Whilst making an album, I’m discovering that you have to learn to trust yourself.
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There are lots of decisions to make along the way and of course everybody has an opinion. From the terrifying moment when you start to play the recordings to your trusted friends and colleagues, through to choosing a picture for the CD cover.
Of course, I did seek out opinions – there is so much I need help with.
When Tom Chapman first offered to fund the album, I thought long and hard about the sort of recording I wanted to do. I’ve made so many musical friends along the way it was tempting to do an enormous collaboration, to experiment with some earth-shakingly different concept and indeed last year I was cooking up a very ambitious project involving lots of musicians.
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When it came down to it, I just wanted to get it done and keep it very simple.
I wanted to draw on my years of vocal and life experience, trust in my technique and try and be true to the songs. I decided I wanted to sing in the same room as the pianist – no separation and no ‘dropping in’ and repairing sections that weren’t perfect. I wanted to record in the same way that the singers of the time would have done when the songs were originally written.
For my recording work, I am asked to sing in so many styles and make so many different sounds that it’s hard to remember what my voice is. On one memorable occasion, I was asked to audition for the singing voice of Miranda Richardson’s Witch in Danny Elfman’s score of Sleepy Hollow. In the email, they told us we had to sound child-like yet womanly; scary and yet innocent; unearthly yet earthly.
All this, in about twenty bars of music. Here’s the extract from the soundtrack:
On the day I did my best and the next day, after some choir sessions, the producer asked me to stay behind on my own to do a bit more. They had run out of time when recording one of the choirboys. The tune looked familiar to me, so I asked if they wanted me to sound like a boy.
“No” said the voice in my headphones.
“We’d like you to sound a bit more deceased for this one”.
As this is my first solo album, which has been so long coming, I decided that it was important to sound like ME. Just sing, try and be as honest as I could with the lyrics – and get back to the core of the songs. Not have a producer to shape the performance.
You can read more about the actual recording sessions in my previous article
The fine jazz bass-player, Andy Cleyndert (who engineered the recording) sent three CDs to me by post. My sister Nicola Cairncross has been championing the whole idea and helping me with my website for some time, so when they arrived through the letterbox it just seemed right to listen together. We put the first one on and as soon as the first song finished, we both promptly burst into tears. We were so excited and relieved that the moment had finally come. Andy had really captured my voice in a way that I had always hoped I sounded. There were some fifty takes of eighteen songs. A couple started well and ended most amusingly with some colourful, Scottish swearing when Dave Newton played something he wasn’t quite happy with. (I’m tempted to compile an X-rated out-take version of that!) I was thrilled that nearly all of the takes could have been used, and most surprising to me was that every take was completely different from the previous version.
As we listened I wrote down the track number and made notes. Strangely it seemed a simple task – the recordings that made me get a tingle (technical term) were the ones I put a tick by. I was carefully listening for overall vocal and piano performance but also the take that seemed the most honest. When I had chosen the ones I wanted, I had to try and fashion them into some sort of order.
I made a list and noted down the keys. If songs are in the same key then it’s better not to put them next to each other. A musician friend explained to me that “the steel worker from Dagenham will know there’s something wrong – he won’t know what it is – he’ll just feel it in his bones.”
Next, I noted down the feel of each song – tricky this one, because the repertoire is shamelessly made up from love songs sung in a very intimate way. There are no out and out fast numbers. I then re-arranged the order until there seemed some thread and shape.
I had ended up with eighty-two and a half minutes of music. I rang Andy to ask what I should be aiming for. He said that he thought sixty minutes was the optimum length. I would have to cut five songs – but which ones?
One song, which I really liked, had to go because the lyrics didn’t seem to fit with the mood of the rest of the songs. I also found a few bits I wasn’t absolutely happy with vocally – the downside to the way we recorded the music was that there was little, if any, chance to repair anything we didn’t like. It was just Dave and I trying to capture a performance in one take – both of us had to be happy with what we had done.
