New Old Music 5: “Babyface:” A collaboration with Mark Duckworth (2005)

DURATION: 4min., 08 sec. This is the fifth installment in a retrospective series of music I’ve made in the deep dark past. This track is a collaboration with Mark Duckworth of Gold Coast band The Greys, and South-East Queensland live music guru/bigwig. The recording features Mark playing his own composition on acoustic guitar and singing lead/backing vocals. It was the first record I ever produced that successfully distilled my ideas about crafting records (to quote Brian Eno) as a “plastic art” – as opposed to focusing primarily on capturing a live performance in the studio.

Background:

Mark and I both studied at Griffith University, doing the Bachelor of Popular Music program. I heard a very rough demo of this song one day and instantly fell in love with it. Mark was (and probably still is) a prolific songwriter and he was quite blasé about it. It was just one of so many. I couldn’t believe this song wasn’t his top priority for promotion. I’d spent the previous few years doing a lot of trial and (mostly) error experimentation in the recording studio honing my engineering chops and ideas regarding production techniques and saw an opportunity here. I asked Mark if he’d be open to letting me use him (and his song) as a record production guinea pig. That is, I wanted to record Phil Spector-style (but without the guns); not in a live-in-the-studio/wall-of-sound-sense, but have total control/veeto-rights over all aspects of the making of the record. To be fair, it was probably more of a Mike Chapman or Mutt Lange sense of meticulousness that I was negotiating for. To his credit, Mark trusted me enough to say “Yeah, go for it.”

Game-plan:

It was because of Mark’s courage and trust that the record turned out as well as it did. It wasn’t easy for him, but it paid off. The original demo was marked by a passionate vocal delivery with a really wide dynamic range (Mark is an amazing singer with a great range of tones including that “Lennon-growl”). My idea however, was to make the record an exercise in restraint, but only to serve the real aim of fully capturing (even, dare I say it, heightening) all the emotional power of the demo’s performance in a “controlled” recorded medium. I would get Mark to sing and play guitar in a detached manner and constant volume level, then transferring the emotionality into the instrumental/backing vocal arrangement.

I remembered a conversation I’d previously had with engineer Mike Stravou about the vocal performance on a Pretenders record he’d worked on called “Brass In Pocket” (one of all-time my favourite records/mixes). Mike said that Chrissy Hynde started off by tracking the vocal quite expressively but producer Chris Thomas encouraged her to sing in a more off-handed manner (despite the emphatic lyrics). The end result still sounds passionate indeed in the context of the whole mix and with two passes through a 1176 limiter to emphasise annunciation. Mike also noted that instruments and voices, when recorded softly, produce harmonics quite different those when “belted out.”

Execution:

So the plan was hatched and the lines were drawn. Mark came in one day with his guitar and played to a basic time-keeping rhythm-box. We quickly tracked his vocal singing at whisper volume close up on a mic in an acoustically dead room. Day 2 we collaborated on a backing vocal arrangement/performance and Mark left me to get on with adding the rest. This included electric guitars, bass, multiple keyboards, “ooh” vocal samples, and mixing.

I’m happy to say that this track became a personal bench mark in terms of production process and aesthetics-as-emotion. In particular, it demonstrated the importance of transparent role negotiation between participants – something that later became a core topic in my PhD thesis. Best of all perhaps was the fact that Mark later told me his friend Tyrone Noonan played the song to Grant McLennan of the Go-Betweens (a big hero of mine) who made a point of saying he really like it. That meant a lot to me….still does. Thanks Mark.

 

Credits: Mark Duckworth: Songwriting, backing voice co-arranging, lead voice, backing voices, acoustic guitar. Marshall Heiser: Instrumental arrangement, backing voice co-arranging, backing voices, electric guitars, bass guitar, keyboards, engineering, mixing and production. (p) (c) 2005 Mark Duckworth and Marshall Heiser.