...the rawness the freshness the feisty
by Jennifer Gibson
July 31, 2009
"Did you bring some CDs?" I inquired, as Michelle Boudreau settled into the DJ booth at CJTR, where she was a special guest on my weekly radio show, Girly Girls.
"Ya, but I have to warn you, it's not folk music."
Anyone who has seen Michelle perform recognizes that there isn't much "folk" about her. In fact, anyone who takes one look at her will see that - not to encourage judging books by covers (or should that be CDs by liner notes?) but hey, image is important in this business. Not only does she look funky and hip, Michelle projects the image of an alternative artist on the go.
Starting out on the violin, she got into music at an early age and continued into musical theatre. And yes, it's always been her dream to be a performer. Though it was not always easy going - when she was 14 she discovered a large lump on her neck that was diagnosed as a cyst on her thyroid gland. A surgeon warned Michele that she had a 50/50 chance of speaking or singing again. A life changing experience, for sure.
"That's when I said, 'if I get out of this, I'm going to do music. I'm going to make those 'singing in front of the mirror and Mickey Mouse club dreams' come true." Three months of silence pushed her to pick up the guitar and express herself in a way other than singing, beginning the process that led Michelle to where she is today, celebrating her second indie release, Little Black Ninja. And independent it is! Michelle and I discuss what DIY really means.
Tell me about the process of recording Little Black Ninja - what made you decide to record it, first of all?
Dave Lang, Dave Taylor and I were sitting at a table at the Prairie Music Industry Awards watching people go up. It had been so long (since I'd done something). I was watching people get up there and accept their awards and I was just sitting back and not doing anything. It was time to get into the studio and record. People were asking for a CD and all I had were t-shirts to give them! We got back in November, we recorded the album.
What is it about working with Dave and Dave that you like?
They take turns being in the driver seat, they really listen and they sit down and conceptualize with you¦it's not a cushioned seat, leather seat studio - it's in Dave's house, it's a comfortable environment to be in. Feels like it's back in the basement again, doing DIY and I like that feeling. I like being in control.
Who produced the CD, and what do you think a producer does?
Dave Taylor, Dave Lang and I. A producer takes your ideas, helps put them on tape and plays them out for you. Turns all those conceptions into reality. Helps push the buttons.
Buttons as far as physical buttons on the board or pushing buttons in you as a performer?
That's right, both. They are there for the direction and for turning that conception to reality, and giving you ideas as well.
Were you pushed further than if you had been there by yourself? Can you give me an example of how they did that?
Just styles and recording methods - things like standing in the closet singing, doing as many harmonies as I did, and the quick amount of time we took to record.
Trying to get it in the first take?
Ya, pushing us¦testing my strengths as a musician. They like to work hard, they don't take breaks.
Describe the recording process.
The first discussion was, 'Let's find out how many songs to record. We agreed to 6. How much is it going to cost? We agreed to a price. Then Dave asked what kind of style I want to play. What's the lineup going to be (instrumentation)? Then I ran into Beth (stand up bass player) and said - I know we've only been playing together for a month, but would you like to record an album? From that point we took the ideas and went into the studio. We knew what we had to do. I made a list of the songs and what the style was for each song in particular. And I put them in point format -when the song was louder and when it was quieter. I gave them a lyrical sheet and put in the parts where I would sing harmonies on the songs and stuff like that. We started with an instrumental take - no vocals in the first day except for one song, Sacrifice, which was done in one take. Everything was done in one take because we were completely prepared.
So you just laid a bed track of your guitar and Beth's bass?
There was a room mike for the guitar, which was also plugged in, so we had two different guitars tracks in actuality, with each going left and right.
How was Beth set up?
We got a microphone, I think it was a Shure 58, and we duct-taped it to the bottom of her bass with foam around the microphone so it wouldn't hit.
She allowed you to duct tape her bass?
OK, duct tape at the bottom of the bass and foam around the...
The mike screen...Dave and Dave should really be explaining this...so totally covered in foam and her bass was also plugged in - we had both aspects so they gave us a lot to play with. Especially since my style is so diverse; you get your highs and you get your lows. Her bow bass...oh my goodness...in Sacrifice, it was so hard to EQ that because of the room being so large. The room mike was set up in the very back of the room, far corner, lifted up off the ground, so we get (instead of an omni-directional sound) a full "bouncing off the wall"...It's called the Winnie the Pooh room, by the way.
When I recorded my first album that's exactly how I recorded and I was keeping that whole atmosphere of being live and being in the room with it...I really wanted that crunchy raw feeling, the rawness, the freshness, the feisty...
Do you feel your takes went smoothly because you were playing a lot of live shows, or did you also rehearse a lot?
We had musical chemistry. We also rehearsed a great deal. I gave Beth the musical scenario of how we were going to be recording before we went into the studio to give her a heads up. She'd never recorded before and so we just prepared ourselves mentally. Physically, we stretched ourselves, which is really, really important, you need to stretch a few hours before you go in and do that stuff. Fingers, arms, vocals, legs. It's the musician's yoga before you partake in the battle.
The second day was me going in and doing all the vocal tracks. Six to nine harmony vocals on almost all the songs.
Do you get nervous in the studio? Are you comfortable?
