Inspired Collaborations: Chris Thile and Merrill Garbus Have 4 Hours to Record a Song on Spire Studio

September 5, 2018

chris and merrill featured image

Musical ideas can come from anywhere, often appearing unannounced—even years after an initial melody or riff was written. But sometimes, creativity flourishes under constraint.

That’s the idea behind Inspired Collaborations: give two world-class musicians who have never collaborated four hours to record a song. No prep time. No rehearsal. No arsenal of gear. Just admiration for each other’s craft, their instruments, and Spire Studio.

In Episode 1, GRAMMY-winning mandolinist Chris Thile of Punch Brothers and Merrill Garbus, frontwoman of art-pop project, Tune-Yards, meet in a New York City loft. Equipped with only Spire and their instruments, Thile and Garbus make a spontaneous collaboration sound like they’ve been performing together for years. Their arrangement of 1890s tune "Sidewalks of New York," an ode to life in the city, suddenly takes on an err of danger and mystery.

“Merrill is such a brilliant chaos-courter,” says Thile. “She’ll write an amazing song, and then put danger in it. We might not make it to the end of the song alive—which I love.”

At its most captivating, music balances tension and release, creating expectations in the listener and then turning them upside-down. Chris and Merrill’s arrangement of “Sidewalks of New York” is no exception.

“That’s where all the excitement and joy and potential transcendence comes in. Getting to witness Merrill create some of that today with what we did together? I was a kid in the candy store.”

Before injecting uncertainty into the song, the two musicians made some basic yet essential decisions before hitting record: locking in a tempo and a meter, and deciding how they would use Spire’s eight tracks for the song. And with the nearly limitless options of musical gear, creative effects, and recording tools to choose from in 2018, sometimes simplicity and constraint is exactly what’s needed to jumpstart creativity.

“There’s this beautiful thing called limitation with Spire Studio,” Merrill says. “We needed to commit to what the framework of the song was going to be, and with something like Spire, that felt like a real advantage.”

Perhaps one of the greatest challenges in choosing “Sidewalks of New York” for the Inspired Collaboration was recording something that sounded both different and uniquely their own. Composed in 1894 by vaudeville actor and singer Charles B. Lawlor, the song has been covered by Duke Ellington, The Grateful Dead, and many other musicians in many different genres.

“The way we did the duet—with a quiet chorus and a super chaotic middle verse that dumps you into a quiet verse again with ethereal elements—feels like it goes into this other planet,” says Merrill. “That’s the kind of stuff that I want to be creating—something that isn’t just verse, chorus, verse. Something that doesn’t stay the same. It’s about building worlds.”

As Chris picked his way up the mandolin’s fretboard, and Merrill joined in with a percussive piano sound affected by Spire app’s bass amp effect, the rise and fall of the song captured the rhythm of New York City.

“I’m inspired by cities in general,” says Thile. One Sunday walking through Madison Square Park, my little boy fell asleep on my shoulder, and I sat with him on a park bench. It was one of the first days of spring, and it felt like the whole city was taking a breath in the midst of the various things troubling them. That collective breath catching was inspiring.”

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