The Power Of The Voice
After releasing an album consisting entirely of human vocal samples, Claire Hamill reintroduces the synthesiser to her music. David Bradwell listens to the singer's tale.
For her album, Voices, Claire Hamill abandoned conventional instrumentation in favour of layers of samples of the human voice.
"I HAVE ALWAYS wanted a house among the trees where the cool of the day meets the green of the branches", sang Claire Hamill. And it would seem she has been granted her wish because her house, which I am trying desperately to find, is situated somewhere amongst the forest that is known as East Sussex. Seemingly miles from anywhere even approaching civilisation, I have, er, lost my way. When I finally arrive, I'm greeted by Hamill herself, along with the huge family dog, and I'm shown through to one of those vast country kitchens so beloved of BBC2 cookery programmes. This being England in the summertime, we decide to head outside, and conduct the interview in the sunshine...
I'm here to learn about vocal arranging and sampling of the human voice, from possibly one of the most influential figures in this particular field, for Hamill's Voices album is characterised by layers of voices taking the place of "conventional" musical instruments. The result is an intriguing tapestry of sounds on a par with the work of many notable synthesists, yet produced solely with the human voice. As number eight in Coda Records' New Age Landscape series, it provided the musical basis for the BBC Domesday Book television series. Since then she has recorded a further album, Love In The Afternoon, and been on a nationwide tour which was designed to raise public awareness of British new age.
But before examining Hamill's approach to technology, let's devote a few moments to her musical history. Plucked from the obscurity of a Teeside sixth form by the manager of a local club, she was signed to Island records in 1971, and released her debut album One House Left Standing. This was followed by October, but neither spawned the hit single so desperately needed by the record company. Rather than be disheartened by this lack of commercial success, Hamill toured the USA, getting a very good reaction from American audiences until she decided to come home, aged 20, and self-produce a third album. Abracadabra. Nearly cracking under the pressures upon her, and at the same time watching her American record company in chaos, it was what's politely called "a very hard time". There's more... The arrival of punk made the musical climate still less hospitable to her music and her manager deserted her in favour of Tom Petty.
In the best tradition of bedtime stories, things eventually started to improve, and she began writing with the likes of Wishbone Ash and met Nick Austin, now husband and owner of Coda Records. Austin had "discovered" new age music in America, and decided to start a British new age label on his return. Hamill's first Coda album, Touchpaper, although more dance orientated than her later work, includes a track called 'The Moon Is A Powerful Lover'. This was her first foray into vocal arranging.
"I wanted to put a bit more of a stamp on that one, and make it sound more mystical", she explains. "Breathy voices were sampled into an AMS and triggered by one of the drum machine programs. That was the track that started it all really."
Touchpaper cost a lot of money to produce - considerably more money than it initially recouped - so the decision was made to look for a producer with a studio and give him a percentage of album royalties rather than an advance fee. Coincidentally Tom Newman, who engineered Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells, was working from a studio in Hastings which he was looking to expand. Jointly they bought a bigger house and installed a 24-track studio providing an answer to both of their problems. The house has now become the Austin family residence.
"I was the biggest snob going, with regard to recording studios", Hamill remembers. "I knew nothing about them, but I thought I had worked everywhere. Tom Newman changed all of that, because we recorded a few tracks in one of the bedrooms here which were technically brilliant. I thought 'What is all the fuss about? Why do people pay vast amounts of money for a studio?'. Then I realised it's not the equipment, it's the music which counts. And it's true. I recorded Voices on a 16-track Fostex - it's very much an album of music rather than recording technology."
Talk of that album leads us onto Hamill's approach to sampling. Bearing in mind the vocal emphasis of her work, why did she decide to work with a Prophet 2000?
"It had just come out, and the voice quality on it was really good. The Mirage was terrible, I thought. It might be good for sampling other things, but it just wasn't good for the voice. Obviously now it's been superseded by the likes of the Akai S900 on which you can sample every note. On the Prophet the mapping is really difficult, which means you get that Mickey Mouse effect."
The concept of an album containing only sounds and effects generated by the human voice was Austin's way of having a singer produce an instrumental album to fit the new age brief. Without the budget to travel the world collecting samples, Jean Michel Jarre/Zoolook-style, the album contained only two other voices, those of engineer Richard York for basslines, and Tom Newman for the drums.
"For the Voices album, I sampled my voice as a kind of choral wash on some of the tracks, and sang chords over the top of that."
"I was frightened doing Voices," Hamill recalls. "I thought people might think it self indulgent. It was very frustrating for me - I kept pleading with Nick to let me use a synthesiser. But he would say 'Absolutely not! I'm not selling this album with anything on it but voices. It has to be a statement.' It worked out best in the end.
