For her eagerly awaited new album, Florence Welch teamed up with one of the world’s hottest producers. Emile Haynie and Florence herself describe the making of High As Hope.
As much as I love working with artists and orchestras, brass sections and incredible session players, there’s nothing I like more than sitting in a room full of equipment, and making beats and new sounds and chord arrangements, and trying a new keyboard or drum machine, or new plug‑ins. I’ve done hip‑hop for many years, and the process was to sit in a room with some records and some samplers and make beats, and show them to rappers when I had the opportunity. It was bedroom production, and I’m still into that.”
Thus speaks Emile Haynie, whose own journey from “bedroom production” to being one of the world’s most in‑demand producers has been remarkable. Twenty year s ago, he was a teenager growing up in Buffalo, New York, who regularly got into trouble with the local authorities and spent a lot of his time in a room under house arrest. They say every cloud has a silver lining, and in Haynie’s case, this resulted in his having nothing to do but make beats in his bedroom, using whatever equipment he could lay his hands on.
The beatmaking skills that Haynie developed in his mis‑spent youth were a first step in a career that has led, so far, to two Grammy Awards and five Grammy nominations, and a credit list packed with big‑name artists like Eminem, Kid Cudi, Kanye West, Lana Del Rey, Bruno Mars, the Rolling Stones, Ed Sheeran, Dua Lipa, Pink, Drake, London Grammar, Mark Ronson, fun., Lady Gaga, Sam Smith, FKA Twigs and many more. Normally working behind the scenes, Haynie is likely to be in the news this Summer as the main co‑producer of Florence + The Machine’s fourth album, High As Hope, which looks set to be one of the most talked‑about releases of the year.
“I got into hip‑hop when I was about 10 years old, and by the time I was 12 I was obsessed,” recalls Haynie. “I tried to get my hands on every cassette and mix tape that I could, and was just hoarding all these different sounds and songs. Next I saved up to buy a double tape deck, and started making mix tapes, using my dad’s record collection. I got more and more creative with that, and started selling these mix tapes at school. Around that time, in 1992, I watched the movie Juice, and it was the first time I witnessed the arts of DJ’ing, scratching and mixing, and I became totally obsessed with that.
“By the time I was 14 or 15, I really wanted to know how beats were actually made, but I had no idea about production until I met a guy in my neighbourhood called Jeremy Cochise Ball, who had a rap group with a deal with Payday Records, one of the main rap labels at the time, which also released Jeru the Damaja, Gangstarr and Showbiz & AG and so on — tons of amazing groups that I was listening to constantly. Jeremy had a small studio with an Alesis ADAT and an Ensoniq EPS sampler and some speakers, and I watched him work with that and that was it. I was completely and utterly obsessed with production from that moment.
“I continued to spend a lot of time sitting in a room with whatever equipment I had, and got really good with turntables and mixing and scratching, and when I was 15, Jeremy lent me his EPS, which is a kind of one‑stop workstation, and which was all I needed. You saved your music to a disk and then loaded things up with these disks. A year later I got some kind of digital four‑track recording machine, I can’t recall which, and eventually I got the Ensoniq ASR‑10, a classic hip‑hop sampler, which I still use to this day.”
Around 1999, Haynie moved to Queens, New York, and did odd jobs to make ends meet. He was still working hard on making beats, using the ASR‑10 and an E‑mu SP‑12 drum machine, and later, its successor, the SP‑1200. Both E‑mu machines were 12‑bit with a 26kHz sampling rate, and samples in the SP‑1200 could be 2.5s long. To lengthen this, beatmakers would sample 33 1/3rpm records at 45rpm, and then play back the samples at a lower speed, thereby obviously greatly increasing the crunchiness of the sound. (“I would even sometimes spin the record very fast with my hand to make for longer sample time!” laughs Haynie.)
“I’d be going on the F‑train,” Haynie recalls, “lugging the ASR‑10 and the SP‑1200, one under each arm, on my way to studios. I also had a CD burner, which was a big deal at the time, and I’d visit record stores and record conventions and underground hip‑hop shows, and give famous hip‑hop producers a CD with my beats. I never heard back, until one day I caught Proof coming off a tour bus outside Madison Square Garden, and I gave him my CD. Proof was in the band D12 with Eminem. The next day Proof called and asked me to come out to Detroit immediately. When I arrived he sat me down with Obie Trice, with whom I worked on a song that night, while Eminem at times walked in and also worked on it with us. This all happened in a day! I was a huge fan of Eminem, and he was probably at his biggest period, so it was totally surreal. It skyrocketed me into this world.”
