Recording Demos with Linda Perhacs For her “The Soul of All Natural Things” album
Yes, I’m a long exposure and night sky photographer. But I am also a recording engineer at Blueberry Buddha Recording Studios, a small home studio in Los Angeles. I had an opportunity record several songs for a demo and photograph some of the recording and arranging process that eventually got Linda Perhacs signed to Sufjan Stevens’ label Asthmatic Kitty, her first album in 44 years. Linda asked me to take photos of us making demos of songs for this much-anticipated follow-up to Perhac’s “Parallelograms”, and I thought I’d share my story and photos. The experience of recording these demos over about half a year were sometimes joyous, sometimes aggravating, sometimes beautiful, and sometimes ugly, much like life itself.
Above: Adam Von Passow, Linda Perhacs, and Julia Holter collaborating at Blueberry Buddha Recording Studios, a home studio in in Los Angeles, for the making of what became demos for Linda Perhac’s “The Soul of All Natural Things”. Taken with small Leica compact camera on 14 February 2010.
I first met Linda at Redcat Theater just after her performance, where various artists from around Los Angeles performed her songs, and she sang several with a couple of singers as well. There was a palpable excitement in the air, and seemingly a feeling that everyone wanted her to succeed. One of the songs she performed, “Parallelograms”, is an astounding song, full of intriguing and rather unique melodies and effects. Although disappointed that they did not create the effects and much of the melodies live, the song still mesmerized me. As I met her, she said that she was looking for a studio to record demos. I had a studio, and I liked her music. I was also intrigued by the fact that she had synesthesia, experiencing music as colors, so I offered my services.
After some time, Adam Von Passow, Julia Holter and I got together, talking, arranging, and discussing things at my home. Linda often showed up to these sessions with a large bag full of cheese jalapeno bagels from Vons, bagels that were really surprisingly delicious, which she brought over in her very large pickup truck.
On her first visit in January 2010, Linda Perhacs surprised us all by pulling out Loreena McKennitt and Celine Dion CDs and singing over them. She asked if I liked Celine Dion; I said no. She played a song, I don’t remember which, and then began singing over it with her own words and melodies, using the song as a guide. She would do this with a Loreeena McKennitt song as well, I think a sort of Celtic sounding song. Linda frequently surprised me with things; I never knew what she was going to ask to do or bring over (besides the cheese jalapeno bagels…that was a wonderful constant).
Thankfully, we progressed beyond this, and we began laying down some tracks with Julia playing keyboards. The first tracks were noisy because the combination of the MicroKorg and the effects pedals hissed. For later sessions, largely because Linda was unpredictable and changed her mind frequently, we threw down as many of the tracks as possible with MIDI as well so we would be able to change the notes easily and re-record them if necessary. Following her songs required us to keep open to interpreting them. Due to Linda’s synesthesia, she mapped out her songs in a different manner, one with expressive colors.
Above: a musical map, or “scroll”, drawn by Linda Perhacs for “Song of the Planets”, a beautiful way to express how she was experiencing her song, and absolutely fascinating to me, who is intrigued by synesthesia and alternative expressions of music.
Adam played her some acoustic guitar numbers, and we played her something we had been working on as Meadows of the Moon with Lisa Kelly. However, much to our surprise, Linda said she was not interested in acoustic guitar. She didn’t want to revisit the past, she said. She wanted to sound modern, and pointed to some of the keyboards in Loreena McKennitt’s music and to some of the artists who had played at the Redcat, such as Julia. Julia was a focal point to Linda from the beginning; she really gravitated toward the sound Julia had, enjoying the regenerating voices with delays Julia did as well as the overall vibe.
Above: a birds eye view of Adam, Linda, and Julia playing a MicroKorg through a multi-effects looping unit to generate voices at my home studio in Los Angeles, CA on 14 February 2010.
A Giant Surprise
Adam, however, wasn’t long for the project. In early March 2010, Linda walked through my front door. As I mentioned, she always had a surprise every time she walked through my door. But this Sunday, she outdid herself. Immediately after stepping through my door, she told me this amazing story.
She said that she had called my friend Adam mid-week. Adam works as a counselor for the dying and loved ones of the dying, doing hospice work, and is a good friend of mine, and someone I greatly admire. Upon calling him, Linda said that he used a hushed tone that she had never heard from him before. She immediately saw a black square, something she has never seen before. As Adam spoke, she sensed a strange negative thing fly through the telephone. “It was like an eel, like a laser. And it was filled with negative energy.”
Rattled by this, Linda called her friend, a sort of spiritual guidance counselor. “This man Adam is dealing with very dark forces. He cannot control them. The best thing for him to do is spend loving time with his wife and family. He needs love and light. Linda, you must not work with him anymore. You must not bring this dark force around you.”
