The tricks, kicks and tech behind the year’s best records
September 19, 2019
Bleeping it real: the tricks, kicks and tech behind the year’s best records
As the 2019 Hyundai Mercury Prize once again celebrates the most exciting and groundbreaking British and Irish talent, Leonie Cooper explores how each artist nails their sound
For the past 28 years, the Mercury Prize has been the place to find out who’s pushing things forward when it comes to the best of homegrown mainstream music. This year’s shortlist offers up a complex array of ideas, from rap as a form of therapy (Dave’s Psychodrama) and baroque deep dives into sexuality (Anna Calvi’s Hunter), to woke punk (Idles’ Joy as an Act of Resistance), spaced out astro-soul (Nao’s Saturn) and, of course, a bit of lovely hip-hop informed jazz (SEED Ensemble’s Driftglass).
In order to nail these disparate sounds, producers find themselves in a position almost as important as the artist. One such producer has sprinkled his studio magic over two of the 12 Albums of the Year. Working on debuts from both Fontaines DC and Black Midi, Dan Carey – who also runs independent record label Speedy Wunderground – used scare tactics on Dublin-based post-punks Fontaines DC’s Dogrel in order to capture the raw energy of their live shows. With the running order already decided, he broke the prospective album down into three sections of four songs. “Then I made this pact with the band that I’d record each of those parts in one take,” he says, freaking out the young group with such a stark proposition. “Usually you record multiple takes, but with this I said no matter where it went wrong we’d just wipe it and start again. So there was only ever one version in existence. It puts this amazing pressure on the band.” It paid off. The result is a frenetic, visceral thing that practically bounces off the walls.
“When you’re trying to capture how something sounds live it’s not just the sonic aspect,” says Carey. “When you’re playing a gig you can’t stop and go back to the beginning. You’re committed to it as soon as you begin. I was trying to bring in a little bit of that.”
Carey also wanted to shine a light on frontman Grian Chatten’s storytelling lyrics, so kept his vocal separate from the main thrust of instrumental noise, layering it on top and hardly mixing it into the band’s output. It’s a process Carey used when working on albums by spoken word artist and MC Kate Tempest, which were shortlisted in 2014 and again for the 2017 Hyundai Mercury Prize, but he’d never done it before on a guitar record. “I wanted it to sound like someone singing over something rather than someone singing inside it,” he says. “His lyrics warranted that.”
When it came to the spiralling, complex album from south London experimental noise-makers Black Midi, Schlagenheim, a totally different approach was in order. The most unlikely musical group to emerge from Croydon’s Brit School so far; according to Carey they offer up “the ultimate psychedelic music experience”.
Again, capturing their live feel was a priority, but this was done by pulling their studio takes through crazed-scientist-style modular synths and firing them back at the band in real time. “They’d play a chord but everyone would hear it coming back into the room at a slightly different pitch or very finely looped.” Sure, you’re thinking: “But what does that actually do to the music?” “It emphasises the otherwordliness of it,” says Carey.
“Seeing Black Midi live is so overwhelming. I lost my mind the first few times I saw them,” he adds. “But if you want to make a record sound like that – and you’re not in a loud, dark venue – you have to think of other ways of enhancing that.”
This year a significant number of shortlisted artists have either produced or co-produced their own records – the 1975, Cate Le Bon and Foals included. Serving as her own executive producer, Nao was also keen to retain full ownership of her second album, Saturn, making sketches of songs on her laptop before taking them into the studio to be finessed by the album’s main producer, Grades. “It’s nice to be with the record from the very start to the very end of it,” she says. “No matter how many other people help you through, you don’t want to give the executive producer role to anybody else because you’re the one who’s going to put the most passion and love into it.”
With occasional takes recorded in a cupboard in her bedroom, Saturn was a surprisingly low-tech production, despite its dreamy sound. Aside from a couple of tweaks, Nao left her airy vocals alone too. “I try and stay away from effects, because enough people think my voice is affected anyway,” she says. “People think I use Auto-Tune but that’s actually just the way I sing!”
Composer and arranger Jason Yarde – who produced the Cassie Kinoshi-led SEED Ensemble’s sprawling Afro-jazz triumph Driftglass – also knows the importance of keeping things simple. “Jazz by its very nature is about experimentation and finding new things,” he says. “But as much as you can use studio tricks and add effects you might not have live, it’s also important to make sure the band sounds like the band. It’s also about knowing when to have a break and when to have some tea.”
Watch the 2019 Hyundai Mercury Prize live on Thursday 19th September, BBC Four - 9pm. This article originally appeared on The Guardian.