SOHO, MANHATTAN: Iconic NYC artist and sonic adventurer Laurie Anderson released her amazing new album, Homeland, earlier this week. Years in the making, Homeland emerged after a challenging and at-times vexing process in the studio, and very nearly never emerged at all.
“It’s this very, very weird hybrid,” says Anderson, struggling to pinpoint what ultimately makes up Homeland. “I’ve never worked on something this odd before: it was sort of a bunch of filters, a bunch of live [recordings] and a bunch of studio ideas. I’m not even sure what to call it because it’s such a bizarre collection of things.”
It started with sonic scaffolding. Anderson is credited as an engineer on Homeland, and would have to be for the way the songs are composed: they are, in effect, engineered.
“I start with many different rhythmic riffs — even though Homeland doesn’t sound particularly rhythm-driven, it really is,” she describes, when asked of her sonic palette. “By that I mean most of the songs are built on these scaffolds that get removed, and they are mostly violin filters that I’ve been building myself with a software designer named Konrad Kaczmarek. They were based originally on Eventide filters but we went further afield in building our own.”
These became the building blocks for Homeland — movements both ominous and euphoric built up underneath and around an epic narrative. And Anderson toured the work, developing it on the road, recording performances of her constantly evolving Homeland live show all over the world for three years. “That’s various versions of the show, in various tempos, in various keys,” she points out.
Along the way, she recorded with a variety of collaborators, including Tuvan throat singers and igil players of Chirgilchin, and captured improvisational sessions with NYC experimental jazz and rock musicians including Rob Burger (keyboards), Omar Hakim (drums), Kieran Hebden of Four Tet (keyboards), John Zorn (saxophone) and Antony Hegarty (vocals).
“I wanted to make a record that would really relate to the live shows,” Anderson shares. “My live rig incorporates so many tools now — soft synths, homemade pedals, vocal processing, different vocoders, the homemade software we call ‘Tide’ in homage to Eventide” — to where I can do almost anything in the live show. It’s really, really exciting and I wanted to get that feeling into the record.
“So it’s like I ‘wrote the record on the road,’ and then came back to the studio and tried to ‘record’ it, but all of those terms were sort of meaningless by that point. I thought, OK now I’ll take some of these live files and paste them together into these songs in the studio and get that live feel. And, that was beyond hard! We took some of those rhythmic elements, printed them and then tried to make a studio version and the air went out of the whole thing.
“And, I thought, No!! I really didn’t want to do something that pristinely goes from my box to your box. I [found myself] sitting there working with all these clean files thinking now what? I’m going to put fake air around them? No! That kind of air to me feels like air-conditioned air — stale air from a hotel in Tokyo that’s never been aired out. I wanted to use air that had been pumped through real places; waves that had been somewhere.
“At that point, the record budget was pretty much over and it was just me sitting with like 100,000 sound files. Here I’d been thinking I’m going to make this spontaneous live thing, and now I was digging through and labeling all these files. I truly would never recommend this to anyone. (laughs) Do not try this at home!”
HOMELAND EXCAVATION: DIGGING, COMPILING, MORE RECORDING
It’s somewhat unsurprising, for an artist who’s always so embraced technology, that the infinite possibilities of today’s methods of music production might tip the scales into the overwhelming. “I got super-depressed looking at all those files and I actually stopped working on it many times,” Anderson admits. “At that point, I was only working on it as a hobby, a couple days a month. I thought I would never finish it. And it was because of Lou [Reed] that I finished it and because of Mario [McNulty] too. Mario really hung in there, and he said it is possible to do this. He was really willing to dig into those bins, and he was really patient.”
A NYC-based engineer/producer, Mario J. McNulty had worked with Anderson before. He mixed sound for a short film she directed in ‘05. “The first time I ever spoke to Laurie, we had a really nice chat about mixing,” McNulty recalls.
“And it was so great because it was abstract and artistic — the ultimate way I like to approach things, in a totally non-conformist sense. It wasn’t ‘this is a rock mix’ where the kick drum does this, etc. It’s not of the mainstream world at all, it’s of this world that I really admire, of Laurie and Eno and Gabriel and Bowie and Talk Talk and all of these records that I’m really passionate about.”
“That’s maybe the only talk we’ve ever had about mixing, and we’ve worked on and off ever since,” he continues. “So, on Homeland, we never had to talk specifically about what the album should sound like, because I already have a good sense of what she wants: she wants beauty. And, her vocal needs to be in the right place and really only she knows where that is. I mixed the record, but she’s very, very involved in the process.”
McNulty went into Anderson’s studio in SoHo and began the process of compiling Homeland, with the expectation of beginning to mix it. “There had been a lot of different people working on it, so the material was all over the place, literally,” he describes. “On different hard drives, in different studios. Neither of us realized how spread out the project was. I consolidated it all into one location, so something could be played back that made sense to her. And by that point, she was realizing she had more work to do. It just wasn’t moving her the right way.”
Anderson put mixing on hold to do some more recording, editing, and arranging at her studio, which has been her workspace since the 80s. “She has a lot of equipment, but the main recording system there is a Pro Tools HD2 rig,” McNulty describes. “And she has a series of laptops with soft synths, vintage and modern keyboards and racks of time-based effects like her Eventide Harmonizers, which she uses in the recording process as well as in mixing.”
“Pretty much any time we would need an effect, we’d go to the Harmonizer,” says McNulty. “She’s one of the pioneers of the Harmonizer so she’s very familiar with it and even the software emulations of the Harmonizer, so we would get into all kinds of sounds with them. She’ll record violin through this really awesome stereo delay patch that she made — and she also has patches that Brian Eno made for her stored in her Harmonizer.”
As she has throughout her career, Anderson used filters to essentially create new instruments, new voices. Homeland’s “Another Day in America” uses one of her classic vocal filters to voice her male alter-ego, “Fenway Bergamot,” the darkly comic storyteller, the omniscient narrator of the Homeland live show.