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Steve Brown & Rumer: Recording Seasons Of My Soul

Interview | Artist & Producer By Tom Doyle
Published March 2011

Steve Brown in his Goldust Productions studio. Photos: Richard EcclestoneSteve Brown in his Goldust Productions studio. Photos: Richard Ecclestone

Steve Brown had never produced a record or recorded live drums before he met singer‑songwriter Rumer. Half a million album sales later, her faith in the partnership has paid off.

In these straitened times for the music industry, few albums have displayed such an impressive sales curve as Rumer's Seasons Of My Soul. At the time of writing, its UK sales alone were heading towards the half‑million mark, less than three months after its release. The record's runaway success has blindsided even its creators — the 31‑year‑old half‑English, half‑Pakistani singer (real name Sarah Joyce) and its 56‑year‑old producer Steve Brown. The former spent years struggling in obscurity, fronting indie outfits, before becoming lost on the London acoustic singer‑songwriter circuit, while the latter is best known for his work as a West End musica l and TV composer, not least as bandleader for Steve Coogan's comic creation Alan Partridge, in his spoof chat show Knowing Me Knowing You.

"I'm basically a telly whore,” Brown laughs, sitting in the control room of his compact West London studio facility, part of a suite of rooms that is owned by Goldust Productions. In his early days, he's proud to relate, he penned 'Cillagrams' for Surprise Surprise and pastiche songs for Spitting Image. These days, his music can be heard on Harry Hill's TV Burp (that's him singing 'TV highlight of the week'), Dead Ringers and Adrian Chiles' That Sunday Night Show.

Steve Brown & Rumer: Recording Seasons Of My Soul"The Rumer album is the first album I've produced,” he points out. "But I'd done all my training. I was an old hand, but I had the freshness of an ingénue, an amateur. At the same time, I've deconstructed so many bits and pieces of music over the years, from the parodies and pastiches that I've done, I know how everything works.”

Recorded over a two‑and‑a‑half year period without record company involvement (Rumer eventually signed to Atlantic Records in April 2010), there was naturally a certain sense of freedom involved in the making of Seasons Of My Soul, as reflected in its laid‑back, jazz‑inflected grooves and echoes of everyone from Burt Bacharach (a huge fan, more of which later), Carole King, Laura Nyro and the Carpenters. Spontaneity, both insist, was key to its creation.

"We used to spend so much time talking that we'd get to half past four and say, 'Shit, we haven't done anything,'” recalls Brown. "So the basis of the version of 'Slow' you hear on the record was done in something like an hour and a half. Largely it stayed as it was. The vocal may not have been recorded brilliantly, but it's about a moment in time. I like things like on Bob Dylan records where you can hear his bracelet bashing the body of the guitar. It's about trying to capture magic, isn't it?”

"We'd get everything done right at the last minute,” Rumer attests. "Damien Rice said once in an interview that booking a studio is like booking the toilet for five o'clock. It's like, you don't know how you're gonna feel. What was great about Steve was that he was a guy with his own studio. He wasn't charging me, we weren't on the clock, so effectively we had this freedom to follow our intuition.”

Start With The Covers

Brown's control room, where most of Rumer's vocals were recorded. Brown's control room, where most of Rumer's vocals were recorded.

Rumer and Brown's partnership dates back to April 2007 when the former, at the insistence of her then‑manager, had reluctantly agreed to perform at an open mic night at London's Cobden Club. The latter was there, under similar pain, to watch his son Lenny play bass in his band.

"I was thinking, 'The only way I'm gonna get through this is with a lot of vodka and tonic,'” Brown grins, before recalling his first impressions of Rumer. "She looked like someone must have been pointing a gun at her to get her on stage. I could see she really didn't want to be there. She was holding a guitar like she was picking it up for the first time. She looked incredibly uncomfortable and I distinctly remember having the thought: 'This will be a shambles.'

"Then, within about 20 seconds, I remember thinking, 'Wow, I got that wrong.' She started with 'Come To Me High', she did 'On My Way Home', she did 'Slow'. I found myself impatient for her to finish the song, so she could get on to the next one. I wanted to hear more. I was just blown away. I thought she had a really lovely voice, but actually it was the songs that did it for me.”

