For “Studios Sessions,” we delve into the stories behind the long hours in the studio and all that goes into making an album by talking with artists, producers, engineers, photographers, and more who are intimately connected to the recording process with some of the biggest artists in the world. These are the stories that rarely leave the booth.
Mikaelin “Blue” Bluespruce’s had the best job for a decade. As one Solange’s primary recording engineers since 2010, he’s had a front row seat to watching the genius and rituals that went into making Solange’s A Seat at the Table and last year’s When I Get Home.
“The day we had the sessions with Pharrell, it was a bit of a more intricate setup and I had to rush from the airport to get to the Airbnb to make sure all of the stuff was setup. You have to have shit ready when Pharrell is coming,” Blue told REVOLT. “She started burning the sage and for this album, she had a specific way she liked to set up the room every time we got into the houses we were going to record in.”
In this installment of ‘Studio Sessions,’ Solange’s longtime engineer explains why she wanted Playboi Carti on When I Get Home, her perfectionism, and her sage rituals before she records.
Solange once said in an interview that you and her would spend 16 hours on just a bass sound during the making of When I Get Home. What are you both doing for those 16 hours?
Editing is a big part of her process because she’s a big believer in recording everything in the moment of creation. If she is vibing — whether she’s writing, producing, or whatever — she wants to capture everything. We edit it down from there. Some of the songs started with a live take of her jamming with different musicians and she’ll write in the moment. She’ll do a mumble track where there’s lyrics in there and sometimes, there’s just melodies. She’ll do that as the musicians are playing.
So, you’ll get 20-45 minute jam sessions of them vibing on a song. There may be some part of the first five minutes of the jam that’s dope and there might be a part of the very last piece. That’s what gets edited down and combined into the song. She has a vision for the way the song is supposed to be and it’s just about finding the pieces to make the vision come to life.
It’s crazy. We’ll do a 45-minute jam and afterward, we’ll edit it real quick and edit it some more the next day. It takes time to refine the vision and make it the ultimate representation of what she wants.
What is Solange’s template in terms of what you need to have to record her on and plugins you like to use?
It’s basically me and her other recording engineer Nino [Villanueva], who she’s been working with a lot of years. It’s basically us two who are recording her at anytime. As far as the gear, she records all of her vocals on a Shure Beta 58 mic. That’s a very inexpensive microphone, but not one to be underestimated. It goes back to when we did the True EP and she was still recording in the booth. But, she started to not like the feeling of being isolated in the booth, so she experimented with doing handheld vocals. If you watch the behind-the-scenes video of A Seat At The Table, you’ll see her holding a handheld mic in her hand as she was doing vocals. She gets the vibe so good in those demos that those vocals end up staying in the final song. This album, we knew we weren’t going to do any other type of mic.
Don’t tell any other engineers to take note from this, but she records with the speakers on, so the Beta 58 is great because it has a small pickup pattern, so it picks up as little of the [sound] bleed as possible. It allows her to move around and sit in any position she wants to be in to record to get in her zone. We usually have an Avalon compressor for a little of the warmth and Avalon is a classic compressor. She had one in her portable setup for A Seat At The Table, so we kept it for When I Get Home.
How has your relationship with Solange evolved since the True EP?
It’s one of the more special relationships in my life musically. But, it also goes beyond that. We’ve traveled a lot. We didn’t just do 16-hour sessions. Sometimes, it’s a week or two weeks at a time. We had a chance to have a lot of conversations and got to get to know each other really well. It lets me understand the depth of her vision. I can know where her mind is at on political issues in terms of what she’s listening to. She always has playlists. Let’s say we start a day of recording, she’ll spend 30 minutes deejaying a little playlist to get her into her vibe. So, I get an insight into where her head is at and it allows me to pull that out of the music.
Playboi Carti on “Alameda.” What in the world is he saying? Do you know? Does Solange know? Does anyone know?
