“Dark Side of the Ocean” was a true labor of love that was literally over a decade in the making, with certain songs that I started writing when I was in college and had been tweaking ever since. When I conceived the story of the album around 2020, I changed the original lyrics of those old songs to revolve around this new story about sinking souls being taken by sea angels to their underwater angelic kingdom, ruled over by the Archangel of the Ocean, “Poseidon.” [You can read the album’s artistic, concept story at www.rustyshipp.com/story]
But all sea angel stories aside, the true story behind this album’s creation was one of literal blood, sweat, and many tears… among other things… But it seems that through many struggles the tallest trees are grown, the finest pearls made, the purest diamonds formed, and butterflies are made strong enough to fly… and so it was with the recording of this album.
The Pandemic instantly confounded our plans of getting into the studio, delaying the writing of our parts, rehearsing, pre-production, and scheduling (with some band members suddenly having to look for new employment and move out-of-state), yet we still charged forward through the messy logistics, flying by the seat of our pants to get things together in time for our scheduled recording studio time of February 1-26th, 2021.
Once we got into the studio we were faced with new obstacles we had to figure out on the spot. Due to the pandemic and also a big snowstorm that hit while we were in the studio, there were certain band members who couldn’t get to the studio before our scheduled recording deadline. We held off as long as we could for them to record their parts, but our producer (Stephen Leiweke) and I ended up having to improvise and record their parts the last day we could.
Figuring out all the logistical delays caused by Covid set me back in my songwriting for the album, and with the deadline of finishing the album drawing ever closer I was forced to finish several lyrics and music parts the night before or even the morning of recording the final parts — which for me is the ultimate “no no,” being a writer who takes pride in how methodical and meticulous all the parts are in the songs I write. I found myself desperately grasping for inspiration, and in those moments with my back against the wall I’m happy to say I think I was able to grab hold of something truly great in the lyrics and melodies that I found there. It seemed like an act of Grace, honestly, because of how interesting and catchy the parts that came to me were (namely the Tanninim verses and Untouchable guitar solo).
Mid-February (halfway through the recording project), a big snowstorm rolled in and our producer Stephen messaged me saying I had two options: 1. miss a week of recording and have to schedule another week sometime later in the year, who knows how far off, or 2. come over to the studio right now and get snowed in there so we can keep recording this week and finish the album by the Feb. 26 deadline.
Now that I was in the thick of it with recording I didn’t want to delay the album anymore (after encountering so many delays and logistical challenges already), so I got snowed in at Stephen’s studio in East Nashville. It was pretty exciting being snowed into the studio (where there was a guest room), but also incredibly challenging not getting any space from being in the studio. I was waking up in the morning and refreshing my mind for the parts to record that day, making final edits to any lyrics I’d sing or guitar/bass parts I’d record that day, then endure the intensity of the recording process, and then eating and sleeping in the same place as all that intensity. I was already breaking down emotionally from the intense weeks up to that point, but being there all day all the time led to me breaking down physically and mentally as well.
Any band member who has recorded with me before will tell you, I’m a fairly laid-back person until I get into the studio and then I become incredibly intense and confrontational (mainly butting heads with the producer), as if the fate of the world hangs on everything being recorded as close to my ideal vision as possible — with the ideal musicianship of the ideal songwriting to capture the ideal spirit, artistry, and atmosphere of the album. After all, once it’s all recorded there’s no changing anything; you’ve only got one shot to make it as good as possible, and then it’s frozen in time while you shift gears and promote the heck out of it.
Once the snow and ice thawed enough the following weekend, I was finally able to get back to my house and just relax in my own space, to prepare for the final week of recording. Not even a day back home, I overheard one of my room mates talking about a friend they hang out with all the time and how he just got COVID, and they had just been hanging out with him a few days earlier. Feeling a surge of anxiety about the possibility of getting COVID myself from them and then being quarantined — yet another delay to prevent the album from getting completed on time — I instantly called the producer and got him to let me go BACK to the studio to stay there for the final week of recording. As much as I desperately needed a break from being in the studio, I JUST WANTED TO FINISH THIS THING WHATEVER IT TOOK!
