I am driving down the Henry Hudson Parkway towards the end of February 2020, on my way to the part-time job my boyfriend, Tom, helped me get at his office. It’s a mild winter day, towards the end of an uncharacteristically mild winter; the anticipation of spring surprising us early. The kind of day where a former version of myself would have rolled down my windows, cranked the stereo, and sang along with Merry Clayton’s gut-punching solo from the Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” as I navigated the winding roads of the Taconic and Saw Mill Parkways before approaching this final stretch into New York City. But today my windows are up, and my mind is preoccupied.
I am six weeks into an eight-week intensive outpatient psychiatric program at a posh facility in New Canaan, Connecticut, called Golden Canyon. Since I started the program, I’ve read that, apparently, many New York-area celebrities end up at Golden Canyon when they need rehab or a dramatic re-set for their psyches. But far from just a mental health spa for the super-wealthy, my psychiatrist told me that they were the best psychiatric facility in the country. “If any of my family members needed help, that’s where I would send them,” he said when he gave me the referral. The program I am in is group therapy based and specializes in DBT—Dialectical Behavioral Therapy. After years of battling mental illness, this is the only treatment regimen that, in tandem with my medications, actually has given me the tools I need to manage my conditions functionally.
I don’t know what I am going to do when the program at Golden Canyon ends. It scares me a little. I worry that I am going to backslide into the problematic behavior—nonstop crying jags, lashing out at Tom in rage while begging him not to leave me, chronic decision paralysis, suicidal ideation—that landed me there to begin with. At the same time, I know that the program has changed my life profoundly. I can’t really envision what a regression would even look like after all that I have experienced and learned.
On my graduation day, I want to be able to present the therapy group, and the social worker who led us with a gift. But what would be an appropriate gift for such an occasion? I’ve never been a great gift-giver; I usually default to chocolate or a hand-knit scarf, the former of which feels dumb in this context, and the latter is impossible due to the time constraint (two weeks, twelve scarves… yeah, no). And what does chocolate or knitwear have to do with the intense journey we are all going through? Intentionally removing ourselves from our everyday lives to devote two months to understanding and healing ourselves within the confines of a psychiatric facility, learning how to access an inner strength that most of us believed we didn’t have, in order to wrestle our demons into submission and live a life less full of fear and pain? Hey folks, thanks for helping me climb out of my suicidal hole. Spring is coming so here’s a scarf? Really?!
In group, I talk a lot about how one of my anxiety outlets has always been playing music gigs with my friends at venues in my small town. But in reality, I haven’t touched my bass guitar or sung, in months. I have been avoiding the Brighton Music School, where I was once employed, and once considered a second home. I have been avoiding the friends I made there. I’ve even been avoiding listening to music at all—during the thrice-weekly hour-long drive from my home to Golden Canyon, I listen to podcasts or audiobooks. This drive down to the city is the first time I’ve set my Spotify to play music in two months, but I still find myself getting impatient within the first twenty seconds of most of the songs and skipping through them.
Then “Galileo,” by the Indigo Girls, comes on. I roll my eyes. The song is absolutely not in my wheelhouse, and I don’t even know why Spotify’s algorithm thinks I’d want to hear it. Back when I was playing music regularly, I was performing covers of classic rock from the 60s and 70s. I’ve never been much of a folky. Emily Saliers’ and Amy Ray’s earnestness irritates me.
But I do know all of the words. At my private high school in San Francisco, where annually we were sent on multi-day outdoor camping trips for ostensibly character-building trail-work and artificial forced bonding with our peers, one of my classmates always brought her guitar and sang songs by Dar Williams, Ani DiFranco, and the Indigo Girls around the nightly campfire. “Galileo” was one of the seven songs she would always play (in retrospect, she only seemed to know seven songs), and against my will, via osmosis, I’d picked up the lyrics, and they stuck in my brain for the ensuing seventeen years.
As I pass through the toll collection point at the Henry Hudson Bridge, where the road turns into the West Side Highway, my finger hover above the “skip” button on the car stereo, but something stops me. I am actually listening to the lyrics instead of letting them bounce off of my brain’s rote knowledge of them. A rambling monologue, by a person imagining that they are the reincarnation of various pivotal and controversial pioneers of science and philosophy, all of whom inform how they are living their life now.
