The principles behind George Ezra’s second album sound simple: great songs, great vibe, and plenty of crunch. In practice, things got a bit more complicated...
On first meeting singer-songwriter George Ezra in 2013, producer Cam Blackwood noticed that “George had encyclopaedic knowledge of Bob Dylan and is obsessed with Woody Guthrie. He was only 19, and I thought, ‘I hope this kid is good, because his references are amazing!’”
At the time, Blackwood had no idea of what was to come. Ezra was introduced to him as a complete unknown, while Blackwood himself was still busy making a name for himself as a producer, based in his studio in Voltaire Road in South London, and working as a musician, engineer, co-writer and/or producer on projects with mostly unknown artists.
“I’d done a few tracks with London Grammar in 2012, and this led to the call from Columbia asking whether I was prepared to do an EP on a budget with a certain George Ezra. They were to be his first recordings for the label. I agreed, and it so happened that ‘Budapest’ was on that EP, and when they heard it they were like: ‘We would like you to do the whole album!’ George and I started recording the album a month later. The first album took us 10 weeks to do, we recorded 19 songs, and it did ridiculous! I think worldwide it sold four million copies! The second album took seven or eight months over a period of 15 months, and we recorded 13 songs. It was intense!”
Following the success of Ezra’s debut album Wanted On Voyage, the same team was retained for the follow-up Staying At Tamara’s, with almost all sessions once again taking place at Blackwood’s Voltaire Road Studios. Most of the songs were co-written by Ezra and Athlete frontman Joel Potts. “For the first album we had 35 songs to choose from,” the producer recalls. The second time round, we had 54 or 55. The 13 we recorded were chosen between George, Joel, the label and myself. Pretty much all songs George came in with were just guitar and vocal, sometimes piano and vocal. Joel might have recorded a demo of George singing and playing guitar, or there’d be a voice memo recorded by George on his iPhone at home. The songs were mostly complete, with chords and melodies and lyrics — it’s old-fashioned songwriting! Sometimes a middle eight still needed finishing, but his lyrics were always great. George is really critical of what he does, so lyrically there’s a level that he never drops below.
“Music-wise, I was lucky that the demos were just vocal-guitar or vocal-piano, because it meant there were no preconceptions of how these songs had to be done. All George’s songs can be arranged in many different ways, whether as R&B or rock or folk. The way we approached most of the songs was with just the three of us in a room: George, my musical right-hand man and drummer Matt Racher, and me, with my assistant Liam Thorne recording. George will have a guitar, I may grab a bass, or go to a piano, and Matt will play drums or some percussion instrument, and we just jam. We find a vibe and a tempo, which sometimes changes during the song for feel reasons.
“If it felt that George was tripping over his words in the chorus, but the verse was brilliant, we’d slow the chorus down by half a bpm. Or if the verse was a bit dull, we’d speed it up and/or change the feel of the kick, with lots of accented hits. We usually ended up with decent guide bass, drums, keyboard or guitar and a decent guide vocal, and then we’d do live takes. We always did live takes, to a click. Live takes is what the Beatles and the Rolling Stones did. There’s a movement to that. You play the second chorus a bit harder, and when the singer starts to belt you do something clever to accentuate that, and so on. All that gives added value over a generic pop production in a DAW with many parts copied and pasted. I am not saying everything has to be live, but there’s a magic that you can capture when musicians play live. Songs feel different when the parts have been played from start to finish. People can feel the humanity in the music.
“Things have to counterbalance. If something cheerful also has a sweet sound, it becomes too saccharine. You need counterweight. Imperfections in the performances also are an essential part of that. For example, George’s song ‘All My Love’ has an almost Elvis-like feel, and we got a sound that refers back to Phil Spector, with tons of layers and loads of depth, and it doesn’t matter if it feels a bit rushed going into the chorus or at the end of the middle eight. Nobody ever put down a law that says you have to quantise everything to make great music.
“Having said that, we were definitely trying to make a modern hit record, so we could not only refer back to the past. It had to sound current as well. But it was difficult to get my head around how I was going to do that. I had never thought of asking myself the question ‘How am I going to make this commercial?’ I never think about whether records would sell, I just think, ‘This is wicked!’ But especially these days you also have to think about whether it will sell. So it’s a balancing act, and the hardest thing in this respect is confidence. You’re the person in charge in the room. The buck stops with you!”
Imagine & Reimagine
Blackwood’s pursuit of the right balance saw him bring in guest musicians and singers, including Fred Gibson, the Atlantic Horns, Billie Marten, Florrie Arnold, Dan Caplen and James Wyatt, whilst also incorporating a lot of programming. “I love hip-hop, so I often programmed hip-hop-influenced beats. Some songs began with me at home with a guitar and my little Pro Tools setup there, and I programmed some beat in Pro Tools’ Boom plug-in, just for the vibe, perhaps just a hi-hat pattern or a clap or a kick, and I’d get something going, and the next day we’d play to that.
“Often Matt or I programmed things in the studio. I have an old Akai MPC60 from 1986 that also says Roger Linn on it, and I may load up a Linn LN1 drum kit, and make a sequence using the hi-hat sound. ‘Paradise’ has a LN1 snare on the two and four all the way. Or we had a live hi-hat in the chorus, and a swung Roland TR606 hi-hat in the verses. ‘Saviour’ starts with a recording of crickets from a video I made in Tuscany two years ago, that happened to be in time with the track. There also was a delay on the crunch drum microphone, which is often done in house and techno. A lot of it is just us messing around until it sounds cool. I call it ‘patchwork’. It’s a collage of styles.”
The hip-hop vibe also fed into the vocal arrangements. “The idea of the half-shouted ‘gang’ vocals that are on a number of songs, including ‘Paradise,’ came from the old-school hip-hop of around 1990, when they always had guys in the background going ‘Yeah!’ and ‘Wow!’ and so on, as if it was a party track. George and I sang most of the gang vocals, overdubbing them and pretending to be Elvis, or from Ireland, or George pretending to be from Scotland, using all these pretend accents. We liked the idea of adding these gang vocals so the songs don’t take themselves too seriously, particularly as so much of the album is about anxiety. Lines like ‘What a terrible time to be alive if you’re prone to overthinking’ in ‘Pretty Shining People’ can come across as over-preachy if you’re not careful. George and I are definitely the kind of people who may overthink things, and we talked a lot about not being preachy and getting a positive message across. We wanted the record to mean something, yet at the same time not make people want to slash their wrists!
“Finding this balance between conveying meaning yet not being preachy was one reason why the new album took so long. Another reason was because we didn’t just keep building arrangements, we repeatedly reimagined songs from scratch — and then in some cases we reimagined the song again. We did five versions of ‘Hold My Girl’! The first version sounded like something that came off The Last Waltz by the Band from 1976. It’s a really beautiful, cathartic process to keep reimagining songs, until you’ve done it five times. Then it messes with your head! We did seven versions of ‘Shotgun’, and Fred Gibson came up with such a great bass line in the chorus that we dropped what we had and left just the vocal and bass line. We did ‘Only Human’ twice. For most songs we went with the first or second attempt at arranging them.”
Voltaire Road Studios is located in a business centre, and has undergone substantial transformation since Blackwood obtained it. “When I moved in, there was a small control room with a tiny programming room, a live space of about 14x16 feet, and a lounge area. I’ve since knocked the programming suite down and created a big control room. The live room is great for about four or five people, and has a great drum sound, which I make bigger with trickery from spring and plate reverbs. I have created a kitchen in the back of the lounge area, and I also have a piano in there, because it is a really live-sounding space. The piano is an 1886 Monington & Weston from London, which does not have a metal frame and is tuned down a semitone, so it has a real esoteric ‘Bon Iver meets the National’ sound.
