In this technologically overdriven world, sometimes the best way for songwriters to hash out ideas is to escape. That’s what twin sisters Chandra and Leigh Watson did. Along with producers Russell Pollard and J. Soda (both from L.A. band Everest), they hid out at a remote cabin near Yosemite National Park in the High Sierras—no phone, no TV, no distractions; just a drum kit, guitars, and a computer running Apple GarageBand.
The Watson Twins—Leigh Watson (left) and Chandra Watson.
“We were probably focusing on music about 12 hours a day,” Chandra says. “Besides eating and hanging out late night, that was pretty much all we did. But all these words describing the sound were in our heads, and I think that helped the four of us get on the same page because we utilized a lot of different influences on the record.”
Singing backup for bands—most notably on Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins’ 2006 album, Rabbit Fur Coat—and releasing an EP and album on their own, the ladies already had indie-pop, folk, and country in their repertoire. For their second full-length album, Talking to You, Talking to Me [Vanguard], they added classic soul, R&B, and bossa nova to the mix.
But they needed help making sense of it all. “We relied heavily on Russ and J. to advise us because having worked together for so long, they really know our styles and some of our crutches and tendencies,” Chandra says.
After four days in the woods, the foursome relocated to Fairfax Recording back in L.A. “The second we walked in the door, J. and I knew that this was where it’s gotta get tracked,” Pollard says. “It’s a magical studio gear-wise, and the guy who owns it, Kevin Augunas [who engineered Talking to You], was totally on the same page with us. And there were limitations there. We recorded everything on a 16-track, 2-inch machine [an Ampex MM1200, later mixed down to a Studer C37 1/4-inch machine], so there wasn’t a lot of overproducing.”
Partly due to track limitations, they recorded drums—played by Pollard— with only one Telefunken ELA M 251 mic positioned as an overhead over the drummer’s shoulder. “We had a snare mic on there, a U 67, but we ended up not using it just because the one overhead just picked up everything,” Soda says. “So we ended up having to swap out different drums, cymbals, and hi-hats to create the mix rather than miking each individual drum and then mixing the kit. We just ended up mixing to the microphone itself, which was really interesting.”
Fortunately, they weren’t hurting for options with 14 different kits and tons of snares. “There were 25 snares in the studio, and I used all but one—or at least tried all but one ’cause one of them sounded like a dying animal,” Pollard says.
The big, booming kick sound on the Americana-tinged “Give Me a Chance” features a 36-inch ’40s Leedy kick drum that Augunas found in the trash outside of a Salvation Army. “It’s bigger than most New York City apartments,” Pollard jokes.
The Watsons’ vocals were sung on an ELA M 251 through a Telefunken V76 preamp (Augunus has 12 of them) and Fairchild 660 compressor and into the studio’s EMI TG12345 console originally from Abbey Road.
Bass-wise, Elijah Thomson (of Everest) played a Gibson Les Paul recording bass direct through an Eclair Evil Twin DI into the Fairchild to tape. The smooth, sliding bass line on “Modern Man” is probably the song’s most catchy hook. “When that line came out, everybody’s jaw was on the floor,” Leigh says.
“Harpeth River,” which harks back to Portishead (and further, to ’60s soul), features blurts of wah guitar played by Soda. “That chain was one that I never would have thought of on my own,” he admits. “It was a Blackguard Tele, and Kevin was like, ‘You should use this little Watkins amp.’ It looks like a red makeup suitcase with this weird cheese grater grill on it and a 10-inch speaker, and then we just put the wah-wah in between it.”
Then there was the echo experiment played on a Chamberlin on “Brave One.” “We had these weirdo bells on one output and then some strings or flutes on the other output,” Soda says, “and we ran each output into its own [Roland] Space Echo, dialed in some weird delay, and tracked those in stereo.”
And when instruments fought for space in the mix, there were plenty of EQs at Fairfax to solve the issue. “You put eight Pultecs into the equation, and suddenly everything sounds good together,” Pollard says with a laugh. “In fact, bring kids in—the younger the better—and just tell them, ‘Turn those knobs on those Pultecs however you want!’”