My daughter, Carina, is having a daughter next month. In early June, a new little girl will arrive in the world. My granddaughter.
At 8 months pregnant, the size and shape of Carina’s baby are obvious—Baby Callaway is definitely in the world though not quite of it. She can hear her parents’ voices, low hums rumbling through her muted, watery world. She moves with her mother in the motions of daily life, throwing punches to keep Mama on her toes.
I used to remind myself in the last month of my 3 pregnancies: the baby is already here, just hidden on the inside!
Waiting impatiently for each of my three to burst into the world, I would sit on the side of my bed, arms wrapped around my big belly, and stare at that waiting bassinet. What an amazing journey we both had to make, to get that baby from belly to bassinet. Never knowing when or how it would go. Oh, the wonder of being a mother.
Carina is 25 and my middle child. She was in a hurry to make her journey into the world. The doctor said when we arrived for her birth,
“Were you going to have this baby in the car?”
Lately, my not-so-little girl has slowed down a bit. She has been sitting in her rocking chair beside a waiting cradle, filled with the wonder of being a mother. Preparing for something as close as her own body, yet far from her experience.
She already knows a lot about babies. Not only because she searches and researches what to expect now that she’s expecting. But also because she has cared for babies and kids since she was one herself. When her little sister, Chloe, arrived 2 years after her own birthday, Carina’s love of comforting and caring emerged. I can still see her skinny little arms encircling her baby sister. She adored Chloe from the start. Twenty-three years since have witnessed Carina’s love of baby cousins, cousin’s babies, day camp kids, and the foster children she served for several years.
With her early talking and walking and her endless questions and concerns, Carina challenged me to learn to listen well. And hone my answers to meet her scrutiny. These days, I am privileged to spend lots of time with her. Together we celebrate birthdays, holidays, but mostly everydays, enjoying life together as grown-ups. Our conversations bubble with the love and respect we have for each other. We listen and learn, asking questions and looking for answers together.
Last month for my birthday, she filled a card with words of love. Her gift was, as usual, the perfect equation of thoughtfulness + time. She had summed up her feelings for me as she sat in her daughter’s nursery. The parenting book she read as she rocked reminded her that I was the kind of mother the book described: one who would sit and listen and hold space for her, leaving room for her questions and fears.
She wrote: “I sit here in this rocking chair that soon I’ll rock Calla in, and I feel like the gift of your mothering is sitting right here with us. The love that will flow to my daughter will come from me, yes, but also from you, both in your interactions with her and in your 25 years of instilling acceptance and love into me. Thank you for that. We thank you for that.”
Now it’s her turn. Carina’s wonder at being a mother is just beginning. She and Calla will travel together, moving that baby from her belly to the cradle. Then growing that girl from an infant to a woman. And I couldn’t wish a better mom for the little one that’s coming. As Calla learns to walk and talk, Carina will jump to have an answer for the questions her daughter asks. She’ll remember that the answers don’t always add up or satisfy. She’ll have to come up with her own responses for the tough ones too hard for little kids to chew. She will likely say, “I don’t know” more than her mother did.
Most beautifully, Carina will also pause to recall all she and I have talked about across the years. She will recognize that sometimes the answers are placeholders for conversations yet to come. And in the room with the baby and the cradle and chair, she will rock and ponder ways to make space for the love and conversations to come.
Carina kept me on my toes from the first moves I felt her make. She still does. Inside and out, I have loved the gift of being her mom. I look forward to sitting and listening as she instills acceptance and love into her new daughter. And even as a grandmother, I will still feel the wonder of being a mother.
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Oh if ever you forget all of the good that you have done
Just remember that you haven’t missed a thing
You were there
You were there
And I only made it here ‘cause you were there
I wrote this song for my mother. She will turn 80 this year. I wanted to remember her and remind her of the ways in which she showed up for me.
My picture of Mom from childhood is one of constancy. I had no fear of her not being home at the end of the school bus ride or a long day playing outside.
She was always there. Even when she had to go back to work after divorcing my dad. A tough choice that she made for her 3 kids. When we were young, Mom drove us everywhere we wanted and needed to go. Whether on a one-day trip to the beach or a quick visit to the mall, she drove with steadiness and safety. I never had a doubt that we would get to where we were going.
Eventually, I went to college far from home. Even then, she drove me to and from many times. And HOME was always there. A place for me in the summer months and on holiday breaks. I never questioned whether or not I was welcome. Mom offered a bed to sleep in and food to eat. Coffee to drink and a place to think.
Mom, I honor and thank you. I wouldn’t be where I am today if you had not been there, where you always were.
