Modern Folk, by David Rosane & The Zookeepers, is out today. Here’s a little backstory about its majestic closing track.
Some time last year I got an e-mail from a singer-singwriter I didn’t know, David Rosane, asking if I would consider working on one of his songs. He was making an album and hoped I would develop and arrange a song.
It turned out I knew his producer very well, so I knew it would be a good partnership. I took on the job. He sent me a file and basically asked me to Lewisify it. Here’s the song he sent:
I loved both the innocent hurt and the knowing cynicism in the song, and especially the driving rhythm of the acoustic guitar. I felt it was both desperately sad and defiantly anthemic at the same time. Either that, or it could be those things. So I worked on it until it unequivocally was. And here’s the result:
The steps I took were as follows.
1. The key for me was David’s chugging guitar. The breaks worked great on stage, apparently, hooking in audiences. But I felt they broke the flow of the recording and prevented the song from building momentum. So I reduced the number of them and kept the pulse consistent and properly metered. No slowing down.
2. I felt strongly that the song should climax and not peter out, so I made a rough mashup in my audio editor, adding extra repetitions of the mid-8 as a climbing, post-chorus bliss-out. I had in mind something a bit like the end of Bowie’s “Starman“.
3. I listened hard to David’s voice and delivery. It made me think of Lou Reed’s broken croon on immaculate songs such as Transformer’s “Perfect Day“. Once I had that reference in mind I was able to construct a sound palette that I hoped would speak to the French capital’s own sense of faded grandeur:
Some clean, arpeggiated electric guitar—à la Velvet Underground—turning dirtier as the song climaxed, might work. Still thinking about the Velvets, I used a floor tom in the place of a snare drum, just to keep the rhythm sombre, subtle and clean. And the voice should have reverb! None of that in-yer-face, rootsy nonsense. Dry vocals sound immediate. But if you want tears and memory then you need reverb. Some notes of a disconsolate piano might hint at Belle Epoque cabaret. Like the Velvet Underground’s John Cale tinkling on Nick Drake’s devastating “Northern Sky“.
Finally, lush, romantic strings against David’s wounded voice would, I hoped, add a sense of loss and bitter irony. The Cale reference had awoken memories of Nick Drake, so I thought of Robert Kirby’s beautiful and melancholy strings from Drake’s Five Leaves Left as an inspiration for my writing.
4. I went ahead and created a rough mock-up, using midi orchestra to write the string parts. I originally scored it for trio: fiddle, viola and ‘cello, but did wonder if the recording budget would allow for all those musicians. Thankfully, David was working closely with a talented French fiddler called Lucie Rouits. I tweaked some of the lines and Lucie handled the whole thing on violin, valiantly recording each part three times, so we ended up with a thick fiddle section.
5. Recording was lovely. Nick Buxton at Basement Productions has the producer’s knack of knowing intuitively what you mean and creating exactly that sound, adding in some genius flourishes, like the ragged chorus line at the end. Nick basically grabbed everyone who was in the studio at that time and dragged them into the booth. One of the reasons I enjoy working with Nick: I had completely forgotten about my “Starman” ending and of course, there it was.
6. Once we had the song down in a rough mix, images started to flood in, so I made a video mood board the same night, as soon as I got home. One or two of those clips remain in the final version, at David’s request, otherwise I reshot everything on 8mm over a few suitably dismal days and nights in the City of Lights. “Is it supposed to be in slow motion?” I was asked. Yes. You should feel as though you’re walking purposefully toward Paris’s seductive promises—through quicksand.