- The making of the album
I’ve been having several conversations lately about how ‘These Hours’ came to be made, so I thought I’d set up a page with the official version of events, as people seem to find it interesting.
The first thing to say about the album is that it was made around the same time I started singing live. I had terrible stagefright and anxiety about live performance and although I’d been writing and (very roughly!) recording material for about five years, it was only much later that I got into live gigging and then, at least at the start, with tremendous difficulty. I always had in my mind that the album I was going to make would go hand-in-hand with the process of learning to perform, I had something big to prove to myself and to me the two things fed into each other – if I could play live, that would help me a whole load with recording, and if I knew the songs well enough to record them, that’d stand me in good stead for playing live.
These were just vague ideas in theory back at the end of 2013, by which point I’d written about half of the songs eventually used on the album, including Be With You and Nothing Shakes My Walls Like You, which were the first songs I ever played in public in March 2014. Playing live was simultaneously ABSOLUTELY TERRIFYING and immensely rewarding – you never know until you try, and the reinforcing feedback I received was exactly what I needed to galvanise my writing and determination to eventually record. What I’d suspected about live gigging and recording being mutually beneficial to each other was true: the prospect of sitting down in a studio for the first time with an (at that point) unknown professional and playing my own material with the conviction that it was worth recording – that’s something that would have been even more terrifying and impossible for me than playing live, if I hadn’t already done so quite a few times.
The other (and possibly even more important) factor for me was noticing how different the songs would sound as a whole, playing and singing together – when songs are played live and it’s one person singing and playing, the way the song sounds is affected by doing the both at once as a whole, and each performance has a unique emotional context tying it all together. I noticed this in other people’s playing and in my own, on piano and guitar – for instance I’ll lean into the guitar if I’m digging deep to get certain notes vocally, or adjust the intensity of the playing to match the phrasing as I’m singing – all those little things that happen instinctively when you’re doing both at once, and that’s what makes live music so great. As a consequence I wanted to make an album that was as close to live as possible, and for this project I definitely didn’t want to record parts separately, overdub or splice parts of songs together, or even issue a perfect recorded “official” version of how the songs should be; I wanted to capture versions of the songs as entire moments in themselves, recordings that would reflect how I was feeling at the time – an emotional log, in the same way that any album marks out where a musician is in terms of writing and style and technique at the point when it’s made. I wanted it to be just me and the guitar, a standalone performance and a record of what I was capable of.
There are several sacrifices to be made recording in this way. This biggest thing for me was ruling out putting in additional vocal harmony lines (always very tempting!) and no piano, two things that have been my core sound in the past. I felt reasonably OK about not using any piano at all – these are things I can come back to on future projects. There were certain adjustments to the balance given that my vocal is naturally louder than a gently picked guitar; we took advantage of having the option to add a direct input line to shore up the guitar in the mix. Doing complete single takes, obviously there’s a great deal of trial and error and getting a good take of some of the songs was a time-consuming process, but in the end I felt really lucky that we got the recordings we did and I’m comfortable that it’s a once-in-a-lifetime process, I’ll never be able to recreate all 15 tracks with the same nuances. I may never record anything else in quite that way.
It took us nine sessions over about six weeks running from the start of November to just before Christmas – there’s no better way to spend those dark winter afternoons than in a warm cosy studio, if you ask me! It was an intense process for me fitting in rehearsals to prepare different songs for each session, dealing with nerves and concentration, getting used to recording as a process in itself, in some cases needing to re-do earlier work, and still writing the final couple of songs at the same time. I’ve never played or sung so much in one go! I was lucky that Gareth was easy to get on with and we had a laugh around the takes, drank a lot of tea and had some very funny conversations about everything from movies to Blu-Tack. So as nerve-wracking as it was trying to get good takes, it was a happy time – and also the first time that I really felt like I was setting aside time to work on my own music; going into the studio was like shutting the rest of the world away and just focusing on the songs as if for that time nothing else mattered, which felt totally luxurious.
In the end, though it’s a simple record in terms of orchestration, it’s a collection of my favourite songs and a memento of this time in my life when I was writing directly from how I felt, and learning how to perform. I hope that it’s a fairly close take-away version of what people hear when they see me live.
About the photos! All the artwork on the album was from a shoot at Virginia Water. I can’t exactly remember the route so I’m not sure which tree the Big Tree was or even what kind of tree it is – if anyone can identify it please let me know! I had two very good friends with me and yes, we did walk around with a bunch of balloons and tie them to the tree, which was all great fun!
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