In this moment, as I really listen for the first time in years, the lyrics resonate differently. It doesn’t feel like a song about maligned historical figures. It feels like a song of redemption. A song about shedding a past version of a self, and transforming into a new person. A song about leaving the ugly things behind, and truly reinventing not just themselves, but how they see themselves.
A song about self-reincarnation.
The idea starts to form as I take the left turn onto the 56th Street exit. Maybe this can be my gift to my fellow travelers at Golden Canyon. Maybe I can present them with a recording of me singing for the first time in months, thanking them for their support and their kindness, and reminding us all that we are all capable of this kind of rebirth.
I reach the office on 65th and Madison and, blissfully, there is an open parking space right by the door. I pull my phone from the dash stand and make a quick post on Facebook: Hey, can any of my friends who have experience recording music help me with a quick one-off time-sensitive project recording a song?
I head upstairs, kiss my boyfriend, and say hello to Cindy and Bertram. Just as I am logging on to my computer, my phone pings with a text.
It’s James. He used to work with me at the music school but recently moved away from the Hudson Valley to Brooklyn.
“Hey dude, I just saw your post! I would love to help you!”
It has only been five minutes since I put out that call on Facebook. I am flooded with relief.
James is exactly who I was hoping to hear from.
“I’m prepared to fully defend that horn section,” James said to me the minute I picked up his call. We had been texting back and forth about “Instant Karma,” the song John Lennon famously wrote and recorded in the span of ten days in 1970 with the help of Yoko Ono, George Harrison, some session musicians, and music producer Phil Spector, who James and I hate so vehemently that we considered throwing a party when we learned of his recent death. We were recording a rearranged cover of the song and, apparently, I was giving him the impression that I hated his recent addition of loud horn part to our version.
“No! You don’t need to defend it!” I said. “I’m not asking you to cut it. Promise. I mostly like it. Tom likes it. It’s just… how do I put this?”
James and I were now a year into a project that started with the “Galileo” recording. We had whipped “Galileo” together in about ten days, from arrangement to tracking to mixing, and the DBT group had loved it. Many of them had been brought to tears, including the social worker. I felt proud of what I had accomplished and bittersweet about leaving the group.
But reuniting with James was a fantastic way to transition out of the program. It was amazing to be making music again—especially with him. When James and I had both worked at the music school—he as a guitar instructor, me as the operations manager—the school did a monthly student showcase at a music venue in town that I was in charge of organizing and curating, and I always insisted that we spotlight one of the faculty members in hopes of attracting more students. Unfortunately, my attempts to get a faculty member to contribute often resulted in them dropping out last-minute due to childcare commitments or actual paying gigs (all of our faculty were working musicians). So, when faced with a drop-out, James and I scrambled to put together something to fill the empty timeslot—sometimes with only a half-hour to go before showtime. James and I had bonded early over a deep love and appreciation of the Beatles. He knew how to play almost all of the Beatles catalogue on guitar. I knew all of the words and enough bass guitar to keep up with him. It became a bit of a parlor trick for us—Reeya and James Unpack A Beatles Song in the 11th Hour. The ease with which we did this often felt like we had a two-body one-brain connection. Everyone in the community, especially our boss, was always impressed by our ability to come up with a performance-ready piece on such short notice.
After the success of “Galileo,” James and I immediately fell back into that familiar collaborative rhythm of ours, and started scheming about other songs we wanted to cover together—with the caveat that we would never do a straight cover. We would reinvent the song, change the arrangement, alter the mood, try to use it to tell a different story than the original. Straight covers, which we were used to doing at the school back in the day, didn’t feel intellectually interesting anymore. I had found a way to reinterpret the original “Galileo” into something that resonated with my experience in DBT, and we wanted to continue to explore that mode of music-making. Tom encouraged us to keep going – he was so happy to hear me singing again after months of sobbing and screaming, and seeing my bass gather dust in the gorgeous cedarwood stand he’d bought me for my birthday the year prior. It felt so good to be back in a musical headspace again that I began to wonder if walking away from music had been a contributing factor to my mental health crisis the previous fall.
I ended up at Golden Canyon after spending a night at Orange Regional Hospital’s psych ward because I told my boyfriend that I was planning to commit suicide.
