How we made American Troubadour

AmericanTroubadour“There’s a story behind every song” (see … but there’s also a story behind the album.

And it’s a good story.

In June of 2001, in Stockholm, on Midsummer Day, I got married. Nine months later, Kristina gave birth to our first child. To say that everything changed in my life, in and around that Midsummer of 2001, would be quite an understatement.

With marriage came not only partnership and fatherhood, but also a new country, a new language, a new culture. From that day on, I started to feel more and more Swedish. (I didn’t stop being American; I just added a new, second national identity, one that felt eerily familiar, since it echoed the Icelandic — they say — cultural patterns of my father’s family.)

One of the new traditions I had to learn about was the “svensexa”, the Swedish bachelor party. The bachelor in question is put through numerous tests and trials. One of the kinder ones involved being required to improvise a song to my beloved, at midnight, in the middle of downtown Stockholm, after numerous beverages had already been imbibed. (Where my friends found a guitar, I’ll never know.)

Amazingly, a song to my beloved actually emerged. Not all at once, but over the next couple of days. Obviously, I had to play this song at our wedding. Just as obviously, there was no way I could manage that. Solution: record it.

So I looked in the yellow pages (we still had those back then), or maybe I web-searched too, but in any case, I found a little studio, run by Andreas “Bauer” Bauman. We whipped up a decent recording of that song, which is about my wife’s numerous names (“Anna-Kristina-Kicki-Du,” a song that has not been released publicly). And the DJ at the wedding party surprised her with it, during our first dance.

Oh, the look on her face … that’s a beautiful memory.

Fast-forward more than ten years, to November 2011.

I’ve accumulated a bunch of new songs by then. I’m also a busy consultant, running a couple of international organizations, globetrotting, the usual. But I feel this unquenchable urge to go into the studio and record.

I’ll just document these new songs, I say to myself. Guitar, vocals, maybe a little bass — like my first CD album, Testing the Rope (1997).

Where to do the recording? A quick web search: Andreas is still there. What’s more, his studio is just five minutes from my house. He remembers me. We’re both a bit more grizzled, we’ve both had a couple of kids … we connect.

A few songs into this little documentation project, Andreas starts saying things like, “riktigt bra” and “klockrent” (which means he thought the songs were really good). He says they are too good to leave on the shelf. He starts gently suggesting some additional musicians. It’s clear he’s not fishing for extra work; he’s offering to do this without pay, because he likes the music.

And he starts pulling in some amazing people. I’m clueless about what’s happening. “I’ll see if Ronander can play on this,” he says (about “Entebbe Blues”). “Uh, who’s that?” I say. Mats Ronander is, of course, a household name in Sweden; he once toured with Abba.

As the project grows, I start pulling in folks too. Turns out some of my neighbors are excellent musicians — a female vocal trio, an old-time fiddle-player, an opera singer.

Everyone makes wonderful contributions.

Andreas and I meet every month or so, in between my travels. Ideas zip around faster and faster. The musicians work magic. Andreas orchestrates us all gently, beautifully. Encouraged by Andreas, I started dreaming bigger. For the title song, “American Troubadour,” I start recording voices on my iPhone, gathering them from both the US and from Sweden, people reading the text of the Declaration of Independence. (In the spoken-word middle section, which Andreas mixed so well, you can hear the voices of sustainability pioneer Hunter Lovins, the American-Swedish artist Vincent Williams, and many others, including my own daughters, Saga and Aila AtKisson, in the lead role.)

The process takes two and half years, because we’re both doing lots of other things, Andreas and I. At the end, the whole thing seems to be built on a combination of love for music, creativity, and professionalism. The other musicians have gone the extra mile to make something wonderful out of their sessions, which (I learned) were “old school” pleasures for them: real live recording sessions, creative dialogues, that even involved talking about the ideas and feelings in the songs. Not just responding to someone’s email request with a track recorded at home in front of a computer, and “mailed in.”

Even the graphics are a labor of love. Andreas’s wife introduces us to one of Stockholm’s hottest PR and graphics bureaus. They take time from their busy corporate practice to work on “American Troubadour,” at rates far less than they would normally charge … because they think the project is cool. They (Christian Hammar and Björn Lundevall of FLB Europa) like the whole American-Swedish thing, and they work far harder on it than I have any right to expect. They even come up with a great new symbol for … well, for me.

Icon_YellowFieldMy music. My travel-influenced perspective on the world. My dual-citizen life, which has been so deeply enriched by the marriage that starts this story (listen to “Midsummer Island”). Which has helped to sustain me … in my work to sustain others … who are working on sustainability (listen to “Set the World Right Again,” and “Going to the Top”).

What a journey “American Troubadour” has been. So unexpected. So fun, and musically satisfying. It’s so wonderful that it’s finally out there, finally finished.

And yet, I have the feeling it’s just another beginning.

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