How I made... Songs From The Seasons. By Joshua Burnell
British folk singer Joshua Burnell has recently released his concept album, Songs From The Season. We asked Joshua to tell us about tha making of the record.
What started the process of making your new album?
Those who know me well will know that two to three times a week, I’ll say, “I’ve had an idea…” The typical response is now, “how much will it cost?” The Seasons Project was one of such ideas.
In terms of what started the process, I think it was the combination of lots of little ideas coming together at once. After I’d made Into the Green, the album was often labeled as "folk" and so I figured I ought to follow it up with what I considered to be "real" folk music. This was because I knew "folk" to mean traditional music (what I now refer to as "traditional folk" to keep things simple!) whereas I find most people attach the label to any old song so long as it’s played on an acoustic instrument! We’d been playing traditional music for a while, but had never got it onto a record. I knew I wanted to be "proper" folk act, so I got into loads of trad stuff, like Steeleye Span and other folk revivalists. I then found it very easy to get addicted to finding traditional songs that I just couldn’t resist wanting to record. I know it’s not the most rock ‘n’ roll of addictions, but probably safer in the long-run. Can you go to rehab for an excess of banjo? You probably can, can’t you?
The idea of the song per week element emerged when someone suggested I write a blog to try and help people engage with me as person, as well as just a musician and to be honest, I didn’t have the foggiest idea what to write about! So one evening I was listening to old recordings I’d done with this old Coomber 393 Cassette Tape recorder - I have tapes full of demos and folk songs I’ve had brief infatuations with - and I became re-infatuated with a lovely Victorian song called 'Lord Franklin', which I’d heard from Pentangle. It was then that it clicked and I thought, “this is just a live vocal and acoustic guitar take and it must’ve only taken five minutes - I could do a song blog!” It turned out this was a very dangerous idea. That same evening I recorded the version of 'Lord Franklin' that is now on the album and I genuinely thought it would be an easy task. Of course, this was before I began layering instrument after instrument on top of these tracks and making it far more complex and intricate than intended.
How come you recorded in York?
Convenience, really. Since there was so much to record, I needed to record it all in the house in order cut out the nightmare prospect of booking in all that studio time! I realised I had to record it (mostly) myself or else it would become unrealistically expensive as well (this is why people respond with “how much will it cost?” - thank you to those people). I bought myself a Neumann TLM 103, which is possibly the best purchase I’ve ever made, as nearly everything on all 52 tracks was recorded through it. As well as everything I’ve learned about arranging, performing and folk music, and I’ve also learned a lot about how to record, which has been brilliant.
It wasn’t all recorded in York, however! The drums were recorded at Middlesbrough College for two reasons. 1) the neighbours get a bit upset when I play a drum kit (we have flats either side and shops below. Lesson learned.) 2) Nathan Greaves, who plays electric guitar in the band, is also an excellent recording engineer and is particularly good at recording drums. He was able to get access to the studios where he studied and we were able to capture the sound of the kit in the room, which for me is the most important part. I really appreciate the college letting us use the space - they are amazing!
What impact has that had on the finished album?
Although I may have been limited with what gear was available, I think I was able to be more creative and more expansive in terms of what instrumentation I used. Since there were no studio costs, I was able to spend more on session musicians coming in to add a broad palette of sounds. There was a risk with a project like this that’d it’s be all just simple guitar and vocal songs which could get a bit same-y, whereas I think what I’ve ended up with is lots of interesting ways folk songs can be interpreted and (hopefully) a body of work I can look back on in years to come and still be really pleased with.
How do you approach the studio process?
Although I love being on stage, in some ways I prefer the studio process. Some people regard the studio as a tool to capture the live act, while others see it as an opportunity to paint on a blank canvas to create something more abstract - I am certainly in the latter camp. I take a lot of influence from bands such as Queen, David Bowie and Pink Floyd who famously mastered using the studio as an instrument in its own right. For me, it’s all about layering; creating sounds and textures that’d be almost impossible (or would require an army of musicians!) to recreate live. Live music is unbeatable for the energy and spontaneity, but recorded music has the potential to expand so much further in every direction - so why not push that as far as you can?
How did this process differ from your debut album?
It wasn’t altogether that different, except I had to press all the buttons this time! I could also do it whenever I wanted for as long as I wanted (but not all the whistle parts for an entire Season in one afternoon. Lesson learned. Our neighbours actually moved out a couple of weeks after that. Sorry.) I think I learned so much creating Into the Green with Dan (and prior to that another album called Valenor with Nathan), that it was more of a question of repeating what I’d observed and trying to get good enough at doing it myself.
How do you construct your songs?
For the Seasons project, it was a bit different to Into the Green, as I was arranging as opposed to writing my own material. Typically, I would find a song that pulled me in for one reason or another and then I’d find and listen to as many other versions as I could find. This was to try and understand the essence of the song, not just one individual’s arrangement. You often find them in all sorts of different time signatures, tempos and with many, many melodic variations. I’d then try and just hear what I thought sounded right for the song. I tend to give things a bit of a proggy, rock drive, where possible, because I want to show people how awesome, and energetic and epic these ancient songs can be. Although I did challenge myself to explore other styles. The recorded material on Seasons is the tip of the iceberg of the amount of listening I’ve done, so I’ve heard a huge variety of ways music can be arranged. Many times I’d hear a style I’d not heard before and I’d think, “oh, I’d really like to try and arrange a Seasons track like this…” At times, it got very academic.
Do you usually write things down or use voice memos?
A mixture of the two. I often sing ideas for melodic arrangements, rhythms or ideas for what certain instruments will be doing into my phone. It’s very useful when ideas come at inconvenient times - cycling home, in the middle of the night, on the toilet, walking along in the street while very perplexed passers-by give me suspicious looks. In fact, for some particularly challenging rhythmic ideas (on 'The Banshee Set' and 'She Moved Through The Fair') I knew I wouldn’t be able to remember the drum parts when I got into the studio, so we actually inserted the grainy iPhone recording of me beatboxing into the project and I had to play along to it. We then forgot about it, and only realised when we couldn’t work out what the strange phasing effect was on the drum track, and it was just me, merrily mouth-drumming along.
If I’m in a situation where singing at my phone is just not appropriate, I do scribble down ideas for arrangements.
For many of the songs on Seasons, I’ve tampered with lyrics, in some cases completely re-written them, so in those instances it is essential to write things down. I often annotate the lyrics with when certain instruments come in, or when different sections begin and end. As mentioned previously, I sometimes just hit record on the old Coomber tape recorder and play, then listen back with delight at how it is tinged with nostalgic warbling and hiss. There’s no particular advantage to this - in fact it is impractical on a number of levels - but it does make me happy in a very nerdy way!
Did you have the songs fully arranged beforehand, or did you work on them in the studio?
Again, a real mix. Some were born purely out of the desire to set a folk song to a particular drum beat. From that point it is just a case of finding the tune and then lyrics to match, if I didn’t like the original set. Others, such as 'The Ballad Of The Riddle Rhymer', I could just hear and was desperate to get it all down as quickly as possible. Most often though, it was a case of recording the main ideas I
How did you choose to produce it yourself?
It was just the nature of the beast with this project. Since the writing, arranging and recording process had to fly along at such fast pace, and also be squeezed in the gaps alongside my other commitments, it was just the most practical solution to work by myself most of the time. I also wanted the opportunity to experiment a bit and find out what worked and what didn’t work.
What was your process for choosing the final tracklist, from the 52 you had, and order? And is the order important to you?
Since the project was grouped into four albums, I sort of already knew which the strongest were, in my eyes (or ears?), and I’d been making a list from quite early on. I also asked a number of friends, family and fans to give me their lists of their favourites and then had the very difficult decision of slimming it down. I feel I could have done it with an entirely different pick of songs and it would be just as good an album - perhaps edgier and more experimental - but in the end I knew I had to go for songs that the listeners wanted.
The order is very important. It’s very much like compiling a live setlist: the performance has to ebb and flow and have a theatrical logic to it. For example, the songs with more of an acoustic feel are grouped in the middle, which makes 'King of the Fairies' that little bit more dramatic when it kicks in afterwards. 'Farewell To Tarwathie' was surely written to be at the end of an album. I’m hoping to see waving lighters when we do it at the live shows.
When do you know what the first single (or song to radio) will be?
I think it has happened already! The D’Urbervilles show played 'Mrs McGrath 'and Genevieve Tudor played 'Two Magicians'.
What’s the best thing about the whole process?
All the people it has brought together. I’ve been privileged to worked with some phenomenal musicians, I’ve met people who’ve loved and cherished these songs for many different reasons for longer than I’ve been alive, and I’ve had the chance to connect with some of the musicians whose versions of the songs inspired me to play them. I love the folk scene, I greatly admire the people in it and I now feel like I’m becoming part of it.
And the worst?
The dreadful, all-consuming, nightmare-inducing terror that comes with a looming deadline… every week!!
Give us one tip for someone thinking about making their first album.
Don’t rush it. It is all too tempting to get it done as quickly as possible so you can hold your masterpiece in your hands and fulfill all those glorious dreams and ambitions you’ve had since childhood. However, when it’s made and you can’t unmake it, so make sure you’re happy with it. Otherwise you’ll cringe whenever you hear it, which will probably be intermittently for the rest of your life. On the flip side, don’t delay finishing your first album because you want it to be the best thing the music scene has ever heard. It probably won’t be - as with everything, you get better and better with practice.
For more info on Joshua or his work, you can visit his website. You can also follow him on Twitter, or like him on Facebook. Joshua's project and the album are available to stream everywhere now; Tidal below.