The final week in the studio was the most intense for me. After getting worn down by weeks of back-and-forth arguments with the producer about the parts we were recording (mainly the clash of my artistry and his commerciality), and so many stressful logistical challenges that forced us to scramble to figure thing after thing out, and most of the album being recorded by me and Stephen, there was hardly anything left in my physical, emotional, mental tank and I just crashed. On top of that, I had a life-threatening illness of liver inflammation the previous Fall and I had just finally recovered from it in January 2021, but all the stress and physical demands of the studio time started bringing my illness back to haunt me. To finish vocal recording sessions, I literally had to hold my abdomen in the vocal room because of the pain, and I started feeling nauseous. I was also paranoid because of my nauseous feelings, thinking that perhaps I’d gotten COVID from my roommates after all, and then I was infecting everyone in the studio with me. With that paranoia adding to the sickness I felt, in an already intense environment of the studio, and the growing guilt and fear of my own weakness causing these songs to not meet my ideal, perfectionistic standards, I started shutting down and checked out internally. It got so bad that I had to go straight to bed as soon as the studio time wrapped up one day. I was freaking out as I tried to sleep that night, so full of fear for so many different things. I couldn’t sleep and got up and happened to see our producer still in the studio.
“You were freaking out today,” he told me. I really was, on every level. I told him about my fears of having Covid and the pressures of the studio crushing me to a pulp. It was a really great conversation and he assured me even if I was down for the count he would make sure, as the producer, to carry this album the rest of the way to completion, using his producer and multi-instrumentalist skills to fill in any gaps left on the album. Side note: the week after we completed the album I lost my smell and tested positive for COVID, which meant that I really did have COVID the last week I was in the studio, and so I wasn’t just having a breakdown from the stress and my previous illness resurfacing, but actually the COVID exacerbated those conditions.
Stephen really was the MVP of the album, because he totally stepped up his game to save our butts when so many things were falling through left and right, and we were dealing with constant, seemingly non-stop challenges before and during our time in the studio. The final days of our time in the studio I was mostly in bed and would occasionally check on Stephen and how things were going. He laid down some really killer guitar, organ, and percussion parts that filled in the outstanding gaps left from certain missing musicians (and myself being among the musicians who were down for the count now). I still recorded certain key vocal parts, including the chorus vocals for Bottom of the Barrel on the final day of our time in the studio. Bottom of the Barrel became our most successful single released up to that point, and when I hear it it’s hilarious to think of the guy singing those exact vocals (me) to be holding his abdomen from liver inflammation pain, nauseous from COVID, and mentally, emotionally burned out after one of the most challenging months of his life.
After the final moments wrapping up everything in the studio, I just went to where I was staying in the studio and crashed into bed. Ironically, the very next day was my birthday, and I spent the whole day lying in a bed, sick to my stomach, still at the studio. My girlfriend at the time (now my wife) made me a chocolate cake, and I kind of just stared at it in a post-traumatic daze too sick to eat it. And on that note, the 2nd to last day we were in the studio, my girlfriend’s plumbing all went out in her house and Stephen let her and her three children stay on the couches in the studio house while her plumbing was getting fixed. So there were a lot of people packed in that house the last two days we recorded, sleeping on couches and floors.
Recording Dark Side of the Ocean was a monumental experience that we almost didn’t survive and recover from (quite literally). It’s kind of crazy, but the COVID I got that February messed my body up, exacerbating my liver illness so that I had a really rough 2021 battling with jaundice and pain. I felt like Captain Jack Sparrow whose ship was sinking and it barely reached the dock in time for him to step off just before it totally submerged.
The true story behind “Dark Side of the Ocean” is a harrowing tale, and I’m glad we lived to tell it. I hope that when you listen to the album now you’ll hear more than the artistic storyline of the sinking souls taken captive by sea angels and held in underwater purgatory until Judgment Day — but you’ll hear a real life story of perseverance and faith when everything is falling apart.
Through much adversity this album was forged and refined, and we have to believe it resulted in an overall better product– the album that God wanted it to become and the story He wanted to be shared. May it be a lasting testament to the powers of good to outlast the woes of the world, that beauty can truly come from the darkest ash and light is always there shining even in the darkest side of the ocean.
~ Russ T. Shipp