Ben Hillier is a recognisable name in the industry, having produced albums for Depeche Mode, Suede, Elbow and Blur over the past 25 years. But the songwriter and producer has worked most closely with Nadine Shah over the past few years, having collaborated and produced each of her three albums to date – 2013’s Love Your Dum And Mad, 2015’s Fast Food and this year’s Holiday Destination. And in a departure from the more lo-fi recordings of albums one and two, the pair’s latest work marks a move towards a bigger sound and the introduction of sax – courtesy of revered saxophonist Pete Wareham – to many of its tracks.
Here, PSNEurope finds out from the man himself how he produced one of the best albums of the year and what he considers to be some of the most exciting and, indeed, most challenging projects he has worked on to date…
Nadine Shah’s Holiday Destination showcases a very different sound to her previous two records. How deliberate was that change in tone, and how did the production process differ?
There are quite a few records written and recorded by producers and they have a very production-y sound, there’s sometimes more production than writing that has gone into it. So I was trying to remove control a bit on the first two albums. Once we’d written the record we’d go into my London studio and record the record live. This time we decided we’d have a slightly up front, poppier sound, and I was more confident in my writing by then. We wrote and recorded a lot of it as we went along. A friend of mine, Ben Nichols, came into the studio and quite often we would be working on the music together and Nadine would spend more time working on lyrics. As a result the music is much more realised and advanced, and we’d be working on sounds at the same time. To finish it off we had a week up in Flood’s studio and recorded some of the drums again and some live takes to expand the sound a bit, but we kept a fair amount of the first demos in the songs. It was quite an organic process and I allowed myself to produce it a bit more, whereas before it was more about limiting myself.
What gear did you use to make the record?
I’ve got my place here in the countryside, which is called Agricultural Audio. I have some space in the middle of a working farm; me and a friend started off building a couple of control rooms out of straw bales, we used those to insulate it and acoustically treat the rooms. They are quite big rooms with 3.5-metre-high ceilings. And I moved my mix room down from London, so I’ve got a vintage 1960s Studer I’ve been using for a while now. A lot of the stuff was recorded through that. I also have a lot of synths down here – my ARP 2600 and a VCS3 and a bit of Eurorack modular stuff as well. I tend to run quite a few things through that. We recorded through the vintage desk on to the computer and then I mixed it back through that desk again as well.
As for mics, I wanted to get some more ribbon mics and we found some on eBay that were handmade with no name on them at all, and they cost £200. So we thought we’d give them a try and they sounded amazing. We recorded quite a lot with them, and they are quite un-ribbony, they are quite open sounding and clear on the top-end and the bottom end is really nice. I tend to use a lot of dynamic mics; I record mainly on an SM7 because it fits her voice really well. And she does most of her live singing into an SM58, which is the same capsule so she works the mic really well. We also used a couple of vintage condensers – ad old Lomo and a Neumann CMV563.
Tell us about how you made lead single Out The Way – one of the most sonically distinctive tracks on the record. Was that song built up gradually or was it always intended to pack such a big sound?
In general we write the music and Nadine will come in with a top line or a skeleton of a top line, then I’ll rework the music or change the chords. And sometimes I’ll send her instrumentals for her to write top lines on. Out The Way was done that way. It started off with the drum pattern and then I put the guitar on it. So I gave Nadine the drum part, bass and guitar and then she came up with an amazing top line for it, pretty much to the structure I’d already written. Then we discussed getting saxophone on the record – and I’ve known Pete Wareham for a long time – so I said let’s get Pete in. That was one of the first tracks where the sax settled in and found its place. It was the first point where the way we were going to use sax made sense and we coud use it as a blueprint for the rest of the album. The DNA of that song is really bizarre. The way pattern is really intense – you can try to play it quietly and it still sounds really loud. Then the guitar part is very similar, it’s open tuning and pretty simple to play, but the rhythm of it makes it really intense. And Nadine’s vocal, because of the register she’s singing in, which is a little bit higher than usual, makes everything really loud!
What’s your approach to entering the studio with an act you haven’t previously worked with? Do you have a specific sound and working method you like to stick to, or do is it more about understanding what each artists wants from the project?
I try to adapt to the artist, I’ve never been very formulaic in my approach. I like to get people playing as much as possible, so I’m not really the ‘record the drum, record the bass, record the guitar’ type. I’d much rather get a band and get them playing and find out what they do and what excites them about what they’re doing. They are all so different in the way they operate so it’s a question of working out what they enjoy doing, what they’re good at doing, what frustrates them and whether or not it’s good to remove that frustration! Sometimes you remove it and then they are just coasting! I guess you’re trying to find that sweet spot where they are very productive and being challenged, but without being unreasonably uncomfortable.
Read the full interview with Ben Hillier here.