Storytime Sessions diary

Saturday 16 April

Bright and early, three old-school musicians and a young gunslinger of an engineer arrived at Hellfire Studios in the Dublin Mountains.  All my albums start off the same way, with the same 4 core personnel.  Apart from myself, there’s Dick Farrelly (guitars and bass), Ger Farrelly (drums and percussion) and Mick Heffernan (engineer extraordinaire).  Ger, Dick and myself had a pre-production day a couple of weeks earlier, going through each of the 16 songs to finalise the approach each of them would take to their parts.  In advance of that they’d had a few weeks to listen to my demos of the songs so they had a very good idea of what i was looking for.  I recorded the pre-production session on a little Zoom recorder so we could listen again to what we had worked out for each song in the days leading up to the studio session.

I’ve never written in the studio.  It works for others but not for me.  Dick, Ger and myself know exactly what we’re going to do on each song and it means that we can get through them very quickly, as you’ll see as you read on.  

On the first day, we record bass, drums and and “guide” keyboard and lead vocals.  That means that I sing and play at the same time as Dick and Ger while they put down the rhythm track, but what I record at that stage is just to guide them through the songs and those vocals and keyboard tracks will subsequently be replaced.   As Day One came to an end, we had 11 of the 16 tracks done.

Sunday 17 April

While you were unwrapping your Easter Eggs we were back for an early start.  Drums and bass were wrapped up.  Dick added acoustic guitar to the 10 or so tracks that required it, and I made a start on piano and lead vocals to replace the guide recordings on a couple of tracks.  One of the things I like about Hellfire Studios is that it has a wonderful Yamaha Grand Piano – quite possibly the nicest instrument I have ever played.  I used it on most of the tracks, especially the slow and medium-paced tracks.  I prefer to use electric piano on the rockers, and a couple of the tracks worked best with specific sounds (honky-tonk piano in one case, Wurlitzer in another) for which I used my Roland RD800.

Monday 18 April

Dick was back in for a third day to add all the electric guitar parts.  There’s a judgement call to be made with each song as to whether it will work best with acoustic guitar or electric guitar, or sometimes both.  I leave that call to Dick and his instinct is always spot on.   I’ve known Dick since we grew up together in Churchtown and he is the most gifted musician I have ever met.  It is a privilege to have him on my albums.

I’m also privileged to be able to call on Ellen O’Mahony to sing on my albums.  Well known through her band ELKIN, she comes up with wonderful harmonies to enhance my songs and my albums usually include a track or two where her contribution is so important that the song is effectively a duet.  She also came in on Monday and sang on nine tracks.  I got a bit more piano and lead vocals in the can too.

Tuesday 19 April

Another absolutely beautiful spring morning up in the mountains.  No time to enjoy the morning sun, though, too much work to be done.  The day started with some more piano and vocals, then we were joined by another incredible musician who has enhanced my albums since the very first. Richie Buckley is a wonderful sax player and always great fun to work with.  In hardly more than three hours we had solos, fills and embellishments (many double-tracked) added to nine of the songs.  I got some more piano and lead vocals done too, but it was an early finish as the Tuesday Singer Songwriter Night awaited in Darkey Kelly’s.

Wednesday 20 April

The tracks were really taking shape now.  It was  the last day in Hellfire Studios (although we’ll be back in June to add strings) so the remaining grand piano parts had to be finished.  I also added the remaining keyboard parts on the Roland RD800.  I enjoyed picking out organ and synth sounds that were appropriate to the era being referenced in some of the songs.  In the evening Cian O’Mahony dropped in – another of my contributors from the very first album – and sang on a few of the songs.

Thursday 21 April

A change of scenery for Day 6.  Thomas Walsh has added some wonderful vocals to my last two albums so I was thrilled to be able to call on him again – especially as he’s immersed in recording the new Pugwash album.  In fact, he was heading off to London the next day to record some of it in the legendary Abbey Road (with Mick Heffernan engineering, by the way) so to make things a bit easier for him we went up to Black Mountain Studios in Co Louth, near his home to record his parts. Black Mountain was where we recorded most of the Ageing With Attitude album so we know it well. 
Recording with Thomas is always hugely enjoyable.  He’s one of the funniest men on the planet but he also has an incredible gift for spotting the perfect harmonies and delivering them to perfection.  He sprinkled his vocal fairydust on eight of the tracks.  That just left time for me to wrap up the remaining lead vocals and we were done.  Mick took the files back to his London base to start the preliminary mixes and I drove home a very happy man, if quite exhausted.

The next steps

Recording isn’t quite finished.  We will be back in Hellfire Studios in late June to add strings to seven of the tracks.  We will also be adding backing vocals from Dara MacGabhann and Sinéad Stone.
Over the next week or so, Mick Heffernan will do preliminary mixes of the tracks.  I’ll listen to those very extensively for a month or so, to decide what tweaks I need.  The relevant mixes will also go to Rob Molumby, who is doing the string arrangements, so he knows exactly what he is scoring behind.
After the late June session, it will be time for final mixes and mastering and the whole release process will begin – but that’s a story for another newsletter.
And after all that, is it any good?  You’ll have to decide, in due course, but what I will say is that my objective is to make each album better than the last.  When I can’t do that, it’ll be time to stop.  And I think this one will pass the test.