I’m sure he knows what he’s saying. I know most of the lyrics. I couldn’t repeat them word for word now. But, since I’ve heard everything soloed and by itself, I definitely know what he’s saying. Solange was very purposeful with his involvement. She wanted him on the track because she loves his music. Although he’s not originally from Houston, he came up in Houston and was a central part in the scene in Houston for a certain time period. That’s also why she wanted to have him involved. He’s always been a leader in the sound and culture. But, he’s not on the frontline in term of seeing him all the time. Same with Gucci [Mane]. She just wanted people who were figures and leaders in whatever their lane is. As far as the lyrics, I love his verse. I feel like he was more in his zone of feeling the music and vibing out.
Was the making of “Jerrod” one of those 40-minute jam sessions?
This is how you know her vision is greater than anything we know about. “Jerrod” got named the day the album came out. “Jerrod” was a long jam session that was edited down. The original first version was about seven or eight minutes. John Key was the core co-producer of the record. When she has a chord in mind, he’s able to play it right away. She also works with another amazing synth player named John Kirby. They both have distinctive styles. “Jerrod” was them jamming the whole thing. The challenge of that record was to cut it down so it isn’t a seven or eight minutes song. So, the beginning two and a half minutes are how she originally did it. A lot of the vocals are the same as the original take. She’ll do a take of vocals, as she’s writing and let’s say she has 60% of the lyrics, we’ll just plug in the words that are missing and re-record it while the rest of the take stays.
Was “Things I Imagined” always the intro?
I’m not sure. We were in a house that had this beautiful deck that overlooked the Hollywood Hills. There was a lot going on that day, so she wanted to give some vocal parts for one of the musicians to work on, edit, and do his thing because we had different setups in the house. She went out on the deck and freestyled this two-minute spoken word/sung vocal track. From that two minutes came all of her lead vocals for “Things I Imagined,” intro to “Dreams,” and part of “Can I Hold The Mic.” Even the chord change when she goes (deepens voice) “Things... I imagine” was her with the mic making things up. “Things I Imagine” was part of that two minutes. There are so many pieces. She did the one take and then had Chassol, a French jazz musician play chords to match the vocals. That’s what “Things I Imagined” came from. Soon after they finished that, which was in a day or so, it became the intro and stayed that way throughout the entire album creation.
You recorded at a guest house in New Orleans for A Seat At The Table and Airbnbs for When I Get Home. What’s the ambiance she likes to record in?
She definitely got the sage. She burns palo santo, as well. That’s what she has to clear the space and energy. My parents were into that stuff and I never bought into it. The day we had the sessions with Pharrell, it was a bit of a more intricate setup and I had to rush from the airport to get to the Airbnb to make sure all of the stuff was setup. You have to have shit ready when Pharrell is coming (laughs). You can’t have technical difficulties with Pharrell coming. She started burning the sage and for this album, she had a specific way she liked to set up the room every time we got into the houses we were going to record in. As she’s doing that, I’m setting up the gear, and feeling the calm energy spread around the room and the hectic energy dissipate. That was pretty early on in the process.
So, she’d burn the sage and palo santo. Then, she’ll make an altar of fruit and different things on it. She does that by herself. She has all of these pictures that she printed out on regular paper that were sort of like her physical mood board that she’d put around the room to decorate any space. You walk into an Airbnb and it has the decoration of the person who designed the house or lives there. It doesn’t always vibe with what you’re trying to do. So, we’d end up taking a lot of stuff of the wall and moving a lot of furniture. She would put up these pictures that ranged from pictures of Crime Mob to crop circles and geometric tattoos. They were pictures of anything that was in her brain that helped her get into the space she wanted to be in. She has these red fluorescent lights that she’ll put on the ground behind the studio set up so it’d glow red the whole time. I know she cleanses with Florida Water, which is a ritual to cleanse whatever area you’re working in.
Anything else you want to say about the making of When i Get Home?
There was this song we did that isn’t on the album. Raphael Saadiq was a big collaborator for A Seat At The Table and was involved in When I Get Home a little bit. One of the songs that didn’t make it was one of those 10-minute jam sessions. It was Raphael, Solange, and John Kirby. I never got to be in the room when Raphael did his bass lines on A Seat At The Table. I always loved them. For When I Get Home, we plugged his bass right into a Focusrite Pre-Amp with no extra compressor or anything and the bass was sounding so good. He and the keyboard player jammed out and at the end of it, he faded his bass line out manually. The bass sounded like I put every vintage gear on it and there was nothing on it. It was just how he did it.