Without a good dose of jet lag, The Adventures of Ghosthorse and Stillborn would have turned out to be quite a different album. When Bianca and Sierra Casady, recording together as CocoRosie, got busy writing and recording the songs for their third album in the south of France, they decided to forgo any pesky time adjustment and continued working on their Brooklyn schedule. “We ended up doing almost all of our work at night,” says Bianca, who concentrates her efforts on beats, percussion and ambient effects. “It was a weird time, but it was working for us.”
The duo is quite adept at making the weird into something wonderful. They recorded their debut, La Maison de Mon Rêve (Touch and Go, 2004), in Sierra's tiny Parisian apartment — her bathtub, to be specific — and that was after Bianca came knocking on her sister's door following a decade-long estrangement. The sisters, offspring of a Cherokee father and an artist mother, led a nomadic childhood growing up, and Bianca eventually ended up in New York working as a writer, artist and fashion designer, while Sierra trained in opera at the Conservatoire de Paris. When the Casadys brought their musical preferences together, fusing Bianca's hip-hop leanings and speak/sing narration with Sierra's vocal skills, CocoRosie was born, and they've since sent out waves of sound that traverse blues, hip-hop and opera with a breezy confidence that belies their relatively brief time together as a team.
For Ghosthorse and Stillborn (Touch and Go, 2007), Bianca and Sierra ventured to the small coastal town of Saintes Maries de la Mer in Provence, where they converted a barn into a rudimentary studio for six weeks of writing and recording. Their nocturnal schedule afforded them plenty of opportunities to catch eerie animal noises and the various sounds of sleeping earth on an old-fashioned Dictaphone. The barn's peculiar acoustics certainly helped add to the ambience. “We did a lot of work with the piano, which was kind of impossible to tune, but there were all kinds of interesting overtones that happened,” Bianca recalls. “I feel like it added the atmosphere of a lot of songs, a lot of things you couldn't do in a proper studio. It was important for the creative process to start out in this space.”
The resulting album is dreamy, moody, jarringly upbeat at points and sweetly subtle at others. A densely layered bed of percussion and instrumentation underpins the Casadys' vocal interplay, and the person responsible for much of that is Valgeir Sigursson, the Icelandic producer/engineer notable for his lengthy collaboration with Björk. At his Greenhouse Studios in Reykjavik, Sigursson expanded their sound, programmed beats and recorded additional material to build upon the sketches Bianca and Sierra brought with them.
He recorded the vocals in a few different rooms using primarily the Neumann M149 tube microphone and the Coles STC4038 ribbon mic, with Sierra's operatic vocals recorded on a Brüel & Kjær 4006. He ran the vocals through the Neve 1084 preamp and the UA/Teletronix LA-2A Leveling Amplifier. “When it came to the vocals, I sometimes took a back seat because they really know each others voices in and out, and they'd be the best judge of if a take was the best, or if they needed to redo it,” he says.
Sigursson molded the beats from sounds the Casadys brought with them (including the animal sounds and beatboxing by their pal Spleen), bits recorded in Sigursson's booth and live takes by another beatboxer friend, Tez, who flew in from France. He used the Native Instruments Kontakt software sampler to construct the beats, sometimes throwing in a bit of Korg Electribe MX EMX-1 for more synthetic sounds. On “Promises,” much of the source material for the beats came from Tez. “He did whole takes of his beatboxing, but I ended up cutting it all up and using them more as samples,” Sigursson explains. “There's also a whole take underlying the whole song, giving it a more organic flow. There's a couple layers of beatboxing in there.”
Working in isolated spaces in such different environments lends an otherworldly quality to Ghosthorse and Stillborn. “We tend to get really into our own space and try not to be self-conscious about the fact that we're making music or what style of music we're doing,” Bianca explains. “We get ideas and stories and songs, and we base the style around that. We love spooky things, like the sounds of a sick horse at night, and owls. It's reliving a lot of experiences, and they all culminated in this eerie and romantic, timeless place where there's nobody around.”