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The Future of Music is Vocal

27 Sep

I was waiting to go onstage at the Gold Coast Arts Centre watching a girl my age belt out a Whitney Houston song complete with fast gospel flourishes and big vibrato.

This was at the one and only Eisteddfod I ever completed at. From memory, I sang ‘Just You Wait’ from My Fair Lady in the Musical Theatre category, ‘A Piper’ by Michael Head in the Art Music category and ‘Georgie Girl’ by The Seekers in the pop category.

I vividly remember feeling vocally old-fashioned next to mini-Whitney, and kind of amazed that she had so quickly integrated these ‘new’ r’n’b pop vocal sounds into her style only a year or two after the song was released.

Today I was reading a cool Pitchfork article on how Auto-Tune, the now-ubiquitous vocal-bubbling software made famous by Cher’s Believe, has revolutionised the music industry. In it is a link to a video by Emma Robinson who has learned to sing like Auto-Tune sounds.

I felt again exactly like I felt standing sidestage at the Eisteddfod, like I was watching the future of music happen without me in my specialist area. (For the technically-minded, she’s precisely manipulating her voice’s ‘yodel’ capacity, where you flip your focal folds from thick to stiff vocal mass.)

I’m a singer by both inclination and training. I’ve been thinking a lot about the place of vocals in contemporary music, and my vocal sound in particular, this year. It’s not like there’s a good vocalists magazine to read, like guitarists have, that talk about our artistic process as singers. In fact, as visible as we are in music, there’s still a huge veil of mystery over how we decide on the sounds we make.

If you’re on the mailing list, you read in the last Wasp Summer newsletter, that the vocals are the last thing to do on my endlessly upcoming ‘Mitropa’ album, and I was stalling out of fear. I just did an intense 5-day Estill Voice course where I got to workshop vocals I’m recording for the ‘Mitropa’ album. I would say I write lyrics and melodies very much for the flexibility of my voice, but I would never have described myself as using my voice impressionistically as an instrument until I was demonstrating the songs to other singers, and getting their feedback and questions on the qualities I chose.

In the Pitchfork article, the writer says, “doing weird shit with the human voice has been the cutting edge for well over a decade now”. As a fan of Björk, Meredith Monk, Diamanda Galas and the Cocteau Twins, I would argue that it’s been cutting edge longer than that, but we keep getting caught up in the pleasant, polite and faux-rebellious.

Two vocal recording microphones - an AKG pencil mic and a Neumann condenser.On and off since June, I’ve been recording vocals with the lovely Chris Lastelle from Pebble Music. He keeps telling me what I hear as ‘imperfections’ are part of the character of my unusual voice. As, essentially, a pop writer, I think I got caught up in the idea of pleasantness even while writing vocals that challenge me to push the limits of my pop melodies and lyrics. But somehow, today, I feel less anxious that my voice should sound some other, cleaner way, and happier with what is – the sound of the voice I’ve created and use intentionally to convey meaning.

And, as of yesterday, we’ve put Stolen Kisses, Hot Engine and Two Horses in the can. 3 of 10 down. 7 to go. I’ll tease the sound of the new record when we’ve got mixes next month.

If you want to catch up more often, Wasp Summer is on Twitter or Facebook.

You can also check in on my Berlin house concert series Sofa Salon on Facebook or Instagram, and you can find out about Kreativ Workshop Berlin, the company I co-founded with James Trottier to teach creative problem solving through songwriting, on Twitter and Instagram.

Cheers,
Samantha

Why Mitropa has taken so long

18 Jun

I was talking to a woman at a concert about the extraordinary American singer-songwriter, Neko Case. I said, her voice on record is my benchmark, the definition of bell-like precision with passion. The woman laughed and said, to her, Neko represents the ultimate raw, one-take beauty-in-imperfection voice. We laughed. Our visions of this artist, and her great gift to music, were so different.

