John Congleton works with plenty of established artists, with recent credits including The Decemberists, St. Vincent and Blondie. But there’s a special place in this producer’s heart for young talent. “The thing that happens with young artists in their 20s is, they will suddenly go from being good, but not particularly a bolt from the blue, to where they sound like they’ve really figured something out. That’s my favorite time to try to work with people, that particular moment.”
Congleton says that during initial conversations about whether he would produce and engineer Mikaela Davis’ debut album, Delivery, he heard a marked change between the first set of demos he received and a second set that Davis made a few months later. “I was charmed by her voice and songs,” he says. “The songs sounded like Neil Young songs if they were harp songs, if you can imagine that.
“Recording harp in the context of a rock band is a very challenging thing, actually,” he continues. “I had some experience with it in the past with the Polyphonic Spree and a few other things, but I knew that it would be challenging because of all the overtones of the instrument. It’s hard to make a harp edgy or rock ’n’ roll, and a challenge like that appeals to me.”
Congleton’s first sessions with Davis were designed for both parties to figure out a working relationship. Davis and her bandmates Alex Coté (drums, percussion, guitars, background vocals) and Shane McCarthy (bass, background vocals) joined Congleton at Steve Albini’s Electrical Audio, Chicago, where the producer had just wrapped up a project with Chicago-based band FACS.
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“We did a few songs. One was ‘In My Groove,’ but that version didn’t end up on the record,” Congleton recalls. “Another was a new song that nobody had even heard yet and she had no arrangement for, and that was ‘Delivery,’ the first song on the record. She and the band and I worked out an arrangement for that on the fly, and then it was clear there was something there that was special.”
The piano-centric “Delivery” sets the tone for the album, as the loveliness of Davis’ voice and her musicianship don’t just shine through the grit and effects in the production—they’re enhanced.
Sessions for the album began in earnest in Congleton’s Elmwood Studio in his hometown of Dallas. That studio is equipped with a custom Neve 53 Series console, Avid Pro Tools X and HD3, Focal Twin6B monitors, a large collection of outboard processing and mic pre’s, and vintage and modern mics that Congleton has amassed over the years. “I don’t do a lot of records in that studio anymore,” says Congleton, whose Elmwood West facility in L.A. is more frequently his home base. “But we could make her record very affordably there.”
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Live basic tracking included an unusual rhythm section of drums, bass and harp, though nearly all of the harp parts were replaced. “Mikaela played in a booth during those live sessions, but we redid almost all of those parts because we liked the harp sound better when we could move her out into the room,” Congleton explains.
“The harp microphones changed from song to song, but for the most part, what we ended up really liking was a single mono microphone a few feet in front of the harp, about chest height and aiming right at it, and that would often be a Telefunken 251. I would also blend in a Shure SM98 microphone that I would place inside the harp, but almost always there was some kind of effects chain running through that PMF microphone, like an Electro-Harmonix Memory Man pedal. You can hear that a lot on the record.”
Congleton controlled the pedals/effects while Davis overdubbed her harp parts. “She was very into the harp being presented in a nonliteral way,” he says. “We’re talking about somebody who has been playing the harp since she was a child. She pretty much knows everything that can be done with the harp, so anything that was done from an atypical approach exhilarated her, which for me was super fun.”
Davis’ vocal sound was also designed to go beyond the obvious. “She’s got a very bright voice, but she really doesn’t like her voice situated in a childlike place,” says Congleton. “She wants to sound more sultry. I had a lot of luck with ribbon mics in general on her: an RCA 44 worked really well, or a Coles 4038, and when we wanted something a little brighter, I used a Lomo 19A13.
“Lomo Microphones is a Russian company that existed primarily during the Cold War, and they supplied mics behind the Iron Curtain that were facsimiles of Western microphones. Their 19 series microphones are all very beautiful-looking and beautiful-sounding.”
Keep watching: John Congleton - Part 2: Mixing
And one more: John Congleton - Part 3: Gear
Further overdubs on Delivery included piano and keyboard parts by Davis and Adam Pickrell, some background vocals by The Staves, and drummer Coté adding guitar parts.
“The basic tracks were harp, bass guitar and drums because there was a little bit of intent to see, ‘Can we pull it off with just bass, harp, drums and vocals?’” Congleton says. “We would start by trying to keep it as simple as possible and deciding whether we needed any guitar or keyboards, taking it song by song. Mikaela and the band seemed to really enjoy ratty, fuzzy, psychedelic kind of guitar tones, which is something I love a lot, too. A lot of times we would just take direct guitars and crank the pre.”
Congleton notes that it is always his preference, if possible, to nail down sounds during tracking rather than mixing, so the mix stage becomes more a time for balancing and fine-tuning than doing a lot of sonic manipulation.
“I think the thing I was able to bring to the record, and the thing I think Mikaela was looking for, was to present her music as something with more grit and more funky,” he says. “A lot of people hear about what she does and automatically assume she wants to sound like a fairytale elfin precious artist—very mysterious and pretty—but she wants the opposite. So I was never that taskmaster producer saying, ‘You have to sing that prettier.’ She’s got no problem being pretty. She wants to do something visceral and honest and kind of hungry-sounding.”