The Most Heart-Breaking Song In The World and How It Was Written
This is it. Arguably one of the best songs I ever heard at work. And it’s just strange, because a second ago you were in a flow, working quickly to get a couple of songs together for the next pitch. But now you’re just sitting there and your mouse isn’t moving. I asked Jon Rubin and Bob Ziegler about the track and their writing process. They sent me back the most amazing and detailed biography of “In the Morning” and their album “Signal Strength”:
Our acoustic-rock band Skyfactor – born and bred in New York City – has been together since 2005, but it wasn’t until 2008 that we recorded our first full-length CD with a proper rhythm section. ‘Daydreams’ helped us to define our sound a bit better once we were able to blend our more straightforward acoustic-duo style with the excitement and dynamics of an amazing bassist and drummer (Cliff Rubin and Jason Taylor, respectively). The mix of personal, honest lyrics combined with our upbeat sound helped land our track “Ok” on the season finale of MTV’s hit series Teen Mom, and another song, “Something’s Gonna Change” found its way into a few episodes of NBC’s juggernaut The Voice – both opportunities earning us fans around the globe who otherwise would never have heard of Skyfactor.
When it was time to record our follow-up album, we had already been stage-testing a few new songs, and the additional energy and punch of this new material made them clear contenders for inclusion. We spent the next year holed up in the studio writing and recording what would become ‘Signal Strength’, and found ourselves with 10 songs that seemed to make a cohesive, modern-sounding record, while still preserving our basic style which was resonating nicely with music lovers and the media alike.
Yet something was missing; initially it was discussed that we’d like to have an 11th track on this CD – for no other reason than to feature one more song than our previous release had – but it quickly became clear that what the album needed was a more intimate, softer song to offset some of the album’s ‘heavier’ moments. Maybe this yet-to-be-written composition would even get to highlight a more emotional side of the band. A piano ballad was discussed at one point, but seeing that we had very little studio time left, not to mention a release date we were working towards, it made the most sense to have the core of this final song be just an acoustic guitar, as opposed to the full band. Something super-mellow and really pretty would do the trick, and might be something we could finish in just a session or two.
And then it hit! Months earlier, in between takes recording one of our most upbeat rock tunes, there was a really pretty guitar melody that sort of just came out naturally, thanks to a well-placed guitar capo on the 3rd fret and a few down minutes while our engineer adjusted a drum mic. In the relatively somber key of G minor, it was a simple finger-picking bit that stuck with us, and although there was no song to place it in at the time, it was the perfect starting point for which to build a new one.
With the rest of the album almost entirely in the can and now in the various stages of being mixed, turning this little piece of music into an actual song became the task at hand. First, the guitar melody was expanded to support a verse, and the chorus thankfully kind of wrote itself the moment the fingers landed on that uplifting Bb major chord. A short but effective bridge was worked in, but not after some debate whether it was even needed (again, we were looking for short and sweet with this one).
The inspiration behind the lyrics came from the fact that everything moves so fast these days. We stare at screens to connect but are more isolated than ever. So the theme is about taking time out and just being with someone and being present in the moment. It can be a hard thing to accomplish but if you don’t stop to appreciate the moments while they are happening, before you know it, they’re gone. The original working title was “Be Mine”, based on the first few words of the chorus. But after practicing and prepping it for recording, another phrase in the chorus – “in the morning” – seemed to lend itself as a more interesting name and was agreed upon as the official title.
We set aside a few hours from one of our final mixing sessions to record “In the Morning,” and although it was just a single guitar, the fact that the emotion of the song relied so much on its delicate finger-picking (also not a Skyfactor norm) made getting it all in one take tricky. Even though we wanted the song to be as spare as possible, it actually seemed a bit TOO spare without any other outside instrumentation, which is why once the second chorus hits, those droning bass notes come in, accompanied by synthesized strings that kind of creep in and out around the vocals.
In the spirit of trying new ‘firsts’ with this song (fretless bass, strings, etc.), it made sense to skip the predictable acoustic guitar solo in favor of something else. Ideally, a string section mimicking the vocal melody of the verse would have been the way to go, but only if it was a REAL string section (which was not going to happen given our schedule or budget). In our search, a friend came in and actually recorded for us a harmonica solo, which had some neat moments but wasn’t quite right overall. Then we realized the answer we were looking for was right under our noses…er, rather, sitting right at the mixing board; our engineer Mark Dann. Mark is an accomplished multi-instrumentalist in his own right, and when he put that slide on his pedal-steel guitar, that sold it for all of us immediately. You can hear the pedal-steel blending through the final chorus between those last few heartfelt lyrics, which arguably makes for one of the cooler Skyfactor moments on record to date.
The final touch to the song presented itself entirely by coincidence; our drummer happened to be listening to a rough mix of “In the Morning” in the car with his wife, who then started singing along quietly with the choruses. He mentioned it to us a few days later that it sounded really cool with a female vocal in the distant background, almost like a ghost. Since the song could be interpreted as a love letter of sorts from a man to a woman, the idea of an accompanying female voice actually made perfect sense. Our drummer was able to record his wife singing along to the choruses in his makeshift home studio, and we just laid in the remotely-recorded vocals the same day we mixed the tune, thereby finishing the album. Ah, technology.
When our new CD ‘Signal Strength’ was released in June 2013, it was mostly filled with upbeat, acoustic-based rock tunes supported by a strong rhythm section. And then there’s this track, “In the Morning”, nestled in between two of the album’s more aggressive ones, purely for juxtaposition purposes. Despite the song being fairly difficult to reproduce live due to the non-traditional elements in it (not to mention that folks at the bar don’t always want to mellow out on a Saturday night even for three minutes!), the few times we have played it in more appropriate spaces have connected nicely with the audience.
Additionally, the song has become a bit of the ‘sleeper’ track on the CD; we didn’t hear too much about it near the album’s release, but now that a little time has passed, it’s actually one of the cuts we get a lot of great feedback on, which is really rewarding for us as a band since the song taps into a different side of what Skyfactor is about.
By Jon Rubin & Bob Ziegler of Skyfactor
Skyfactor – In the Morning