The Song A Week Sessions: Volume 1

Our compilation album is now available to stream or download for free. Thanks for listening!

More about each song:

1. Daniel Jenstad – “In Transit
2. Maria de las Nieves – “Canto Di Caino
3. Paul Spring – “Plum Street
4. Alpenglow – “Mountain Man
5. Matt and Donna – “Canard Digérateur
6. Andy Price – “Daytime Superhero
7. Pat Boerner and Brittany Miller – “Something To Say
8. Lazerwülf – “Breakthrough
9. Whitaker Trebella and Charlie McCarron – “Ghosts Of Hallemot
10. Brandon Dvorak – “Kingdom
11. Kurtz – “Everything Burns Alike
12. Jake Anderson – “Full Of…
13. Jason P. Schumacher – “Secret Selves
14. WC Tank – “Achoo
15. Simon Sperl – “Latent Promises
16. Pete Eisenberg and Tom Holmes – “A Penny Around My Neck
17. Luke Friedrich – “Just Like Today” (Charlie Parr Cover)

Week 18: Maria de las Nieves – “Canto Di Caino”

UPDATE: Maria has a Kickstarter project going to create a whole album based around Cain. Help her out if you’re inspired!

Maria Isabel Ruff-Berganza gathered together her band of self-described “wanderers” to record the first in a series of songs she has written about Cain.

Audio MP3

Canto Di Caino
By Maria de las Nieves

Maria Isabel Ruff-Berganza – Vocals, Lyrics
George Murphy – Bass
Micah Scott – Mandolin, Acoustic Guitar
Daniel Ruff Smith – Djembe, Percussion
Ross Charmoli – Congas
Charlie McCarron – Violin, Electric Guitar

Canto di Caino, Canto de moribundo
I sing of Cain, walks the whole mundo,
Wanderlust aching, corazon breaking,
He looks free but won’t see what he is forsaking

His brother, Abelito, lies in the dust
For work of Cain’s hands made a jealous thrust
And we have passed on to another age now
But all of Cain’s children still wondering…

How do we till the soil, how will we be free?
Who will deliver the fruit from our tree?
Sordo with anger
Bitter with pain
Pinchada con pride and human disdain

We march in production, we dance in our flight
We wake to the light for a self-imposed night
Walk and we don’t know which way we will turn
How best to distract from how we still yearn

How do we till the soil, how will we be free?
And who will deliver the fruit from the tree
Sordo with anger, amarga con pain
Swollen with pride, do we toil in vain?

How will I by solita become what I should
My spine, a serpent that soon strays from good
My hands, two birds, that disown their own kin
My belly bare soil depraved from within
I bend down like spider and reach everywhere
Electric, world shrinking web of despair

How can I till the soil, how be freed?
Which Cain can deliver the fruit from my tree?
So swollen with anger, so swollen with pain
Pinchada with pride, labor of the vain

Canto di Caino, Canto de moribundo
I sing of Cain, walks the whole mundo,
Wanderlust aching, Corazon breaking,
He looks free but won’t see what he is forsaking

Behind the Song

I edited together a little behind the scenes for this one. Maria explains her interest in Cain and why the song’s title is Italian, while the rest is Spanish and English.

It was a treat producing this song. The musical base of the song originated with Micah and George, and Maria came up with the vocal melody and rhythm. So the first step was recording Micah on mandolin and George on electric bass, to get a solid rhythm track. Although I usually have people play to a metronome, this song seemed like it needed to be free from a click. And luckily these guys were spot on with their rhythms.

Once we got the rhythm track down, we recorded Maria’s lovely vocals. Each take had super expressive and interesting parts, so I ended up using the best pieces of each take. We were both on the same page when we heard something that stood out above the rest.

Micah Scott, master of the mandolin

The next step was letting Micah go nuts and record a bunch of mandolin and guitar parts. I would have kept him recording all day, since his solos were getting more and more interesting, but he stopped and said that’s probably enough for one day. And I did have more than enough to work with at that point. I think the guitar/mandolin double solo at the 2:10 mark is a testament to what this guy can do.

Next up was the percussion section. McNally Smith student Ross Charmoli came over with a pair of congas. I ended up placing one mic over each conga to get the crisp hand hits, and one mic underneath each conga to get a bassy tone.

Maria had an ace in the hole with her cousin, Daniel Ruff Smith, who came over with his djembe to lay down the base percussion track. He also recorded shaker and cowbell (muted, because it was too ring-y). I felt like it needed one more counter-rhythm, and I thought wooden claves would sound perfect. But since we only had one wooden stick with the cowbell, we had to improvise. We tried hitting it against all sorts of wooden surfaces, but it just sounded dead. Finally my roommate Jeff handed us a Mag-Lite flashlight, which worked surprisingly well as our second clave.

