Zara was someone I reached out to when I was starting to really get excited about the idea of having not just one but several unique voices taking spotlit turns on the album that would become YEAR OF THE SLEEPWALK. We’d never met or communicated in any form, but I remembered hearing a few of her songs years ago and liking her voice a lot. I had no idea if she would be interested in singing on something of mine. I figured I had nothing to lose, so I sent her a message just to see what would happen.
What happened: she completely rewired the song she sang on and exploded my brain. Then something else happened.
When I started recording SLEEPWALK, I had this idea to “pay” people for contributing to my album by offering to record a song of theirs for free. I have no issues with paying anyone actual money if that’s what they’re most comfortable with, as long as it’s understood that it’s a straight session fee and no money is going to be generated by any music of mine they sing or play on. But I liked the idea of a musical trade. I thought some fun might come out of recording people I hadn’t worked with before, assuming anyone took me up on the offer.
I stopped doing that after a while and stuck with the “I’ll pay you money if you like money” approach. But Zara was one of the people who took me up on it when I was still throwing the idea out there, and recording one song led to recording a whole album — another development I wasn’t anticipating.
I don’t think I’m someone people tend to think of when they’re looking to record an album in this city. They think of Mark Plancke at the Shark Tank, Brett Humber at Sound Foundry, Josh Kaiser, Martin at SLR, whoever mans the boards at Polaris — you know, actual established studios and people who make a habit of recording other people for a living.
I don’t put my name out there as someone who does that kind of work, because it’s not a regular thing for me. These days I’m pretty selective in who I’ll work with when it comes to recording music that isn’t my own. If I don’t feel any connection with the music, I don’t see the point. I don’t charge enough to make musical work I can’t get enthusiastic about worthwhile. And if you want something that sounds like it’s been polished to death, I’m the absolute last person you want to call.
I can record somewhat shinier-sounding things if that’s what a band or songwriter is going for. I somehow found a way to do it in the past, when I didn’t have the kind of equipment that should have allowed it to happen. So it stands to reason that I could do it again now if I had to. But I don’t like to work that way, so I try to stay away from those kinds of projects.
On the other hand, if you want something imperfect that reflects the way you actually sound, without pitch-correction, sound replacement, laser hair removal, or guided trigonometry, maybe I’m not the worst choice.
Zara was after something raw and stripped-down. I can do raw and stripped-down. Aside from adding a really simple piano part to one song, all I did was try to grab the sound of her playing and singing in the room. It didn’t feel like the songs needed any embellishing, and I didn’t want to do anything to mess with her musical personality.
She has a very dynamic way of singing and playing guitar. Songs will ramp up from whisper-quiet to intense strumming and belting without warning. It’s not belting in the “I am singing loud because loud loud oh my God hear how loud I am” way. It’s more like her emotions are exploding out of her throat and this is the only way she can redirect them so they won’t explode you too.
I like that unpredictability. I wanted to stay out of the way as much as possible and just let it (and her) be. I could have used more compression and got everything sounding a bit louder and narrower, but I felt more comfortable leaving the dynamic range intact.
There are brief drop-outs in two songs you can hear if you’re listening on headphones, where a finger or a shirt sleeve touches the capsule of one of the hyper-sensitive Neumann KM184s pointed at the 1951 Gibson LG-2 that’s become my default “leave it in standard tuning for people who play guitar the right way” axe. And you can catch a car horn honking outside at the tail end of the penultimate song’s fade.
I thought the performances were good enough and the sonic flaws were small and unobtrusive enough that it didn’t make sense to re-record those things. Those are the sort of flaws I think can add character to a recording when they’re not so jarring they take you out of the music.
Though I’m still a little surprised Zara chose to record this album with me, I’m glad she did. That voice all on its own is about three hundred different kinds of special, and it’s surreal to hear it coming through your headphones not as a record of a past performance but as a thing happening in the room that you’re a part of capturing.