How to Evoke a Sense of Place in Your Music

Bill Gable  •  September 22, 2015

How do you infuse your music with a sense of “place?” How can you let the geography around you inform the music you write? I’ll start with my own approach, and then make some broader observations that you might adapt to your own work.

In 1989 I released my very first album There Were Signs (re-released in 2013 by Sony Records) during a time in my life when I was listening to a lot of Latin American music. Here is a song off that album with Afro-Cuban influences:

Many of the songs off my newest album No Straight Lines were written during travels to Spain, Morocco and Portugal. I decided I wanted to produce them drawing on elements from those places. Here is one of the more flamenco-tinged tracks:

These two examples give us a couple of reference points to begin talking about the subject of “place” in record production.

Lyrics

One thing worth noting is that neither of these lyrics is really me talking. “I Threw Your Heart” is from the point of view of a guy with a volatile temper who has committed some unspeakable violence against his lover, destroying the only thing he every truly loved. “The Three Levels of Nigeria” is an allegory in the style of an African folk tale. Especially if you’re new to writing, why not open yourself up to the possibility of writing through characters and see how you like it? You can place that character anywhere in the world and in any situation you like.

If you think you might want to use exotic production elements, try writing lyrics that might plausibly evoke those influences. When the narrator in “The Three Levels of Nigeria” sings “and a cat came out of the hills and ate him alive,” we realize we’re not just talking about the Hollywood Hills here – so a lot of possibilities open up. Even while I’m writing a song, I’m already considering the “place” the lyrics evoke, and trying to imagine some kind of specific geography around the character. No line is as important as your first line.

Production

The production on “The Three Levels of Nigeria” is 25 years old by now, but it illustrates how “place” has always been established through choice of reverb and by exploiting depth of field and spreading elements across the stereo image. Try to see the big picture, like a film composer might, with your lyric as the lead actor.

In my own work I’m trying to capture the tone and mood of each song in the most distinct and specific way I can. My productions are pretty tightly arranged, but I’m always keeping an eye out for “mistakes” that I can incorporate to create something distinct. I learn a lot about what I want through trial and error.

Working with Musicians

By the time I bring in other players I usually have quite a few parts and ideas sketched out. For music that falls in between genres like mine, providing some kind of road map for the players turns out to be a huge help. But don’t worry if you don’t write out your music. Quite often I don’t even wind up showing players my written parts, depending on the way the session is going. Go with the flow, but never lose sight of your vision. It’s easier said than done.

Players often don’t understand or pay attention to lyrics, so you will often need to coax the right stuff out of them, no matter how good they are. I’ve also found that many ethnic players are actually often not great improvisers, so if you ask them to play outside their traditions, be forewarned that you may wind up with a huge editing project. Jazz players are totally at home improvising but they are often fairly stylized and frequently don’t understand how to work within simple song structures. 

Do a lot of research before you approach players. I often send them tracks beforehand to get a sense if they’re really interested and capable. Assure them you don’t take yourself too seriously (and don’t). But it’s a fine line. You’re often going to have to push and sometimes even provoke these players. Be respectful but try to get what you really want. In the final analysis, if you make them sound great in your productions, they’ll want to work with you again.

Patience and planning are both really important. Not every session is going to be a success. Your concept of “place” for your particular track may have to evolve over time, so think very carefully about the order in which you record overdubs. For “I Threw Your Heart,” for example, I was fortunate to overdub Larry Goldings on piano early on. He actually does listen to lyrics carefully and was able to pick up on the Spanish vibe, which made producing the rest of the track a lot easier. But it could have turned out differently. I would never leave the order in which I record players to chance.

Your Unique Songwriting Voice

My own style draws heavily on jazz and ethnic music (among other things) but yours needn’t. There are so many ways of evoking “place.” Even a solo performance in the right reverb can totally nail it. What I’m really talking about here is having a strong sense of who you are, remaining steadfastly true to your vision and developing your own style. And it all starts with your songwriting.

The American philosopher William James once wrote “I will act as if what I do makes a difference.” Every time you start a new song, or a new production, why not do that? We are all more or less stuck using the same instruments, the same recording equipment, the same scales and modes, even the same pre-existing styles as each other. Why contribute anything more to the glut of sameness? It’s a glorious thing to find your own voice and nourish it. No one could ever see the world exactly as you do and there’s a whole world of sounds and styles to be explored. Get out there and find your own special place in the world!

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BILL GABLE is an American singer-songwriter best known for his distinctive solo albums. A sophisticated and accomplished songwriter, producer, arranger and multi-instrumentalist, his projects straddle the boundaries between pop, jazz and world music, resulting in a highly personal and evocative body of work. His newest album, No Straight Lines – which he wrote, engineered, produced and mixed – was released in 2015.

Find Bill Gable Online:
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