Thursday, July 4, 2013

Personal dispatch #3

This is a dispatch from Sarah St. Catherine, an artist I briefly wrote about two months ago. St. Catherine, who hails from Vancouver, recorded one of the best Van Morrison cover songs I've ever heard (posted above). She took a few minutes to answer my questions.
When was the song recorded?

The process began in 2010 with a rough demo recording of "Astral Weeks" I did in my home studio. That first version was just me singing and playing the Wurlitzer with acoustic guitar and background vocal overdubs—very spare, just one take of every track. The following year, during the sessions for my album Helios, my longtime friend and producer David Kean brought up that demo and suggested we take a real crack at "Astral Weeks" in the studio.

Where did you record it?

The song was recorded at Audities in Calgary. It really was a match made in heaven, because in addition to being a fantastic recording studio, Audities is like the Smithsonian of vintage 20th century instruments and recording equipment. If you look at the Audities website at the list of pieces in their collection, it's really mind-blowing. The collection gave us a palette of sounds to create a dialogue between the time of Van Morrison's recording and the present day.

How long did it take to record, mix, etc.?

Almost everything was recorded in a single day, because we recorded it live off the floor. That was a really special experience, because it almost never happens anymore. I grew up in the age of overdubs, so having the whole band together on the floor, recording all their parts at once was surreal and exciting. We did four or five takes, and it's really amazing how unique each one was. Also, having everyone together, responding to one another, meant we didn't need to use a click track to keep the parts in line. This really allowed the song to breathe, and you can hear a shift in tempo from the beginning to the end.

Mixing was a bit more of a challenge. David was really careful to make sure it didn't get killed by repetition, because the song is basically just two chords back and forth. On the other hand, he saw it as an opportunity to let the rhythm section and vocal delivery build the song and give it forward momentum toward the conclusion. The mix was massaged a lot to fit the parts together, while maintaining a constant state of change from beginning to end. David called forth his inner shaman mixing that song, swaying with his hands hovering over the board and then snapping back his head. It was really something to see.

What were all the instruments used in the song?

The instruments we chose were first inspired by the Wurli I used on the demo version. It was really important to keep that as the backbone of the track, so everything stemmed from there. Because we were at Audities, our options were virtually limitless, so all the sounds were chosen to support the dreamy, transcendental spirit of Van Morrison's song.

One of the high, singing sounds on the track is the Waldorf Q synthesizer. It uses wave table synthesis, which is a sciencey way of saying that it takes arbitrary chunks of audio data and cycles them in unpredictable ways. The result is these really dynamic synth sounds. And the Waldorf Q in particular is good at achieving a singing, crystalline, liquid timbre. David chose the "singing glass" patch, which was designed around the idea of running a finger over wine glasses.

In list form, we had drums, bass, Wurlitzer 200A, electric and acoustic guitars, ukelele, and the Waldorf Q. I didn't play any of the instrumental parts, which never occurred to me until just now. That's another thing that makes the "Astral Weeks" cover unique, since I'd normally play multiple parts on a song.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the equipment we used in the recording, as some of the pieces have as much impact on the song as the instruments. First of all, we recorded the live session to tape, which is very uncommon in this day and age. We used a Stephens Electronics reel-to-reel, which David claims is the most esoteric and the best-sounding tape machine ever built. The particular unit we used was also used to make The Wall and Rumors, back in the days that it lived at the Producer's Workshop in Los Angeles.

The guys were delighted to be recording to tape, since many of them have been in studios since tape was the standard. Lots has been said about the sound you can only get from recording to tape, but it also adds something special to the process of recording and the experience of it. I remember Kit taking a deep breath and saying, "Man, there's nothing like the smell of chromium dioxide. I miss that smell."

The other big player was the Helios recording console at Audities. It's the only fully restored Helios console in the world. I named the album after the console, because it was the first project recorded on it after the restoration was completed. Like the tape machine, the console has some interesting provenance in that it comes from Strawberry Studios in England, and was the engine for several Joy Division and 10cc records.

All this to say we could never, never have done the "Astral Weeks" cover without the Audities collection of instruments and gear. I feel extremely fortunate to have had the opportunity to record there.

Did you have anyone backing you? If so, are they folks who regularly back you (either live or in the studio)?

The keyboard parts were played by John Leimseider, who played on a bunch of the songs on Helios and my previous album. He's got this cool style with a little bit of a bluesy touch. And when it comes to keyboards he can do pretty much anything.

The rhythm section were Kit Johnson on bass and Nathan Giebelhaus on drums. The Helios sessions were my first time playing with those guys, but I definitely look forward to working with them again on my next project.

Getting Russell Broom in to play guitar was one of the first choices we made after deciding to cover "Astral Weeks" in the studio. David called him up and said, "What do you think about recording 'Astral Weeks'?" And Russ said, "The whole album?" He would have been into it, too. He showed up with about five guitars and the ukelele. We just turned him loose in the studio and he went to town.

What made you decide to cover "Astral Weeks?"

I fell in love with "Astral Weeks" for so many reasons. The traveling rhythm of Morrison's recording conveys so sweetly a sense of a journey to complement the ecstatic, mystical lyrics. I loved the sensitivity and masculinity of his vocal, and how he just throws himself into phrases. Because it's not just a beautiful song, but also a song about beauty, it's always moved me.

What made you decide to take the approach that you did?

The slower tempo wasn't a conscious decision. It was more a physical response to what the song made me feel. I sat down at the Wurli and let Morrison's images flow through me. The rhythm that emerged is what you hear on the demo and ultimately on the record.

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