This difference cuts to the very heart of why my second Wasp Summer record has taken 3 ½ years and counting. I’ve sat on the bass and drum tracks we recorded in February 2015, sporadically adding guitars, organs, sounds and harmonies, revising the production notes. Not including recovering from depression, breakups, financial issues and the dissolution of the band itself, the thing I have been stalling on was recording the vocals.

Wasp Summer Recording - 3 (1)

I have lived with this set of songs for so long. The oldest song, Lights On Eyes Open, dates to 2005, and the rest between 2010 and 2015. Perhaps surprisingly, they still thrill me. I feel I captured what I wanted to say on each track and that it’s a cohesive album.

It’s the responsibility of transmitting the soul of each song in the most direct, most emotionally available manner that has been the mental block for me. Unlike the ephemerality of live performance, the permanence of the album vocals became terrifying.

As I recorded at home, in my safest space, I loved the takes I got, but as I listened back, my fear kicked in. An unstoppable internal critic picked apart every phrase for pitching errors, inauthenticity, hollowness, inadequacy. The reference songs I used to guide the mood of each take (mainly Cocteau Twins, Pretenders, Motels, Fleetwood Mac, Mirah, Kate Bush, Linda Ronstadt, PJ Harvey, Triffids and Divinyls) became towering and inaccessible.

I tried editing together ‘perfect’ vocals from the various takes I recorded. Something I have tried twice before. The result is always the same, a dead-sounding vocal line. I rerecorded them over and over. I tried different microphones. I reminded myself to be kind. I left the songs alone for a year. Nothing made me comfortable with leaving these vocals to posterity. I stopped talking about the record. Despaired.

I feel ashamed of this fear and delay. I’m strong psychologically. I finish what I start. Don’t I? This is my novel, my movie, my creative heart. I’m a trained singer. I’ve been doing this for 27 years. They’re my damn songs. I don’t know if this is common. I’ve hear about a million different approaches, including the singer of a famous German band who happily plays to 20,000 people a night but needs everyone to leave the studio when he records vocals.

My heart says be one-take Neko. My head says be bell-like, perfect Neko, and a relentless perfectionist, and when will you ever get there?

Earlier this year, a friend, and the engineer who recorded the original bass and drum tracks, asked me what was happening with the record. I told him I was stalled on the vocals, and couldn’t get perspective on them. I said I needed to save some money, hire a nice mic or find a producer to help me get good takes and finish the record. I told him I wanted someone to tell me if it was good and honest, or if they thought I could dig a bit deeper. I just wanted some support. It’s hard work finishing a record alone.

He offered a lifeline. I help him with vocals and backing vocals on his record in exchange for him recording mine and acting as producer, talking me through the rest of the recording. So far, we’ve done two songs, and I’ve revised the entire album, replacing or adding guitars, sounds and keys.

I’m still excited by the songs, and although the urge to pick apart my vocals is still there, I like the energy of the takes we’ve done. We’ve found the microphone combination I’ll use for the whole record – a Neumann condenser and an AKG pencil mic. Check out those beauties!
Two vocal recording microphones - an AKG pencil mic and a Neumann condenser.We’re going for no more than three takes of each track, and I’m hoping the relaxed and supportive atmosphere will still my devilish urge to rip my own singing to shreds.

I feel confident that I’ll both actually finish this record this year and have the money to mix, master and release it. Finally. I’d really, really like to have my albums available on vinyl.

Would you buy vinyl through a pre-order campaign on bandcamp? Would you prefer a CD or download?

I’d really appreciate if readers who can support me could let me know which format they’re likely to choose. It takes some logistical planning and timing to put an album release together and deliver by the due date.

Thanks for reading. I’d love to hear from you.

– Samantha, Berlin.

Crucial albums #2: Talk Talk’s Laughing Stock

12 May Crucial album #2: Talk Talk's Laughing Stock

Inspired by that facebook game where you list 10 important albums, I realised that many of my favourite albums are not the ones that shaped my music or songwriting directly.