I barely remember what happened that winter night when the ambulance came to take me away; I don’t recall how late it was, or what even prompted the meltdown that led me to tell Tom that I had a stash of pills hidden in the bathroom, old prescriptions for meds that didn’t work for my bipolar depression that I had held onto as an insurance policy for when I knew I couldn’t take life anymore. I had been fantasizing about jumping in front of the 1 train for months, and as I walked to my Metro-North commuter train at Grand Central, I would think about how easy it would be for me to get off the train at home, drive my car onto the northbound tracks, and wait for the 7:15 express to crush me. I kept telling Tom that it would be easier this way. He would get the house, he wouldn’t have to listen to my constant crying and incessant accusations of abandonment, he wouldn’t have to duck away from his desk at work in the middle of the day to find a private spot to talk me down while I huddled outside my office building across town, looking at the ugly façade of Penn Station, popping Klonopin like candy and struggling not to sob too audibly in front of the passers-by ducking under the scaffolding.
“No,” Tom would say. “No. It would make things so much worse for me. Please, please stop saying these things. They’re not true. How could I live in this house without you? How could I live my life knowing that you were in such pain and I couldn’t help you?”
I didn’t believe him. I wanted to, but I just couldn’t. Who would want to be with someone as fucked up as me? No one signs up for a relationship with a mentally ill person willingly. Tom wasn’t lucky to have me. Tom was a good man with a good heart. Tom deserved better than me. And at some point, I came to the brink. I think the fact that I had an active suicide plan, rather than vague train-related annihilation musings, was what caused Tom to panic and call 9-1-1. All I really remember from that night, as we waited for the EMTs to come and strap my arms and legs to a gurney, is the realization of the enormity of what I had said, what I was planning. I knew that this was going to change everything, maybe even making life worse than if I had actually swallowed the pills.
I started weeping. “I want my mom. I want my mom. I want my mommy. I want my mom.”
Tom, lying on the floor next to me, holding my arms to keep me from thrashing my fists on the floor, feeling absolutely helpless, started crying too.
During my nearly three-hour intake appointment at Golden Canyon, where I was asked to explain the long, detailed story of my mother’s battle with cancer – her diagnosis in 1989, her three-year remission-recurrence cycle including multiple surgeries, radiation, chemotherapy, home healthcare, and her eventual death in 1997 when I was twelve-years-old – the social worker said that she was making a note to give me a screening for borderline personality disorder sometime during my first couple of weeks in the program.
This terrified me. Everything I knew about borderlines was that they were almost impossible to treat and basically psychotic—Glen Close in Fatal Attraction boiling the bunny was the first image that came to my mind. But the social worker told me I was wrong about that.
“The biggest indicator of borderline personality disorder is a stressful childhood,” she told me. “And honestly, what you just described to me is one of the most stressful childhoods I have ever heard in my career.”
I felt like I had been hit by a truck. I knew my childhood wasn’t typical, but it was the only one I had known. It was just my reality. Every miserable, sad, horrifying part of it, I had just assimilated into my identity. It had never once occurred to me that it was the kind of story that would bring up huge, unignorable red flags to a trained mental health practitioner.
“It’s treatable,” she added. “Don’t let the internet scare you. Dialectical Behavioral Therapy is a proven method of treating borderline personality disorder effectively. You’re in the right place. You’re very brave. You’ve survived. I know you can do this.”
Eight weeks of group DBT later, I began to understand how witnessing my mother die of cancer with absolutely no counseling or psychological support along the way had exposed me to significant trauma and was the clearest source of my abandonment issues. Ultimately, it was a huge failing on my father’s part, for not recognizing that a child needed support through something that horrific. At some point, I would have to tackle that with him, but first I needed to fully grok it myself. Connecting my experience with my mother’s illness in childhood to my life as an adult explained a lot, not just about what had been happening to me as of late, but about the way I functioned in all of my interpersonal relationships. Hypervigilance. Extreme fear of rejection. Rage. A desperate compulsion to mold my personality to whatever I thought others wanted me to be to keep them in my life, at the expense of really knowing my own self. My unprocessed grief had come to a head after twenty-three years of shoving it into an unmarked box in some far corner of my mind, and that’s why my mental health had crashed so severely the prior fall.
By the end of my run in the program, my head was calmer, my mind was sharper, and my ability to regulate my emotions had improved so noticeably that Tom said the night of the ambulance just felt like a distant bad dream.
