mid-town to her studio sessions, ordering grilled cheeses from take-out menus and finishing up homework assignments as musicians like Mic Jagger, Debbie Harry, Harry Belafonte, Ry Cooter, and every session player you’d ever want to meet passed through the reception area.  I drank Lipton tea by the bucket, downloaded receptionists with my latest relationship sagas, and between subjects I rewarded completed assignments with the arcade game of the month for the price of a quarter: Donkey Kong, Ms. Packman, Space Invaders, the car one I can’t remember the name of.

Today at Whitney’s I ordered Wendy, Michael my mom and I turkey subs. We ate while mom wheeled herself around on a console chair like a boss yelling half-chewed suggestions at Michael like “Fly it over.” “That’s the one.  Don’t touch it now” and “Buy it baby! buy it!”  Before she left for the day, she requested a copy of the track.  “I want to blare it through the streets of Martha’s Vineyard and scream ‘This is my DAUGHTER!”  I felt so so so so grateful for her love and tutelage and hand holding and accolades.  It’s her birthday tomorrow and as we finished the day I sketched out this letter to copy into a card I painted:

Mom wanted to know what I was going to do about distribution for the Record. “But it’s not really a record mama.” I explained, ” It’s more of a glorified demo.” I’m not sure I want to deal with retail or a professional distributor.  I’d have to deal with returns and comps and shrink-wrapping CDs. For now, I got myself a mailbox at a local Post Office in Boulder and a website “www.sallytaylor.com.”  I think I’ll take orders by snail mail for now, and test the waters just to see if there’s any interest.  I can also sell CDs at shows.  In total this record has cost me $7,778 plus a few dinners and brewskies for players who’ve refused payment. I just want to make my money back at this point.