Movie: “Lost Songs: The Basement Tapes Continued”

{To the one (or possibly two!) people who may be following this blog, thank you.  And thanks for still reading this even though nothing has been posted in over a month.  I hope it’s been worth the wait.  I had fun writing it.  Enjoy!}

If you haven’t had a chance to check out the documentary Lost Songs:  The Basement Tapes Continued, I highly recommend it.  It’s an entertaining and insightful look at professionals making a record, as well as an informative history lesson about one of our greatest songwriters.

Bob Dylan wrote a lot of songs in the late 1960s.  Many of them were recorded by him and The Band and eventually released as the first-ever bootleg record before The Basement Tapes got an official release several years later.  Many others of these songs, however, were never recorded – Dylan only wrote lyrics for them and never got around to writing corresponding music.  These lyrics sat in a desk drawer for several decades until they were found a few years ago.  Some smart folks in the recording industry made the relatively easy decision to make an album out of these songs.  Lost Songs:  The Basement Tapes Continued chronicles the two weeks that several talented musicians spent bringing this record to life.

The film contains some grainy re-enactments of Dylan and The Band playing music and (for lack of a better term) horsing around “Big Pink”, the house they rented after Dylan’s famous late-1960’s motorcycle accident.  These scenes are narrated by excerpts from a Dylan interview, which provides some fun insight into the atmosphere of the original Basement Tapes.  For example, their songwriting process sometimes involved writing songs about anything from what was happening in the world (the first artificial heart transplant) to random names in a phone book.  The majority of the film is footage of Producer T-Bone Burnett and musicians Elvis CostelloRhiannon GiddensTaylor GoldsmithJim James and Marcus Mumford creating the album Lost on the Riverand this is the more compelling part of the movie.

The documentary provides a fantastic insight into the songwriting process of professionals.  Not only that, it’s very encouraging to us amateurs, as we can see platinum-selling artists grapple with many of the same obstacles that we may face – trying to figure out that chord that sounds just right, or auditioning different tempos or drum parts until you find the one that brings the song to life.  There’s a great scene of Marcus Mumford struggling to come up with the music for “Kansas City” (probably my favorite song on the record).  It was encouraging to me to see Mumford putting in painstaking work and candidly discussing his own struggles with songwriting.  If it happens to him too, maybe we amateurs aren’t too far off the mark when we “battle” to finish a song!

The film shows many examples of how the pros develop song arrangements in the studio, experimenting with different harmonies, instrumentation, etc. to realize the song’s full potential. It was also very telling to see how the different artists interpreted the same lyrics.  Some heard a ballad; others heard an uptempo rocker.  Elvis Costello uses “a lot of chords”, comically frustrating Jim James, who admits that his songs don’t have very many chords at all!

The movie also highlights T-Bone Burnett’s role as producer.  There are some good lessons to be learned here for us bedroom-studio owners.  Since we’re often acting as our own producer (not to mention everything else) we need to be aware of the fact that this could be a barrier to the creative process, and be able to step away from the song and make decisions as the producer, not the songwriter or recording artist.  Examples could include putting our foot down and saying the performance/mix/whatever is done and we’re moving on, or setting deadlines and goals and keeping ourselves accountable to those.  Jim James states that “when you’re messing with eternity, it’s really tempting to go fix everything… to make everything perfect”.  As self-produced artists, we need to especially mindful of this trap; we must be sure we step back from the process and keep ourselves on track to finish or the project will never be done.  (Hmm…sounds like I need to take my own advice and get that first song out!)

I came away from the film with a much better understanding of the producer’s role in making a record.  Although he spends a lot of time watching and listening in the background, it’s obvious that T-Bone is the leader of this recording session.  He knows his goal with this record:  he’s not making “some classic masterpiece”; rather, he’s trying to capture the organic, homespun spirit of the original Basement Tapes.  Jim James mentions the purposefully frantic pace of the record, imposed by Burnett – the band “just barely [learns] a song and it’s done”.  When a few of the singers record a harmony part well but sing a wrong word, Burnett praises them for “enthusiastically” singing “not the right word!” Burnett knows his people and is an expert at quickly determining how to “[gracefully]” keep each one motivated and on-track (an essential leadership quality in any profession).

Burnett also serves up a healthy dose of wisdom, obviously gleaned from decades in the business: “Certainly, self-consciousness ends the creative process.  My job is to not let people get self conscious in the first place.”  (This is another great lesson for us home studio artists – don’t be derailed by your own self-consciousness!)  T-Bone guides the artist from the “infinite possibility of a song” to a finished product.  His “swagger” in the studio, obviously a product of experience and musical intelligence, is something to be studied and emulated.

A few more great quotes from the film that I found particularly inspirational or relevant:

“To really let the art have a life of its own you have to detach from it.”

“It’s really good to have the fear of failure…it’s good to be close to the edge all the time because it keeps you somewhat fresh and hungry.  …when people stop getting hungry, especially with songs, then they start writing shit songs.”

And maybe the best quote from the movie:

“When somebody is singing something into a microphone and they smile, you can hear it.”

Rock on!

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