The Story Behind the Song is a new column that uncovers the history behind select songs off albums from our past reviews, exploring them in detail and investigating their process from inception to reception.
Music has a way of grabbing us. It captures our attention, seizes our souls, and leaves us ever swaddled in its relentless grasp. For many individuals, this devotion occurs through several different musical styles over the course of a lifetime. For others, adherence to a particular style breeds security and devoted fulfillment. For John Pippus, things have been a little less dichotomic. He’s been a long-time purveyor of the blues, to the extent that his most recent full-length has the name “Wrapped Up in the Blues.” Interestingly though, the album is as much a departure from the genre as it is a celebration of it, an attribute best exemplified on “Preachin’ Blues,” the record’s final and most eclectic foray.
Once he has a tune, lyrics usually come to Pippus fairly quickly. Many of his songs are even written in one sitting. For the song “Muddy Waters” that was likely essential, as the inspiration came to him in a dream and he needed the lyrics to materialize before the memory evaporated. In the case of “Preachin’ Blues,” however, Pippus actually spent no time at all on the words.
The song came about from his desire to do something less rhythmically predictable than a standard 4/4 song. Since Pippus plays with a drummer and a bassist when he’s not working on his solo acoustic act, he wanted to make something that could provide a more interesting challenge to the group. He settled on a 6/4 timing that he found interesting. The basic guitar groove track that carries the song for its duration materialized naturally (as grooves often do), and so all that was left was to find what the song would actually be about.
As he started trying to find words that fit the music, Pippus found himself singing an old Eddie “Son” House song from the 60s. He’s been a Son House fan since he was a teenager, and found the song a natural fit for what he was trying to do.
Once the decision was made to repurpose the Son House song, actually recording the vocals was a rapid affair. The team was in Vancouver at Bryan Adams’ studio to get the pieces on tape, and the tracking of vocals and acoustic guitar was over in two takes. Pippus and his producer Adam Bailie like to work fast and “capture lighting in a bottle” as Pippus likes to say. They put such a high emphasis on the raw, gripping emotion and energy of a full, unadulterated take that even the mistakes and imperfections made it into the final edit.
Those imperfections aren’t mere coincidence, however. They’re largely indicative of the original writer’s experience. Eddie House was a troubled man. He grappled for years with the seeming incompatibility between his growing love of the blues and his teenage desire to be a Baptist preacher, and reached the point where that dream became a distant memory. This transition wasn’t easy on the artist. Eventually, House became somewhat of a legend through a murder conviction that landed him in jail for two years (as the killing allegedly happened in self-defense). As a result of this history, his heartfelt lyrics paint a compelling picture of his own perspective, which Pippus calls “a very gentle mocking of the hypocrisy often found in organized religion.”
Perhaps the most intriguing thing of all about the Pippus rework of “Preachin’ Blues” is that it shows just how far into the no-man’s land of contrasting musical styles he is willing to go. His vocals on the track are heavily autotuned, and a special surprise waits just a dozen or so seconds before the end. As his last note fades, a cold, mechanical dance beat takes over and extinguishes any doubt that Pippus is breaking new ground.
Much of that ground breaking is the direct result of Bailie’s unique approach. When Pippus began to lay down his strange vocal and guitar tracks for the song, Bailie and engineer Josh Bowman shared a chuckle at his ability to experiment with the deep subject matter in such a genuine way. That night when Bailie got back to his home studio ready to assemble the mix, he did his own share of experimentation. Following his instinct, he composed the remainder of the song with a hodgepodge of digital plugins, virtual instruments, and heavily processed looped samples of Son House’s own voice. “My goal was to let it flow like the stroke of a paint brush and not get caught up in anything technical or judgmental,” Bailie says. “I just wanted Son House to be proud, from one lost soul to another.”
Now that the track has been free to fly for more than a year, Pippus looks back and has fond memories of the unique approach the team took. “It shows that the blues can be reinvented, acknowledging and respecting the past, but taking it in new directions,” he says. “I don’t like trying to recreate, note for note, what the old blues guys did.” For that, John, we thank you.
The Pippus team should be back in the studio any day now to commence work on the next full-length album, tentatively titled “This is (Not) a Blues Album.”
Hear the John Pippus version:
Hear the original:
- Tyler Quiring