Not long after James and I started scheming about more songs, COVID-19 hit the United States, and we had to make some fast decisions. I still lived in the Hudson Valley, but James—and his home recording studio—was in Brooklyn. Governor Cuomo had put New York on lockdown at the end of March, and we had no sense of how long that would last. But we also had no way of working together as long as social distancing was the way of the world.
We ended up creating a quarantine pod—far earlier than the concept ever became socially acceptable. We agreed that I was the only person James, his girlfriend Cara, and their housemate Dylan would allow into their apartment, and implicitly that James, Cara, and Dylan were the only three people I would interact with regularly in order to keep Tom safe.
And then there we were: making music in a pandemic. Three days a week I’d drive the ninety- minute route downstate to work with James in his studio – picking songs, brainstorming, tracking vocals, writing instrumental parts, mixing and listening and mixing and listening, releasing our work into the world song by song. We thought it would end up being a quirky little record of this wild time period—evidence of the possibility of creativity during enforced stasis. We decided to call it #coronamusic.
But with each song we did, our ambition grew. “Galileo” was just me singing over James playing an acoustic guitar. Six songs and a year later, “Instant Karma” featured vocals (by me), acoustic and electric guitar (by James), bass guitar (by me), drums (by James), piano (by James) a “choir” (featuring James, Cara, and Dylan, double-tracked) and now James had written a surprise fucking saxophone and trumpet hook for the choruses and gotten a couple of horn-playing buddies to record it. I had decidedly mixed feelings about this.
“The song needs a saxophone, or some sort of horn, or horns,” James was explaining. “We said we really didn’t like how weirdly sparse the original recording is. The only point of interest is those awful double-time drum fills that we can’t stand. But those drum fills take up space, and since we’re not doing them, we need something else to fill that space, otherwise, we’re going to end up with this sort of empty, tinny final product with too much high-end frequency from the vocals.”
There were many, many things we didn’t like about the original recording aside from the stupid drum fills. We hated Lennon’s delivery of the lyrics – the way he shouts the entire way through, speeding through the verses like they were long run-on sentences. We simply couldn’t understand the point of asking George Harrison to come to the recording session and then not giving him a guitar solo during the otherwise monotonous instrumental break (“Was he seriously just there to play rhythm guitar? What a fucking waste!” I remember shouting at one point), which is why I had insisted James insert a Harrison-esque solo. And we hated the echoing effect on Lennon’s singing and the overwhelming slapback of the reverb effect on all of the instruments—those hallmarks of the famous Phil Spector “Wall of Sound” that James and I just couldn’t stand.
“Okay, I hear you,” I said. “But right now, the horns are overpowering the arrangement.”
“Yes,” I said. “But especially in the choruses. They are taking up too much space right now in the mix, and it’s drowning out my voice and completely obscuring the backup singing you, Cara, and Dylan did, and those choruses, to me, are the crux of the song. Especially the last chorus, to the outro—we need it to feel massive. Huge. Inspirational. This is a song about seizing the moment. Taking life into your own hands. I really want to elicit that feeling. I’m not feeling it now. Now I’m feeling like a big band horn section has crashed the song.”
“Gotcha,” James said. “For sure. Okay. So, can you give me an example of how you want the choruses to sound so I have an approach for how to remix this? Like, give me a source—pick a song that has the feel you are looking for. You don’t need to do it right this second. You can think about it—”
I cut him off. “No, I already know. It needs to be like the outro to ‘Hey Jude,’ big and full and round and basically compelling the listener to sing along. Epic and celebratory.”
“Oh my god,” James said. I could hear the smile in his voice. “Yes. That’s perfect!”
My mother gave me the Beatles. They were her favorite group as a girl growing up in New Delhi, and when I was young and she was healthy, she made sure I listened to every single one of their albums. I still have her collection of Beatles cassettes, though I haven’t had a Walkman or a car tape deck in over a decade. I know all of the words to all of the songs, almost as well as I know the details of her illness and death. I tell people that the Beatles are my origin story as a musician.
