With an amateur singer/songwriter, I can start working from a basic recording such as a live performance at an open mic, or an iphone recording in a bedroom. From there, I’ll work out the chords and start recording a guide track with piano or acoustic guitar. I’ll then layer a guide vocal down to see how everything is sounding. Once I get a feel for the song, I’ll usually have a few ideas of how it should sound, and I’ll start experimenting with different instrumentation. At this point, I’ll usually share with the singer and get feeback.
If the singer can accompany themselves, I like to record a live version of the song as part of the initial consultation. I have a full size piano, and what’s great here, is having an isolated capture of the piano midi, and sustain pedal movements. This lets me fix any timing or notes, and lock the piano to a tempo. It also retains how hard the singer was hitting the keys (velocity) which helps to retain a natural feel. After this, it’s a whole lot easier layering different things on top.
Here’s a great example of this. I took the piano, and added some subtle string orchestration, then the singer came back and recorded a studio vocal: