Working with super–producer Jacquire King was a dream come true for James Bay. In a unique interview, King explains how he oversaw the recording of Bay’s hit debut album.
If you’d been wandering the streets of Brighton five years ago, you might have encountered a long–haired kid stood on a street corner, strumming a guitar and singing to anyone who’d listen. For, while studying at the British and Irish Modern Music Institute’s Brighton school, singer–songwriter James Bay dedicated every spare afternoon to busking, and his evenings to playing every open mic slot going.
By 2012, the hard work and commitment had paid off. James had scored himself a record deal with US label Republic Records, home to Ben Howard, Lorde and James Blake, after they spotted a YouTube video of an open–mic set at a pub in Kentish Town.
Since then, the young Hitchin–born songsmith has barely been able to catch his breath. His debut EP The Dark Of The Morning was released in July 2013, and by the end of the year, Bay was holed up in Nashville’s Blackbird Studio laying down tracks for his debut album Chaos And The Calm with producer Jacquire King (Kings Of Leon, Tom Waits, Norah Jones, Editors, Dawes) and King’s favoured recording engineer Lowell Reynolds. Those sessions have already spawned James Bay’s first UK top 10 hit, ‘Hold Back The River’, while Bay also won the coveted Critics’ Choice Award at the 2015 Brit Awards, joining the likes of Adele, Sam Smith and Jessie J.
Once James’s label had decided they had enough songs for a full album, the conversation turned to possible producers. “My management just said, ‘Why don’t you go home and pull together a list of your favourite 10 albums of the last 10 years and we’ll look at who the producers are,’” explains James. “And, the one very bold choice that I put at the top of the pile — thinking they’d all just laugh because he was so hilariously out of reach — was Jacquire [King]. I loved what he’d done with Kings Of Leon and a few other artists. Anyway, we got in touch and sent him a few videos and demos and he came straight back and said, ‘I’m up for it!’ and that knocked me sideways a bit.”
“The label sent through some links to some YouTube stuff where James was playing solo acoustic, and then there was a link to the demo of ‘Collide’,” recalls Jacquire King. “I didn’t even get through listening to the whole demo version of ‘Collide’ before I was like, ‘Yeah, I absolutely want to talk to this guy.’ I could just tell right away. I loved his voice and his energy. The music just resonated with me. As I’ve been doing this longer, I feel better about trusting my instincts and going with my gut. This was certainly a no–brainer.”
Fast forward to October 2013, and James Bay touched down in Nashville for his first album sessions with Jacquire and recording engineer Lowell Reynolds. The night before they kicked off pre–production at Blackbird, James played an intimate local gig in front of his studio team.
“We went out to see James at 3rd and Lindsley, which is a bar here in Nashville,” says Lowell. “Man, he was absolutely amazing, phenomenal — he blew us all away! It was just him with his Epiphone electric guitar and he filled the room all by himself, playing six or seven songs. James kind of reminded me, although maybe not stylistically, of Jeff Buckley, just in terms of how one guy can control a room all by himself.”
Chaos And The Calm features a full band line–up, in contrast to the singer–songwriter’s early career performances and recordings, including The Dark Of The Morning, which were sparse acoustic affairs. This transition was always part of James’s plan: “With The Dark Of The Morning, I just wanted to record something that reflected me and the sounds that I was making at the time when I was playing open mics,” Bay explains. “I always had a bigger picture in mind sonically, but that’s where I wanted to start. That EP was technically stripped down and organic and loose, and that’s just what I wanted to sort of capture in a bottle. But I had so much more in mind and a lot of places that I wanted to go sonically, even if, at times, I thought ‘People seem to really like the acoustic thing but will I be able to get away from it?’ It just felt to me like the most logical place to start.”
James had introduced potential reference points for some of his songs during his early Skype chats with Jacquire King, though the producer is the first to admit he doesn’t always like to talk about music in such comparative terms. “I’m not someone who typically references a lot of artists, because you never know how it is going to be received. I’m also not someone who listens to other records while I’m making a particular record either,” says King. “I’m not trying to copy something. If an artist does remind me of another artist, then I don’t really want to actually listen to that other artist in order to get clarity on what I’m being reminded of. I’m not a comparative person so much in that way. James definitely referenced things, though. He was a fan of the Kings Of Leon stuff and the work that I did with them. He was also referencing the Band and Springsteen and even Haim, lots of his influences old and new.”
“We both wanted it to feel like a band in a room, but I also wanted to make music coming from a quite a sort of loose Stones–influenced place and also from a Kings Of Leon place,” explains James. “I’ve always loved Exile On Main Street but then there’s something quite short and sharp about the Kings Of Leon stuff that Jacquire’s done. I also wanted some of the subtle simplicity of other influences of mine such as Ray LaMontagne. We also discussed the sessions as being with real organic instruments. That’s not to say that I’m against synthesizers or that I’m against electronic elements, but I also want to leave myself somewhere to go — if nothing else — in the future. This is the approach that felt the most honest. As a debut artist with a debut album, I just wanted to simply say, ‘These are the songs,’ and try to really show off my voice and other things like my guitar playing in their sort of rawest forms.”
The majority of Chaos And The Calm was laid down in Blackbird Studio D, while Jacquire King’s own room, Studio G, was also utilised for various overdubs and early mixes.
“It really is a sight to behold, you know, visually, aesthetically and sonically,” enthuses James Bay of Blackbird. “It was such an exciting prospect when I got there because I felt like a kid in a candy store — ‘Oh my God, we’re going to get to make an album in here. The possibilities are endless!’ — but then there’s the more daunting side of it. I remember, about three or four days into the process, I stepped out into the car park because I just felt like having a breather. A couple of seconds passed after I went out there and the gates opened and this huge bus pulled in — and it was Willie Nelson. I was just like, ‘Oh wow!’ and I sort of picked my jaw up off the floor and thought, ‘Ah, screw it, I’ll just get back inside and carry on.’”
“I think Studio D is my favourite recording space in the world,” explains Jacquire King. “I’ve spent a lot of time in there, I know the space really well and it’s always a really comfortable atmosphere. Blackbird is also incredible in terms of the equipment that it has and the instruments on site. If it’s not the best studio in the world, it definitely must be one of them. Studio D has such a wonderful chamber. It is a big room but it also feels very intimate. The musicians on the floor feel connected. There are booths that surround the recording space so you can isolate amps but also keep everybody fairly close together in a large space. We like to use the chamber a lot. Pretty much most of the time, we keep the chamber door open for the drums and mic the chamber. It gives us a very beautiful and ambient sound that we can add into the drum mix. We record backing vocals in the chamber and do drum overdubs in there too. Studio D is a very malleable room, and you can get pretty much any sound you want out of that space. You can get something very dry and tight, or you can get something very expansive. The sky’s the limit in there.
“Then I also have my own private space, Studio G, on the Blackbird campus, which is a great privilege. I have many wonderful pieces of gear in there and, although it’s a much smaller space, it always feels very comfortable. It’s nice to be able to use all the signal paths and microphones that are in Studio D and capture all that, but then come to a different space that has a different set of equipment and a different set of microphones to continue the record–making process, recording additional parts and enhancing everything. You just get this wonderful array of signal paths and colour and character between the two studios.”
James Bay came into the recording process with strong visions for the majority of the songs, many of which already existed in demo form. However, some song structures and arrangements did evolve naturally during the three or four batches of Blackbird recording sessions.
“I would say that most of the time I had up to 80 or 85 percent of the songs complete in my head, but that remaining 15 or 20 percent of each song is very important for me,” says James. “I like to keep my mind open, and that’s where I really needed Jacquire, because he really helped stretch the boundaries. There were maybe three or four of the songs that hadn’t been previously demoed in any sense, so I would sit in the room there and just play them to him on an acoustic guitar. ‘Get Out While You Can’ is a perfect example, because I literally just sat there and decided to smash it out on a guitar and try and be as Springsteen about it as I could. We then built it from there, and we pulled the rest together between us. Then with ‘Move Together’, I’d always envisioned the arrangement in a slightly sort of Ray LaMontagne way, with drums and with a backbeat, but it had never had one previous to that. Again, Jacquire really helped pull that together, especially with the sounds of the drums — and then there are heaps of electric guitar and rockier sounds on the album, which he really helped me take the lead on. There was a huge chunk of Jacquire taking a fresh take on the music and how it should sound, and I was really pleased with what he put in to the arrangements and structures.”
“Sometimes, we’d change the order of some sections of songs a little bit, like ‘Best Fake Smile’ lacked a couple of the instrumental sections,” adds Jacquire. “So structure-wise, I made suggestions that we move things around or add to sections or shorten them or even lengthen certain things to create space for new ideas, but from the beginning, pretty much all the pieces were there. It was really just about doing the fine–tuning work. With ‘Let It Go’, we worked quite a bit on the end. We had shortened it from what it originally was but then, after getting it a little bit further along, I realised that the way I really wanted to arrange the background vocals was to keep the arrangement spare earlier in the song and slowly build it up. Then, once we got to the stage where we were adding the background vocals, I realised that — because of the momentum that we were building through the song — I wanted to hold off the background vocals at the first opportunity that we had in the song to do them.
“With ‘Hold Back The River’, we also changed the instrumental sections a little bit. Every song had a little bit of arrangement and structure change in it but I always see myself as a co–creator. I’m there to represent the artist. I’m not there trying to dictate anything. I have strong opinions all the time, certainly, but what I’m really doing is leading the expedition through the record–making process. I really want my artist to be interested and I want the journey to really represent them, so while I’m constantly suggesting and directing, what I’m really paying attention to is what the artist is feeling. I try to create a very creative environment, and that’s why I brought in musicians that I thought would side well with James, that would fit the music and I knew would be good people to be around. That was so important because he’d never had a band really or recorded with a band at that point. I just try to set things up to inspire people and to create opportunities for the magic to happen.”
It was down to Jacquire to find the right local session musicians to gel with Bay and deliver the sonic ‘band’ template they were all aiming for. As James was going to be playing all of the guitars on the record, King decided he would need just two players: Ian Fitchuk (drums, keyboards) and Eli Beaird (bass).
“My thing is that I always want to record a band, and the foundation of a track I’m producing has to be a performance,” says Jacquire. “I did a lot of preparation for the songs with the percussionist Eric Darken so that there were rhythmic beds that we were playing to. We didn’t always play to a metronome and loops, but the majority of the time we did. I prepared like this so that we had things that helped the structure dynamically and that could fill out the sound. This was all rhythmic stuff which I felt would help enable the drum parts to be dynamic and spare when we were recording. My vibe is I want to initially record a band playing a song to get a performance, so that we’re then able to have a dynamic conversation around how it’s coming into form and whether it’s sounding like a record. Sometimes, changing the speed one beat per minute can have a profound effect on the song as can changing a chord voicing or a bass part. Unless you’re recording everything at once in harmony, it can make it really hard to see how the big picture fits together. I don’t like making records when you go in and just blast out all the drums and then, once you’ve got those sorted, then you blast out all the bass and then you start putting guitars on there and then keyboards and then you finally get to the vocal. That, to me, is not a cohesive, organic, holistic way to make a record. I want to hear James singing the song and everybody playing the basic parts so I can make sure that everything sounds important. Sometimes, if you’re not listening to all the elements and how they work together then some things can end up being underplayed or overplayed.
“Now, although this is the way I record, it’s not to say that something doesn’t need to be replaced later on. I may well make a composite of a few takes, which I did do a decent amount of when making this record, and then I might replace the bass, drum or guitar parts later on. I just initially like to have the band out on the floor so I can go out to them and have conversations about the way a part is working in a section. I might go to Ian and talk to him about the drum part or have a question for James about his part in a particular section. When you’re doing things that way, it will translate to the recording because of the very dynamic effort coming together and that’s really how everybody feels inspired. They’re all really participating and that’s where you find the magic. My feeling is that when a great song is written, the greatest moment of inspiration is when it first occurs to the author and they kind of get it out there. Sometimes, it can take a while to collect their thoughts to complete a song, but there’s always the initial moment of inspiration. I think a lot of the record–making process is all about finding how to tap back into that moment of inspiration with the artist, in order to get it to come to life as a recording. That’s really the magic trick about it, where you’re trying to make something that feels tangible and real that will draw the listener in. Even if you only end up keeping the drums from that original band performance, you’ve still got a drum performance that was informed by what everybody else was doing, so it retains that moment of performance and that inspiration.”
Blackbird Studio D features the largest API Legacy Plus desk ever built, featuring 96 channels and 192 inputs, while Jacquire’s Studio G houses a modified Quad 8 console. Everything was laid down to Pro Tools.
For James Bay’s vocals, King chose his own Sony C37A valve microphone. “Along with that mic, we also pulled out my Neve 1081s and used those for James’s vocals,” explains King. “We had started using that chain in pre-production in Studio G when we were cutting some scratch vocals for ‘Let It Go’ on the very first day. I think perhaps a few of those lines in the pre-production of that song even made it into the final vocal. I just wanted to keep things consistent throughout the process, so we pulled the 1081s out of my room and we took that vocal chain with us the whole time. I also knew that we’d be coming back to my room to finish vocals.”
“We usually use the [Shure] SM7 for vocals,” adds Lowell Reynolds. “But James has got certain delicate qualities to his voice at times that it just needed that extra air at the top end to kind of really cut through with that extra emotion, to really tie it together, so we used the Sony C37.”
When it came to Bay’s guitar parts, several of Lowell Reynolds’ special techniques came into play. “Guitars usually all started with a [Shure SM]57 and then I usually almost always added a Royer,” explains Lowell. “We cut the first song ‘Let It Go’ with Jacquire’s Selmer amp, which is fantastic, but he ended up going almost always through our silverface Fender Twin Reverb. I just kind of blend the 57 and the Royer together. Then I also had my little custom amp off to the side. I had that made and it’s called a Cadillac and that would have a 57 on the front and then one at the back and I would just flip the phase on it and blend them together. I like the way the Cadillac cuts up, so I’ll get all the body from the Fender but a lot of edge will come from that other amp. Then there was a custom pedal built by a guy called Robbie Markel at Foot Fetish that I used quite a bit. It’s called El Lowell and I always use that a lot on the electric guitar. Basically, it’s got MXR Distortion Plus circuitry that’s fed into this guy Robbie’s custom delay signal and it cuts off all the top end when it goes through the delay circuitry. It’s just a really nice–sounding delay.”
“I have some Retro [Instruments] 176 compressors that I really, really love and we used those on some of the guitars too,” adds Jacquire King.
For bass, says Reynolds, “I’ve always got to have some kind of a tube DI, and I love the Demeter DI. As well as the clean DI, I’ll have some kind of fuzzed–up amp. My goal is usually to try and keep the DI as clean as possible, so that’s my safety net, and that way I can get a little crazy on the amp side. In this regard, Eli brought all of his own pedals, and I don’t recall particularly which pedals he used, but it just has to be something going into the amp that will drive it quite hard. We’ll blend those two together and then I’ve got a third mic, which I just call the ‘soft mic’, and that’s always just some other random effect. Sometimes it’s a delay, sometimes it’s a tremolo, and a lot of times lately it’s been a [Boss] OC3 sub–octave generator or an [Electro–Harmonix] POG for doing that exact same thing where you just blow off everything except for the one octave below it. It’s just generating that sub tone down there and, when you tuck it in, it just fills the bottom end really well.
“Ian Fitchuk did the majority of the keys work. The grand piano was our Baldwin, which got broken, was then fixed, but is no longer in Studio D. I put an [AKG] C12 just above the hammers and a Coles [4038 ribbon mic] as a crush mic down in the far end, just to fill it in. I always compress it or crush it, and on that I think I used a black [Urei] 1176 compressor. I also almost always put pianos through some Neve 33609 compressors. On the upright [piano], there was a pair of the original [AKG] 414s, the ones that actually have the C12 capsules in them. Then I also had an [RCA] KU3A overhead and a lot of times I would lean heavy on that KU3A, then just blend the direct mics in, going for that vibey roomy sound.”
Strings were laid down part–by–part at Blackbird by leading Nashville string session player Jonathan Yudkin, using his own ribbon mic setup. Chaos And The Calm was later mixed by Michael Brauer (Coldplay, John Mayer) and mastered by Bob Ludwig.
As this issue goes to press, Chaos And The Calm looks set to make a huge impact on both sides of the Atlantic. “He’s a talented artist, he’s made a fantastic record, people are responding to his songs and I’m very proud,” says Jacquire King. “I think the sky’s the limit for James but success always depends on so many factors. I do know that everyone that hears the record and hears his voice absolutely becomes a fan. I still remember the first 30 seconds I heard of his music. I had an immediate reaction and became a fan right away. We’ll just have to keep our fingers crossed that everybody else feels the same.”
