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Music, Etc.: Leif Vollebekk – Common Grooves

In its most elemental state, music has the power to transcend the present and carry emotional depth across the boundaries of time and space.

In its most elemental state, music has the power to transcend the present and carry emotional depth across the boundaries of time and space. On his new record, Twin Solitude, Canadian Leif Vollebekk takes up the challenge of creating such an intimately rewarding experience, one listener at a time. Inspired by the famously solitary Nick Drake, Vollebekk set out to make a record conveying raw emotions over a sparse and decidedly uncluttered sonic landscape. Pro Sound News spoke with Vollebekk in real time as he reflected on writing and producing the new record, and tracking it at Montreal’s Breakglass Studios with engineer Dave Smith.


Usually when I name a record, there is only one option that is floating around. For this, the idea became clear when I was listening to one of my favorite records, Nick Drake’s Pink Moon. It helps that that record sounds like it was just Drake in his studio, and that it was recorded really quickly. It is about that special moment when you finish listening to a record and the needle comes up off of the LP. On that record in particular, it feels like it is a shared moment that you just spent alone with the artist. I’m not hanging out with Nick Drake or anything, but somehow, he was able to communicate his solitude directly to me all these years later. It gives me goosebumps when I think about it. The biggest hope I have for this record is that anyone listening to it would have anywhere near the kind of connection I had with Pink Moon—to have a moment where we are alone together with the artist in this weird way.


I was playing covers of all these bands and getting so much pleasure out of playing other people’s songs. During that time, I thought to myself ‘It’s too bad that my songs aren’t like this’. I finally realized that I get to write my own songs. So it reawakened what I loved about music and I tried to open up my writing style. On this record, one song, “Vancouver Time,” came to me quickly and easily in just one sitting. I just kept playing it and didn’t overthink anything. So I decided this is how we would write the songs for this record. We were not going to try too hard on anything, change lyrics or add a bridge. Whatever comes, comes. Subsequently, I wrote 20 songs in a span of two or three months, and then we recorded all of them. It was this weird thing where I just stopped trying, and it became the easiest thing. I was able to keep on writing in that style for quite a while. At the end of the day, the songs I spent the most energy on—the ones on which I kept refining lyrics and changing arrangements—didn’t even make it to the record. For whatever reason, they just weren’t as free.


The instrumentation was pretty bare. I knew each song would be on the keyboard or the guitar to start, and I knew that wanted this guy, Shahzad Ismaily, on bass, and I knew which drummers I wanted. The instrumentation turned out to be more about the groove, and I knew I wanted ribbon mics on just about everything to get this really dark, papery sound. I wanted deep sounds with a little bit of shimmer and strings on top. I also knew that the color of the record was going to be purple, blue and a little bit of green. The hardest part overall was just getting the right kind of feel.


We spent the whole first day setting up mics and finding the right sounds. Then finally when we were doing takes, we just laid them down and moved on. It was a really nice process. I wasn’t against adding overdubs or anything, but there just didn’t seem to be any room for them. The space was so special, and we were all in the room playing live together. All the instruments had a chance to blend in the room and hit the mics in their own way. The space between all the players seemed to be beautiful and it would have been a shame to add to that. The other thing for me is that the room is the biggest thing you are going to hear in a recording. It’s your natural reverb, it is the instrument blend and it is the projection. We were in the room close together and ended up recording with no compression or headphones. The performances were very natural and everybody was just playing to the room, direct to tape.


This was the first time I ever really liked my vocal sound. Rather than going with the usual choices, we tried a Unidyne B and it was absolutely perfect for me. It gave me this lowmid sound on my vocal that really fit. We didn’t have to EQ it because it just sat above the guitar, above the piano and under the strings. It’s weird, because it’s just a $90 microphone and we could have used a much more expensive, esoteric one. We used it on the whole record and I have no regrets.


I knew that the engineer at Breakglass, Dave Smith, would be able to get the sounds that I wanted. I could have recorded everything myself, but if I had, I just wouldn’t have been able to focus on the performance. I’m really happy with the end result. Usually I would have a lot of misgivings, but I really took my time to make sure that I didn’t cut any corners because you end up living with it for a long time. I am excited to play the songs live. You can’t control the live sound as much, but I just try to make up for that somehow.

Jacques Sonyieux is a devout explorer of recording studios and the artists that occasionally inhabit them. Please send any tips or feedback to Jacques at: [email protected].