“Gear-wise, we made George’s first record with tons of guitar pedals, an Apogee Rosetta 800 A-D/D-A, some small ADAM monitors, and Yamaha NS10s with an old Bryston B2 amp. I had a Roland Juno 106 synth and a GEM Sprinter, which is more of a cheap organ than a synth, and some guitars and amplifiers.
“Now, I also have a small 12-channel Trident Fleximix from the mid-’70s, which I love. I send all the drum mics through that, and it is one of those desks on which not all channels sound the same. Channel 1 has the kick drum mic, and that sounds great, and channel 2 has the hi-hat, because nothing else sounds good on channel 2. As you move to the right, the channels get quieter!
“I have more guitars and amps and keyboards now, the latter including the Korg DS8, Roland Juno 6, Oberheim Matrix 6 and Korg Triton Pro. Plus I have drum machines like the Roland TR-606, TR-707, TR-808, TR-909, and the Akai S950 sampler and the aforementioned MCP60. I have tons of floppy discs for the Akai machines, and they’re all 12-bit, which results in an amazing crunchy sound that I adore!
“My monitors today are the KRK 9000B, just like Paul Epworth, and I have the original, passive PMC TB1 speakers, with a Bryston 4BSST to drive them. They sound amazing. I also have some Audio Note AN/E LX speakers that are great, and a small, cheap boombox.
"I used Logic until 2012, but then migrated over to Pro Tools HD, because I wanted to be able to monitor loads of live stuff without latency. I was always bringing down the buffer size on my old Mac with Logic to make that work, and it would start doing all sorts of juddery stuff. For a while I recorded everything in Pro Tools and then mixed in Logic, but when SSL stopped making the LMC-1 compressor plug-in, which worked in Logic but not in Pro Tools, I switched to mixing in Pro Tools. I also have tons of outboard gear, like the Manley Massive Passive and VariMu, an old UREI ‘blue stripe’ 1176, and some really nice reverbs, like the Bricasti M7, Dynacord VRS23, Yamaha Rev 7, Lexicon PCM80, and so on, which I use on inserts in Pro Tools.”
Blackwood and his engineer Liam Thorne put the above-mentioned equipment to use during the recordings for Staying At Tamara’s, as well as a number of unusual microphones. “Before we start recording drums, all the drums are tuned to the key of the song, either the root note, or the fourth or fifth. So if the song is in G, I’ll have the kick, snare and toms tuned to G or C or D. If it’s a minor key, Matt and I may tune the toms to a minor third and a fifth. To record the kick, I have an Audix D6 just inside the hole, pointing at the beater, and a Neumann U47 FET on the outside. We have an AKG C414 on the snare top, and the snare bottom is an E-V 635, which is a small mic that doesn’t pick up much under 120Hz, so it doesn’t record too much of the kick. On the rack toms I use the Sennheiser e906 guitar mic, the hi-hat has an AKG C451, and the overheads are Royer SF1 ribbons. I also have a Beyerdynamic M69 between the floor tom and the kick drum, pointing at the drummer’s feet, and that goes into an old dbx 118 hi-fi compressor that makes it sound a little bit crap and adds crunch to the overall drum sound. There also is a Shure SM7 between the snare, the ride and the kick drum. And there are stereo room mics in my studio, usually a Royer SF24, which I crank for more ambience and grit.
“My bass amp is an Ampeg V2, from the early ’70s. It’s the 120V version and it weighs a ton, and it goes into an old Peavey Black Widow cab, and an Ampeg 4x10 next to it. I use a Shure SM7 and a Neumann U87 on it, plus a Royer SF24 room mic, and also the MXR M80 Bass DI, with drive and a little EQ. So I blend two mics, one room mic and a DI, using the Waves InPhase plug-in to line everything up, which really helps to get a really tight and chunky bottom end. I also use the Massey THC distortion plug-in on the bass most of the time, and double up the bass with a synth bass, usually my Moog Taurus, and distort that too. I also often use the Waves Abbey Road TG12345 plug-in on bass. It also is great on piano as the compressor is so brutal! It has a drive setting for more crunch.”