Archive for May, 2010

In the studio

Friday, May 21st, 2010

I’m having a blast mixing the new EP ‘Amerikana’ with Bill Bottrell. After nearly a year of listening to my album running in ProTools through small speakers on the Nutmeg, it’s a joy to hear each discreet channel flowing into the warmth of the immaculate  1970s Neve 8078 board in Studio B at Glenwood Place in Burbank, one of LA’s best studios. Everything sounds huge and clear, but classy as hell. We mixed ‘Road To Reno’ and ‘Toad Lickers’ in the first 2.5 days, and we’re now in the thick of ’17 Hills’, the EP’s centrepiece. Mark Knopfler’s lead guitar is lyrical and glowing; Natalie MacMaster’s fiddle is pure fresh air; Bruce Kaphan’s pedal steel swoops and soars; and Jeffrey Wash’s fretless bass is soothing, and reminds me of Fleetwood Mac’s first ever instrumental hit ‘Albatross’.

And right next door to us in Studio A is Mike Shipley. Bill and Mike between them have engineered much of my best work: Bill co-produced ‘Aliens Ate My Buick’, while Mike engineered the mixes for ‘The Flat Earth’ as well as Prefab Sprout’s ‘Steve McQueen’, Joni Mitchell’s ‘Dog Eat Dog’, and Def Lepperd’s ‘Pyromania’. And aside from work with me they have each made records in the past that are towering landmarks in the production world—just think of Mike’s work on stuff like Mister Mister’s ‘Broken Wings’ or The Cars’ ‘Drive’, which helped define the ultimate glossy 80s sound—then fast forward to BIll’s productions with Sheryl Crow such as ‘Santa Monica Boulevard’, or on my own ‘Pulp Culture’, which in their way signaled the end of the 80s gloss and the move towards the dryer, grittier, in-your-face sound of the 90s.

Here’s a pic of the three of us today, reminiscing and having a great time (while helping keep the struggling studio business afloat!) Left to right: Bill Bottrell, Thomas Dolby, Mike Shipley.

chasing food trucks round LA

Sunday, May 16th, 2010

Hello from Los Angeles, where this week I’ve got a ton of meetings, a recording session and four days of mixing for my upcoming fans-only  EP ‘Amerikana.’

I start tomorrow with a recording session at JJ Abrams’ new production facility in West LA. Reputedly his new digs are fabulous, and built in some sort of old typewriter depository with the original logos still visible, and no sense of what’s hidden behind closed doors. How very typical! I’ll be recording with a  gent called Uli from the LA funk/jam band Ozomatli, whom I met when they played a street party during February’s TED Conference. Uli’s a milti-instrumentalist but tomorrow he’ll be playing a kind of Balkan clarinet on my song ‘Simone.’

Then I have half a dozen meetings with potential new business associates. I’m looking for the right person, entity or company to partner with on the release of the new album. To prepare them for this meeting I’ve let them each hear about 9 songs, in various states of completion. So this will amount to the first ‘industry’ feedback I’ll have receieved on my new material. Take a deep breath!

My schedule over the next few days is pretty hectic so I’ll be tearing all over LA in a hire car and won’t have time to stop in restaurants to eat. But as it happens, there’s a new trend in LA that should work to my advantage. Gourmet food trucks are the new rage! Apparently these days you can eat great fresh food made by famous chefs ‘al fresco’ at bargain prices, and all you have to do is track them with your GPS! They’re GPS-enabled so the drivers used to Tweet with their current location. But that’s only as good as the last Tweet they sent, so now (inevitably) there’s an iPhone app that lets you track your gourmet food truck in real time on a map! It’s called RoadStoves and here’s a screen shot:

So I’ve installed this app, and I’ll check out a few of these trucks over the next few days and let you know how they tasted. I’m so fascinated with location-based apps and content!

Dilemma deferred!

Monday, May 10th, 2010

I’m really enjoying your replies to my last blog about my 17 Hills vocal dilemma. I think I will probably mix both versions, possibly use one vocal for the EP and album and the other for a kind of ‘unplugged’ alternative version, as a bonus track or something. Not probably any time soon though, so don’t hold your breath!

Interesting how those of you who have not heard either vocal gleaned from my blog that I basically believe in vocal A, flaws and all. That’s not actually the case, I like both, I felt both. Though it’s easy to side with the ‘underdog’, someone made a very good point that I can do the impassioned, imperfect (and it will be!) version every night when I tour, but I can only do the accurate album version once. It’s not that I’m averse to using a technically imperfect performance if it’s got the ‘feel’—but neither am I sentimental about A just because of how I recorded it.

