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I set off with the precious Neumann U87 microphone to drive round the M25. I was heading to the famous Ronnie Smith’s house in the outskirts of North West London to do a couple of days recording with David Newton.
As we had decided to record so quickly after I first called Dave, in the week running up, I had been emailing back and forth with our suggestions and requests for song choices. I’d been desperately working away on the score-writing program Sibelius to finish the chord charts. They would be a starting point for Dave to weave his harmonic magic. He had been his usual, elusive self and was impossible to pin down on the keys he preferred to play the songs in. I had transposed a few songs into three or four different keys so we could try and get a variety. I hoped I had everything covered.
I stopped off at the M&S services and bought lots of sandwiches, shortbread biscuits, hot cross buns, juice and some aptly named jazz apples (well it made me smile when I saw them). I know that musicians work better on full stomachs.
We had agreed to aim to start work at midday. ( That’s Jazz Musicians for you!) Dave was also coming from Bath in Somerset. One thing I couldn’t control was the traffic and even though I’d left plenty of time, there was an accident near to the M3 and my car crawled along at walking pace for over an hour. I texted Dave, to tell him that I would be a bit late and asked them to set up without me. I arrived at half past twelve and Andy Cleyndert was nearly ready to start. I went through and met the owner of the house, Ronnie Smith who is friends with both Dave and Andy, and is also a fine pianist himself. He has a reputation for always having a good piano at his house and this was the reason we were there.
Although I wanted to record in the same room as the piano, I was a bit concerned that my microphone was set up very close to the actual keyboard. Dave is not known for his silent playing and has a very low voice, which he finds hard not to use when he gets really involved in the music. I was rather worried his dulcet tones would spill onto my vocal microphone.
There was however, a large horseshoe-shaped, metal contraption surrounding a vocal microphone which had acoustic panels on the inside. Andy took the Neumann microphone from me and set it up pointing upwards at one of his which he already had set up. He explained that he would record my voice on both microphones and then we would have a choice of sound. (I think it was secretly a scientific test to see if I could tell the difference). I got out my charts and we decided to start with the aptly titled “Where Do You Start?”. We chose a low key and Dave started working away on the arrangement to make the song his own. I sang along for a while and then decided to pop into the kitchen to get a pencil and a bottle of water.
When I returned, the lads were laughing and I asked them why. Apparently when I had left the room, Andy had commented from inside the piano, where he was adjusting microphones,
“How refreshing…..” then a long pause, followed by “a singer who can sing for a change.” This amused them both highly and, I must confess, put me at my ease.
I’d been a bit nervous that he would think “oh no, a classical singer who thinks she can do jazz”.
Andy was set up in the corridor with the computer and the recording controls and he pulled the door to and we set to work. When we’d finished our first whole take, Dave broke the mood as he announced in his Scottish drawl “No major **** ups there then.”
The sandwiches and hot cross buns went down a treat between recordings and by the time Andy had to leave for a gig, we had finished four songs. He assured me that it was very simple for me to work the controls, so that Dave and I could carry on working. The computer program he was using had an interface very much like any tape recorder. I just had to press record and then stop and most importantly remember to save what we had done. He would get rid of the takes we didn’t want after the session. We were on a roll now, so we carried on until 8pm and managed to record three more songs. I had come to the sessions with 18 charts and was hoping to get at least 12 songs done, so I was very pleased with how things had gone. I purposely didn’t listen back to much during the day as I can be very critical and start to alter things technically to correct ‘mistakes’. This can make the singing sound more perfect but knock all the stuffing out of the performance.
