The first half of the week was spent deep in mix mode, working my way thru the Phantom Sound album. Not much playing, most of that was done already in the sessions. Maybe a bit of re-amping, a backing vocal, perhaps? It kind of blurs together, mixing an album is an intense process, but a rewarding one, I was loving how the tracks were coming together. One interesting thing is that, of all things, a hi fi shop is about to open in our neighborhood. It’s an odd choice, I don’t know which clientele they are after, it’s a lot of grandmas in our neighborhood. But I’ll take it! I think I’d like an alternative speaker set to what I have now, the Schaub-Lorenz are really old fashioned sounding, not super clear. So, it’s a little hard to judge certain aspects of mixes. But, I was surprised how good the mixes were sounding on headphones, and when I got to Paris (more on that in a minute) I checked them on the big JBL’s I have there, and they really sounded great.
So, yes, Tuesday I worked until mid afternoon, had a bath, packed up my studio so the exterminator would have freedom of movement (the flea battle continues) when he came by the next day. Aden came home from school and we all headed to the station in Tours to see me off. We walked to the tram, and took it to the station, and I got on the shuttle train to St. Pierre Des Corps, just 7 minutes down the line. Aden drew hearts in the dusty windows of the train and a backwards (to me) ‘je t’aime’.
Got to St. Pierre, my train was delayed a little but not much. On the train I worked, and the trip went by so fast…cabbed home, and was soon having a meeting with a musician about a really interesting project involving an artist that we both mutually admire. Can’t tell you more.
When he left, I really should be going to bed but there was a half bottle of wine left from Dom’s visit the previous week, some chocolate and what not. I cranked up the Phantom Sound mixes and made notes. Then I hit the sack, and was up the next morning and out the door for my 6.25 train to Antwerp. Most of the train ride I was preparing a new song, with all the tracks coming from various sources, into a presentable rough mix. It’s a lot of tracks so I didn’t finish that task in the entire journey. Deep in Antwerp’s incredibly-engineered train station, I was pleased to find my train to Roosendaal was on the same track. So, I boarded that, and got off after the 20 minute ride, and was pleased to find my train to Middelburg was also on the same track. There were a few of us waiting for it. Well, it was on the same track, but it snuck in and was on the platform about 70 meters away…we all realized it only when there were about 2 minutes left before it was to leave. We all ran and made it on board.
At Middelburg, I was met by Nicole Bianchet and our recording engineer Willy Berrevoets and we headed to start gathering supplies for the studio. Nicole, you’ve read about her here. She lives in Middelburg, originally born in the US but grew up in Germany, mostly. If I understood correctly her parents each have a different nationality, at least one is Italian, like her last name. She’s a very talented and successful painter, often making massive works, wall sized or bigger. By her own admission she came to songwriting and guitar playing relatively late in life, but she has to her musical credit years of opera training, she can do wonderfully spooky backing vocals with her technique. Her songs generally revolve around simple fingerpicked chords, sometimes with unnervingly chromatic progressions; sometimes they’re gentle and folky. Her lyrics are always moving; I’ve covered her songs live in a few occasions. When she contacted me out of the blue a year ago, looking for someone to mix her album (with a budget that allowed to spend maybe 4 days on it) and sent me a sample track, I was…phew! Immediately attached to her music. It’s so touching. And this led to a real odyssey; 12 months later, we’re working on her *third* album. We recorded the last one in November, the same we we just did the new one; we head to Willy’s studio, assemble ourselves into a small band, and cut song after song live. Nicole plays guitar or the ‘guitarlele’ that she writes a lot of the songs on — it’s like a 6 string guitar, but a fifth higher in pitch. Jaimy Quite plays drums and percussion (and on this album, he ended up doing vocals, piano…) and I fill in on the rest. I played bass, guitar, keys, glockenspiel, and did some backing vocals as well. We work out the arrangements on the spot, track as quick as we can, move on soon. I have the job of keeping us on track, to record 12 songs 2 days, which is what we did last time, and this time. OK, two and half days this time. Willy’s studio is really nice sounding, great old German broadcast desk, plate reverbs, and a nice acoustic space, great mics. He’s a great engineer and tho he’s a perfectly capable producer, he’s OK with deferring to my calls; there are plenty of times when I’ve seen something, and neither he nor Nicole even like the idea, let alone can see where I’m going with it. That’s hard work…but I’m impossible to discourage, and I have to say, it’s tough for Nicole–she’s just getting the feel of these newer songs herself, and I take them and run off in a direction, and more or less require everyone to have patience, strap it on and see it thru with me. Plus she has to perform, with conviction, and the song’s new environment may be something she hasn’t connected with yet. It’s a serious challenge to all of us; and the fact that it has to be done in 2 days…there’s zero time for doubt, reflection, debate…it’s pretty exhilarating, and I think the results are incredible. We have to keep it simple, very few overdubs. Some songs work fine with just Nicole playing and singing alone. Some are more elaborate, but not *much more*. There’s one song that is one chord, it’s like a mantra as made by Iron & Wine, we had a banjo player come in and track with us live. All of Nicole’s vocals are cut live as we track. That’s *really* hard. And Nicole is hard to satisfy in terms of her own performances…if it were up to her she’d spend a lot more time crafting a vocal, trying different things. I have totally reign that in and decide it’s done when it’s done…again, for her, psychologically hard to do. I mean, she knows she had only the budget to hire studio and players and me for a couple of days, and I think these extreme restrictions are, in the end, excellent for her art. There are moments where we just don’t know if some new concept I’ve proposed is working, we’re all lost in the dark, and then…it comes together, what a rush…but, man, considering the sessions started fresh off that 5 hour, crack of dawn travel…I was beat when it was over…destroyed. And we had a show to play.