When I do guide vocals I often deliberately make them unusable, so I won’t have this dilemma! for example when we recorded ‘Love Is A Loaded Pistol’ with Ethel, I chose the crappiest SM57 in the studio and sang and played piano live in the control room, so the string players weren’t playing in a vacuum. For the same reason I did the ‘Amerikana’ backing tracks with a grand piano, when I could have used a digital piano on the backing tracks and avoided spillage. But I wanted to ‘hobble’ the vocal, just so’s not to worry over whether it was better. Now, I realise Bono and others are big believers in the SM57 in the control room approach, but great singer though he is, some of his recent performances have sounded pretty ropey to me, like he thinks he’s invincible. But these days people like Chris Martin who is maybe not the most gifted natural singer are able to up their performance with the help of good studio technology, without taking away from the passion. If you have the studio chops and talent to do that, you have to take advantage of it. Just wish I was a better technical singer take after take so I could use those first takes! I marvel at some records from the 30s through the 60s where the vocal is both technically and emotionally stunning, yet you know they had to get it in one.

Guess in this instance, though, Bill Bottrell thinks he can rescue vocal A. I obviously didn’t hobble it enough!

17 Hills dilemma

Sunday, May 9th, 2010

Just so you know, I don’t make musical decisions by committee. I believe ultimately as an artist you have to be selfish and please yourself, rather than trying to second-guess your audience.

However, one of the songs from my upcoming EP ‘Amerikana’ has two different vocal takes. The first went down live in the studio along with bass, drums, guitar and grand piano. The second I did several months later as an overdub. I’ve worked a lot on the song over the interim and I’m very close to it at this point, probably too close, and I was finding it hard to judge which was the best vocal.

So as an experiment I sent 16 friends two mixes each, just piano and vocal, A (live) and B (overdub.) Same piano track on both. Some of them are musicians, some are just friends I trust. I will paste their reactions below:


generally, prefer B….
it’s more english, and the words are clearer
which is important in this one..


B gets my vote. You’re telling the story more clearly without mawkishness..
A is a wee bit too melancholy for me though there is a section of A which is better.


B. Love and warm vibes


It is clearly vocal B that I feel is the stronger one. In vocal A, I don’t feel that you are really hearing the words and telling the story that you are singing. For example, the beginning of the first bridge. In vocal A, it sounds like part of the song. In vocal B, you stop to tell us that story. You make a change.


B. It’s the one which makes me want sing along. It’s the one which makes me really listen to the words. It’s the one that makes me tear-up.


I vote “B”. IMO “A” is not a confident, committed telling of the tale like “B”. “B” is a
unified piece, angrier in the right place, more vocally dynamic and far more
confident where the melody takes an unexpected turn and challenges the ear.
I would delete “A” and feel excited and positive about “B”.


my vote is for version B. It sounds lived in.


There is something in your voice on A that is impossible to repeat, and as music is a moment, the
moment is captured there so beuatifully. Not that the other vocal isn’t good. But A is the one. Trust me!
And thanks for asking my opinion.


I’m going to say vocal B! More personal and earnest, sounds like you “mean it” more, and reminds me of your Flat Earth era vocals.


B is very much the thomas that we know…..english, slightly more introverted
deeply soulful….closer to the airwaves thomas :) …and very
importantly I can hear all the words…


“A” makes more sense to me. “A” would be my choice if I were in your shoes.


B is the most engaging of the vocals by far – I understand you’re going for a world weary approach with A, but it’s a bit of a whinge to be honest – B is Best  – good tone and I actually want to listen to his story whereas the A fellow, well I’d happily pull the switch!


Vocal B sounds more decisive to me esp at the beginning.

Listening to the recent version I hear that it DOES sound like you’ve lived with this tune a long time… and I think that’s a good thing. So I’m not sure how much of a “gut decision” it represents, but I would be inclined to go with version B.


I vote for this one… Vocal B. I love your connection to the lyric on this one!


we prefer B.  Both are gorgeous, Version B seems to have more clarity


I have not filtered these comments. They were 16:2 in favor of B, with two lone souls preferring A.

Most of the criteria I felt were important—the storytelling and the emotion—I suspected A had the edge, but people actually got more of those same qualities from B. Funny how people perceive things differently! The aggregate of comments about A was ‘indecisive, worldweary, whingey,’… the story was not as well told and the words were not as clear.

I read the responses as they came in, feeling more and more comfortable with the idea of going with vocal B. The two lone detractors twinged something in my heartstrings, but I brushed over that. I was relieved they were almost unanimously in favour of B, because A is a technical nightmare—the vocal mic has piano all over it, making it virtually impossible to tweak for tuning and timing, or to get rid of lip smacks and asthmatic breaths.

Yet I am genuinely torn because my heart says in A I was feeling it more; plus wouldn’t life be great if I could do one-take vocals and never have to worry about them again!

Then I got this email from the guy that’s going to engineer/mix it with me next week, a man with a long an distinguished track record who did a great job mixing one of my previous albums. Yikes.


There is no comparison, as I suspect you knew, but just needed affirmation.  The live vocal (A) is perfect.  well..  it’s hard to understand “cell block E”, “cell block A”, and what exactly the crooked lawyer did, but please, you know its right.  There’s loads we can do in protools, as long as we lock in the mix on fresh ears, before the tweezing.
It’s fucking gorgeous.


The plot thickens…..