The connection with Trice, Eminem and Proof eventually resulted in Haynie having writing and production credits on two songs on Trice’s 2003 album Cheers, in the company of Eminem, Dr Dre, Louis Resto, Timbaland and Mike Elizondo. Haynie also went on to contribute to Proof’s Searching For Jerry Garcia (2005) and Eminem’s Recovery (2010) and The Marshall Mathers LP 2 (2013). The next milestone in his career was his introduction to software recording. “People around me were starting to use Pro Tools around 1999, and when they later put out a cheap version for under $1000, I got it. That changed everything. You could now see the music you were making and break down a track and do all the cutting and pasting and moving things around. I immediately used Pro Tools more as a production tool than just as a recording device. More than any synth or piece of outboard gear, Pro Tools really changed my approach to making music.
“For a long time I only wanted to make hip‑hop, even though I was trying to implement more music and had begun to play keyboards and so on. But I was still heavily into sampling. I was in New York making music with really great hip‑hop artists, like Raekwon, Ghostface, Proof, and so on, and out of the blue I got a call from London from Ian Brown. I was such a hip‑hop fanatic, I hardly knew anything about the Stone Roses! I went out to London to help produce his solo album, and this was the first time I worked with someone who was not a rapper, and instead was focused on melody.
“When we went into the studio, he’d say things like, ‘Let’s do a key change in the chorus,’ and I had no idea how to do it, because until then my tracks had completely consisted of samples. Ian also wanted to create middle eights and brought in live musicians. We got a 24‑piece orchestra in the studio, and that blew my mind! There’s no feeling like walking into a room and hearing an orchestra playing back melodies and stuff that I had come up with. It was absolutely breathtaking. I got through the whole thing, but I knew I had to learn more about that stuff. It was a pivotal moment, and I felt like: ‘This is making records for real, and this is what I want to do, with both rappers and singers.’ It was also my first time in England, which has since then very much become home away from home for me, as I have connected with many more British artists and the sonics of British music.”
Haynie’s collaboration with Brown yielded the singer’s fifth solo album, The World Is Yours (2007). “Around the same time that I worked with Ian I met Kid Cudi, who was unsigned at the time, and who has a real sense of melody. He was on fire. He’d get inspired if I just touched the keyboard with one finger, and that really made me want to dig deeper and come up with interesting ideas that would push him. So I watched tutorials on YouTube, mostly on how to play songs... everything from the Beatles to the Delfonics. It’s how I learned about new chords and other musical techniques, and I’d then come up with my own chord sequences for Cudi, to which he’d write. This was my first time doing traditional songwriting, the way songs have been written for decades.”
Haynie played a crucial role on Cudi’s mixtape A Kid Named Cudi (2008), and his first and second albums, Man On The Moon: The End Of Day (2009) and Man On The Moon II: The Legend Of Mr. Rager (2010). During this period, while Haynie and Cudi were working in New York studios, Kanye West was often recording nearby. “I’d been watching Kanye make 808s & Heartbreak , Haynie explains, “and witnessed his work ethic and how his ear latches on to certain songs, and how he never gives up on ideas. That was just completely inspiring. I’d say he is the best producer of his generation.
“One day Kanye asked me if he could listen to some tracks I had, so I played him all the songs that I thought would interest him. He wasn’t, but I accidentally played a couple of seconds of a track that I in a million years would not have thought would be for him, and he instantly said: ‘What’s that?’ So I played it, and while nodding his head he immediately wrote his parts of ‘Runaway’, pretty much most of what the song is today. All the other bits, like the strings and the piano, were added by Kanye, Jeff Bhasker and Mike Dean. The guitar‑vocal solo at the end is the voice lowered an octave and then distorted, which is commonplace now, but at the time it was a first.”
With the album version running to nine minutes (the single version was abridged to 4:43), ‘Runaway’ became the centrepiece of West’s much‑lauded 2010 album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. It also gave Haynie a new direction. “The song has this unusual juxtaposition of melancholy songwriting over what normally would be considered happy chords. The music that I fell in love with was hip‑hop, and this led me to soul music and jazz music and a bit of psychedelic rock music and prog rock. And when you are talking about happier chord progressions in darker songs you start talking about discovering the productions of the Beatles and the Beach Boys. A song like ‘God Only Knows’, which is the brightest, most joyous thing, is so sad as well. It is the kind of music that I am still figuring out and constantly listening to.”
