Elusive moments of synergy
World-beating South African musical phenomenon Freshlyground finished recording their new album in Cape Town before jetting off to shows in New York
IT’S EARLY January and Freshlyground are holed up in a studio in Long Street, laying down the tracks for their new album. They aired the songs in their raw state late last year, less than a 10-minute walk away, in a unique and intimate few evenings at the Waiting Room, then returned to their practice studio to tweak and perfect them.
At around the same time, they secured the services of New Yorkbased Grammy-winning producer Fabrice “Fab” DuPont, whose many credits include recording Jennifer Lopez, Marc Ronson and Isaac Hayes, among other big names.
Now it’s the final stages of one of many morning sessions in the studio as the band records, and rerecords, the songs that will make it on to their new album.
Fab is dancing around in the studio, delighted at tiny moments of sound or, perhaps, by what his music-producer mind can envisage in a final mix, in the single we will soon hear on radio.
There’s a chair for Fab in the control room of Keith Farquharson’s Sugarfoot Studios but there might as well not be. On the first bar of the song, Fab is up and jiving. Halfway through he’s bent down to shove the chair aside.
Moments later, he’ll have to listen to the viewpoints of seven world-class musicians and, more or less, be telling them what he expects them to do next.
Creating a good album is a delicate process. The music must sound live, fresh and authentic, which involves recording a piece many times over to ensure a perfect take.
Each time a song is played live, though, there’s a slight difference to the way it unfolds. A version needs to be selected that captures the mood the band is going for and fits with the other songs already bagged. It’s a finicky process.
Also, in this case, Freshlyground and Fab have opted for a “live” feel. Rather than doing multiple takes on each instrument and then spending endless deft hours crafting these together, Keith has set up his studio so that Freshlyground can all see one another and interact, but without the sounds of their instruments interfering with the separate channels that each is recorded on.
Violinist Kyla-Rose Smith and flautist Simon Attwell are close together, facing a central room in which bassist Josh Hawks and drummer Peter Cohen have a clear sight-line, the rhythm section which powers the band along.
On the other side of the room are keyboardist “Shaggy” Scheepers, near the percussion he also plays, and guitarist Julio Sigauque, who also picks up the banjo occasionally.
The recording process is hardest, perhaps, on singer Zolani Mahola. To ensure that sound from the instruments does not reach the microphone capturing her vocals, she is tucked away in an acoustically insulated vocal booth.
Also, while the repeated takes of a recording session are a merciless assault on the fingers of guitarplayers and violinists, the arms and shoulders of keyboardist and drummers, and the lungs and lips of flautists, they’re particularly trying on the vocal chords of a singer.
It shows as the band convenes in the control room to listen to the track they’ve just played twice. A beat or two after they finished the first play-through, Fab glanced at Keith, who patched him through to the musicians, and said: “Okay, it was great. Now, no talking, no thinking. We play it again, just straight. You are ready; now go.”
The band all sit on chairs or the couch, but Zolani lies down, eyes closed, listening intently. It’s a touching moment, seeing the dynamics between the seven individuals who make up the band and the two people in charge of the technical and creative elements that make a record work.
Consider that this is repeated, take after take, and that the band is aiming for the elusive moment of perfect synergy across their different instruments.
A dozen books on group dynamics could be penned from observations in this control room. As the song is played back, each musician must assess their own performance and hear how it meshes with the whole. They’re also hearing parts where, perhaps, a fellow player didn’t quite crack it. It’s a time where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, but here sit the parts, and each one is a person who needs to make calls that affect the others.
“I wake up early Monday morning down to Friday/Can’t catch no taxi ’cause I can’t afford the money/ Baby want this, baby want that/I am the working class, but I ain’t got no work,” goes one of the band’s new songs, Working Class. They play it over and over. Somehow, it’s an apt title that captures the ethos of this band and the reality this behind-the-scenes glimpse affords.
They’re not working class, but there’s a lot of work involved and a punishing Monday to Friday of studio time to bring us the songs that we get to dance to.
The new Freshlyground songs are being mastered in New York and are due for release later this year. See Freshlyground.com and FabulousAudioBlog.blogspot.com