Love Is A Loaded Pistol

Friday, May 7th, 2010

Today’s a big day for me—and I don’t mean because of the UK general election. Several major events are happening: I’ve announced my intention to release a new album A Map Of The Floating City by the end of the year, and a digital EP in June for Flat Earth Society members only. The first new song from the album premiers today as a downloadable TEDtalk video, taken from my live performance with string quartet Ethel at TED in Long Beach in February. Billboard has picked up on the album story, and published this article today.

The new song is called Love Is A Loaded Pistol, and if you want an MP3 of the studio version, you can get it for free provided you’re signed up to my mailing list.

It’s amazing how many channels of information are out there these days. This must be about the tenth time I’ve written these sentences in the last 24 hours. There are so many ways to get the word out. But I feel the role of my blog is to tell you candidly how I feel about all this.

Right now I’m very excited, energized and…. shattered, actually. I was up till 5am on the Nutmeg trying to finish one of the EP songs in time to remix it in LA next week with Bill Bottrell. I had the election results coming through on my second monitor (hung Parliament=bummer!) Kathleen is away so I’m looking after two teenagers, and I thought foolishly I’d set the alarm for 7, get them off to school, then come home for a few more hours’ sleep before America woke up to my press release and new song. Wrong! Around 8.15 with the kids safely on the school bus I got my eyemask on and my head down on the pillow, only to hear the sound of our builders’ truck pulling up outside with a pneumatic drill and a cement mixer. They’re here to knock down a brick wall that blocks our view of the North Sea.

So I went back to work. I’d promised myself last night I would leave song #1 Road To Reno alone (song #2 Toad Lickers is 100% finished) and move on to the final song on the EP, 17 Hills, which really needs the most work before I board the plane next week. Wrong again. I made the mistake of listening to my 5am rough mix of Reno, and I came up with a new idea for a piano solo. Previously there had been a harmonica solo in that spot, and it was only working when I made it so distorted you couldn’t really make oout the notes! But that much distortion kinda spoiled the song. So instead I decided to lay down a piano solo, and just use the harmonica for punctuation.

I wish I was a one-take pianist like Bruce Hornsby or Jordan Rudess or (bigtime hero) Chuck Leavell. But I misspent my youth playing with a soldering iron and never practiced my scales. So my fingers tend to lag a couple of seconds behind my brain. As a consequence, piano solos are usually a matter of recording one into the computer, listening back in sections to figure out what my fingers would have played were they in sync with my brain, then laboriously teaching my fingers to play the notes. It’s now 4pm and I hope to have the stupid thing edited by the end of the day. Good news is, the piano + harmonica combo works a treat.

While all this is going down today, people all over the Internet are reading about and hearing my new stuff for the first time. It’s a thrilling feeling. I think this album is going to form the soundtrack to the next 2-3 years of my activities, so it’s like the beginning of an era. There’s a huge spectrum of music on the album, ranging from the spacey and ethereal Oceanea to a nasty Euro-trash trance groove on Evil Twin Brother. On another axis altogether, Love Is A Loaded Pistol is a smoky late night jazz club song from another era, somehow shoehorned into the twenty-first century. The idea came to me in a dream: I had a nocturnal visitation from Billie Holiday who traveled through time to give me a song lyric. Of course, I was amazed and I was overjoyed. She was in an evening gown and looking ravishing. She sat next to me and said ‘I’ve got a lyric for you.’ I said ‘Great, hit me!’ She said ‘Okay…..This this it’s love.’ I smiled awkwardly. There was a pause. Then I said ‘erm…. well it’s a bit crap, isn’t it?’ She looked dejected and asked why. I said there had to be half a dozen songs with that title over the years, not that any particular one sprang to mind. ‘Well you can make it cool, right?’ Suddenly the waking me got very upset with my dream me and interjected some diplomacy. I mean here I was with one of the greatest singers that ever lived, and I just told her her idea was crap. I started to say something like ‘Look, I’ll try to work your lyric in….’ but it was too late. Billie was fading and I felt myself waking up.

Still, I had been touched by an angel and the inspiration was still bubbling up inside me. So I wrote a song about the dream itself. And Love Is A Loaded Pistol is it. I’ll write a bit more about how Ethel and I arranged it for TED tomorrow. Here are the lyrics—see how many of Billie’s song titles you can spot. Text HOPELESS DREAMER to 452.


Billie crept softly into my waking arms
Warm like a sip of sour mash.
Strange fruit for a sweet hunk o’trash.

Panic at the stagedoor of Carnegie Hall:
‘Famous Jazz Singer Gone AWOL’.
Must have left the building body and soul.

On a creaky piano stool tonight
as the moon is my only witness
She was breathing in my ear
‘This time it’s love.’

But love is a loaded pistol
and by daybreak she’s gone
over the frozen river, home.
Me and Johnny Walker
see in the new age, alone.

Stormy weather
Crossed the moon tonight
Billie, Time is a wily trickster.
Still an echo in my heart says
‘This time it’s love.’

© Thomas Dolby 2010