Haynie’s wide‑ranging musical activities continued to expand during the current decade, with all his skills called into action when he produced Lana Del Rey’s debut album Born To Die (2010), which became one of the best‑selling albums of the decade, with more than 10 million copies sold. Haynie also worked with the band fun., and on Bruno Mars’ Unorthodox Jukebox (2012), including the mega‑hit ‘Locked Out Of Heaven’, and in 2012 he co‑produced what remain to date the most recent original songs the Rolling Stones have released. In 2015, Haynie released his first solo album, We Fall, with guest appearances from Brian Wilson, Lana Del Rey, Randy Newman and many others. Along the way there was another Grammy nomination for fun.’s Some Nights (2012), and in 2016 Haynie enjoyed his first two Grammy wins for his work on Adele’s 25. In 2017 he worked with two other major British artists, Dua Lipa and Sam Smith.
And so to 2018, and the Florence + The Machine album, which is for both artist and producer a culmination of everything they have done before. Their collaboration actually dates back to 2013, when Florence + The Machine wrote and recorded a song for Baz Luhrman’s movie The Great Gatsby. Haynie: “Baz called me to work on the film, and it was one of those jobs where I was wearing a million hats, and helped with the score and producing some of the songs. One of the best things that came out of that was a piece of music by Florence, and it was just her and a piano, and they wanted a production. Since I didn’t know her, I had to follow my gut instinct on how to do this. I met Florence a few weeks later and she gave me a big hug, saying how much she liked the way it was produced. Since then we worked on a few more things, one being a song for a Tim Burton movie, ‘Wish That You Were Here’, and three songs for the Japanese Final Fantasy XV video game, ‘Too Much Is Never Enough’ and ‘I Will Be’, and a cover of Ben E King’s ‘Stand By Me’.”
The collaboration inspired Florence Welch to invite him to be her main co‑producer on the follow‑up to Florence + The Machine’s 2015 album How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, which was for the most part produced by Markus Dravs (Arcade Fire, Coldplay, Brian Eno). High As Hope is quite a development from previous Florence + The Machine albums, putting Welch more centre stage than ever — she sings, and plays piano, drums and synths. There also is a quite staggering directness and energy to the album, in contrast to the more ‘produced’ previous albums. The album pivots around Welch and her piano, sounding like a force of nature, sometimes unaccompanied, but usually reinforced by pounding drums and tons of strings, and embellished by various other instruments to add colour.
“It was Florence’s vision that drove this album,” says Haynie. “My job was just to capture that and not change it, and not overly polish it. I found that more important than any keyboards or drums that I could add, or any of the string stuff, which is beautiful and lush, but the true magic of the record is Florence stripped down and representing what she does, which is constantly bouncing and floating and dancing and singing and banging on stuff. We enhanced what she did, but I wanted to make sure that nothing distracted from her essence. I have watched Florence perform on stage, and she is a top performer with an energy that is so wild and so unexpected. My challenge as a producer was: ‘How do you capture that on a record?’”
The answer to that question was, in essence, to capture but in no way constrain Welch, and to keep any editing of what she had done to a minimum. As described in the boxes elsewhere in this article, the first step in the making of the album saw Welch spend six months working in 123 Studios in South London, with resident engineer, mixer and producer Brett Shaw (Clean Bandit, Lady Gaga, Rufus Wainwright).
“Florence started with poems and lyrics and ideas,” says Haynie. “She has books and books of lyrics, and she’d then go into Brett’s studio and would bang on the piano until she heard what she wanted and then she’d bang on some drums, not really playing it like a drummer, as she doesn’t really play drums, or piano. So the demos Brett and she had recorded were super‑raw, unpolished and unstructured songs with Flo on piano and drums, but with the same energy that she has on stage that I was talking about. The music was great, and wild and unpredictable, and I tried to keep as much of the spirit in the demos as possible.
“Many of the drum parts consisted of her hitting a floor tom, or stomping on the floor or clapping her hands, and if we did add in fancy drums played by amazing players, they would always follow her groove, rather than us trying to put her on a grid. We also had string sections and amazing guitar players and bass players come into the studio and I played a lot of keyboards, but we all followed Florence’s two‑finger piano demos. So there was this juxtaposition of these simple chord progressions and rhythms that she had come up with, with these genius‑level musicians being confined to working within these constraints. We all just followed what Flo had been doing. That’s where many interesting things happened. It was all very hip‑hop, as that’s traditionally based on simple two‑ or four‑bar loops, and what you do with them.
“Large parts of the demos made it onto the final album. Stuff was taken out or replaced, but we kept tons of the vocals that Brett and she had come up with, and tons of drum sounds and other instrumentation. When she records she has all these bracelets and jewellery, and stuff is clanging and clinking all the time, and I love that. These strange noises are throughout the entire album. When I worked with Lana we would add tons of random field recordings and pitched stuff down and added reverb to them to get these swirling background textures that are at the heart of her recordings. With Flo we got really cool textures just naturally, from the way she moved during the recordings, and bangs things and backs off from the mic.”