And if that is the case, the documentary miniseries The Beatles Anthology only reinforced my destiny. Originally broadcast in three parts on ABC in the fall of 1995, when I was ten-years-old, my family taped the entire thing on our VCR, and then I devoured it again and again and again over the next two years. The whole story. From beginning to end, the Stuart Sutcliffe years and Pete Best, Ringo joining the band, the first successes, the Beatlemania, the US, and world domination, the drugs and the experimentation and the new musical boundaries being pushed and the long, slow, painful breakup of four guys who really loved each other.
By 1997, my mother’s health had declined precipitously after her third recurrence of cancer in eight years, and it often seemed like the ravages of cancer treatment were worse than the disease itself. Her digestive system shut down and she had to be on TPN—Total Parenteral Nutrition. Bags of nutrients, lipids, vitamins, and saline kept her nourished and hydrated, all through a permanent IV port inserted into her chest, a direct route to her aorta.
We had registered nurses at first who would come to the house to help set up her IV every night, and then they taught my dad how to do it. His job took him on day trips to LA every week and, on those days, he’d get home too late to start her IV, so they taught me how to set it up, too. Twelve-years-old, and I’m pulling a milky bag of TPN out of the fridge, wielding syringes to inject doses of beta carotene into the spigot, pricking my mom’s finger to test her blood sugar to determine if I needed to stick a dose of insulin in there too. I’d massage the bag and the beta carotene would tinge the contents a vague, hazy orange. I’d hook the tube into the bag, let the liquid feed through the tube, hook it into the mini-pump, put it all into a little backpack. I’d flush her port with a syringe of saline, hook the tube to the port, prime the pump, and start the machine. All night long it would pump, every few seconds the machine making a little mechanical noise as the fluids moved through the tube and into her body and kept her alive. Every two seconds. One, two, eeeerrrgg. One, two, eeeerrrgg.
I’m thirty-six now and this whole endeavor terrifies me. I cannot fathom doing something so intricate and delicate with potentially fatal consequences at this point in my life. But back then, I had no choice. This was our reality. This was what had to be done. So, I did it.
Dad was away on business one week and I was in charge of the TPN for five days. I slept with my mother in my parents’ bed. Both of us were terrible insomniacs. I offered to put on a video one night so we could watch something while we tried to sleep. “Anthology,” she said, definitively. I hunted down the tape of part three and we watched as the Beatles slowly imploded and broke up. Tension and infighting. John’s codependent relationship with Yoko. Paul’s resentment of Yoko and desire for more control. George just didn’t want to be there anymore, talking about how he was having more fun hanging out with Clapton and Dylan and The Band. And poor Ringo, who just wanted his friends to all get along again. Poor Ringo, who didn’t want to be abandoned by the ones he loved so much.
And then, they show the promotional video for “Hey Jude”. It was recorded during an episode of David Frost’s Frost on Sunday show in September of 1968, and it starts with a closeup of Paul, in a burgundy jacket, sitting at the piano, his brown, downturned eyes that always seem haunted with sadness looking up at the camera. Paul, who was my mother’s favorite Beatle. Paul, who is the reason why I became a bass player. Paul, who lost his mother to cancer when he was only fourteen. You can see, just by the look in Paul’s eyes, that the band is falling apart at this point. You can feel it is the beginning of the end.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was the beginning of the end for my mother as well. She died a few short months later. Now, when I listen to “Hey Jude,” I think of Mom and I hurt. I think of the two of us lying there that night, watching part three of the Anthology. She would have undoubtedly reminded me that Paul was the best, and how annoyed she was at George’s shitty attitude (“Bob Dylan this, Bob Dylan that, what rubbish!”), and she just knew that Yoko ruined John. And I’d roll my eyes and say, “Yeah, yeah, but Ringo is still my favorite.”
And as always, we’d sing along. “Na, na na nanananaaaaa. Nanananaaaa… hey Jude.” Nineteen times the boys sing that refrain at the end. “Na, na na nananana.” And every two seconds, my mother’s TPN pump would punctuate the song, providing a constant, irritating, unwelcome, out-of-time addition to the percussion section. “Na, na na nananana. Nanananaaaa… hey Jude.” Eeeerrrgg. One, two, eeeerrrgg.
James was thrilled about the “Hey Jude” reference for “Instant Karma.” He said he had been thinking all this time that what we needed was to produce this song the way George Martin would have produced it, because seriously, FUCK Phil Spector.
