Richard X. Heyman On Writing Rock Opera

August 23, 2011

imgVeteran singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist Richard X. Heyman is no stranger to creating outstanding music. In fact, All Music Guide called him “perhaps America’s greatest unsung hero of power pop.” With his latest release, though, the two-album set Tiers/And Other Stories, Richard turns away from his normal guitar fare with a compelling, keyboard-driven rock opera.

Through artfully crafted songs full of unexpected harmonic changes and structural twists, Richard tells the story of first meeting his wife Nancy, breaking off their affair in order to be a musician in Los Angeles, and then returning and marrying her. A straightforward tale, perhaps, but just ask Richard—turning a personal, emotional experience into a fully orchestrated, multi-disc project is no simple task.

Writing and recording took roughly two years and was largely a collaboration between spouses. “Nancy, who’s an excellent bass player and engineer, worked during the days, so we’d record in dribs and drabs,” he recalls, “two or three hours a night, and a little more on the weekends. Because we have a small home studio, we could only do one thing at a time.” As a production team, they often found themselves focusing on different aspects of their tracks-in-progress. “She’s a real stickler and really wants everything in tune and in time,” says Richard. “I’m looking more for the feel. But I respect Nancy’s musical abilities so much that she has carte blanche and final say. If she doesn’t like something, I’ll redo it.”

The couple’s home recording setup—Apple Logic Pro 7 monitored via a Mackie Big Knob, a Yamaha P140 digital piano, and a Røde Classic Tube microphone running through a Summit MPC-100A preamp/ compressor—was the staging ground for Richard’s piano and vocal work. “We took the piano and vocal tracks into a proper studio where I laid down drums, then took it back to our Logic studio and did the rest: more vocals, more keyboards, and we had people come over to do orchestrations. Then we mixed it.”

Listen to the bittersweet “Last Thought in My Mind” and you’ll hear Richard’s left hand making smooth magic up and down the piano’s lower register, an inclination he attributes to Joni Mitchell. “Her piano playing is very emotional and original, the way her left hand moves against the right,” he describes. “On her Ladies of the Canyon album, there’s basic arpeggiating in the left hand and lots of sixths and other harmonies in the right. That was a huge influence on me. I started out as a drummer, and Joni Mitchell would be the number one reason as far as how I got from just clunking around on the keyboard to being able to play solo piano songs with a moving left hand.”

Many of the songs for Tiers/And Other Stories came to Richard almost effortlessly, inspired by creative noodling on his Yamaha P140. Other tunes required more trial and error, especially when it came to finding the perfect next chord for any given musical moment. For songwriters facing similar harmonic writer’s block, Richard recommends an experimental remedy: sit on the last chord you’ve written and “move one finger to another note. You now have a new chord you didn’t expect. How does that make you feel? If it feels good, go with it. If not, keep looking.”

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