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First Time Recording Artist Gaya Shelton-Ostadi Shares Her Initial Experiences in the Studio

Brad, Ben and Gaya in the studio

Where are you when I need you, Ganesh?

This tale opens with a handful of obstacles. Nothing would stop you from wanting to professionally record a song, right? My mentor Mike Cohen, founder of the Kirtan Leader Institute thought it would be a great project for my growth as a musician, and believe me, I was flattered… but full of objections. 

On the upside, I could imagine the power of having a recorded song to present to a venue to introduce myself as a Kirtan artist. I could imagine the satisfaction of memorializing a song by recording it.

But what was actually populating my thoughts was echoing out of the inner abyss from my inner critic: I am not a bona fide musician, my songs aren’t hip enough, my voice isn’t honed enough, my chants are not traditional enough. Do you know the voices I am referring to?

A few months after we discussed the possibility of recording, Mike scheduled a visit to the Bay Area where he would meet up with his producer, Ben Leinbach, at his studio a couple of hours from my house. Mike invited me to join them there. Some forthright part of me said “yes,”then my stomach felt a great thud as if I had just launched in a rocket.

Gaya playing her Bhava Mini harmonium in Ben's studio

Wrestling with my Inner Critic

I sat down over the next week and looked each abysmal reverberation in the eye, knowing those critical thoughts don’t often hold up when seen directly. I thought about my voice and how I had received the occasional compliment. But my mother had a crippling fear of speaking in public and I realized I was carrying my mother’s shyness about being heard. My grandfather had perfect pitch and apparently that was not a genetic trait because my pitch control was imperfect, but still maybe pleasing enough and improving with vocal exercises. 

Ugh, I had not studied music in college as one of my bandmates had, but I did I know the basics of reading music and was learning more about musical scales and and time signatures. I had been in a Kirtan band and performed a handful of times before I moved to a new city and decided to create my own band - for which I had Mike to thank. It may have been audacious, but it was very rewarding to write the music, be the lead singer, recruit band members and book Kirtan events. I was not super steady on the beat without a drummer, but I could play along with percussion and not stray too much. My Sanskrit was cursory, but I had lived in an ashram for a couple of years and took a couple of classes. My understanding of yogic philosophy was pretty solid from teaching asana, leading retreats and taking umpteen trainings. 

How fully baked was I as a Kirtan artist? On the other hand… did it matter?

Testing the Waters

So here I was driving to Grammy Award nominated Ben Leinbach’s studio in Marin County with my harmonium, a bunch of lead sheets, and the nerves of someone going on a blind date. Ben ambled up the hill to meet me. I don’t know what I expected, but he was calm, a touch shy himself,  around my age, and had a nice way about him. I suddenly felt more at ease. Mike would soon follow with his generous smile and grounding warmth, and soon I found myself in Ben’s garage-studio conversion participating in a lively conversation about music, Kirtan and recording. Mike and Ben talked about some of Mike’s recordings. Ben shared his life-changing experiences with Jai Uttal, and yes… I shared my aspirations as a Kirtan  Leader. 

Ben and I discussed the cost for producing a single song. He gave me a rough range, and of course it would depend on how complex the song would be, how many instruments and  vocal tracks, and how efficiently we recorded. In the end, I estimated the cost to be similar to a weeklong yoga retreat and decided to go for it. In the middle of the pandemic, I was drawn to this project as something I could move into.

At some point I felt comfortable enough to bring out my harmonium and played four or five songs.  I suddenly wanted to take this big step into recording, Jai Ganesh! Ben indicated one song that held his attention. He asked if I would be interested in working on it…and now I knew. Yes, I was. 

Ben asked if I wanted the recording to sound like it would in a Kirtan event with my band, or if I wanted to make a more honed version. After a little thought, I choose to make the recording its own creative realization, allowing it to take advantage of what was possible in the studio. But I also told him, I wanted to keep it fairly simple and not too  elaborate. I chose to do a single song, and not commit to a whole album, because that seemed a bit overblown vis-a-vis my critical voices. But I could see  us working on one or two songs individually - starting with the composition he felt drawn to and seeing where that would lead. 

Reworking the Arrangement

Mike left and Ben and I set to work on Lokah Lullaby. It had six different sections which Mike had helped me work out. Ben honed in on Section D, a slow groove with churchy sounding chords and suggested that the recorded version of the song start there.

We started the song in what I had conceived of as the middle, but it was brilliant. I hadn’t thought of putting the loose English translation ahead of the Sanskrit, but that is how it shaped up. 

