Making the album Turn was a new kind of project both for me and the band. It started from a different concept, went through a different process, and the outcome, I hope is something fresh and powerful.
Over the years 2016 to 2019 I recorded two albums with Gerry Callaghan as producer and engineer. One was a Heaven Sent album In Another Life and the other the solo album Ten Objects. Gerry is all about the song. He’s a singer-songwriter par excellence and a great storyteller. He’s interested in a singer-songwriter telling their story over the minimum instrumentation necessary to create the right atmosphere. During In Another Life he sometimes had to restrain me from adding more and more elaboration to the arrangements, but often he let me have my way. The practicalities of this meant the band added their parts in overdubbing sessions over many, many months.
At the end of what was actually a very successful, if exhausting, process he gave me a challenge to make a stripped down voice-and-guitar record. It was a good challenge and resulted in Ten Objects, which this time satisfied us both in that I got some arrangement in, but Gerry’s restraint resulted in a beautifully understated, direct set of songs.
Then came COVID. In December 2019 I undertook to create a new recording each month (sometimes a new song, more often completing sketches I already had on the PC) and share them only with my email subscribers. This was as much to address my own procrastination as anything else. This time it was all me, overdubbing, but in my own time. I’d learned enough from working with Gerry to be fairly confident in the engineering side of recording. Any notions of consistency or genre went out the window and the results varied widely. I thought they were all good songs, but only a few I thought ended up as good recordings. I made two of them public – Gurus At The Bar and Crow – and Gerry and I shared one co-write – Coffee Man. The rest are waiting for me to revisit them and improve the recordings.
Before COVID I’d met Jennifer Clark at a gig we played in The Village in Leith. She was interested in recording us, but hadn’t heard any of our tracks. She just thought the Heaven Sent had a good live sound and was interested in trying to capture that. I’d heard the tracks she’d produced for Liz Jones and several people told me how good she was in the studio so I decided an album with Jen focusing on the live band sound would be the next project.
Recording started on a weekend in September 2021. The basic tracks – guitars, bass, drums and guide vocal – were laid down on that weekend and another in October. We opted for the Beatles way of working – record full band takes over and over again. While the Beatles would end up with over 50 takes of a song we tended to make do with seven or eight. We then chose auditioned every take, bar by bar, and Jen had the skill in Reaper to stitch together multiple takes where for example the bass was better in take 2 and the drums in take 5. James, Fi and Suzy were in one room. If I was playing acoustic rhythm I was in another room; if electric I was with them.
By the end of 2021 we had eight songs ready to finesse. Other commitments, family issues, jobs, COVID infections and lots of other things meant the sessions in 2022 were quite spread out, but we added percussion, lead guitars, lead vocals, backing vocals and ‘ear candy’ up till the summer of 2022. We decided to add two more songs, for which I provided some candidates and the band and Jen made the decision (my usual urge towards melancholy ballads was overridden!). Because we’d been working together so long, the process for these two – Nothing Through the Rain and What Use Is That? was much quicker.
Jen was loud, funny and full of enthusiasm in the studio while maintaining a cool head for quality control. She knew how many takes I would need to do for a lead vocal to build up some energy in the first couple of takes, get it right in the next few, and begin to run out of steam after that. The energy and spark she provided gave us the momentum to do take after take until we found ourselves really giving the song what it needed. And to describe fully the experience of recording with Jen we need to give credit to the amazing lunches provided by her wife Tina just when we needed a boost!
When recording In Another Life with Gerry, I had arrangements in my head for most of the songs and I strongly influenced what everyone played, although they still managed to surprise me. With these songs the process was more like Robert Fripp’s with King Crimson – “I’m going to play this. What are you going to play?” Both She Wants Out and What Use Is That? had already been arranged by the band members on pandemic-time video stitchups and we stayed pretty close to those. The only song where I took a strong hand in the arrangement – which is very unintuitive and would never have been arrived at any other way – was The Right Thing, which was based on a song I’d done with the band Bespoke a few years earlier.
I was amazed at what the band came up with. Suzy gave us solid, right-first-time drumming and constantly surprising percussion to lift and highlight passages. My favourite example is the djembe that comes in towards the end of Living Water. Fi brought in carefully crafted and composed guitar solos and creative ideas for backing vocals (see Nothing Through the Rain). The only thing I actually asked her to do was the operatic vocal on A Careless Blow on which, after some initial trepidation, she made the song her own. James played melodic and perfectly timed bass, never drawing attention to itself but locking with Suzy and filling just the right sonic area of each song. James was also the guy who brought vocal and melodic ideas to rescue us from ‘What will we do here?’ impasses that stopped us from time to time.
The backing vocals sessions were especially enjoyable. The four of us sat in the control room behind Jen, singing each part in unison and layering them up, often composing as we went. I love the choir in the last chorus of A Careless Blow.
None of the songs were written specially for this project. Most of them are from the last five years but some go back further: Living Water and Call Back Fall Back to the early 2000s (the latter on my first album, The Wolf Who Snared the Moon, in 2004) and Nothing Through the Rain was based on song I wrote in 1978!
Asking for help
Just as it was a relief in the recording to NOT do everything myself, I’ve been happy to get help with other aspects. The artists who did the title graphic and calligraphy – Masrofik and Jacey Peake – I found on the freelance site Fiverr. Through my guitar teacher, Ged Brockie, I got help with social media marketing from his son Ewan. Liz Jones had done the artwork for my last two albums and I was happy to get her involved on this one.
Making an album costs a fair bit. Living on a pension, how did I do it? I tried various routes for grants for recording – Creative Scotland, Help Musicians – without success. I don’t have a big enough following for crowdfunding. But for the last five or six years I’ve been using an app called Plum, which looks at your current account every now and then and calculates a small amount you can spare without affecting your normal living expenses, and shuffles that off into a separate savings account. I was able to painlessly keep on top of the recording, duplication and marketing costs simply by using what Plum had saved.
We will play these songs live at every opportunity, try to get radio play and raise my miserable streaming count. I’ve a few possible pictures in mind for the next twelve months. One being a demand on myself to record something completely new and unlike what I’ve written before, using a new set of ‘rules’; another involves writing from scratch with the band, a further step along the road towards collective composition. As I approach a late and significant birthday I don’t see myself continuing the same musical trajectory much longer, but I still feel there’s something I can contribute and I’m working to chip away at what that is.