On Leigh Bardugo‘s eleventh stop in her blog tour, she gives her reasoning for and how the song “Winter Prayer” came about. It’s a beautiful song that Leigh actually sung herself. She did, after all, sing in a band in her pre-S&B days.
If you flip to the back of Shadow and Bone, you’ll see that my official bio claims I can sometimes be heard singing with my band, Captain Automatic. Unfortunately, it’s been a long while since we’ve rehearsed or played out at a club. This is a pic taken after one of my favorite shows we played at Safari Sam’s.
The club no longer exists, and since that photo was taken, two of the guys in it have become dads, one of them bought a house and started his own business. And the lady with the bad case of red-eye landed her dream job and wrote a fantasy trilogy.
>But I still miss music and I often find myself driving around making up songs. One of these became “Winter Prayer,” the song we released as part of the Siege and Storm pre-order campaign. Honestly, I was really scared to put it out there. But the song isn’t just something I made. It represents work from so many of my amazing friends, and I wanted to share it. So how did “Winter Prayer” go from me mumbling on my cell phone to an actual song?
1. The idea: I have a mind like a sieve. A sieve from a giant’s kitchen. So, when I get an idea—whether for a story or a song—I record it on my cell. A little over a year ago, I was trapped in traffic on the way back from dinner, playing around with a folk melody that was stuck in my head and thinking about a particular scene toward the end of Shadow and Bone. An idea for a lyric popped into my mind and I sang it into my phone. That became the first verse of the song and it never changed.
2. Though I’ve occasionally dabbled with bass, I have this problem wherein I don’t, y’know, practice. So I called up our lead guitarist (who can play something like twelve instruments) and I sang him the melody. He came over and I described the way I wanted the song to start slow, pick up speed, and wind back down all while keeping to this same repeated melody. We cobbled together a version of it on my upright piano and recorded it on my laptop.
3. The song didn’t feel like the right fit for Captain Automatic. I wanted a bigger, lusher, more orchestral feel. I reached out to my friend Aaron who is a composer and producer. (He and his wife had actually both been a part of the original Captain Automatic lineup.) Once he was on board, I sent him the recording and a bunch of links to different musical references—everything from Florence + the Machine to Bulgarian folk songs. The first time he came back to me, the sound wasn’t quite right—too dirge-like, too dignified. I wanted something a little wilder, that felt like it could be sung around a campfire. On his next try, he got it just right. We went back and forth a few times, trying some different things with pacing and instrumentation, and had his wife Laura Recchi step in to record temporary vocals. “For me,” says Laura, “this song evokes a sense of place and imagery. I can see the snow, the light and shadows, and I feel the excitement and fear of the journey. I’m also a sucker for a good folk tune in a minor key.”
4. Once we had the basics down, Aaron brought in Richard Adkins on percussion. With the rhythm in place, it was time for me to do my part. We recorded at Aaron’s house and I have to admit it was stressful. I don’t have a lot of training and I’m keenly aware that I’m no Florence Welch. If I’m not flailing around on stage, I tend to get very self-conscious about my voice. But Laura and Aaron were endlessly patient and I got to record plenty of takes.
5. To fill out the sound, Aaron had his friend Daniel Fabiano improvise a part on violin, and Laura and her friend Belinda Wilkins became the choir. Yup, that’s just two ladies belting it out in Aaron’s living room. (They’re actually singing in Ravkan.)
Aaron emailed me the file and we went back and forth, playing with dynamics and ironing out some of the rough edges. Here’s what he had to say about the process:
“It’s always nice to work with someone who has a clear idea of what they are going for. All I had to do was fill in the ‘musical blanks,’ so to speak.
It also helped that Leigh and I used to perform together in a band, so I was familiar with her voice and her performance style. Although we tracked drums in a ‘real’ studio, we took the DIY approach of turning my living room into a mini soundstage to record marching/stomping, violins, and slavic choirs—all using the magic of multi-tracking. It was a lot of fun!”
For a while, I wasn’t sure what to do with the song so I just let it sit. Then I worked up the courage to send it to my agent and she passed it along to the publisher. A few weeks ago, my editor at Macmillan got in touch to ask if I’d be willing to have “Winter Prayer” used as part of the pre-order campaign. Like I said, it was scary to think about putting something this different out there, but I also hated the idea of just letting it molder. I spoke to Aaron and he suggested having a friend of his mix and master the track before we took it live.
7. Nik Freitas worked his magic at his studio, Poppy Peak:
“When I first got the recorded session of the song, I opened it up and scrolled down the screen and realized there were a lot more tracks than I thought! At first listen I could hear where the song wanted to go, I just needed to clear up some of the instrumentation with equalizer and put more emphasis on certain parts like the bass drum and lead vocal. Once that was sounding good sonically, the song’s emotional tone was more in focus and all the other instruments seemed to sit better and do what they needed to do in elevating all their parts. I’m really happy with how the song turned out.”
I like to think Nik is still trapped behind that piano.
We went back and forth a few times, but somehow, we all knew when the song was where we wanted it to be.
It can be easy to say we don’t have time for art or to do the things we love, that we’re simply too busy. But I believe my writing benefits when I take the time to be creative in other ways. Music has an immediacy to it that writing doesn’t. It’s there and then it’s gone and no two performances are ever alike. When I’m singing or playing, I’m not thinking about all the things I have to do or what is or isn’t working in a draft, I’m just in the moment. It’s less a distraction than a shift in focus, and sometimes it’s just where inspiration is hiding.
When I wrote “Winter Prayer” and recorded it, I really had no idea what I would use it for, if anything. But putting it together gave me a chance to make music and work with some of my wonderfully creative friends. No matter how crazy life gets, I never want to lose that.