Sink or Swim: The Story

I was kind of in a panic on the plane from Boston to Nashville. I was scheduled to record with one of my favorite singer-songwriters, Matthew Perryman Jones, in less than 24 hours, but I was still missing a few lines. The music to Sink or Swim, on the other hand, came easily - it was one of those songs that came all at once, with the chords lined up where they’re supposed to be, and the melody just waiting for the right words to fill in the blanks.

But in this case, the blanks remained, mocking my every effort to fill them in. Pacing back and forth in my hotel room that night, I scribbled down a mess of jumbled words and scattered rhymes, but still, nothing - I knew what I wanted to say, but I didn’t know the easiest way to say it. I made a frantic call to both my older brothers—they’ve always pulled through for me in the eleventh hour—but this time even they didn’t have the answers. I was on my own. It was my first time in Nashville, let alone my first time recording there, and there was only one day of studio time booked for the following morning, so I was definitely feeling the pressure.

When I woke up and plugged the studio address into the GPS, I certainly wasn’t expecting to drive up to a quaint suburban home in Nashville’s East Side. But past the Subaru in the driveway and the miniature-sized basketball hoop, the backyard housed a small, but well equipped studio belonging to Cason Cooley. A self-taught Nashville producer, he’s churned out some of my favorite songs from artists like Katie Herzig and William Fitzsimmons, and produced Matthew Perryman Jones’ own album ‘Land of the Living’ (among countless others).

I had no idea who my bandmates for the day would be, what seasoned Nashville musicians Matthew had put together, but I knew I was in good hands. The first hour Matthew and I worked out a few kinks in the bridge section, while Cason flipped on his racks of compressors and preamps and set up a few mics. By the second hour, we were up and running, laying down the foundation tracks - a simple kick and snare beat to work from, and scratch guitars and vocals before the drummer, Nashville all star Billy Brimblecom (real name), was scheduled to come in at noon.

A few hours later, with the drum tracks nailed in a handful of takes, Tyler Burkam, a session guitarist fresh off touring with Mat Kearney, came and set up his array of pedals and vintage Orange amp and layered on about 10 tracks worth - ambient shimmering sounds more reminiscent of a synth, chords big enough to fill an arena, and a few notes that rang out in just the right way.

 By 6:00 pm, Cason was adding in his own layers - hammering piano chords, side by side with ornamental notes meticulously placed every here and there, and started fine tuning things before I could track the last part, my vocals. But I still didn’t have those last few words.

 With my nerves rattling, I put my headphones on, closed my eyes,  listened to the click of the snare, and started singing. And just like that, as though they were there all along, the words finally showed up, exactly what I needed them to be. No fancy metaphors, no clever wordplay - just a simple reminder of what the song is all about: the idea that sometimes the only way to face up to our own worst fears is to stare them in the face and jump straight in, without looking back.

Sometimes, I suppose it’s the only way to get by.

Dan Kaplan