More Than You Likely Wanted To Know About How Some Guy Puts Together An Album


My name is Nathan Mathes and I’m an indie-folk-rock-singer-songwriter from Green Bay, Wisconsin. I’ve been making music in and around the Green Bay area for about 20 years. I’ve probably written a couple hundred songs--a few of them have been pretty good. For about the last six years I’ve been doing my solo thing, writing and recording on my own in my basement studio. I released my first solo album, American Whitecaps, in 2010, and have since released four more albums: Roselawn, Recs, Bellwether. Arbutus, and Libet.

Following the release of
Libet, in early 2014, I immediately set to work on a follow-up album. The original plan was for the album lyrics to be comprised entirely from “found” sources: lyrical snippets and influence taken from movies, books, television, podcasts, and other music--I had a handful of tracks already recorded in this style by the summer of that year. But that plan was slightly derailed with the arrival of my wife’s and my first child, Julian, in the fall of 2014 and, along with him, a new perspective on just about everything.

The addition of a child brings about monumental changes for any individual, any couple, no doubt. But the adjustment for an artist, one used to spending all his free time dedicated to his craft and his artistic pursuits, has to be a greater challenge than for the general public. That’s how I figured it, anyway. It was this struggle to come to terms with and redefine that artist part of myself that became the other theme of this new album.

And so, Anajune Rival, which has just been released, is the culmination of nearly two years’ work. Time spent writing and recording, preparing for a child, writing and recording again, having a child, then adjusting to a new and crazy lifestyle before finally finishing the album. Two years is a long time, and waiting this long to release a new album was not the plan. But, as John Lennon once said, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”



Whenever I set out to release a new album, the first step is always songwriting--you have to have songs to put out an album. My original plan for the album that has become Anajune Rival was to write enough songs to be able to record and release a double album. I even taped up a motivational reminder in my studio saying “Make Your White Album.” My goal was to write and record thirty songs, then trim that number to about twenty-five for a double album. I ended up writing about twenty-five songs, recording about twenty, and settling on eleven.

For me, the process of songwriting is a mysterious one. I think of writing songs less like the building of a house, and more like an archaeological discover: you’re unearthing something that is already there but is waiting to be found and shared with the world. As a songwriter, I feel I’m more of a vehicle or vessel than a builder. I’m a radio that is able to tune into this pre-existing song-cloud, this song-ether. At times I’m able to pluck out something decent from this cloud. Other times not.

To make a song I need two components: words, and melody. I often work on these two components separately, keeping journals of writings and ramblings and saving them until I’ve got the beginnings of a vocal melody, which I typically write over chord progressions on guitar or piano. From there the words and melody influence each other equally: I’ll edit lyrics to fit a melody I like, or I’ll fine-tune a melody if there’s a particular line or lyrical phrase that I’m really excited about. To keep myself from burning out on a particular song idea, or from painting myself into a corner, I’ll often work on several songs at one time.

The complexity of a song, that is the number of different melodies, or variations on the melody, the song structure, etc., is another mystery I’ve never really been able to come to terms with. I love really simple songs where subtle things happen throughout which work to keep your attention. Wilco’s “War on War” and songs by The Promise Ring come to mind. But I also love longer, lyrically-rich songs such as Elliott Smith’s “Waltz Number 2 (XO)” and “Pink Rabbits” by The National.

Perhaps the complexity of any particular song I’m working on is largely determined by my attention span on the day I finish working on it. Really, though, I think it can be tied back to that archaeology analogy: just as an archaeologist doesn’t necessarily know all that he or she is going to uncover when they begin digging, they have a pretty good sense of when they’ve reached the end and when they can stop. I never start a song knowing exactly how it’s going to end up, but I have a pretty good sense of when it’s done and when I should stop working on it. A lot of times you dig and dig, only to discover some old chicken bones. But every once in awhile you unearth a trove of wonderfulness that you can’t wait to share with the world.



In order for me to begin the next step in the album-making process, which is recording, one of two things typically happens: I either feel that I’ve got enough songs to record and put together an album, or I simply burn out on the songwriting process and feel a need to do something different for awhile. The reason that I don’t record a song immediately after I’ve written it is that I find I work better when my head is in one place for a long duration of time. This is one reason why I don’t play live very often. Playing live means putting either the writing or recording process on hold for awhile in order to get in shape to play in front of people, and this is time and effort that takes away from what I really love about music, which is the creation.