“Hey, Out of the Grey, here’s your babysitter for the day,” said Ron, the road manager. The teenage boy stood at the door of our tour bus and reached to shake our hands. Gulp. My husband and I exchanged a quick glance then invited him into our home on the road. Up the steps came another test of my trust in the unfolding nature of life.
Scott and I were touring with Steven Curtis Chapman as his opening act. Our 8-month-old baby was along for the ride. Therefore, the road manager had arranged volunteer nannies at each venue so we could do a quick soundcheck, graze through catering, and play our 20-minute set.
In each town, generous people donated their time to care for our baby. They came in many shapes and ages. We often scored a wonderful middle-aged woman partial to babies and unimpressed with performers.
Occasionally, Scott and I punted the sitter for the day. Like the woman we met in the green room at an arena show. Our would-be nanny was a tough-looking lady, part of the local load-in crew. Waving her cigarette, she reached for baby Julian and told us how good she was with kids. Probably she was. We just weren’t good with smoke in our precious baby’s lungs.
“Um, we’re sorry to say we don’t need you today. But thank you for offering to help.”
However, the eager teenage boy was a toss-up. Could he take care of a baby? And why would he want to? The road manager brought him to the bus because Julian was asleep in his portable crib. We were due on stage for a soundcheck. I hesitated.
“If the baby wakes up, bring him right into the venue,” I said.
Concern crossed the boy’s face. “He might wake up?”
Ron clomped up the bus steps from the street. “Scott and Christine, they’re waiting for you. C’mon or you’ll lose your soundcheck. Doors open in 15.”
Ugh, we had to go.
Scott said to the young man, “He’ll probably keep sleeping. Christine will be back soon. Just check on him once or twice. Oh, and thanks.”
Scott and I traded worried looks as we hurried through the stage door. Singing a quick verse of a song while Scott played guitar, I got a good balance of sound in my monitor. Then I rushed back to the bus to discover the young caregiver sitting in the front lounge, tossing a cassette tape in his hands. He jumped up when he saw me, relieved. Julian had stayed asleep.
After thanking him, I said we wouldn’t need him for the rest of the evening. He held out the cassette.
“Do you think I could meet Steven Curtis Chapman and get him to sign this for me?”
I laughed. “Yes. Let me pick up the baby and you can follow us inside to find Steven.”
Trust in Life Unfolding
The song, “Unfolding,” comes to mind when I remember these scenarios. We wrote it in the throes of performing our music and raising our children. It became part of our third Out of the Grey record, Diamond Days.
How many times did I worry about my baby boy in the tumult of travel? And then our two baby girls who followed to journey with us? How many miles did I sit and stare out the window of a rolling vehicle that carried my family down another highway, wondering how this touring-artist thing would turn out? I never knew what was around the bend, waiting at the next performance, the next tour when this one ended.
However, my 2020 hindsight tells me that trusting the changing nature of life was the only way to go. The unfolding was inevitable. Better to surrender to the flow.
But I didn’t trust the unfolding much. The erratic character of road life made me anxious. I longed for predictable patterns and solvable puzzles. Also, I needed my kids to be safe and have the best situation for their growth. My desire to impact the lives of others, to be engaged in the great adventure, added to my angst. The tour bus window, wide as it was, only framed a small stretch of sky. Sometimes, I couldn’t see beyond mere survival.
The years rolled on. Scott and I eventually hired nannies who rode the buses with us when they weren’t helping at home while we worked on another record. These dear ladies also became dear friends. Eventually, the added miles and experiences subtracted from my stress. I kept my eyes and my mind open. Companions in cramped buses and audiences in wide venues showed me I was playing a good part, in my children’s lives and in the lives of others. My clenched fist unfolded a bit.
The Changing Nature of Life
In the upheaval of touring, my questions to God were always: How does each soul fit into the big picture? Can You really care for me, my family, and each stranger we meet along the way? From the middle of my tiny story, I scanned the horizon for the grander scheme.
Now that I’m off the road, I volunteer as a babysitter for my grandson. Watching my grown son and his wife work on their version of the unfolding story, I know they know how the future gets done. They try to live the moments one by one. May they trust their small choices and acts of love that add up to compose the bigger picture.
As a fifty-something, my energy for engaging the wider world is flagging. But I continue to ask the big questions: Can I still have an impact, make a splash in my little pond? Believing it is possible, I write. I write to the young adults puzzling it out as I did almost three decades ago. I write for the older folks, too, who wonder at their purpose and position in Creation.