This was the morning that a total solar eclipse would pass over the Faroe Island and Svalbard, and would be a significant near-total eclipse for much of northern Europe. Unfortunately, the clouds were thick this day — it was dark *anyway*. So, it was hard to tell. It seemed to get a little darker at the appointed time, but nothing dramatic.
This morning Willy (who really was more than just an engineer, he really facilitated so many things for us this week, such a hard working and generous guy) picked us up in his trusty old Volvo and took us the regional TV & Radio station, Omroep Zeeland. You can watch a short video of our performance and hear audio from the broadcast here. We had a great little interview, Nicole and I, and then she, myself, and Jaimy did one of her songs from the last album live on air. Jaimy is also really an incredible force of support for Nicole, musically, and just general moral support. He’s a great musician, and of course…I threw him curveball after curveball. Much of the stuff they prepared together for the album I tossed out on day one — it was too aggressive for Nicole’s songs, in the end. In my opinion, of course, but I feel good about the decision, even tho they were disappointed that that hard work rehearsing was for naught. But, these are the decisions that have to be on my shoulders–that’s what they’re asking me to do — decide. Choose. Weed out the infinite options to an executable, musically beautiful, final album. Nicole wanted to do a lot more vocal layering, and I was resisting her on that much of the time. I was trying to eliminate clutter; she felt understandably exposed with just a vocal, and maybe a harmony or two…but this is a *good* thing. It’s exposing the beauty of a great singer and songwriter. I see no wrong in that, that’s for sure.
Anyway, after the radio we went back to the studio and did the last overdubs. Then we packed up and headed to the venue, De Spot. Tidy place, just the right size. We were set up on some small risers in front of the big stage in the main room, with oriental rugs underneath. Lovely. We retrieved Nicole’s piano from her cute little house in town. We had borrowed for the session and show a strat and a Yamaha 5 string bass (the only thing he had to lend) from Sjak Zwier in Vlissingen, who, during Eva Auad‘s album sessions the year before last, set up my guitars and got me some new cases. Jaimy had a cajon, a snare a hi hat and cymbal. Nicole had her guitar and guitarlele. I played guitar thru Nicole’s digital guitar effects pedalboard, and Jaimy’s amp. Jaimy asked me if I’d sit in with the first act on, with whom he was also playing, a guitar player named Joep Pelt. Since that was a little louder, I realized I’d need earplugs and they were in my backpack at Nicole’s house. No problem – I borrowed Jaimy’s bike, Nicole’s keys, and found her house with no problems (driving in these medieval towns in Zeeland is very winding and circular) and came back with Nicole’s merch of the first album. The album we were presenting tonite, the one we recorded last year — isn’t out yet. It’s being absorbed in to a larger project with her visual art, so stay tuned. But, she burned some CDs, and hand painted labels for them, then painted a cover that she could fold up from one piece of paper, she photocopied the original and it looks quite cool, actually.
So, Joep played solo, guitar and resonator, he’s very into the blues, but has also traveled to Mali, Ethiopia…he’s studied a lot of kinds of guitar playing and made several albums. He’s a tall white boy from Amsterdam, but he feels the blues, and gives it to us, unfiltered. I came up and played bass on an original number and a cover of JJ Cale’s “After Midnight” that turned into an Afrobeat jam in the end.