I’m excited to hear Maria’s other songs for her Cain project, especially since “Canto Di Caino” is the very first song she wrote for it. I’ll spread the word when Maria de las Nieves has some more recordings to share with the world.

Week 17: Brandon Dvorak – “Kingdom”

Once again, Brandon Dvorak and Jake Anderson joined me in the studio. This time, we recorded a song by Brandon, which goes from mellow to rocking in no time flat. Fun one to produce!

Audio MP3

by Brandon Dvorak

But who could tell?
Memories haven’t served us well
And who could know
Exactly where we are to go?
From here
Skies are clear
And from here
Skies are clear

This kingdom’s falling down and I’m okay, I’m okay
Our king is crawling out of his cave, of his cave
Our home is burning down, we can’t escape
I’m not afraid
I’m not afraid

Brandon Dvorak – Vocals, Guitar, Bass
Jake Anderson – Drums
Charlie McCarron – Synths

Behind the Scenes

I recorded a quick interview with the guys to document this moment in history.

When Brandon played his song for me on just guitar, it struck me as instantly different than anything I’ve produced yet. Even though the song is really only three or four repeating chords on guitar, I didn’t get sick of them. It was very mesmerizing, thanks in part to his unique vocal lines.

So from a production standpoint, I wanted to get this ethereal sound across. I recorded some synth parts to give it a kind of creepy psychological feel at the beginning. For you Ableton Live junkies, my secret ingredient is a special Max for Live plugin called “Squirrel Parade” that you can tweak to create strange animal-like sounds. I was messing with it once before and made a pretty convincing synthesized songbird call. But for “Kingdom” I just tried crafting some spacey humming.

This is one synth I customized for the song. Yes, I am a nerd if you hadn't noticed.

Another trick I used was to distort the guitar in a way that sounds like controlled feedback. I used an effect that pinpoints a certain pitch and cranks it up, as if you were holding an electric guitar next to a really loud amp. The cool thing is, you can change that pitch over time, so you can almost create a melody out of the guitar feedback. Kind of like auto-tuning a guitar. I created two feedback tracks and panned them left and right. Have a listen to this feedback by itself:

Audio MP3

And in context:

Audio MP3

Here's the feedback effect I used on the guitar. The green line above is the pitch being distorted, which varies wildly during the choruses.

It was great to work with these guys again. If you missed Jake Anderson’s song from Week 14, check it out. You can also hear more music from Brandon and Jake in their band, With A Gun For A Face.

Jake Anderson, back on drums.


Week 16: Simon Sperl – “Latent Promises”

Simon Sperl, a fellow composer from CSB/SJU, spent the better part of a year volunteering in East Africa. He was inspired to start writing a classical quintet while he was in Kenya. I was glad to see “Latent Promises” come to fruition, thanks to five amazing musicians.

Audio MP3

Latent Promises
By Simon Sperl

Eric Graf – Cello
Megan Hagberg – Piano
Katie Murphy – Violin
Emily Olson – Flute
Emily Powell – Clarinet

Behind the Scenes

Yes, Simon is actually conducting in a stairwell in the above video. We needed to find someplace with a decent piano, and my parents’ house fit the bill. When someone gave me a quote of $2,000 to rent a grand piano room on a weekend, my great-grandmother’s piano didn’t sound half bad.

Megan ticklin' the ivories.

It was a small miracle we were able to gather four players together, considering it was Thanksgiving weekend when we recorded. I was looking forward to it, since these talented ladies were all music majors with me at St. Ben’s/St. John’s. It was kind of a mini reunion for us.

Like true music majors, they’d all been extremely diligent about learning their parts. But since they hadn’t played Simon’s piece together before recording day, it took a bit of rehearsal time. Simon didn’t hold back when he was writing it; there are plenty of tricky and unique rhythms. I wonder if he ever imagined he’d be conducting in 11/8 time.

A glimpse of the "Latent Promises" score.

After we finished recording, we moved the party downtown Stillwater, and went out to eat at a bar that happened to have live bluegrass music. And Katie Murphy happened to bring her violin in out of the cold. And they just happened to need a fiddle player! After a little egging on, she got right up on stage, and her violin skills secured her a spot in the band anytime she’s in Stillwater.

So that was Thanksgiving weekend. Everything went super smoothly. But…we still needed a cellist. Three weeks and dozens of calls later, I finally found a guy willing and able to play the part. Eric Graf, a junior studying cello performance at the U of M, did an excellent job. He was also super prepared when he came in to record, despite only having a few days to look at the piece.

Eric Graf playing along with the other four members of the quintet.