My hope and prayer are that we may all enjoy life now, trust in its unfolding nature, its steady, relentless stream. We cannot see our impact in our small stretches of imagination, but we always have a part in the grandeur of the grander scheme unfolding.
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I am always running out of time. Trying to get away from hurry and worry.
Hurry is the currency of productivity. I race to accomplish as much as I can in a day. However, the older I get, the less I like the chase. Lately, I’d rather say no to appointments and opportunities and shout yes to wide margins that make room for rest and reflection.
Why is it so hard to not be busy?
Worry has always been a part of my life. It operates on the battlefield of past mistakes and future hazards; a skirmish between if only and what if. My mind tries to battle it out. You’ll find my heart there in the middle, wounded in the cross-fire.
Why do I engage in the struggle?
Imagine the miracle of suspending the flood of bullets, as Neo does in the Matrix. When slow motion is an option, I’m all over it! Outside of time, I drink in this sublime sip of wine.
A Lovely Here and Now
When I’m not careful, Time sweeps me up on her wide lap and tells me gruesome stories of the past. As I try to escape her grip, she squeezes my wrist and whispers the worst is yet to come.
I have occasionally escaped into the enchanted forest of Timelessness where I rest my head on the mossy feet of wise old trees. They speak the language of long, slow exhalations. They tell the stories of feathers and feet that whisper by when stillness lingers. I believe in this moment.
Is it too good to be true?
My Place Apart
Actually, my enchanted spot is the plastic Adirondack chair on my mossy lawn. A full array of cushions for my comfort, feet bare to the earth, I breathe long and deep.
I listen for the small voices of birds and bugs that tell me to be mindfully present. I toss my to-do‘s to the wind and let the weather dictate my schedule.
I like lists and schedules. They keep me sane. They capture part of the swirling cloud of “musts” and “shoulds,” keeping it in a safe place lest I lose my mind. Yet, lists and schedules tend to paralyze me, leaving no wiggle room for the muses to come and play.
When writing this song, I sat at my piano and experimented with a kind of cyclical melody. I wanted it to feel like a soap bubble blooming from a child’s wand into the calm. Barely a breeze as it lifts and tilts and floats up and out of sight. A quiet meditation, an open-mouthed gape.
I asked my son, Julian, to produce this and the other new songs I had written. He said yes! so I sent him my rough demos. They were recordings of me plodding through the chords on my piano while singing into my smartphone. Not very inspiring.
It’s a tricky business for a producer to dig out and polish the gems his artist assures him are there. Julian found mine and some extras of his own. He helped create a project I am proud to call ours. (He also dealt well with Mom-as-Artist and Mom-as-Mom.)
Julian has been making music since he was a few years old. Growing up in studios and on the road, he didn’t have much choice. Jules, as we call him, has developed his talent by playing in lots of bands and also writing and recording his own music. He graced my songs with his years of musical experience and the innate sensibilities that words cannot capture. Only his artistry does.
Notice the very cool rhythms and counter-melodies he wove into the music. He played and programmed everything on the recordings, too. You’ll also hear his voice in some of the backing vocals.
In Running Out of Time, Julian took the time to create the wide musical spaces of breathless suspense. Makes me want to go and live in the moment for a while.
— If you are like me, your parents were far from perfect.
— If you are like me, you’re realizing that you have much less control of how your kids turn out than you thought.
When you’re in the middle of raising kids, trying to provide food and a roof, not to mention an education, how do you do it well?
All the parenting books you read can’t get under your skin enough to scrape out some deeply ingrained flaws. Will you transmit them to your kids? Are there any parenting essentials you’re missing?
You probably already know this but here goes:
Great parenting begins with the parents’ relationship.
3 Relationship Essentials
You can do a lot to become a great parent and mitigate the effects of your imperfections and ignorance about child-raising. You can:
DEAL with your history
WORK hard on your marriage
Make GRACE the guiding spirit of your home
Take an honest look at the baggage you’ve individually brought to the marriage relationship.
After that, share with each other what you’ve discovered.
Now that you’ve acknowledged what you’re both dealing with, let grace find its place in the center of your relationship and home.
Let me tell you a very short story. I recall one tender moment when my dad hugged my mom and she hugged him back.
I was maybe 8 years old. My heart wanted to explode with joy and a sense of well-being in that moment. It had nothing to do with me but I still remember them in the dining room doorway more clearly than many other memories I have.
It was a rare show of love and acceptance between my parents. If they had cared for each other this way on a daily basis, my childhood would have been a completely different story. Their broken relationship impacted me more than the hundreds of parenting mistakes they made.
But where did their brokenness come from?