“There’s a reason why Paul McCartney pushed hard for a re-release of the ‘Let It Be’ album called ‘Let It Be… Naked,’ about ten years ago,” I explained to James’ housemate Dylan once. Dylan is a jazz guitarist and doesn’t know much about rock recording and producing. “And Ringo was on board, and George Harrison even gave it his approval before he died. ‘Let It Be’ is the only Beatles album that Spector produced and he just… tortured all of those songs with extraneous bullshit, like chirping birds on ‘Across the Universe’ and creepy ethereal background vocals throughout the slower songs and weird effects on all of the instrumentation and vocals.”
“It’s all reverb and slapback echo,” James had added. “It sounds thin and far away. Basically, Spector took all of the things you don’t want in rock recordings and leaned into it, hard. ‘Let It Be…Naked’ removes all of those elements and returns it back to a more stripped-down aesthetic in line with what George Martin likely would have done if he’d been the producer.”
George Martin was the man who had steered the Beatles into the sound that made them famous, he knew how to work their arrangements to create the best possible result, he pushed their boundaries by challenging them to add complex harmonies and fuzzy feedback and strings and other non-rock instruments to their initial guitar-heavy boy band sound to make them fuller and stronger and be more innovative without resorting to effects and gimmicks. If there is any person on the planet who could have been called “The Fifth Beatle,” it would be George Martin. The “Hey Jude” outro, with its choir and deep strings and horns, was the perfect inroad for James to approach our version of “Instant Karma.”
James is like a combination of the little brother I never had and Yoda with better syntax. He is a decade younger, but so much wiser than I am in some ways. In the past year, working on this project, our two-body one-brain musical connection has strengthened considerably, and we have developed such an effective shorthand for communicating with each other. I’ve told him a lot about the slow decline of my mental health that landed me at Golden Canyon—some of which he remembers seeing, since the seeds of my breakdown were becoming apparent as early as when we were still working at the music school. He has observed that basically every song we’ve picked to record—Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road,” U2’s “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of,” The Zombies’ “She’s Not There,” Blind Faith’s “Can’t Find My Way Home”—seems to resonate strongly with some aspect of my recovery.
This actually wasn’t the first time “Hey Jude” had come up between me and James—years ago, we had covered it during one of the music school showcases. And it wasn’t even the first time it had come up during our #coronamusic project. The second song we tackled, after “Galileo,” was George Michael’s “Freedom ’90.” As we reworked the vocal arrangement, he noticed that the chord progression of the choruses was the same as the chord progression in “Hey Jude.”
“Huh,” I said.
“Yup,” he replied.
I chewed this over in my head for a while on my drive back to the Hudson Valley that evening. “Hey Jude” and George Michael? Is this just a really common chord progression? At home, I plucked the root notes of the chords on my bass a few times to see if I could recognize it from anything else.
“’Sympathy for the Devil,’” Tom called out as he walked by. “Are you trying to learn that? It sounds like it.” Tom is a huge Rolling Stones fan. I love having him listen to the work James and I are doing because while Tom is a genuinely enthusiastic music appreciator, he doesn’t have any musical training, so he can’t “speak” music the way we can. More often than not, this allows him to notice things that we don’t, because we are too buried in our formal music theory. He is basically the best beta-tester ever, a sounding board to keep us on track.
I realized Tom was right. So “Freedom ’90,” “Sympathy for the Devil,” and “Hey Jude” all share a chord progression, I thought. I knew “Sympathy for the Devil” was released only a few months after “Hey Jude,” and both songs were likely written at the same time, so it’s not like the Stones lifted it from McCartney. It is, indeed, a common chord progression.
But still, here I was a year later, watching Jeopardy! with Tom, after James told me he knew exactly what he had to do to get “Instant Karma” to reflect the “Hey Jude” vibe, chewing this all over again. “Instant Karma” does not share the “Hey Jude” chord progression, but I was still using it as a touchstone for how I wanted our mix to sound. I had immediately felt it; I had said it to James almost without realizing what I was saying. How odd it is, that that song keeps resurfacing in our work. Almost as if it’s become a part of my DNA, reinforcing my musical origin story.
Weeks went by, and then I got a text from James: he was sending me a reworked mix of “Instant Karma.” “Call me as soon as you’ve listened to it,” he wrote. I grabbed my headphones and downloaded the file from my email.