The foundations of six of High On Hope’s 10 tracks were laid by Welch and Shaw alone, while the other four were started with Haynie and other writers or musicians in the room, including Thomas ‘Doveman’ Bartlett, Andrew Wyatt (lead singer of Miike Snow) and Tobias Jesso Jr. According to Haynie, this did not alter the modus operandi significantly. “We had a really good balance going, where she’d come to LA for two or three weeks to work in my studio, and then I’d go to London for two or three weeks and we’d work at Brett’s studio. So all the initial recordings were done at these two places, and when we started working with guitars and strings and drummers we’d go to studios like Vox and Sunset Sound in Hollywood, and RAK in London, as well as AIR Lyndhurst, where we cut the strings. It has a wonderful room. So we had some musicians in the room, with, for example, Tobias coming up with some chords on the piano, and Florence trying lyrics and a vocal melody on them. That was the vibe.
“But overall the songs still emerged from her ideas and energy. ‘Sky Full Of Song’, for example, was written at my place, and part of the beauty of always having equipment around is exactly for the kind of moments when Flo picked up a drum in my room and started playing it with a stick, while singing over it. I thought it was something traditional, but when I realised it was her song, we immediately cut it, and Thomas came up with the bass line at the piano, which was later replaced by plucked strings. We also did that song with a full drum arrangement and many over‑the‑top elements, but in the end Florence wanted to strip it back again. It felt better reverting back to the demo, which was her and the bass line. ‘Big God’ was her vocal and piano and a couple of other sounds, and then Jamie xx added some more elements, like a string sample and some drum bits, and the legendary Steve Gadson came in to play real drums, and Kamasi Washington did a horn arrangement. That’s a pretty amazing cast of characters!
“The string arrangements emerged from ideas by Florence and myself, and composer/arranger Sally Herbert, who has worked on all Florence’s albums. Her approach really is a perfect companion to Florence’s sound. I had an amazing connection with Sally, but for most of my production career I’ve worked with Larry Gold, the string arrangement master from Philly, who has been doing incredible work since the 1970s, and who has done string arrangement for many hip‑hop records. It’s the beauty of having gone through the school of hip‑hop production: when I was obsessed with hip‑hop I got a world‑class education in soul, rock, jazz and so on, just from the records I was listening to trying to find samples. You might not think that you are studying string arrangements, but when you are listening to a record by the Delfonics with soaring, amazing strings, you are soaking that up as well. All these different types of music are all under the same umbrella for me.”
Haynie moved to Los Angeles three years ago, around the time he recorded his solo album, and his current studio is an important space for songwriting and production for him, with many cool instruments lying around, including a Roland Juno 60, Farfisa Syntorchestra, Clavia Nord Electro 5, Ensoniq ASR‑10, Mellotron, Novation Peak, Roland JP‑08, D‑05, VP‑330 vocoder, TR‑08, Multivox MX‑20, Sequential Prophet‑5, Memorymoog, Akai MPCX and much more. There’s also a very distinctive tube mixing console.
“The desk is a Tree Audio The Roots 16,” explains Haynie. “It’s made by two guys in LA who maintained vintage consoles, and eventually they created a channel strip, which was a big hit, and then they made an eight‑channel version, and my console is custom‑made, designed by them and I together, also aesthetically. It has a beautiful, warm sound, and it is simplicity itself, with each channel just having gain, two shelving EQs, high and low, a single‑knob compressor, and panning. I love simplicity! I use it purely for tracking, for mixing I am in the box. All my keyboards and drum machines go through the console, sometimes through a separate mixer, which is part of me organising my studio so that everything is up at once at all times, at a decent level and with decent settings, so when magic happens I can record things into Pro Tools at a drop of a dime. I’m really hell bent on having that at all times in my studio.
“When I go to another studio I tend to use an engineer, but at my own studio I like to engineer myself, and get the ideas down quickly in the computer, and then later after tracking I cut things up and arrange them and use plug‑ins in Pro Tools, and send things out to tape, and use tons of outboard and pedals and reamp things and so on. My process really is about getting ideas down fast when I am creative, because that’s when they are most powerful, and you don’t want to get in the way of being creative in that way.
