When researching this album, I came across a website of travel memories by Steph and Craig Smith, who were at the second night of recording, and they graciously agreed to talk to me about the experience, and allowed me to use some of the photos they took that night. Their recollections were invaluable to me when writing this piece, and I’d like to thank them again for sharing their time and memories with me.
Over two hot and sticky August nights in 2004, a small audience gathered in the lobby of The Windham, a disused historic hotel in Bellows Falls, Vermont. They were there to witness a special live performance by Tanya Donelly, former Belly singer-songwriter and lead guitarist in Throwing Muses and the Breeders. Over the two evenings, Donelly performed three sets, all of which were recorded, with two of them consisting of entirely new material except for a cover of George Harrison’s White Album masterpiece Long, Long, Long. Selected takes from those two sessions were released as her fourth solo album, This Hungry Life, in 2006.
In a recent piece, I looked at Jackson Browne’s Running on Empty, which consists of tracks recorded live in concert, in motel rooms, backstage and even on the tour bus. But we didn’t really spend much time comparing live recording with the typical studio experience, either as it existed then or now.
In a studio environment, tracking often becomes a near-scientific process of totally separating sound sources, allowing for completely independent processing and editing of all of those isolated individual tracks, during both tracking and mixing. Even if the band aces a take and no edits are required, if all the sound sources were recorded in the same room without separation, you wouldn’t be able to process one sound source without changing the sound of the others, at least subtly: if I wanted to brighten the overheads on the drums with some EQ, it would boost the treble on all the guitars, too. For this reason, while musicians may play takes together live while standing in the same room, they usually do so while wearing headphones and with their amps all isolated from each other in separate booths or behind screens. Musicians who play acoustic instruments need to be in a separate room (usually small, acoustically treated “dead” rooms called iso booths).
In the 2000s, this began to change due to the advent of the digital audio workstation (DAW, recording software), which allows for high-resolution digital recording not necessarily in a dedicated studio environment or with all the expensive analogue technology that pro studios routinely employed.
I’d venture to say that nowadays most artists of Donelly’s stature record much of their music at home with Pro-Tools, Logic, Cubase or some other recording software, heading into a professional facility at the start of the process to track live drums (if any) and maybe at the end to mix the record on a pro-level desk and/or print the mixes to half-inch tape. Projects get passed around between band members, who add their parts remotely using their own home recording set-ups*.
However, sixteen years ago in 2004, the full impact of DAW software was yet to be felt within the music industry, and most veteran artists like Donelly would still have been used to recording almost entirely in studios, if on smaller budgets than they’d have had 10 years previously.
What Donelly was doing in Bellows Falls was rather different to either the traditional studio recording experience or the emerging trend towards home recording (albeit that on-location recording was made easier by the advent of digital technology and This Hungry Life was almost certainly recorded digitally). Having all the musicians play live together with no separation between sound sources limits the possibility of independent editing or punch-ins to fix small flubs, and an audience there to witness any mistakes is a long way from the controlled environment of the professional studio. Working that way is pretty brave, and may be seen as more than a little eccentric.
So why do it? Many musicians – perhaps most – will tell you that the downsides outweigh any potential benefits. Those people, on the terms they’re arguing, may even be right.
But the pressure of needing to perform and be great in the moment – so you don’t blow things for the rest of the band, and so you entertain the audience – can force everyone to raise their game. Musicians, especially seasoned ones, are often most comfortable recording the way they’re used to playing at gigs and rehearsals – everyone in a room together, with lots of non-verbal communication such as eye contact to help everyone navigate complex sections. Perhaps the majority of musicians nowadays do prefer incremental, additive recording strategies, but there are still a cadre who like doing things a bit more old school.
Donelly seems to be one of those who do thrive on the pressure of recording live and needing to get things right there and then. This Hungry Life was not the first time she’d done something like this. She and her former band Belly had recorded their second album, King, live at Compass Point studios in Nassau, with just a few overdubs. This lent it a vintage, somewhat messy feel in its early 1995 context of highly produced and clinically mixed pseudo-alternative records such as Throwing Copper and Collective Soul. This Hungry Life was simply the same idea as Donelly had had with King taken a few steps further.
I asked Steph and Craig what it was like to be present at that Saturday session, as I was particularly interested to know whether it felt like a gig that was being recorded or a recording session that happened to have an audience:
It felt more like a recording session. There were strict rules for the audience; we couldn’t take photos during the songs or do anything that might possibly make a sound. We were instructed to allow a moment of silence after each song before applauding, so that there was no bleed-over into the song itself. The weather was extremely hot and the air conditioner was too loud to run during recording. So this meant there were breaks after every couple of songs, so that people could go outside to get some fresh air and so that they could run the air conditioning for a few minutes to try to cool the room down. So it felt more like “takes” of songs rather than a cohesive set. That being said, they did all 10 songs, then circled back to do additional takes of songs that needed it (“Littlewing” being one). Plus these were brand new songs that nobody in the audience had heard before (with the exception of the folks who had attended the prior night, of course).
Steph also took me through the layout of the room itself:
The room was very small but elegant. There were blue velvet curtains on the windows and a blue velvet curtain separating the main room from the bathroom area. There was a bar in the rear corner of the room. There were six rows of chairs set up, accommodating around 50 people. There were a couple of tables in the back of the room. We were seated in the third row.
