Interview: Speech Debelle

South London's Speech Debelle offers her cathartic debut, marked by sweet vocal delivery, warm instrumentation and production by Wayne Lotek.

Photo by Juliette Dalton

Speech Debelle is used to waiting. The 26-year-old English rapper's debut album, Speech Therapy, has been five years in the making. A blend of hip-hop rhythms; acoustic instrumentation; spoken word; raps; and, more than anything, brutal honesty, Speech Therapy is a study in soul-baring self-therapy. And with producer Wayne Lotek, known for his work with Roots Manuva, Debelle's words find the right beats to carry them.

Decamping to Lotek's current residence in Melbourne, Australia, for recording, Debelle arrives with a collection of lyrics and her MP3 player's playlist. "When I write before I hear the beat, it is a more lyrical song because the words are standing alone and so need to be more skillful," Debelle says. "On the songs where the beat came first, the flow stands out because that became the standard I had to deliver to."

For Lotek, the starting point is the creation of a palette specific to the artist's tastes. Focusing primarily on acoustic live instruments, he injects plug-ins such as Native Instruments B4 for the Hammond organ, which helps make the studio-generated sounds fit in with the actual instruments. "My angle is to think about the music from a sonic perspective," he says. "If I think something is lacking top end, rather than EQ it into the sounds, I will get someone to play a line in that frequency range or pick an instrument that is naturally in that register."

Speech Therapy features two drummers, both of whom are set up at their respective homes. Miking the drums with a Shure PGDMK6 drum-mic kit with a pair of Rode NT5s for overheads, Lotek records them directly into a Fostex VF160 multitrack digital recorder. Transferring his recordings into Steinberg Cubase, Lotek enhances some of the performances to make new patterns. Additionally, he uses Native Instruments Battery to create patches of various drum hits from those sessions for songs that don't have live drums.

This is the case for "Buddy Love," on which Australian multi-instrumentalist Pataphysics plays all the instruments apart from the drums. Lotek records the violins in his kitchen, where polished floorboards and a high ceiling create a natural reverb. "I placed the Jeanne Audio JA-87F microphones between the f holes and the neck to capture the instrument and an AKG C 414 a few meters away to capture the sound of the room," Lotek says.

The hand-tuning quality of the JA-87F also makes it good for recording guitars, capturing a rich, warm sound. And that means Lotek needs to employ only minimal compression and reverb to make it sit in the mix. An Epiphone ES-330 hollowbody guitar with flatwound strings doubled up with an acoustic guitar add further warmth. Bass comes courtesy of a Fender Precision plugged straight in to a dbx 566 valve compressor with the ratio set to 5:1.

Lotek goes with the energy of the session when it comes to communicating what he is looking for to the musicians. Debelle, on the other hand, is more intent on having them understand the meaning behind her words and translate that into their playing. This is particularly apparent on "Daddy's Little Girl." "When it's time for me to record vocals, I have to get into character, remember what it felt like and build it up throughout the course of the song," she says.

London sets the scene for most of the vocal recording—apart from the title track, which features the C 414 through a Joemeek VC3Q preamp with gentle compression, fast attack and a ratio of 3:1. Lotek gives the vocals for the other songs his own treatment. "I ran them through Waves' Renaissance Vox plug-in, with a touch of plate reverb from the Waves TrueVerb plug-in," he says. "I like to use minimal EQ on vocals to retain the original character. But female rap vocals can sometimes sound thin or fragile, so I found a 3dB notch at around 1 kHz added a bit of bite."