Erland Cooper, the Society of Sound artist for February, gives us an in-depth and personal insight into the creation of his new album Solan Goose, which is available to download now for Society of Sound subscribers.
For the most part, each of the songs on the album generally started as an improvised piece, recording piano alone in peaceful silence or perhaps writing over an ambient layer, created out of experimenting with a new sound or signal chain, usually an analogue synth (Juno60, Jupiter4 or perhaps just a Casio sampler or guitar noise) fed through echo which general dictates the key for the piano and melody to come. It’s good to start from nothing. I always find that something will come and if it doesn’t, your head is thinking too deeply about other or practical things. If a melody arrives and then I forget it, I’m confident another will drop in to replace it or it will come back bolder and stronger. Sometimes just silence and the soft felt hammers from the piano, after a period of loud noise from outside, were enough to write but other times the experimental layers with their unplanned harmonics were better. Something new, that wouldn’t have come in to being any other way, can arrive.
After walking off the street after a commute, into the studio I’d simply record a layer, sound or a melody each time and move on. Then with each journey, I’d layer up something else or I’d record a part on my phone to record again later. It really helped take the stress out of certain things for me. It was a modest way of trying to remind me of home, Orkney. As each song was created I added it into a playlist and named them after the local birds on the Island. Very quickly I’d created a body of work that would get me from A-B, distracting a busy mind. It wasn’t until I played it to someone whose ears I trusted or at least had it on in the background that I thought about it as an album. She was really enamored by it and so I played it to a few others. It seemed to then grow wings of it’s own and develop into something fully formed. For me, this record felt more like painting a landscape picture than actually making music and it’s made me look differently at new projects, perhaps being a little more patient.
I often marvel at real artists’ final results and the painstaking time and layers that go into their work from blank canvas to finished painting. I don’t really recall the time making this album or the many subtle layers but I do recall fondly finishing it at Real world. The studio has a physical connection to its surrounding landscape which I really like and it felt so fitting to open it up to create something more widescreen. The large windows alone with their natural light are inspiring and the polar opposite of my London bunker or laboratory. I feel that contrasts and opposites are a great way to look at work from a different angle and to finish.
The album’s main instrumentation is my 70’s Minimoog (with its crackles and hums), my Yamaha piano, at times felted (half way through the record I redid the felt on it), ambient guitar, soprano & Hardanger violin. I was looking for a Hardanger violin player, it’s really prominent on the islands when I grew up, a really ornate instrument with extra ringing harmonic strings. It’s very hard to sustain long and slow notes on it for over a minute or so but the sound is wonderful, the harmonics are rich, darker and more aggressive at times than a violin. The half Norwegian wonder that is Charlotte Greenhow arrived at the studio and it wasn’t until half way through the recording of her string parts that I discovered she is actually a Soprano singer. Needless to say, as soon as I found out, I asked her to sing the lead melodies and the hair on the back of my neck stood on end.
There are elements of the human voice, the breaths and lip smacks, the chest breathing deeply before a note that, like the noise of the piano hammers, I wanted to remain on this recording. Those imperfections I adore. They remind me of the person actually singing it and keep my brain engaged. I sometimes switch off in choral recorded music but when you sit and watch and listen live you see the humans huffing and puffing so expressively. I wanted to accentuate those parts of her performance so I left everything in. By the time they had gone through our outboard gear like the LA2A and the Pultec and 301 Space echo and plate & spring reverbs, those elements sounded even better to me. We also used the long H3000 shimmer on the vocals and I’m a big fan of the Valhalla reverbs but using the original Eventide was a joy.
The incredibly talented musician and producer, Leo Abrahams, performed the ambient guitar parts. His guitars sounded almost like synths and he performed each song as live, running no more than 2 takes on each layer. Such a deft touch and to do it live was a wonder to watch, like the soprano recording really. I can’t play drums but a few songs have a small kit set up of layers that I was hitting around with and building up. Oli Jacobs (Real World engineer) re-amped this through the Wood Room to create a more coherent live drumming sound – or made me sound like I could actually play drums and percussion.
The human voice is so harmonically rich but my singing voice and any lyric felt like a plastic balloon, completely out of place in the landscape, so instead I sampled my voice through analogue gear and tape, singing each note of my range and created a sampled library or instrument out of it that can be played like a synth and manipulated through the Moog ladder filter etc. I’ve actually started to build up my own library of sounds that’s getting pretty big now. They sound odd and I like to think they are unique to me, whether that be a bowed distorted guitar or some vocals that sounds like hungry sea gulls – I, of course, was going for that on this record!
Also a key part of the album that breaks it up are the wonderful interviews collected, in true local Orcadian dialect, by Ann Marwick for her radio programme ‘The Wye hid Wis’. That completely took me home in my head. You may have to listen to this a few times but the first to fully translate it gets a limited edition record from me. It also features found sound bird song or chatter. They are almost rhythmical at times. A keen twitcher may spot the Bonxie and a few others but they are more layered within the works and less obvious. At times some of the bird song inspired elements of melody, particularly on Leo’s guitar, he would echo and create counterpoint from it.
Oli Jacobs and I took everything out of the box and opened it up in the studio, to let it fly around. He’s an incredibly multi-talented mix engineer and it was fun to watch faders and feel the excitement of putting down a song and moving onto the next one with no desire or option to recall, just trust and enjoyment. Funnily enough we only had 2 days but it felt like the best session I’d done in a while. I look back on it as if it was a week, we were free of any obligations or label or management pressure. We mixed six songs per day and as we did we played footage from the Orkney Islands on large screens. Birds on the RSPB sites and YouTube film after YouTube film from Orkney and beyond. I think we created our very own Wickerman environment in the studio, I wish I’d recorded that too.
Guy Davie mastered the album on his beautiful EMI desk. We spent the day talking about local bird names and quizzing each other on other ornithological facts – he’s a keen twitcher and was brilliant at guessing the English translation for the featured bird names. Listening to music can be really transformative but so can the full creative process when working with truly talented and inspiring engineers and musicians. This was one of those rare projects I don’t recall writing but will never forget dismantling and putting together again at Real World and sharing for the first time after keeping to myself for months.
I think of the strings on this album as the winds on the islands, the Moog bass as the sea surrounding them and the soprano as light coming through gray skies. The birds are all the other elements intertwining within those patterns. Thank you for listening. I hope you enjoy it and it inspires you to book your ferry ticket to Orkney one day soon…