Brian McDonald: Completing an epic Voyage.
Brian Mc talks about his new solo album Voyage and the efforts that go into creating such an epic pomp rock release. Also check out Brain's excellent Track By Track interview.
Wind It Up was the last album - were you happy with the way that turned out and how about the sales?
Looking back now three years later at that release, I accomplished what I set out to do. The main point at that time was to release some of the rock tunes I'd written on the side while focusing on classical music in the '90's and also to write a few new tunes as well. There are a couple of strong songs on Wind It Up, but they are nowhere near the quality of the writing on Voyage. On the question of sales in 2000, we didn't sell as many as we wanted to, but I think we did alright.
Voyage sees a change of direction there - a more adventurous sound for sure. What were your set goals before setting out on the writing process and then the recording process?
A couple of conscious decisions were made before I started writing the songs for this one. The first was to head back in time to listen again to some earlier influences and take note of the writers, producers, and artists that created so much great music in the 1960's and '70's. So, while these things may or may not seem evident upon first listen, the parallels exist in the music. For example, the first song written for this release was Out Of Time - along with the lyrics that look at the subject of someone who wakes up after being out of it for many years, musically the song has 60's melodic themes running through it and a Wurlitzer piano sound that was typical on 70's rock albums. Where You Are, Where I Am is another example of this leaning toward reflection, bringing in melodic concepts from Motown writers, The Beatles, Beach Boys, and others. The second conscious decision I made before writing was based on a similar stream of thought that had to do with the subject of time as an integral part of all the song subjects on the album; a theme that runs through almost every song. As I kept this thread going, the songwriting process began to lean toward storytelling, which I think brought in a new perspective and new set of choices to make in the music.
As for some of the other processes, I set out from the start to adapt the music to the vocals at all costs. Because several of the songs tell stories, some of which are very detailed, the form and structure of the music became somewhat more complex to provide the right setting for the lyric content. The production and recording processes, particularly in the instrumentation choices and ways they were recorded had to mirror this form and structure. For example, the track Legend has two distinct bridge sections and an extended outro; and Normandy has an introductory section over a minute long before it kicks into the main body of the song. In the treatment of these, it became important not just during the writing of the music and parts but also in the recording process as well, to make sure the music set up the lyrics in a way that would draw the listener into and through the song. So, these are some of the things I was thinking about before moving into the recording stage for many of the tracks.
What did you hope to achieve for yourself with this album?
It always centers around making the best of each of the songs. I don't think I've ever had a target or measure for success more important than satisfaction with the results of the tracks themselves and that they each achieve the meaning and purpose of the original ideas. Also, along the way, like every songwriter I've ever worked with or met, I hope that listeners get something back from the music as well that makes the experience of creating and getting the music out there more rewarding.
I certainly think it's a monster of a record - I compared the sound to Kansas, Styx, Chicago and even ELO and Def Leppard. Do these bands inspire you and are there any others that inspire?
These bands and others have made an impact on me, there's no doubt. When you're fortunate enough to come across music that really moves you, it becomes part of your language whether you admit to it or not. For the Beatles, it was 1950's rock and roll; you know, you can hear that throughout almost all of their writing. In the classical world, in Beethoven's first two symphonies, there were the melodies and structures of Hadyn coursing through the music, no mistake; for Stravinsky it was Rimsky Korsakov, and so on . . . and this is the same in any genre. So, this leads to the thought that for every writer, the influences that shape or affect their musical language become embedded in almost all of their choices and approaches to making music. For me, Led Zeppelin was a mover to me as Jimmy Page would bring exotic orchestral-like parts into their music with his guitar work and the band did this in a more obvious way with their instrumentation choices in songs like "Kashmir." And the progressive rock of Yes and the bands that followed them resonated in a big way with my Classical background. While ELO wasn't a big influence for me, there were songs and orchestral treatments that were very cool and struck me as unique for their time. And the work of Mutt Lange and his work with Def Leppard in the 1980's and also David Foster's work with the band Chicago represented different and unique types of producing, arranging, and writing that to me had roots in both classical and rock genres. Other major influences I would add are some of the Motown artists and writers from the 1960's, the Beatles, Beach Boys, the list goes on and on . . .
You are more or less a one man band! How do you organize yourself to record the album's individual parts and what comes first?
In contrast to the previous albums, making Voyage seemed to require more work along the lines of process it was more than just coming up with song ideas and then making a decision to record them. On the other albums, for example, I would lay down many rough ideas to tape or disc, then use these ideas as the basis for new songs or construct songs directly from these ideas. But for Voyage, the process was more like writing an orchestral piece. I carried the ideas around and edited sounds and forms in my head for the most part. This incubation period lasted days, sometimes a week or longer, whatever it took to make the song whole and get to the place it needed to be for to give off the "feel that it was ready.
Some of the songs you hear on Voyage took weeks to get to this place, and only a few came very quickly, like the tracks Where You Are, Where I Am, Out Of Time, and the title track, Voyage which seems to have written itself in less than half an hour. After a song would get to this stage, and I started to think about the best way to go about recording it, here would be the next set of decision points. In some cases I started with a scratch guitar or piano and guide vocal. For the more demanding uptempo tracks, I played the drums to create a guide track or used a click track, usually with modified tempi throughout the song, paying particular attention to transition sections and breaks/bridges until things felt as they did when playing the song through with just a piano or guitar. On the songs where a guitar or piano track were used as a guide and I either played drums or programmed them using samples I recorded previously, I could move quickly to the next steps which were relatively simple because the instrumentation had already been worked out in my head. Bass and keyboards would come next, then rhythm guitars, then backing vocals. When the track was feeling good and about 80% there, I'd record the lead vocals. If the track wasn't there as it should have been, I'd put it aside and move to working on another song.
I spent a lot of time thinking about the vocal performances for each song and it was a quick process to get either the vocal performance I wanted or make a decision to file the song away and come at it another day with a new approach. With the lead vocal track down, more often than not additional instrumentation and solos would be added, depending on the nature of the song. And all of this would be much more difficult without the luxury of having the means to record and not being worried about studio rates and session fees; and the technology gives you a hand here as well - the advent of non-linear editing and mix automation provides the freedom to change things even right up through the late stages of mixing as well as allowing control over the fine points of a mix and arrangement in ways that provide great flexibility in the later recording stages.
You do take your time recording albums - how long did the various parts of this record take to complete?
I recorded over twenty songs this time out, and narrowed those to thirteen for the European release, and fifteen tracks for the release in Japan. I also wrote many other songs and some instrumental pieces during this time period. In addition, there are other things I've done to make a living so far; making music doesn't seem to pay all the bills, no matter how much work I put into it! If I were just to concentrate on making rock albums alone, I might be able to release one every seven or eight months, but as things stand, I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to write and release the albums I've done so far, and I'll continue to write and record as much as I can, as time allows.
To answer the question directly, I'd give a rough estimate of a few days on average to cut the basic tracks for each song, one day per song to cut the lead vocals, a day for each background vocal session. Each additional instrument could take anywhere from a few hours to a day depending on the complexity. And additive instrumentation or additional harmonies might take a day. In between the actual creation of the songs and the recording sessions themselves, I was involved in other projects as well, so I was in and out of working on about twenty or so songs constantly. So, considering the number of tracks recording in a single song on Voyage and the time put into making the song right before getting down to the recording process, you could definitely say I take my time going at it!
You have a few different moods on the album. Was that intentional?
Not intentional, but I like that aspect of this release. After finishing Wind It Up in 2000, I had this feeling that had been catching up to me during the recording of that album; a feeling that I was locking myself into constraints that held back the development of lyrics and freer flowing musical ideas. So, letting go of all of that and just writing led to the different moods and experiments with forms and melodies.
I see high-tech pop/rock then a more adventurous progressive element in the last few tracks?
The music is definitely touching that space in some of the songs and the next release will be more along those lines throughout I'm thinking. I was very satisfied with the sound of the instrumental break sections and outros of songs like Shadows Of Angels and Legend and the instrumentation choices in those and some of the others. That's the ground I'll start to build upon for the follow-up to Voyage you know, to bring these elements out more than just in the breaks and instrumental sections and incorporate a few more surprises.
How about the addition of strings, brass and bagpipes! How do those instruments get into the plan of the album and are there any logistical problems getting those recorded?
Those instrumentation ideas came along with the first concepts of the songs for almost every track on Voyage. So there was no getting around the fact that I had to go out and get the players to do it. Recording strings is always a challenge, but easier when you have great players willing to experiment with you, on this the Mozart Force ensemble was great. Brass was easier as you can be very flexible; for example, recording many passes of a couple of instruments at a time to get the sound and feel you need for each part, then mixing these later. Recording of the bagpipes for the song "Unfinished Bridges" started with giving Liam McKenzie the parts, then recording them in several passes. As you probably realize, this instrument is a challenge to play, and this degree of difficulty can be compounded when you have someone like me who knows so little about the instrument demanding that certain lines and phrases be played a certain way. So to compensate for my lack of knowledge of the instrument, I rewrote many of the original melodic lines of the bagpipe solo so they could be played, and where I wouldn't compromise, I grabbed a bit of phrase here and there and edited it into the track where I wanted it to go.
Is everything recorded at your home studio?
Everything was done at my place, with the exception of Reb Beach's guitars and a few of the more exotic instruments (harpsichord and bagpipes, for example) Reb has his own studio and his tracks were recorded there.
How much do you think the album would have cost in a hired pro-studio?!
I can't imagine what it would cost, but I know that there no way a record company would pay for that many hours in a major studio! At that point, you might as well build your own place anyway. How's that for a circular argument?
I love the two big ballads - Night You Said Goodbye and between Heaven And Heart. Have you always been a fan of big ballads and where do you draw musical inspiration for these two tracks?
Thanks for that. Influences for writing ballads come from so many places. If I lined them up, I'd say inspiration comes from songs like Paul McCartney's Yesterday, which is probably the perfect ballad, to those classic pop ballads of Chicago in the 1970's and '80's. After I wrote Heaven and Heart, I thought it might be somewhat of a departure from the usual form, but as for The Night You Said Goodbye I had written that tune in the '90's and would consider it typical rock ballad form and changes. It was Magnus Söderkvist (A&R, Atenzia Records) who suggested I re-record that one for this release. It seems to get along with the other songs on the album.
I still think those tracks could be eaten alive at radio - have you thought of trying to get the songs placed in soundtracks? Or is the process of placement and radio play just too complicated/hard these days?
Several years ago, artists would depend on the record label or managers to plug in to these types of opportunities. These days, it takes more to get you there. Without a strong push for radio play in the U.S., it comes down to who you know and the luck of timing. There are a couple of tracks on Voyage that I'm sending out to producers in the chance that one might be the right fit for a particular movie or film project, but as always, being there in the right place at the right time rules the ability to make it happen. As far as Europe and Japan, I'm completely depending on Atenzia and King Records to make it happen as best they can. If the songs are able to make it on to radio playlists, I think there's a good chance for success with this one.
Do you have plans to market the record in the USA?
The last two records have been targeted for the most part at Europe and Japan, and marketing in the U.S. has been secondary. It would be great to get that chance, but as you know, strong sales and radio play in a non-U.S. geography doesn't necessarily mean you'll get the knock on the door to release on a major in the States. The market here is a strange beast right now, and I think a lot of folks are trying to understand the logic behind what's going on. I think for the most part it's become almost completely a reactive industry in the U.S. and as has moved about as far away from developing artists as it can go at this point. But despite the music business side of things, to my ears anyway, along with all of the things I don't like, some great music is being released here. And it would be something to hear Voyage get radio attention in the States, because I think these songs would stand out as something completely different from the current field playing today on rock radio. Until then, for people in the U.S., Voyage will only be available online or as an import in the major music retail shops.
We did a great Track By Track for the album, but aside from those comments, do you have personal favourite tracks from the album?
My favorite songs are Where You Are, Where I Am and In The Shadows Of Angels. Lyrically these two have some personal meaning, and also, no matter how you sing them or which instruments they are played on, they feel like songs that are easy to understand and relate to as a listener. Also, the ballad It's Only You I Need, which is only on the Japan release of Voyage, is one of my favorites as well.
Did you get a buzz to see the debut B.McD LP re-issues on CD last year?
Yeah, that was something. It seems a lot more people than I had originally thought were really into that album when it came out. I got this huge dose of email for many months after the re-release of that album on CD which really surprised me. I know we saw some sales in the U.S. for the original release, but I had no idea of the number of people in Europe that were into it and that still had the LP or tape in their collection years later!
Where do you go from here then Brian? What's first up on your to do list and what else lies in the future?
I'll get back to some instrumental pieces that I've been wanting to get to for awhile, and next month I'll start the new course into writing for the next album. As you mentioned earlier, it takes me a long time to do one of these so I might as well get started. And if the opportunities arise, it will be great to get the band together and play the music from Voyage live.
Would you like the opportunity to play live more, or do you prefer studio work?
I like both recording and playing out; any time you get a chance to play your music for people who want to listen that means a lot. Whether it's to a single listener, a small group of people, or a concert hall, it's the same feeling. The studio work is also another extension of writing it's something you do to reach as many people as you can with music, so I'll always be in there recording something. In the balance of things, I'm looking forward to more opportunities to get out there and play having just spent so much time recently in the studio.
What else musically do you get up to between making these great albums?
I write instrumental pieces, play a lot of piano, do some session work, vocals and keyboards primarily, and work on other projects to pay the bills. And this summer, I'm thinking of learning to play the violin. I've always wanted to do that.
And what do you do to relax?
I write and listen to music, believe it or not. Another thing is to spend summer days anywhere near the water, sailing or windsurfing.
What is Brian McDonald listening to in his CD player currently?
I've got a rotation going this week in the multichanger: The Beatles Abbey Road, Matchbox 20 More Than You Think You Are, Joni Mitchell's Court And Spark, and Gabriel Faure's Fantasie for Piano and Orchestra in G major the Faure CD has been in there now for several months, I can't seem to put it back on the shelf.
Anything else you would like to add Brian?
Just a bit about melodicrock.com As a listener, I really appreciate your efforts in providing a view into music that would otherwise not be made available or brought forward in the press. It's been a great resource to many people, so thanks.
Too kind Brian, I'm just doing what I love. Thanks for taking the time out to do this interview!!