My mom grew up with some family dysfunction which she never dealt with as a child or as an adult. My dad had his own traumas and personal impairments which he tried to drown in alcohol. They brought these hidden forces to their marriage, which was a train wreck waiting to happen.
At the start, Mom and Dad had very few tools for maintaining their relationship. With 3 kids in quick succession and Dad’s desire for autonomy not going anywhere, their break-up 13 years later was inevitable.
Forty years after the fact, I am still feeling the effects of that crash.
Long Story Short
If you are like me, you’ve seen a lot of marriages going off the rails. Maybe yours is one of them. You may think the kids in these situations are too young or too busy to be affected by carefully hidden flaws and faults. We may hope they don’t notice the broken parts of us driving us toward total derailment.
But they did. And they do.
From the outside looking in, others sometimes spot the problems in the relationship long before the parents do. Hard to miss the disconnect between the story they are telling and the way they are living. Their body language says more than their words. Likewise, his extra drinks and her bitter jokes make us want to brace for impact.
Children riding on this crazy train know something is wrong, too. They may be too young to register in cohesive thoughts but their bodies and souls know it. Their cells vibrate in the fear and anger frequencies of Mother simmering in the kitchen. Father’s baloney smells up the house whether he’s selling it on the phone or right there in the living room.
If you are like me, you’ve had or have a few blindspots of your own in parenting.
My husband and I have 3 grown-up kids who’ve told us what it was like to be on board when Dad and Mom were conducting their lives like crazy people.
Some of the disconnects? Too much fear in the decision-making. A little too heavy on the helicopter parenting. Not enough practicing of what we preached. Just a couple of dumb thirty-somethings acting like we knew everything.
As a homeschooling mom, I’d thought my nurture plus their “perfect” education would equal all kinds of easy for them. Turns out they borrowed some of my baggage and even added some pieces of their own. No magic formulas.
Notwithstanding the personal flaws we must own apart from our parents’ influence, what hope do we have with so much history to overcome?
1. First Parenting Essentials: Name and Release Your Elephants
Your number one priority is to DEAL with the forces that have shaped you. Each marriage has two individuals who bring some baggage to the bedroom, living room, and kitchen.
When we acknowledge and name the elephants in the room, they begin to shrink and find their rightful places. Then we can send them on their way to a sanctuary for worn-out animals.
My husband and I each lumbered into our relationship encumbered with our fathers’ alcohol addictions and our mothers’ anxiety. It took us awhile to begin dissecting and dismantling their effects even as we were raising our three children.
Recovery groups, counseling, bravery, and honesty gave us the traction we needed for growing up as grown-ups.
(I offer a small disclaimer: our work is never done. I think I will be working on growing up until the day I die.)
2. Next Parenting Essentials: Get to Work on Your Marriage!
The saying goes, if you are coasting, then you’re going downhill.
How parents relate to each other is of utmost importance. If kids know Mom and Dad are solid, they walk their own paths with a bit more confidence. If kids can trust the love Dad and Mom have for each other, they are likely to trust in their own ability to love and be loved.
But we married people know that stress and time can jangle the nerves and loosen the love we once had for each other. We are going to have to work at it if it’s going to last. No matter what the movie stars say, I say we’d better get some good tools for the long haul. Gotta keep the wheels greased because the friction is inevitable.
Get counseling. Ask hard questions. Tell hard truths and don’t be so defensive!
You’ve got this because people have been making marriages work for a long time. Find those people and ask them how it can possibly be done! Put lots of tools in your marriage tool box and then use them.
3. More Parenting Essentials: Grace is a Superpower
GRACE is essential for any lasting relationship. It is impossible to have a good marriage and solid family life without that 5-letter word for getting more than you deserve. Gifts for the bratty. Kisses for the prickly people.
The reason for hope even if you think you’ve already done too much damage:
— Grace is a superpower.
— Grace works forwards and backwards, bending and softening the boundaries of space and time.
— Grace hangs out with other commendable characters like Mercy and Humility.
“I’m sorry,” “forgive me,” “I forgive you,” and “I love you” are their constant conversation.
These 3 characters can mend a multitude of wrongs. Their love steps back over time boundaries and transforms what once was bad into the shape of a blessing. They move magically through space, waving wands that heal wounds and turn scars into touchstones for others.
I have a friend whose 25 year marriage should have been history 10 years in. Her name isn’t Grace but it should be. Her response to his adultery, after her initial shock and anguish, was an attitude of “let’s start over from here.”
Instead of condemning him and leaving, my friend stayed. She offered forgiveness and grace in huge quantities. She began to look at her part in the mess. And together, they began the slow and painful work of sifting through their baggage in the wreckage.
Grace, mercy, and humility permeate their home to this day because together, they found — and still find — a way to stay. This has had an immeasurable impact on their children.
End of Story
If I had refused to look at the sickness I brought to my marriage 30 years ago, would I be married today?
If I had refused to compromise and not let my husband’s needs and desires soften my hard edges, where would we be now?
If I had let resentment and un-forgiveness simmer in my kitchen, would the smell and stench have overwhelmed the entire household?
Yes, our kids did get some of the brokenness their mom and dad brought to the relationship. However, the honesty we brought to our struggles, the work we did separately and together, and the grace we gave each other on a daily basis were like fresh layers of blacktop. They smoothed over some of the roughest bumps on the road.
It’s OK if you are already in the midst of parenting. Even if your kids are grown, there’s hope because it’s never too late to work on relationships. Being honest and humble with our grown up kids keeps the door open for unexpected graces to drop by.
Here’s what I’m saying: Great parenting is not easy, pretty, or tied up in a lovely bow. But it’s good, solid, and strong. Like a sturdy train on a steel track with a gentle grade.
In this song, I sing about change as something that comes quickly for some but slowly for me, like the slow changes hidden inside a caterpillar pupa.
Aren’t you glad I didn’t sing that word, ‘pupa?’
Instead, I chose the slightly-less-awkward ‘chrysalis,’ which is what entomologists call the hard case where the transformation from caterpillar to butterfly takes place.
Entomologists say it is the stage of the life cycle in which the caterpillar’s body tissues break down and the butterfly’s tissues form. I can relate.
I am a Chrysalis.
Here in my middle age, I feel somewhere between young and old, breaking from foolishness and moving into wisdom. In this transitional phase, my growth toward maturity is hidden inside a rigid little case.
I witness no wizening even when using my magic magnification mirror. I only see the imperfections of the specimen. It can be frustrating at best. Infuriating at worst.
Looking For Change
I enjoy uncovering the origin of words — their etymology — so I surfed a few sites and found out that ‘chrysalis’ means ‘gold’ in Greek and Latin, which refers to the gold sheen of some butterfly cases.
I envy etymologists who get to study words and their histories all day long. Digging up meaning like precious metals, they reveal the richness of the words we inherit.
Having gone through the metamorphosis of time and human use, words become tools for transmitting vivid and multi-faceted messages, implications, interpretations or connotations. See what I mean?
They shine a light on the mundane parts of life.
In my case, I feel kind of unremarkable — rather ordinary. Getting older has lots of advantages but I have a love/hate relationship with it. Being somewhat invisible shakes me to my foundations.
I’m opaque as a butterfly chrysalis. But I am becoming free to change shape. And when the light is just right, there’s a golden sheen on me with hints of my future in the midst of my incompleteness.
Finding Freedom to Change
My husband and I are officially empty-nesters this year. Our youngest, Chloe, is about to graduate college and her summers of coming home are over.
Parents have experienced this change in every generation. My mom suffered through it. But now it’s my turn and it is all new to me. I imagine I should be better at adapting. But like the cooling temperatures signaling the season’s change, these shifts surprise me every time. I don’t want to say goodbye to summer.
When I reflect on this shift, a sadness settles over me. Like birds gathering in the trees, it’s a slow dawning that something’s coming, something else. Could it be something good, as precious as the past?
Change Is Good
On a recent August morning, Chloe and I were on the lawn enjoying the bugs, birds, and butterflies we love so much. It was her 21st birthday. She was visiting from her college town in which she’d decided to live for the summer.
We sat under the trees with our coffee and I cried: about her being 21 and me seeing the time slip by. I wasn’t trying to make her to feel bad. I was setting my emotions free instead of bottling them up.
Besides, part of our relationship is the safety of us taking turns crying together.
Signs of Change
I see myself in the mirror of His face
Reflecting imperfection but the change is taking place
This for some comes fast and furious
For me it’s slow and hidden in the chrysalis
I used to journal regularly. I have discontinued this practice because of what happened whenever I read back a few years: I would discover that nothing was different — I wasn’t changing, but writing about the same issues over and over. It felt pathetic and made me mad. I let a few diaries fly across the room.
I know I am not truly stalled in my evolution into God’s perfect design for me. It just feels suffocating to grow older with no cracking open. I don’t feel any wings forming back there. Just those tense, bony shoulders rising up around my ears.
Every now and again, though, there’s a little flutter in my stomach. My prayers and petitions for positive change have made a difference in me.
