Nashville, London and a House By The Sea
When I met Alex Wong on Skype, thanks to my friend and vocal coach Wendy Parr, I knew straight away we would get along. His sensitivity, intelligence, intensity of focus, soulfulness and sprinkling of mischief, coupled with his incredible range of musical talents were everything I could have wished for and more in a producer and now friend.
My travelling to Nashville was delayed when I discovered I needed a major abdominal operation. I decided to go ahead with the trip anyway and booked the operation in for after my return. I planned my months stay, booked my flights and my first few two weeks accommodation.
There are now direct flights from London to Nashville but my journey took about twelve and a half hours. When I finally arrived my luggage remained in Detroit. For the first twenty-four hours I had to get creative with what was in my hand luggage!
When I got to the Airbnb in East Nashville I was a bit uneasy about the unfriendly man and his guard dog living next door, what looked like a couple of meth heads across the street and the gang that would gather at the corner of the road at dusk. The little apartment smelled damp and there was a hump so large and long dividing the sitting room floor that I tripped over it for the first few days. Now I’m wondering what or who was under those floorboards!
In between guitar playing and vocal warm-ups, I excitedly planned my walk to Alex’s studio. A couple of days later, I set off in the thirty five degree September heat, to walk several blocks with my guitar on my back. It’s always weird walking in the States. While Manhattan is pedestrian heaven, everywhere else is car country. If you see another person on the sidewalk you feel a little nervous. They feel a little nervous. Without a car in America you feel like a hermit crab without a shell, soft prey for somebody or something. It’s a funny feeling. Also, what looks like a relatively short distance on a map or app is always actually much, much further.
I didn’t have time to get out of the city and explore the wild outdoors because of long hours in the studio. But in the stolen moments between sessions, walking a little in the neighbourhood, I loved how different the South felt. The heat was impressive and oppressive, even in September. It felt dry, heavy and inescapable (although everywhere indoors is air-conditioned, which can even add to the somewhat stifling feeling). The heat made me think about those clichéd scenes I’ve heard about, of people sitting on their porches fanning themselves whilst sipping lemonade and it also made me think about slaves on plantations- I’d never imagined the unbearable temperatures they must have had to contend with on top of everything else they endured.
On my walks to the studio there was the joy of butterflies- huge tropical yellow butterflies and blue and black ones, dropping down gently from the sky, wafting out suddenly from gardens, animated magical creatures from a dream!
Working with Alex was a wonderful and genuinely creative adventure. Based on the themes, ideas, imagery and the places I imagine the songs are set, we decided on instrumentation, and Alex worked out the gorgeous arrangements seemingly effortlessly. I sang a first draft of the vocals and recorded my guitar parts. In a steady stream of politeness, professionalism, expertise and enthusiasm the musicians arrived and played their parts. What is said about musicians in Nashville really is true- they are a highly supportive community of individuals, whose modesty and friendliness belie their exceptional talents.
Highlights for me during the recording included Matt Wigton’s soulful bass, Dave Eggars’ heavenly cello and Ellen ‘wizard fingers’ Angelico’s beautiful playing of virtually every stringed instrument under the sun! Because I was only there for a month I didn’t get to hear everybody perform, although I would have liked to. I’m sad to have missed Jordan Brooke Hamlin playing the French horn on The Loveliness and Avery Bright’s violin and viola.
I had to move out of my neighbourhood, which Alex called ‘sketchy’. He kindly let me stay in his flatmate’s room. Eric was on tour with his band Delta Rae and I was grateful to him and Alex for the safety and comfort of that room. After that I moved down the road to stay in a cottage that belonged to Alex’s friends. They are two of the members of the band Swear and Shake and were away getting married before going on tour. Recently I have been getting hooked on their new album The Sound of Letting Go. I listened to it on a loop whilst painting the cover of my record.
Three weeks in, I started to miss home and my health was getting worse. I would get up three or four times a night and I felt nauseous and weak most of the time. I didn’t realize it but my kidneys had stopped working properly.
I moved back into Alex’s house for the last few days of the recording. We share a passion for food and would invariably eat something delicious for late lunch- usually Thai, sometimes Burritos from a truck, sometimes a vegan feast from the Wild Cow. Alex is also a chef and has been hosting a monthly supper club (Angel House Family Dinner) at his place, serving delicious Chinese comfort food, for a few years now. When my husband Piers visited we joined friends and strangers for what was a unique and very enjoyable evening.
We scheduled the recording of my vocals in London for the following spring, once I’d recovered from my operation. When I got home I didn’t realize I was about to embark on the worst year and a half of my life health-wise. The operation was postponed twice (the second time, I was all ready to go, I had my gown, socks and labels on and had taken a sedative, which also meant I couldn’t sign the release form!).
This threw me into a kind of frenzy of stress on top the fear I’d already been trying to manage (general anaesthetic, being cut open, and morphine all terrified me.) I was also hospitalized twice before the operation. When it was finally over (I got through it with the help of hypnosis), recovery came as another shock. I needed help getting out of bed. I had no energy to speak of whatsoever.
Five days after the procedure I tried to walk down the street. I had to turn around and go back. After a seven weeks when I wanted to start practising my vocals, I caught a cold and both my ear drums burst!
I recovered with a couple of weeks to prepare and we recorded my vocals at my home. It was fun to be surrounded by my plants and to cuddle Lulu my dog in between tracks. In Nashville there were regular cuddles with Alex’s dog Charlotte, who he insists has an English accent! In London we also ate well. We ate locally a lot but also greedily feasted at Yauatcha in Soho and at Uyen Luu’s Vietnamese Supper Club in Hackney.
We mixed the record via email. I listened on my laptop, in my car and in my sitting room in London. Alex listened in his studio, in his car and by the lake in Nashville. It took us a while. After mixing and before mastering I managed to get a frozen shoulder- the last (I very much hope) in a long line of annoying, distressing and time-consuming physical ailments.
When you’ve been healthy all your life and you get sick several times in a row it feels confusing and unjust, like the muses of disease got the wrong person. But then you realize that ill health is simply trying to draw your attention to something which you must (if you’re smart) grudgingly acknowledge. Then you must address the emotional and spiritual states that caused it. You have to admit to yourself how hard you push yourself.
You have to learn that being so focused on a goal at the expense of being in the flow, at the expense of listening to your body and what life is showing you through it, can throw you dangerously off balance.
The album is in the process of being mastered this week. I’m excited about finally being able to share it with listeners. It’s taken me seven years to get to get here.
During the developing, recording and postproduction of this record, my husband and I embarked on another dream project- of buying and renovating a house by the sea. So two of my dearest and longest held dreams have been fulfilled this year. I feel incredibly lucky. I can’t wait to share our new house with friends and family and I’m curious to see what new inspiration will be carried to me on the waves beneath it.