The Art of Song Selection

When decided upon the song that ultimately were recorded on my CDs there were no shortage of songs that continue to be strong contenders for me to record some day.

Cover song options that continued to entice me include: Table of Plenty by Dan Schutte, Saving Power of God, Lift Up Your Hearts, and Psalm 51 by Roc O’Connor, Emanuel and I Lift Up My Soul by Tim Manion, All the Earth Proclaim God’s Glory by Bobby Fisher, Rejoice With Joyful Song by Ault, Daigle, and Ducote, Christ Will Be Your Light, You are the Voice and Magnificat by David Haas, Yours Today by Rory Cooney, Touch the Earth by Kathy Sherman. (I keep thinking of new ones whenever I read this list). Some of these have been on past short lists and later dropped for one reason or another as I tend to be very meticulous in vetting material. A few of these I have since included in my live shows.

While there are still many great songs I could record, there aren’t many left that I feel strongly compelled to record. There’s only so many songs that can fit on a CD, 18 or so, but I prefer to limit myself to 15. It takes a lot of work (and money) to record each song, so picking the right material is a necessarily thorough process with ongoing reconsiderations. I will now elaborate on this process.

For Illumination, picking the songs was mostly brainstorming what songs I really liked from memory: ones I had often sung as a solo at church services and ones we no longer did that I really missed doing. For Inspiration, the process was more about exploring the repertoires of composers I liked, listening to their CDs, and discovering or rediscovering good songs.

Inevitably though, if you rely on the cannon of songs you already know from your own choristing past, however vast, you run the risk of tapping out all the “A list material” and then having to pick among the ones that didn’t make the previous cut to build the new CD’s tracklist. It does happen from time to time though that either I’ll discover a new song or maybe it’s an old one that for some reason I see in a new light and it grabs me whereas I might have overlooked it before.

It cuts both ways: material that I’ve known for many years has an edge over something I just heard because that familiarity and history with a song gives me a stronger connection, but on the other hand, a song I’ve sung for decades won’t seem so fresh to me. Usually the songs we’ve known for many years we know because we’ve sung them at church. As such, chances are that it wasn’t always done as good as it could be and that might prejudice you against a song. The same lacklustre song you’ve been singing at church can sound quite captivating when recorded in the studio, so you have to see the potential in a song even if it’s often been butchered in your local parish.

Inversely, it’s likely that that new song that caught your ear you first heard off a CD recorded professionally by the composer. And here the danger is that the fancy studio arrangements might make you really like the song but when you look at the sheet music you see there’s not much substance. And unless you can match the original recording then it will just seem like an inferior remake. So again, you have to see past the flashy presentation of a song to see the potential of the song.

One rule I’ve come up with is that a good song is one that would still sound great if it was ‘a capella’ (voices only). If in its most naked form the song is still alluring then it’s a good choice. Then the trick is to give it an arrangement that enhances the song’s quality without losing the soul of it with too much instruments and such. Some songs call for lots of instruments and some don’t. The key to making good music is to provoke an emotional reaction in the listener, so the musical arrangement should always have that aim.

Choosing songs to record in the studio involves a different set of considerations than if you were just making a mix-CD of your favourite recordings by others. Your favourite songs might not be the best ones for you to attempt yourself. It’s also different than making a set list for a choir performance. For that you’d prefer songs that were meant for 4-part choir accompanied by maybe only a guitar and piano. In the studio, you have the luxury of more instruments and might prefer songs with more advanced structures than the regular sing-along hymn. And you are probably going to be working with far fewer voices than a choir and thus it will be more intimate, more of a solo performance than what a choir would do.

Often the key to selecting a song to record is thus not merely what songs you like and think sound good when done by others, but rather what songs you can do well yourself. Maybe one song really suits your voice while another, however amazing, isn’t well suited to your vocal ability, range, style etc. You might pick one song because you have some original take on it or know you could do it better than how you usually hear it done, including the original studio version.

My usual litmus test thus is “does this song have special meaning for me?”, which could mean the words really connect to me or that it’s a song that I have some history with, and “can I do something with it?”, meaning can I do it well or do it in some original way that sets it apart from the many other versions already in existence?

Ideally, I like to have my CD cover a wide range of styles. This reflects my own eclectic tastes but it’s a strategic move in two ways. By having a wide range of style it increases the chances that listeners will find something they like and also it gives me a chance to sing in different styles thus not pigeon-holing myself to one specific style. But while I might think it would be nice to do a song in a specific style, I prefer not to fall into the trap of ‘tokenism’.

What I mean by that is like if one day I thought I should do a song in specific style to give more diversity to the album and then I go trying to find a song that fits that bill. I would much rather each song have its own compelling reason to be recorded by its own merits. The song should just seem an obvious choice, like it wants to be chosen, rather than me hunting around trying to find one to be a token representation of a given style. For the same reason I wouldn’t want to look for a specific kind of song just because it might appeal to one group of listeners. I’m not going to use a focus group approach to my music.

At the end of the day, it’s unlikely your CD will please everyone, so you should at least make sure your songs appeal to yourself. Of course you hope other people will also enjoy them and so you do pick good material and do the best you can with that. A lot of time, energy and money goes into each song, so you really do have to have your heart in it and really believe in the songs. It’s hard to fake that for a song you only included because someone suggests a particular age group might like it. While there is a commercial side to music, in so far as you will have to sell those CDs after they’ve been manufactured, it is, hopefully, still primarily about art. And your art has to come from your heart. So your song choices have to come from your heart.

As studio operator Armando Prini told me when I was debating song choices: “Do the song if it speaks to your heart.”

(updated February 11 2018)

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