With the release of 2005's Grammy Award—nominated Supernature, UK electronic pop duo Goldfrapp hit the big time. The album's highly danceable and catchy tracks were heard in numerous television advertisements (most notably Motorola, Target and Verizon), television programs and films, thus cementing them a massive new level of fame and exposure. However, longtime Goldfrapp fans would have probably never seen that coming despite a distinct evolution in sound over the years. Goldfrapp's 2000 Mercury Prize—nominated debut album Felt Mountain (the first of four albums on Mute Records) matches Will Gregory's cinematic backing tracks with Alison Goldfrapp's unique and sometimes bizarre vocal style and is already considered a classic. The album was mysterious, shy and cold, which largely reflected Alison's own personality. 2003's Black Cherry was Alison's own way of opening up artistically, and the music was far more cabaret and accessible when compared to the dark and depressive Felt Mountain. As the fan base continued to expand, Goldfrapp's supporters were still deeply rooted in the underground.
But while Supernature (2005) was packed with smash hits (“Ooh La La,” “Fly Me Away” and “Ride a White Horse”) and came across more like Madonna-meets-Cerrone in their prime, the newfound attention and constant touring brought on another change for Goldfrapp as the time came to record their fourth album, Seventh Tree (2008).
The uptempo glitz and glamour of Supernature is replaced with a sound that harkens back to the delicate style of Felt Mountain. While some would consider it risky to tinker with a winning formula, it's important to realize that Goldfrapp has always been about the art front and center — fame is an afterthought. “I think it's unhealthy to be aware of yourself,” Alison Goldfrapp says. “Neither of us is interested in the fame side of it or the kind of attention that feels pretty shallow and a bit unhealthy in some ways. We've managed to avoid that, and we aren't tabloid fodder or anything like that. Being on tour has made me appreciate home and what home means. It's about enjoying the simple things in life.”
After the whirlwind of success that accompanied Supernature, Goldfrapp and Gregory both agreed that a change was necessary. In fact, the earliest writing for Seventh Tree was done while in the midst of the Supernature tour. “You know, after being surrounded by this hugely successful record for such a long time and being recognized in a way that was far more intense than previous records, our heads were about to pop,” Gregory says. “We thought it would be nice to explore a larger and less intense musical space, and that was our frame of mind from the earliest songwriting on this album.” The resulting record comes across as far more psychedelic than past releases, and Alison Goldfrapp describes it as “a combination of the naive English folksiness with a bit of horror and Californian sunshine thrown in.”
STRINGS AND A FLOOD OF IDEAS
As with past releases, much of the writing and production on Seventh Tree took place at Goldfrapp's countryside studio near Somerset, England. The—beautiful studio setting and sense of country isolationism squashes most distractions that often come with fame and enables Goldfrapp and Gregory to work with clear minds. Each of the tracks on Seventh Tree start with a process that the duo considers a “jam session.” Unlike a traditional rock band jam session, however, Goldfrapp's version of this concept includes any idea or influence that gets the creative juices going. “There's no formula at all to the starting point of any track, and it's like a sketch where over time the picture becomes clearer,” Goldfrapp says. “Sometimes I'll have a little melody idea, but quite often it starts from musical jamming or sounds that we particularly like. Sometimes it could even be us talking about a concept, idea or atmosphere. Sometimes a film has an atmosphere that we like, and it becomes part of the inspiration for a song.”
This multidimensional approach to the formation of Seventh Tree is exemplified by the title and subject matter of each song. While most songs center on the concept of “going nowhere,” it's far more complicated. The standout track “Cologne Cerrone Houdini” features a wonderful Shirley Bassey quality. It's interesting to note that this track marks yet another reference to French disco legend Cerrone (Supernature is also the name of a classic Cerrone album), but Goldfrapp's explanation of the title is more of a random coincidence than another tribute. “We were jamming, and the word ‘Cerrone’ just came out of my mouth,” she says. “Subconsciously, maybe I was thinking of Cerrone, but it wasn't something in the front and center of my mind. The ‘Houdini’ part came because I was reading a book about him and the whole idea of escapism. I used this as a metaphoric idea about an ex-boyfriend who tried to escape from as many situations as possible.”