Like when I haven’t worried about my kids for days on end.
Or when my first thought is love for my neighbor even when she’s less-than-friendly to me.
Or when I feel gratitude for an empty house because there’s more room for rest and reflection.
Or when I recognize my particular suffering as necessary and even good.
These tiny signs of life are moving through my soul and finding their way out. I’m not bottling them up. Thanks to the entomologists and etymologists, I’ve got lovely metaphors for the changes taking place. I’ve got butterflies inside. Lifting from my lips, they learn to fly.
I am always so excited to be in the process of recording new music. Unrecorded songs seem small and shapeless in their infancy. When I handed these 5 new songs of mine, just tiny demo recordings on my phone, to my producer, I recalled this process from years gone by.
Every record that Scott and I worked on together, whether as Out of the Grey or my solo projects, began in this way. Baby songs ready to be born and begin to grow up. What fun when players and producers and engineers join the mix. It was exciting to see what my babies would grow up to be. They just need some extra love and attention to make them grow.
Perils of Vulnerability and Creativity
Songwriting is fraught with the perils of vulnerability and creativity. The hardest part of the process is the initial sharing what I’ve done with others. Others who have their opinions and judgements and their own creative ideas. In song meetings with the record labels, I felt like I was lining up my children for scrutiny. Do you like this one? Isn’t this other one amazing? No, you want to move on to the next one already? The producer would then have his say on how best to dress the chosen ones before launching them into the world. It was exciting and exhausting too. I have a chapter in my book Lifelines all about the recording process.
New Music With a New Producer
This time the situation is a bit different. I do not have a record label. What I do have is a new producer with lots of new ideas.
I know him as Julian Dente.
He is my firstborn and he grew up in the studio, on the road, and at home making music. These days he’s a young man recording his own new songs and adding brilliant touches of creativity to the world.
I decided to hire him before he gets too busy to work with me. He co-wrote and produced 3 songs on the most recent Out of the Grey recording called A Little Light Left. I love his sonic style and I think you will too. The tracks are done and the music is exclusively digital. You can download them here or find all 5 on Spotify and Google music.
P.S. Julian definitely has his opinions and judgements and suggestions for making my songs better. How can I stop being Mom and let him tell me what to do for once? This is getting a bit tricky!
The “Bubble Girl” song is from the latest Out of the Grey album titled, A Little Light Left, by Christine and Scott Dente.
Click here to see the lyrics or view them at the bottom of this page.
Bubble Girl #1
This girl is an amalgam of sorts. Parts of our 2 daughters and our 6 nieces combine to form the lead character of this song. Chloe, our youngest, was the first inspiration for this idea. When our oldest daughter, Carina, was 16 years old and thinking about college, she, Chloe and I visited a few universities within driving distance of our home in Nashville, Tennessee. One of these was a small Christian college only 100 miles away.
The lovely campus impressed us as did the friendly professors and students. But something was bothering Chloe, then only 14. Something about the atmosphere of the place. “It feels like a bubble,” she said. She was referring to the monochromatic buildings and rooms which seemed a bit stuffy and a little too perfect. Also, the combination of the isolated campus and the compulsory chapel attendance added to the constricted atmosphere.
Later, while driving home, Chloe added that the student body did not look very diverse. She did not think this college would give Carina a chance to interact with a variety of people. I was surprised at how much she had absorbed in such a short visit. Yet Chloe did and does have an acute sensitivity to such things. Carina ended up at a different Christian college after graduation and Chloe, two years later, went to a medium-sized state university. Even there she felt the “bubble” at times and often left campus to meet her need for diversity by interacting with little kids and older people.
Bubble Girl #2
My second inspiration to write this song came from a painting by my niece, Maggie. She is my sister’s youngest daughter and her painting, as you can see on the right, depicts a beautiful girl encased in a blue drop of water. Her hair is sweeping upward as she sinks downward, blowing bubbles as she goes.
When I first saw this watercolor, I tried to imagine how teenage girls must feel at times. The girl in the painting evoked isolation and loneliness, like someone cut off from the bigger world. To me, she was a young girl wondering what life held for her. Like a drop in the pond or a frog on a frond, this girl in the teardrop, blowing bubbles with her eyes closed, might be imagining a bigger world.
Maggie’s painting was a poignant image for me although I may have read more into it than she intended. In fact, “Bubble Girl” is my title, not hers.
Bubble Girl #3
Some of my other nieces seemed to be in a hurry to grow up, graduate and get out of the house. I remember myself as a teenager, always looking for what was next instead of enjoying the here and now of being a kid.