It was so much better—he had moved the horn section towards the back of the mix and brought the vocals forward, lowered the horns’ volume, and removed entire sections of it, eliminating the cluttered feel of the last version. He put in a brighter piano counterpoint in the second verse. And to my surprise, he completely removed the James/Cara/Dylan “choir” in the first chorus. I could feel my eyes widening listening to my voice singing solo in that section. Intellectually, I know that I am a good singer because that’s what people tell me. Even still, after years of performing live, and so much time tracking vocals with James in the past year, I often cringe a bit when hearing recordings of my voice. I know how my voice sounds in my head, but through studio monitors I think, Ugh, is that what I really sound like? Is that what people hear? YUCK.
But during this first chorus, it was almost like I had stepped outside of myself and was listening to someone who really, really knew how to sing. I felt no cringe, only amazement. It was a raw, edgy, powerful rock performance. Where had this come from? I know I have become a stronger singer from working with James all of these months—if you listen to our songs chronologically, it becomes pretty evident once you get to our version of “Thunder Road.” But I had no idea I was capable of this sort of power while singing. I wondered if it was the lyrics: “We all shine on, like the moon and the stars and the sun.” It was that seize-the-moment feeling I had been hoping for, the indelible, must-sing-along feeling. In the second chorus, he had added the choir back in, and I loved the blend of our voices together, Cara’s lilting opera-trained soprano, James and Dylan grounding it with their lower rumbles.
Nothing, however, could have prepared me for the final chorus and our outro. The choir was back, but maybe triple or even quadruple-tracked, booming, my vocals searing through on top, the horns doing a call and response with our voices triumphantly, majestically, the drums pounding, the bass thumping, the lead guitar wailing. It was big. It was huge. It was epic. My jaw literally dropped. James had done it. James had found the “Hey Jude” outro vibe, and he’d nailed it.
I called him immediately. “Oh my god, dude,” I said. “That was absolutely incredible! Fucking PRINT IT.” This was an inside joke of ours; when we knew a song was ready to go, we’d pretend we were sending it off to be pressed onto vinyl.
“I am so, so glad you like it!” he said. “I think it sounds really fucking good. For fun, you should listen to it in contrast with the Lennon/Spector version. Like do an A/B listen back-to-back. I just did, and seriously all you can hear on the Lennon recording is slapback and room noise and shouting. This might be blasphemy, but I think our version is better.”
“I think you’re right,” I said. “Many apologies to John Lennon, but I think you’re right.”
James had to run to a rehearsal with his band, but before hanging up he said, “You know what, you should also do an A/B listen with ‘Hey Jude.’ I tried that earlier, and I think… I think that I might have made the ‘Karma’ outro even bigger than George Martin did with ‘Hey Jude.’ Text me what you think.”
I start up our version of “Instant Karma” again and listen to what James and I have created, bowled away by the complexity of the arrangement, remembering the minimalistic simplicity of our “Galileo” a year ago. I think about my fellow DBT group members. I wonder how they are doing. I hope they are all okay. I almost wish that Golden Canyon’s fierce protection of our privacy didn’t prohibit me from emailing them all and sharing this project that “Galileo” has turned into. “Why in the world are we here? Surely not to live in fear,” I can hear the confident vocalist that is somehow also me in my headphones. “Why on earth are you there, when you’re everywhere? Come get your share!” I let the chorus thunder on as I pull up Spotify on my phone, find “Hey Jude,” and scroll to the timestamp where the outro begins, ready to compare and contrast. I stop our “Instant Karma” recording. And then, the Beatles’ simple, white-text-on-black-background Past Masters album cover staring at me from Spotify’s interface, I remember lying in bed with my mom so many years ago. I remember Paul McCartney in his burgundy blazer with his sad eyes looking up at the camera. My finger hovers over the “play” button. I freeze.
The two people in my life, aside from the folks in my DBT group, who know the most about my childhood watching my mother die slowly of cancer are Tom and James. They also are the only people who know how important the Beatles are to me, as a musician and as my only remaining connection to my mother.
But I’ve never told either of them that even now, nearly a quarter of a century after her death, when I listen to “Hey Jude,” I still sometimes hear the sound of that TPN pump during the outro. It has imprinted into my perception of the song. No matter how much I turn up the volume. No matter how loudly I sing along.