Unlike the recording of Goldfrapp's previous three albums, Seventh Tree features several collaborators that were integral to the jamming process. One of the biggest additions to the Goldfrapp team came in the way of a collaboration with respected UK post-punk/alternative-rock producer Flood (aka Mark Ellis). In his career, Flood has either produced or engineered classic albums from the likes of New Order, U2, Nine Inch Nails, Depeche Mode and Smashing Pumpkins. He entered the picture after most of the album material was written and exited before the mixing process began, but Gregory felt his presence: “Flood is a great exponent of the analog sequencer, and he got me into the headspace of standing in front of a modular synth with a fistful of minijacks and jumping in there. I learned a lot about having patience with patch leads and putting something together in that old-fashioned production way. The modular bleep-y sounds you hear in the track ‘Happiness’ was all Flood's doing.”
“Even if they don't do anything, it's nice to have someone else in there to help you with the music,” Goldfrapp adds. “Even if you don't agree with what they say, it helps you to form your own idea. It helped to have Flood around to bounce ideas off. Flood helped us whip our own asses, really. It can be something technical or him just sitting there staring at us. [Laughs.]”
Another key contribution on Seventh Tree came via the use of session guitar players, a choir (featured on “Happiness,” “Caravan Girl” and “Eat Yourself”) and a full string section. “On Felt Mountain, we had a budget for just one violin,” Gregory says, “and then on Black Cherry, we used four violinists, and it took them one day to play all the parts. For Supernature and Seventh Tree, we had a proper string orchestra with 30 pieces and recorded in Abbey Road. This was exciting because we sampled a sound that's great for big dramatic sweeping string writing. We always loved sweeping strings, and from great disco records to soundtracks, it's always been an influence and a great way to get wide-screen—instantly. Nobody has been able to figure out any program that replaces the sound of a real string orchestra.”
Also of note was harp player Ruth Wall, who brought in a steel-strung harp (designed in the 1600s), which was sampled on the track “Road to Somewhere.” “If you get an inspiring sound, it could really help write something,” Gregory says. Ruth came in with her lovely Celtic harp, and it had a very medieval, simple sound to it. We probably wrote three songs with that sound in mind just as an atmosphere. Sounds can be really great for initiating ideas and getting your juices going.”
Goldfrapp herself was pleasantly thrown for a loop by the harp: “I was expecting to hear more of an innocent sound come from the harp, but instead it came across twangy and nasty, much like a sitar. The sound was one of the more inspiring moments I can remember from the jamming.”
Despite his previous career in film scoring and as a session musician playing saxophone for the likes of The Cure and Portishead, Gregory's role as the main physical production mind behind Goldfrapp is very much immersed in a DIY mindset. Apart from a simple studio setup, there aren't many bells and whistles that go into making Goldfrapp's music sound so polished. “I don't think of myself as a typical producer, and technically, we are both the producers of the music because we both make all the decisions,” Gregory says. “There are lots of things that I don't know about production, but I think the amateurish approach is part of our spirit. If we knew what we were doing, I think it wouldn't be quite as interesting. We both jam ideas together or bring in ideas/sounds to initiate stuff, and we are both there all the time making it happen, either writing, arranging, producing or mixing.”
With few exceptions, Goldfrapp's setup has largely remained the same throughout the years and centers around a common and small amount of analog gear, computers and digital programs. Gregory operates an Apple G4 loaded with Logic Pro 6.4 software. “I would like to know other programs, but my life is too short to learn more,” Gregory says. “Logic is ages to get through, and I don't think I have it in me to learn more.” Included in the Logic setup are various plug-ins, such as the GarageBand acoustic guitar instruments (“It was used often to write with in lieu of the fact that neither of us play guitar,” Gregory says) and Celemony Melodyne software. “We use Melodyne quite a lot because it's great for tuning backing vocals and many soft synths,” he says. “The program is great for getting something down quickly, and we often used it on vocals to correct mistakes and to copy and paste lead vocals two or three times onto different tracks and then pitch the stuff around to create two- or three-part harmonies. It's easier than turning on a piece of old analog equipment, waiting for it to warm up and then finding out it's out of tune. By the time it works, you forget the musical idea you had in the first place!”
