By Beppe Colli
Dec. 5, 2006
One of the aspects I was more curious to
know about Pretty Little Head, Nellie McKay's new album two years after
the release of her much-lauded debut album Get Away From Me, concerned
its production and engineering side: what kind of approach would it be,
after the involvement of the world-famous Geoff Emerick on that album?
By now we know the answer: a self-production
by McKay herself, simpler and leaner. But while I had managed to find some
material about her first album (also a long and quite detailed interview
with Emerick on Mixonline), when it came to the new album I had not managed
to read a thing about this side of Pretty Little Head. So the only think
left for me to do was to try myself...
The usual Web search, and I easily found
the website of the recording studio Lofish Productions, where McKay's new
album was recorded and mixed. I sent an e-mail message and I waited, a
bit skeptical about the outcome.
I was pleasantly surprised to receive a
quick reply by Walter Fischbacher, who - at least, judging from the liner
notes which appear on the album cover - appears as the main technical force
behind the album, together with Kurt Uenela. What about an interview? OK.
I'd like to know about the way you got in touch with Nellie McKay,
and also the way she chose Lofish Productions to record the follow-up
to her critically acclaimed debut album.
Nellie did her very
first demo songs at our studio, that was in 2001 or so, I can't remember
precisely. Back then we were a basement studio in New York's Lower East
Side, very down to earth, so to speak. I think she just picked us because
of our ad in the Village Voice, she didn't really know me or anyone of
our staff. Anyway, the demo we recorded back then got her signed to Sony
Why did she come back
to us, why did she choose Lofish Studios (a not so well know, small recording
studio in Midtown New York, run by two Austrian jazz musicians) over Clinton
Recording? You would have to ask Nellie herself, but my guess is:
1) In the production
process of this album Nellie wanted to have full control over every little
detail. So the less big name producers and engineers involved, the better.
2) Since this was
a more or less self-produced album, the hourly rate of the recording studio
is a critical factor. So I guess in that regard Lofish Studios is far more
attractive than Clinton Recording...
3) And she probably
just felt comfortable at our place...
the way, were you already familiar with Get Away From me? And what was
your opinion about it?
I know the album, and yes, I also knew the songs already when I heard it
the first time, since many of those songs were also on the demo we recorded
at Lofish Studios. Even some of the arrangements were the ones that Nellie
created in the first place, just this time played with real instruments
(talking of strings etc.). And yes, I think it's great. It's produced very
musically, and of course the sound is clean, balanced and transparent.
And I am not ashamed to admit that I did use it as reference while mixing
Pretty Little Head.
I'd really like
to know whether the sessions for Pretty Little Head were all done in
a short period of time - or if the opposite is, in fact, true. I'm asking
you this because there are some tracks (Old Enough, say, or Lali Est
Paresseux) that to me sound quite different from the rest of the album.
was done on and off for at least a year and something, using pretty much
each single engineer on staff at one point or another for a writing, tracking
or overdubbing session. To achieve a cohesive sound, they decided to have
me mix the whole thing, but we ended up using some ruff mixes that were
done at some point after a tracking session at 4 in the morning. Nellie
just got so used to the ruff sound, that she preferred it over my "slick" sounding
mixes... so, yes, there is a good chance that some songs sound different
than others, also from the engineer's point of view.
If I'm not mistaken,
Lofish Productions can accommodate a live group; in fact, many songs
on the CD sound as if the basic tracks have been recorded live. Could
you elaborate on this?
some of the songs the rhythm section was the first thing to be recorded,
on others we started out with a programmed drum beat and a synth
bass (pretty much everything was played or programmed by Nellie herself),
to be replaced later on by live instruments.
The background vocals
- and in some cases (for in., Columbia Is Bleeding) the various lead
vocal lines - are quite intricate. Was it difficult to have them all
come out clearly?
I tried my best...
Since you mentioned Columbia Is Bleeding,
that track was actually the one where I had most difficulties bringing
out the vocals in a way that you actually can understand the lyrics, since
the arrangement is very dense, but the lead vocals are sung very delicately...
I imagine Nellie
McKay to have a pretty hands-on approach to producing. Wrong?
have been engineering many writing sessions, and usually Nellie came in
the studio with a somewhat clear idea of the basic structure and arrangement
of the song. And she usually played every single part herself, one after
the other, starting with a drum beat, bass, keys, strings, whatever weird
patch she could find on the synth, she would try it out and see if it fits
the song. So sometimes those parts would stay till the final mix (maybe
after some hours of cleaning up by the engineer...), sometimes they would
be replaced by real instruments.
I seem to understand
that you did the mastering for Pretty Little Head. I think there is a
little joke on the cover about it ("mastering" being called
"mistressing"), but I don't really believe the CD was mastered "at
KGB Headquarters, East Berlin, Germany".
the mastering...There is a whole story to that which will not be mentioned...
Just that much: Yes, it actually was originally mastered in Berlin, Germany
(not at the KGB headquarters, obviously...), all I did was adjusting some
levels and spacing afterwards.
© Beppe Colli 2006
| Dec. 5, 2006