Although the very thought tends to piss off studio engineers in a major way, the most transcendent and evocative recordings often have nothing to do with high-class microphones, expensive preamps and compressors, vintage mixing consoles, digital-audio manipulations, or other technological hoo-ha. Nope. The performances that shoot through your eardrums and into your heart and soul are usually documents of pure emotion—imperfect little moments in time where an artist was touched by angels and the result was captured in a form that could be shared with others.
Life intervenes in the process, as well, because an artist can’t unleash an emotionally stirring performance if he or she is a blank slate (or in a blank state). In this creative stew of existential circumstance, Luka Bloom was truly blessed with misfortune and inspiration as he recorded Before Sleep Comes [Bar-None]. The album concept was triggered by tendonitis, which rendered Bloom’s right hand fairly useless, forcing him to lightly pluck ballads on a nylon-string acoustic in an extremely relaxed manner he defines as “non playing.”
“I found myself writing these really soft, whispery pieces of music on my Spanish guitar,” he relates. “I was just playing around, being really quiet, and not thinking about making a record. But something about the songs was very seductive. They reminded me of [pianist] Keith Jarrett’s The Melody at Night, With You—a solo-piano album he recorded at home when he was suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome. It’s so laid back, because that was all he could play. And that got me thinking that it’s very hard to find music that’s easy to listen to right at the end of the night. So I decided to record my sleepy little songs, and go into the studio absolutely exhausted at two o’clock in the morning to ensure the pieces sounded authentic.”
The vibe factor was so critical to Bloom that he decided to record the songs live, near his home at The Old Mill in Naas, County Kildare, Ireland. “It’s really an old mill that’s used as a gallery for exhibitions and other events,” says Bloom. “I had actually done a couple of shows there, so I was familiar with the sound of the room. This guy, Mark Gavin, had set up a simple Pro Tools system in the space, and that was perfect, because I just wanted the sound of me playing and singing in a room. So, while the floorboards were creaking, and the wind was howling, I just plugged in and played these simple, late-night songs I’d written. Everything was a first take, in-the-moment kind of thing. The songs are really anti-performances by a very tired singer.”
To record Bloom’s way-past-midnight confessions, Gavin hung two unidentified condenser microphones from the mill’s ceiling, took a direct line from Bloom’s $350 Fender nylon-string acoustic, set up a single vocal mic, and miked an Ashdown bass amp that Bloom uses to reproduce the drone of a DADGAD tuning that he lowers to C. The sessions were completed in two evenings—with a total of approximately eight hours of recording—and the tracking phase cost Bloom around $200. For mixing, Bloom took the Pro Tools files to his old friend, Brian Masterson—the brains behind the very famous Windmill Lane Studios in Dublin.
“Brian has been involved in my last four or five records, so there was a certain comfort zone in bringing him into the project,” says Bloom. “I told him, ‘I want the room, I want the wind, and I want the floorboards. I want this recording to be very imperfect, but I want it to sound lovely. I want it to sound like people are present in the room, and they can feel the atmosphere of the room, and the night, and the lateness of the thing.’ He was a bit shocked at first, but he totally got into it. I just told him to put on his 1960s ears and things would be fine [laughs]. And he gave me back something beautiful.”
Never planning to seriously release the project—as he felt it would appeal to “only 200 or so insomniacs”—Bloom stuck a few audio files on his Web site and offered the sessions for sale. The cosmic joke was that he immediately sold 9,000 copies of this “fragile, raw, and delicate work” with no marketing effort, and ultimately garnered a label release.
“This record is the most painless thing I’ve ever done, and there’s something about the simplicity of it that’s really connecting with people,” he says. “And it has taught me something, as well. You see, I’m a very organic kind of guy in the sense that I recognize a tune, I write a song, I tell a story, I sit on a stage, and I deliver a performance. And, somehow, when I’d come to make a record, I’d feel the need to dress everything up and ‘produce’ it. But now, I have this imperfect little jewel telling me that the best thing I can be in the world is myself—no matter how simple and intuitive my work may be.”