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October 23, 2013

Seven Saturdays Find the Voice in Instrumental Music

By Jonathan D. Haskell of Seven Saturdays

Jonathan Haskell of Seven Saturdays. Photo by Zoe-Ruth Erwin.

Jonathan D. Haskell of Seven Saturdays
Photo by Zoe-Ruth Erwin

As an instrumentalist, having recorded post-rock and ambient records, the closest I’d come to working with vocalists was the occasional vocal sample of a female whispering in French, a pop artist lending whispy “oohs” and “aahs” over beds of Rhodes and looped guitar, or a distant voice recorded via shortwave radio and buried under static. Other than those infrequent nuances, everything that my band Seven Saturdays related was purely instrumental, in the vein of Mogwai and Brian Eno. Frankly, that’s where I get the most satisfaction and enjoy the most freedom when making music.

After a few instrumental EPs and one full-length ambient LP, I noticed that the songs that had an immediate impact on the listener were those that contained vocals - and by the listener, I mean me. I felt that vocals, no matter how incidental, simply made the music more engaging. Moving forward with what would become my 2013 LP Seven Saturdays, I wanted to take this vocal approach further and collaborate with a wish list of singers, both female and male, in an up-front and featured capacity. This would bring on a whole new list of challenges in the recording process, and would change not only the way I made instrumental music, but also enhanced the way I heard the finished product.

When my focus was solely on music itself, the approach was simple – start with a sparse Rhodes melody and one guitar loop, and begin layering. I would add everything from strings, additional guitars and synthesizers to vibraphone, glockenspiel, vocoders, pedal steel, drums and on and on. At that point, the entire session would become my engineer/producer’s “problem” to sort through and mix. No space was made for the addition of lead vocals. That came later in the mix when we could really blend it all together. 

Aside from knowing full well that we were about to make a vocal record, the approach for Seven Saturdays was pretty much the same. We knew we wanted singers, but we treated the vocals as if they’d be a lead guitar or special guest, and would simply embed their tracks within the working mixes. After spending over a year creating the instrumental beds, I began to reach out to various vocalists to see if they’d be interested in writing the melodies and words to these songs.

Some of the songs were easier sells than others. They had more concrete structures and easier-to-follow chord charts. But others were less straightforward. On “Only Love” (featuring Rain Phoenix from LA’s Papercranes) for example, if you take out the minimalist drum loop, it’s as structure-free as anything on my ambient Love in the Time of Anticipated Defeat record. But Rain heard it, made it her own, and a new song was born.

Some of the vocalists would come into our downtown LA studio. Others would work in their own studios and send their vocals to us to work with on our own. Overall, the logistics of working with vocalists in this fashion were the most challenging aspect of this experiment, mostly because it simply takes time to reach out, send tracks, write, record, and mix vocals into what was already incredibly dense music. It easily took a year to complete just the “vocalist” portion of this record. Also, given that not every singer was based in Los Angeles, we were flying tracks around a lot, and having to match the sonic variables present in each recording with one another so that the record maintained a cohesive vibe.

With Seven Saturdays, I would say that the x-factor was most definitely the mix, and more specifically, Daniel Farris’s (St. Vincent, Man or Astro-man?) task of sifting through everything and finding a nice balance between the music and the voice. But we didn’t set out to make a pop record. We really wanted this to feature the music and the voice as one. That said, it's worth noting that this is very much a Seven Saturdays record, and not a collection of singles. If there’s one thing that unifies the album as a whole, it’s the drone of two years of noise pulsing beneath, changing keys with each song and providing a sonic base on which everything else rests.

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Los Angeles musician/producer Jonathan D. Haskell's work as Seven Saturdays is informed by the desolation of afterhours Los Angeles. From dimly lit Mulholland Drive to the isolated streets of Downtown, it is in these quiet moments symphonic landscapes emerge; coming together to form the headphone-centric Seven Saturdays. Seven Saturdays began in 2010 when Haskell wanted to sharpen his engineering skills on off days during the recording of his first two EPs (Seven Saturdays - which Stereogum described as "gripping and mellowly epic" - & The Snowflakes That Hit Us Became Our Stars). On the eponymous Seven Saturdays, Haskell merges his two past creative approaches - the structured and the ambient - in one holistic vision. For Haskell personally, this Seven Saturdays album will forever be a signpost marking a significant turning point in his life. In the middle of recording of the album Jonathan left Los Angeles to pursue a MBA at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, planning to continue to work on the album remotely. It took ten days to drop out and return to LA to finish the record. Find Seven Saturdays online at www.sevensaturdaysmusic.com.

The new LP Seven Saturdays is now available. Pick it up on iTunes or as a limited edition, signed and numbered CD

Collaborators on Seven Saturdays include Daniel Farris (St. Vincent), Colin Stetson (Tom Waits, Arcade Fire), Rain Phoenix (papercranes), Rachel Stolte (Great Northern), Dan Schwartz (Rosanne Cash, Jon Hassell), Jerry Marotta (Peter Gabriel, Hall & Oates), Jim Evens (Helen Stellar), Vanessa Fernandez (Octover), Alex Lilly (Bird and the Bee), Matt Rollings (Lyle Lovett, Billy Joel), Genevieve Artadi (Pollyn), Jacqueline Santillan (Wait.Think.Fast) and Mike Garson (David Bowie, Smashing Pumpkins).