It seemed to me these young ladies wanted to leave home before knowing what was on the other side of the gate. I saw a rocky place ahead. Did they see a sweet escape instead?
I wanted to slow them down, tell them that growing up comes soon enough. Unfortunately, most of us don’t have ears to hear beyond the moment in which we are living. Especially teenagers. How can she know what she don’t know? She’s gonna find what she’s gonna find.
Bubble Girl #4
Another perspective for the song came from the fact that all of these girls were mostly educated at home. Homeschooling parents often operate from a protective and — dare I say — controlling nature. I will speak for myself: I didn’t want my kids to grow up too quickly and get stained by the world any sooner than necessary. Like most parents, homeschooler or otherwise, I wanted to keep them safe and delay the inevitable crashing on the rocks. (Also, I think education is about so much more than most schools are offering these days but that’s another story.)
On the other hand, the stigma of being different has affected my kids and my sister’s and brother’s kids in some negative ways. In writing Bubble Girl, I attempted to see the many dimensions of the bubble beyond my limited perspective. Those girls are mostly grown up now and are making their splashes in the world on many different shores. If I had to live it all again with them, I would definitely change a few things. If I could cure loneliness and alienation and help in the search for significance and connection, I would do it! I But at the end of the day, I would still be saying, “take your time, take your time.”
Have you ever wondered how the finished vocals that you hear on a recording can sound so flawless?
Do you stand amazed at the perfect pitch most singers seem to have these days compared to, say, recordings from the ’60’s and ’70’s when the singer occasionally went sharp or flat?
Maybe you’ve already heard about tuning the vocals and other tricks toward perfection, thanks to the age of digital recording.
There’s another tool for optimal finished vocals that I have used when recording my songs. It’s called vocal comping and I want to describe how it works. But first, a few definitions:
Lead vocals: the recording of the singer singing the song several times, usually toward the end of the recording process.
Takes: the individual recorded vocal tracks, saved digitally for later use
Tracks: separate recordings of instruments and voices saved digitally
Tape: the old medium for recording our first Out of the Grey records in which sound did actually ‘go to tape’ that could hold multiple and separate tracks of recorded information. Now recording is mostly digital/computer-based.
Tuning: auto-tune iscomputer software that can correct pitches digitally with minute precision. Sometimes this is used as an effect in itself, creating that robotic, digital vocal sound in pop music.
As I described in my previous blog about singing lead vocals, I usually sing the song from start to finish between 5 and 10 times, after my voice is warmed up. I will warm up somewhat before entering the vocal booth but mostly my voice hits its groove when I sing on the microphone as the engineer works on getting the best sound.
Recently, I recruited my son, Julian, to produce 5 new songs I’ve written. We started recording my lead vocals after he had created instrumental tracks for the songs. He did this by programming some parts using his computer and also by playing and recording keyboard and electric guitar parts. Putting this all together from the song demos I had given him, he made some beautiful music.
The photo above shows us after recording multiple takes of me singing the entire song along with his tracks. (Julian was both producer and recording engineer in this part of the process.)
In singing the leads, I usually perform the song in much the same way for the first several takes. After I feel I’ve gotten what I want from the song, I use the next takes for experimenting. I’ll try changing up the rhythm of a word or phrase, knowing I might want an alternative to the way I initially sing it. Maybe I’ll try a slight melodic change to add flavor and choices for the next phase of the process. Julian will suggest changes as well.
After this, we have a sense of whether or not we’ve recorded what we need for the lead. For example, I know I keep singing that word “things” flat and out of time. I’ll sing it again and he’ll punch me in on just that word, recording only that split second in the midst of the phrase.
As another example, he may tell me that a melody I’m singing doesn’t seem to work with the guitar part. We may go back and try a slightly different melody a few times, finding one that fits. Here’s a 24-second video of us listening in the Dente home studio.
Vocal Comping means compiling all of the recorded vocal tracks to create the best lead vocal on one track. The final performance could come from mostly one track. It may have had a lot of good elements because the singer was in ‘the zone’ on that one particular take. Or the lead vocal could be created from bits and pieces of multiple takes, cut and pasted together with ease on the computer.
Listening through to 5 or more takes plus any extra verses and choruses can be tedious. However, there is usually gold buried in the layers and now it’s time to dig it out. Sometimes the singer is happy to leave and leave the comping up to the producer and engineer. Julian and I decided to do the comping together right after we recorded all of the lead vocals on my song, Butterflies Inside. Listening to the takes line by line, we made quick decisions about whether or not it was a good performance.
