COLLEEN 20TH ANNIVERSARY: A FLAME MY LOVE, A FREQUENCY, 2017.
December 30, 2022 § Leave a comment
From Captain of None onwards, my music has been shaped more and more strongly by the events happening to me as a person. There is always a strong aesthetic and technical core to each new album I make, but Captain of None / A Flame my Love, A Frequency / The Tunnel and the Clearing is definitely – in retrospect – a kind of autobiographical cathartic trilogy.
My 6th album A Flame was born under the shadow of fear of death in the dark month of November 2015. My mum was recovering from a cancer operation and we didn’t know if she was going to pull through (she did). My parents live about 100 kms away from Paris and visiting them entails travelling through Paris to catch a local train. I happened to have to repair my treble viola da gamba bow and had been instructed to leave it at a luthier in Paris. It was 13th November, the first and only day and night of the year that I was going to spend in Paris, staying with close friends. It was such a balmy, sunny day. On that evening, the terrorist attack of the Bataclan and terrace shootings happened. Some of the terraces where people where shot were those very same terraces I had walked past a couple of hours earlier: the luthier was right in that neighbourhood. I’ll never forget listening to sirens all night long and the next morning I took my train back to San Sebastián, petrified.
Our flat remained silent for a couple of weeks, then I shook myself out of my lethargy and headed back to the studio: I had a new album in the works and had been a bit nervous about my decision to do a truly electronic album for the first time of my life. Suddenly this important artistic decision appeared for just what it was, nothing more, dwarfed by the horrors that had just happened. I needed both an outlet for *and* an antidote to the twin shadow of my mum’s precarious health and my constant ruminations on death. Once again, music did not fail me.
A FLAME: PLUNGING INTO ELECTRONICS FOR THE FIRST TIME.
I never anticipated I would switch to full-on electronics, but on the Captain of None 2015 US tour, I visited King Britt ‘s studio in Philadelphia and two units grabbed my attention: Moog’s MF-105M MIDIMuRF Multiple Resonant Filter, and a tiny synth, The Critter and Guitari ‘s Pocket Piano. I had been attracted by the idea of forming simple organic-sounding rhythms, so on my return I bought both to give a go at this approach while still playing my treble viol. However, the two sounds didn’t gel, and even worse: I felt I was “going through the motions” on the viol. In contrast, I felt super excited by this ultra minimal electronic setup, so I decided to follow my gut instinct.
I won’t lie: I was a bit worried about losing my specificity as a musician, as there are so many purely electronic musicians, but just as I had realized singing was not going to turn me into a “singer-songwriter”, I ended up trusting I could still make “Colleen music” even through pure electronics.
There is less to write about this album engineering-wise, because the set up was so incredibly minimal: the Critter and Guitari Pocket Piano and Septavox, MF-104M Analog Delay, MF-105M MIDIMuRF, a customized TC Hall of Fame Mini Reverb, two plugins (The Interruptor’s Bionic Delay and Overloud Spring Age reverb), vocals on the Beyerdynamic MC834, with everything bussed through the Scarlett soundcard.
I did make the mistake of monitoring with my Beyerdynamic headphones too often, which led me to perceive the music as having a wider stereo image than it really had (and this even though I panned the MuRF and MF-104M’s respective outputs pretty hard). My mastering engineer Antony Ryan /RedRedPaw suggested the Xfer Records Dimension Expander plugin, which helped a lot, even though I still find the album a bit “muffled” in parts.
A dualistic thread holds the album together: light vs dark, rhythmical vs static, pessimistic vs hopeful, and I am really proud of how the lyrics ended up expressing what I felt, given the sensitive subject matter.
All photos are by Isabel Dublang: first one was for press (2017), the others for an in-depth interview for Resident Advisor in which I was visited at my studio and asked in detail about my work process.
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COLLEEN 20TH ANNIVERSARY: CAPTAIN OF NONE, 2015.
December 25, 2022 § Leave a comment
I’ll be the first to admit with a huge smile that the alliance of treble viola da gamba and dub influences doesn’t sound just unlikely: it sounds downright scary and like a terrible idea. And yet if I was forced to choose just one album of mine out of all the albums I’ve made, Captain of None, my 5th – and first for Thrill Jockey – would probably be the one. I think I hit upon something then which I will never hit upon again – and that’s fine by me: I’ve never even tried to replicate or prolong the experience, aware that some things (most things?) can only exist at a given point in our lives.
Over the course of making the preceding album, The Weighing of the Heart, I fell in love with my modified, fingerpicked treble viola da gamba. For the song I worked on last, “Breaking up the earth” (which actually uses the bass viol, not the treble one), I finally started to loosen up (The Weighing is a very “written” album) and realized that if there was one way my music should go, it was towards more improvisation and less control – or perhaps more accurately: a kind of controlled improvisation. I had fallen in love *again* with a genre that had been important to me from childhood onwards, Jamaican music from the dub era (I have repeatedly mentioned the highly unlikely story of my parents picking up a cassette compilation featuring some of Lee Perry’s best work from 1976 which we listened to on countless car trips when I was about 5 to 8…). Thanks to Arthur Russell’s music (World of Echo especially), I had also drastically changed opinions on the use of extreme effects with acoustic instruments. Suddenly most of my mental barriers had been lifted.