Linda then reiterated that she cannot work with Adam anymore. Linda then asked me to tell Adam about this, saying that she did not want to call him again. Now, anyone who knows Adam knows that he is basically the embodiment of love and light, so this was rather stunning. I asked her to call Adam herself if she was going to dismiss him from the project. She refused, saying she was afraid to call him. Reluctantly, I called him.
This really should have been my first clue that this project wasn’t going to work.
Adam responded very politely, replying, “working with the dying is not dark, it is the opposite…pure light. Communion with the purest form of being.” I respected her fears, but felt them misguided, and wished Linda well on her musical journey.
As a funny aside, at the time that Linda called Adam, he had not been doing hospice work. His hushed tone was because he didn’t want to wake his kid up.
My First Misgivings
I should have bailed from this project at this point. The little voice was telling me that this probably wasn’t a great idea. Dismissing someone in this manner who had helped by giving much of his time was rude, and I was starting to grow impatient with how long the project had gone on without much to show for it. But I was still intrigued by the music and the synesthesia, and, I won’t lie, also hoping to meet some interesting artists and collaborate and get my studio name out there as well. And soon after Adam’s dismissal, Linda invited Michelle Vidal, another singer, over, and began working. I got on with Michelle right away, and liked her rich voice and energy she brought to the project, so after wavering about wanting to continue, I thought this showed some promise. I decided to forge ahead.
Above: Michelle Vidal, Julia Holter, and Linda Perhacs examining one of Linda’s musical “scrolls” at my home studio, Blueberry Buddha Recording Studios, in Los Angeles, CA on 23 May 2010.
Prisms of Glass
We began recording a very repetitive but mesmerizing song called “Prisms of Glass”. Julia’s keyboard, going through a little amp, hissed but sounded magical. Linda sang into my Lawson L251 through a Neve preamp, and Julia and sometimes Michelle sang through an Audio-Technica AT4060, all facing each other. We added layers of vocal harmonies, which I thought were beautiful.
“Prisms of Glass” was pretty song if a bit long, and I knew that later, we would need to edit this to be shorter. Linda’s vocals were wavering and she was a bit pitchy, but she said she had been singing and would get stronger, and I was sure of this also. But for now, they were quavering, and she smacked her lips quite a bit, producing very loud noises in the microphone. Linda joked and said something about her last recording engineer saying that she had the loudest lip smacks and mouth sounds. And I was not going to argue; they were the loudest I had ever heard, and I’ve recorded quite a few vocalists myself. And there were even more noises. About a minute or so into “Prisms of Glass”, Linda, who had been singing with her eyes closed, lost her balance, stumbling, and grasping for something, had banged the microphone and the stands. Whooops. I managed to edit out some of these lip smacks, mouth noises, and stumbling noises. I pointed these out repeatedly as well as the hiss from the keyboards, saying that I’d really like to redo them. Linda said that they were scratch vocals and scratch keyboards, and that we’d redo them soon.
The song slowly took shape. I added toy chimes and filter sweeps from a Korg MS-20. Linda didn’t like the filter sweeps, although others did. She thought they sounded “funny”. After a short debate, she asked, “Can you just lower them then?” I did. These of course never appeared on the final song from her album. We did, however, add a cello, which I really liked, played by a female whose name I cannot remember, but I believe she was a friend of Michelle’s. There is more cello in my version than the final version, but it sounds good in each instance, and I generally like the final version that appears on the album, and also love the fact that the song is noticeably shorter than our 6-minute opus, which I had already hacked down from 8 minutes.
Above: a musical map, or “scroll”, drawn by Linda Perhacs to describe one “Song of the Planets”.
Photographing The Recording Process
Another time, Linda said, “I have seen some of your photos. They’re beautiful. I would like you to take me up to Topanga to take some publicity photographs. And I would like you to document the making of these songs. Could you take more photos of us working?” I agreed. Prior to this, I had just taken a few casual photos with my compact camera. I now started photos with a Nikon D50, the DSLR that I had at the time.
Above: a portrait of Linda Perhacs at Aaron Robinson’s home in Echo Park, California on 16 May 2010. Linda, originally was a popular cheerleader in a Mill Valley high school, a beautiful area north of San Francisco, before moving to the Los Angeles area, and still retains her beautiful looks today. This was not part of that “Topanga Canyon” image that she wanted to portray, but I just didn’t see what was wrong with being multi-faceted and what was wrong with being a cheerleader in high school. Photo taken with a Nikon D50 and a Nikkor 18-200mm VR f/3.5-5.6 lens.
