Song Deconstructed: ‘Yesterday’ by Dan Croll
We learn all about how an overdue and recrimination-filled musical letter to Paul McCartney provided the inspiration for this song
Dan Croll’s third studio album, Grand Plan, chronicles a year in his life which started with his decision to leave Liverpool and head for Los Angeles in February 2018. The resulting dozen tracks were brought to life by producer Matthew E. White in Virginia and are presented to the listener in narrative order, with each song telling a particular story.
Fans of Croll’s previous albums Sweet Disarray and Emerging Adulthood will be delighted to learn that his ability to blend classic songwriting with an experimental itch remains intact, though the latter has been slightly tamed. With the narrative thread also thrown into the mix, Grand Plan makes for a coherent and absorbing listen which is up there with his best work to date.
One of its strengths is how it can be enjoyed as a whole as well as on a song-by-song basis; the ideal balance to please those who still see an album as something to savour in its entirety as well as those who live life on shuffle.
We recently asked Dan to dissect the album’s opening track for us, and that’s exactly what he did…
I was becoming increasingly frustrated with my songwriting and felt like I hadn’t written anything honest or original for some time. It was a strange period of reflection around the end of 2018, and there was one moment in particular that my brain latched on to.
I had been lucky enough to get some one-on-one time with Sir Paul McCartney, I knew I had an amazing chance to learn and get so much from that moment yet I allowed a disastrous journey home through the night get in the way of it. While it was still an incredible experience, I felt like I needed to explain myself, and why I was maybe mentally absent.
I knew If I wanted that fresh start musically then this would be the song, and almost like therapy I thought it would be best to start that journey by directly addressing that moment.
As soon as I found those opening guitar chords they were immediately followed by the opening line, “Paul, do you remember me?”. I don’t think that line was previously in my head, but it just happened to come out, and I liked how direct it was. Quite quickly I realized that this track could read like a personal letter to Paul, and me trying to remind him of that day in the hope that I could explain myself and get another shot at it.
I wanted the verses to really set the scene, from the general moment of, “We shook hands a few times, you made the drive despite demand,” to the more personal moment of me being too nervous and messing up, “Did you see me trembling? When my fingers slipped the notes, when dust had settled and blocked the throat.”
Once I was done with the rough verse feel, lyrically and melodically, I wanted to have a look at more of a simpler chorus (as the verse felt quite busy). I also wanted the chorus to be that moment of ‘apology’ and getting that basic message across, so that’s when I came up with, “Just to say I never meant to dwell on more than yesterday,” and having that long drawn out “yesterday” that’d really anchor the chorus.
There was a part of me that felt it was quite tongue-in-cheek to focus so much on the word “yesterday” in a song directly addressed to Paul McCartney, but I secretly enjoyed that and hoped he would too.
At the end of 2018 when I had that period of reflection I had also returned from an incredibly fun US tour. Me and the band always share a lot of music whilst we’re in the van driving long distance, but this tour felt like it mainly centred around a lot of country and folk music. Looking back, I think that really started the ball rolling on me wanting to return to my original influences in those genres. We were listening to a lot of Judee Sill, James Taylor, Emmylou Harris, The Roches, J.J. Cale and many more.
When I returned home I was playing about with open tunings, something I had never done before. In the past, I’d always stuck to standard tuning or pitch-shifted if I ever felt the need to drop it down, but I was really enjoying the new feel of chords, and I felt it simplified them so that I could focus more on moving up and down the neck or the fingering pattern.
I’d also just bought an EHX [Electro-Harmonix] DRM16 drum machine, mainly for the reason that I couldn’t afford a drum kit but also it felt great to just play along to something that I could easily take anywhere or sit on my desk. It had some great sounds, very similar to the style of drum machine J.J. Cale was using with some slap back on it.
For me, quite often the process of looping is key to exploring ideas, in this case, I could just leave the beat looping and walk around the room trying different things out. Eventually, I played those finger-picked guitar chords over the top and it felt like the perfect feel. The more I then constructed the song the more I found that holding the drums (and some other instruments) till the chorus gave it a really cool drop, something that we emphasized even more in the studio.
IN THE STUDIO
I was incredibly lucky to work with Matthew E. White and the Spacebomb band in Richmond Virginia, not only a new city for me but an entirely new process of recording. In the past, I had either had very close friends playing on the record in a more DIY set-up, or had played all of the instruments myself in a more professional studio.
Either way, I had been very active and hands-on in the recording process. However, for this album I found myself in the control room watching on as an incredible group of musicians did what I could never do to the track, something that could only come from handing creative control over and sitting back whilst Matthew conducted them.
This was the first track we tackled in the studio, we all sat down and listened through my demo a couple of times (as well as a 10 track album reference playlist) and then the guys went into the live room and started to jam it out. Some components stayed exactly the same as the demo, like the guitar (though switching to finger picks gave it more of a country feel) and the general structure, but the rest were built on there and then.
That drum machine part I had was dropped, and instead Devonne [Harris] simplified it with a strong kick, snare and hi-hat that gave it even more of a laid back drop. Cameron [Ralston] instantly came up with the counter melodies in the verse and emphasized those scoops in the chorus that we really wanted to swing and strengthen.
Originally I had some simple Rhodes chords in the second verse, but we wanted those to be more delicate, so we switched over to the piano with the practice dampener on. We layered two octaves of that, with slightly inverted chords, which has become my favourite part of the track.
The finishing touch to this track, that I feel really elevated it, came from Matthew. We brought in Devonnes’ Juno and they went for a synth strings patch. Matthew had him overdub a single held note through every chorus.
I remember hearing that patch for the first time and inside thinking it didn’t sound very good, a very artificial digital string sound, but once they hit record and put it in the track I was instantly sold. Listening back, it always reminds me of a track from someone like Glen Campbell – a very grand and elegant country chorus feel.
In the past I’ve always been quite protective of my songs, it’s probably why I’ve tried to do everything myself and therefore the track has always become restricted by my own limitations.
This process of letting go and watching a group of incredibly talented musicians have the freedom to express and experiment elevated the track beyond what I was able to do with it, and for me, it’s clear to hear.
Essentially this track was an apology track, if Paul ever ended up hearing it I feel like he’d get that message, but with the help of Matthew and the Spacebomb gang, I think he’d not only get it but enjoy it too.