What Katy Did
A new studio, a new LP. Tony Harkins isn't beating around the Bush
Two years ago Kate Bush disappeared from public view apparently destined for obscurity. Where has she been? What did Katy do?
"I think the songs are as much the production as anything really"
"I've just invested in a Nagra — the analogue recording machine. The second side of the album has a theme running through it and there were lots of sound effects we had to get. Normally you know what you're going out to record before you go because you've got the song and you know you might, for example, need some 'sea' here. Trying to get a bit of sea is unbelievable. We got in sound effects albums but they're awful — so noisy, or it's the wrong kind of sea. I'd never really thought about the wrong and right kind of sea before, but as soon as you put it in context with the track you suddenly realise there's all different kinds of sea."
Obviously one of the main advantages of having your own studio is the fact that you can search for that right bit of sea without the clock ticking away reminding you of how much it's costing. This freedom to experiment is the most rewarding part of her new possession, which is one of the reasons the album took her the time it did.
"But also a lot of the initial time was settling into the studio... actually we had very few problems considering we were just coming straight into it to work on a professional basis."
Contrary to popular belief the studio was put together on a budget — so SSLs were out. On recommendation for quality and for price she went for a Soundcraft desk and recorder.
"We worked with that for the first two or three weeks and just felt that we could have had a machine that was better for what we wanted to do at that time. So we ended up getting a Studer and using the Soundcraft as a slave and getting a Q-Lock."
Rather than settle for a plate echo, Kate decided to get an assortment of "little black boxes".
"They're all good because they're all so different, but my favourite is the Quantec. It's got a kind of coldness and a sort of a true feeling of being in different places with some of the sounds. I also like their approach to it — it's actually a room simulator, where you can actually create the room size that you want, and the freeze facility is really useful. Putting it on voices really puts you in the environment, which is so important when you're trying to create a picture and a mood."
One thing that characterises Kate Bush recordings is the variety of vocal textures and styles. Is it the careful application of Eq and reverb, or the control of technique?
"I think it's a bit of both. My approach is that each song almost has its own personality in a way, and you have to approach each song according to its temperament. It's always the song that dictates what to do. If it's a very spacious song and its got something cold and sad then you go for that cold feel. It's just trying to make the mood as accurate as possible, and definitely the outboard gear is a very big part of that."
"I think what's in vogue isn't really something that concerns me"
Sometimes the vocals and related backing vocals play such a large part in the arrangement of the song that you'd imagine them to have been worked out on a keyboard.
"I very rarely do that. I think the only time I did that was on the third album where I put a piano part down and literally translated that into vocals. Otherwise it's at the writing process that I'll sing a line and I can hear here's an answer line that needs to do that. Otherwise when I make the demo, or in this case the initial master, you can hear this little hole saying 'Fill me up please' and I play the tape over and over until I've got a bit that's right."
When the melodies are written, the layering begins.
"If I want something distant and really thick then I'll probably layer it up a lot. Somethings I'll put four voices on and you think it should be much bigger, and until you get to about 10 you might not notice that much difference. There again, if you're using different voices it will thicken up much quicker — like using a slightly different tone or maybe some varispeed."
Although she prefers to do her vocals in the control room, noisy equipment and a good ambient sound in the main studio area keep her out. Now she's working with Del in a relaxed environment she's got the time and inclination to try as many takes as it needs.
"Normally with the lead vocal on average I put six tracks of voices down and I'd keep going until we had six tracks that were good enough to choose from. Some songs were very quick, and most of them were done in a day. It's more things like backing vocals and little bits that either we couldn't get the right sound or I couldn't get the right emotion.
"Depending on how the takes have gone I might start dissecting it. Emotionally, though, it's must better to do a take in one because you can get a natural build."
As you'd imagine from hearing her enormous vocal range, she did have vocal tuition as a child.
"I used to go to a guy for about half an hour a week and I used to sit and play with my songs that I'd written, and we'd do a couple of scales and breathing exercises. What he really did for me that was so important was to give me confidence about singing.
"Lyrics are the part of the process that I find incredibly tedious"
"I think my voice has changed a lot, and as you get older and work your voice the more it changes. I think mine is stronger now than it's ever been before."
But Kate's not merely a singer. As a pianist and songwriter the Fairlight was an obvious acquisition, and for the past few years she's been using it extensively. However, it doesn't often replace conventional instruments.
"There was one song, for example, that I wrote on the Fairlight playing string sound chords, and we demod it like that. But then I thought it would just be so much better with real strings, because you can't possibly beat them really. It would be a joke to even pretend you can.
"There was this other one where the song was written and I wanted these cello bits to come in so I wrote them on the Emulator. Then I got a cello player in because a good musician makes something of them."
Surprisingly Kate also still uses real drummers.
"I think what's in vogue isn't really something that concerns me. There is a drum machine on the album — a lot of the demos were originally written with drum machine and in a lot of cases a bit of the drum machine actually remains. It was more making things work that, and straight drums were right. I don't think I'm actually fond of the drum kit — I never have been. But the acoustics of real drums — toms and various ethnic drums — sound really good. The nearest we got to using an acoustic kit was just a bass drum and snare.
"The Linn was actually taking a lot of the weight on the tracks. Sometimes I'd get a drummer to replace the Linn in layers. It's different for every song — one he played a sort of ethnic drum all the way through but the bass drum and snare were off the Linn."
With the music and vocal patterns down, a finished lyric is the bit that comes next — the part that Kate has the most trouble with.
"That's the part of the process that I find incredibly tedious. It's horrific. Initially I find I get half of the lyrics, or maybe three quarters, and the rest aren't good enough. Sometimes it's a third and it really is tough. In a way it's even harder — if you've got half the lyrics because the second half has to work with the first half."
But an even a bigger problem than writing lyrics is recording a piano.
"Definitely the most difficult thing to record. It's really hard to get a good sound. The piano here is a Grotrian Steinveg, but really I like pianos that are a little bit old, though quite often they're not up to the kind of standards for professional recordings. This one's very new — it's a bit middy really and you have to work the Eq around it. It's good though because this room's quite live so we've used PZMs a lot of the time, and a close mike so we can use a combination of the two. Occasionally we'll add a bit of reverb at the mix stage.
"I was a bit concerned when I first saw this piano because it just looked too pretty to be good."
Which is where we started...
Interview by Tony Horkins
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