Then it was my turn, I stepped off the stage, and did some guitar numbers, on the self tuning strat (yes, it has a little uh, doohickey on the headstock that automatically tunes the strings mechanically) and then sat at the piano to play a song and realized Nicole’s piano is really weird–it has no velocity sensibility, despite having weighted keys. What the…no matter how light your touch, it plays the note at fff. Well, that wasn’t going to work…I did a couple of louder songs on it, but…back to guitar. I finished up with “Doesn’t It Remind You”, unplanned (like all my sets). I didn’t want to put Eva out again, so I never asked her to do it, but…I started to sing it, hoping…and bless her, she stood up and joined me, and sang the living shit out of it. She’s a good soul. And a hell of a singer.
Then we set up for Nicole’s set. I just played guitar, since the piano wasn’t really going to work for her very delicate music. We played songs from all three albums, with backing vocals from both Jaimy and myself. Nicole has really bad stage fright, and that made her mix up some chords now and then, which of course made her more nervous. She wasn’t that happy with the show, but she has no idea how touching she is, just being herself, nerves and all. I loved it, I thought we did a better job of carrying the connection between the three of us than we did at her last show; of course, that last record release show was the night *before* we recorded album #2. Now, with those two sessions behind us…it’s gotten so seamless that it would be easy to miss it; the connection can be almost taken for granted.
After it was done, I was beyond tired, and I had a very short night ahead. We left the gear at the venue, and walked to her place. I was already asleep by the time I was saying goodnight.
You can see photos and read a really nice review (in Dutch) from the national broadcaster’s regional site here.
ST. LYS, 3/21
We started walking (she knew the way, I wasn’t sure) at 6.30 to the station in Middelburg. This morning was spectacular. We’d had studio weather all week — oppressive grey skies, cold and soggy air. But this was the golden light of Renaissance painting, topped with creamy pale blue. We marveled. Then I got on the train, for the almost two hours journey to Rotterdam. I didn’t want to fall asleep and miss the stop, so I worked on the rough mix. At Rotterdam, I hopped off, went down to the main passage of the station, found the platform for my train to Paris, it was soon there and now I could sleep a bit. I woke up after a couple hours and worked on the next Phantom Sound mix. Once in Paris, I went home, then went in search of lunch, which I had at Welcome Bio, the restaurant that my favorite organic grocery maintains. You’re packed in next to strangers–there’s not many tables there, and word is out. The kitchen is right there next to you, it’s all one space, occupying a small storefront. You get one plate, but that plate has several little recipes coexisting, marvelously intense flavors. It’s not veg, there was chicken as one of the components. But the veggies that are there are crisp and fresh and gorgeous. The dessert was superb, too, a wonderfully most slice of cake with a spoonful of creamy chocolate next to it.
I’d grabbed my favorite gluten free/sugar free/corn free muesli at the Welcome Bio shop, too, since it was sold out in Tours last time I went looking for it. I stopped by my Paris studio to give it a peck on the cheek, then went to have a coffee at the Atelier Da Rosa. this is the office and test kitchen for a well known restaurant in St. Germain. It’s across the street from Aden’s former school, but at that time, it was just the office and test kitchen; now they’ve opened the front space as a cafe, and FINALLY, gourmet espresso has come to my ‘hood. They have great cakes and cookies, and sell teas, chocolates, and their own roast of coffee too. And beer, too, if you like that sort of thing.
I went home, grabbed my stuff, and headed to Orly. Snoozed a bit on the plane to Toulouse. We landed, and I found my dreams of seeing some early spring weather were to be dashed; it was dismal and grey, rain in sheets on the tarmac. At the airport I was met by Serge from Bang! Records–no, not the label that released Neil Diamond’s early singles, this is a garage rock label in Toulouse. Bang released the album by the Sad Knights that I produced and play on. And in fact, it was a Sad Knights reunion that was on the docket for tonite. Eric Baldini, bass player of the band, is a fan of my work; originally he hired me to come and play a solo gig at he and his wife’s anniversary party; from I produced his old band Palace of Sin (weird story on that– we did four great songs, and then the singer, Gil, simply disappeared. With no explanation he just…never spoke to his friends again, changed jobs, and has dropped off the face of the earth. So the recordings were never released which is a pity, I love the mixes, the I love the performances, it’s good stuff). Then he had Jon & I play a private show at some point, then we did the Sad Knights album (also recorded in, I think…3 days?) and did quite a few shows to support it. That was, oh…2009? Eric turned 50 this week, and threw himself a two-day bash where his friends played music, and much fun was had.