“I’ve been at Blackbird for 12 years so I’ve learned a lot of tricks from people,” says Lowell Reynolds, describing the miking setups he used on Ian Fitchuk’s kit. “I used an old [AKG] D12 on the inside of the kick and a [Neumann] 47 FET on the outside of the kick, and then I’ve been really taken by this thing called ‘the kick snare mic’ [ie. a single mic between kick and snare] and would have been using that quite a bit.
“For snare, I usually pick between either a [Shure SM]57 or an [AKG C]451. I have them taped together, bused to the same channel and then I just listen to them. Sometimes, I’ll blend them together but, the harder they hit, the more I’ll lean to the 57 and any time they break it down a little softer, I’ll kick on the 451. I love the sound of the [Sennheiser MD]441s on the snare bottom and I definitely used that on this album quite a bit. I also love the Josephson E22 for toms. I don’t think there’s a better tom mic out there. It’s just big and huge and you can get it really close to the tom.
“The other theory that I go by is ‘get your room sounding right’, and Blackbird sounds so good, it’s just cheating. You can open the curtains if you want a little more splash or close the curtains if you want to deaden it down a little bit. I like to get the room sounding right and then supplement that with the other close mics. I will get the kick sounding good but then I will blend the kick in with the room sound and I will use a little side–chain, maybe with Neve 33609 compressors. I’ll run the direct tom mics, the snare top and the kick inside mic through those and blend a little of that back in and that kind of fattens it up. We’ve also got a good mic in the chamber and usually it’s the original [AKG] C24, serial number 001, which just happens to be the best–sounding one! We’ll put that in the chamber and you get this huge wonderful reverb–y splash, which just blends in and fills in all the cracks nicely. I also put a [Neumann] U47 directly over the kick drum and, once again, that’s another thing you can just blend in to help everything glue together. All of a sudden, the individual mics stop becoming individual pieces and they start becoming a drum kit. I also used a little [Empirical Labs] Distressor action just to tighten everything together.
“On this album, I also used a split overhead with a [Neumann U]67 mono overhead directly over the drummer, four feet above the kit, and then my actual stereo overheads were a pair of 451s that are actually much closer to the cymbals so they’re actually more just cymbal mics. Then we also used some far room mics. Normally, I’ll use AEA R84s as the far room mics but on this particular album, Jacquire had me put [AEA] R88s out there in their place.”
Jacquire King first worked with Chaos And The Calm recording engineer Lowell Reynolds (White Stripes, Pearl Jam, My Morning Jacket) at Blackbird back in 2008, and since King decided to concentrate more on production, Reynolds has pretty much remained his favoured engineer. The pair have since worked together on albums by artists including Editors, Sunset Sons, Eliza and the Bear, Josh Faro and Dan Sultan.
“I’ve known Lowell for quite a long time because he was an assistant here at Blackbird for quite a while. When I produced, engineered and mixed the Kings Of Leon Only By The Night record here at Blackbird, Lowell was my assistant engineer,” explains King. “Then, a couple of years ago, I was stepping more and more out of the primary engineering role because I feel like I’m more effective concentrating on the production. I thought of Lowell and I brought him onto an Editors record [The Weight Of Your Love, 2013]. He’s a fantastic engineer and, when we work together, I would say that Lowell does 90 percent of the engineering. Sometimes, I’m very specific about instructions but it’s his hands that are doing the work really. We may have a conversation engineer–to–engineer, but he will then execute the setup and the sounds. I give him a lot of creative freedom.
“It’s a great relationship, because I feel like Lowell and I have a lot of common ground. We can also see things differently, too, and sometimes we see things in opposite ways but, from my experience with him, when we work towards being in agreement about how to execute something, the outcome is always improved by both our input. Sometimes it’s great to have a different perspective. I might choose a specific vocal microphone, like I did with James, or sometimes I might request a ribbon mic on a guitar as opposed to what Lowell has going on. I’ll tell him how I want things to sound and feel, then he will put together a list of what he’s thinking for the setup. I might have a further suggestion, like ‘Can we have a different overhead picture?’ or how about a different mic pre on something. We have a lot of common ground, we have similar tastes in the gear that we like to use, so from the outset it’s always a co-operative thing.”