I want to explore the albums that changed how I thought about my practice as a singer and songwriter, and that are direct influences on Mitropa, the Wasp Summer album I’m currently making.

Number 2 must be Talk Talk’s avant-jazz-rock masterpiece ‘Laughing Stock’.

Talk Talk’s final album Laughing Stock is an entirely appropriate album to come after the Cocteau Twins. Another record that nails the balance between melodic beauty and noise, sung in glossolalia and with the most amazing sense of space.

The track Ascension Day is actually super important to the writing that went towards the next Wasp Summer album, and I have Chris Chapple to thank for the introduction. I can still see the scene, bathed in beeswax-yellow light, in his old St. Kilda living room as The Mime Set gathered for a rehearsal/writing session for our second album.

It may have been the same night I cried behind the door as we ran an early version of Honey O, and Andrew gently asked if I wanted my lyrics to be that nakedly honest. Yes, I do. Always.

That’s the thing about this album. It’s achingly truthful. I can make out words here an there, but even through abstractly-sung text, the emotional through-line of this album is pure and true.

Even though the album was painstakingly assembled collage-style from over 7 months of improvised recordings, this album is honest and brutal and true.

Released on the Verve jazz label, it’s more akin to jazz than the glossy, clever pop they made before, but also lays the foundation for post rock, a territory, along with dream pop, that I spent a good part of my 20s travelling.

To make music where “The record was “only complete” when the band’s Mark Hollis felt each guest musician had “expressed their character and refined their contribution to the purest, most truthful essence,” is the dream, isn’t it?

Check out my crucial album #1: Cocteau Twins ‘Heaven or Las Vegas’

Crucial albums #1: Cocteau Twins ‘Heaven or Las Vegas’

21 Apr The Cocteau Twins' Heaven or Las Vegas

Inspired by that facebook game where you list 10 important albums, I realised that many of my favourite albums are not the ones that shaped my music or songwriting directly.

I want to explore the albums that changed how I thought about my practice as a singer and songwriter, and that are direct influences on Mitropa, the Wasp Summer album I’m currently making.

Number 1 must be the Cocteau Twins masterpiece ‘Heaven or Las Vegas’.

Oh, this album, beginning to end, blows my mind. In 1994, I escaped an increasingly dangerous relationship and was relieved to move into a sharehouse in Lismore with 4 other women, located above a veterinary surgery. Collectively and consciously, we explored ritual paganism, argued theology with the Mormons that came each week to save us, and smoked more weed than was strictly necessary. I saw some weird shit.

I started off living behind a makeshift curtain in the kitchen until a room became available. Then I moved into the least psychedelically-wallpapered of the rooms, affectionately known as the Triffid Room.

A lot of music that is important to me (Pink Floyd, PJ Harvey, the Clouds) came out of this room and this year, as did my first attempts at songwriting. Rachel the Cone Queen stole this record from her sister, but it lived for the entire year in my room where I attempted to rationalise its immense harmony while drifting off into its etheric spheres.

This album remains an act of divinity to me. The Cocteaus’ perfect pop moment. The post-punk textures they had been developing all the way along, Liz Fraser’s astonishing vocal style, the pulsing bass and drum machines, liquified into a weird, dreamy and pleasurable set of songs that blew open my expectations of what I could do, what the human voice could do, what guitars could sound like.

It was the precursor chemical to so much of the music that made my music sound the way it does. At least, most of what I did with The Mime Set and Wasp Summer was me aiming for this kind of freedom.

Upon reflection, Annie Lennox and Liz Fraser are largely responsible for the beautiful oddness of my sense of harmony.

 

Mitropa, Mitropa

26 May

The new Wasp Summer album cometh

In February, Simon and I started recording the second Wasp Summer album. In previous letters, you read about Wasp Summer’s history, so you know that this is our first album as a band. The name Mitropa comes from a railway company that ran sleeping and dining cars across Central Europe from 1916-1994.