I get so incredibly excited (laughs). That's where most of my ideas come, and I have a recording device in my computer where I record spoken word and I take my music and play it backwards to see what it would sound like in that context. I also play it on the keyboard through the MIDI on my computer so I know what I'm listening for when I actually go into a bigger studio and experiment with vocal techniques.
Did you record the songs from beginning to end and then go back and do overdubs, or would you redo the entire song to get the feel?
I'd go in and piece stuff (re-record and do overdubs). It was very rare that I'd have to go in and redo the whole song just 'cause I'm a perfectionist in the studio. There's no stopping...if at the beginning of the song I feel I'm not in the right head space, I stop immediately and I go back and start again. And that rarely happens because I flush all my negative emotions out and bring my positive emotions. I just go and I record and it's done.
How do you get rid of your negative emotions?
By imagining the song, by visualizing the song before you actually go in and perform it. This is your one and only time on stage...imagine that and you've got to give your best performance no matter what. What do you want these people to hear? And what do you want them to understand in this performance? This one performance is going to be heard continuously. What are you going to say, right?
Have you ever had an experience where you've been in the studio and there's been somebody there who has put you in a bad headspace?
I recorded with an Edmonton producer. He's an awesome guy, really funny, but the people who were funding the recording didn't come through so he became not very nice at all and took the positive out of the recording situation entirely. Treated me not like an artist anymore, but like a commodity, a business commodity. It was crappy.
You were talking earlier about the recording techniques of Dave and Dave - using a closet - what was that about?
It was for singing. A completely pitch black closet - they padded all the sides - it's no bigger than the seat I'm sitting in now (an overstuffed chair). I've got pictures.
Was that weird?
At first we wanted to experiment with singing in the (Winnie the Pooh) room but that didn't work. So we wanted to have a sound closet because it would completely cut out the reverb, everything, so you've got more to play with when you're actually mixing...what I found great about this was when I was recording harmonies I could take them just like that (snaps fingers); there was no imitation reverb for me to follow. I could hit them right on, it was an awesome way to learn how to do vocals.
Any particular song on the album you found hard to record? Were there any songs you recorded and thought, "this doesn't work in the studio"?
The song that we had the most problem with was Sacrifice, because it's a really sincere song, really close up to your face. Try and imagine being in a cushioned, really produced sound studio and you can get that up close sound. When you're trying to get it raw, you have to get big, you have to try and make it like a really big produced studio sound but keep the rawness so you have to take away the s's and the p's... The only problem was that I had a cold but it didn't really pose any big problems.
So you're trying to get the song so when people listen to it, it feels like it's right in their face.
That's right, and it's really difficult to do that when you have to follow the stylized procedures of recording and editing. So I think Dave sat with the s's for four or five hours straight. There was one part of that song that I was never happy with so I went back and I recorded it over and over again until I got the right one.
We had the most amazing experience with this song, we lit candles and put them in the room and Beth and I went in there and recorded the song in one take, the first take and we both came out of there completely blanked, tears rolling down our faces. It was the most amazing experience because we did it in one take... we had played it before maybe thirty times but never done that and it was so special. You can totally feel it in the recording, too.
And same thing with the vocals. When we went in there, I was so tired and exhausted from recording all day, it was like 'here's Sacrifice, here, take it all.'
After you're done the recording, what was the next step?
The next step was editing, which took a long time, then mixing and mastering.
(Writer's note - I asked Dave Taylor of Dave's Bar and Grill studio what software was used and he said "We used Vegas for the recording. It's made by Sonic Foundry...the closest thing to ProTools on a PC that I've found that actually works..."
Mastered it yourself?
Yep, right there. And we burned it onto a CD. Now, I firmly believe in the DIY thing, right, so I was contemplating sending it away and getting it pressed, but I've never been into that. I think it's more personal to give something that you've made so I burn all the CDs, put all the stickers on the CDs myself, write on all the CDs....when you get it, it's for you.
How many have you done?
Over 250 now of just this CD. I did this exact same thing with Reality (previous CD) but this one means a lot more to me because I think this album is absolutely excellent in comparison.
Any idea how much each CD costs you to produce?
It costs me almost 6 dollars apiece. Those are specialized CD covers as well 'cuz they are black bottomed. So think about the cost of that, the stickers, photocopying plus the packaging, all the jewel cases. Different colours, so I can ask, 'what do you feel like, blue, red, green or grey?'
Where do you see yourself in 5 years? What do you want to do - what is success for you?
Success is keeping my frame of mind in a musical sense. I want to still be writing music. Your life works in funny ways when you believe in yourself, right? And if I keep on believing in myself and keep on pursuing what I'm doing, I think in 5 years I could have at least two more albums out and maybe have a little bit of help (laughs).
What would you like? What's your dream scenario for your career?
I'd like to at least have gone to Europe more than once with my music. And I'd like to experiment and play with different bands and sing for other bands and just really expand my horizon in a musical sense. Maybe sing for a techno band, I've always thought that would be kind of interesting. But also discover my roots, I'm looking for a blues band to play with right now.
Interestingly enough, Michelle emigrated here from Alberta, and she's quite happy to be living in the Queen City.
"Regina is my home now. I'm from Regina. I tell people that because I'm proud of it."
Michelle just completed her "March Out West" tour with Dave Taylor, including a stop at an Edmonton Oilers' Game to sing the national anthem, live. Her website is www.michelleboudreau.ca.