Engineer: Imogen Heap
Ellipse is UK-based singer/songwriter Imogen Heap’s third solo album and her third Grammy Award nomination. In both crafting and performing her music, Heap is eminently creative, facile and hands-on with music technology. For Ellipse, she began writing songs while traveling abroad in places like Japan and Thailand, and then returned to her home outside of London, where she spent about eight months converting her childhood playroom into a personal studio, complete with a Digidesign ICON console and Heap’s custom-built grand piano, the Perspex. As Heap told EM senior editor Geary Yelton, the Perspex is “a clear plastic piano that I built for live shows. That’s what [holds my computer display], my Nord and my little looping thing. On the right is the vocal booth, with multiple instruments.” Heap engineered all 13 tracks on the album, sculpting sounds in Pro Tools and with software synths. “I love just processing [audio] in Pro Tools,” she told EM. “I really don’t remember how I do things because I get so lost in it.” For the story behind Heap’s production of Ellipse, read “The Elliptical World of Imogen Heap” from EM’s October 2009 issue.
Ray LaMontagne: Gossip In the Grain (RCA Records)
Engineers: Ethan Johns and Dominic Monks
In writing about the Crowded House album Time on Earth for Mix’s September 2007 issue, author Heather Johnson noted that producer “[Ethan] Johns' discography points to an inherent tendency to work with ‘artists who have something to say,’ whether it's under the guise of garage rock, sensitive singer/songwriter or a veteran melodic pop group.” Eclectic folk/rock-based singer/songwriter LaMontagne penned all 13 tracks for his third solo release on RCA Records and collaborated closely with Johns—the son of legendary engineer/producer Glyn Johns (The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, The Who, Led Zeppelin, the Steve Miller Band)—who served as this album’s producer, mix engineer and arranger, as well as a session musician playing multiple instruments. Recording at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios in Box Wiltshire, UK, Johns and engineer Dominic Monks transformed LaMontagne’s vocals, strings, brass, background vocals, a rhythm section and a wide palette of vintage keyboards and synths into a richly textured work bearing a remarkable mix of depth and clarity. Commenting on his production style in Bud Scoppa’s story about the Kings of Leon in the June 2007 issue, Johns said, “I apprenticed in the '80s, so I saw a lot of what you could do with the minutiae. I know how to use 12 microphones on a drum kit, as well as two—that sort of thing. The heyday of A&M Studios in the '80s, where people would spend four days getting a bass drum sound—of course, we didn't go that far, but [we had] that sort of attitude toward record-making.”
Melody Gardot: My One and Only Thrill (Verve)
Engineers: Helik Hadar and Al Schmitt
Following Gardot’s well-received 2006 debut, Worrisome Heart, which established Gardot’s compelling qualities as a vocalist in presenting 11 of her original songs, her sophomore release offers more of her original songs and sophisticated vocal-jazz interpretations abetted by lush arrangements and a full orchestra. My One and Only Thrill was produced by Larry Klein and recorded by Helik Hadar at Capitol Studios (Hollywood), Sage & Sound Recording (Hollywood) and Market Street Studios (Santa Monica). When interviewed about his work on Roy Hargrove’s big band album Emergence, multiple Grammy Award–winning mix engineer Al Schmitt remarked of Gardot’s album, “I had a lot of fun doing that and she was really interesting. She’s quite a talented young lady.” Veteran engineer Hadar once again worked with producer Klein on this project; the two have worked together since 1998 and had previously collaborated on albums by Herbie Hancock (River: The Joni Letters), Madeleine Peyroux (Half the Perfect World and Bare Bones) and Tracy Chapman (Our Bright Future), among others. “My career has been divided in two routes: 10 years of analog and 10 years of digital,” Hadar said of his production style in Heather Johnson’s story about Peyroux’s Half the Perfect Worldin Mix’s October 2006 issue. “I started working in Pro Tools during a very early age of it, so working with a keyboard and a mouse has become a very easy task.”
Dido: Safe Trip Home (Arista)
Engineers: Jon Brion, Grippa, Greg Koller and Jim Scott
British singer/songwriter Dido co-produced her third solo release on Arista, Safe Trip Home, with Los Angeles–based producer/engineer/multi-instrumentalist Jon Brion. The album highlights Dido’s collaborations with Brian Eno, Mick Fleetwood and Citizen Cope. It also features a cast of top-flight musicians, including drummers Matt Chamberlain and Questlove, and live strings and woodwinds. Safe Trip Home was recorded at Abbey Road Studios in London and in Brion’s home studio. In an interview with Q magazine about Safe Trip Home, Dido recounts, ”I recorded my vocals next to the Hoover [vacuum cleaner] in Jon’s broom cupboard. It was so small, there wasn’t even room for a guitar: I got quite addicted to singing in there.” Brion talked with Los Angeles Times for a story that was published upon the album’s release in November 2008, saying, “She's one of the most naturally gifted singers I've witnessed. Her sense of time, her sense of musicality is huge. Partly because she's had success, and partly because the pure electronic quality of her earlier records, and the subtlety of this kind of singing, I don't think people realize how deeply musical and flowing it is—and how it influences the musicians around her." In a June 2002 interview with EM, session ace Brion related his top priorities as an engineer/producer: “There's a really clear hierarchy for me: first is the material, second is the performance and last are things like sonics. It’s great to have an A-plus sound, but that's always secondary to the song and performance."
Leslie Mendelson: Swan Feathers (Rykodisc)
Engineers: Richard Alderson, Chris Allen, Roman Klun, Lawrence Manchester, Rob Mounsey, Jay Newland and Gordie Sampson
Swan Feathers is Mendelson’s soulful sophomore effort and her debut on an established label following her independently released 2005 debut, Take It As You Will. Notably, New York–based singer/songwriter Mendelson began working on Swan Feathers with renowned jazz/R&B producer Joel Dorn before his untimely passing on December 17, 2007. According to Rykodisc’s Website, Dorn had heard Take It As You Will and was sufficiently impressed to help Mendelson sign with Rykodisc and to begin producing her follow-up album in the studio. (Rykodisc offers a six-song EP resulting from these sessions called Leslie Mendelson: The Joel Dorn Sessions.) After Dorn’s passing, Mendelson resumed the project, working with songwriter Steve McEwan and a cadre of stellar New York City musicians including producer/keyboardist Rob Mounsey, drummer Aaron Comess, bassist Adam Dorn, trumpeter Randy Brecker, saxophonist Andy Snitzer and others. Engineers Alderson, Allen, Klun, Manchester, Mounsey, Newland and Sampson recorded the album at New York City’s Avatar Studios.