Music: Nellie McKay

Oct 6, 2010 5:36 PM, By Barbara Schultz



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“Where do songs come from?” Nellie McKay asks in our interview about her latest release, Home Sweet Mobile Home. Her question may be directed inward in part, but it’s not rhetorical. After making five albums—four composed of original material and one collection of Doris Day covers, Normal as Blueberry Pie—this sweet-voiced, quirky, gentle artist is still somewhat mystified by her own process.

It’s difficult, as well, for anyone to generalize about the process of making the 13 tracks on Mobile Home. Approximately three months of recording took McKay and co-producer Robin Pappas to half-a-dozen recording studios in five different cities, while 22 musicians (in addition to multi-instrumentalist McKay) contributed. The album also isn’t what you would call “genre-specific”; McKay’s songs have pop vocals, Caribbean rhythms, old-time ukulele, piano and voice. However, if we take a cue from McKay’s songs and focus on what can seem to be random, smaller elements, a sense of the album as a whole emerges.

For example, when we asked McKay who of the many engineers on this release could offer a good deal of information about the recording, she suggested Kent Heckman of Red Rock Recording in Saylorsburg, Pa. Heckman, it turns out, tracked rhythm parts and horns for three songs on this album, but he knows McKay well: “When Nellie was in high school, she lived around here and she took music lessons from [jazz musicians] Phil Woods and Dave Liebman, and they’ve recorded here for years.

“Nellie writes all her own charts,” Heckman continues. “I believe we used a click track, and the horn players might have asked a few questions about phrasing—this note short or this note long type of thing—but I don’t think she cut a reference vocal with them. She did play some piano.”

Heckman tracked bass, drums and horns simultaneously, with the three-piece horn section in the main room and other musicians in satellite iso booths. He used a Neumann U67 on sax, and Royer R-121s on trombone and trumpet; all of the horns went through a D.W. Fearn mic pre into Pro Tools, which was the one common factor among almost all of the sessions that became part of the album.

Another engineer McKay mentioned was Ichiho Nishiki, who recorded most of the vocals and numerous instrument overdubs in Lofish Studios (New York City). “Nellie is constantly a very creative person,” Nishiki says. “She constantly has new ideas, so during vocals, she might say, ‘Okay, we probably need a piano for this,’ so we move to the piano. Or, ‘Maybe drums here,’ and she will keep moving. One time we made a trashy-sounding drum kit using a pipe chair and a bottle of water. One time she played cello. Then she would come back to the lead vocals. And her vocals are usually just one take, maybe two takes. She’s so good—a beautiful voice and a different character for each different song,”

Nishiki says McKay chose Lofish “because it’s so comfortable. We tried a couple of mics [on her voice]. I thought a U67 microphone would be good, so we rented that and used the studio’s Universal Audio LA-610 MkII, LA-2A and LA-610 mic pre’s. She likes singing with a chair, so we put a chair in the middle of the room—just simple.”

Tracking was also done at Jack Ruby Studio in Ocho Rios, Jamaica (“The tropical essence is all over the music,” McKay says.), Winslow Court in L.A. (“It has the most incredible room sound; it’s an unknown gem.”) and in Sear Sound Studios in New York City not long after the passing of Walter Sear, whom McKay remembers fondly.

She says she also particularly enjoyed recording in Camden Chamberlain’s Kite Fishing Studios, though at press time, this owner-operated facility wasn’t included in the album notes. “I found this studio when I was going through with Aimee Mann on a Christmas tour,” McKay recalls. “It’s scary going to a studio you don’t know. It’s a bit like finding a back-alley abortionist. You don’t know who’s behind that door. But we recorded almost the entire track of ‘Please’ there, with just me laying on instruments, and that was an incredibly positive experience—just me and an engineer.”

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