Rachael Yamagata: Recording 'Tightrope Walker'

On Tightrope Walker, her fourth album, the singer-songwriter took control of the recording process, and proves she's not afraid to take risks in the studio
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On Tightrope Walker, her fourth album, the singer-songwriter took control of the recording process, and proves she's not afraid to take risks in the studio
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“I have a house on 12 acres in Woodstock so I can make a lot of noise,” Rachael Yamagata says from her log cabin crib deep in the upstate New York wilderness. “I had this vision of creating a studio in my house. So [engineer] Pete Hanlon and I spread all our equipment over the house from the music room to bathroom to kitchen to living room, even in the backyard. We had microphones hanging from the upstairs railing.”

Yamagata’s fourth album in 12 years, Tightrope Walker is the sound of rupture, beauty, and happy accidents. Like Screaming Jay Hawkins meeting Patsy Cline in a studio built by Sam Phillips and David Gold with Daniel Lanois producing, Tightrope Walker is all soul-fever dreams and bittersweet echoes, Yamagata’s breathy, sensuous vocals leading rumbling drums and swampy guitars, ghostly keyboards, and sorcerer’s tones. From the spooky title track to the three-drummer groove of “EZ Target,” to the buzzing anthem “Over,” to the languid midnight vision “Break Apart” and R&B infused Stax Records soul driver “Let Me Be Your Girl,” Yamagata reinvents herself as soothsayer, dream-speaker, wanderer, and wilderness mystic.

Co-producing with long-time friend/sounding board John Alagia (Dave Matthews, John Mayer, David Gray), Yamagata turned her hermit woodland home into Moonlight Studios, surrounding herself with a cast that included guitarist Kevin Salem (Yo La Tengo, Dumptruck), bassist Owen Biddle (Mr. Barrington, The Roots), pianist Zach Djanikian (Amos Lee, Amy Helm), and drummers Ben Perowsky, Matt Chamberlain, Aaron Comess, Randy Cook, Victor Indrizzo, and Russell Simins. Violinist/cellist Oli Kraus (Sia) and guitarist Michael Chaves (John Mayer, Adam Cohen) also joined. Shawn Everett (Alabama Shakes) mixed.

Yamagata focused on 15 songs—editing, reworking, mangling. She learned Pro Tools and edited the three-drummer beast of “EZ Target” and the windswept “Over.” She cut live vocals in her living room. She spent a day at Waterfront Studios experimenting with a 1973 Helios console to tape. Joined by Pete Hanlon, Yamagata worked at Applehead Recording in nearby Saugerties, New York. She flew in tracks from Village Recorder with Alagia at the controls. Embracing the unknown, she created the most atmospheric and revealing album of her career.

Tightrope Walker sounds out saxophones, mandolins, feedback, French spoken word, metallic ironing boards and ladder drums, massive angel harmonies and subtle/extreme loops. “As far as song direction,” Yamagata explains, “I like to really follow the lyrics and the energy of the song image and see where it takes me. I looked for anything that conveyed the energy and intention of the song. One day I wanted something angular and edgy and metallic, and that became Ben Perowsky drumming on an ironing board, ladders, and metal chairs in ‘Tightrope Walker’ and ‘EZ Target.’ There was a great thunderstorm one day; the rain was hitting a stool outside, so I used my iPhone to record the rain and looped it for ‘Rainsong.’ I created drum loops purely by instinct. I kept tweaking until I found what I wanted.

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“I wondered, ‘how do I mesh my songs with sounds I haven’t used before, but still mix organically?” she adds. “I didn’t want to make a full-on electronic record but I did want to use elements new to my sound palette.”

Most artists want a simpatico producer, someone to guide them into the frustrating, freeing world of creativity. Not Yamagata. John Alagia produced her first album, Happenstance, and they’ve been arguing ever since. “Rachael and I always disagree over tempos,” Alagia says while working at the Village Recorder. “I always want to bring them up considerably and she wants to pull them back; she wants the overall tone to be darker. That’s who she is. But sometimes you have to be mindful to not play a song too slowly. Then I overcompensate and almost make it uncomfortable for her, so we meet halfway. We’ve always been that way. Tightening up arrangements is always important to me. Rachael and I work well together, though we drive each other crazy.”

In 2014, Alagia caught Yamagata performing her then-new material at L.A.’s Troubadour. He immediately loved the songs. “Rachael had good arrangements,” Alagia recalls, “but I thought the rhythm section could have more versatility. I also wanted to employ programming, which we did much to Rachael’s chagrin. Rachael knows how she wants things to sound. I wanted to make [the album] somewhat competitive sonically. Shawn Everett’s mixing brought it up a whole ’nother level.”

Tracking the bulk of the album at her Moonlight Studios, Yamagata and Hanlon worked Pro Tools in-the-box, recording vocals, keyboards, guitar, bass, and drums in the living room with amplifiers isolated in various rooms. Experimentation was the rule, from effecting Yamagata’s stash of old Casio keyboards and Kevin Salem’s woozy guitar tones to multitracking Oli Kraus to create a string section in “I’m Going Back,” to stacking drummer-atop-drummer for “EZ Target.”

“If we wanted to have a barbeque at some point, we just did it,” Yamagata says. “It was all so organic, I loved it. I don’t have the budget for all the time I would want in a pro studio. This record was recorded mostly in the summer of 2014, then we toured. So this was recorded in various stages. I liked having the luxury of time and no ticking clock. That was very liberating.”

Yamagata also took greater control of the recording process. Her newfound power is present in every track of Tightrope Walker. “This is the first record where I was in control of editing the songs,” she recalls. “And the record was a lot less formal in terms of choosing sounds or even who played what instruments. Everyone switched. We did arrangements on-the-fly, and there are many instances of instinctual or spontaneous arranging and playing. That’s what gives it this sense of newness because nothing was premeditated. We might have a texture in mind but we didn’t limit ourselves, it was very communal. The whole experience was liberating because we didn’t have to answer to anyone else in the creative process.”

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Hanlon salvaged 12 API 550B EQs and as many API 212L mic preamplifiers from an old desk; Yamagata’s vocal chain included a UAD 6176. Prior to recording, Alagia and Hanlon performed shootouts with Vintech and Avedis Audio MA5 microphone preamplifiers, finally choosing the UAD. “It brought depth to her voice,” Hanlon explains. “It captured the subtleties of her vocal in a pretty special way.”

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Yamagata’s vocal chain went from a UAD 6176 to a Universal Audio 1176LN “Classic Limiting Amplifier” to an Empirical Labs’ Distressor, “one compressor grabbing the peaks and some mild compression after that,” explains Hanlon.

Three or four microphones were enlisted for vocal tracking, Yamagata and Hanlon settled on the Pearlman TM-1, a modern, budget-oriented microphone by old-school Neumann/Telefunken standards.

“Rachael loves the airiness the Pearlman captured in her vocal,” Hanlon says. “It’s like a U67 but it uses the AC701 tube. It’s almost like a 67/U47 hybrid. Rachael has such an amazing voice, we tracked some live with the full band; there we used an SM7 in front of her and she still sounds amazing. She never settles and will sing a part a million times.”

“The Pearlman is warm, but very clear,” Yamagata concurs. “It revealed the breathiness of my voice but it wasn’t too high-frequency-focused in that range. It felt like the best version of my voice. I love the U47, too. It’s a very particular mic. We tried out some U47s this time but I liked the Pearlman better. It was wonderful for this record, but depending on which U47, those are also great, but too pricey for me.”

As for the vocal-tracking process, “I have to love the sound I’m hearing in the headphones,” Yamagata explains. “Vocals are all about feeling comfortable and loving the sound I’m hearing and being inspired by my own voice. It’s definitely about the setting. Because it was my house there was no pressure to stop because of the budget. It was very organic in that way. I love doing that.”

Yamagata has no standard practice to achieve her magical vocal sound. Though she prefers live takes, she enjoys comping, and with her fresh editing fingers, she’s a confirmed risk-taker.

“My preference is always a live take but I comped a ton this time,” she explains, “especially the background vocals, which are all me. My first record Happenstance was all to tape. On my second album Elephants [...Teeth Sinking into Heart], the song ‘Duets’ was recorded to tape. To this day I still think tape has a warmth, it’s so powerful. So my artistic sense wants analog tape every time, but my other fascination is with comping. Sometimes I will do a particular thing with my voice that I love. Comping allows me to get in all those nooks and crannies. The trick is to make sure the vocals are still natural sounding and have an arc to them, not just be tricks of my voice. The emotion has to come through.”

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Alagia describes Yamagata’s fascination with Pro Tools editing as “like a kid in a candy store.”

“I do enjoy editing, such as the end of ‘Over,’ where I have a zillion background vocals,” Yamagata confides. “I wanted to create a song-inthe-round effect. If you listen to the outtro where the vocals come in, for some lines the last word of a phrase fits the beginning word of the next phrase. That whole process was a big puzzle. I did a few versions to figure out how to highlight the right word at the right time, and not overwhelm the listener. That mix looked like a building block puzzle. I experimented a lot with muting particular phrases or edges of words.”