“It’s also how we worked with Florence. I rented a vintage Telefunken ELA M 251 to record her vocals, which is what I used the very first time I recorded her, when she was doing backing vocals on my album, in a small hotel room years ago. She can sing extremely loud, and I didn’t have a good chain, so some of the stuff ended up a bit distorted. The 251 seemed to be the mic that could handle her volume and that sounds loveliest on her. At my place I sent the 251 straight to my Tree Audio desk, and into Pro Tools. When we recorded drums at my place I used the Sennheiser 421 on the toms, an old AKG D12 on the kick, an old Shure SM57 on the snare, and the AKG C414 in the middle above the kit, and that would be the main kit sound. I either mute the single mics or mix them in the background. A single mic in the middle is what works for me with drums.”
Returning to the topic of Welch’s vocals, Haynie recalls, “Florence is such a wonderful singer, and you never get the same take twice. As I mentioned, we used a lot of the original vocals from the demos, and also of the songwriting sessions I did with her. In cases where she replaced her vocals, or overdubbed more vocals, you just set up a mic and let her go through the track a few times and do whatever she feels. We did that on many of the songs. She has one of the best voices I have ever worked with, and while I did comp to some degree, in general I’m not a fan of too much comping, because you take some of the emotion out of the performance. I will always sacrifice recording perfection for the emotion.
“We very deliberately left all the breaths in Florence’s vocals, which is part of capturing what she does on stage, and capturing her emotion. When you clean up a vocal too much you are missing some of the beauty and magic and nuances. Every time Florence goes into a vocal booth she does something completely unexpected, even if it is banging something or breathing, or crazy background vocals. She is the only one in the world who does that, and I like to keep these things pure. For the same reason, we did not tune her vocals. It was the last thing I wanted to do. Her voice naturally soars up and down, and that is the beauty of it. I’m not into this semi‑robotic thing you get from tuning vocals anyway, unless it’s used like an effect, and when you’re dealing with someone like Florence, if there is an issue, it’s so easy to get an another amazing take. The power that she holds with that voice, why would you tune that?”
At the very end of the process, Haynie and Welch went to New York, where the 15‑time Grammy‑winning British star mixer Tom Elmhirst mixed the tracks in his room at Electric Lady Studios. “As a producer I like to deliver the mixer a clear vision, so they can take it to the next level, in the same way that Florence came in and showed me her vision, and my job as a producer is to help her achieve and enhance that. All great artists come in and have the sound in their head, and I try to get into their head and become one and manifest what they already are hearing. Rough mixing is one step of that process, and I do all the plug‑ins and signal chains and automation and whatever madness I can add. I tend to do this on my own, and usually I’m the one putting the last hand on the sessions before they get handed over to the mixer. I love mixing, EQ’ing, adjusting levels, adding effects, and so on. I spend hours and hours of that on my own, after the session is over, really trying to get a session to sound the a point where I think it could be released. Or at least, I’m trying to convince myself that my rough mixes are great, because the second someone like Tom Elmhirst gets his hands on them, it’s like, ‘Oh, mine were pretty good, but his are great!’
“I used a lot of automated reverb on Florence, with one trick I love to do being putting a Soundtoys Decapitator on a DVerb, and automate the send. The Avid DVerb has always been my favourite reverb. I also love the UAD AKG BX20 reverb, but the DVerb is my go‑to for pretty much everything. It’s great, very simple, and I know a lot of mixers use it. The Soundtoys plug‑ins are my other go‑tos. I am a huge fan of the Decapitator because of how musical it is, and when we are writing I can pull it up and quickly hit two knobs and it will sound great. Really it’s for harmonic distortion, but I also often use it for EQ. I also often use the Little AlterBoy when I experiment with pitch, and the EchoBoy for delays.
“Tom is just a master. The main thing he does is that he makes the lead vocal sound perfect. That’s the hardest part of a mix and the one that keeps me up at night the most: is the vocal too loud, not loud enough? Is it as powerful as it should be? Is it overly compressed? With Tom I can just guarantee that it is going to be great, and I am not going to hear the song months down the line and be mad at myself. Because I always sacrifice acoustic perfection for a great performance I have given him some really distorted shit, or tracks recorded with the windows open and you can hear sirens and people talking, and he always makes it sound like a million bucks. So I never worried about getting Flo’s vocals ‘flawless’. On the final result we wanted it to have the same energy as if you were in the room with her, and she belted it out, and danced like a ballerina. People will connect with that, because it sounds so human.”