The new songs are muscular and outward-looking. Living and touring in Mitteleuropa has definitely influenced the themes and the tempo of the songs. Imagine long journeys through the night between one mysterious metropolis and another. That’s what this album will sound like.

We recorded over three days at Pebble Music’s studio in the old DDR Rundfunk Buildings in Köpenick, working with drummer Romain who plays with Elyas Khan and the 17 Hippies.

Go here to Soundcloud if you want an idea of what the new songs sound like.

See you at a show. If you want to chat, Wasp Summer is on Twitter or Facebook.
Cheers,
Samantha

Aside

Album review by Slapped For The Very First Time

7 Oct

Slapped For The Very First Time posted an unexpected and really lovely and review of the first Wasp Summer record, Close As A Slow Dance. Thank you, Espen. “…there is a voice – both literally and musically – shining through that seems capable of winning you over with an even more distinct identity of its own come the next release.”

http://slappedfortheveryfirsttime.blogspot.no/2014/10/06102014-wasp-summer-close-as-slow-dance.html

Inspiration from The Wasp Woman

18 May

On this, Eurovison Final Day, my vegetables and flowers are healthy on the balcony, someone is playing Debussy figures downstairs in the music school and my head is a-whirl with plans.

My friend (and soon to be collaborator in an Alt.Country musical) Jason, found this fantastic movie poster for my birthday. The Wasp Woman is a Roger Corman B-Movie from 1959 about a cosmetics mogul and badass who takes wasp royal jelly serum to become fabulously youthful.
Let’s overlook the gaping scientific flaws in the film’s premise and the thematic rip from The Fly, but when I saw this, I felt fabulously badass too.

It’s good timing because I’m working on the production notes for some new full-band recordings. Next month, we get to test out some cool DDR microphones in a new studio set-up. If the collaboration works, we’ll be making the new WS album as my annual Winter Project.

I often use visual inspiration to help me set the stylistic tone for a new project. The Wasp Woman‘s noir-ish colour scheme, melodrama, feminine force and, of course, the overt wasp theme, is a helpful focus point while I work on the sounds I want on guitar and from Simon’s bass and Stu’s drums.

Storyboard for 'Close as a Slow Dance'My first record, Close as a Slow Dance, was deep pomegranate, black and dusky earthen colours. Perfectly appropriate for the alt.country folk on the disk.

I’ll take down the old album’s collage storyboards on my wall and start making new ones while I work on the sounds I want on guitar and from Simon’s bass and Stu’s drums – more fuzz, more muscle, more groove. You can hear my home demo for new song Burning here to give you an idea.

While the Summer looks incredibly busy, Autumn and Winter are going to be digging-in time writing the rest of the songs that will make up the album, playing more with the band and finally learning more German.
Enjoy the melodrama of Eurovision and hopefully we’ll meet in a smoky basement somewhere and share some new songs.

Cheers,
Sam Wasp Summer

Our Old Oblivion shoebox theatre film clip

4 Jul

Our Old Oblivion (test video 1) from WaspSummer on Vimeo.

After yesterday’s post, I took some test footage of my shoebox theatre using candles for backlighting and Thai ball lights and a bicycle light for front lighting. This is the 2nd edit. I’d appreciate feedback on my experiments and how to do this better.

I have written video treatments for 2.5 songs from my debut album (see sidebar to hear the tracks!) but I have no budget to have a film clip made. When I was a kid, my Dad obtained books where you cut out and glued together your own scale model cardboard theatre and Victorian house. I couldn’t bear to cut the books up, but it stayed in my mind.

When I thought about making this filmclip, Our Old Oblivion, in particular, I thought shoebox theatre format would be easy enough to do and tell the story without being ultra-literal, so I’ve made the set (a dirty, cheap motel) and my cast (the ‘I’ in the song, the ‘he’ in the song and ‘his’ ‘friends’ out of cardboard, gaffa tape, tracing paper, pencil, black card and photocopies.