Usually, I use a printed lyric sheet to mark up and keep track of what words and lines sounded good on the track we are listening to. This time, however, Julian and I each started with a blank page and blocked out the verses and choruses using columns for 4 or 5 takes in a very loose grid.
As you can see in exhibit A to the left, it’s a shorthand way to listen and make quick decisions. I used X’s to say, “no way, that sounded terrible!” and I used a √ to say, “hey, maybe….” I circled some words I thought were good in the midst of a phrase that was not a keeper.
Sometimes Julian and I agreed perfectly on which track had the best line in this or that part of the lyric. Other times he had an entirely different idea of what was good. He might choose a phrase that I thought less-than-perfect but he wanted to keep it for its tone or its texture.
Julian would cut and paste as we went through the song, comping our favorite performances together. For example, perhaps the first verse used most lines from track one with a few words pasted in from track 5. The chorus may be more pieced together because I sang it inconsistently. Verse 2 saw a good performance all the way through track 4 so that’s a keeper.
He put it all together as we went, using software magic and engineering skills like cut-and-paste and crossfades. The finished lead vocal track became (almost) the polished performance that we hear in our stereo speakers. Next, come the background vocals. More about that later.
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Have you heard about background vocals or BGV’s for short?
Back Ground Vocals are often the final task and one of the hardest parts of the recording process. Once the artist, producer, and players have recorded all of the tracks, the overdubs, and the lead vocals (read my blog post here ), and after they have comped the lead vocals (read that blog post here), BGV’s become the finishing touches.
They answer the question, “What else does this song need?”
Because that answer is elusive, the decision on how many background parts to add and where in the song they should be added becomes all important.
Making It Up
I imagine adding BGV’s to a song is like a woman dressing for an evening out.
After choosing her clothing carefully, fixing her hair to perfection, she makes the final touches by putting on make-up to enhance her beauty without it drawing attention to itself. Too much color here and it draws our eyes to that particular instead of the whole face. Her make-up should complement and not compete with her beauty.
Accordingly, BGV’s should serve the beauty of the song without attracting too much attention to themselves.
Backing It Up
I’m a big fan of singing background vocals. It’s so much fun! In fact, I have sung background vocals on my own solo projects as well as our seven Out of the Grey recordings. Also, I’ve sung on commercials and other artists’ projects. Given my experience with BGV’s, I’ll explain the process with a few categories:
Call and Response
1. Doubling the lead vocals is quite common and you’ve heard it without knowing it. What happens is this: the singer sings along with their lead vocal, matching their own melody and inflection as closely as possible.
This recorded double fattens the sound of the lead vocal track. Because this new track is almost identical (if the double is really good) but not perfect, it adds a great effect heard in lots of pop music. For example, in All We Need from the Out of the Grey Diamond Days record, the chorus lifts because of the doubled lead in addition to the harmonies.
2. Stacking the vocals means adding more than just a double to a certain vocal track. Some stacks are 3 or 4 or even more separate tracks of the same melody being sung. This creates a very big sound but can also detract from the lead vocal itself.
Stacks are most often used to form a layered sound that vibrates beneath and supports the lead vocals. Here’s an example of a stack-happy lead vocal: “The One I’ve Been Waiting For.”
3. Vocal Pads are often “ooh’s” and “ah’s” that the background vocalist sings and stacks with layered harmonies. These thick pads of sound often underpin the lead vocals. They fill out the sonic landscape and support the lead vocals. The chorus of “Not A Chance” has some nice ‘ahh’s’ for padding.
4. Harmonies are those vocal parts that the singer adds beneath or above the melody. They are often just a single track and grab a line or two of a verse. We find a lot of single harmonies in pop song verses.
For the choruses, producers commonly add more harmony parts as the song builds. This creates dynamic growth and interest, especially in the out-choruses at the end of a pop song. In “All We Need” and “Steady Me,” I added high harmonies in the choruses.
In “Bubble Girl,” from the latest Out of the Grey CD A Little Light Left, I am singing low harmonies in the second verse which subtly enhance that part of the song. Notice how low the volume is on these harmonies so as to be an underpinning and not a distraction.
Summing It Up
For me, singing BGV’s is an exciting part of the recording process. I like the challenge of blending with my own vocals. Also, when I am invited to sing for other artists or commercials, I get the chance to test my skills in a different way, like matching another’s voice or singing the parts exactly as the producer directs. I especially enjoy the final result: a finished song that was nonexistent before the start of the recording process.
Thanks for listening! READ NEXT: categories 5, 6 & 7 from the list above, BGV’s Part 2