As a solo artist, one who plays all the instruments and records all the parts on my albums, I’m pretty much bound to work a certain way, and that is by recording each part one at a time. I don’t ever really know what a song is going to sound like when I first set about the recording process. Similar to the songwriting process, for me recording is more about uncovering the way a song is meant to sound than making it into some preconceived thing.

I typically begin with a scratch track, which is a vocal melody and acoustic guitar or piano played along to a metronome track. This scratch track typically sounds like the demo version I’ve got saved on my phone (I can’t read or write music so I save all my song ideas on some sort of handheld recorder). From there I’ll record what I feel is going to be the core instrument: usually either acoustic guitar, electric guitar, or piano. Next I’ll typically record the vocals so I can build the rest of the instrumentation around those core elements. If it’s going to be a drum song, I’ll record those next. Then bass. Though there is certainly room for creativity within the recording of these initial instruments, the real fun for me happens when this entire foundation is built and I can begin adding the “character” instrumentation: additional electric guitars, pianos and synths, percussion, vocal harmonies, ambient sounds, samples. It is this second layer of instrumentation that really defines the “Nathan Mathes sound” I feel.

The recording process is also similar to my songwriting process in that I’m often working on multiple songs, multiple ideas, at the same time. If I hit a creative wall while working on one song, I’ll switch to another. Again, because I don’t feel that I’m directly in control of the creative process, working in this fashion allows me to stay busy by essentially changing frequencies on the radio and trying to tap into a new part of that creative ether.

Post-Recording: Mixing, Mastering, Design, Release

For Anajune Rival I recorded about twenty songs, pared these down to thirteen, then took them to my friend Andy Thiele to help mix. I was pretty set on the creative mixes I already had in place: I wanted to keep intact the reverbs, delays, effects, stereo panning decisions, etc. that I’d already made. Andy was able to take some pretty muddy and sometimes cacophonous mixes and really clear them up, making them much more listenable, while still allowing them their “Nathan Mathes” character.

After mixing I set about the task of sequencing, which is putting the songs in the order they appear on the album. I’m sure this is sounding entirely redundant at this point, but sequencing, to me, is largely a “you know it when you’ve achieved it” situation. It’s a process of moving songs around, sometimes randomly, sometimes with intent. When all was said and done, I ended up only including eleven of the thirteen songs that Andy and I had mixed.

The next step in the process is getting the album mastered. I don’t claim to be an expert on the benefits of mastering, but here’s what I know happens in this process: a very talented person gives the songs one last listen, making subtle adjustments to the equalization, dynamics, and overall volume of the songs; the songs are placed in sequence, with appropriate fades and spacing applied to the songs; and the songs are prepared in a very professional way for the duplication and distribution processes.

I’ve always gone with Justin Perkins at Mystery Room Mastering for my albums. Justin is a very professional, reliable, and helpful person. He goes above and beyond to make sure your project turns out as well as possible, usually while instilling some new knowledge about music making along the way.

So the songs are now written and recorded, mixed and mastered--the album is essentially complete. It’s character, it’s essence has been determined. So much work goes into this process that you want to be sure you’re representing it well. That’s why the next two steps, determining the album name, and creating the album artwork, are so important. The artwork and album name don’t need to be brilliant, I feel, but they need to be good enough to not immediately turn people off. “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” they say. But we all do.

The front and back album cover photos were taken by my sister-in-law, Ellen T. Arena. It’s not often I give up artistic control over any part of my albums, but Ellen’s an accomplished photographer with a great eye. Look up her stuff on Flickr.

I handled the album cover design myself. I believe strongly in the benefits of working with limitations and keeping things simple, especially when you don’t really know what you’re doing. All of the design elements were done in Microsoft Word and Preview.

The album name,
Anajune Rival, is part anagram of my son’s name, and part reference to some of the lyrical scribblings I’d created while watching one of my favorite television shows, Mad Men. The two approaches I employed in the creation of the title work to signify the duality of the album itself: it’s an album about my interpretation of others’ struggles, as represented by their art, and it’s the very personal struggle of my own major life change, the birth of my son.

I’m not entirely sure anymore which songs reflect which approach, but I figure it doesn’t really matter.
Anajune Rival represents to me a specific period in my life, and I’ll always hear those songs and be reminded of the complexities of this time. My hope is that listeners will hear Anajune Rival and be similarly moved, not by the exact same emotions or memories, of course, but by some emotion, perhaps many emotions. Emotion that is universal, and emotion that is personal.

So now, my part is done. I’m pairing the release of this writing with the official release of the album. Anajune Rival is out there. It’s on Bandcamp, SoundCloud, Apple Music, iTunes, Amazon, Spotify, YouTube, and more. Please check it out.