was with great pleasure that I heard about a soon-to-be-released album
by Emily Bezar - her last one, Four Walls Bending, having been released
in 1999. Of course, quality has never been an issue with her, but this
time I can say that the recently released Angels' Abacus proved to be
quite a surprise - as I've argued in my review, it could (half-jokingly)
be called "Bezar's Commercial Album".
the perfect occasion to have a nice chat. So I sent her my questions
by e-mail, and though she was quite busy, and just about to leave, she
kindly agreed to answer them.
time we spoke, your third album, Four Walls Bending, had just been released.
In retrospect, are you happy with the way it came out?
course time gives you a fresh perspective and the blemishes that you
hear immediately after you complete something fade and seem less significant.
But I can still now say that of all my albums, Four Walls may be my
most successful "recording" as it came out just about exactly
the way I heard it in my head as I was writing and producing it. In
that I mean it was a very sculpted, pre-meditated sound and I directed
the band very precisely to achieve the sonic palette I wanted. I think
I achieved the grandeur, the kind of monolithic scope and sturdiness
that the song structures needed in order to be dynamically compelling
on tape. I know that it would have been a very different album, perhaps
a jazz record, not a rock one, had I allowed more freedom in the playing
and more open, exploratory space instead of the consistent density of
texture that it has. I had a great time creating the keyboard sounds
for that album and am proud of the fact that I don't think they will
ever sound "dated" or of their era... I think they never become
just ear-candy and are always musically necessary in the arrangements.
the past, three years had passed between albums. This time it was five.
I was quite curious about your silence - and about the possible reasons
for it: too busy? writer's block? logistics? no burning desire for self-expression?
mostly logistical I suppose. In early 2001 I moved from California to
France and of course the upheaval of an international move, not to mention
transporting and re-setting up my small production studio, kept me occupied
for quite a few months. When I arrived in France I had half an album's
worth of material already written, stuff I had done soon after Four
Walls came out, but it languished for a while and lost it's relevance
for me as I settled into a new life, new rhythms. (Actually only one
song from that first batch I wrote, Metronome, finally made it onto
the album!) But then new songs started coming pretty rapidly and I went
through several scenarios for the production of an album. At one point
I was certain it was going to be a fast and cheap piano-trio-voice recording
and was making plans to do it quickly in a local studio in France but
the songs kept coming and arrangements filled my head and my ambitions
grew and grew. Even though I knew I couldn't really afford to make another
"big" sounding album!! And yes, money did have quite a bit
to do with the delay... having to refill the coffers several times to
manage to afford the best studios and players that I could. If anything,
I was too prolific during that period and dithered about a lot trying
to decide which songs to actually record... making demos and trying
out arrangement ideas in the computer for songs that never made the
final cut. Maybe they will reappear in a new guise some day! And then,
as you can imagine, I leisurely explored what I like to call France's
"holy trinity" - the wine, cheese and bread - I probably lost
a lot of productive time on our terrace at sunset!!
it was recorded in two different occasions/locations, Angels' Abacus
sounds quite unified to me. Which I imagine has a lot to do with the
compositional process. Wrong?
you're absolutely right. In contrast to Four Walls, for which I jumped
back and forth between the band, the piano and the computer in composing
it, this album really originated on the piano, and my harmonic, melodic
vocabulary was pretty consistent and in many ways, limited to what felt
good in my fingers. Though I think the songs vary in complexity, they
still share a lot of sonorities that I tend to gravitate to. And because
many of them began as piano improvisations, I think they came from a
very intuitive, elemental place - there was not a lot of forethought.
