Aidan Baker: On Music, Sound, and Already Drowning

Aidan Baker. Photos: Leah Buckareff.

Aidan Baker’s Already Drowning is our “Recording of the Month” for June 2013. In preparation for our review, I asked Baker a few questions about the album. We discussed literary and musical influences, the songwriting and recording process, and the importance of sound.—SM

Stephen Mejias: The liner notes state that “lyrical conceits” were “gleaned from various folktales.” I haven’t read any of the books or stories mentioned in the liner notes. Can you tell me whether specific songs were inspired by specific books? If so, how?

Aidan Baker: Several of the books I mentioned are based on or contain fairytale or folktale elements and, as such, are something of a thematic influence on the album as a whole, rather than to specific songs. Also, the overlying conceit of “drowning” is a common theme within Canadian literature, particularly the “drowned author” narrating from a submerged perspective, as in some of Hubert Acquin’s and Margaret Atwood’s work. The song “Tout Juste Sous La Surface, Je Guette” makes use of some imagery from Atwood’s poem “This Is A Photograph of Me.” That said, some of the songs do draw specific imagery from literary sources. For example: The Mélusine folktale is retold and reinterpreted in A.S. Byatt’s Possession; “Mein Zwilling, Mein Verlorener” makes use of some autobiographical detail in Philip K. Dick’s The Dark Haired Girl; and “Ice” uses imagery and plot details from Anna Kavan’s novel of the same name.

"The idea of intertextuality can be translated to music, particularly if one thinks of music, both making and listening, as a shared, collective, and interwoven experience."

SM: The press release states that the songs were inspired by “various myths and folktales about female water spirits.” I think that’s unusual and interesting subject matter. How did you become interested in these myths and folktales?

AB: My interest in folktales and fairytales largely arose from my studies in postmodern literature—writers like Angela Carter, Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, or Donald Barthelme, to name some of my favorites, who use the fairytale to reference the intertextuality central to the postmodernist conceit that all texts throughout history (and the writers writing, the readers reading) interrelated and interwoven. That all sounds very academic—and I did study literature in college—but much of my interest comes down to a simple aesthetic appreciation of these writers’ works. It just happened that these stories of female water spirits randomly came up in a few different books I was reading all within a certain time period, and that sort of thematic synchronicity intrigued me. And I do think this idea of intertextuality can be translated to music, particularly if one thinks of music, both making and listening, as a shared, collective, and interwoven experience.

SM: Each song has a different guest vocalist. Can you tell me a bit about the songwriting process? Did you have a specific singer in mind for each song? How did you match the song with a specific singer? And what special qualities did each singer bring to her song?

AB: The lyrics were written first and then I wrote all the songs on acoustic guitar. These relatively simple guitar-based structures are central to all the songs, even if that might not be so readily apparent in the album’s finished form. I did have specific singers in mind for each track which was sometimes determined by the quality or timbre of their voice and how I thought it would fit with certain songs. Other times, it was more how the different voices flowed into one another within the context of the album. For example, Clara Engel and Carla Bozulich’s voices have a similar timbre, so I specifically wanted them to sing on the first and last tracks to open and close or bookend the album.

"Sound is the basis of my music."

SM: Can you tell me a bit about the recording process? Was there an overall goal for how you wanted the album to sound, or did you work on a more track-by-track basis? How important was it to maintain dynamic range and a sense of space? How important was it to maintain a sense of volume and impact? And what compromises were made in balancing these elements?

AB: I began the recording by laying down fairly basic guitar, bass, and drum parts which I then sent on to the respective singers to work on. I did write all the lyrics, but gave the singers free reign to edit and rearrange the words as needed to fit the songs. I generally tend to work on an album as a whole, rather than on a track-by-track basis, in order to give the album a sense of continuity both in sonic and thematic terms. This was a little more complicated with Already Drowning since I was working with other people, sometimes at a distance via filesharing, and because the songs themselves are quite different from each other. But while the songs might have a different character or feel, I wanted them to flow together and remain interconnected as a whole—a sequence of songs or a song-cycle—rather than an album made up of a piecemeal collection of songs. I tried to accomplish this through mood or ambiance, keeping the songs similarly slow and brooding and atmospheric, even as they might be loud or quiet, minimal or maximal, abstract or more structured. There are a lot of tracks and a lot of instruments on Already Drowning, so it was a challenge mixing everything so that each individual voice was properly represented while still maintaining the sense of give-and-take and dynamic range that the songs demanded. I also worked on the album over the course of a few years, in multiple locations and with various means of recording, so matching and mixing some of the differently recorded parts was equally challenging.

SM: There are aspects of the recording that sound very natural, and others that sound very unnatural. Was this intentional? It sounds as though the engineers have employed a technique referred to as “10 at 10” (ie, a 10dB boost at 10kHz) commonly used to add sparkle to cymbals and other brassy elements in a mix. In general, audiophile engineers would use this technique only sparingly, but it seems to have been used here throughout. Is that right, or am I mistaken?

[Recording engineer] James Plotkin: I don’t think I’ve ever put 10dB of 10kHz on anything I’ve ever worked on in my life. That seems like a really great way to make a recording painful and overly fatiguing at higher volumes and extended periods of listening. If anything, there was a good amount of high-frequency attenuation and general EQ balancing done during mastering. The mixes I received were heavily scooped, so a good deal of various midrange boost was needed for balance and enhancement of detail in that range.

