From its stated mission, Lena Hall’s Obsessed series is an ambitious project: For each month of 2018, the powerhouse singer would release a four- or five-song EP that focused on the work of a particular artist who inspired her. And so each month they came out: Obsessed: Elton John, Obsessed: David Bowie, Obsessed: The Cranberries, Obsessed: Pink and so on.
Every song would have a performance video for release, with one each week during that month’s Obsessed title. Over the course of the year, there will be 50-plus songs and videos—all intimate yet bold, scaled-down versions of songs you probably know but have never heard quite like this before.
As ambitious as the project sounds, it is nothing compared to the way it was accomplished. The entire project—including all the videos, which involved outfit changes between Obsessed titles—was recorded in eight consecutive eight-hour days.
“It worked out to about an hour a song,” says Hall. “A run-through in one take, and then we would record, doing two takes for the camera crew, and then do a fourth take.” And then on to the next!
For this to work, Hall needed a collaborator with a deep knowledge of her voice and performance preferences. She found that in Justin Craig, a producer/mixer/arranger who met Hall when they were working on Hedwig and the Angry Inch—a hit Broadway show on which Hall’s stellar performance was recognized with a Tony Award. Craig served as music director and guitarist.
After Hedwig, the two collaborated on what turned out to be the beta version of the Obsessed series—recordings of David Bowie and Radiohead songs that Hall wanted to make for her fans. Craig, who also plays guitar on the recordings, worked with Hall to break each song down to its basics and present them in a way that highlights Hall’s engaging vocals.
The fans were not the only ones who took note. SKB Records did as well, approaching Hall about expanding the series to a monthly cycle for 2018, with a video for each song.
“I had a month to narrow down the field and do the setlist,” Hall says. “It became a lesson in letting go of perfection. Each song is in its emotional, pure form—a real, full, emotional performance. Justin knows how to record my voice well; some producers can make me sound shrill. Everyone had big ideas, but I wanted to keep it simple. Let the songs speak for themselves. We want everyone to listen to them for what they are.”
“I arranged the songs, which took way more time than recording them,” Craig adds. “I figured how to get them in the right keys for Lena. I would listen to the song and take my favorite part from the original and put a spotlight on it. I figured out a lot of it as we went along. I had the players in mind [Matt Duncan on bass, keyboards and saxophone; Brian Fishler on drums and percussion], and I know their strengths. I knew what each person would bring and went from there. Then I produced the recordings, performed on them, and mixed them, which took about a month.”
No Sleep in Brooklyn
The marathon week took place at Mission Sound in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, NYC, and was engineered by Andrew Gerhan. Mission Sound is known for its vintage Neve 8026 console, formerly installed at Air and Pye Studios in England before finding its way to Brooklyn. It features classic Neve 1073 mic preamps/EQs, which Mission complements with a stable of vintage microphones.
“Lena loves the FLEA 47, so we used that on her for every song, along with a UA 1176 compressor,” says Craig. “I didn’t mike the room, but we did have a drum setup that was only used half the time—the other half the drummer wasn’t there. Those drum mics became room mics; we just left them open. There was a percussion mic for him up where an overhead mic would be, but pointed at the wall. That became a cool, funky thing to mix in now and then.”
Because the performances were being filmed, the band set up in Mission’s live room, which added to the intimacy of the recordings, but also added something that would come back to haunt Craig when it came time to mix: “The bleed was a challenge,” he says. “I didn’t get around the bleed—I used it. Sometimes we could get Lena to take a clean vocal after we got the live take, and we could throw it in occasionally if I needed to. But that’s where the bleed became problematic: if I wanted to use the clean vocal, then the old vocal was in the guitar mics. But Lena is so consistent and such an amazing singer that the live takes were fine most of the time.”
Hall has honed her vocals throughout her career. “Over time I have learned how to self-compress,” she says. “It is part of my technique. The amount of air required for the high note is so small, it is like blowing air into a balloon; it is so compressed inside. I have a lot of different parts of my voice that I can use—many ways to sing one note—and I’ve been lucky enough to explore every nuance of my voice. I never wanted to be told I couldn’t sing anymore, and that made me brave enough to explore all these different parts of my voice that were healthy. And because I have found all these nuances, I have range.”
Cramming that many recordings into such a short period of time would typically create tension in the room, but the Obsessed sessions went smoothly. “You want to find the perfect musical creative match,” says Hall. “Justin and I work together so well—no ego or tension. It is really wonderful to work with him, and I’m happy he is getting poached by everyone!”
Craig agrees with Hall’s take on the sessions’ efficiency. “I want [my collaborator] to be open-minded, and I have to be that person, too. I think there were only two songs out of the entire project where Lena said she wasn’t feeling it. So we found out how to make it better. In the end, you want to make the best version of the thing.”
For the month of mixing, Craig had a few techniques for checking the mixes while fighting fatigue: “I took the dog on a lot of walks,” he laughs. “Lots of breaks. I would listen on my iPhone, Mac speakers, in the car. … Once I was happy with it, I’d share it with the crew. There were not a lot of mix notes.”
Now that the string of Obsessed releases is coming to an end, would Hall do it again? After all, there are many more artists who influenced her. “I would do the eight days of recording again,” she says. “It took away the preciousness—of making everything too perfect—and it allowed for strong creativity. I would probably do more rehearsal on the front end, and I would want more time to pick artists and songs—two months instead of one week. And no videos!”
Craig is also up for another round, although there are things he, too, would like to change: “Maybe take one day off in the middle,” he says. “It is nice to get in the groove—by day three, it was amazing. If we had the next day off, we could stay in cruise mode. It was kind of nice to do it all at once.
“Although I’d give half of it to someone else to mix.”
Here is Lena’s latest Obsession — Black Hole Sun: