Over the course of four previous records – including Not Going Anywhere (2003) and Nolita (2004) – New York and Paris-based artist Keren Ann has racked up accolades for original compositions that put a fresh perspective on the age-old art of songwriting.
But inspired raw materials are only part of the creative process. Beyond the chords and cadences, there are other dimensions waiting to be explored. In the studio, the musician has an opportunity to set rethink each composition from its foundation up, to twist every component, extract something new. Marrying words and notes is only the beginning. “The big challenge for me today is everything that has to do with sound and engineering,” she says.
The arrangements and productions of Keren Ann are ripe with subtle surprises, imbued with an organic character that belies the scrutiny with which she refined the album. “Lay Your Head Down” is propelled by handclaps, harmonica, and a mix of legato and pizzicato strings, all rolling beneath a circling guitar riff and blissful vocal. Gossamer choral vocals waft through lines of trumpet and glassine piano on “Liberty,” while “It Ain’t No Crime” lumbers forward in heavy boots, dirty guitars and distorted drums churning in a dark, pensive vortex. Cuts including “Harder Ships of the World” and “It’s All A Lie” reveal new facets of her evolving artistry.
Having produced her previous two albums, as well as recording Nolita, she knew she had the requisite technical finesse. Now she wanted to zero in on refining how the sounds were manipulated and layered. With a vast arsenal of vintage pre-amps and compressors, as well as the latest technology, in her home studio, the possibilities were infinite.
Still, machines have their limits. A room, a studio, a time and place, these also influence how a song turns out, and Keren Ann welcomed these influences. While certain tunes retain the urban flavor of her earlier work, others (“Liberty,” “Lay Your Head Down”) are full of wide open spaces. The mélange of flute, spaghetti Western guitar, and piano on “Where No Endings End” comes across as almost medieval in its austerity. Some cuts are stripped down, others boast a big rock sound. Source materials were tinkered with in her home studio, yet nothing of Keren Ann sounds homemade.
Keren Ann also took a new tack towards singing. While the vocals of Nolita were recorded in a dark room, for heightened intimacy, this time she wanted the opposite outcome. She sings out more, as she would in live performance, and selected keys right in the heart of her range. Sincerity, she realized, need not be rendered sotto voce.
Originally, the Israeli-born artist had planned to take a longer hiatus before making a new album. But her muse had other ideas. The raw materials for Keren Ann set upon her quickly, in a couple bursts of writing. Always on the move, she laid down tracks in Iceland, Los Angeles, Paris, New York, and Israel. She explored the different studios at each stop, taking advantage of their unique capabilities.
With so much concern for detail put into refining the songs and sounds of Keren Ann, it was essential to find the right person to mix it. Fortunately, she knew exactly who she wanted: Joe Barresi (Tool, Queens of the Stone Age). Over the past few years, his credits had repeatedly popped up on records she found especially impressive.
“It is really hard to make a song sound good with just guitar and vocal,” Keren Ann concludes. “I still wanted to have some of that on this record, but I also wanted my Disneyland, with a choir, and strings, and all the fun percussion parts. I wanted to take every element of sound, and then toss and twist it around. It really is like painting in sound.”