The minimal arrangement of Ellie Goulding's unlikely New Year number one was underpinned by a rather less minimal mix...
As the old decade gave way to the 2020s, Ellie Goulding topped the UK singles chart with her version of 'River', a Joni Mitchell song which first appeared on Mitchell's Blue album in 1971. A piano-and-vocal cover of an old album track about a relationship split does not sound like a red-hot commercial proposition, so the number one position came as a surprise to almost everyone involved.
"Last October we were asked by Ellie's management to record an exclusive song for Amazon, a Joni Mitchell cover," recalls the song's co-producer Joe Kearns. "It was chosen by Ellie, because she's a huge Joni Mitchell fan. She asked Max [Cooke] and myself to produce it, and Jason [Elliott] came in to record and mix it. We were in the middle of working on her forthcoming album, and the song was to be just a one-off, nothing to do with the album. After it was released mid-November, we did not think much more about it."
"When it started catching on, early December," continues Cooke, "our reaction was, 'Huh, that's a bit surprising!' A couple of weeks before Christmas it went to number eight, and we were like, 'Great!' thinking that this would be it. Then we got a text from Ellie saying it looked to be going to number one!"
The number one position of 'River' was remarkable for another reason as well: the song was only released on Amazon and YouTube, and was not available on other streaming websites. Amazon promoted the song heavily on their Christmas playlists, and it was given an edge over the endless Christmas re-releases by the fact that the UK chart weightings favour releases less than three years old. Promotion and opportunity aren't everything, however, and Amazon's efforts would have fallen on deaf ears if the company did not also have a high-quality product to promote.
Cooke, Kearns and Elliott are regular collaborators with Goulding, and were therefore well placed to record, mix and produce a simple piano-vocal song quickly and effectively. All four share a close connection with Mark Knopfler's British Grove Studios in London. Kearns worked at the studio for eight years, and met Goulding there. Now an independent producer and songwriter, Kearns' credits include Florence + the Machine, Little Mix and Kasabian. Elliott started work at British Grove 10 years ago, and continues to be a staff engineer. Cooke is a producer, songwriter and musical director, who played in Goulding's band for four years. All three have spent much of the last few years working on Goulding's fourth studio album, to be released early in 2020.
Work on 'River' took place over a few days in October, starting with the recording of Goulding's vocals at Angelic Studios in Banbury near Oxford, followed by a day of recording the piano and shooting the song's Behind The Scenes video at British Grove, where Elliott also started the mix, which he completed on the 10th at The Gallery, a project studio in West London run by Kearns and he.
Elliott: "I think British Grove is Ellie's studio of choice, but for several reasons we went to Angelic Studios for a few days to finalise her new album. We were booked to record 'River' at British Grove immediately afterwards. However, Ellie felt comfortable at Angelic, and suggested doing her vocals right there and then, the night before going to British Grove. So Joe asked me to set up the recording chain, which consisted of a Neumann U87, a Neve 1084 mic pre, and an LA2A compressor, going into the line input of his Apollo Twin interface. Joe and I normally like to use a Schoeps VSR5 or a Maselec MMA-4 mic pre — both are really transparent — and a Tube-Tech CL-1B for compression, but we used what was there in the studio."
Cooke: "I had played and recorded a demo piano part using the Alicia's Keys sample pack for Native Instruments' Kontakt. This was done to a click, at Snap Studios in North London, where I share a production room with one of the guys from Years & Years. There had been some discussion about doing something more experimental, but the song really didn't need it. Ellie can sing and the song is so pure and right, it felt like a natural decision to stay faithful to the original."
Kearns: "Ellie sang to Max's guide piano part. We didn't do many vocal takes. She's an extremely professional singer when she gets into the booth, and we normally cut a lead vocal in five or six takes. Sometimes in pop music there's an emphasis on recording each phrase separately, or even single words by themselves, but with Ellie delivering...