Before the evening was over, Brown had invited Rumer to come to Goldust for a gratis demo session. "I sat her in that room there,” he says, gesturing towards his modestly proportioned live room. "I stuck a mic on the guitar and one on her voice and I just said, 'OK off you go, play me your stuff,' and she played me everything that she had. I didn't have any plan. I just wanted to record the stuff and hear what it sounded like.”

Rumer's manager, however, feeling Brown was an ill fit as producer, urged the singer not to work with him, while they worked on coming up with a more suitable candidate.

The recording of Seasons Of My Soul was the first time Steve Brown had used his live booth for recording drums. Most of the other instruments were also tracked there.The recording of Seasons Of My Soul was the first time Steve Brown had used his live booth for recording drums. Most of the other instruments were also tracked there."But then a couple of weeks later,” Rumer recalls, "I rang him back and said, 'Steve, would you mind if I came into the studio and we just played some other people's songs?' To be fair, any manager would have looked at me and looked at Steve and gone, 'That's not gonna work.' I don't blame them. So we just started to record songs that I liked and he liked. We spent quite a few months messing about and getting to know each other. I think that's how we created our sound.”

Together, the pair would get together to work every Friday, for what they jokingly began to refer to as their weekly Music Appreciation Day. Both say the breakthrough point came when they recorded a version of Paul Simon's 'Long Long Day'. "That sort of unpicked the mystery of how to do it,” reckons Brown. "I would always bear it in mind again if I was working with another artist who had a lot of original material. I think I'd do a couple of covers with them, just as an experiment, to find how to approach the thing as a sound. It was an interesting technique and that's what gave us the sound, in a way. It had a jazz inflection and we added a string quartet as a sort of adhesive. I had almost a vision of her presiding over all this music. Her voice was just floating above it and that somehow became the sound.”

An Old Familiar Friend

Better than Steinway: Steve Brown's Roland XV88 keyboard.Better than Steinway: Steve Brown's Roland XV88 keyboard.

Perhaps shrewdly, encouraged by this new direction, Rumer sacked her manager. "They kind of took Steve away from me but they didn't really replace him with anything,” she points out. "As soon as I parted company with the management, I just said to Steve, 'Let's make the album now.'”

From this point on, the sessions at Goldust quickly intensified. No gear‑head by his own admission, Steve Brown points out that his studio is equipped for productivity first and foremost. His setup is centred around an Apple Mac G5 running Digital Performer 5, with MOTU 896 and 828 interfaces. "I've looked at people using Pro Tools and thought, 'Theoretically it's the same, but I'm used to this,'” he says. "I'm used to these colours now. I know exactly where I am. It's an old, familiar friend. You very rarely find people who use it, although Americans use it. I'm really frightened about changing anything now, because this works for me. I'm not technically minded at all, it's really not my bag. As with everything, you learn as much as you need to know. Especially for me working in TV, I've got to work so quick.”

Brown admits that he has bought (the already outdated) Digital Performer 6, but has been so busy that he's yet to install it. "I always think, I'm gonna have to get to grips with this. You always need to take a deep breath. I need a bit of down time, which has not happened in a long, long while. It's been fairly hectic.”

In terms of desk and monitors, the producer uses his Mackie SR32:4 in conjunction with a pair of Mackie HR824s. "With the monitors, I do feel like I can hear everything from top to bottom. They're just kind of solid. I can hear all the frequencies without them acting up. Frankly, when I go home and listen or I listen in the car, I'm rarely shocked or surprised. They seem to give me a good indication of what I'm gonna hear elsewhere.”

Being a pianist, the hub of Brown's studio setup is of course his keyboard, in this case his trusty Roland XV88. "I've been with this for quite a few years now,” he says. "It's got a Concert Piano expansion card in there and I find that hard to beat, actually. I've used the Native Instruments Akoustik Piano and it's OK, but the Roland works better for me. I've played the Roland V‑Piano live and it has a fantastic sound, but I don't find the touch better than this. I think they did a pretty good job with the XV88. Even after buying the Native Instruments Elektrik Piano, I've gone back to using the Proteus 2000. That's got some really nice electric pianos in it.”

Recording Drums: How Hard Can It Be?