"I do consider digital editing and manipulation improvisational, to a certain degree, in that chance and happenstance can play a part in the process of processing."

SM: Already Drowning was recorded at Commonwealth and Broken Spine Studios. Are these dedicated recording spaces, homes, or something else? How much of the album was recorded live and how much was overdubbed? Did the musicians and vocalists work together, or were files somehow traded back and forth? Roughly, how much of the music was improvised and how much was composed?

AB: Recording of the album began in late 2009 at Commonwealth Studios in Toronto, which is a private studio run by Jonathan Demers, with whom I’ve worked for many years, both as a recording engineer and a bandmate. Jonathan engineered the drums and some of the guitar parts for the basic structure of the songs which I sent to the respective singers to work on independently. The string and woodwind parts, provided respectively by Laura Bates (violin), Nick Storring (cello), and Laura Rodie (alto and soprano saxophone), were also recorded at Commonwealth, arranged and engineered by myself. Most of the singers sent me their contributions via online filesharing but Clara’s vocals were recorded at Commonwealth.

Over the course of the next two years, I continued working on these basic structures, fleshing them out with additional electric guitar tracks—both doubling the original basic guitar patterns and creating more abstract, atmospheric guitar textures—and adding various instrumental tracks as I was able, either performed by myself (piano, trombone, flute, some field recordings) or others, such as Carl Pace (trumpet), and my partner in my duo project Nadja, Leah Buckareff (accordion). This was all nominally recorded under the Broken Spine moniker, but there isn’t really any fixed location for Broken Spine Studios. It is my personal recording setup, but as a touring musician, it can be anywhere I am able to set up my laptop and some mics. Both vocal contributions from Liz Hysen and Joanna Kupnicka were done with this mobile setup, in Toronto and Berlin respectively.

Since I played most of the instruments on this record myself, none of the takes are really live. And while most of the songs were laid down straight with multiple overdubs, tracks like “Mélusine” or “Lorelei” were more crafted, edited and processed, and largely constructed digitally in Cubase on my laptop.

The line between composition and improvisation is fairly blurred with my music, but the majority of this album is composed. Improvisation comes into play more with the atmospheric and textural elements—although I do consider digital editing and manipulation improvisational, to a certain degree, in that chance and happenstance can play a part in the process of processing.

SM: Listening to your work, it’s easy to hear a deep interest in, and respect for, sound. Why is sound important to you?

AB: Sound is the basis of my music. My compositions are largely based on the layering of sounds and textures, drones and atmospheres, generally produced entirely by electric guitar, either effected electronically or played with alternate/prepared techniques. Already Drowning is somewhat anomalous in my catalog, as it is considerably more structured and song-oriented than a large amount of my work, but that idea of texture and drone is still prevalent and integral to establishing and maintaining the atmosphere and mood of the album.

SM: Thanks very much, Aidan. This has been a pleasure.

Aidan Baker’s Already Drowning is available now from Gizeh Records or, in the US, from Forced Exposure. You can choose from limited-edition 180gm LP (300 copies), CD, or digital download (FLAC, ALAC, or MP3). All LP orders also include an immediate download, so you can have your vinyl and stream it, too.

The album is also available, for stream or purchase, at Aidan Baker’s Bandcamp page, home to a vast selection of the artist's work.

Audio Legend's picture

Thanks for the great interview. I bought the FLAC from Bandcamp. And thanks for actually pointing out the fact it is available as a lossless download.

This is the type of recording that will clear the room of audiophiles, and that can only be a good thing.

Stephen Mejias's picture

My pleasure; I'm glad you're enjoying the album.

This is the type of recording that will clear the room of audiophiles, and that can only be a good thing.

Maybe. I guess it depends on what kind of audiophiles we're talking about. I played tracks from Already Drowning at the New York Audio Show and most people seemed to like it. But I think just about any recording will get some listeners out of the room.

Audio Legend's picture

True, any recording has the potental to drive listeners away. But the only reason I would leave a room is if I was bored.

Of course, I was being a bit sarcastic (shocking, right?lol), but many older audiophiles have never grasped the concept of the recording studio as an instrument in and of itself.

Very much enjoyiing it and the amount of creative intensity and vision that Baker brings to this project is rather astounding.

Stephen Mejias's picture

Have you had a chance to listen to any of his other work? I don't love it all as much as I love Already Drowning, but I find everything I've heard to be very interesting. Much of it is available at his Bandcamp page. I think I especially like Still Life and Noise of Silence.

Audio Legend's picture

I have not, but that is clearly on the To Do list.  Of course, I was intrigued by your description of his previous work.

I love Bandcamp because they provide full length streaming of songs. I have never regretted a purchase.


Stephen Mejias's picture

If interested, there's even more—lots more—to hear at the Broken Spine Bandcamp page. A universe of music.

Audio Legend's picture

Wow, LOTS more indeed. With so many new ablums in the cue..Laura Marling, Laura Mvula,
alt-J, Polica..I will have to make time.

Audio Legend's picture

I just listened to this album. A true masterwork for ourt time.

As far as the production, I enjoyed it, and I felt the sonics wer correct for the artistic vision of Mr. Baker for this album.

Audio Legend's picture

Check out Swimming. Might by up your alley.