Chrissie Hynde: The 'Stockholm' Recording Sessions

In the Studio With Producer Björn Yttling

IN 1979, while Chic danced “Le Freak,” Gloria Gaynor vowed to survive, and Donna Summer talked about “Bad Girls,” the Pretenders brought rock ’n’ roll back with two remarkable singles, “Kid,” “Brass in Pocket,” and one of the greatest debut albums ever. Already a fully formed rock star, Hynde, with her immense songwriting skills, style, and brilliant rhythm guitar work, stirred up the serious mojo that inspired fellow Pretenders drummer Martin Chambers, bassist Pete Farndon, and innovative guitarist James Honeyman-Scott. (The latter two were lost to drugs after the band’s second album, Pretenders II.)

Hynde has used a revolving cast of musicians through the years while she’s kept the hits coming including “Back on the Chain Gang,” ”My City Was Gone,” and “I’ll Stand by You.” Today, she stands out as a humble yet outspoken presence, and honest to a fault. This honesty is first apparent when she discusses whether digital technology changed the way she approached recording her first-ever solo album, Stockholm, with Björn Yttling (Sahara Hotnights, Lykke Li, Franz Ferdinand) of Swedish pop royalty Peter Björn and John handling production and co-songwriting.

Producer Björn Yttling “It certainly did when we wanted to rearrange something or take a few bars out,” Hynde explains, from her home in London. “It used to be a razor blade to tape or you had to replay the whole thing. I did something recently where I sang a song in seven different keys. It could get really ugly if I asked a band to transpose something seven times. But it’s easy now to do that in the studio. But I am tempted to say it’s all going in the wrong direction and it’s not getting better because ultimately it’s fine the way it was— and that’s the truth.”

Hynde never sugarcoats when a slap in the face will do. “Technology makes life easier,” she continues. “But I don’t know if making life easier is a good thing. Often when you get everything perfect, it has no vibe anymore. You lose the personality and it’s all over. I can’t imagine what James Brown would have thought if a producer said ‘let’s Auto-tune you.’ My blood runs cold at the thought of it. It’s too easy for artists to blame other people for the way things are going. The buck has to stop with you. But the smart money goes on allocating people who are better at doing things than you are and getting on with the job. Just control the little thing that you’re good at. Otherwise you just disappear up your own ass.”

Hynde and Yttling share writing credits on nine of Stockholm’s eleven tracks, the album reflecting her skills and Yttling’s sounds. She’d never heard of Yttling, much less his whistling hit (“Young Folks”), before working with him. One of her daughter’s friends (and her old pal, John McEnroe) gave Yttling the thumbs up.

Stockholm’s rocking opener, “You or No One,” recreates a ’60s Wall of Sound style with happy tambourine and booming instrumentation. “Dark Sunglasses” is tougher, Hynde’s subtle sneer about “the ruling classes” backed with wiry guitar and funky drumming. The acoustically driven “In the Movies” and the Bowie-ish “You’re the One” are lusciously dark, hard-knuckled pop, like most of Stockholm. Yttling’s knack lies in placing Hynde’s consummate vocals and supreme intellect into a variety of plug-and-play productions. The wonderfully distorto-guitar in “Down the Wrong Way” is none other than Neil Young. “House of Cards” rocks and rattles, as raunchy as ’70s Stones. Near the end of Stockholm, soundtrack-ready ballad “Tourniquet” finds Hynde’s voice floating ethereally over acoustic guitar, Celesta and organ, all played by Yttling.

Recorded in Stockholm at Yttling’s Ingrid Studios with engineers Gustav Lindelöw, Hans Stenlund, and Nille Perned, the album also features Yttling’s choice of musicians: drummer John Eriksson, bassist Ulf Engstrom, various string players and on one track, guitarist John McEnroe of the ill-fated Johnny Smyth Band.

“Esthetically, I really had no goal except to avoid making a sh*tty second-rate wannabe Pretenders album,” Yttling says. “Chrissie didn’t prepare songs at all; as it worked out she wanted to write lyrics to my ideas. As soon as she got into the song, we worked together to finish them.”

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“I didn’t bring a bunch of songs to him,” Hynde confirms. “ Björn didn’t want to produce at first, but I think he was seduced by the music. Björn would have some real basic chords. I’d chase him away for a half hour, leaving his laptop with the music on it, and I’d scribble some lyrics. Then we’d rough something together. I would sing the songs through a handheld mic. Half of the songs are the rough guide vocal. You can hear me fumbling some words. I’d re-sing them later but I preferred the rough vibe of those first takes. On other tracks I would chase everyone out but the engineer and do a few takes to get a vocal comp. That’s the more traditional way in contrast to the rough punk ones. Then Björn would layer it up with the musicians.”

“The recording process was very back and forth,” explains LindelÖw (Lykke Li, Anna Ternheim, Peter Björn and John). “Often we started from the demo, which could be just an iPhone recording, then put down some acoustics and maybe a piano and build from that. We focused a lot on getting the rhythm and vocals right, but you have to build a suitable world for that at the same time to know that the rhythm and vocals are right. We also went back and forth between different versions of a song a lot, comparing song structure, beats, and vocal performance.”

Though Hynde has lived in the UK for 40 years, Stockholm is her first album that was not recorded in the US or the UK. She quickly warmed to the Swede’s relaxed methods which thoroughly suited her rock-’n’-roll ways. “I like that Björn and [co-producer] Joakim [Åhlund] would grab these f*cked-up guitars,” Hynde says. “But these guys made them sound great. I’ve always been skeptical of spending a long time being meticulous getting sounds. It’s rock ’n’ roll. How long can it take? If you listen to the all the things we loved growing up there is no producer now who would let background vocals go so out of tune as even the Supremes were. That was the beauty of it. As soon as you start correcting one thing, like with Auto-Tune, it throws the balance off and everything else sounds even more f*cked up. Correct a bum note, a wrong word, sure. But once you start re-pitching yourself, then everything else has to go.”

While Hynde may appear brassy and bold, when recording vocals she likes her volume and the band to be quiet. Talk of volume levels will eventually lead to a discussion of noise pollution.

“I like things real quiet,” she says. “I don’t like to hear my voice very loud. I like everything real dry, and I never use any reverb. And I record vocals in mono. Hearing a stereo mix while I’m singing just confuses me. I like the music level around me very quiet, and I use in-ear monitors. I know a lot of bands listen to themselves really loud, but then there’s nowhere to go. If you listen to it pretty quiet you can hear more of the nuances and the vibe. Then you can crank it and get off on it. But you don’t have to get off all the time. I have a bit of an autistic approach. I don’t like any surprises.”

Yttling recorded Hynde’s vocals in steps: “Chrissie and Gustav would record three passes and then comp them, then record three more and comp those,” he says. “Then I would listen and comment, maybe have them record some changes and patches. Then we would let it rest until the next session. If it still felt solid we would keep it. If not we would repeat the procedure. Sometimes we’d keep the handheld Shure SM 58 from the demo, sometimes we would redo with a Neumann or something else. Not really a big deal what preamp we use as long as there’s a good performance. And even if we got a good take, we would go back and listen to the demo vocals just to see that we didn’t miss out on any good stuff.”

“We mostly used a Neumann 269, the desk preamps from the API 3232 and an LA-3A or a Bluestripe 1176,” says Lindelöw. “Chrissie stood in the big live room most of the time, but some of the vocals were done with a Shure SM58 or SM7 standing in the control room. Mostly she didn’t want any reverb, but sometimes she got some from Pro Tools, like a plate simulation or from our Micmix Master Room XL-305 stereo spring reverb. Chrissie’s voice is so good, expressive, and powerful, that she will sound good through any mic you throw at her. The 269 worked well though, bringing out the subtleties.”