Brown's humble Mackie mixer serves as the main front end to his Digital Performer‑based recording system.Brown's humble Mackie mixer serves as the main front end to his Digital Performer‑based recording system.

In doggedly sticking to his own studio for the entirety of the recording of Seasons Of My Soul, Brown experienced a steep learning curve. "I've got a really good facility here,” he reasons. "Maybe I've gone out once to do something where I needed a big band, but I can get everything I need in that live room. The closer we got to the finishing line, it became a sort of matter of pride. Y'know, 'We can do the whole album here. It's a professional studio.' The only thing that would've tempted me out was to do the drums somewhere else.”

Instead, the producer boldly decided to record drums himself, for the first time in his professional career. "Everybody else in the other studios here was saying, 'How are you gonna record drums in there?' I said, 'Well, I'm gonna stick a drum kit in there and angle a few mics at it.' I'd never miked up a drum kit before. But I said, 'How hard's it gonna be?'”

And so Brown went out and bought a Shure PGDMK6 drum-microphone kit, featuring three PG56 snare/tom mics, a PG52 bass-drum mic and two PG81s for overheads. "It's like your first Lego set. I became more minimal as I got more impatient. The first time I had the drum kit in here, I was getting it all sorted out with the mic clipped onto the snare and a mic underneath and the overheads in the right position. As time went on, I was doing it with three mics. I thought, 'Well, how did they record Ringo?' I don't know if it would suit every record, recording the drums in here. But because there wasn't a lot of crashing and bashing, it was all very restrained. In a small room like this, you've got a nice, dead sound.”

While that may all sound straightforward enough, that's without factoring in how picky Rumer herself was when it came to the recording of the drums. "I'm thinking of suggesting to the merch people at Atlantic that we make a mug which says 'Rumer Studio Quotes',” the singer laughs. "One would definitely say, 'Is that hi‑hat bothering you?'”

People In The Room

Old they may be, but some of Brown's rackmounting sound modules saw good service on Seasons Of My Soul, especially the Emu Proteus. Old they may be, but some of Brown's rackmounting sound modules saw good service on Seasons Of My Soul, especially the Emu Proteus.

In tracking the songs on Seasons Of My Soul, Brown and Rumer usually worked backwards, with the drum tracks often going on last. Most of the cuts would begin life as spontaneous sketches of songs previously written on guitar by the singer, with Brown programming a simple beat using XLN Audio's Addictive Drums and picking out the chords on the XV88, as Rumer sang a vocal. Initially, she would sit on her own out in the live room to perform, but quickly felt too isolated.

"I started off in the booth, but it was cold in there and I didn't like it,” she mock‑moans. "In the end I just wanted to be in the control room. I think it gives the vocals a live feel.”

"She said, 'Oh, I feel lonely in there,'” Brown recalls. "She wanted to come and sit here. So we did a lot of the vocals in here, and of course, I had to sit with headphones on, which I hate. But I thought, 'OK, if it keeps her happy.' On a lot of the tracks, if you listen, you can hear the chairs creaking, and we got to like that. I said, 'I always want the sense that there are people in the room.' Apart from the piano, everything is real. There's a bit of fake harp, but we did use real harp as well. Everything else was real — played real time, no quantising, no chopping up, nothing.”

Perhaps surprisingly, most of Rumer's rich, warm vocals on the album were recorded using the unpretentious Rode NT2 microphone. "I've recorded everything with it,” Brown says. "When she sang in that and when we played it back, it sounded like her. So that's good enough for me. I'll stick with that. It works.”

"Steve being more of a television producer, he used whatever was there,” Rumer points out. "He's a pretty make‑do kind of a guy. So we just used whatever was there and made the best of it. Of course it would've been nice to have an old vintage Neumann or something like that. I never had a love affair with the mic. I had to work harder to get a performance because the mic wasn't giving me anything.”

Audio transfer between Digital Performer and Brown's Mackie desk is handled by two MOTU interfaces.Audio transfer between Digital Performer and Brown's Mackie desk is handled by two MOTU interfaces.For two tracks, 'Aretha' and 'Thankful', the finished vocals that appear on the album were Rumer's original first takes, sang through a Shure SM58. "We'd say, 'We'll just do this quickly as a demo,'” Brown remembers. "You'd even hear the piano bleeding into the mic because we were just doing it as a guide. She had a few goes at redoing 'Aretha' and I said, 'You know what? Let's just stick with what we've got.'”