I made up a playlist on my ipod and listened on the way up to London for a rehearsal. Particularly trying to feel the moments between the songs. Was there anything that jarred? There were a couple of things that needed re-arranging. When I got home I did the same thing and listened in the car. A couple of tweaks more and I thought I had a good order.
It was time to ask friends for their suggestions and favourites. One song, probably the most up-tempo from the session, started out with just my voice. Dave played a bass line on the piano. This gradually built up during the song and the voice and piano part grew until the end – there were a lot of lyrics and there was no pause for a piano solo. I was keen to keep it on the list because of the tempo, but one friend was adamant it should go. I tried moving the order round but was struggling to make things work. In the end, I decided it had to stay. I then sent a few mp3s to a wonderful musician friend in Wales. He sent me an email saying that the very song that my other friend disliked so much was his absolute favourite. I emailed all the songs to my brother in Sydney, Australia and he sent me comments back about his favourites – all different from everybody else’s. I started to realize that I had to make the choices – I couldn’t please everybody with every song and I had to start trusting my own judgement. One even told me that what I was missing was a producer – somebody to take what we’d done and add to it with other instruments……
I explained the concept and realised that I would have to be very careful in my liner notes. So that people knew what we were aiming for and understood that we weren’t just economizing!
I then played the music to a few ‘civilians’. People who liked music but weren’t musicians. I discovered that they felt compelled to make a comment. Some searched for clever things to say – and some comments were a bit disconcerting. After the first song one friend said – the piano solo is too long. It was a song where the form was absolutely jazz standard format. A,A, B (the middle eight bars) and finishing with A. The piano solo was two times though A and I came back in on the middle eight. My heart sank, as this was how we’d treated a few songs. For me this was definitely a collaboration between piano and voice and I felt the balance between the two was good. If my friend didn’t like that then he was going to be disappointed with most of the album. After chatting, I think I understood that he thought saying that was a compliment – that it was my album and my voice should be the featured thing.
I guess I was being a bit defensive and cared a bit too much about my friend’s opinions and I was genuinely trying to take on board criticism and learn from it. In the end all of the helpful things people said were too late now – the recording was done. I had to trust that we’d done the best we could.
I sent Andy the list of my choices after a few days along with some notes about slight noises that needed cleaning up. I also wrote down a few things in the balance between voice and piano, which I thought needed changing. I was at the RFH a couple of days later and got a text from Dave Newton asking if I’d received the CDs and should we compare notes about our choices.
I had forgotten to ask my pianist! Andy had told me I needed to choose, as there were so many versions and I had taken the responsibility seriously. He’d told me to let him know the choices before he would do any more work on the balance and overall sound of the tracks.
I arranged to call Dave the next day and when I got home I sat down with some trepidation with the list of my choices and rang his number. I asked him to tell me which were his choices in the order they came on the CD. Amazingly we had chosen exactly the same tracks – for all 18 songs. I was so relieved and also thrilled that we were in one accord. He was as pleased as I was with the result of the recording. He did, however really like a couple of songs, which I had taken off the list and felt strongly that they should be included. So, it was back to the drawing board for me on the order of songs.
I then had the difficult choice of which photo to use for the album cover. The designer and I had decided that my website pictures were a bit too bold in colour and attitude for the mood of the songs. I called my friend Wayne McConnell and we set up another photo session. It was blowing a gale that day so we ended up at a friend’s house snapping away in her upstairs guest bedroom. I shared the resulting pictures with various friends. It became clear that everybody had a different favourite of course. I would have to be brave and trust my own judgment once again. Here’s one my brother liked as I look a bit cheeky, but we decided that it wasn’t right for the cover.
I have finally come to the conclusion that when you create such a personal project, you really don’t want to make any mistakes. In the end, what you’re trying to sell is a big reflection of yourself. Not everybody will like it. You have to try and let go of seeking approval from everybody and hope that, if you’re honest and happy with your own choices, then enough people will agree with you to buy the product. Hopefully they will enjoy the end result of those difficult choices.
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