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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.

 

Under The Influence

28 Apr

Apart from buying us drinks, music is the best way to know musicians, so here are some albums that are important to us as musicians and people.

To make it easy to share, we’ve posted these lists on YouTube and Spotify. If you’d prefer these lists in another format, or on another service, just leave us a message below, and we’ll try to arrange it.

Simon and I each have a story about an album that was crucial to us starting our first bands.

Simon’s Influences
YouTube Playlist
Spotify Playlist
I met a friend of mine and started a band because I was the only person in the area with a Black Flag LP. I can remember our first gig when we were just 15; the local gang grabbed the lead singer and told him ‘If you guys suck, we’re gunna punch the shit out of ya!’ We knew three songs. We played them three times. Nobody seemed to mind. We didn’t get beaten up. The kids at that party were throwing flagstones at the cops as we loaded out into my Mum’s car. At the next gig, someone turned up the RHCP’s ‘BloodSugarSexMagic’ record to try and drown us out. Then they started throwing stones at us.

The guitar player, Paul Dempsey, went on to found (successful Australian rock band) Something For Kate. People don’t throw stones at him anymore. Except me. I chuck a good sized rock at that lanky motherfucker every chance I get. Just to remind him of his roots and that good rock and roll never comes easy.

Samantha’s Influences
Youtube Playlist
Spotify Playlist
The albums that made me want to be in a band were Transvision Vamp’s Pop Art and Faith No More’s The Real Thing. At my school, there were two types of popular girl: surfer’s girlfriends and rough netballers. Two of the latter knocked on my door one afternoon. I was worried. “We heard you got that Faith No More album.” “Er… The Real Thing. Yes.” I was confused.

“Make us a copy?” one said, handing me a blank cassette. Before this, being a music nerd had only won me insults and my circle of metalhead friends. I could do this and might not get beaten up either. I’d been into the band for a year, but then in mid-1990, ‘Epic’ was number 1 in Australia. As I only had a simple cassette deck, we listened to the whole album as I dubbed it, with me pointing out the cool bits. “What’s this classical shit?” Weirdly, they’d never noticed the piano outro at the end of ‘Epic’. They nearly left. “Nah,” I corrected, “It’s where the goldfish is dying at the end of the video.” “Oh, alright,” they said, and stayed patiently until their cassette was finished.

If you sign up for our newsletter, Simon and I will tell you about our first attempts at songwriting. Sign up for the newsletter here: http://eepurl.com/rO3db

Bis gleich,
Samantha and Simon
Wasp Summer

April Wasp: strange little girls

9 Apr

I’ve got a bunch of gigs coming up with Wasp Summer! They’re all listed on the Concerts page. Have a look!

But this Thursday, I’m playing at Kugelbahn in Wedding with Salon Band, great Berlin musical guns-for-hire. Salon Band host a monthly event where they invite and accompany guest singers. They picked three songs from my album – Dancehall at Louse Point, I Hope You’ll Mend and No Time For Compliments Now and asked me to pick three more cover songs. I chose Randy Crawford’s jazz-pop classic One Day I’ll Fly Away (you’ll be hypnotised by Ms. Crawford’s teeth), The Motels’ simmering Total Control (a hit only in France and Australia) and 60’s stomper Tobacco Road (which I’m approaching in a Tina Turner/Small Faces kind of way).

I’ve worked on “owning” these three songs – interpreting them, rather than just singing the melody and phrasings I know so well. In singing them carefully alone and with the band, I realised they’re actually weirdly structured. I had an epiphany about my songwriting – since I was a kid, I’ve always been drawn to songs where the form is dictated by the lyrics and melody, rather than creating a perfect chord progression and constructing/cramming the story into it. Perhaps, other people’s favourites amongst the songs I have written are the classically formed ones – even rhyming patterns, even line lengths, symmetrical structure. But my favourites are the bent and winding songs, the one-eyed songs, the crooked and eccentric songs with two verses at the top, one refrain and a long outro for a tail – my strange little girls.

The three songs I chose sound straight on the surface, but have a kooky, emotional view of their subject (getting over lost love, desire, and what the Germans might call Heimathassleibe), and structures – the length of verses, where and what the bridge sections do, etc. – designed (consciously or unconsciously) to emphasise the emotion/story the writer wants to tell.

I’ve often had bandmembers and arrangers ask, “Did you know there’s half a bar of 3/4 there?” or “What a weird keychange. Did you mean to do that?” or “Did you want 10 beats in that section?” or “Can we straighten this bit out?”. To which the answers are really?, yes, yes and no.  It just sounds normal to me because I “count” the song by lyrics and phrasing, not chord structure or bar numbers. Writing my charts isn’t straightforward. And the songs go how they go because that’s how they go. I don’t try to be dumb about it and I do edit my work, but if a song has an intrinsically strong melody or lyric, or keychange or structure, the only criteria are “Does it feel authentic to me?” and “Does it sound good to me?” If I play it in public, the answer is yes.

If you have any questions or comments, feel free to email me back at waspsummer@gmail.com.

Cheers,

Sam

Tour updates #5-#8

31 May

Tour update #8: Yesterday involved a scoop of banana sorbet, two new friends, a 14y.o. Chardonnay/Savagnin blend, a new song, a headful of ideas and a very good band in a very sweaty cellar. Today involves busking and an overnight bus to Brussels. Thank you Strasbourg!

Tour update #7: Slow busking day but I did get a lesson in extracting tourist money from the original Gold Mouth Woman, a wonderful withered Roma Dame who came to me and indicated that I had an OK voice but needed to ‘work it’ more – she sang to me this amazing song of longing and suffering. With her eyes, her voice, she suffered and loved the suffering. She touched her heart and then stretched out the cupped hand as if offering her heart. Then she said, “Shit spot. You need to go by the Cathedral.”

Tour update #6: Wonderful Strasbourg hostess (and skilled whistler) in *fairytale* Petite France district and a profitable busking session today including selling CDs, jamming with local street musicians and pissing off the local busking mafia. Tonight, flinty Alsace Pinot Gris and further wanderings.

Tour update #5: Great show last night in Thionville, but it was so hot my thumb kept sticking to the back of the guitar neck. I started outside, singing on the street and got a hug from the bar owner at the end. Today a festival in Metz and then onto Strasbourg.

Do you?

9 Dec

Madder than a mad dog worshipping its own madness – Céline

Look, if you two were plucked and cooked together, he wouldn’t roast up much bigger than you. His bulk is mostly in that bomber jacket, but the difference is, he looks like he enjoys fighting. I’m not sure you do. Do you?

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