“I really like to collaborate, but for this album I wanted to start writing by myself,” explains the artist. “My confidence as a musician and as an artist has grown over the last couple of years, and I just felt more capable of handling a lot of things on my own. I guess with three albums already done, this sort of internalised pressure had lifted a bit, so what really drove me was the pleasure in just making things.“I always have a lot of poems, and I had been writing a lot of poetry and thoughts at the end of the last tour. I had all these notebooks, and notes on my phone, but with regards to the music, I never really know what I am going to do. So I would cycle to Brett [Shaw]’s studio, 123, without any idea of what I was going to do. I just started with playing around. I would sort of feel a chord or a note out on the piano, and then it was like: ‘What have I written recently that would fit over the top of this?’ I never really have ideas for chords until I sit down at a piano, and then it is always kind of a surprise to me when I write a song! I was usually at the piano, but I played every instrument that was in Brett’s studio, just to try it out. It was more a matter of a ‘first‑thought‑best‑thought’ attitude, then planning to use the synths or whatever because I was trying to be different. It was just what was around. I was doing it because I love making things.
“The first four notes of the opening track of the album, ‘June’ — that, literally, is the sound of me starting the record. It was the first song I wrote, and the first notes I played! I then develop those kind of ideas, but for me, with a lot of the songs that I wrote just on my own, the structure is totally feeling‑based. So ‘June’ with its crescendo and ‘100 Years’ with that weird drum pause are like that because the structure to me is like a train of thought. I have worked with some incredible songwriters on this record, like Tobias [Jesso Jr], and he has a much more classical idea of the songs, whereas for me, structures are instinctive. Because everything I do is so instinctive, it’s also why I don’t have much patience for fiddling with stuff or meandering in a studio. I’ll work solidly for four hours, and then I’ll leave.
“I also was further away from a lot of the things in my life that had been causing me pain than I have ever been, and that gave me a peace that meant that I could function better. I could concentrate more on my creativity, rather than the things I was struggling with. It freed up a lot of energy to be able to make things. I was surprised, because when you’re in it, when you are an artist who is in pain, you tend to think that pain is part of your process. But actually I found that when I was taking better care of myself that I could do more work. Even simple stuff, like I could go to the studio, and make my way there pretty much on time!”Of the producer she chose to work with, Florence says: “Emile and I were instant friends the moment we met. Even our taste in clothes and home furnishing is similar! We had an instant friendship, and the way that he works is so intuitive, but relaxed. The things I brought to Emile for this album were pretty fully formed. The demos I did on my own with Brett over six months turned out not to be demos, but the basis of the record. Emile did not change any of the primal energy or the visceral quality of the demos. He really understood what I was trying to do. But he would add these flashes of beauty and genius to songs that transcend them. Like that beautiful orchestral spin into space at the end of ‘No Choir’: that is Emile all over.
“I brought the banging, crashing, screaming side, and really it was like Emile brought the more feminine, sensitive aspect. Because he is a friend and we’ve had this working relationship for a long time, it was a very balanced partnership. I felt like I was not in a producer‑artist relationship, but like two equals working together on something. We feel the same way about music, and we feel the same way about a lot of stuff, and it was such a joy to put everything together, and to be able to work on things in his house as well. For me, work was always hard, which was a lot because of my own personal stuff, and this was a very different way of making a record, and I had such a good time.
“My personal approach did not really change that much at Emile’s studio, because I don’t really know that much about equipment. I just go in and hit something! When I was at Brett’s studio the really physical stuff happened, with me literally sweating over three notes, trying to get them in the right order. Then at Emile’s, who has more equipment, we would kind of refine things. We also had lots of people visit his studio and hanging out and playing. For example, Thomas Bartlett would come down and try every synth out, and add magical stuff. At Brett’s everything was done in solitude, and at Emile’s house there was a really nice sense of a music collective, with everyone living nearby. People would kind of come in and out all the time, it was wonderful.
“I’m not like a technical musician, but I know exactly what I want, and I am very firm about that. I won’t be able to tell you the names of certain sounds or what the gear is, but I know what sounds don’t work and I’ll ask for them to be taken out. But again, it is much more of an instinctive thing than technical. I am incredibly particular. I gave myself tinnitus for a while from listening too hard! Sometimes Emile would add a little bit too much of a certain sound — like he really loves this kind of submarine sound, I don’t know what it’s called but it sounds like [she imitates a sound that could be that of an 808 kick dropping in pitch] —, and I’d say, ‘The submarine sound is back, and I don’t want a submarine sound here!’
“I learnt a lot from co‑producing and being present for every part of this record, even though it nearly sent me insane, and I got really ill for a while. I learned about drum sounds, I learned about recording, and so on. When you are the artist and not co‑producing there can be moments during the making of a record when you take your foot off the gas, and you hand things over to the producer to do their bit. But with this album I was present for every single part. For me it was about things like, ‘The vocal is too high up,’ ‘The trumpet needs to come out,’ and for me, a lot is about drum sounds. I am very fixated on drum sounds, on how you get the drums to sound as hard as possible. I learned what flamming is! It was kind of amazing to show up for the record in that way, to be fully present for every moment.
