Over the last few years, the majority of live shows I’ve played have been as a guitar player in James McKean and the Blueberry Moon.
I’ve written about James before, but to save you reading an old piece, we met at university some 20 years ago, and we’ve been playing music together more or less ever since. After his old band, the ‘A’ Train, broke up, James began making solo albums, and I’ve been helping him to do it: recording, mixing, playing instruments, co-producing and generally lending a hand wherever I could.
The last James McKean and the Blueberry Moon album was recorded over a number of separate sessions at my flat, James’s flat, my dad’s house and One Cat studio in London (operated by Jon Clayton of Hurtling), with the personnel different on every song. It hangs together remarkably well as an album, but this time, James wanted to record all the basic tracks live at One Cat as a five-piece live band, with Jon engineering, and keep overdubbing to a minimum. The idea was that we’d then have a unified sound throughout the whole record (mission successful), which could be more or less replicated live (mission successful), and get the whole thing done quickly (mission less successful).
The band was/is a really good one (even though I was in it). On drums we had Jono Bell (formerly of the Ligers) and on bass Matt Lloyd (Southern Tenant Folk Union), while ace singer-songwriter Chris Brambley and I played electric guitar, and James played acoustic and sang.
On most songs, that’s the entire instrumental palette, but we also had Basia Bartz of Dana Immanuel and the Stolen Band playing violin on two songs, while Nick Frater helped us out with some brass sounds on another couple of songs. James and I handled most of the backing vocals on the record, but we also had extensive contributions from my partner Melanie, as well as Matt and Chris from the band, James’s brother Dan McKean and north London singer-songwriter Jamie Whelligan. Despite being a five-piece band with two lead electric guitarists and a fair amount of harmonies, the results don’t sound very much at all like the Eagles, which given that band’s critical and cultural standing these days, most will take as good news.
While the basic tracks all sounded good and James and I slowly worked on getting lead vocals, harmonies and extra things like synth and violin parts recorded, progress on final mixes was slow until the coronavirus crisis. After I was furloughed by my company, I had more time to work on musical projects than I’d had in the seven years or so since I started my job. I was really able to focus, cranking out a mix or two per day and sending them to James for notes.
The album is now completely mixed, and is being mastered as we speak. Before it comes out, though, James is releasing a four-song EP based around one of its tracks, Spirited Away.
Spirited Away is one of my favourites on the album. I felt at the time we recorded it that it had the best basic track of all the songs on the album. Given the relative complexity of the song (it’s in the guitar-unfriendly key of Bb and has a fair number of changes), I was very happy with how we played it. It had good feel and good tempo.
James sang an excellent lead vocal and worked up a great backing vocal arrangement (I added some voices to his to make the backing vox thicker and wider), and Basia’s violin, largely scored by James, adds a huge amount to it. We recorded her parts at my house on the morning after Super Bowl LIII, and it was somewhat challenging. Not because I was hungover, you understand; I’d been poorly all week and was feverish during the game itself, sitting under a blanket and shivering uncontrollably while drinking coffee. The next morning, sleep deprived and generally feeling terrible, I was not at the top of my game, but the tracking went well, luckily!
The EP’s three other tracks are largely James’s work, recorded and mixed by himself at his home. Don’t Have Far to Go has had a long life, having originally been recorded by the ‘A’ Train. In this incarnation, it’s a Dylan-esque acoustic strummer with a verse/refrain structure. I think I like this version better than any previous take on the song, and a line James wrote somewhere around twelve years ago – “In this age of documentary are there stories left to tell?” – seems so appropriate to our times it’s as if he wrote it yesterday.
The Falls is, I think, a super-charming old-timey song inspired by the film Up, sung from the point of view of the elderly Carl. Matt plays double bass on this one, and James’s finger-picking acoustic part with all the right jazzy passing chords is great. The final track is James’s version of one of my songs, Nothing Means More, for which he reused and remixed my backing track, adding his own lead and backing vocals. At the time I wrote it, I thought it sounded more like one of his songs than the kind of thing I usually do, and I was really honoured he wanted to record it. He’s done a cracking job with it, and it’s great to hear a proper singer have a go at something I wrote for my little voice to sing.
Spirited Away is available to stream and download from Bandcamp, along with James’s other releases.
More news on the release date for the full album soon.