In fact, strangely, many of these songs came to me early in the morning
after a night of bad sleep! I'm sure my subconscious was churning away,
waiting to explode when the sun came up! Mostly, I think there may be
less "genre" confusion in this album - I mean that there is
no "almost jazz" song or "almost folk" song poking
out of the fabric. Maybe this is what happens when you refine and distill
your personal language, develop your own idiom? You start to sound more
like yourself and less like a cook trying out a new ingredient that
hasn't quite blended yet.
far as the "sound" of the album being unified despite the
recording locations, I was pretty careful to be consistent with microphones,
especially for the vocals, and of course much is due to the world-class
players using great instruments that sound good in whatever country
they're recorded in!! The dominant sound though is in the keyboard arrangements,
which were all done in my small home studio. As I broke the original
piano ideas out into full electronic orchestration around the band,
I often found myself re-using sounds, or modifying them somewhat for
a new song, so that there is really quite a good continuity throughout
the album. Yet I think each song has its own sonic character and mood.
in many ways it reminds me a lot of your first album, Grandmother's
Tea Leaves, I consider Angels' Abacus to be your most accessible - maybe
I should say accessible-sounding? - album so far. Of course, you produced
it, so the way it sounds was a conscious goal on your part. But I wonder
whether the other personalities involved - Tim Pettit and Jon Evans
- put their own two extra cents when it came to sounds (for instance,
the reverbs on background vocals)?
the mixing and recording style you choose has so much to do with the
"accessibility" of the sound, beyond just the songs' construction
and arrangement. Jon and Tim were amazing editors and an invaluable
"reality-check" for me that I had not really had before. But
in no sense do I feel like I compromised my ideas or diluted the essence
of the songs by going for a more commercial sound. Tim came in early
in the process of producing and I loved being able to say "is this
arrangement working for the song, or should I take it more over here...?"
and being able to look ahead to the mix and start really scraping out
things that were just clutter. He has a spot-on pop instinct, having
come from that background, and he really opened my eyes to the way that
most people listen to music... what they often hear and don't hear.
Jon, besides being an awesome and tasteful bass player, has monster
ears and was able to weed out extraneous and disruptive frequencies
in the arrangements during mixing that I didn't even know were there.
And the whole setup in mixing is so fluid, we all just worked together,
experimenting with reverbs, effects until it just sounded true and "right"
to everyone in the room.
always certain that the rhythmic element has much to do with accessibility.
If there's anything on this album that leans more mainstream perhaps,
it's that I used the computer for some of the drums and percussion.
I'm not saying that I find the grooves more rigid, it's just that they
may sound more contemporary, given the software that I used to create
them. And melodically? I don't know that I'd say the tunes are more
accessible... I certainly find these melodies a bit difficult to perform
live! I think I am using the full range of my voice operatically in
a way that I hadn't since Grandmother's Tea Leaves. I think I've finally
stopped trying to be a pop singer!
last album was recorded on analogue, this one on...? (I imagine on a
digital platform such as Pro Tools?) I'd really like to know more about
the different technical challenges, problems and advantages of this
new situation, as related to your artistic ends.
analogue was an exhilarating challenge and well worth some of the headaches,
but I'll never go back!! Yes, this new album was recorded onto the computer,
using a number of programs, and we mixed in Pro Tools. I guess the primary
advantage was the portability of the work-in-progress. It saved me tons
of money and allowed me to record wherever I wanted. Going from home
to studio, from France to London and back with just some discs and a
hard-drive was amazing! I even had my guitarist in New York record his
parts in his own living room studio and mail them to me. But apart from
the logistical advantages, the computer is like a huge, infinitely malleable
sketchpad. The process of exploring a musical idea is so immediate -
you take it from conception through multiple variations and create this
feedback loop of doing/listening that can become the engine of the compositional
process... or at least for me on this album, of the process of orchestrating
a song. I suppose the challenge is in managing to focus on perfecting
an idea, given the limitless options for experimentation at your disposal.
I am a big believer in beautiful and fortuitous mistakes, but I also
think that the power of the computer is most awesome when you can harness
it to create the world you already hear in your head. However much I've
benefited from the digital domain though, I still don't think I have
yet made an "idiomatically" digital piece of music. I guess
I'm still a pretty conservative songwriter, working in a mostly linear
fashion, building from the small to the big vertically. There is so
much interesting music out there now, mostly in dance-music and its
sub-genres, that could be conceived nowhere else but the computer. Music
that has the gorgeous randomness and split-second variation of timbre
that you can only do in the box.
some way, the track Walk That Blade reminded me of Bacharach: am I allucinating?
actually think Heaven to Pay has a bit more of a Bacharachian vibe!!