“We don’t like Auto‑Tune, and we did not do that many takes of the vocals on this record. My vocals were what they were. Many of the instrumental arrangements come from me, just using my voice, which is the instrument I can play the best. I pretty much do it off the cuff, and it also comes naturally to me to build backing vocals, or to use backing vocals as percussion. Emile is a string genius, and he is amazing with them, and we worked with Sally Herbert, who I have worked with on every record, and she is an incredible arranger. The way I do orchestration is that I sing a melody, and I send a video of me singing it to Sally, or she will come in and listen to the demo and then I kind of sing on top of it, and she will work with that.
“We spent quite a lot of time in New York mixing. I had been so close to every part of this record, I also wanted to be there during mixing. There is such a delicacy to some of the structures of the songs that the mixing was really important. The first mix of ‘June’, for example, wasn’t quite right because actually, there is no chorus, but if you mix it, you could accidentally highlight a section as a chorus. I don’t want it to have one, so that first section that sounds almost like a chorus needs to be downplayed. ‘June’ is about a crescendo, but in mixing you could push that first chorus, and then you would lose the dynamic of the song. So it was really important for me to be in there and express what I wanted.
“Another thing was that Tom [Elmhirst] likes my vocals super up‑front, and sometimes it was a battle to push them back a bit, because I did not want them to be that up‑front. I do like a little bit of reverb on my vocals, and I think I used to do reverb overkill. But now I kind of found a happy medium. For me it is all about a feeling, and I know when something is not quite right. On ‘Big God’ we had that Kamasi Washington saxophone part, which is so good, but we also had my rumbly, droney synth part that I had overdubbed in south London. We had both of them in the original mix, but then I decided to cut out my synth part because it didn’t give Kamasi’s part a chance to sing out. So during the mix I made a lot of final changes like cutting out my bass synth, and allowing the horns to shine.
“That breakdown behind the words ‘Jesus Christ’ in the song ‘Big God’ is Jamie xx’s genius. We sent the song to him because, although I was pretty attached to the three notes all the way through, something needed to happen in the middle. Jamie sent us this little sample part back, and it elevated the whole song. On ‘Hunger’ we spent a really long time getting the drum parts right. There’s a sadness and a joy in that song, and we needed to have ecstatic drums to contrast with the really sad lyrics. Getting the drums right was the key to that feeling.
“Because I had been bashing away in Peckham in a small room with not that much equipment, the songs were not disparate. They all had a similar energy and vibe. This meant that each song led into the next one, so there was already a kind of narrative arc happening, which drew the album together.”
The first stage of the making of High As Hope occurred at Brett Shaw’s 123 Studios in Peckham, South London, a place that combines modern and vintage gear — the latter in the shape of a restored SSL E‑Series console and an impressively wide variety of outboard and microphones. Shaw started his music career in the late ’90s as an artist with the band South, and has since forged a career as a writer, multi‑instrumentalist, engineer, mixer and producer. His credits include Lady Gaga, Mark Ronson, Clean Bandit, Rufus Wainwright, Foals and Daughter. The story of Shaw and Welch’s collaboration on High As Hope starts a few days after the singer returned from the last concert of her So Big, So Blue, So Beautiful tour in July 2016.
“I first worked with Florence on a demo of a song for her previous album, called ‘Third Eye’,” recalls Shaw. “The way we worked and the way that demo sounded would become the basis of High As Hope. With the new album, it was the first time that Florence had been in the studio on her own without help on the songwriting side. She wanted to discover what her music was like on her own. The attraction of musical autonomy must have sat deep in her, because just a few days after she had finished the tour for her last album, she turned up at my studio. I remember asking her, ‘What the hell are you doing here?’, knowing what it’s like to come off a long tour. But this was a time to explore musical freedom for her. Nobody knew she was at my studio, so she was free to try anything she wanted, free to test herself, experiment, succeed or fail without anybody listening.
“Florence likes to work in short, sharp bursts, usually four to five hours of high‑energy, high‑concentration, uninterrupted music‑making. She would start by sitting at the piano and playing some very simple piano parts, on top of which the most beautiful vocal melodies would form. Then she started prowling from one end of the live room to the other, like a caged tiger ready to pounce on any inspiration that appeared out of the ether, fingers twitching, bangles jangling, in anticipation of the next line. When she got back to the piano, she’d be throwing ideas down at high speed to see what sticks. I encouraged her to play as much as she could, and in addition to piano, she also played synths, guitar, drums, lots of percussion — including her ever‑present rattling bangles, which feature on much of the record by both mistake and intention — and pretty much anything else in my studio. She even played the double bass at one point!
