So here at last is Francesca Baines' debut album, Vela. If you had asked me over the two year period 2010-11 what was i working on, the answer would have invariably been, 'i'm working on Fran's album' or as time passed on, '...still working on Fran's album'. A huge undertaking would be an understatement, but one i am very happy to have been involved in and what i can easily say is my best co-production and recording work to date.
The story of this album and working with Francesca is tied into the evolution of the Lionheart studio and goes back to when i first saw her perform, quite some time ago, at the legendary Tikki Lounge in Cork City. This was an early gig in Fran's musical journey, if not her first and it was a nervous performance and her voice showing the lack of experience but even then i was captivated by her unique song styles and out of the norm folk sound that reminded me of Joni Mitchell or a female Nick Drake - never a bad thing in my book. I had a strong feeling too that we would work together musically.
After a short period of time and with a some more experience behind her, we made arrangements to record her first EP. At that time i was still set up in my apartment in the city with the difficult conditions of trying to record in a residential block. I had managed to record two albums there already (for Sumu and Rachel Regan), taking advantage of quiet daytime periods when my neighbours were out at work but know things had changed. Different neighbours with more erratic timetables meant recording sessions were being interrupted by external noise more and more. After a few days of aborted sessions with Francesca, we had to except that it wasn't going to be possible to continue with the project, while i was having to come to terms with the reality that i wasn't going to be able to run a recording studio in a residential area. While we took in our disappointment of the aborted EP over a cup of tea, Fran remarked how the location of many studios, in most cases inner-city, sometimes in industrial estates and in my case the colourful Blarney Street, weren't the most appealing or creatively inspiring and how she would love to record in a studio that was in the country-side, out in nature where when you took breaks from recording you could be inspired by the beauty of the natural world. I too wanted the studio set up in such a space, for the natural inspiration yes but also for the uninterrupted silence of the country... though i would eventually find out the countryside has its own set of sounds to deal with.
With those thoughts and wishes sent out, Fran went on to record her EP with the then Cork Opera House head of sound, Laurence White while i went searching for a suitable location to continue the Lionheart Productions story. About a year later i was set up in a little cob house in seven acres of hazel wood in West Cork and spent the first year recording albums for percussionist Éamonn Cagney and Tanzanian rap artist Shah Smooth. At the end of that year Francesca returned from her troubadour's travels of Europe ready to record her first album and after a week of further song writing whilst house sitting for me in the woods, we were ready to record at the beginning of 2010.
What we thought was going to be a six month part-time project soon expanded in time. The material is very intricate and we were recording multi-track, that is one instrument at a time. There had to be careful planning, for example the songs are played to click-tracks to keep good time as well as to ease the task of editing but to keep the ebb and flow of tempo meant these had to be carefully programed. There are a lot of 'found' sounds on the album, which Fran recorded on a hand held digital recorder then carefully placed and edited on her laptop before being transferred to the studio. We wanted all of the sounds on the album to be recorded, though in the end the piano is a software based sampled grand and we did sneak one other sample in, though i'll leave you to guess what that is ;-) There was extensive editing which is very time consuming, especially on rhythmic instruments as the songs are based on intricate rhythm structures, in strange and interesting time signatures. And there was a lot of consideration about what instruments were to be recorded and the availability of musicians meant having to wait for the appropriate time to record. We had the pleasure and privilege to work with many outstanding musicians, with special mention to Francesca's father Jeremy, who provided a large array of instrumental performances, some inspired arrangements and his playful sense of fun. In all there was around 100 days of recording and mixing spread over two years.
We then made a trip to Twickenham in London to sit in on the album mastering session with music industry veteran Jon Astley at On The Edge mastering studio. This was a great chance to see a master (no pun) at work as well as to work closely with him to ensure just the right enhancements were made to what had become a precious piece of work. Once some tweaks were made after we returned to Ireland the album was at last finished.
For me the album fully captures the unique essence of Francesca's creative being with every song wrapped in its own enviroment, though all coming together in one rich musical landscape tapestry. Though the studio is now located at a different location, listening to Vela transports me back to the magical shade of the Hazel, where the cacophony of sounds of dripping water in woodland pools, leaves crushed under foot, birdsong and the drop of an acorn from mighty oaks mingle into rich musical harmony. From Fran i have learnt how to express artistic conceptual idea's through music, an approach that was new for me and in Francesca i found an amazing creative soul mate with who i had the privilege to share the creation, gestation and birth of an amazing musical creation. I look forward to more musical adventures with her.
Vela is available as a digital download from iTunes and as unique USB stick which will have high quality version of the album, artwork, a film and a Dropbox link for special extras.
Vela on iTunes:http://itunes.apple.com/us/album/vela/id529257959
You can preview the songs at Francesca's website:
I fully recommend Jon Astley @ Close to the Edge for all your audio mastering needs: