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Nigel Powell: Attack the Blog!

Recording The Bigger Picture

Saturday 23rd January, 2016

It's been a long time since my last blog. Yeah, sure, I know. Sorry. Just leave it. OK?

Something came up yesterday though that seemed worthy of talking about. Apparently it's 10 years since Milow's album The Bigger Picture was released, and album that I produced and played on. I thought it would be worth talking a bit about how it came about, the process and the aftermath.

Milow - press shot from

Milow - press shot from
I was too crazily busy to take any photos of the sessions but I have included some of the photos Jonathan sent me afterwards, some taken by him, some clearly taken by somebody else since he is in them. Sorry I haven't credited you, complain vociferously at me via the email address below and I will put this right! Also, some of the dates are a little bit vague. It was a long time ago, after all…

It was sometime in 2005 that I first got an email from Jonathan Vandenbroek, who went under the performing name of Milow. At the time my life was pretty packed: Dive Dive were seriously busy touring the life out of Tilting At Windmills; I was working on my second solo album; I had a day job lecturing on the Music BND at Oxford College; and I think I'm right in saying I was also the in house lighting engineer at The Zodiac in Oxford in the evenings. Add to that that it wasn't the happiest time in my head and perhaps it might not have seemed the best time for him to get in touch, but I do think the old axiom "if you want something done, give it to a busy person" holds true - with all that momentum I don't recall have too many second thoughts about grabbing onto another new thing.

He was a young singer songwriter from Belgium who said he was a big fan of Unbelievable Truth, and particularly Almost Here. He knew I'd produced it, and wanted to try and capture some of the same spirit for his music, so wondered if I would consider getting involved in producing his material.

Now I'll admit privately I wasn't very confident about it. I had been immensely proud of Almost Here, but the second Unbelievable Truth album sorrythankyou had suffered from a claustrophobic and congested production (I helmed that record also) which I was disappointed by, and my debut solo album miseryguts had also reflected the sound inside my head at the time into the outside world, to its detriment. I had done little bits and pieces of producing other people but not enough to fully get my mojo back. But I swallowed all of that down. Nothing ventured nothing gained, and you never improve by hiding and being afraid, so I answered positively. It was helped by the fact that Jonathan was articulate, serious, thoughtful and clearly ambitious.

He sent me over a collection of acoustic demos of his songs. His voice was clearly superb and some of the songs were immediate grabbers. We traded some ideas across email and the internet, but I knew, and said to him, that things would go quicker face to face. Immediately - and this was a measure of his get-it-done personality - immediately he suggested a date and booked a ticket on the Eurostar from Brussels to London, and then a train onwards to Oxford.

At the time I wasn't entirely clear how he was being funded. I didn't want to undersell myself, especially since he might have been being bankrolled by a label, so I was charging for my day. I picked him up from the station and we headed to my flat in the centre of Abingdon, and I quickly gathered that his ambition extended to totally funding everything himself out of his own pocket. This focussed my mind excellently.

Cover of the More Familiar EP, Milow's first release

Cover of the More Familiar EP, Milow's first release
We had chosen the song More Familiar to work on, and his visit was supposed to just be a writing session. But given that he'd come all that way, and that now I understood he was on the line for everything he was doing, I suggested we just went ahead and recorded it. We did it all upstairs in my flat. I suggested spacing out the verses a little bit with some piano - if memory serves the finger picking pattern continued all the way through verse and chorus originally - to give it an organic dynamic lift into the chorus, and we fiddled slightly with the structure, but there was no major surgery necessary or desired - Jonathan was already well in control of his craft. I grabbed a tiny kit from my garage and laid down a rhythm track with brushes (we were in a flat surrounded by other people so a full loud drum part wasn't possible, but thankfully necessity and art were happy bedfellows in this case). Jonathan played in the guitar, I added piano, bass and organ before Jonathan did his lead vocal and we were done in a couple of hours.

He released it to no great fanfare at home, but it did open a few doors as I understood it, getting a smattering of radio play and a few positive reviews. In my self-deprecating way I imagined that that might be the end of our relationship - it hadn't set the world alight so an ambitious fellow like him would probably look elsewhere. But he emailed again to start a discussion about making an album. And I'm going to use this forum to once again apologise to him - when we were starting to work on it he made another trip out to see me in Abingdon. While he was en route my 4 year old daughter had a small but nasty accident that required surgery, so upon emerging from the Tunnel Sous La Manche he had a message from me apologising profusely, but telling him to turn around and go home again because I was going to be at the hospital with her all day and night. I didn't think twice about the decision, but it did butt up against my sense of professionalism most uncomfortably.

He clearly wanted his album made properly, and my suggestion was that, rather than fudge stuff together in bedrooms using my ProTools LE rig, if he could stretch to a week in a proper studio we could go like the clappers and have something proper by the end of it. We could save money by me covering most of the instruments so we didn't need to pay lots of external musicians, and I would also get the mix done in the studio week. He found

Motormusic Studio in Belgium

Motormusic Studio in Belgium
Motormusic studio in Belgium who he managed to talk into a deal on a week of studio time at the end of August 2005, so I loaded my car to the absolute brim with everything I thought I might need and headed out there.

I arrived about lunchtime after driving and ferrying for 8 hours, so we had some lunch before getting into it. I was trying to make my best impression with Jonathan, the charismatic owner of the studio and the in-house engineer who we would be working with for the recording. I made myself a ham sandwich while attempting to turn on the charm.

The dining table. Crying Englishman not pictured

The dining table. Crying Englishman not pictured
!>The charm was made challenging however by the sandwich itself. The proximity of Belgium to France had led me to inwardly assume that their mustard would be similar (tangy, but not like the full on face-assault that is English mustard), so I had liberally applied swathes to my sandwich. Upon the first bite however it was clear that Belgians like their mustard much more similar to the English ‘punishing decongestant' style, but because I didn't want to ruin the charm offensive by spitting out a half chewed pellet of bread and meat I just kept chewing, and continued - painfully - through the entire rest of the sandwich. I don't *think* they noticed, but I'm sure there must have been some wondering why my eyes were glassy with tears at that early stage.

My drums in the live room at Motormusic. Since I was engineering as well we asked a friend of Jonathan's to play while I tiddled knobs in the control room

My drums in the live room at Motormusic. Since I was engineering as well we asked a friend of Jonathan's to play while I tiddled knobs in the control room

We weren't due to start until the following day, but since I was staying there (it was a residential studio, essential for the kind of hell for leather approach we had decided to take) and there was nobody in the big room that night I took the rest of the day setting up and tuning my drums. Then to sleep before the big first day.

To be honest my memories of the following week are disjointed and fractured. It was working at a fairly insane pace. I did 16 hour days almost every day, except for in the last couple of mixing days where they were closer to 18 hours as we tried to get everything finished. I was bouncing back and forth between drumming, listening, playing bass, producing, getting good takes out of Jonathan on guitar and vocals (thankfully that was falling-off-a-log easy, as he was fully prepared and totally professional) and making sure that everything was proceeding fast enough to complete the album before the deadline.

Jonathan at the back of the control room keeping an eye - and two ears - on everything

Jonathan at the back of the control room keeping an eye - and two ears - on everything
There were also mini deadlines to fit to as well - we had a string quartet coming in one afternoon, so everything with strings on had to be complete by then; we had a group of Jonthan's friends coming in to do some group claps and vibe, so that song had to be far enough along by that point; there was one day where we couldn't use the main studio, so all the drums had to be complete by then, since it would have been inefficient to tear down the whole thing and try and recreate it the day after.

Me playing the keyboards for the song Landslide. I worked as much as possible in the control room because I was engineering as well

Me playing the keyboards for the song Landslide. I worked as much as possible in the control room because I was engineering as well
My job was made slightly more fraught by the fact that the engineer assigned to us was somewhat junior, meaning I was also taking on a lot of the engineering role (microphones, placement, wiring stuff up) as well.