So, Serge and I navigated out to the site — a rental hall out in the countryside outside Toulouse. The place is owned by a couple, she’s Swedish, and he’s Irish, they met when they were in Toulouse working for the same company, and have stayed ever since. Really nice people. So, all the people I’ve met in my many visits to Toulouse with Eric and other projects were there. After we watched Palace of Sin (and tonite, Sad Knights) guitarist Paul’s 13 year old daughter sing, accompanied by the owner of the hall, Lotte, on piano, and Lotte herself did a couple of songs. Then we set up the Sad Knights, and with no rehearsal…bang…we played a killer set. I was feeling very free on the piano and organ, and really feeling those songs from 6 years ago like we’d played them the night before. I had a blast, and the band sounded great. The music is a mix of country/gospel/blues/rock, with enigmatic singer and guitarist Simon, Eric on bass, Paul on rhythm guitar, and a great drummer, Christian. People really loved it, I got a lot of compliments on my playing. Now, I could party, and watch the rest of the music…a set of 50s rock covers from Les Ennuis Commencent (“The Boredoms Begin”) and then jamming with Misty White, a wonderful transplant from Memphis (former Panther Burns drummer, too) now living here, fitting right into that little scene around Bang! Records and all the garage rockers associated with it, Gilles Riberolles (more on him in a sec) etc. I just drank champagne, ate cake, and danced around. We were there til 4am, I think…
I didn’t want to get up, really, but I did. Had just a yoghurt and a mandarin for breakfast, slept another hour. We all stayed out in a hotel in a town just up the road from the rental hall. At 11.30 I met Eric in the lobby and we drove in to town, and got to Made In Records, super groovy vinyl record store specializing in blues, jazz, funk & soul. That whole street, rue Cujas, is full of really cool looking clothing shops, both new and vintage, record stores, the hipster-obligatory cupcake shop…everything was closed as it was Sunday, but still…nice atmosphere. Patrick, the owner, laid out a table of paté, bread, sliced ‘saucisson’, cornichons, fruit juice and really lovely wine, and kept replenishing it. The doors were open to all, and after we made noise for a while people started to gather. Gilles played, he does a kind of Tav Falco/Bob Log III jazz with a loop pedal, very cool. Leather-clad Francky Stein tore into Elvis covers on a resonator guitar…he’s a madman! hopping around, veins popping in his neck…like, wow. Then an Aussie expat named Tim, who I’d met at the party, did some great songs on his acoustic, and had me join him on a cover of Big Star’s “Kanga Roo” (cuz he’s Australian, you see…)
Then I did my set, dispensing as I do with the PA, sometimes even playing outside the shop. I did songs new and old, even a blues cover. I was tired as hell but the wine and yummy food made me fell warm, and my voice held up quite well, really. There were some real fans there, and then some folks who were curious– I met a couple from Chicago who were doing an apartment swap and just wandered in, they ended up buying two CDs from me, for example. I closed my set with a “Happy Birthday” version for Eric.
After my set, Misty did her thing…I mean, if you know Memphis, you know her…she sums it up perfectly. She’s primitive, but wise. She’s charming, but just deranged enough to make it interesting. I love her stuff. It’s three chords, but it’s got that…Memphis vibe..it don’t need to be complicated to be deep. In fact, quite the opposite. Too complicated and you’re just covering up the wisdom. She was backed by Serge from the label…neither of ’em were anywhere near a tuner, they were almost in different keys…and it just…didn’t…matter. Serge did a couple of acoustic songs, and then Francky got up and played AGAIN…doing a terrifying dobro version of “What a Wonderful World”…imagine it as a kind of psychobilly song…wow. Serge backed him too. A few people had shown up late for my set and missed most of it, so I took the guitar, and with Francky backing me on bottleneck, I did “Solar Sister” and Big Star’s “When My Baby’s Beside Me”…
when it was all done, Eric had to load up and get to the second night of his party, at the same place out of town, with his and Serge’s band Staretz, etc. I was toast. I was sad the Indian place across the street from the store had closed up after lunch, I was hoping to take a ‘lapin tandoori’ to go…gotta try that sometime. I had Eric drop me at the hotel, where I listened to music, wrote this blog, did some mails, and now will get something like 7 hours of sleep…6am train tomoro…good night all
St. Lys, FRANCE