For his second solo album, One All, former Crowded House frontman Neil Finn wanted to take a bit of a different approach to songwriting by working with some new collaborators, such as Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman, as well as with traditional Finn cohorts Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake. The switch afforded Finn the opportunity to create a handful of new sounds and ideas. “It’s got a different characteristic to it, which, to me, is more romantic and warmer than the last [album],” the New Zealand-based artist says. “I think there’s a lot of color in the arrangements, along with some styles that I hadn’t dipped into before, with Wendy’s influences felt on a few things.”
For example, Finn points to “Secret God,” a song that has Latin leanings. “I’ve never ventured into that before,” he explains. “It’s subtle. It’s not like I’m touching maracas and wearing a frilly shirt or anything. It’s good to be exposed to new things via the people you play with.” The balance of the album, he adds, “is traditional songwriting, in the sense that the songs have verses and choruses and bridges, and they’re melodic and there are harmonies, but I think the colors and the arrangements are quite full of character and out of the ordinary, really. They are not just simply guitar, bass and drums half the time. There are good colors going on.”
The sessions for this album, producer/engineer Blake says, started in Auckland, New Zealand, with Finn and Melvoin working up some ideas. “It was very casual, because Neil has his home studio and you stay at his house. The whole family eats around the table, and you work a bit,” Blake explains. “There weren’t any preconceptions; there was very little pre-production. It was just going in and jamming things out.”
Perhaps because of the casual vibe of Finn’s studio, the writing sessions were also very loose, according to Blake. Someone would start playing the drums or Blake would program a drum beat, and “that would be the catalyst for moving along,” he says. “I think there was even one song that was written off of a drum machine and bass thing that Wendy and I came up with just jamming. It’s all different ways. We did a lot more than what’s on the album. It ran the gamut from everybody playing live, coming up with an arrangement that way, to Neil solo, coming up with it, to each one of us starting something and everybody picking up on that.”
The studio, which is inside a craftsman-style home a block or two from a park, seems to have been built around a pool table. “There’s still the place where the legs were attached to cement that was sunk into the ground for the pool table,” Blake says. “It’s a really comfortable room.” The studio features a Euphonix desk, a Studer 820 24-track and Dolby SR. Finn also has a rack of Neve 1073s and a Pro Tools system. “We didn’t really get into Pro Tools too heavily,” Blake says. “There were things that got edited; like on ‘Elastic Heart,’ there were some parts of it that were doubled up and created off of Pro Tools.”
The artist is ambivalent toward the use of Pro Tools. “I prefer the process of working on tape,” he says. “Not because I’m furious about the sound, though I think there’s probably a little bit of advantage of having analog sounds to start off with on drums. I’d say I still like the sound of vinyl better, but I’m not a purist. I don’t care that much. It’s more to do with the process of working with tape. It seems to me that looking at a screen, even if it’s only one person looking at a screen, is sometimes a disruptive influence in the studio. You start thinking too much about the science of music and not what you’re listening to through the speakers. Tape has this comforting thing; the rewind gives you a little pause between takes to consider what you’ve just done. There’s something visible about tape. You sit in a room and you hear it back — it keeps your mind on audible things.”
In addition to Finn’s assortment of outboard gear, Blake brought along a box of toys. “I’ve got weird old compressors and a lot of trashy stuff, guitar pedals, which I use a lot,” he says with a laugh. “It’s a lot of junk.
“My favorite thing that Neil’s got is really unusual,” Blake says. “It’s what most people would call a harmonium, but I’m sure it’s just an organ that’s a Yamaha. It’s from the ’60s or ’70s. It’s a pump organ, basically — not as big as a pump organ, but it’s bigger than a harmonium. It’s absolutely stunning; it’s just got a big, fat harmonium sound that has something like four or five octaves’ range. That’s amazing.” Finn and Blake found it and a set of 1930s vibes across the harbor in Auckland. Finn played an Optigan, while Mitchell Froom contributed some Chamberlin and electric harpsichord tracks, and Lisa Coleman added some synthesizer and piano tracks. Lisa Germano added violin to three tracks. Finn also played a large assortment of acoustic and electric guitars.
As a songwriter, Finn enjoys having all these tools at his disposal. “Yeah, it’s really valuable for record-making to have a lot of cool stuff laying around,” he says. “You may have only used them once or twice, but that’s sort of worth it. I have a limited collection compared to some people that I know; but Tchad, in particular, has so many interesting bits and pieces and he’s such a consumer of oddball things — effects, strange instruments — lying around the studio and they inevitably get used because you’re looking for a sound that is characterful and no that one’s heard before. Mitchell’s that way, too — old keyboards and wonderful sounds.”
After a spell of writing and recording in New Zealand, the team crossed the water and dropped into Blake’s favorite Los Angeles room, Studio B at the Sunset Sound Factory. While there, Blake recorded the Lisa Germano parts, as well as drum tracks by Jim Keltner and background vocals by Sheryl Crow. The songs “Rest of the Day Off,” “Wherever You Are,” “Turn and Run,” “Driving Me Mad” and “Last To Know” were recorded in Los Angeles. They then returned to New Zealand to record a couple of songs at Revolver Studios.
Blake’s approach to recording Finn and the rest of the instrumentalists can be described as relaxed. Finn’s vocals were recorded using a Telefunken 251 almost exclusively. (A Neumann U47 was used sparingly.) “Sometimes I throw it through a Little Labs mic pre, which is one of my favorite mic pre’s,” Blake explains. “It’s made by Jonathan Little. He makes DI boxes, but he made me a mic pre years ago.”
Other than that, Blake says, “I’m pretty loose with my miking. A lot of times, it’s really what the closest mic to my hands is. I’m really not that fussy, unless something doesn’t work. I’m not one of those people that hears that somebody wants to do a part, and I go searching for the right microphone, the right cable, the right mic pre, the right compressor. I’ll just choose them on-the-fly and listen. If it works, great; if it’s really wrong, change it. It’s usually not too far off. I’d rather get the performance. I don’t want to completely downplay it, but eight times out of 10, whatever mic I grab and put in front of something works.”
Blake takes a decidedly minimalist approach to miking the drums, which were mostly funky practice kits for this album. Typically, Blake would put a mic on the kick drum and a Neumann binaural microphone overhead. “I use these compressors that seem to have gotten pretty popular now, but I’ve been using them for about 13 years, called a Level Lock, made by Shure,” he says. “It’s a podium compressor made for speaking. It’s a mic-level compressor, so you actually plug the microphone directly into the compressor. It does wonderful things to drums. You’re not supposed to put that kind of sound pressure level into them, but I love what they do.”
For his part, Finn enjoys the experimentation and the whole recording process; he always has. “I love being in the studio,” he says. “It’s an opportunity to make something that will stand up for years to come. So there’s an element of pressure involved, but I love that. Hopefully that doesn’t mean you polish it to the point of sterility. But being able to really get inside and choose exactly the ones you want is a wonderful thing, I think.”
And just where does One All fit into the Finn cannon that includes classic albums with Split Enz as well as Crowded House? “That’s not an easy question for a musician to answer. It’s part of the continuum for me, and I think it adds some new colors to what I do and gets me to the next record,” he answers with a laugh. “I feel a lot of affection for it, and I think it will really stand up to repeated listenings, because there’s a lot of depth in there, I think. But where it fits in, I don’t know.”