“Florence has a very strong and very present visceral energy about her. When she plays piano or hits a drum it is with the same energy that you see when she is on stage. Trying to record her while she is in mid‑flow is like trying to catch lightning in a bottle. I was desperately trying to gather the sparks of whatever musical ramblings appeared before they fizzle out, never to be seen again, trying to capture as much of the pure undiluted Florence as possible. Florence is as dynamic a singer as you are likely to record and will go from one to 100 in an instant, so I often rode the input gain whilst she was singing. She usually only sings things just once or twice, although she once did around six takes trying to capture the right tone of anger in a phrase about someone.
“Technically, I recorded her voice with a Flea 47 or a Bock 251 microphone, going into a Chandler REDD 47 or a Great River 2P‑2NV mic pre, and then a Chandler Curve Bender EQ into a Teletronix LA‑2A, sometimes with a Distressor or an API 2500 after it. I recorded my Danemann upright piano usually with a Coles 4038 mic on the left hand and an AKG C414 or a Bock Audio 251 on the right.
“After Florence left the studio, I was usually left with a tangle of ideas that I spent the rest of the day reshaping into something resembling a song structure. She plays very rudimental piano and in her own words ‘bangs things loudly’, so there were lots of spaces to fill. I would try out a bunch of ideas, adding things like drums, bass, synths, piano parts, atmospherics or whatever I could think of to help the track progress, and I’d play them to her the next day. She usually liked most of what I had done, and we would carry on from that point. Once again, my main focus was on not diluting anything of what she had done.
“After about six months or so of working like this, Emile came on board. Florence was very much part of the production of this record, and was keen to use what we had started as the basis of the album, instead of scrapping it and re‑recording everything. Emile really liked the way the tracks sounded, and we carried on working with him at his place in LA, and also at my place. Florence liked the fact that Emile’s production wasn’t too heavy‑handed and was more like a gentle guidance. Emile knew when to leave something if it was sounding good, or change it if it could be improved. Emile also is a great host and knew exactly which musician to use for a certain track.
“The overall vibe of the album versions of some of the songs, like ‘June’, ‘100 Years’ and ‘South London Forever’ ended up similar to what Florence and I had originally — and many of the parts Florence played, and some of mine, are still on there.”
Filled with hardware dating from the 1980s and 1990s, Emile Haynie’s studio in Los Angeles is a retro paradise for Sound On Sound readers. The American elaborates on some of the pieces of gear that are most important to him.
“I still love the [Ensoniq] ASR‑10. When I started with it I would take like a four‑bar loop from a record to build a beat from. Today I still use it for sampling, but I might sample a field recording or just drum hits. I can do all sorts of things in the ASR‑10, and it has its own sound when you pitch stuff, with a kind of crunchiness that you don’t get in Pro Tools. If you pitch something way down in Pro Tools the fidelity starts to break up and it gets kind of warbly, and it sounds better in the ASR. So I’ll have single shots under one key. I have also been using the effects in the ASR quite a bit recently, which is something I have overlooked for 12 years. It is the same effects as the Ensoniq DP4, which is a great effects unit with great reverbs and great delays, and really interesting distortions and phasers.
“Another really interesting instrument is the Mellotron M4000D, which has just become a real staple of my studio. I remember when it first came out [in 2010], and I immediately put it to heavy use. It became kind of the sound of Lana Del Rey’s Born To Die. My work with Lana relied heavily on that Mellotron.
“I also run my keyboards more and more through guitar pedals. That is a phase I am really in now, and I’m discovering that spending a lot of time getting cool sounds from synths is not as important, because you can change sound so much with a guitar pedal. A simple Casio can sound unbelievable with the right pedal chain, so that has become a huge part of my sound. I love the pedals made by Strymon. They are incredibly beautiful, and their reverbs and delays sound incredibly musical and really interesting and add a different dimension to any stock sounds.
"I also adore the pedals made by Earthquaker Devices, and they are all over the Florence album, and in fact on everything I am doing these days. Again, you can have a basic MIDI piano sound and run it through the right pedal chain and make it sound totally out there. It obviously is a similar process as taking soft synths — and I use tons of Native Instruments and G‑Force stuff and am also a big fan of Spectrasonics’ Omnisphere — and then adding a whole chain of plug‑ins to tweak the sounds.”