Morgan Kibby's White Sea

A big, wet hankie and Kate Bush inspired the greatest breakup album of 2014

As a member of Andy Gonzalez’s M83, Morgan Kibby applied her multi-octave vocal range, classically derived keyboard technique, and serious songwriting skills to his electronic dreamscape.

But Kibby’s debut as alter ego White Sea is a far different and more personal affair that draws on her love of ’80s synth pop as well as her prowess as a remixer and soundtrack composer. White Sea’s In Cold Blood reaches back to the 30-year-old’s childhood for inspiration and solace. Musically, the album seems to imagine Kate Bush leading an anthemic army of gossamer strings, heaven-stretching synths, orchestral percussion, and driving dance beats. But for all this grandeur, In Cold Blood is ultimately intimate in scope.

“This is a breakup record,” Kibby explains. “I made a choice that I wasn’t going to hide behind my ego. I wanted to be honest; that was the overarching feeling when going through the trauma of [the breakup]. Everyone has these life events that affect us in ways that you don’t necessarily ever fully recover from.”

As co-writer of such M83 hits as “Kim & Jessie” and the multi-Platinum “Midnight City,” Kibby has proven herself an astute songwriter, and her dynamic hyper-vocals could probably shatter glass. Kibby has also remixed tracks for Britney Spears, Demi Lovato, Imagine Dragons, and School of Seven Bells; her soundtrack projects include TV’s State of Grace, Boston Public and Judging Amy. In Cold Blood seeks to unite Kibby’s many experiences, the album’s often dark (and sometimes profane) lyrics, and sky-spanning synths expressing an emotional, soul-scarring message. Self-producing the album, Kibby focused on her core skills.

“It’s ever-challenging for me as a producer,” Kibby says. “We layered vocals, vocal harmonies, synths, and effects throughout the record, but the vocals are what tie all my influences together. For the next record I’ll focus on a particular production direction, but this time I wanted to experiment. So there is an ’80s pop track (“Future Husbands, Past Lives,” co-written with Mark Ronson), a stadium-style tune (“New York Loves You,” co-written with Greg Kurstin), a ballad (“Small December”). It’s scattered production-wise, but ultimately it’s more cohesive than it would have been otherwise because of the vocals.”

Kibby demoed In Cold Blood in the back of the bus while on tour with M83. Playing a Novation keyboard and singing into a Shure SM8 mic/Brent Averill preamp via an Apogee Duet interface, Kibby somehow envisioned the album’s epic tracks.

“When everything was good, I’d bounce down to stems and prepare to layer real drums on top of programmed drums for working with [engineer] Mike Schuppan,” Kibby recalls. “Justin Meldal- Johnsen played bass and guitar, and we recorded two weeks at [Meldal-Johnsen’s] Chez JMJ studio (L.A.), cutting drums, percussion, and lead and background vocals. For a couple tracks (“Warsaw,” “This Will End in Disaster”) we needed a proper studio to record larger drum sounds, strings and horns for the right colors, so we went into Sunset Sound (Hollywood) for two days with Todd Burke engineering. But some of the soft-synth sounds (from Arturia) are from my original demos.”

Despite the ’80s-feel track, Schuppan didn’t go for a genre-specific sound: “I did go on the darker side for tones on Morgan’s record,” Schuppan says. “For some of the synths I chose the onboard API preamp over a Neve for its darker, slightly more colored sound. We were trying to balance between keeping it dark but not going too crazy, ’cause there are bright elements in the record. I focused a lot on the drums. We were going for tight sounds. But I didn’t think, ‘It’s an ’80s style so I should make it sound like the ’80s.’”

“The ’80s influence wasn’t conscious,” Kibby adds. “It’s most obvious in ‘Future Husbands.’ But that’s mainly because of the Linn Drum, which makes you think of Prince. There are certain sounds, whether from drum machine or synths or from my vocal delivery— there is something anachronistic about it. I gravitate toward certain production sounds, like I love Donna Summer’s disco strings. I didn’t set out to re-create sounds from the past, but it’s inevitable when you’re using instruments that are so ubiquitous with a certain era.”

If you think about ’80s synthesizers, such classic machines as the Oberheim DMX Drum Machine, Roland Jupiter 8, and Linn Electronics LM-1 Drum Computer (Linn Drum) come to mind. Kibby and Schuppan used soft and hard versions of these synths and more.

