This album touches on themes of longing, grief, and fighting for justice in an era when white supremacy is on the rise. I wanted to capture the sound of the band I’ve played with on tour on the east coast over the past few years – Conrad Sisk on cello, and Joel Price on mandolin, violin, and harmony vocals.
The first recording I made was All the Livelong Day, an EP with my first band Eli Conley and Hip for Squares in 2011. We recorded all of the parts one at a time in my bandmate Maia Wiitala’s bedroom in the basement of her parents’ house. Her friend Justin Vanegas was kind enough to record us for free, and it was a great way to learn about the recording process and get used to playing my guitar parts to a click track (basically a metronome in your headphones to keep you playing at a steady rhythm) and recording another track singing over it at a later time.
In 2013 I went into a professional studio for the first time and recorded At The Seams, my first full-length album. I made that record with producer Michael Connolly at Empty Sea Studios in Seattle. Michael was an incredibly kind, skilled producer, engineer, and musician. He helped me take my solo songs and fill them out with his parts on upright bass, mandolin, Rhodes organ, and accordion.
I am really proud of that record, but it’s not a sound I have ever been able to re-create live. So I was very excited to get to make my first full-length album with a full band together in the studio.
Joel flew in from Philly on a Wednesday night, and on Thursday afternoon we got together to rehearse in person for the first time. I’d sent him demo recordings of the songs that I made on my computer, and we’d had one Google video hangout where he played his ideas for me over my recordings so I could hear the direction he was going in and give feedback, but that’s not exactly the same as rehearsing together live!
On Saturday we rehearsed vocal harmony parts with Willa Mamet. Joel had arranged some lovely three-part harmonies, and I was so pleased that my friend Willa (of the bands Winona Winon and Willa Mamet & Paul Miller) was willing to lend her voice to this project. Again, it felt risky trying things out in person for the first time a couples of days before the studio, but our voices blended very well and I was really pleased with how everything was sounding!
On Sunday we were joined by bass player Alex Bice of the band Steep Ravine. The producer of the record, Jacob Winik, had introduced me to him. He really got the vibe of the songs and added a great groove to tunes like “Get In My Own Way,” which is about all of the things that we allow to get in the way when we’re trying to be creative. My friend Maia Wiitala also joined us to rehearse her bowed bass part on the song “Strong & Tender.” It was especially sweet to have her there, because I’ve played with her for many years on the west coast, and Conrad and Joel have been my east coast touring band for awhile, but they had never met.
We went into the studio on Monday, January 9th, not sure what to expect. As we left the house I was excited and nervous. I said “Let’s make a fucking record!” and Joel cracked up.
Tiny Telephone Studios is just half a mile from my house in Berkeley. It’s a beautiful space, and I could tell the moment we walked in that Joel and Conrad felt at home there too. Unlike most modern studios, Tiny Telephone is all analog. That means that rather than recording things on a computer and using ProTools to edit everything, they record on giant rolls of tape. The sound is warmer, closer to what it sounds like when you hear someone playing live in a room. All of the effects and tools that they use are analog as well. There’s a giant mixing board that the sound engineers use to dial in the sounds they want.
The studio is setup so that there’s the live room – a big room with lots of instruments and a giant bookcase. That room has great natural reverb. Joel and Conrad got setup in there facing each other and Jacob setup their mics.
On our first day Jacob encouraged use to start with something we felt pretty comfortable with, so I chose “Get In My Own Way” – a song that sounds complex when you hear all the parts, but is actually very simple for me to play on the guitar. I had been going back and forth about whether I wanted to record the guitar and vocal parts separately (which is what people usually do in the studio so you can edit each one individually), or try to do both at once, even though it meant we wouldn’t be able to edit my tracks much. Jacob encouraged me to do some takes singing and playing at the same time because it has a more organic, real feeling.
I did six or seven takes of “Get In My Own Way” with everyone playing along, and then we all went into the control room to listen back to the ones we thought might be the best. I chose the one I liked best, and then each person got a chance to go back and fix spots they wanted to re-do, or play their part over all the way through the song if they wanted.
Jacob said he rarely has issues like this – only one in one hundred sessions. He called the studio owner, John Vanderslice, and he called in an experienced technician who ended up spending most of the week we were there working to get the machines back into gear. We had to move over to recording digitally, but we were still using all of the analog effects, so although my record is not truly all analog as I’d intended, it still sounds great. And in the end we found some creative ways to use the “shimmer” sound my guitar makes on “Lucky Star” and “Get In My Own Way” – you’ll have to listen to the album to see if you can hear it!
The week passed by in a whirlwind. We did three songs the first day, which is pretty impressive! Joel killed it on “Lucky Star,” a song that has a mandolin line that’s almost a solo over the whole thing. Conrad played an awesome, aggressive solo on “Broke Song” that caught all of us by surprise when he first played it. Alex came up with some great percussion parts by using an actual paintbrush and a broom on his snare drum on “How Do We Know”.
We did struggle a bit with some songs – tuning the string parts of “What I’m Worth” ended up being a bit of a laborious task because the key that’s best for my voice is a very hard key for strings to play double-stops (two notes at once) in tune. Joel listened closely to individual notes in the cello, violin, and viola parts and we kept going back to perfect them until they were finally right. But overall things proceeded really smoothly.
By Friday evening we had a little bit of extra time and everything was done, so Jacob setup a special mic that Joel, Conrad and I gathered around in the live room. We played “Good Thing,” a song we’d done together two years ago on tour, but hadn’t actually rehearsed at all. It’s not going to be on the record, but I’m going to share it with everyone who donated to make the album possible as a “bonus track.”
I had a good weekend getting some rest, and on Monday I went back into the studio on my own to start mixing the record with Jacob. Over the course of three days Jacob balanced all the parts against each other, ran my voice and some of the instruments though analog effects, and brought me in every few hours to listen to what he’d done and give feedback. It was amazing to start to hear everything in a more polished, finished form.
In the weeks since we wrapped recording I’ve been working with a graphic designer and a photographer to get the art for the CD all ready. I mailed the tapes off to Peerless Mastering in Massachusetts and listened back to the mastered recordings they sent me, asking for a bit more space between a couple of songs. I also took a long time listening to how the songs flow into one another, deciding on the best song order. Now I’m in the process of booking a CD release tour for the spring that will take Joel and me through Pennsylvania, New York, Virginia, and North Carolina. I’ll continue on solo in Kentucky and Ohio as well. If you’d like to help setup a show for me in your area, please contact me at Eli@Eliconley.com.