I happened to go through a mid-life crisis right at that moment (I was 38 in 2014 when I recorded the album) and the lyrics for the album just poured out me, finally giving me access to much more intimate lyrics that tried to reflect the emotional chaos I found myself in (“Captain of none” really is about the inability to control and understand oneself), as well as sweeter feelings such as the one expressed in “I’m kin”, of feeling one with the animal world and nature.
The album is still available in all physical formats, here on my Bandcamp (shipping from the US only), here at Thrill Jockey’s online shop (shipping from Germany or the US) or at your retailer of choice.
CAPTAIN OF NONE, 2015: A WAY OUT OF CONVENTIONS.
Captain of None benefitted from a massive upgrade in my work conditions and tools. I convinced my landlord to replace the antiquated doors and windows with triple-glazed versions. I invested in a Focusrite Scarlett soundcard, Blue Sky nearfield monitors and sub, Beyerdynamic DT770 and DT880 headphones, a large monitor, a Moogerfooger MF-104M Delay – still a favourite, and my introduction to the joys of analogue gear and the Moog sound – and an EBS Octabass octaver pedal to turn my tiny viol into a bass.
I recorded the treble viola da gamba in a totally different way to The Weighing of the Heart, aiming for a woody, percussive sound. It took a lot of trials to reach the solution: hard-panned stereo takes with 1) a DPA d:vote 4099 guitar mike held close to the viol’s opening, going straight into the Scarlett 2) a Schertler cello pickup inserted between the lower part of the bridge and the top of the body, going through its own preamp, then through an Art Tube MP preamp, then into the Scarlett. For basslines, I used just the Schertler pickup, with the octaver pedal inserted before the Art preamp.
The Beyerdynamic MC834 recorded all the rest: vocals, melodica on “Salina Stars”, muffled floor tom on “I’m Kin” and “Captain of None”, natural skin frame drum on “This Hammer Breaks”, assorted percussion on “Eclipse” (Indian ankle bracelets, chopsticks on tall Ikea glass + Indonesian metal printing block + old cowbell).
I went in search of the most convincing tape delay emulations I could find at the time: The Interruptor’s Bionic Delay is all over the album, sometimes coupled with the Line 6 DL4 Tape Echo emulation. I also used the DL4’s looping and speeding up functions on “Holding Horses” and the end of “I’m Kin”, as well as two Overloud plugins: Markstudio2 for bass parts and the Spring Age spring reverb emulation.
The MF-104M is responsible for the more extreme production on the album: “Holding Horses”’s flickering pulse and mounting dirty delay explosion, “Salina Stars” and its shiny melodica trails, “Eclipse” and its reverberating vocals and percussion homage to Lee Perry.
NB: I started to document my work process right at that moment, so the following photos are from the actual recording sessions. I also wrote more extensively about the album’s recording in the My Studio section, which I don’t update anymore, since I’m basically writing about my studio the whole time now!
COLLEEN 20TH ANNIVERSARY: THE WEIGHING OF THE HEART, 2013
December 12, 2022 § Leave a comment
INTRODUCING VOICE, TREBLE VIOLA DA GAMBA, PERCUSSION AND GOING BACK TO EFFECTS…
Of all my albums, my 4th has the broadest range of influences and instruments – perhaps as a kind of “I’m in love with you again” letter to music? In the 3 years leading to this album, I went back to devouring many styles of music as a form of nourishment for my own, much like I had done at the very start of the Colleen project. One musician really stood out: Arthur Russell. Sometimes you need a concrete person to look up to as the embodiment that things can be done a certain way – or more to the point with Russell: that things can be done in MANY WAYS, and you don’t need to choose between instrumental vs vocal music, experimental vs pop… Just as crucially, Russell dissipated the notion I had started to develop around the time of Les ondes that effects were something I had used because I wasn’t a “good enough musician” without them.
As for singing, it took me 2 years to “find my voice”, literally, and the lyrics for this first album are closer to haiku-style poetry than the more personal language I later developed to tackle the themes that are most dear to me: thoughts and emotions.
My interest for string instrument traditions deepened and broadened. One day on a whim I tuned the strings of the treble viola da gamba I had commissioned from my luthier down to a guitar-style tuning, fell in love with the sound and started to compose “Geometría del Universo”.
I also started to learn percussion instruments, and even though I did not persevere on that path, it paved the way towards a more rhythmical approach in my music.
The song I worked on last was “Breaking up the earth”: I was listening to dub again and I let myself a bit more loose by incorporating heavy delay and pitching. Viola da gamba + delay… the seeds for Captain of None were planted.
There was something important too for me to keep pursuing music professionally: I needed to process the massive stress caused by the soured relationship with my previous label, The Leaf Label. Finding a family-sized home Second Language Music really put me back on track.
The fabulous artwork was once again by Iker Spozio. The album is still available physically: booklet format CD and last vinyl copies on Bandcamp, shipping from Germany.
