Tam Lin Meets Mario J. McNulty
May 28, 2009 by Janice Brown
EAST VILLAGE, MANHATTAN: When you’re an acoustic guitar-playing singer/songwriter with folk tales to tell, everyone wants you to be the next Dylan. But Tam Lin has other plans.
“The music that I like and want to make is a lot more lush than just me and an acoustic guitar,” says Tam Lin’s Paul Weinfeld. “But, when I was getting ready to make my new record, I interviewed some producers who heard my songs and lyrics, and immediately thought to go in a rootsy direction. That’s cool, but it’s not really my sound.”
Named for the folk hero, and song adapted by Fairport Convention, Tam Lin’s music springs from the English folk tradition, composed from acoustic, electric and ambient sources. At the core, Tam Lin is Weinfeld, a singer/songwriter — the son of a classical composer and a poet — who also teaches religion at Columbia University. There is both lyrical and musical depth to Tam Lin, and he’s sonically ambitious to boot.
“I’ve been influenced by experimental folk artists like John Martyn, who brought open tunings and ambient sounds into his folk music,” says Weinfeld. “He’d perform solo on guitar with an Echoplex, and create these big, gorgeous sounds.” (He cites this Martyn performance from ’78:
When preparing to make his latest recording, Weinfeld sought out a producer/engineer he’d connect with creatively, someone who’d bring a sense of sonic adventure to the project. Those creative sparks finally flew when he met NYC-based producer/engineer Mario J. McNulty (David Bowie, The Raveonettes, Anti-Flag, Alejandro Escovedo, Angelique Kidjo).
“It’s funny, I didn’t hear Bob Dylan at all,” says McNulty, of his first impression. “Paul is more of a Leonard Cohen or Nick Drake, a gentle singer/songwriter, with this lush, almost Lee Hazelwood-style music.” Sitting with a CD of Tam Lin demos, McNulty began formulating some production ideas.
“I thought of the Talk Talk records I’m really fond of – Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock,” says McNulty. “Those are really unique records, it’s almost like free-form art-rock jazz and, sonically, they’re really interesting; textured and very ambient. Paul has this soft, intimate voice, and I thought he’d fit perfectly with that sort of subtle ambient production.”
The two began mapping out a Tam Lin project. “I have hundreds of songs in demo form,” says Weinfeld, “Mario and I decided to do four songs as a kind of EP sampler of my work, and then hopefully find funding to complete a full record.”
OMNICHORDS, OPEN TUNINGS & DIRTY TRUMPETS
McNulty booked four days at Stratosphere Studios, a NYC indie-rock favorite for its spacious layout, analog equipment (Neve 8078) and classic instruments, amps, analog synths and effects boxes.
A thoughtful arranger, Weinfeld had his songs worked out with McNulty prior to hitting the studio, but left room for experimentation at Stratosphere. “I had my arrangements, which I’d composed in MIDI using Miroslav Philharmonik, but Mario pushed me to use new and different sounds — some instruments, effects and techniques I’d never considered before,” says Weinfeld. “I arranged with organic string parts in mind, but Mario encouraged me to use more synthetic-sounding strings, so it wasn’t about finding the most faithful reproduction, it was about exploring different and even, odd, sounds.”
McNulty worked an Omnichord into Tam Lin’s five-minute murder ballad, “In The Twilight.” “That song is kind of a dreamscape, so I had this idea to use an Omnichord to get a kind of swirling sound happening,” McNulty shares. “I’ve only used an Omnichord twice before — on a Finn Brothers record and on the last Bowie record, but I knew it would work really well on ‘In The Twilight,’ which is the most conceptual track.”
McNulty’s production approach on the tunes “Age of Ignorance” and “Begin Again” played up some sonic contrasts to Weinfeld’s soft, intimate vocal. The trumpet solo on the latter, for example, had in previous iterations of the song felt too smooth and jazzy to Weinfeld, so McNulty dirtied it up Talk Talk-style. “I always admired the sound of Talk Talk’s distorted harmonicas — they sound so loud, almost abrasive, and they make such a statement in the song,” says McNulty. “So, I used that idea on trumpet for ‘Begin Again.’ I dirtied it up by adding distortion, feeding it through a guitar amp and it really darkens the sound for that solo. Those once super-sweet frequencies are tamed in the process, and then you can make it loud and gnarly.”
On the soulful, tightly grooving “Anna Lee,” McNulty’s production tamed the disco quality of the demo. “We used basically the same arrangement and vocal approach as on the demo, but we recorded it organically, adding acoustic instruments and getting a bit more creative with overdubs,” says McNulty. “We made it more rock-and-roll, in the spirit of The Band. We added an organ, which made such a big difference and we used a lot of analog synths. The chorus has this great Lee Hazelwood string part happening under his vocal. The synth sounds we used make everything sound saturated and classic.”
Another major Tam Lin sound emanates from the baritone guitar. “We used a lot of Stratosphere’s Danelectro baritone guitar tuned to open D,” notes Weinfeld, “So, I could just kapo to the right spot and then play whole notes, and just kind of strum. We played that through an old Ampeg amp turned up really loud.”
McNulty mixed the Tam Lin EP at producer/mixer/musician Mark Plati’s studio in the East Village, a private studio where he also recently mixed the latest Anti-Flag record, The People Or The Gun. He’s also currently mixing songs for Laurie Anderson’s upcoming record, Homeland.
“What’s been especially cool about working with Mario is that he’s really experimental but he’s also worked with popular artists who push things in weird directions, like Bowie, as opposed to just some experimental bands from Brooklyn,” adds Weinfeld. “The artists he’s worked with cut through.”