But yes, I can see what you're saying about Walk that Blade. Maybe the
trumpet is what does it, but I suspect it has something to do with the
interlocking parts of the vocals in the chorus. Of course it has a jazzy-pop
feel that is somewhat retro. I've always been a big Bacharach fan but
I have to admit I don't know his stuff very intimately, so I can't count
him among my major influences. I love the intricacies of the arrangements
in 60's and 70's pop. I can't wait to get my hands on Brian Wilson's
are an independent artist. Last time we spoke, Napster was yet to come,
as was the whole downloading phenomenon. I know it's a very complicated
- and quite heated - issue, but: What's your opinion about the kind
of impact this has for independent artists?
having a huge impact, but for independent artists who want greater exposure
for their music they still have to compete with the music industry machine
on-line, which now has its fingers in many of the legitimate, and underground,
downloading sites. It's still slow and difficult for independent artists
without a label to make their music available on many of the big download
retail sites like Itunes and Musicmatch... the pipeline is rather clogged.
As for free downloads, yes it is exciting to have my songs circulating
out there for people to hear, as I have no real distribution channel
apart from the internet and certainly most radio these days is off-limits
for anything out of the margins. However, at some point if I, or other
independent artists like me, want to afford to make another record,
we have to have some sales and assert the ownership of our work, and
thus I'm conflicted about the whole file-sharing thing. I'm most excited
about this upcoming organization/website to be started by Peter Gabriel
(www.mudda.org), which proposes a whole new conception of music delivery
via the internet. He wants to deconstruct the whole aesthetic of the
"album", for artists to be able to show their process, to
think of the internet as an evolving "open studio" where work
is revealed in-progress and without the marketing constraints of a record
label or the limitations of a physical delivery method. We'll see if
he can get it going!! As I might have said last time we spoke about
this issue, I don't believe that "copyright" has become archaic,
that the age of idea-ownership is over, as has been suggested in some
corners. Yes, "copyright" may evolve, but I still hold the
romantic and maybe too naive notion that history is propelled by the
commerce that erupts in the wake of great ideas from great thinkers.
more general question: What future for excellence? I mean, once artists
were mostly the kind of people that made you think "I could never
do this, not in a million years", so you really strove to reach
those peaks. While nowadays I think the most common reaction is "Of
course I could do this!". Which on the surface looks as more egalitarian,
but it just makes me wonder...
sit down in front of a LONG French meal (or Italian, of course!) some
day and discuss this one! I know there will always be a future for excellence
and an audience for it... it's just that it seems to be smaller and
smaller, and the advertising media have now perfected the magic of disguising
banality as Great Art. Yes, I think it has to do with the dominance
of a populist esthetic in the modern world. We still feel guilty about
the class schisms of the last centuries and reject all residue of the
monarchies, the upper classes that are so closely associated with opulence
and advanced education and the western cultural canon of art and ideas.
And I think there is still a general distrust of history (of course
there are a lot of horrors to remember!), a belief that contemporary
ideas are always the most progressive and relevant, no matter how well-reasoned.
If you define "excellence" in art as the power to move mass
consciousness, to influence and bring together many people for some
social good, then perhaps it's not necessary for an artist to have exclusive
abilities, or to be inimitable, but just to be understandable. The striving
for "excellence" in a more abstract sense, the one that I
think you are implying, compels artists to seek the perfectability of
the human spirit through self-expression, regardless of its effect on
society. As for what I strive for? I don't know... just to make my music
as beautiful as I can, as I can't possibly think of spending so much
time on something that didn't move me.
Beppe Colli 2004
| Nov. 24, 2004