Wondrously resonant and authentic, the music of Valerie June is roots-fueled yet defies category. The songs on her new album of all-original songs, The Order of Time, are by turns soulful in a Stax-with-brass way, down-home with a high lonesome sound, or really just her own thing, where the gentleness of her plaintive voice may be undercut by spacey, distant drum hits, a mean electric guitar or a gritty B-3—just for example.
June and engineer/producer Matt Marinelli recorded Time with many players she now tours with, about a year ago, beginning with exploratory sessions on a few tracks in Brooklyn Recording, where they worked with engineer Andy Taub.
“I don’t think we intended for that stuff to end up on the record,” Marinelli says. “It was more of an experiment, but it went great and everybody was fantastic. So we ended up keeping those three songs: ‘Got Soul,’ ‘Slip Slide on By,’ and ‘Two Hearts,’ the last three songs on the album.
“There was a core group of musicians who worked on the record, but in varying configurations,” Marinelli adds. Those included Marinelli playing some electric bass and some guitar, Dan Reiser on drums, Andy MacLeod playing some guitar and drums, and Pete Remm playing various keyboards, including B-3.
The band balanced further studio sessions with a busy touring schedule. A month later, they were back in Brooklyn to record the lovely ballad “With You,” a delicate arrangement that evokes Chinese and European classical influences.
“That was done as a one-off, live with strings,” Marinelli says. “We had Valerie [vocals, acoustic guitar], me, John Bollinger playing drums, and Mazz [Swift] on violin and Marika [Hughes] playing cello. That was a special day.
“I’m a firm believer in doing as much stuff live as possible,” he continues. “Logistics wouldn’t allow for all of the horns to be live, but we tracked everything else as a band. More than half of the tracks on the album have the live vocals. Other than the songs where there’s multiple keyboards, the basics and most of the electric guitars were done live.
“Val plays all her guitar or banjo parts live while she’s singing, as well,” Marinelli continues. “When she’s writing these tunes, she’s so used to accompanying herself, it would change the mood of the song if she didn’t have an instrument in her hands. It affects her vocal delivery, and it helps everybody else lock into the feel of the song if you can hear where the groove should lie.”
Marinelli also believes in the magic of spontaneity: “Val and I would have an arrangement in mind and her parts were worked out beforehand, but I didn’t send demos to the other people in the band. We would work it out on the floor and just play the tune a few times. All the folks who played on the record are really talented, so they would pick things up fast, and it would keep things very fresh.”
Some sessions were captured to a Studer A827 24-track tape machine with Pro Tools running as a backup, while others went straight to Pro Tools. “In some cases a track only took three takes,” Marinelli says. “But if we needed more time to work out the song, Pro Tools is just more economical if you want to roll for hours.”
Though the sessions in Brooklyn went very well, Marinelli says it was always the group’s intent to decamp to Guilford Sound, in the foothills of Vermont’s Green Mountains.
“There were three big reasons to go to Guilford,” Marinelli says. “First, I know the studio really well. I have a systems design and integration company called Coral Sound, and Coral helped put together that room years ago. I know the studio technically and I’ve done a few other records there. I love [designer/acoustician] Fran Manzella’s rooms, and I love the staff: [owner/engineer] Dave Snyder, [engineer] Matt Hall, [studio manager] Cynthia Larsen—everybody who works there is total sweetheart.
“Second, I thought that to concentrate on the number of tunes we were going to get done up there, we had to be outside of New York. We all have so much going on in the city and it’s hard to shut off. But if you get four hours north of the city, it’s easier to shut everything out.
“The third reason is, our recording setup was going to take a lot of space. It’s not a complicated record production-wise, but I wanted to be able to keep things flowing and exciting for everyone, and that just meant having the space to set up in advance. We did one big setup day, with multiple options, so when it came to making changes, there was no down time.”
After the technical team’s setup day, the musicians spent about a week at Guilford, tracking about two songs per day. June played and sang in a glass iso booth, while the rest of the band was set up in Guiilford’s naturally lit tracking room, which offers views to the surrounding landscape.
“There are several iso booths, so we’d put amps in those booths, and those doors could be open or closed, depending on the track. I like bleed when it’s useful, but if it’s a quiet tune, we could easily isolate an amp. On a few of those tunes, though, we recorded as a trio: myself, Valerie and Andy MacLeod playing drums live in the room.
Marinelli kept June’s vocal chain largely the same wherever she was situated. She sang into an RCA 44BX that went either into a Purple Audio Biz or Grace 201 preamp, then a Universal Audio 175 compressor.
“On tracks where she’s singing live in the room with the band, the 44 becomes a little problematic to get positioned, with loud drums,” Marinelli says. “So we ended up using a Beyer M500 for that. We were also feeding the vocal to a [Fender Super 6] amp at times, to create more of a sound in the space for people to play to, which doesn’t work great with the RCA.”
For electric guitars, Marinelli likes to set out a few amp and mic choices, including a Royer 121, Neumann U67, Shure SM7 and a Sennheiser MD409. “I’d quickly switch between signal chains; we’d pretty quickly be able to figure out what was working and run with it,” Marinelli says. “The Royer would feed the Purple Audio Biz, the 67 would feed an old Trident B Range channel amp, and then we might swap out one—send the SM7 to the Trident, for example.”
Marinelli also likes to have drum-miking options. Reiser had two kits set up, though they used one kit much more than the other, with a U47 FET on kick, AKG 451 on snare top and a Neumann KM56 on snare bottom, a Beyer M160 on hi-hat, and Sennheiser MD409s on rack and floor toms.
“The drum sound would change quite a bit from tune to tune, so if we did need to address a track with a different kick, the drummer would just walk across the room and open up those channels,” Marinelli says. “We also had a few overhead options. We had a pair of Neumann M269s set up, but I also had a mono option and an RCA 77 out in front of the kit that ended up being used a lot in the mixes, and some more older RCAs in various positions in the room.
“I hate trying to run wires and patch things up in the live room when everybody is there working on arrangements,” he continues. “So I tend to set up a lot in advance and then pare it down.”
There were a lot of elements to sift through, and one of the most critical is June’s banjo. “On this record, she is using an open-back banjo instead of a resonator, and I think the best sound we got from that was with a Sony C37A; that tends to be a great banjo mic,” Marinelli says. “Some of the banjo sounds we were trying to get were not necessarily what I would define as ‘good’ banjo sounds. For instance, on ‘Man Done Wrong,’ getting a very representative banjo sound wasn’t the goal; we were trying to do something a little different from the natural approach you would take on a bluegrass record.
“Banjo is a funny instrument. It gets pigeonholed a lot, but that’s not necessarily Valerie’s approach to the instrument; the way she uses it opens up possibilities to recording it differently or manipulating it differently.”
Some of the overdubs for The Order of Time were actually done during a holiday visit to June’s family home in Tennessee; others were cut in Seaside Lounge and Rayzor Studio in Brooklyn. And one song on the album, “Just in Time,” was produced, recorded and mixed by Richard Swift at National Freedom and Reservoir studios in New York. However, all but one of the album tracks were mixed by Marinelli on the API Legacy console at Guilford.
“Probably the most critical thing across the record was finding a vocal reverb that I was happy with,” Marinelli says. “We used varying combinations of the EMT 140 plate at Guilford and some AKG spring reverbs that I brought. Guilford also has a chamber that we used a little—more on instruments than voice—and I have a chamber in my own space in New York where I pre-tracked some reverbs. It was critical that we found a signature reverb sound.”