At the other end of the spectrum, Rumer admits on occasion driving herself into the ground doing endless vocal takes. "Oh yeah, absolutely,” she says. "It's either one or the other. I either do it all the way through, perfect, or I do it a thousand times.”

Mention vocal comping to Brown and he rolls his eyes in slight exasperation. "There was comping, yeah,” he smiles. "Not because it was necessary, but because she's just an absolute perfectionist. A lot of it is about diction. That's her main concern. She'll say, 'I sound very sloppy there the way I've pronounced that word.' It's all about phrasing and diction.”

"I've got ears like a dog,” Rumer says. "I hear things that Steve doesn't and I drive him absolutely insane. He likes the characterful performance with flaws, whereas I like to fine‑tune the track and just carefully take out any tonal blemishes or anything that's remotely off‑key.”

When it came to tracking harmonies, each would take turns in the director's chair. "A lot of the harmonies on there,” says Brown, "she's just very instinctive about what to go for. With other things, she would be like, 'What's the harmony?' So I'd sing the harmony to her and she'd copy it and say, 'OK, I'll just be harmony robot today.' And then I'd just tell her what to do and we'd stack them up.”

Building Up The Sound

For his first‑ever drum recordings, Steve Brown employed a low‑budget Shure PGDMK6 microphone pack, proving once again that it's not the tools, it's how you use them...For his first‑ever drum recordings, Steve Brown employed a low‑budget Shure PGDMK6 microphone pack, proving once again that it's not the tools, it's how you use them...

Given their easy‑come, easy‑go approach, the sessions progressed fairly smoothly. Only first single 'Slow', Rumer recalls, had to be recorded twice. "It was quite jazzy and quite dramatic,” she says. "Steve would do this thundering piano opener, and I had visions of it being more cocktail‑lounge.”

On one occasion, for the largely freestyle, Joni Mitchell‑like 'Thankful', the take released was in fact the pair's rehearsal of the song, prompted by a rare fruitless day in the studio.

"I wasn't very well, I had a headache,” Rumer recalls. "I lay on the sofa and couldn't work. So we had a black coffee sitting out in the rain at Pizza Express and I just began singing this song to him that I'd written on the guitar. Then the next session we recorded it completely all the way through. It was one of those moments.”

"It was a big sort of cathartic thing,” Brown states. "I said, 'I don't even need you to play it on the guitar.' She just sang it to me, we found a key and recorded it free time without a click, totally improvised. I was just making the chords up as I went along and that's what you hear on the record. I had to score according to what I'd improvised and wrote a bass part around it. That's all that's on there — a bass part and some strings that come in for seven bars.”

As the tracks developed, a procession of musicians came through the door of Brown's studio, including a horn section and a string quartet, the producer's bassist son Lenny, double‑bassist Andy Hamill, the aforementioned drummer (Richard Marcangelo, whose other credits include Robert Plant and Eddi Reader) and guitarist Matt Backer (Elton John, Steve Winwood). All were exposed to Brown's characteristically unfussy approach. "Even when we used Matt Backer, he'd quite often just come and plug into the Pod [Line 6 XT Pro]. It's not like I'm going for anything wild.”

Farming Out The Mix

Almost all of Rumer's vocals were tracked with a standard Rode NT2 condenser mic — except those that were done with an SM58.Almost all of Rumer's vocals were tracked with a standard Rode NT2 condenser mic — except those that were done with an SM58.

In approaching the mixing of Rumer and Brown's recordings, Atlantic Records initially suggested Jay Newland, not least because of his work with Norah Jones. Ultimately, only his mix of 'On My Way Home' would make the final cut, while the rest was handled by Tom Elmhirst (Amy Winehouse, Adele). Brown says he had no qualms about an outside mixer being brought in.

"God, I didn't want to do it,” he grins. "I think it's good to have a fresh set of ears. You get so set into a certain way of hearing it. You can almost know it too well. I might have liked to have been standing around at the side of the desk, loitering, but I was busy. I've mixed a couple of the extras — 'Some Lovers' was mixed in here.”

