24 Jun 2005

Helena Josefsson, backing singer at AGM Studios (X): The Swedish Dream of Doug Wyatt (III)

If you want to know what is doing Helena Josefsson these days, you should go here. Doug Wyatt continues the recordings of his new album at AGM Studios.

Day 11
9 hours sleep last night. Made some progress on assembling the new arrangement for Where You Lay before starting the session. We’re close to being done with this one. 2 down, 7 to go. 7 days left. That probably means finishing 2 a day for the last 4 days, since Tuesday and Wednesday will be drum days (with Jens Jansson), the string quartet will be here Thursday afternoon, and Helena Josefsson will sing Thursday night. That seems only marginally sane yet not impossible. Justin and I liked the so-called crappy Danish roadside restaurant we went to last week so much that we went back this evening. I will suggest that I take a shot at redoing the piano track while Jens is here, either before he plays on it, or maybe even better, at the same time.

Day 12
Did the 15-20 minute walk from the guest house to the studio for the first time, enjoying the perfect weather. Jens arrived around 1; we hung out for quite awhile before getting set up to record drums. We were interrupted by a truck honking; half a ton of 2” tape had arrived from Los Angeles. Justin and I joked that we should have brought it with us since Icelandair seemed so friendly about extra baggage. Dinner at the Danish place again. The poor ancient Volvo stalled while pulling into the restaurant and after dinner I was concerned about it starting again, but it did—then stalled at the corner at the top of the first hill. We push-started it and out of paranoia I kept racing the engine to keep it from stalling once more. But a few kilometers from the studio, it began to sputter again, and I couldn’t keep it running. Possibly an alternator or battery problem. We got out. To the west, golden rays of sun were breaking through the clouds. In front of us was a grass field full of yellow wildflowers. I was reminded of descriptions of heaven by near-death experiencers. Christoffer came to rescue us. Justin and I were advocating a tow truck; Jens and Christoffer were saying no, that would cost a thousand dollars, in Sweden we tow our own cars. Indeed, Christoffer had a tow line, and I steered the Volvo as Christoffer towed us back to the studio. Towing with a line like that is illegal in the U.S. and I see why; my instincts were screaming as we followed Christoffer at probably 70+ km/hr at a distance of just a few meters. Fortunately he slowed down very gradually for the turn, because without the car running, the power brakes didn’t work. It took some time here for Jens to work out parts for the multiple sections, but he made it bigger and more aggressive than Justin or I had imagined based on the demo; somehow the real drums made the electronic percussion sound more evil and alive too.

Day 13
Today we recorded Jens Jansson playing drums. Justin Winokur took Jens back to Malmö so I had dinner with Christoffer and family. After dinner, Christoffer Lundquist took some time off. After maybe 90 minutes, Christoffer came in and started preparing the studio for the string players. Justin returned and helped Christoffer. By midnight, all the string parts were done. There was a silly episode with finding a printer driver for C’s printer. Justin and the Internet came to the rescue. The string charts were sitting in a nice pile on top of my keyboard when we left the studio at the entirely sane hour of 1 am. Tomorrow promises to be a long day—Helena Josefsson arrives to sing at 11 am, and the string quartet arrives at 5 pm. Christoffer's wife asked if I felt homesick. I thought about it and said, no. I mentioned that this area reminds me a lot of the countryside around Ithaca, where I grew up. I thought about home for the first time today when I saw that my bill payer service had received an electric bill that was a little larger than I expected. I just wondered if I’d left anything on. There are people I miss talking to, but I don’t miss my usual routine—I have my musical tools and I’m spending most of my energy making music, so what more could I wish for?

Day 14
Today was indeed a long day. Helena Josefsson came to sing a little after 11 am. First we worked on Cobblestone Mirrors, for which I’d composed an extensive vocal part the week before coming to Sweden. That part shrank a bit when we arranged the song, but it was still substantial; it’s the focal point of the song in three separate sections, one short one with 6-part harmonies, 4 of which she sang triple or quadruple-tracked (the 2 lower ones I will attempt myself, later). She was the consummate pro, needing just a few takes at the beginning to adapt to the situation before nailing most of the rest of the takes on the first try. Her voice has an unusual quality to it, and we later noticed that it bore a surprising resemblance to the vocal stack samples that I’d used when composing the parts. That song took maybe two or two and a half hours. Then we did Where You Lay, where there’s a vocal line just in the chorus (and chorus tail). That went quite quickly, slowed only a little by taking some time to arrange a part for her based on some of the synth lines. On Don’t Know I Know, I’d had an idea: there’s one tiny spot where one of the synth sounds is morphing on the fly, hits a vocal sound and then changes to something else quickly—what if that voice sound were amplified and extended? That was way too subtle. Instead Christoffer made a “vocal fishtank”, a big delay and a bit of distortion “that is unavoidable when you start chaining together lots of analog gear.” Helena just improvised over the track, never having heard it before, and there were a couple of stunningly beautiful moments. It was so good that we did another pass on the whole track and there were some more magic bits that we’ll keep. C said later that it seemed she just got inside the music, and I agreed.
Christoffer suggested that she improvise over Implications, which has some key changes in some surprising places. Since she was hearing it for the first time, it wasn’t surprising that she didn’t always hit the transitions, but on one or two she happened on a common tone between the key. There were some other really nice moments in this one too. We found one choir-like line for her to cover in Artifacts and Fantasies; that went quite quickly. Then on the spot she invented a catchy melody for Serentripidy, which we’d just opened on a whim. We weren’t sure if it takes the song in the direction we’re aiming, but it was a great effort. Helena’s singing moved me to tears at least 5 times over the course of the afternoon. I’d feared that some of the melodies in Cobblestone Mirrors (played by synths in my demos) were too simple, bordering on trite, but sung, they were completely different. I went outside for a smoke and Justin went to pick up pizza from the Danish place. Helena came out and we were still chatting when the string quartet arrived at 5 pm. Justin returned with pizza shortly thereafter, and we asked the string players to please get set up and tuned while we ate quickly. We started with Cobblestone Mirrors where the strings did something I think will mesh nicely with Helena’s vocal. It was quite a rush to hear my first string quartet arrangement played. I was a little concerned about Artifacts and Fantasies; there are a number of bizarre meter shifts that attempt to follow an improv. To add to my anxiety, we’d done something to the sequence that had made the click track out of phase; it took a few minutes to fix that. We started with the end, where the piano, cello and one of the synths are off in a world of odd-length phrases, while the violins and viola superimpose a (mostly) constant quarter-note feel. It took some time to get that section right, but the players graciously worked out phrasing and dynamics despite my charts not having any, and got increasingly comfortable and confident with the part. I was very happy when we finished that song; it sounded so big and alive. Somewhere in there I ended up in the room with the players, doing some kind of impressionistic twisting of the hands, arms and body, in ways that might conceivably assist in the performance and interpretation of the music. Some might call it conducting. I did manage a few gestures to indicate dynamics and downbeats. I was really happy with all of the string parts. Friday is a national holiday in Sweden, Midsummer’s Eve. Christoffer’s family has taken off for the weekend. We’re invited to join them for a celebration.
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