Since a few sections of latent promises are solo cello, I knew we’d need some sort of metronome going so we could line up the parts. But at the same time, the piece would never feel right if the four women were forced to play to a metronome. I had to be a little clever about it. So when Simon was conducting the group, I tapped my keyboard along with his beat, and recorded those pulses as MIDI notes, so I could use them later as a metronome for our cellist.

Simon scaling Mount Kenya

It was great to hear the story behind Simon’s piece. Having also been in East Africa, I understood his frustration with trying to initiate change but getting nowhere. The laid-back, unhurried culture is really refreshing at times, but it can wear on you if you’re trying to get something accomplished as a volunteer. The school I taught at in Tanzania was in desperate need of bookshelves, and what could have been a week-long project turned out to be a three-month endeavor.

Anyways, everyone who knows me is probably sick of my Tanzania stories. So in summary, I wish Simon all the best in his future composing. And a huge thanks to this quintet for taking the time to rehearse and record “Latent Promises.”

Week 15: Daniel Jenstad – “In Transit”

Dan Jenstad, graphic designer by day, came over to record last week. He was torn between recording a cover and an original song. I’m glad I pushed him to try out his original, though, because it turned out to be one of the best song-a-week tunes yet. And surprisingly, it’s the first full song he has ever written. Quite a debut.

Audio MP3

In Transit
By Daniel Jenstad

I’d travel like a bullet would
Careening round your neighborhoods
As a train
As a train

In transit, was pedantic
I got lost in the semantics
Of the rules in how to travel
Ties started to unravel
Just a train wreck in a necktie
Work myself right off the tracks
But i’m suited for destruction
So there’s no route for turning back

When I pushed towards the Mississippi
And all your streetlights that had kissed me
Started glowing in my frame
But I pushed on just the same
And all the steam that I would muster
Would like the dazzle of that luster
It stitched the path that trailed
The whistle sounds its brightest wail

This is just an evolution
Of one vessel’s constitution
But there’s nothing quite as pretty
As the absence of the city

Dan Jenstad – Vocals, Acoustic Guitar
Mitchell Johnson, Gwen Wasmund, Ryan Ruff Smith – Backing Vocals
Charlie McCarron – Electric Guitar, Bass, Piano, Percussion, Backing Vocals

Behind the Song

Matt Schubbe giving some feedback on Dan's lyrics. Notice how this picture was not in any way staged.

I met Dan years back through song-a-week-er Matt Schubbe. Matt always said Dan had a ton of songwriting potential, so I was excited to hear his stuff.

After Dan played the song for me, we talked a little music theory, and spent some time figuring out a few last chords he was unsure about. The song was pretty much fully formed, but tweaking a few chords slightly here and there helped give the song some more character.

For the theory nerds out there, take a listen to the lines “Just a trainwreck in a necktie” (0:45) and “All the steam that I would muster” (1:27). The chord progressions around these sections are almost the same, except for basically one note. The first time, we go from a D major chord to a D7 (D dominant 7th chord). The second time we, go from a D major chord to a DM7 (D major 7th chord). Notice how the first section feels a little more playful, but kind of unsettled at the same time, like it has to keep moving. That’s the character of a dominant seventh chord. At least that’s what it sounds like to me. And the second section, where we use a D major seventh chord, sounds more like the train is approaching its destination (pardon the pun). To me, major seventh chords always seem to add poignancy and depth to a song. Pretty crazy how a single note in a chord can change the mood drastically.

We had a special guest on night two of recording. Matt Schubbe showed up to hang out and help with some lyrics. After they got the lyrics sorted out, Dan recorded vocals. We did take after take after take, but not because Dan wasn’t performing vocally well. It was partly out of wanting to get the best take possible, and partly out of coming up with melodies on the fly. In my book, there’s nothing wrong with improvising in front of the mic. That’s where the awesome whistle solo and “oohs” at the end came from.

Putting finishing touches on the lyrics before Dan steps into the vocal booth.

Later on, I played the song for my roommate Mitchell Johnson, and he immediately had a vocal arrangement idea for the “Trainwreck in a necktie” part. So we rounded up all the singers who happened to be in our house (Ryan Ruff Smith, Gwen Wasmund, Mitchell, and me), and we sang each vocal line in unison. That’s the method Mitchell and Ryan often use for recording vocals in their band Spencer McGillicutty.

It was great fun having free reign in producing this song. I got to use my early Christmas present of a bass guitar (thanks Mom and Dad!). It was also one of the few times I’ve recorded a piano solo. I got two hours of sleep on Monday night because I was getting way too into adding percussion parts, which include knee-slapping, a broken coat hanger, and a homemade shaker.

Step 1: Fill a nalgene with rice. Step 2: Shake.

I wish I had a link to more of Dan’s music, but it doesn’t exist yet. Luckily, recording this song has spurred him on to start writing more. I’ll be the first to spread the word about future Dan Jenstad songs.