The core analog synths and keyboards include ARP 2600; Farfisa Compact; Fender Rhodes; Hohner Clavinet; Korg MS-20; Oberheim 4 Voice SEM modules; Polyvox (Russian synth); Roland Jupiter-6, RS-505 Paraphonic string synth and SH-09; Wurlitzer electric piano; and Korg Polyphonic Ensemble. Used most notably by Jean Michel Jarre on his classic Equinoxe album, Gregory singles out the Korg Polyphonic Ensemble as an essential piece of analog gear. “It's got a very '70s cheapness to it, which is really appealing, and it has a sound that makes you want to play more,” he says. “Because it's 48-note polyphonic, you can put very long decay on the sound and go on playing without sounds stopping or re-triggering. This results in beautiful cascades of '70s-ness.”
There are few contemporary female vocalists with a voice that can match Alison Goldfrapp. While she doesn't have the most powerful vocal, it's certainly unique, and for the most part, authentic. Gregory claims that most of the strange patterns you hear in Goldfrapp's voice (for example, check out the awesome echoing sound toward the end of “Little Bird”) have not been enhanced by any studio trickery. “Of course, when we want to make things lo-fi, we put the vocal through a synth and crank it a little bit hot or put it through a distortion unit,” Gregory says.
Alison Goldfrapp isn't just a singer; she also uses her voice as an instrument and a placeholder for other instruments. During the jamming process with Gregory, Goldfrapp often sings melodies for other instruments and ends up writing parts based on these vocal ideas. However, there are instances in tracks like “Lovely Head” (featured on Felt Mountain) where Goldfrapp's voice was manipulated to sound like a vocal/machine hybrid. “There are a few bits of old analog gear designed to enable guitar players to play the piano or keyboard,” Gregory says. “Essentially, the guitarist is supposed to plug their guitars into the synth, and the synth was supposed track along with the guitar sound. Of course, it didn't work properly because the gear was primitive. So instead, we plugged Alison's vocals into things that were originally designed for a guitar, and they sounded great. These sorts of things are really luck — when you do things you aren't supposed to and they sound good.”
Beyond having a great voice or understanding how to work with a great voice, an essential piece of gear for Goldfrapp and Gregory is a solid microphone. From the beginning, the AKG C 12 has been the microphone of choice. The C 12 was the world's first remote—controllable, multipattern, large-diaphragm microphone and was produced from 1953 through 1963. Because of its short production life span and status among audio engineers for being one of the finest vocal microphones ever created, availability is scarce and cost is expensive. “The C 12 has a lovely airy top end that suits Alison and adds a breathy edge to her voice, although she also sounds good on a Shure SM58. I'd love to get a Neumann U 47 (the first multipattern condenser) because it's the mic of mics, but I haven't found one that I can afford,” Gregory says.
Although far from being a gear junkie, Gregory always seems to pick up a new gadget for the production of each Goldfrapp album. During the recording of Supernature, Gregory picked up a 1960s Univox fuzz pedal made famous by renowned guitarists including Jimi Hendrix and Pete Townshend. Although created for use with the guitar and bass, Gregory had fun adding serious fuzz and distortion to his keyboards.
When looking for a new toy for the recording of Seventh Tree, Gregory turned to Mattel and one of its most ingenious creations, the Optigan (OPTIcal orGAN). Manufactured in the 1970s, the Optigan was a cheap home organ that spun clear discs, optically preset with looped recordings of instruments. A sequence of chord buttons provides a rhythm section, while the melody is played with the right hand on the 37-note keyboard. “The disc we used in particular is called ‘Folk & Other Moods,’ and it had this lovely crackle to it,” Gregory says. “It was made in the '70s, so it comes with this built-in crackling sound, and it was a nice way to initiate the material we used on the album.”