Throughout the course of it me and Jonathan only had one argument (I don't even remember what it was about), which, given the time pressure and how tired we were getting, was impressive. But mostly my memories are all positive and happy. I had put together string arrangements for quite a number of the songs, and recording them with the amazing string quartet that Jonathan had found was incredibly satisfying.

Me 'conducting' the string quartet. They didn't need my help in the slightest. I was just having fun

Me 'conducting' the string quartet. They didn't need my help in the slightest. I was just having fun

From the beginning I had suggested that we record on analogue tape, not for any luddite reasons of ‘warmth' or ‘organic feel', but simply because in my experience it forces you to make decisions faster. For instance, when recording a vocal on digital nowadays you will tend to record 4, 5 or 6 runs through the entire track and then compile bits of those into a final master take. Comping (as it is called) is incredibly tedious, and massively time consuming. When recording Jonathan we had one track of analogue tape. If a line was wrong we'd just do it again until it was right and then move on. This approach doesn't work unless you have a really skilful singer to work with, but thankfully he was exactly that. Some songs

Jonathan recording The Bigger Picture. One of those goosebumps moments of life.

Jonathan recording The Bigger Picture. One of those goosebumps moments of life.
(like The Bigger Picture) he nailed in one take of guitar and vocal together. Breathtaking.

The biggest disappointment for me was not really being able to get a handle on You Don't Know. I had warned when I was hired that I'm not the kind of producer who can make hits. I don't even know what hits are. I know how to be sensitive and get to the crux of a song and make it beautiful, but as for making something that will fit a radio format… well, I've got no fucking clue. And it turns out - so easy in retrospect! - that You Don't Know was just a simple and brilliant pop song, while I was turning over every stone in the garden trying to find its uniqueness and difference. Wrong wrong wrong - should have kept it simple and direct.

I mixed all the songs in one big batch. Just to prove that I was no luddite, as soon as we were mixing I transferred over to ProTools and did it mostly in the box. For mixing fast it's the perfect tool - repeatability, tweakability, fast and precise adjustments. I can't remember how long I had to mix the nine songs, but I have a feeling it was two and a half days. I had a hell of a headache by the end of it, but Milow had an album, and that was the idea.

The following month Jonathan went back into the studio without me to have another crack at You Don't Know, this time in a folk arrangement. It was wise of him, because we'd really missed the mark, but there was an air of miffedness, even though I knew it was pointless for him to try it with me again. The version of the album with this second attempt at YDK was the one released ten years and a couple of days ago. It didn't immediately explode, but it did move his career forwards. Not until he teamed up with Belgian superproducer Jo Francken in 2007 did he properly nail You Don't Know, finally making it into the hit that it was supposed to be, taking The Bigger Picture to gold status with it. When I was on the road backing Andy Yorke in late 2007 we supported Milow at the Ancienne Belgique in Brussels where he presented me with my gold record.

Jonathan, my old gibson and string charts, Motormusic, 2005

Jonathan, my old gibson and string charts, Motormusic, 2005
And that was it. In the UK our music scene is pretty sealed off from the continent so I didn't fully appreciate how ginormous he had become commercially. When we were playing the AB Club in Brussels with Frank in 2009 the radio was on in catering while we were eating, and I thought I recognised the voice singing. I checked with a local who gave me a funny look, the undercurrent of which I now understand to be "you haven't heard Ayo Technology by Milow? When it's on every radio station every hour? What rock have you been hiding under?"

I'm proud - really proud of helping Milow achieve what he wanted with The Bigger Picture with my playing and advice and listening, proud of the string parts (particularly) and the arrangements I devised for the tracks, and happy to have been a small early part of his huge and ongoing DIY success.

Nigel, Fri 5th February 2016, 11:38:20 PM
If you're reading this and wondering why there's a comment here, I'm just testing to see if it still works.

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