For her part, as much as she was thrilled by the results, Rumer found the mixing of Seasons Of My Soul an altogether more emotional experience. "It was traumatic for me,” she laughs. "I was coming home after a day in the mixing studio lying in the corner in the foetal position weeping. It was just such an intense process of letting go. And also the music was being changed — the sound of it was changing and he was changing the sound of my vocal.

Steve Brown & Rumer: Recording Seasons Of My Soul"When Steve mixes a track, it hides a multitude of sins, and then when somebody else gets the files up on the screen they mess around with it and it suddenly causes a whole new heap of problems. So I found myself almost having to kind of re‑produce the record on the hoof. He's a very talented guy, Tom, but I had to fight for him to understand things like, 'Don't cut out my breathing because it makes the voice sound natural.'”

"I sent him finished files, they were clean to my satisfaction,” Brown adds. "So if there was a noise in there, it was deliberately left in there, like the creaks. Hearing a little bit of the breaths of somebody's vocal… that's the humanity of it.”

"But I liked Tom and what he did to the songs,” Rumer stresses. "I liked the way he took it from a jazz album to a pop album.”

Not that Rumer can face listening to Seasons Of My Soul now. She claims not to have properly heard it again since it was mastered. "I'm so scared of hearing something mix‑wise that will devastate me. Sometimes I'll hear it in the background and I think, 'Oh that's nice.' But I couldn't listen to it in my headphones in case I thought, 'Oh my God, there's something strange going on with the kick drum.'”

Before beginning work on the all‑important second album, the pair plan to complete the cover-version sketches they recorded when they initially got together, for a stopgap album to be called Boys Don't Cry and to feature songs by the likes of Gil Scott‑Heron, Tim Hardin, the Band and Richie Havens.

"I want to inhabit the characters in these songs and get a sense of the mysterious masculine emotions that are alien to me,” says Rumer. "The idea is that it's not just a covers album, it's more of a research project. A project that sets me up creatively and emotionally for the next album. In a way, it's pre‑production. Again it's Steve and I finding the sound and developing a new way forward for the next batch of songs.”

"You hear her get hold of some of this stuff and it just sounds like a Rumer song,” Brown enthuses, clearly as much of a fan of the liquid‑voiced singer as her newfound half million devotees. "Y'know, I've known her for quite a while now and she still knocks me out.”  

Fans In High Places

Soon after signing to Atlantic, Rumer was gobsmacked to receive a call saying that Burt Bacharach was a fan of her unreleased recordings and wanted to invite her to Los Angeles to hear her sing one of his latest compositions, 'Some Lovers', subsequently recorded at Goldust.

"That was done in a very sort of quick, better‑do‑it type of way,” Steve Brown admits. "She was busy and I said, 'Leave it to me,' and then she came in and put all the vocals on. It was all my arrangement, I just tried to make it sound like Burt Bacharach. He gave her a CD and a basic lead sheet and chord chart. But I didn't really look at it. I had to check the melody a couple of times because she'd gotten it into her mind that a couple of notes went a certain way that they didn't. We knew we had to make it precise for the maestro.”

Deciding to release the track as part of a double A‑side single entitled 'Rumer Sings Burt Bacharach At Christmas', the duo set about tackling his classic 'Alfie', in a version arguably unrivalled by Dionne Warwick or Cilla Black. "Yeah, I think hers is actually the definitive version,” Brown says.

For 'Alfie', the pair decided to decamp to RAK Studios to record the track entirely live, resulting in various whole band takes, one of which was selected for Rumer to lay her vocal over, using a Neumann U47. "I absolutely loved it and the whole experience,” Rumer says. "I went in and did a comp, so it wasn't a total live vocal. I fine‑tuned it.”

The only thing, funnily enough, that Brown felt was wrong with the recording was the Steinway grand piano part he had laid down. In the end, he replayed it using his faithful Roland XV88. "That was an absolute case in point,” he says. "I listened back to it and thought, 'Yeah, sounds great, but the piano sounds a bit ropey.' I was dying to get on a Steinway and it's lovely to play, but I prefer the Roland. I mean, it's absurd, isn't it?”