“I used a lot of Arturia soft synths layered with SoundToys Decapitator for that big bass sound in ‘Prague,’” Kibby says. “That worked better than when we tried to replace it real synths. I also used a Roland Juno-60 and various Taurus pedals layered with other SoundToys effects. We’d run those through outboard gear if I ultimately kept them. I also used a Korg CS-80, Oberheim Xpander, ARP 2600, and Moog Minimoog. But I don’t mind using soft synths as long as they are dialed-in and it adds something unique and it’s not just a preset.”

The ARP 2600 and Moog Minimoog can be fickle machines, but when recording at both Chez JMJ and his own Bronson Island studio, Schuppan took a direct approach.

“I ran the hardware synths direct into Chez JMJ’s [API 1608] console with Pro Tools, bussed that to any effects dry, with no compression,” Schuppan recalls. “That’s how we got those sounds: a lot of parallel recording. These sessions weren’t too huge. Morgan was good at dialing in big sounds so there wasn’t a lot of layering. I ran some outboard effects for saturation, then delays and effects including hardware spring reverb, Eventide H3000, and my go-to, the Overstayer Saturator. It’s amazing. It’s Culture Vulture-esque. It gets this really natural-sounding crunch and you can adjust the resonance, and it’s really versatile. I’ve used it on vocals, drums, synths. It’s like a hardware version of Decapitator, but cooler. You don’t have the different preamp styles like on Decapitator, but it has that vibe. It’s more versatile than a distortion box.”

In Cold Blood opens with the a cappella vocals of “They Don’t’ Know.” Like 100 dark angels competing for the same mic, Kibby’s vocals create a first impression that remains strong. Kibby sings in tortured, dramatic, even tremulous tones throughout the album, equal parts Laura Branigan (“Self Control”), Patty Smyth (“Goodbye to You”), and her highness, Kate Bush (Never for Ever, The Sensual World). Kibby hits extraordinary high notes coupled with breathy coos in “For My Love” and “Future Husbands, Past Lives.” She goes whisper-weepy in “Small December,” sings to the stadium in “NYC Loves You,” and ends the album with heart crushed in “It Will End in Disaster.” Even if she weren’t a powerful songwriter (which she is), Kibby’s voice is a remarkable instrument.

“If I can hit the high note more than twice, then it should stay in the song,” she reckons. “Mark programmed an awesome beat on a Linn Drum in ‘Future Husbands,’ and I began layering sounds with synths in a really difficult key. I sang that high note and we kept it in the song. It’s fun to do live because people want to see me sing that high note. It’s not a studio trick!”

Straightforward in conversation, Kibby is equally no-nonsense when tracking vocals. “It’s about continuity of emotion, whether for my record or when I work with another band,” she says. “I try to be precious only when it really matters so I don’t waste my or other people’s time.”

When big emotions were on the line, as in the ballad “Small December,” Kibby went for full passes and edited the occasional word. To the other extreme is the pop-centric power rocker “Prague,” where she also went for complete takes, punching in when necessary. Everything grew from her back-of-the-bus demos.

“I used a Shure SM8 on the road, which was fine,” she recalls. “And the Brent Averill BAE [1073 DMP] desktop preamp makes my vocals sound amazing. I love its colors. It brings out the sparkle in my voice without making the high end too shrill and obnoxious. Especially when singing super high notes like on ‘Future Husbands,’ my voice can be piercing. The BAE keeps the colors without making it too harsh. I used different Lexicon reverbs on my vocal as well. And a lot of SoundToys, whether it’s the EchoBoy or Decapitator, their modules are great for color. The EchoBoy has amazing presets for reverb. I use their tools for everything. I also use Valhalla reverbs. When I tracked final vocals, I used the Bock Audio 251 [mic], which is awesome.”

“Morgan’s voice is unbelievably dynamic,” Schuppan says. “On verses where she isn’t as loud and powerful, I’d have a different gain structure for each section. But for Morgan I would actually ride the fader on the preamp during some things, because she is so powerful. I don’t like hearing compression, so I would ride it. Sometimes Morgan would hit it and you’d hear that compressor slam, which I don’t like.

“My go-to mic is always a Bock [Audio] 251,” Schuppan continues. “I absolutely love that thing. It sounds very close to an actual [Telefunken ELA M] 251, but it captures a little more of the natural low end of a voice compared to a 251. You don’t always need it, so you can roll it off, but the Bock 251 is a little richer on the bottom. We tried an AKG C12 and a Blue Bottle, but the Bock 251 nailed it. For mic preamps, I worked with two different 1073-style preamps: a Chandler LTD1 and a Brent Averill 1073, which has a lot more top-end than the Chandler. The LTD1 is my go-to usually. JMJ and I have done a lot of shootouts, and that is where we tend to land. And we used practically every SoundToys plug-in for something: a lot of Decapitator, a lot of EchoBoy. Some FilterFreak and PanMan for crazy panning sections.”