Amps, mikes and cables at the Windham
Steph’s memories of the night accord with my experience of listening to it. There’s a definite charge from the fact that this was happening live, but overall it’s still a carefully controlled sound (props to the recording engineer Brian Brown). Indeed, certain songs, lacking audience noise and applause, either before or after, make it difficult to tell it was recorded live at all, the biggest giveaway being the sound of Joan Wasser’s electric viola.
If you’re going to record live, it helps to have a crack team of musicians at your disposal, and Donelly did. Her band at the Windham sessions comprised Rich Gilbert (Human Sexual Response, Frank Black, Jack White) on pedal steel and electric guitar, Dean Fisher (Juliana Hatfield) on guitar, Joe McMahon (Smoke or Fire) on double bass, Arthur Johnson (Come) on drums and Joan Wasser (Rufus Wainwright and Antony & the Johnsons; she also records her own songs as Joan As Police Woman) on viola and backing vocals. Buffalo Tom’s Bill Janovitz also sang backup.
These are folks are all capable of playing expressively and powerfully, or pulling back to something restrained and minimal when the moment demanded. The songs on This Hungry Life saw them doing plenty of both. Kundalini Slide and the joyous River Girls alternate between gentle verses and passionately forceful choruses, while the cover of Long, Long, Long is a very creditable attempt to replicate the spectral wooziness of the Beatles recording. Steph spoke fondly of the exuberant NE, which opens the record with a reference to New England’s unreliable weather (“It’s June, and I’m still wearing my boots”), and Littlewing, which is built on a cool bowed double bass part from Joe McMahon (and isn’t a cover of the similarly titled Hendrix song).
My favourite, though, remains the title track. This Hungry Life is a song of extraordinary empathy and wisdom. Written in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq, the song begins by surveying the wreckage of a world on fire (the title of another song on the record):
Night falls and the rain comes
And the rain goes
And the moon is a stain when you’ve lost something.
And you wait and you wait
And you wait
For the end or the girl or the song
Or the boy or the faith
Or the leader who won’t bring you shame
And you wait and you wait
And you wait.
But crucially, it offers the hope that we, in whatever small way we can, might be able to make a difference, even if only in our own lives and the lives of those closest to us:
This hungry life won’t let you out whole
But you can change a thing or two
Before you go.
This hungry life
Might not leave you with much,
But you can change your story
And throw a hand up from the mud.
Donelly had seldom taken on such big themes in her work without the use of metaphor. She talked often in her days in Belly of her attraction to fairy tale and fable, which allowed her to find ways to explore the world in her songs without staying in the world of the literal and material. There’s no fairy tale in This Hungry Life – it’s one adult addressing another, simply and directly, a small moment of solidarity and understanding and hope that things may one day be better. It’s depressing how relevant This Hungry Life still feels (anyone else waiting for a leader who won’t bring you shame? I know I am), nearly 15 years down the line.
It’s a remarkable performance from the band, too. Johnson keeps a quiet pulse with brushes, while McMahon’s double bass reinforces the little suspended riff on electric guitar that recurs throughout the song. Both parts are perfect as unobtrusive accompaniment. It’s Gilbert who really shines, though, dealing in texture rather than melody, never distracting from Donelly’s vocal, or the supporting harmonies from Wasser and Janovtiz. It’s a delicate spell that the band cast for the song’s six minutes, but it’s a powerful one.
This Hungry Life (the album) won’t be to everyone’s taste, and seems to be a little bit forgotten in Donelly’s discography, for reasons perhaps unrelated to the way it was recorded. Some fans will miss the refinement of a true studio recording, though I suspect those who liked Belly’s King more than Star would find this one appealing too. My one gripe with the way the album is presented is the inconsistent way Donelly and Brown handled the applause from the audience, which is an issue Steph and Craig raised while talking to me about the record:
The applause and audience reaction on the album is a bit of a curiosity to us. They probably could have omitted the applause altogether to get more of a studio feel, or they could have left more of it intact to give more of a live feel. The way it stands now, the audience reaction is present but the levels are way down (sounds like a soundboard bootleg). I fall on the side of thinking that they should have put more audience in… double down on the enthusiasm the crowd expressed after hearing these new songs in such an intimate setting. Whereas Craig is surprised that they included it at all, as he was under the impression from the first that they were going for a studio feel and we were just observers who would have been in the sound booth if possible.
I feel similarly to Steph that, since they decided to include the applause, it would have been nice if it had been more prominent. Equally, I see where Craig is coming from – having asked the audience to wait a second or two after the last chord faded out before applauding, they could easily have left the applause out altogether. The way it’s mixed on the album is a rather unsatisfactory half measure.
That said, it’s a minor flaw and it doesn’t really spoil what’s still a really interesting album, especially if you’re interested in live recordings; this is a way of working that virtually no one practises anymore. And if you do hear the record, you’ll probably find half of its songs sticking with you. While, like Steph and Craig, I find other Donelly records more satisfying (Beautysleep is my favourite among her solo albums; King is my Belly pick), the title track alone makes This Hungry Life one to hear if it passed you by on its release in 2016.
Rich Gilbert, Tanya Donelly and Dean Fisher, tuning up, I reckon
*Obviously, Covid-19 is forcing everyone to work this way, but it was already a prevalent recording strategy for musicians looking to maximise budgets. Sending files between musicians via Dropbox or WeTransfer and having everyone record separately saves on travel expenses, studio costs, accommodation and F&B. I’ve made almost an entire album with Yo Zushi this way during lockdown. One song contains a live basic track of drums and acoustic guitar we made in the same room last November – the rest has been done remotely, with files sent back and forth via WeTransfer.