When folk/country artist Laura Veirs began writing for her seventh album, July Flame [Raven Marching Band], things didn’t go exactly as she hoped. She wrote a lot—80 songs—but it wasn’t until she got to about song 40 that she started to like what she was doing.
“I wrote so many that were not really appealing to me,” she admits. “I don’t think it was just a matter of me being overly self-critical. I was rehashing the same old stuff and I was bored, and boredom in your craft is dangerous and probably inevitable because I’ve been doing this for a long time.”
After months hunkered down in her “barn” (a converted garage behind the house she shares with her producer, Tucker Martine, in Portland), she broke through to new territory. Her goal was to create songs that would stand out with just a guitar and voice. “It takes more work to get to those types of songs,” she says. Veirs’ old, “falling apart” Mac running GarageBand actually helped matters by only allowing her to record four tracks per song.
When it came time to record the album, Veirs and Martine set other limitations by mostly avoiding synths and drums. Other instruments were fair game. “When I hear a song that she’s written that I really love, usually a lot of the instrumentation is suggested on the first listen,” Martine says. “Sometimes she’ll have a countermelody idea that she’ll mock up on the demo [as a vocal] that we usually will assign to another instrument.”
Conversely, a guitar part on the demo of “Life Is Good Blues” ended up becoming a vocal line so it wouldn’t interfere with another, more intricate guitar line. After trying horns and “whatever was nearby,” Martine had bass player Karl Blau sing layers of the part through an AKG BX10 spring reverb. The end result sounds a lot like The Muppets. “We were laughing so hard the first several times we heard it,” he says. “We were like, ‘We’re probably just doing this because it’s fun and we need some comic relief after working so hard.’ But when we tried to listen without it, we missed it. I think it’s important to challenge your own idea of what appropriate instruments are and not always get caught up in being too familiar or too tasteful, because things start to sound precious.”
Consequently, they broke the “no synth” rule. On the title track, which features a beautiful, doubled Gibson ES-175 guitar part, there’s a buzzing synth that’s a combo of a Crumar Performer through an overdriven Carr Mercury amp (also used for guitars) and distorted bass that Blau played on a beat-up Telecaster bass—“with rusted strings that haven’t been changed in 15 years,” Martine says— through a Big Muff pedal and Ampeg B-15 amp.
Veirs, who grew up in Colorado and studied Mandarin Chinese and geology at Carleton College in Minnesota, recorded many songs on the old nylonstring Goya guitar she’s had since she was a kid. Otherwise, she played a Martin Smartwood steel string, Gibson Les Paul Classic and ES-175 electric guitars, and an Enoch banjo she borrowed from one of her students (she also teaches guitar, banjo, songwriting, and vocal lessons).
To record acoustic guitar and banjo, Martine set up three mics—an RCA 44 ribbon mic for darker sounds, and a modified Neumann U 87 and a B&K 4011 for brighter detail (panned left and right on sparser songs)—and chose different blends. “I had the U 87 on her guitar just below where the neck meets the body,” he explains.
“The B&K 4011 was toward the boomier side, behind where her hand was hitting the strings, and then usually I would bring the RCA up the center to fill it out.”
Vocal-wise, Veirs sang through the U 87 (or occasionally a Shure SM7 or Telefunken M49) through a Telefunken Siemens V72 preamp into a Urei 1176 silver face and an Ecoplate III reverb. She sings whole passes of leads, doubles, and harmonies quickly, but she ensures she’s in a good headspace before starting. “Recording is so mental and emotional,” she says, “and if you’re not quite there, it’ll be apparent.”
Martine does “superquick rough mixes” (using a Neotek Elite board) leading up to the final mix because of the unusual choices he’ll make on a whim. “Sometimes I pull up a rough mix and think, ‘Man, did I have the backup vocals loud, but that sounds cool!’” he says. “I might discover that notching out a little bit of 300 on the acoustic guitar helps and then do that when I pull up each song that was recorded that same way. But I like to give each song its own treatment and not fall into habits. It’s so easy to get bogged down in thinking, ‘I’m going to EQ everything perfectly and use just the right compression.’ It might sound more hi-fi, but the excitement of the song is gone.”