And so came the time for my final vocals.
I generally lay down lead vocals three times throughout the recording process. One live track when we’re all playing together at the start (this tends to be quite a “safe” delivery, more concerned with timing and not surprising the drummer too much with any eccentricities – these early takes are, after all, primarily to get the rhythm section as close to perfect as possible); then I sing a more spirited version to add some character so that subsequent overdubs get more of a sense of energy from the song (these sound more like the way I perform live and I frequently run and jump around the room – these often turn out to be the ones used in the final mix as they’re pretty spontaneous and I’ll occasionally do something I can’t recreate while behaving sensibly). The third and final take is at the end of the whole recording period when all the other instruments are in and I have an opportunity to let the other performers influence/infect my final delivery.
Dan, the Bedlam bassist/engineer, mentioned in his Q&A that I have a difficult voice to record. I suspect this may be a euphemism for “Louis is a lousy singer.” People have said a lot worse, with the description of “broken bagpipes” being my personal favourite. I don’t mind such comments, as there’s a great freedom attached to not being a good singer. It’s certainly not something I lament. Indeed, when I write something pretty I’d much rather someone else sang it than me.
Having said all that, none of the songs start out as growly rants. I can’t imagine writing like that. This regular coarsening of delivery is something that happens in the heart, not the head – and on the stage, not the page. I think all my songs probably start out wanting to be sung by Roy Orbison rather than Captain Beefheart. Like my speaking voice, my private singing voice is quite a soft one; it’s English rather than American and it favours high notes rather than low ones. On stage, however, it’s completely the opposite, and there doesn’t seem to be a thing I can do about it.
When I was a stage actor I was taught to project my voice to the back of the room. I can still do that. But when I have a microphone in front of me (whether on stage or in the studio) there’s a fierce impulse to just project my voice the couple of inches needed to be picked up by that mysterious quivering diaphragm lurking behind the pop shield – the drawback of this being that one’s voice can often take on an unattractive nasal quality (like Liam Gallagher) or throatiness (like, er, me). Far from becoming more accustomed to the microphone after thirteen years of gigging, I seem to get more and more aware of it, even troubled by it, like a mad dog nose to nose with its angry reflection. I find microphones to be something of a distraction. They are, after all, very unnatural things. Sometimes I get too carried away and bite into them (I have a chip in my front tooth from one such moment during a show in Dumfries). None of this stuff could ever be classed as “good mic technique”.
So for this last session Dan and I spent a lot of time working out the best positioning for each song. There are a couple of tracks I need to really lean into, and for those I’ve been performing in a sort of Dean Martin one-foot-on-chair posture. For others, I need to jump about a lot. I also confessed to Dan that I sing the songs completely differently at home, whereupon he suggested recreating that positioning and to hell with received wisdom about proper singing posture. So I sat with a guitar on my lap, hunched over slightly, singing the softer parts in my natural (sort of) tenor. That’s how the album opens. I’m not playing the guitar at all during these takes, just using it as a comfort prop – a kind of teddy bear substitute, if you will. Ridiculous, isn’t it?
Still, I’m not quite at the point where I require live doves to fly around me as I record.
Actually, that’s not a bad idea…