July 22, 2016 by Matt Hill : Quiet Loner
I recently spent 3 days in the Brecon Beacons recording the songs from Battle for the Ballot. We got most of it done with just a few bits left to add before we mix the songs into a completed album. In due course I’ll be posting the songs on here and making them available as a free download.
I worked with Mike Harries who is a long time friend of mine and the person who produced my debut album which came out in 2004. He’s an amazing musician and can play drums, accordion, piano, bass, mandolin, guitar. Oh and he sings too!
Out of the comfort zone
As this project has been about stretching my musical muscles I didn’t go to the studio with any particular fixed ideas. We did, however, have one clear rule. This set of songs tells a story (of the fight for the right to vote) and so the storytelling element must be clear. In practice that means we must make the vocals central to each song and people should be able to hear the words clearly.
Aside from that rule anything goes, so it was a very creative few days as we tried to find the right sounds to fit the songs. I pushed myself out of my comfort zone and achieved some studio ‘firsts’. In the studio I’ve only ever played acoustic guitar and sang. But for this I did my first ever electric guitar solo and my first ever banjo piece. You can hear a bit of my banjo picking on this on this video.
The finished product will sound better. I took that on my phone as we listened back to the banjo I had added. You are hearing raw sound files that have not yet been polished up, but it gives you an idea of the sound for that song (which is all about the six demands of the Chartists).
Sound waves and suffragettes
The images you can see are sound waves – that is a visual representation of each ‘track’ of the song (voice, guitar, banjo, drums etc – all have their own ‘track’). Then when all the separate tracks have been recorded, we begin to ‘mix’ them together to make one whole song. Mixing is a real skill and can be very tricky as different instruments can sometimes clash with each others sound.
I was delighted when we were listening back to my suffragette song ‘Paint this prison (Purple green and white)’ that the tracks on screen were indeed rendered in Suffragette colours! A happy co-incidence.
Matching the mood
Whilst we didn’t have any set ideas we tried to let each song lead us. For example the song ‘Railings’ has a guitar riff that is lifted from the guitar style of Elvis Presley’s first guitarist Scotty Moore. Sadly Scotty Moore died just a few weeks ago and when I played it to Mike he immediately got behind the drums and slipped into a ‘train groove’, something you hear a lot in country and rockabilly. It suits the song well, although this has little to do with the Hyde Park railings incident of 1866, it seemed a fitting tribute to Scotty!
There were other little things that came to mind. The song ‘Banners held high’ is about people marching to Manchester for the reform meeting in 1819. We tried to capture the feel of a marching band so we added a big Bass Drum and tambourines. For the Peterloo Massacre song ‘Dust of St.Peter’s Field’ we created a sinister militaristic tone by leaning heavily on drums and percussion. For ‘Election Day (1929)’ I wanted a hymn-like quality to it, so we have made it a piano led song and added textures of church organ.
Recording is very much an instinctive process and there are no right and wrong answers, we just went into the studio with an open minded spirit and a playful sense of fun. I hope that will come over when we finally reveal the recordings.