I sampled my voice as a kind of choral wash on some of the tracks, and mainly sang chords over the top of that. I'm very much an instinctive singer, and I don't take directions very well, to be honest, so it was a good situation for me not to have to talk to people and sit in the background while other people played their parts. I used to work out three part vocal patterns to a DX7 piano sound and a drum click, building up from there, and adding effects and acoustic rhythm parts as a finishing touch. I tracked all of the voices four times, apart from the high lead voice which was just a solo. Voices was very hard work, but eight weeks and it was finished. To me it was heaven."
The album came shortly after the birth of Tara, Hamill's first child, and it needed a very disciplined approach to focus attention away from the delights of motherhood. Having a child changed Hamill's musical perceptions, as did the move away from South London to the East Sussex countryside.
"This house has a lot to answer for, actually," she explains. "Coming here from London and witnessing nature in all its glory really did have a very profound effect on me and my writing. I find it very inspiring. When I wrote the music for the Domesday Series I suddenly realised that here I was, right in the middle of the Battle of Hastings. I wrote 'Trees' pushing Tara along the driveway. I just started singing 'I have always wanted a house among the trees.' And it's true. I have!"
Love In The Afternoon represented a sideways step from Voices being a much more conventional record than its predecessor. This was because Hamill had another child which further drained her time and made her more dependent on other musicians. These included Roland product specialist, Nick Magnus, who helped out with the keyboard-playing duties, as well as having immediate access to all of the company's latest equipment. Hamill describes the project as "aesthetically successful", but still has reservations.
"I find working with other people frustrating in that I have to hand a part of myself over to them, whereas I would rather only express what I want to express on the record. But it can be good to work with other people. Other people can use their skills to make you sound better and enhance your original idea. I think there is a large amount of that on the new record."
Hamill feels that the instrumental tracks - on which she still sings, but notes as opposed to lyrics - are the most successful aspect of Love In The Afternoon. So much so that she is considering adopting this as the basis for her musical future, rather than continuing as a songwriter.
"My era is going to be when I can use my voice and transform it into a cello or violin or flute rather than play it from a keyboard."
Her ideal age of technology may not be quite upon us yet, but, as she explains, it hopefully isn't far away.
"I do find technology incredibly frustrating sometimes, because it's not as quick as I would like it to be. What I'm writing are compositions for the voice and synthesiser, and my era is going to be when everything is voice activated. What I really want is to get something where I can use my voice and transform it into a cello or violin or flute, for example, rather than play it from a keyboard. If I could get my hands on a vocoder I would certainly use it, but I still really have to come to terms with my studio."
As for more conventional keyboards, Hamill would like to get her hands on a Fairlight Series III.
"I don't know anybody who's got one, but that was designed for me", she explains. "Its sampling quality is brilliant, and if I could afford one I'd have it now. Meanwhile, I like the D50 because it has some sounds which sound fairly close to a vocal, and it's got a sparkle which gives a magical quality."
For her most recent tour Hamill was joined by three other women who all play keyboards and sing. I wondered how well she felt her music translates to a live performance.
"It all had to be broken down into small sections so it could be played in a live situation", she explains. "Obviously it doesn't sound as good as in the studio, but it has a different life and a different meaning. I was charmed by the live thing when I first started the tour, then I went through a phase of not being happy, thinking it wasn't good enough. Eventually I realised this is real, this is life, this is the four of us, and it has to have a meaning because of that. I know that sounds like a really arty attitude, but it has to have a meaning for me to do it."
Being so closely connected with Coda Records, you would be forgiven for assuming Hamill is totally seduced by the idea of new age music. But mention of the issue elicits a surprising response.
"When I did the album it was purely a musical adventure, but now I see it as another piece in the jigsaw of my life and the way I feel about the world. Punk was very alien to me because I just didn't believe the world was horrible and you had to tear everything down. But new age is a problem for the radio stations and the public, because they don't want to be aligned with something which is being set up as some kind of snotty elitist thing, which, believe me, I don't want any part of. To me, all music is music - we're all different and everybody should be appreciated on their own merits. There is this kind of yuppie thing attached to new age which I find totally abhorrent. The whole yuppie ideal is based on materialism which I just can't identify with."
Finally, for those of you who fancy yourself as singers but discover that some days your voice is even more co-operative than others, I quote from Hamill's Tips For Better Vocals.
"It's very important this, you must never shout. No loud gigs, and never go to see your favourite band just before you have a performance. Don't smoke - smoking is a killer, and it's terrible for your voice. Drinking alcohol plumps up your vocal chords and they then rub together, so don't do that either. If you're in a smoky atmosphere, which would generally be the case if you were out drinking, it's especially bad. Try to keep the atmosphere humid and do some practice every day to keep limbered up. Try and push your voice a little bit every day, but make sure it's warmed up first. If your voice is going I recommend Fisherman's Friends or gargling with aspirin which will take some of the sting out. If you've got a sore throat, go to the doctor, especially if you've got an important gig coming up, because it may be an infection. But basically, don't smoke, don't drink, and don't shout. You can screw all night, but you mustn't shout while you're doing it!"