Schuppan is Justin Meldal-Johnsen’s regular engineer; they’ve worked together on recent albums from Neon Trees, Paramore, and Kibby’s side project the EDM band Wildcat Wildcat. Cutting drums at Chez JMJ, Shuppan experimented but didn’t go mad.

“I went pretty basic on close-miking the drums, but over the top on the overheads,” he says. “I had close overheads, far overheads, close rooms, far-rooms, mid-rooms—I was just going for weird, crazy sounds. I did this thing to where it was a three-dimensional swirl. When you hear a very extreme pan, that’s not panning automation but panning from the actual mics, moving from left to right."

For the drums of Denny Weston Jr. (Goldfrapp, The Kooks, Hilary Duff ), Schuppan went with Sennheiser 421s for mounted toms, AKG 414 on the floor tom, Shure SM57s as top and bottom snare drum mics, a vintage AKG D12 (inner) and Beyerdynamic 88 (outer) on the bass drum, rounded out by a pair of Coles 4038s as overheads, all running into the API console’s internal mic pre’s. Two AKG 414s functioned as room mics in the middle of Chez JMJ’s 14x20 live room; there were also a Miktek U47 mono room mic placed in front of the kit with another Miktek U47 as a single POV mic, and what Schuppan calls a “pair of shitty Radio Shack mics” below the 414s.

“I ran six mics on the Rototoms,” he adds, not revealing where the obsolescent heads-suspended-in-rims were used. “I used Sennheiser 421s on the individual ones, a pair of Mojave Audio MA-101fet mics for overheads, but I can’t remember the bottom mics.”

Studio guitar whiz Lyle Workman (Norah Jones, Sheryl Crow, Sting) tracked at his own project studio, using a Royer 121 and a Shure SM57 going into “a really sweet pair of Quad 8s,” recalls Schuppan. “The Quad 8s were super clean, with minimal color, and the EQs were nice on it. I was thrilled with it. I ran the mics two on one speaker grill, one directly on cone on-axis, and other slightly off the cone.”

As Meldal-Johnsen’s right hand studio man, Schuppan is intimately familiar with tracking his bass tones with artists as diverse as Beck, Gnarls Barkley, NIN, and M83.

“When I track Justin,” he says, “I feel like I have done nothing because his tones are so good. It’s unbelievable. It’s basically a clean DI and amp combo—Shure Beta 52 on amp, very minimal, a little compression. But he is such a great player that what you’re hearing is really coming from his fingers. He does a lot of the work to get those great bass tones. All the other bass players want me to get his sound, but it’s not just me.”

And for Kibby and White Sea, In Cold Blood is not simply her contemporary story, but also the result of years of musical training, going back to her childhood in Los Angeles. As well as vocal training, Kibby studied classical piano and cello from her pre-teen to mid-teen years.

“I am just lucky to have a super-reliable voice,” Kibby says. “My range is constantly being strengthened and tested because I sing a lot. On this last tour with M83, I was conscious of how Anthony wanted me to sing. He wanted this smooth, angelic sound—no vibrato, a nonintrusive approach. I wanted to show off a little bit. I am first and foremost a vocalist. I wanted to feature that as an instrument on my record as much as my production skills and songwriting.”

And as for the album’s ’80s-centric sonic zeitgeist?

“I just gravitate toward those sounds,” she says. “They were not a huge part of my growing up. I heard a lot of classical and jazz like Nina Simone, Charlie Haden; that’s what my parents listened to. And singer-songwriters—Nick Drake, Joni Mitchell. And my dad was a banjo player. But when I heard NIN’s Downward Spiral as a teenager, I realized what was possible in electronic music. I didn’t know you could create those industrial sounds while having so much emotion in the music. And Anthony is always turning me on to new things. Through him I fell in love with Tangerine Dream and Ash Ra Tempel.”

Returning to the album’s central theme of romantic loss and devastation—ideas Kibby expresses so well both instrumentally and vocally—does misery make the artist as depressed as some think?

“These seminal experiences alter the composition of who you are and how you approach life,” Kibby says. “It’s not necessarily innocence lost, but traumatic experiences create a temperance in one’s personality. That’s something everyone can relate to in their own way.”

Ken Micallef also writes for DownBeat and Modern Drummer magazines.