July 12, 2017

My approach to writing and studio sessions

I used to avoid studio sessions like the plague! Whenever the red light would come on, I instantly felt the pressure of trying to get a perfect take, or trying to create the next Billie Jean bass line, or most of all, trying not to waste the producers time by faffing about – for me, recording always felt really unnatural and vibe-less.

All this changed for me a couple of years ago when my friend, Chris Loco called me to lay down a quick bass part and to come and hang at his studio. We put down a pretty straight forward line on a pretty straight forward pop tune, and then moved on to the second item on the agenda by cracking open the JD. Long story short, Chris played me a beat he’d been working on with Etta Bond, I picked up my bass, we hit record and this is what happened (the tune, not the video!!)

Over the next month we worked on a couple of other tracks for Etta – the general vibe was, do what the hell you like, and the results, in my opinion, sound really fresh!

About the same time we were doing this, I saw this short (3 min) documentary about Pino Palladino recording the bass line for “Wherever I lay my Hat” pop up on my Facebook feed,

…it’s worth a watch, if nothing more than just to see the inteviewer fan-girling over Pino and pulling air-bass faces like this:

What really stood out to me in this documentary, is the boldness of Pino’s line on the track – it wasn’t just your standard play-8ths-on-the-root-note situation. It made me realise that when I go into the studio to record parts, in that room, I am the person who knows the most about playing bass. Whilst the producer will most likely have an idea of what they want, it’s my job to go into that situation and play what I think the track needs.

That mindset doesn’t just apply to note choice and bass lines, but to gear choice, amps, tones, effects, groove, even layering up different basses – you are being hired because, essentially, that producer (or whoever hired you) believes you know what will make the track sound the best it can. This realisation gave myself permission to be me in the studio and play what I hear rather than what I think is expected.

Here is another track we did with Etta a few weeks later – I remember listening to the track without bass in my car and hearing this line – I think I even recorded it in a voice note…not that anyone will ever hear that…ever!

When i’m recording, I tend to try and give the producer options and see what they like the vibe of. What works well for me is to loop a section of the song, get the producer to hit record and just start playing – as many different ideas as I can think of until we hit something that feels right. The difference between takes might not be huge, perhaps just missing a beat on the snare or adding in an extra dead note – or it might be an entirely different line/harmony – but I find it really useful to get as many ideas out as possible and listen back to everything to see what works well. This is generally the time I would think about tones, effects, amp choice and all that too…I’ll probably jump on a synth and see if there is mileage in that, but mainly because I’m a massive synth perve.

Once we’ve settled on a direction I’ll do a whole bunch of takes, mostly with different levels of, “opening up” so the producer can choose how far in they want the song to go.

Heres an example of a track I put bass on for Ella Henderson – don’t think it ever got used so I don’t mind sticking it here. I recorded this from home (in my pyjamas obvs), here is one of the first ideas I sent over (the fun starts around 1min in)…

I had to remove this for legal reasons (boo), but basically it’s me playing all the Gospel chops and more on a pretty tame track

…the feedback, as you can probably imagine, was, “shit, you went in, can you send a simpler option”. Understandable I think, especially listening back now, 9 months later – but you know, got to be bold right?!

He is the simpler version I sent over:

…Again, legal situation, so I had to remove this demo, but, it’s a much simpler version of the same track above…if it ever gets released I’ll embed it here!

Between the two takes (and a few more options I’d laid down and sent over), the producer had everything he needed to put something together that fitted with his idea for the track. I don’t have the latest version, but I heard it recently and it sounded sweet – a great mix between the groove in the simpler version and some of the embellishments from the fun…er, i mean, more complex version!

I could talk about writing all day these days, I love the idea of taking something that is in my head and making it into something that people listen to! I love experimenting with sounds and ideas and trying different bass tones or synth sounds. Getting to this place only happened because I realised that I was being hired to “do me” and bring my expertise to a session, not because I was just any old bass player.

As with pretty much anything in music, it comes down to confidence and conviction in what you do, and studio work/writing is no exception – you need to be the first person who believes in what you are doing/playing before you can expect others to follow suit.

I would love to hear about how you guys get on in the studio, and even some tracks you’ve cut on, so leave me a comment below or DM me on my Facebook page and let me know what’s up!