Artist to Artist: Learn to Pivot in the Album Making Process

Pictured is Barton Stanley David

When I was a kid traveling through Colorado, I passed a road sign that read more like a proverb: Hazards Exist That Are Not Marked.

As any artist or producer knows, unforeseen challenges––or as Paul Simon once sang "incidents and accidents”––pop up in the recording process. Some are happy accidents.

There is a story that during the recording of Marvin Gaye’s “What's Going On,” sax player Eli Fontaine was warming up in the studio when Marvin suddenly clicked the talk-back and said he had what he needed. Fontaine said he was just goofing around. Marvin shot back "Well, you goof exquisitely," and the iconic opening notes of the song were born.

Obviously, not all accidents are happy ones, and some happen outside the controlled environment of the studio. When I set out to record my new album Crest in 2020, like everyone, I adapted as best I could to the seismic effects of the pandemic. What I did not anticipate was that the greatest unmarked hazard in making the album lay ahead in 2021.

A Sea of Circumstance

Crest began back in 2016 with the title track, a song inspired by my best friend and our journeys together in New York City, where I moved from Texas seven years prior. The word “Crest” to me, was symbolic of a societal wave that was about to break. Traditional ideas of community, personal relationships, and politics were all struggling to keep up with the speed of technology. It seemed like something had to give, and I wanted to build an album around that concept. “We paddled out on a sea of circumstance that brought us here,” I wrote in an early lyric, “and a storm is coming clear.”

A year later, having made slow progress, I decided to move back to Texas. New York gave me my first album, Blue For East Broadway, along with some incredible experiences and friendships. Still, as a fifth generation Texan, I started to miss home.

Then, in the spirit of unforeseen events, I met someone. She drew me back to New York and we moved in together. In 2019, we both decided to move to my hometown of Dallas and eventually married. By that time, I had an album’s worth of songs I felt were the best of my career, and I was eager to get back into the studio.

Incidents and Accidents

I first met my co-producer Jeff Saenz at his stunning studio Modern Electric in Dallas. Jeff recorded artists like Leon Bridges and Paul Cauthen and owned a remarkable collection of vintage gear. We shared similar paths in music along with the same influences, and I knew immediately that I wanted to make the album with him. Unfortunately, that would have to wait.

Things changed for everyone in March of 2020, and musicians were no exception. Although recording from home, tracking players remotely, and virtual sessions were already familiar to most artists, never having musicians or engineers in a room together had its challenges.

I dusted off old, semi-functioning recording equipment from storage and set to work, guided by a Teddy Roosevelt quote on a Post It note: “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”

After months recording from home with superb mixer Dave Schiffman, (Tom Petty, Adele, The Killers) lending his skills remotely and forming Kenshire Records with Executive Producer Shane Stein to release to album, I finally made my way to Modern Electric in January of 2021. With Jeff and I co-producing and some fantastic friends and musicians in tow, Crest was shaping up as well as I could have imagined.

Six months into recording, tragedy struck. After a thunderstorm and a black out one night in early June, Jeff encountered a downed city power line in his front yard. He caught fire and was taken to the ICU with fourth degree burns on both hands. After several surgeries, doctors were forced to amputate both of his arms.

Along with his beautiful family, his friends, and the entire Dallas music community, I was stunned and devastated for Jeff, who began his career as a touring guitarist.

Though I had started the album on my own, continuing with anyone other than Jeff, who truly understood my vision for the songs and had also become a friend, seemed unthinkable. After a few months of mixing and mastering what we had recorded, it was clear that my window to finish the album was closing.  Like a lot of musicians, I work a side job to stay afloat. After the pandemic and 18 months in the studio, I could no longer afford the time away, and decided, reluctantly, to press on.

Do What You Can, With What You Have, Where You Are

Just before the pandemic, I played a live concert series at Charley Pride’s former studio where I met violinist Scarlett Deering. Scarlett manages the studio with her family, and although she plays violin for heavy hitters like The Eagles and The Who, she had only recently learned engineering and started to carve out her own path as a producer. I decided to give her a call.

For a young engineer, stepping in midway through an album under the circumstances would be a challenge. I’m fortunate to know some excellent veteran producers, but Scarlett’s confidence and artistic instincts made a strong case for her as the right fit. I also wanted to keep the record close to home, returning once more to the TR quote:

“Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”

With Scarlett stepping in, and with help once again from mixer Dave Schiffman and legendary mastering engineer Howie Weinberg (Nirvana, Jeff Buckley), I completed Crest at the tail end of 2021.

Farther On

Tom Petty once said that no one cares how a record is made—they care whether they like the music. Musically, I am extremely proud of how Crest turned out and hope it will connect out in the world. But I’m just as proud of the process and the people.

Incredibly, Jeff Saenz has returned to producing at Modern Electric, and his inspiring story has been featured in Rolling Stone. He continues to help artists make great music and I can’t wait to work together again.

In or out of the studio, hazards exist that are not marked, but you pivot and keep, as Jackson Browne sang, faith in the distance, moving farther on. -Barton Stanley David

Photo by Becky Digiglio

BARTON STANLEY DAVID is a singer, songwriter, and producer based in Dallas, TX. His new album Crest has been hailed by KUTX as “an alt-rock meets chamber pop masterpiece of Americana” and is out now via Kenshire Records.