In-Session: Phil Palazzolo With Nicole Atkins & The Black Sea
January 27, 2010 by Janice Brown
PARK SLOPE, BROOKLYN — We recently caught up with Brooklyn-based producer/engineer Phil Palazzolo who’s been working on the new Nicole Atkins record. “I think this is her time,” he says of the New Jersey songstress and her new material. “She’s definitely due.”
The same could be said of Palazzolo. He’s been in-the-trenches working with bands for over a decade — producing, engineering, playing guitar/bass, touring, mixing FOH, etc — most notably engineering on Radio 4’s Gotham, Stealing of a Nation and Enemies Like This. And over the last few years, his star’s been rising.
He produced/engineered on The New Pornographers Challengers and A.C. Newman’s Get Guilty, and has been working through a whirlwind of back-to-back projects ever since, with Neko Case, Okkervil River, The Bogmen, Bird of Youth, Ted Leo and the new New Pornographers.
Early in 2010, Palazzolo started sessions with the newly formed Nicole Atkins & The Black Sea at Seaside Lounge Recording in Park Slope to make the full-length follow-up her ’07 debut LP, Neptune City. Atkins has a new band in the Black Sea, a new producer in Palazzolo, and a new sound is emerging. Read all about it:
So, how did you and Nicole Atkins come to work together?
About two years ago, she sang with a choir that backed up Feist on David Letterman. A.C. Newman from The New Pornographers was also part of that choir and got to talking to Nicole Atkins and had her come sing on the sessions for what would become his solo album, which I produced. Then, I played guitar in the A.C. Newman band and Nicole came and did backup vocals live, so I got to know her even better.
We’ve been talking about working together for a while now. She got a ton of songs together, and called me saying she wanted to get going right away. I’d just finished the Ted Leo record, and was just wrapping up mixes for the next New Pornographers record, so it was perfect timing to do the record in January and February.
How’d you get started and where are you working?
We did a week of pre-production in Seaside Lounge’s B Room. Pre-production involved finding the strongest parts of the songs and bringing them out. Sometimes that meant changing the feel and the pace of things. Then we started on basic tracks in Seaside’s A room. We just finished four days of basics and actually got to some overdubs and vocals. It’s starting to really sound like a record — we’re in that exciting phase where you can really hear it coming together.
Her last record was really lush and orchestrated, and kind of dark/melancholy. How does this record compare to that, and what would you say she’s trying to accomplish in the studio?
After getting a chance to live with her other record, I thought — yes, it is lush and it’s beautiful, but it’s also a bit disjointed. It kind of feels like it took two years to make, maybe with a little too much time passing between sessions. The new record is a little bit more fun in spots. There are some lighter and more upbeat numbers that she didn’t really have on the last record. I really want to showcase what she can do beyond the brooding Dusty Springfield-revamp type of sound.
So, is it more of a band record?
Yes, I’d say so. And she has a new band. Most of the guys are from New Jersey and play together in this other band [Sikamor Rooney]. They’re hometown guys and they’ve all known each other for a long time, whereas her other record was largely session players. Working with session players can be awesome, and we’re definitely going to bring in guests for specialty parts, but on the whole, there’s a real band making up the foundation.
So how would you say you’re working with her to realize the sound / direction for this album. Are you trying different things to figure out what it is?
Well, first I tried to get a sense of what she didn’t like about the last record and the recording experience overall. And then I listened to the songs, which were largely just fairly simple demos, some of them were actually produced in a way that sounded like a band, but not exactly what she was after.
In listening to the demos, I tried to find what I thought would tie them together and how to make them feel more like a whole record rather than a year and a half’s worth of writing and demoing in different places.
Is there anything different or noteworthy about how you’re recording any of the elements — vocals, drums, etc…?
Well, I’m using a lot of different approaches, song by song. I think it’s so easy to make someone like her sound incredible that sometimes you just have to have the balls to say ‘I’m going to put this through a bullhorn.” No matter what you do, she’s this incredible singer, and it doesn’t always have to be pretty. There are moments on this record where her vocal will be totally brash, like Karen O, but she’s still this amazing singer underneath and it sounds really cool.
So, you’re gritting up the sound a bit, cool. And how have you been recording her vocals?
We’ve recorded her in the booth on some songs, but on others, I plan on using the big live room space a lot more. On some tracks, you’ll picture a girl standing on a stage in a huge room when you hear her vocal.
So far I’ve been using what I call the Motown mic on her, which is a Neumann KM 86. In the first few years of Motown’s existence, they only owned KM86s because Berry Gordy got a deal on them, so everything you hear — drums, bass, vocals, guitars, strings, etc… — all were recorded with the same type of microphone.
Sidenote: All of Motown’s KM86s are now at Avatar. When they dismantled the first facility and built the “real Motown studio,” the guy who built Power Station bought everything from Motown and stored it until he built Power Station. He also faithfully recreated (in dimensions and materials) the Motown studio in one of their upstairs rooms.
That’s awesome, I didn’t realize they had all the original Motown mics. Now, will you produce this entire record at Seaside? Or will you go elsewhere for mixing?
We’ll do all the recording at Seaside and then I think we’ll mix at The Carriage House in Stamford, CT. That place has a great history [The Pixies’ Doolittle was made there] and the SSL (4048 E/G) is a great mix disk. Plus, you live there for the duration, so you’re not chained to a console thinking of all the work you have to get done in the next 10 hours, because you’re not leaving. You have time to walk away and come back with fresh ears. That’s really helpful.
If I was working in a comparably-equipped room in NYC, it would be very expensive and so we’d be pressed for time. In the last few months, I mixed The New Pornographers and the Ted Leo records at The Carriage House.