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Music: Nellie McKay


“Where do songs come from?” Nellie McKay asks in our interview about her latest release, Home Sweet Mobile Home. Her question may be directed inward in part, but it’s not rhetorical. After making five albums—four composed of original material and one collection of Doris Day covers, Normal as Blueberry Pie—this sweet-voiced, quirky, gentle artist is still somewhat mystified by her own process.

It’s difficult, as well, for anyone to generalize about the process of making the 13 tracks on Mobile Home. Approximately three months of recording took McKay and co-producer Robin Pappas to half-a-dozen recording studios in five different cities, while 22 musicians (in addition to multi-instrumentalist McKay) contributed. The album also isn’t what you would call “genre-specific”; McKay’s songs have pop vocals, Caribbean rhythms, old-time ukulele, piano and voice. However, if we take a cue from McKay’s songs and focus on what can seem to be random, smaller elements, a sense of the album as a whole emerges.

For example, when we asked McKay who of the many engineers on this release could offer a good deal of information about the recording, she suggested Kent Heckman of Red Rock Recording in Saylorsburg, Pa. Heckman, it turns out, tracked rhythm parts and horns for three songs on this album, but he knows McKay well: “When Nellie was in high school, she lived around here and she took music lessons from [jazz musicians] Phil Woods and Dave Liebman, and they’ve recorded here for years.

“Nellie writes all her own charts,” Heckman continues. “I believe we used a click track, and the horn players might have asked a few questions about phrasing—this note short or this note long type of thing—but I don’t think she cut a reference vocal with them. She did play some piano.”

Heckman tracked bass, drums and horns simultaneously, with the three-piece horn section in the main room and other musicians in satellite iso booths. He used a Neumann U67 on sax, and Royer R-121s on trombone and trumpet; all of the horns went through a D.W. Fearn mic pre into Pro Tools, which was the one common factor among almost all of the sessions that became part of the album.

Another engineer McKay mentioned was Ichiho Nishiki, who recorded most of the vocals and numerous instrument overdubs in Lofish Studios (New York City). “Nellie is constantly a very creative person,” Nishiki says. “She constantly has new ideas, so during vocals, she might say, ‘Okay, we probably need a piano for this,’ so we move to the piano. Or, ‘Maybe drums here,’ and she will keep moving. One time we made a trashy-sounding drum kit using a pipe chair and a bottle of water. One time she played cello. Then she would come back to the lead vocals. And her vocals are usually just one take, maybe two takes. She’s so good—a beautiful voice and a different character for each different song,”

Nishiki says McKay chose Lofish “because it’s so comfortable. We tried a couple of mics [on her voice]. I thought a U67 microphone would be good, so we rented that and used the studio’s Universal Audio LA-610 MkII, LA-2A and LA-610 mic pre’s. She likes singing with a chair, so we put a chair in the middle of the room—just simple.”

Tracking was also done at Jack Ruby Studio in Ocho Rios, Jamaica (“The tropical essence is all over the music,” McKay says.), Winslow Court in L.A. (“It has the most incredible room sound; it’s an unknown gem.”) and in Sear Sound Studios in New York City not long after the passing of Walter Sear, whom McKay remembers fondly.

She says she also particularly enjoyed recording in Camden Chamberlain’s Kite Fishing Studios, though at press time, this owner-operated facility wasn’t included in the album notes. “I found this studio when I was going through with Aimee Mann on a Christmas tour,” McKay recalls. “It’s scary going to a studio you don’t know. It’s a bit like finding a back-alley abortionist. You don’t know who’s behind that door. But we recorded almost the entire track of ‘Please’ there, with just me laying on instruments, and that was an incredibly positive experience—just me and an engineer.”

Home Sweet Mobile Home was mixed in Pro Tools on both coasts—by MP Kuo at Lofish, and Tony Maserati at RNC Productions and the Boom Boom Room (both in North Hollywood).

Kuo says her mixing philosophy is always to “listen first a couple of times as an audience would listen, get to know the song and think about how I would enjoy the song. A song might sound like it should be very intimate, or it might need a lot of layers if it’s more surreal-sounding. What I love about mixing with Nellie is she’s so talented and there’s so many things going on that are so intricate; every time you listen, there will be something surprising that you didn’t hear the first time.”

“There’s a delicacy that’s needed in the approach to working on this,” Maserati observes, “because that’s in Nellie’s personality and the way she makes music and arranges music. She feels it out, and she needs to be into it. There’s no formula. There’s no roadmap. Well, there is a roadmap, but it’s hand-written.

“[For] many vocalists, if you can get one thing out of them that sounds like it’s got character, that’s a lot,” Maserati continues. “But Nellie is able to change character for a different perspective on a lyric, which is quite wonderful and is the mark of a great artist.”

Maserati and Kuo both augmented Pro Tools with racks of outboard gear. In Maserati’s case, he used the equipment that came with him when he moved from upstate New York to the L.A. area earlier this year: Neve EQ, an SSL X-Logic rack, Chandler Zener, GML parametric EQ, Universal Audio 1176, various plug-ins, etc. “I have the best of both worlds,” Maserati says. “I have plenty of analog outboard gear that I’ve had for 20-plus years, and I have all the plug-ins and digital gear I need, as well.”

On McKay’s vocals, Maserati used a light hand: “Primarily, the things I had to use were compression, EQ and combinations of those. I’ve got a Thermionic Culture Vulture box, which I used to sort of thicken or enrich the harmonic quality of her vocal or a particular instrument. She wasn’t the kind of person who was looking for a maximized vocal way up in the mix with the perfect amount of delay and reverb on it.”

“I try to get her voice very nice, pure, light and airy,” Kuo says. “We have a lot of vocal tracks on some songs, so I’m trying to build the instruments around her that might not be in her vocal frequency to support, to make a fuller mix.”

“Tony described this album, when we were first approaching it, as a ‘sonic landscape,’” McKay says. “He said, ‘You know, whatever you decide to do, whoever you decide to work with, it’s all part of the sonic landscape,’ and I love that.”