What do you think? I’d love some feedback on my test clip.

Close as a Close-Up – making Shoebox Theatre music videos

4 Jul

Image

If you’re reading this you’re no doubt aware I’ve just released my debut solo album, Close as a Slow Dance. I’ve decided to make videos for three songs from the album: Dancehall at Louse Point, Our Old Oblivion and On the River Road. It’s also possible I may do one for No Time For Compliments Now but the visual ideas toward that song aren’t as advanced as the others.

To keep myself occupied on long car and train journeys to gigs in Hamburg and Kiel, and a trip on a very interrupted U6 train service in Berlin, I wrote scene-by-scene treatments for Oblivion and Dancehall that should now be typed up. These include a long list of things I need, but as I have pretty much no budget, I wrote these treatments planning to use a very old technology – Shoebox Theatre.

When I was a kid, Dad obtained these two amazing books where you cut out and glued together an old-school theatre and a Victorian-era London townhouse for rich people. I couldn’t bear to cut into them but spent many hours with each building’s history and pictures. The idea has stayed with me.

The set for Oblivion is a cheap motel room. I built that first by lining a shoebox with black paper. I realise now I should just have spraypainted the inside because when I actually use an HD camera, you’ll probably see the gaffa tape holding everything together. I cut in a door and window and lined them with baking paper. It’s by no means a realistic scene with the view through the doorway being as hazy as the window but the character in the story is a virtual prisoner in there so a dream-like haze is fine.

Today, I made some characters. I did a little visual research and photocopying at the Amerika-Gedenkbibliothek in Berlin and wondered if I should use a doll of some sort for the female character. I ended up tracing images I got from fashion magazines, modifying the lines and attitudes a little and gluing them onto black card. Considering I’m such a shit drawer, I’m pretty pleased with my characters.

For the male ‘lead’ and his two friends, I used a photocopy of a wonderful posed picture (below) from a book on the history of the Irish Republican conflict. It’s a photo of the incredibly well-dressed “Cairo Gang”, an infamous bunch of British detectives seconded to Dublin in 1920, where the IRA, presumably, had numbered each man for identification. Number 1 is the leading man of my video and Number 3 (who’s somehow incredibly charismatic) and Number 8 are his ‘friends’, from a lyric in the song, “There is no place, in this state, that I could go/He’s got a lot of friends who’d tell me so”.

Image

I did spend a lot of time today attempting to figure out scale and ratios for my model, trying to work back up to an actual room and down again so I could try and make the bed and the people to something approaching scale. In the end, I just used my eyes. It may make for some slightly weird looking scenes. We’ll see.

After making all the characters I set up the laptop in front of the shoebox theatre and took some experimental footage using the little low-res cam which I will edit together just to have a look at my handiwork. It will definitely be easier to frame with an HD cam.

I definitely need to do something about the lighting but I did experiment with a chain of Thai ball lights, a bicycle light and candles. Eventually, I got a nice back lighting effect with five candles behind the shoebox reflecting off a piece of tin foil taped to my wall, while I used the ball lights and bike light for front lighting.

When I’m finished with the test video, I’ll post it here.

Album Launch #1 Wrap-Up

5 May

The album launch last night was lovely! A full room of enthusiastic listeners at Heroes bar in Neukölln. I played well, I think. I felt ‘there’ from the first song. Bliss. And proof I’ve become a competent, if idiosyncratic, guitarist. God I love my capo and ’65 Fender Deluxe pedal. I’ll post some photos in the next few days.

Crammed into the bar’s toilet, Krista Krull from radio show Green Tea Berlin came down and did an “On the Road” interview with me before the show and recorded part of the soundcheck. Efficiently, she edited it down overnight and posted it this morning. Here it is:

And for the many people who commented on the slow-jam version of my album track ‘I’m Going Mining’, here’s a stream of the song: