November 19, 2022 § Leave a comment

For many years, my third album was the only album of mine from which I felt a disconnect. I have now come to accept it as it is, imperfect *and* the most perfect example of how each one of my albums is a snapshot of who I am as a person and as a musician at a given point in time and space – including my own limitations and stubborn way of thinking (at least back then) that I could do anything I set my heart on.

So here I am in 2006, 30 years old, in Paris, with a sabbatical from my teaching job granted at the last minute. The plan is to take advantage of this year to make music and tour. In November I go on a life-changing tour of Japan organized by Windbell, the label that we’ve just licensed my albums to, whose owner, Kazuki Tomita, had a dream (literally: in his sleep) that folk legend Bridget St John and I were touring Japan. He wrote to us and we both said yes. This is not the place to go on about why that trip to Japan was so inspiring, but my obsession with traditional Japanese aesthetics is all over this record and you can hear it.

2006 was also the year I made an old dream come true: playing the viola da gamba. I had seen the film “Tous les matins du monde” on TV when I was 15, had fallen in love with the sound of the viola, but I am not from a musical family and there is absolutely no way my parents could have afforded a viola or the lessons (and in a small French town in the 90s there would have been none anyway). Building up an instrument collection allowed me little by little to let go of self-imposed limitations: what was *materially* preventing me from playing the viola da gamba now that I was financially self-sufficient? Only the belief that I wasn’t supposed to. I found an incredible and forward-thinking luthier, the late François Danger of Atelier des 7 Cordes, commissioned a bass viola, and 9 months later, received it and started taking lessons with Florence Bolton, a Baroque music viola player who was open-minded enough to see past my nearly complete lack of reading skills.

It was pretty insane on my part to compose and record an album on a baroque instrument I barely mastered…

Full artwork by Iker Spozio.

It was pretty obvious that the DIY approach of The Golden Morning Breaks was not going to cut it for a record which had at its core the idea of showcasing the bare beauty of the acoustic sound of the viola da gamba and other acoustic instruments. Yet I was not prepared for how utterly disastrous and literally *unusable* my first recordings were.My heart sank at the implications of my lack of proper microphones and engineering knowledge.
My mastering engineer Emiliano Flores @submerci stepped in and saved the day: he offered to record the songs that were most minimal and composed in the attic of his parents’ house in the Paris suburb of Villejuif, and to lend me a mike and preamp so that I could record the parts involving more layering and/or improvisation in my living room in Paris, the idea being that I would observe him closely on the job and ask for further advice once set up at home.

I remember the recordings happening over a couple of weeks in the attic, around December 2006/January 2007.
Guitar and clarinet: Beyer M160 ribbon on clarinet + guitar on “Sun against my eyes” (3), Beyer MC834 cardioid condenser on guitar on “Sea of tranquillity” (7).
Bass viola da gamba:  “Les ondes silencieuses” (4), “Le bateau”(9)  and the finger-picked part of “Blue Sands” (5), stereo take with Beyer M260 ribbon and Beyer MC834; AKG C460B pencil condenser for harmonics on “Blue Sands” (5).

I then recorded in my living-room on the Beyer MC834:
Bass viola on “This Place in time” (1), “Past the long black land” (8) and percussive part of “Blue Sands” (5) with mallets.
Spinet (a small harpsichord – see photo –borrowed from a Baroque music player) on “Le labyrinthe” (2)
Three water-filled crystal glasses (not pictured – given away on my last move) on “Echoes and coral”(6).
Emiliano and I then mixed and produced the album together (the only album of mine I did not work on alone), using some amazing Altiverb convolution reverbs as the sole effect.

Thank you so much Emiliano @submerci for stepping in so generously and passing on your knowledge at such a crucial moment.

PS: Emiliano’s comment on Instagram: “For any techie reading this I want to add that the Beyer M260 had been previously re-ribboned by Stephen Sank using RCA ribbon. The preamps used at my place were modded Symetrix SX-202 and AEA TRP.”


Playing the spinet. Photo by Iker Spozio

Les ondes was the end of a creative as well as life cycle for me: I had done 3 albums in less than 5 years (plus the music box EP) and quit my teaching job in June 2007, while already approaching burnout on the creative and music business front.
I still think I was totally meant to turn this dream of using Baroque instruments into a reality, but on the more minimal songs my basic playing skills on the viol made the end result less accomplished than the ideal “sonic picture” in my head. Also, without realizing it, by becoming obsessed with a certain purity of approach, I ended up in a creative cul de sac, from which I emerged only 6 years later.

1 Live setup: Chapelle Boondael, Brussels, Belgium, 19 May 2007 📷 Pascal Vermeulen

2 The viol: my luthier François Danger of Atelier des 7 Cordes passed away prematurely in 2019. He built both my bass viol and the treble one used on The Weighing of the Heart and Captain of None. I am convinced that the quality of his instruments made my unusual approach possible.

3 Original at the Met: 7-string model by Nicolas Bertrand, 1720. Contemporary viols are most often copies of historical models. All have gut strings and gut frets, and the 7th string was a French specificity.

Inspiration: the working title of “Blue sands” was “Jazz baroque africain” and indeed…
4 “Tous les matins du monde” OST: Jordi Savall’s interpretations of Marin Marais are still one of the best gateways into the magnificent soundworld of this instrument.

5 String instrument traditions from the African continent – the guembri in Nass el Guiwan a perfect example.

6 Coltrane: his recordings, his double bass players, this biography.

7 “Serpentine”, 1 of 3 live recordings from the 2006 Japanese tour now available digitally (initially a bonus for the Japanese edition). I regret not giving this solo clarinet song a chance on the album.

8 Japanese tour organized by Kazuki Tomita of Windbell with Bridget St John

Two sonic objects at a temple in Ohara:
9 A suikinkutsu (“water koto cave”), 📷 Takuji Aoyagi/Kama Aina, November 2006

10 A lithophone

Hope you enjoyed this trip in space and time as much as I did!

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