I turned off the amplifier and closed the computer. It was a Macintosh like mine, so I felt fine to just close the lid as Andy had instructed me to. I took Dave and Ronnie out for a curry and we had a really fun evening. Ronnie told us some wonderful stories about his colourful life as a pianist. He had also played the piano for films and had a wonderful story about playing underwater at a safari park with a killer whale and some dolphins on the TV programme That’s Life! He told us that the dolphins had been let in and they’d become a bit excitable. The killer whale got jealous and bumped Ronnie in the back with his nose. He told us “It wasn’t his fault but it really hurt – I kept on playing though as I didn’t want to spoil the film”. What a pro! I’d noticed a striking statue of a dragon in the garden and Ronnie explained to me that he’d got it from the set of a film he’d played the piano in. The film was set in a Chinese palace and Ronnie had managed to sweet talk a stage hand to let him take it, even though at the time all props and sets were supposed to be burned. This was apparently because of a rule made by the Stage Carpenter’s trade union.
We got back to the house and I left the men having a nightcap and went up to bed – I was exhausted, but happily my voice felt fine.
The next morning I was the first one awake and had a hot cross bun breakfast and sat down nervously to listen to what we had recorded the previous day. I played from the beginning and was somewhat shocked to hear what sounded like a man singing. My mind was a whirr – I knew I had a low voice but nobody had ever told me I sounded quite so much like a man. I carried on listening and then Dave spoke – his bass voice also sounded much lower. After a couple of takes, it started to sound more like me. Maybe I’d imagined it? Dave came back from the bank and after a cup of coffee we started recording again. An hour later, Andy arrived from the physiotherapist (he was suffering with a bad back) and I started to tell him about what I’d heard. He knew immediately what the problem was – it was something to do with the computer’s time clock running at a different rate, which he’d spotted quite soon into the recording. It meant the playback for the first few takes was playing slow and the pitch had dropped. He thought he could sort it out afterwards and not to worry. I was relieved, to say the least.
That day we did 11 more songs and at the end Andy suggested we re-record the first song, just in case he couldn’t fix the problem with the clock. My voice was so warmed up by now that the key we had first recorded it in, now seemed much too low. We decided to try it in F major and Andy was amazed how it completely changed the colour of the song. He asked me to sing it in the original key of D major and then in F major – “Why?” I asked. “No reason” he answered. ” I just couldn’t believe how the key could make the same song seem so different in character. It was also to do with where it lay in my voice – the higher key made it sound lighter and less world weary. We did two takes and agreed that we’d got it in the bag and started to pack everything up.
I was amazed that we had, in effect recorded 19 songs in two days. Vocally, I could have honestly carried on for another few hours. Dave hugged me and told me how much he’d enjoyed himself. I felt quite emotional and told him that I had never enjoyed a recording more in my whole singing career. It was true. We’d worked together so well and the mood had been so positive. I had tried to just focus on putting the lyrics across honestly and everything else had fallen into place. My voice had seemed to work without me even trying. I had been able to sing longer phrases than I’d ever thought possible. Certainly longer that if I’d planned it in advance. In that certain moment, it had made sense to carry a phrase through and I’d miraculously had the breath to make it work. There were only two instances when I’d had a small catch in my voice, one that came from the emotion of the moment and one that popped in with no warning and I didn’t want to stop recording as the feeling of the song seemed too good to lose.
The lads wouldn’t let me go back and re-record those songs again as they felt the overall feeling of the take far outweighed the tiny vocal glitch.
It was what I’d intended when I decided to record the album that way – forget perfection and go all out for interpretation.
I helped Andy to wind up all his wires – all those years touring with the Swingle Singers in America meant I was pretty nifty at the slight twist you do as you wind the cable round. This is to avoid kinks and make them lie perfectly flat. He was impressed! I kissed Ronnie goodbye and thanked him for his incredible hospitality and promised to send him a copy of the album as soon as it was finished. Dave set off back to Bath and I texted Nicola to tell her we’d done 18 songs and how pleased I was. I headed off round the M25 for home. It was strange leaving with nothing but my memories of the songs. Andy had said that he’d get to work on the recordings after the weekend and would send me something as soon as he had anything for me to listen to.
The excitement was over for now and I just had to wait……
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