“We used the Optigan on ‘Eat Yourself,’” Goldfrapp continues, “and it had this old woody and folksy guitar sound with a very rustic feel. I did this little scat over the music, and it definitely sounded nice and interesting.”
Another of Gregory's favorite studio tricks involves putting sounds through his Moog Music MF101 Moogerfooger Low Pass Filter Pedal (which removes the high frequencies from a tone) and turning sounds backward. “It's so much easier to do these days because you don't need to turn over the tape anymore,” he says. “You can just reverse the audio file, and that's always interesting.”
THE MARCH AHEAD
Goldfrapp and Gregory left the friendly confines of the British countryside to mix Seventh Tree in Los Angeles (“I like [L.A.] for three days, in a kind of TV car crash way,” Goldfrapp says). Tony Hoffer, who mixed at the famous Sunset Sound Recording studio, added a special touch to the sound. “Tony didn't think there was enough bass on one of the tracks, so he took out his bass and put down some more parts himself. He's a real musician and exactly the type of mix engineer you need,” Gregory says.
With the album complete and ready for the masses, the next order of business was the preproduction of another world tour in support of Seventh Tree. Touring is always a subject that gets Gregory scratching his head because moving recording material over to a live setting is always a difficult process. “If all you do is reproduce the record, then you might as well just play the record live,” he says. “You need a departure from what was originally recorded, and it's always a puzzle to figure that out. It's also payback for the flights of fancy you had when making the album in the first place. Songs that you thought were runts of the litter often take on a different life when performed live, and they sometimes become the stars of the show.”
If worrying about the release of their new album and planning a world tour wasn't enough, there's still a matter of figuring out what to do with all the extra studio tracks lying around. In fact, the Seventh Tree recording sessions were so bountiful that more than 10 additional songs were cut before the final tracklisting was confirmed. “We had to choose not to finish some of the tracks, or the album would have come out a year later,” Gregory says. “I guess it's like choosing who in your family to save from a fire. Though, I can tell you that those extra tracks would have probably sounded a lot different.” While there are no discussions currently underway for another album, the additional tracks could very well end up as B-sides or as part of new material on a film soundtrack.
Despite a steady rise in fame and critical praise with each subsequent CD release, Goldfrapp and Gregory still appear cool, collected and focused. While it's easy for fame and increased expectations to deteriorate the quality of a beloved act like Goldfrapp, it's apparent that Seventh Tree was a calculated maneuver to ensure quality control. It would have been easy to revisit the winning formula of Supernature, but would that really result in a longer career or facilitate a quicker demise? Fans will love Goldfrapp's new album because, as in the past, the music is constantly evolving and ever sincere. It's all about what Goldfrapp and Gregory want to create, and nobody can influence their space or sway them in any one direction. “The pressure to create is always there, but it comes from us,” Gregory says. “We always worry that we aren't going to be able to write another song, and that's the pressure. You can never take songwriting for granted, and that's the only pressure that matters.”
Computer, recording software
Apple G4 computer,
Logic Pro 6.4 software
Yamaha O2R digital mixing desk
Keyboards, plug-ins, instruments
Apple GarageBand acoustic guitar instruments
ARP 2600 synth
Celemony Melodyne 3.2
Farfisa Compact organ
Fender Rhodes electric piano
Formanta Polivoks (Russian synth)
(9) Gibson, Martin and Taylor acoustic guitars
Hohner Clavinet electric piano
Korg MS-20, Polyphonic Ensemble synths
Oberheim 4 Voice SEM modules
Roland Jupiter-6, Paraphonic 505 string synth, SH-09
30-piece string section
Wurlitzer electric piano
AKG C 12 mic
Percy Bear mic (C12 capsule)
Valley People Dynamite stereo compressor
AKG BX20 Spring Reverb
Boss CE-20 Chorus Ensemble pedal
Moog Music MF101 Moogerfooger Low Pass Filter Pedal
Roland RE-501 Chorus Echo
Univox Super-Fuzz pedal