MAKING THE BEST OUT OF A BAD RECORDING SITUATION.
I started to record The Weighing of the Heart in late November 2012, during what remains one of the worst winters in memory in the Spanish Basque country: it rained almost non-stop for at least 4 months, and I remember one evening on the way back from the studio bursting out laughing as I saw water falling from a scaffolding as if someone was pouring it out of an eternally-lasting bucket… I left home every day for the studio – which was thankfully very close – as if for a battle, dressed Michelin-Man-style…
From the start I knew that recording the quiet parts of The Weighing of the Heart (vocals, classical guitar and viola da gamba – especially the treble viol, which when played fingerpicked is extremely low volume) was going to be problematic because of the noise problem in my studio (both traffic at street level and passersby), so I initially gave it a go at night. Even then, this didn’t work out, so I ended up bringing all my gear to the living room of the flat where I lived with my then partner, instructing him to stay in the bedroom with headphones and music on while I recorded late in the evening.
I then proceeded to record everything that was louder, such as percussion, piano, clarinet and some of the vocal harmonies, at the studio, continually starting and stopping whenever noise interrupted the takes. To say this was challenging is an understatement.
I recorded all the instruments in stereo using the Beyer MC834 and a Neumann KM184, except the clarinet and vocals in mono with the Beyer: I really love using this technique to create width by having 2 distinctive sounds panned on each side. I mostly used Sony plugins for reverb, delay and EQ. I was still going through my old cheap 2-input M-Audio soundcard, but the mikes were going through a modded Symetrix preamp. I still had no near-field monitors (something I forgot to mention in my previous posts!).
1. Push the Boat onto the Sand: vocals, classical guitar
2. Ursa Major Find: vocals, treble viola da gamba, piano (upright), guitar.
3. Geometría del Universo: treble viol
4. Humming Fields: vocals, toy gamelan, cymbal (played upturned with mallets, then chopsticks), Burmese bell (not in my possession anymore – see 2nd pic), floor tom and snare drum (both muffled with velvet cloth, played with mallets)
5. Break Away: vocals
6. Going Forth by Day: bass viola da gamba, clarinet, frame drum, maracas (forgot to include them in the pic!)
7. The Moon like a Bell: vocals, guitar
8. Raven: vocals, treble viol
9. Moonlit Sky: clarinet, guitar, vocals, Farfisa (Native Instruments Kontakt Vintage Organs emulation played on a Midi keyboard)
10. Breaking up the Earth: bass viol, vocals, floor tom and snare drum (both muffled with velvet cloth, played with mallets)
11. The Weighing of the Heart: vocals, treble viol.
COLLEEN 20th ANNIVERSARY: A 6-YEAR ALBUM BREAK, A MOVE AND THE SAN SEBASTIAN STUDIO WHERE I RECORDED MY 3 ALBUMS IN THE 2010S.
December 10, 2022 § Leave a comment
In June 2007 I resigned from my teaching job after the renewal of my sabbatical was repeatedly denied. I was ready to take the plunge and be a full-time musician, or so I thought… A year later, during a run of 6 shows in Brazil, I distinctly felt something within me was off: I had lost the desire and will to make music, both for records and on stage, for multiple reasons, which I went through in a lengthy article in 2012 to explain my “long silence” (here and here).
I actually only stopped making music for about a year, in 2009, but it felt eternal, leading me to fully realize just how tied my personal identity was to making music. In 2010 I was already trying to force myself back into it, and several forces converged to lead me to this second phase of my production spanning the 2010s.
First, I felt the desire to sing, and even though that was mixed with a fear of “diluting” my musical identity, at least it was something I really felt like doing, which already felt like a small victory.
Secondly, reading Tim Lawrence’s biography of Arthur Russell and diving into Russell’s musical output turned out to be the catalyst I needed – more about this in my next post.
Last but not least, for personal reasons I moved to San Sebastián, Spain, in the summer of 2010, and I had to rent a space to make music, since this was not an option where I lived. The street-level space I transformed into a makeshift studio – a former olive and guindilla pepper brinery – had major drawbacks: it had an unsolvable dampness problem that was to plague me throughout my 9 years there, and severe noise from traffic and passersby, even after the century-old wafer-thin doors and windows were changed by the owner a couple of years later. But it was also 500 m from the sea (and had a beautiful street corner view – see pic), had really good vibes, a mezzanine space that acted as a damper between the studio and the neighbours upstairs, and it was immensely liberating to finally not have to worry about volume. Also, not a detail: there was no internet and I did not have a mobile phone– the only thing I could do there was work…
Here are some photos of that space, taken in 2010 on my old camera… Low quality, but I’m happy to have them as souvenirs of both the work accomplished to make this space work (the before-after photos are pretty telling…) and the actual music I created inside this space :-)
COLLEEN 20TH ANNIVERSARY: LES ONDES SILENCIEUSES, 2007.
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…
TIME TO UPGRADE AND LEARN
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.”
FINAL POST TOMORROW 😀
LES ONDES SILENCIEUSES: INSPIRATION AND THE END OF A CYCLE.
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!