Sunday 26th March 2023:
I awake to a raspy throat, my chest a ball of catarrh which sits at the top of my lungs – this is the one thing I don’t need, of all days and weeks. I haven’t packed as much as I would have liked and spend the morning rushing about my flat packing bits of kit, making split decisions about whether to bring a certain guitar, spare strings, effects pedals and the like.
By 1pm I am on the road. The traffic is busy and I have to concentrate before I bust out the other side of the M25, avoiding the M4 closure which the radio is saying is causing havoc in Chiswick. Four hours later I tentatively climb up a mountain into the great green nowhere. High hedged lanes that I’m convinced are not much wider than my car take me round blind corners, deeper into tree lined tracks by waterfalls. Early evening, the road ends at a farmhouse overlooking a valley, our home for the week. Welcome to Red Kite Studio.
I enter the cottage tentatively calling out a hello – I feel like Goldilocks. No-one is home but there is a note from the Studio owner, Martin, saying hi and asking me to give him a call when I arrive. Martin had engineered some fantastic records in the 1970s and 80s including John Martin’s ‘Grace and Danger’ and Iron Maiden’s debut album. He grimaces at that one when I raise it with him in the kitchen when he pops down – ‘It was very loud’ he says.
Over the evening everyone arrives. Harriet Bradshaw arrives from the North East following some shows with John Bramwell. Harriet will be one of the key voices on the record alongside her cello parts. Next Andy Bell and Neil McSweeney pitch up from Sheffield. Andy is the producer and has been the captain of my last two records, ‘Clifftown’ and ‘With Wolves the Lamb will Lie’. Neil is our ‘utility man’ and is expected to lay down guitars, bass, percussion and vocals as and when required. Later Lucy Farrell arrives from a show in Dorset, she will be another key vocalist on the record.
I plan to have an early night, eager to start fresh in the morning but it’s gone Midnight before the lights go out.
Monday 27th March 2023:
Setting up mics and recording stations for most of the morning before starting a take of ‘City Map’ before lunch. It’s hard to get into the dynamics of the set up. I sit in an isolated booth with Harriet and Lucy in the next room which is separated by two double glazed doors and surrounded in their own booths made up of baffles. All the sound is fed through headphones. It takes a good ten or so takes to settle on something we like and it’s mid afternoon before we break for a coffee. The aim of the session is to capture the core takes of each song, working on getting my vocal and guitar performance just right alongside Harriet and Lucy’s vocals. The backing vocals would normally be added after everything else but we’re doing the opposite for this record, making the harmonies the key feature of the songs.
By late afternoon we are onto a second track, ‘The Jaws of Nothing’. Lucy and Harriet both patiently waiting in their booths while my performance is developed and finessed. The track has a great feel to it when we’re done in the evening. It’s a good start but my voice is concerning, as it hurts so much.
Aubergine and potato pie at the cottage for dinner before a board game and bed.
Tuesday 28th March 2023:
Mornings are good for covering the more energetic songs. After breakfast and coffee everyone is more active and tends to play faster so its good to harness that early before you get jaded. We start with a song called ‘Quiet’. I have worked on this song for a long time and have never settled on a definitive version. I’ve rewritten the lyrics so many times and am not confident it’s a fully fledged song yet but we give it a go. It has odd timings and is not regular but Neil picks it up fairly quickly on electric bass. Like ‘City Map’ it’s hard to capture and it takes some time to finalise, well past lunch.
It’s with some relief that ‘Days of Shaking’ is an easier song to capture. Down beat and intense it seems to be the natural mode for our state post lunch and we only play four takes before we have it. My voice is suffering but we press on for a third song this day. ‘Silver Birches’ takes a few hours to get right, I sing flat at a few key points of the song mainly due to a blocked nose. By this time I am well used to Andy’s voice in my headphones from the control room, ‘just do it again….one more’.
Wednesday 29th March 2023:
My voice is suffering today. I steamed my voice over a saucepan last night and I’m chewing so many menthol cough sweets my mouth tastes of medicine all day….but it won’t shift. We work on another uptempo track provisionally titled ‘Fox Running’ and we manage to get a take by early afternoon by which point my voice is gone. We mess around with ‘Peak Caverns’ but the swing of the track doesn’t feel right and we abandon it. We spend the rest of the day adding overdubs to ‘Quiet’. Harriet adds some clapping (we’ve decided there are going to be minimal drums on the record) while I add a high strung guitar. I go to bed early in the hope that some extra rest might improve the voice.
Thursday 30th March 2023:
I wake up to a thick throat but it warms up enough for us to start working on some new songs. It feels high stakes having not been able to keep to our three songs a day output. Lucy and Neil take the morning off while myself and Harriet work on a sparse song called ‘The 10 Habits of Successful People’, Harriet lending a simple harmony. It’s quiet enough for my voice and it only takes an hour or so to capture. We then keep things uptempo with a song called ‘Blonde Pine’. Again, it seems fairly straight forward with Lucy and Harriet working on some harmonies.
‘Blonde Pine’ was the last song written for this session and was one of those not necessarily written to order but certainly written to fill a gap in the range of songs we had. It is almost a centrepiece of the main themes of the album, a little like Clifftown was on the previous album. We get a take but my voice is shot so we add some more guitars and leave it for another day.
The down tempo introspective songs seem to go down easier and we spend the rest of the afternoon and early evening tracking ‘Masterless Man’ and then a redo of ‘Peak Caverns’ – we’re following it further down the hole! We replace the guitar with a nylon strung to see how it fits and change the strumming pattern, which makes the whole track bouncier. It sounds better but it could be on borrowed time.
Friday 31st March 2023:
The last day. The last days of a recording session are always lighter affairs, there’s more laughing, more japing and jokes. Due to the problems with my throat earlier in the week there are lots of choices of songs to approach. I love all my songs but I know not all of them make the cut and I am happy to let them dwell in the background maybe to return at a later date or most likely, to never surface again.
We decide to tackle ‘The Hotel at Midnight’ before Lucy has to leave for a gig she has. Then there were only four. After lunch we launch into ‘James Mason’, which was close to being scrapped. I am glad this one makes the cut although we have issues with the guitar keeping tune as I have detuned the to a C which the guitar struggles with.
The last few hours are frantically taken up with layering pedal steel sounds on various tracks. By 5pm we’re packing up and we wave Neil and Andy off. The cottage seems quiet and faceless, everything packed and cleaned like we were never there. The next morning is heavy with rain, the waterfall chatters, the red kites wheel gracefully over the hills, the studio is dark and closed as we wind our way slowly up the track, back to the everyday.