In the Arms of the Earth
In December 2019 I rented a beautiful cottage out in the bush, North-East of Melbourne, in an area called Smiths Gully, and spent 4 days by myself, writing and recording an instrumental slide guitar album.
This project grew from my desire to have some uninterrupted, “flow state” time with all of my favourite guitars in a beautiful location where I could sit and stare out a window at a nature-filled landscape and somehow respond to that environment with music.
The “favourite guitars” I mentioned are:
- Irene – ‘Weissenborn’ style guitar handcrafted by Warren Lawes of Southern Slide Guitars.
- Francesca – Regal, ‘Black Lightning’, square-neck resonator
- Kahleesi – Custom built, one-in-the-world Weissenborn/archtop guitar designed and built by Stephen Barber (blues guitarist Bill Barber’s dad) out of a discarded 70KM sign. (No shit!)
They are the “voices” on this album… they sing for me.
I had a special, personal reason for making this record. I have always, and always will have, a very strong and deeply meaningful connection with the natural world. It fills me with peace and recharges my soul whenever I commune with nature in any way. What is happening to our planet at this point in history fills me with anxiety and rage.
I know I’m not alone in this feeling… It seems to me that most of us have justifiable concerns and anxiety about our planet and the state of the environment these days, so this project was my way of doing something artistic in response to the situation… a situation that otherwise I feel powerless in.
I just keep hearing the old Cree Indian saying “When the last tree has been cut down, the last fish caught, the last river poisoned, only then will we realise that money cannot be eaten.”
I wanted to focus on the beauty of the natural world and the creatures that inhabit it and somehow express how precious they are to me, through music… quite a simple premise really, but not an easy task.
For me to be able to achieve any kind of “artistic flow state” it was important that the space was set up in a way that I could easily start recording at any time of the day or night with minimal fuss, so the first night that I arrived I spent 6 hours getting the place set up, microphone positions correct and everything tested to make sure that every sound was captured in the purest way possible.
I was really happy with the space… It had a cathedral ceiling with a mezzanine bedroom, which was great for getting a microphone right up high in the centre of the room to capture all that beautiful natural reverb created by the shape of the room.
I put a chair in front of the huge window with a view down the valley and then setup microphones all around me. By the next morning I was ready to start the official recording sessions.
My artistic process required an elegant routine so for the next three days it was a simple case of:
- Get out of bed and stumble downstairs to the recording suite.
- Wake the equipment up, and choose a guitar from the rack…gut feeling.
- Sit down on the chair, hit the record button and then stare out the window until my hands started to do something musical. I’m still waking up at this point so this particular period in the day was really special… half dream-state. (Hypnagogic state)
- Record the early morning session until I felt content (about 45 – 60 minutes)
- Stop for breakfast and my first cuppa for the day.
- Go for a walk and look & listen for inspiration. (20 minutes)
- Back to recording for mid morning session which would last until after midday. This was always a very productive period.
- Lunch break
- Early afternoon session. Interestingly this seemed to be the time when my intellect would start imposing itself more strongly and I would start to write more with more method and more structure. In retrospect I found it ironic and amusing that these sessions were not very productive, as I found myself becoming frustrated with my limitations and had major battles with my self confidence and self doubt. The only useful way to combat this was:
- Meditation, quiet time and another walk in the gully.
- Late afternoon session would arise from the meditation just prior and I was usually able to get back to being immersed in the process and relatively productive.
- Dinner break
- Evening session was a beautiful time as the sun would set majestically outside and I would sit and gaze out at it and let my thoughts and feelings wander untethered into the approaching night fall. A glass or two of wine helped bring a new perspective to these sessions…
- By the late night session I was pretty exhausted of ideas and would mostly just sit and listen back to the days work and record any spontaneous ideas that arose from that. Not a particularly productive time but a lovely, relaxing headspace, as there was no one else around to talk to.
This simple routine made the three full days of recording surprisingly productive.
I wrote and recorded 34 original instrumentals out of which 20 were good and 10 made the final cut for an album.
As well as recording my music I also did some field recordings of the natural sounds around me, to use as textural layers in the recordings. A lot of bird calls for outside the room made it onto the recordings because the only thing between the microphones and the outside world was a single sheet of glass. I had always intended to include those elements, so it was really pleasing to hear how clearly some of those sounds shined through in the final mixes.
There a bit of a funny story about unwanted noise though:
On the first afternoon that I was there, setting up and settling in, I was very disturbed by the sudden shattering of the peace by a large commercial jet flying directly over the cottage!
I thought this was going to be a secluded bush area with little or no noise from the outside world… how could I have overlooked a detail like this?
Maybe it was a one off… maybe they would not fly over here again…. NOPE! here comes another one… and another one… Shit! and another one. Every 5 minutes it seemed.
I fell into a dejected slump for a good 30 minutes, was cursing the world and shaking my fist at the sky, when I realised that I hadn’t heard anything for a while now…
I spoke to the owner of the place (Scott) and he apologised profusely for not warning me about the possibility of air- traffic, and then showed me an app that I could get for my phone that tracked where all the planes were in the sky, 24 hours a day (Flight Radar 24 in case you’re interested.) This app proved to be the saviour the album, because I was able to schedule my recording attempts in between fly overs.
The unfortunate thing is that my dream of “uninterrupted” recording time was now crushed. I had to work around “someone else’s” routine and quite frankly it pissed me off… but I learned to adapt and roll with it. The limitations became a framework to plan around and in the end, maybe it influenced the results in a positive way… I’ll never know for sure.
Well by the end of the third day let me tell you… I was done… spent… exhausted, empty… but ultimately, very happy. Listening back to the raw mixes I was sure I had enough for an album I could be proud of. It is beautiful, real, wild, organic, intricate, delicate, dynamic and emotive… just like the countryside outside my window.
Getting back to the suburban city world was jarring and I found conversation extremely hard, for the first day or two. I’d spent an extended amount of time in a deeply focussed, almost trance like state that it was hard for me to snap back out of it… and to be honest, I didn’t really want to.
I got home to Geelong, set up my studio again and then got straight down to the task of mixing all the tracks I’d chosen for the final cut into a proper, releasable record. This is the first album that I have completely engineered and mixed by myself and I enjoyed the process immensely. I’m not really a control freak when it comes to this side of the recording process, but I did enjoy making all of the decisions myself and not having to ask an engineer to make changes. I could just go right in there and fix it myself. Oh yeah… Freedom baby!
I consider myself very lucky to have a few friends with huge amounts of experience in the studio, so the constructive feedback and advice I received, particularly from Adam Robertson (Magic Dirt, Swamp Creechers) was absolutely gold, and most importantly… on point. His input really helped me take the mixes to the next level.
Once I was satisfied with the mix-downs I got started on the cover artwork and with the help of my amazing artist partner, Nina Grant, who happened to have a few pieces that I could use for imagery lying around in her studio it didn’t take too long to pull something beautiful together. There were pieces that seemed to fit the mood of the music perfectly, and also a woodblock print of a portrait of me that just HAD to be used. Combined with a bit of my own photography and graphic design skills we came up with this:
So that’s the story of how I made “In The Arms of The Earth“… and either you’ve purchased it and are following the links to these ‘liner notes’ or you’ve just read this by chance and are now itching to hear it. Either way I’m confident that you’ll get a lot out of listening to this record.
It’s definitely a “mood album”, perfect for those early morning drifty times or reflective moods or for when you want music with no words that might influence your train of thought.
If you would like to purchase “In The Arms of The Earth” please just CLICK HERE and follow the prompts.
Go well… and please walk lightly on the surface of our Earth.
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