Alagia used a handful of programming tools including NI Battery, Omnisphere, and Kontakt, while Hanlon listed several go-to pieces that effected the entire session. Everett reportedly leaned on Altiverb and cassette deck-as-distortion/reamping machine for Tightrope Walker’s spacious soundstage and eerie tones ’n’ textures.

“For drums, it’s all API mic pre’s and the 550B EQs,” Hanlon says. “A little compression on the snare. We EQed in lightly. The goal for me is to work, so I never use plug-ins. I take pride in my craft. If you move the mic it does some things that EQ can do but without having to rely on that EQ. But we did use SoundToys Echoboy all over, really. The sound of the drums is really the space; it’s a big, open living room with high ceilings.”

Hanlon recorded the entire band in the living room, with the piano moving around the house, amps isolated in closets or small rooms, minimal drum baffling, tons of leakage in the tracks, “not a sterile environment,” he says. “But that leads to unique-sounding things.”

In addition to upright piano, keyboards included Nord Lead, Moog Lil’ Phatty, Mellotron, Casio SK1 and SA76, and Roland RS202, “a string emulator that sounds nothing like strings,” laughs Hanlon. All synthesizers went direct.

Kevin Salem played his Fender Jazzmaster and 1960s Fender Telecaster guitars through Hanlon’s 1962 Vox AC 30, and the guitarist’s Fender Bassman and Fender Pro Junior amplifiers, recorded via Sennheiser 409 or Royer ribbon microphones “draped in front of the cabinet” to the API 550B straight to Pro Tools.

For piano, “We changed microphone setting and placement often,” Hanlon recalls. “One microphone was the Neumann SM2 stereo mic; we just opened the lid, and put it in where you normally would, then moved it around using our ears. We also used a pair of Neumann KM56s on one song.”

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Recording drums was a logistical nightmare. While the setups of the various Left Coast drummers and studios involved varied, Hanlon details the Woodstock approach. Bass drum involved a Sennheiser 602 into the API pre and API EQ. For snare drum, a Shure SM57 also went into the API pre and EQ, into the Empirical Labs Distressor. Gefell UM70s covered toms, and as overheads, a pair of Neumann KM56s or a mono Coles 4038 were used. Shure SM2 functioned as room microphone, placed ten feet away and eight feet high, with a plate reverb used on snare drum.

“We kept tracking drummers because we couldn’t get the feel right for ‘EZ Target,’” Yamagata explains. “Initially I comped the three drummers together. I loved elements of what each one was playing. John Alagia made it all work; all the drummers are being used in different parts of the song, even two drummers at once in some sections. There’s also percussion in different places. We had cowbells and chains hitting a board which we ran through a bunch of reverb to get some of that metallic jangliness. It’s really a hodgepodge.”

Alagia on Rachel’s editing approach: “We had all these drummers on ‘EZ Target’ and she started muting and editing the drums. It was awesome, bold and completely nuts, but I was into it. There’s no such thing as a bad idea. When you make music you have to be wide open and never jump to exclusion, even if something is bat-shit crazy.”

For home studio aficionados, Tightrope Walker proves what can be achieved at the edge of sanity, with bicoastal connections and simple determination.

“I like home studios; they’re more unique,” Alagia says. “It’s important to put an artist in an environment where they’re comfortable and inspired. Rachael loves being in those environments. I bought a bunch of my APIs and Vintech preamps and compressors and old Dynaudio monitors to Moonlight that Pete loves. We were very careful in how we tracked, which was enabled by Pete who knows very much what he is doing.”

Perhaps more than anyone, the engineer must make it all sound easy, and not merely expect it to be “fixed in the mix.” “Recording in a home environment is about dealing with limitations,” Hanlon says. “We were recording at night in the summer with no air conditioning, windows open. If you listen closely you can hear crickets and frogs in the background. But you can’t be afraid of the limitations like poor isolation, but embrace them. Sometimes we had to unplug the refrigerator for a take. It was too noisy. But all this weirdness can add a sense of charm.”

Yamagata’s new release is a career triumph. She did it her way, bringing to life the sound and songs that once only lived inside her head. But she’s not content—there’s more experimentation to come.

“I’m fascinated by this electronic world,” Yamagata says. “I love in particular how my voice can have weight yet still be floaty sounding. I’m dying to do tracks where that is matched with a more electronic palette or synth sound as a full picture.

“I spoke with a psychic once; I love them,” she adds. “She knew nothing about me. But she said, ‘I’m picking a 1960s vibe from you. Have you ever watched the movie Woodstock? I’m seeing almost a Civil War, Mississippi atmosphere in your music. I’m hearing banjos and mandolins.’ ‘That’s crazy,’ I thought, so I went with it. There’s something great about not having a plan ’cause then you’re really free to follow your whim. If something tastes good—go with it.”