Next Ben went to the chorus, Lokah Samantha Sukhino Bhavantu, and made the melody go twice as fast. He put the chorus in twice to create a longer call and response zone in the song. I smiled as the new arrangement took shape. We ended up doing things I would never have imagined, and I loved what was emerging. Between sections Ben added a few extra measures, longer holds, and other subtle musical devices that allowed for short instrumental solos, which let the arrangement breathe. I didn’t know you could do that!

Laying Down Initial Tracks

I wondered how this would come together, and how we would start recording. First Ben composed a rhythm “click" track which would  keep the time locked in. He asked me what I imagined  for the groove of this song, then cherrypicked some Western and Eastern sounding drumbeats out of his digital library. Within minutes he had an electronic looping track the musicians and singers could keep time to. 

Ben laid down the second track of floaty synthesizer following my chord progression for each section. Now we had a tonal reference.

Then came my turn to lay down the lead vocal scratch track. We decided I would sing through the entire arrangement two or three times as he recorded. He set me up in a plexiglass microphone area with headphones and a beautiful, expensive large diaphragm condenser mic.… the likes of which I had never encountered. I was hearing myself in higher fidelity than ever before and at first I found myself milking the amazing low tones in a whisper kitten voice. I also heard any little imperfection in living color!

We plowed ahead that day. After singing two passes, Ben took the best of each and we were done for the day. He bounced me an mp3 version of the song to listen to in the car on the way home. I floated home on cloud power. Om!

Letting it Gel

Ben and I planned to reconvene in the studio in a couple of weeks. With our starter tracks laid down, Ben developed  the direction of the song.He laid down a bunch of experimental instrumental tracks on his own, including an arpeggiated guitar (which I just loved), choir vocal synth (sometimes called VOX), a bass line and other trippy sounds. The overall sound was getting fuller at each turn. 

At home, I listened critically to the current cut and to my ear, there were still a couple of weak spots in my vocal performance. So I decided I wanted to re-do a couple lead vocal lines. After a check in session with Mike, I made some notes about lines to re-do, practiced some possible harmonies and came up with a couple of ad-libs (soaring improvised vocals between lines).

Round Two in the Studio

The next session began with me re-singing the choruses to take out a little swing in the melody I didn’t think was working. We listened to the instrumental lines and decided to downplay the trippy synth, but enhance the choir vocal synth to heighten the gospel feel. Ben had, to my surprise, stripped out the instrumentation from the opening verse to give it a floaty alaap or rubato feel. It was good, but maybe a little naked. We left that for now but marked that it might need a little more something.

Next we added Ben’s voice  on response vocals. He has a low key sing-talk baritone voice that I would liken to Leonard Cohen. Again Ben bounced the updated version and I floated all they way home, loving the fullness that was coming into being through my composition.

Ben Leinbach, hard at work producing the track 

Interim

The track continued to develop. Guitarist Gawain Matthews laid down resonator guitar, which sounded a bit like slide guitar. Ben laid down more keyboard and bass. We decided to bring in my bandmate, Brad Steiger, for lead response vocals. Brad has an angelic tenor voice - very true in pitch - and he is an excellent harmonizer. With Kirtan events being few and far between during Covid, I thought it would be a great way engage Brad and utilize his talents. 

Back to the Studio

Brad and I headed back to the studio where he laid down luscious tracks of response singing, and added improvised harmonies, countermelodies and ad-libs. My heart was glowing. 

Through Ben’s open window I heard a neighbor’s wind chimes. That was the inspiration for Ben laying down a subtle track of instrumental chimes that finally fleshed out the intro without erasing the barer alaap feeling.

From there, we gave the song a good listen and shared our comments, which informed Ben’s final editing and mixing.

Completing the Process

Ben mastered the song. He sent me both mp3 and wav versions. Wav versions are larger audio files with higher resolution (for posting on broadcast websites) and mp3’s are smaller files (more easily shared via email). Mike guided me through the steps of releasing the song. I chose a photo, registered the song and hired CD Baby for electronic distribution. 

And Jai!, now I am the proud Mama of a professionally produced version my original song that has been posted on dozens of internet platforms. Was it worth it? Without a doubt! 

Learning 

  • As Mike predicted, I learned an immense amount about arranging, rhythms, ad libbing, and harmonizing.
  • I gained a healthy respect for the labor, knowledge and imagination that goes into creating recording music.
  • My song writing has shifted in important ways as I now understand that a great song can be morphed in a number of directions - many, many moods and nuances are possible.
  • I realize the biggest obstacle to my musical growth (my inner critic) lived in my mind, and could be addressed and overcome.
  • And the most precious realization of all: this project really helped me to have the inner experience I had longed for, the sense of truly BEING a musician. 

I hope you will listen to Lokah Lullaby which can be found on Spotify, YouTube Music, Pandora, Soundcloud and  many other platforms.

Gaya Shelton-Ostadi - Gaya’s Earth & Spirit Band

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