By: Huge Shark

SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA: Sometimes you’ll hear an artist — a musician, actor, visual artist etc. — talk about “finding a way in” to a piece. It’s a funny phrase that sounds like an excuse for not getting started, but that’s not quite what it means. I had some trouble last week “finding a way in” to a cover version of a song, and I thought I’d share my experience.

I was trying to create a cover version of an old Van Halen song, “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love” for a friendly cover-versions contest that I enter most months. I’ve actually been thinking about covering this song since I first heard it in the early 1980s, so I was pretty sure it’d be easy to arrange. I set up my DAW (digital audio workstation — music recording software) with the right tempo and key, and sat down at my keyboard. I first laid down (recorded) all the chords in the piece on the piano, and then I found a nice bass guitar patch and put down a strong bassline. Finally, I recorded some draft vocals just to see what the whole thing sounded like and to see what other instruments the song might need.

It sounded terrible.

The bassline was fine — very much in the spirit of the song! But my vocals felt completely wrong, and the piano didn’t go with the bass at all. Worse, I couldn’t even remember how I’d originally intended the track to sound. “I think I’m going to skip this month,” I told my collaborator. He didn’t pressure me, but seemed disappointed. I was disappointed, too. I’d wanted to record this song for so long!

I went back to my workstation and noodled around with it, adding and subtracting various instruments. It just didn’t seem cohesive. It sounded like each instrument, including the vocals, was from an entirely different song. I couldn’t seem to figure out what I could add that would pull it together. I couldn’t find the way in.

It’s well known that taking a break, giving the brain a rest, can boost creativity. I stepped away for a few days. Then I happened to sit down at the keyboard one day to work on something else, and found myself slowly pacing through the Van Halen chords, singing the song as I did. And a light went on in my head: Slowly. What if I started over, taking the song at a slower pace than the original?

It wasn’t what I’d imagined in the early ‘80s. But it’s forty years later now! High time I tried something different. I started a new file, set the tempo slower, recorded first a piano part, then the vocals. And suddenly there it was: I’d found the way in. It sounded great. The rest of the instruments followed — no rock bassline this time! My collaborator sent me some saxophone tracks, and I was on my way. (And if you’re curious to hear the result, you can hear it at )

This happens to a lot of artists — and it happens to any of us when we’re trying to solve a problem that requires creativity. When you hit a dead end, hammering away at the same spot isn’t going to help you keep going. Sometimes you have to back up and try another route. Another way in.

Hope you find some interesting pathways!

Cheers, Huge Shark