I asked Linda about her synesthesia. She had had it since she could remember. She described hearing sounds, sounds of violence, that jolted her out of bed. They turned out to be a violent TV show that some of the kids who lived with her had been watching. Other times, she described hearing music as different lights. I told her about a book called “The Man Who Tasted Shapes” by Richard Cytowik, but she didn’t seem to relate to this very much. She said that she could see patterns of music, color and light, experiencing it as three-dimensional patterns. She said that although she lived in Topanga briefly with her husband, an artist, she never took hallucinogens. “Parallelograms” had psychedelic touches, to be sure, but felt that drugs were negative and wanted no part of it. I wasn’t sure what the “black square” and the “strange negative eel” that flew through her telephone was about, but it did give me some doubts, particularly since Adam wasn’t around “death” at the time, as she had assumed.
The numbers of participants began growing. Linda pulled in a guitarist named Aaron Robinson who had played on “Parallelograms” at the Redcat performance and Robbie Williamson from the electro-dance troupe “We Are The World”, and, generally finished with “Prisms of Glass”, we began working on another song called “Intensity.”
Remixing Intensity an Electro-Dance Number
Another surprise. Linda wanted this electro-dance version of “Intensity” (the album version doesn’t sound so electro-dance and has more hand percussion, which I think is well suited for the song). We had recorded some really rough scratch vocals at my house, and now, Robbie wanted me to send it to him; I did.
Above: Robbie Williamson of the Los Angeles-based dance troupe We Are The World” and Linda Perhacs at Aaron Robinson’s house on 16 May 2010, working out some of the arrangements for an electro-dance remix of the vocals I had recorded to “Intensity”. Photo taken with a Nikon D50 and a Nikkor 18-200mm VR f/3.5-5.6 lens.
Above: Michelle Vidal and Aaron Robinson at Aaron’s house in Echo Park, California, taken 16 May 2010 while working on “Intensities”. Photo taken with a Nikon D50 and a Nikkor 18-200mm VR f/3.5-5.6 lens.
Above: Aaron Robinson working out a dobro part for “Intensity”. Aaron is an uber-gifted guitarist that I got along with quite well. Photo taken with a Nikon D50 and a Nikkor 18-200mm VR f/3.5-5.6 lens.
Above: Linda Perhacs working out a keyboard part for “Intensity” with Julia Holter on Julia’s Microkorg at Aaron Robinson’s Echo Park house on 16 May 2010. Photo taken with a Nikon D50 and a Nikkor 18-200mm VR f/3.5-5.6 lens.
Another day, Linda said, “I played ‘Prisms of Glass’ for a recording engineer, and you know what he said? The track is too noisy and has lip smacks and amp noise and sounds unprofessional!” I found these remarks irritating, and I told her so. I said that I had repeatedly pointed out that the keyboard track hissed, she had lots of mouth noises, she stumbled while recording, that they were scratch vocals, and that we were supposed to re-record her vocals and the noisy keyboards. She said no, she was ready to finish the song.
Above: Linda Perhacs, Michelle Vidal, and Julia Holter getting ready to record at my house, otherwise known as Blueberry Buddha Recording Studios, in Los Angeles, CA on 23 May 2010. I believe this might have been the last time Linda and the others recorded at my house. Photo taken with a Leica D4 compact camera, natural lighting.
The Final Straw
She then asked me to submit my individual tracks for “Prisms of Glass”, and her and Aaron began saying that they wanted to remix the album, saying that there were few EQ and mix elements that they wanted to shape so my recording of “Prisms of Glass” melded a little more sonically with “Intensity”, now an electro-dance number, and the new version another song named “Delicious”. Aaron assured me that it would still be my production, but wanting to do different mixes and add various elements.
This was the final straw for me. For months, Linda had been repeatedly promising that she would furnish a contact from her lawyer, and kept promising me “points on the backside”. I said I would not hand over any individual tracks until she furnished a contract. She never called or came over again.
I wish Linda and everyone the best success and happiness. She’s gigging around more and more up and down the coast and in Europe. My favorite bit of news was that she was an Opeth fan and was going to see them at the Mayan in October 2011 (!) since they had revealed they were fans of hers. She’s made an amazing comeback. It’s a great story, and the album has some pretty moments. It’s not my thing exactly, but it’s been getting really good reviews, and seems to be very well-received, and will undoubtedly bring greater success.
I am a photographer who loves long exposure, night sky, and star trails photography. My photos have been featured in various magazines and publications, and have won photo contests with the LA Times, Smithsonian, The Daily Dozen at National Geographic, and that kind of thing. I give photography workshops on light painting and star trails to share the joy in running around waving flashlights in the dark while keeping their shutters open!
I record music at Blueberry Buddha Recording Studios, play keyboards and guitar, and have written for EQ Magazine. My music, strange as it sometimes is, has still somehow been featured on BBC, Radio Moscow, NPR, and many more as well as the Felicity television series, numerous VH1 and MTV programs, and the films 21 and Echoes of Enlightenment.