Mobile Studio Sessions – SXSW – Kelly McGrath
South by SouthWest is, quite frankly, always a bit of a brain fry. I don’t mind, simply because I have never been there not working. I can’t imagine just attending as the amount of decisions to be made when no one is paying you to be anywhere are just too much. Lucky us, we were working. We were on the job for one of our sponsors, Sennheiser, who were sending us artists from the Paste Magazine showcase at SXSW. Our team split up; with Ariff and Zack off to cover the remainder of the Ambassadors’ performances and Taylor and myself (Lonely Paul) tasked with running the sessions on the bus.
We discovered our rhythm in these sessions as well. My position, while continuously addressed as engineer in the planning phase, really amounts to producer. Taylor, on hand to film the sessions, had spent the previous year working with everyone who came through the sessions and is no slouch in the recording world himself. So, rather than having a guy around to film the session and wait a lot while we made things happen for the session, Taylor was able to double as engineer. I am quite happy with our discovery. We have to move pretty quickly in there and the second set of hands left me to sort routing, make choices about preamps and microphones and then leave the fine tuning positioning to happen once I am out of the tracking room and manning the desk and DAW. Conveniently placed in the live room; Taylor was then right on hand to roll camera when I pressed the red button. The MobileStudio Recording Team was born of necessity and led to efficiency. This is what happens when your team of creatives are all multi-disciplinary in their abilities: you save time and money and get things done.
The first artist Sennheiser sent over was the lovely and charming Kelly McGrath. Kelly is a recent transplant from Los Angeles to Nashville who performs as a country artist. However, I feel like her work really transcends a genre that has become hard to discern from MOR or adult alternative or whatever other thing they are calling things for the sake of promoting them at the counter of Starbucks or whatever. Kelly is more classic in her interpretations of the genre, recalling artists like Patsy Cline, some have even referenced Janis Joplin in her case, but I was never a Janis man so it didn’t automatically occur to me. Regardless of what you call what she does, it really is quite lovely to watch her perform and she has an instant charisma that makes her material endearing and heart wrenching all at once.
I don’t really know what happened or how it started, but I remember this: we all really hit it off. Maybe it was shared humor. Maybe it was just that SXSW thing where you’re all far from home, whether for the past few months or just the week, but you don’t have your usual support network and you are open to bonding. Whatever it was, within a few minutes of talking to Kelly, we had determined that we were going to catch her material in the raw, the way she performs it live. We had already set her session up estimating for the fact that she was bringing an acoustic and that we thought we would shoot for comfort. We opened up the space in the live room and set up a two mic session for the acoustic, with the Sennheiser e914 pointing down the neck and the MK4 at the mouth of the body. I then ran our Neumann TLM103 as a vocal mic. I ran the e914 through the ADL 600 and ran the Neumann and the MK4 both through the True P2 Analog Preamp. Taylor had sat and played guitars and done a basic level check for me, so when Kelly got there, we were ready to go.
We took advantage of the simplified set up and just sat down with Kelly and shot the breeze. We filled her full of water, hummus, and pita chips and then just talked about everything from life and love to what brought all of us to SXSW this year. As for the specifics of the conversation, well, that’s between us. More importantly, we all really bonded in the start of the session, making a very comfortable place for Kelly to give us an intimate and beautiful performance. I’ve said things about the importance of vibes in my session, and this was a completely organic and unplanned way of doing exactly what I try to focus on in the studio. I wonder if there will ever be an artist I work with where the session goes quite this way and I don’t recommend trying to force such a thing. We were just very lucky to all end up in one room together and gel like we did. So, if you are reading about our sessions and taking notes; sincerity is important and comfort is everything. Keeping snacks on hand for your talent and making sure they have everything they need to not feel like something outside of the studio space is pulling them away is key to all of this vibe setting business.
Eventually we solved all matters concerning life, the universe and everything else. With all that behind us, we still had two hours to track. So we parked our lovely little performer in the studio, grabbed her a bottle of water and fine tuned our level and mic positions to fit her now that we had her in position. Once I heard her voice coming in through the mics, I wired in a light reverb on an aux send and sort of formed the sound of the track by blending my three sources within it. I was pretty much instantly happy, having created a mix that, combined with Kelly’s performance style, really would finish itself. For the record, all I used on the tracks were the stock standard Pro Tools Channel Strip plugin and the good old D-verb plugin. A little compression dropped behind the D-verb which I set to a short decay and we were in business. We ended up tracking three songs with Kelly: “Fool For You,” “Lighting Strikes,” and “Say Goodbye.” I honestly couldn’t have been happier and Kelly herself seemed pleased with the results. More importantly, by the time the session was done, she had faith in us to the point that I don’t think she was even particularly concerned with hearing the playback. We ended up just going back into chatting mode and I eventually stepped aside and let Taylor take care of interviewing her. I couldn’t have been happier with the results and I was completely confident to hand off to Taylor to let him wrap things up. As for the adventures we had after the session, I’ll let Taylor tell you about that too.
While in LA, Kelly was finding out who she was as an artist, and being surrounded by a plethora of artists helped her find her own voice. She found the unique quality to her voice and sound which is country but different enough to be completely her own. She realized that moving back to Nashville was the move to make so she could be around other country artists. “It took me going out to LA to find out who I was as an artist and all my friends told me that Nashville is the place to be for an artist of my particular sound.”
“Life inspires me. What I am going through and all my travels are what inspire my music.” Being in Austin is another trip which inspires Kelly to write and record her original music. She noted how last year gave her a lot of inspiration to write new material. “Being around other talented artists, watching showcases, and talking to other musicians really inspire me to write and I always look forward to coming to SXSW.”
Kelly is sponsored by Sennheiser; a relationship which began at the NAMM show in Anaheim, CA and Kelly is excited to be apart of the Sennheiser family. After getting the E945 microphone at NAMM she has taken it on the road with her and used it in her live performances. She commented on how the microphone is durable and road worthy which is great for her and all her travels. “Being on the road, I can be confident with this microphone. I can throw it up against a wall and still rest assured that it will work for me every night on the road.”
Kelly was very excited to be on the Mobile Studio recording her original material and we were even more excited to have her on. Kelly is a great artist with a great personality. We will follow Kelly McGrath closely and you guys should too. Find out more about Kelly at kellymcgrathmusic.com.