“When you’re making a record, I believe in getting the job done and not agonizing,” Hynde adds. “If you can still live with a vocal that is a little rough after two days, you might see the charm in it that we loved on the records we grew up with. If you look at yourself you will only see the faults. It’s like sending an angry email. If you leave it a day, you will probably be glad you didn’t send it.”

Lindelöw, Stenlund, and Perned tracked Stockholm in Ingrid Studio’s various live rooms and iso booths. An API 3232 desk ran for the sessions, “for its preamps and routings,” Lindelöw explains. “I love the sound of the transformers in that desk, especially when tracking through the buses. The mix was summed in Pro Tools and monitored on two faders on the desk. I don’t believe in aural benefits of analog summing; might as well just use two channels. We did some tracking at our smaller studio as well, using an API 1608 or a Neve BCM 10 in the same way.” Lindelöw explains that Yttling is a hands-on producer, and keeps things simple. For effects, they used the Waves SSL-bundle, Waves CLA-76 Compressor, Avid Space, and some SoundToys “stuff for echoes and distortion.”

Guitarists Hynde, Yttling, Mattias Boström, John McEnroe, and Anders Pettersson played Gretsch hollow-body, Silvertone, and steel guitar through Fender Twin, Fender Deluxe Tweed, an old Gibson, and Vox Pathfinder amplifiers, miked with a Shure SM57 or a Sennheiser 421. “Old nylon-string Levin guitars” and a Gibson Hummingbird were miked via Coles 4038, Shure SM57, AKG D190, and sometimes a Neumann 269. The 57s were pointed at the body, the 4038 at the neck joint, and the D190 somewhere in between, all running through the API’s onboard preamps. Bass guitar was recorded into a Radial DI, or the API’s DI-inputs when working on the API 1608.

For keyboards, “we used a small upright piano, a big upright piano, and a grand piano miked with a Neumann SM2 on the grand and the big upright, alternating between mid-side and Blumlein miking setups,” Lindelöw explains. “On the small piano we used a Shoeps 221 or a Neumann TLM103. We miked the big upright from the back, the small upright from the top, the grand piano at the middle of the body. We also used a Mellotron, both the analog and digital models. The digital Mellotron is such an amazing production tool, super-fast to get down ideas with! Farfisas, Moog Minimoogs, and Celesta were used as well.”

For drums, Lindelöw placed Sennheiser 421s on snare drum top and bottom heads, Coles 4038s on the toms, AKG D12s inside the kick drum, and “some cheap ribbon on the outside.” A Pearl condenser was used on the hi-hat and Bang & Olufsen BM5s for overheads. “Mostly no room mics, but sometimes some small-diaphragm condensers in the next room, and sometimes a D190 for dirt. The Coles had to go kind of high to not distort on the floor tom, the rest of the setup is kind of conventional,” Lindelöw adds.

Engineer Gustav Lindelöw Lindelöw’s go-to session gear? “For mixing, definitely the Micmix Master Room XL-305,” Lindelöw says. “It sounds good on anything whether you use it for reverbs or just for distortion/sound shaping. It’s a solid-state spring unit. It always remains smooth and dark without getting that ‘sploing’ that other springs have. I like the AKG BX20 as well, but the Master Room sounds more unique to me. I first heard it when assisting for Simon Nordberg, a great Swedish mix engineer, and bought one when I saw it used on (Sweden’s version of Craigslist). It’s all original but I’m thinking of adding real pots for the outputs instead of those stupid trimmers.”

“Technology moves so fast now and it escalates and there’s no time for any kind of protocol,” Hynde adds. “That’s why people shout on their phones in public places. There are no rules now and it’s harder to pull back and re-access things. I spend time in Paris where the cafes still play really cool mid-’60s jazz. They understand atmosphere; it’s part of the culture. In England, there’s too much cocaine and alcohol in the music, and that’s what you’re hearing. Now in a restaurant, I listen first to see if I can stand sitting in there for an hour listening to the music. It is a trend, and I hope things will be pushed in a different direction.”

Ken Micallef is based in New York City.