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The Hunger games: Sophie Hunger and Dan Carey on the making of Molecules

Sophie Hunger and Dan Carey discuss studio techniques and the making of new album Molecules.

On August 31, Switzerland’s Sophie Hunger released her fourth and most sonically diverse album to date in the form of Molecules. PSNEurope editor Daniel Gumble spoke to Hunger and the album’s producer Dan Carey to discuss equipment, studio techniques and to discover how they produced the most ambitious record of her career so far…

Since the release of her debut album 1983 in 2010, Sophie Hunger has been most closely associated with contemporary folk and minimalist jazz, drawing often inaccurate comparisons to numerous acoustic guitar-wielding 21st century singer songwriters. Yet beneath the surface has always lingered a more distinct edge over so many of her contemporaries, as her list of collaborators demonstrates – she has previously worked with Red Hot Chilli Peppers guitarist Josh Kinghoffer and her 2015 album Supermoon featured a guest vocal appearance from none other than French football icon Eric Cantona.

This time out, Hunger, along with producer Dan Carey, have opted for synths and electronica to form the basis of her new album Molecules. Recorded with Carey in South London, the album represents the biggest departure from what might be described as Hunger’s signature sound to date, embracing a darker sonic identity and an altogether starker tonal palette. PSNEurope editor Daniel Gumble caught up with the pair to find out how the exploration of new studio techniques produced Hunger’s most creative leap yet…

Talk us through the recording and production process of Molecules.

Sophie Hunger: It started with me doing a Pro Tools course in LA. I was bored about my rather traditional song writing techniques and wanted to learn to use the computer instead. When I got back home I set myself a goal to write an album from within the computer.
Dan Carey: For me the process started when Sophie came to London to play me the demos. She had a couple recorded with a full band and a fairly traditional arrangement, which I liked but didn’t strike me as being anything new. Then she played me one (Let It Come Down), which she apologised about because she didn’t have time to get the band together to record it, so she made it with just a drum machine, acoustic guitar and vocals. I loved it, and found that the sparse nature allowed the lyrics to come through more. I suggested that she went away and wrote more like that, and kept the demos as simple as possible. 

I came to visit her in Berlin about four months later. I’ll never forget that visit. The demos blew my mind. They were so subtle and beautiful. I was so moved by the lyrics, and straight away I could hear how I wanted the record to sound. Soon after that she came to stay in London and we started recording. 

We started by generating lots of sounds from various synths and drum boxes, acoustic drums, and we made some patches on the Jupiter 8 and the Prophet. Most songs followed a similar process; I built a rhythm track using the MPCX, CR-78, Elektron Machinedrum and we would play the most basic version of the chord changes in MIDI into logic, so they could be sent to various synths. We started with the Jupiter and the Prophet, then we recorded a guide vocal, then any acoustic parts – piano, guitar, electric bass etc. Then there was a period of experimenting with the stranger synths, like the Buchla Music Easel, the Make Noise modular synth, and the OTO BAM reverbs. 

How collaborative was the recording and production process between the two of you?

SH: When I went to see Dan with my first couple of demos we established a set of rules – the songs Sliver Lane and Let It Come Down were the most striking ones, basically made up of a programmed drum beat (from the plugin BOOM on Pro Tools), some synths (plugins), my vocals and an acoustic guitar. So we said, Let’s commit to these four elements; let this be the sonic frame. So I went back home and wrote another six songs just like that. When I came to the studio for the session we pretty much re-recorded all the elements but with the awesomeness of Dan Carey! Once we had a good beat we started adding synths for harmonic information. Recording vocals was not something Dan could indulge in the same way he indulged in recording synths. He didn’t want to spend too much time on that. I realised early that I was going to have to take care of that. I only recorded scratch vocals at his studio and I did the final takes back home.

DC: It was a very pure collaboration. Sophie and I hardly left each other for the whole recording time. We made almost all decisions together.

Tell us about the studio and the key pieces of kit you used? 

SH: It was recorded at Dan’s Speedy Wonderground Studio in Streatham, South London. It’s one room filled to the brim with instruments and gear. So the control room and the recording room are the same. Maximal confrontation! For around five weeks it was mostly him, sound engineer Alexis Smith and I trying not to step on each other’s toes. Dan has an amazing collection of analogue synths including the particularly rare Swarmatron. But he also has a sophisticated modular synth system with oscillators from Doepffer, Studio Electronics and modules from Make Noise, Qbit Electronics, lots of 4MS Modules like the Spectral module etc. Then there’s the BAM Reverb from OTTO that we used on a lot of the acoustic drum sounds. So we had this amazing drummer, Julian Sartorius, come in for a day and he played on all kinds of materials, some of which he found on the street, like small metal plates or wood and then we’d send that through various effects and then sample it – we used the newer MPC for sampling.

Mics we used included the Brauner VM1, Royer ribbon mics, AEA ribbons, a Coles 4038, a Wunder CM7 S, a Shure SM7B and models from Oktava and Lomo. The album was mixed on a La Font Chroma and a Calrec Q Series 60-channel desk with Dynaudio C3 monitors.

What were your sonic ambitions for the album? 

DC: I wanted to make something that felt completely new and fresh. Something that had a lot of space for the lyrics to come through. I felt it shouldn’t have too much going on, but what there was, I wanted to be intriguing and beautiful but not dominating. I wanted the instrumental side of it to feel as though it was made of lots of isolated parts that worked together well, but were still identifiable as separate things. I felt that the more traditional approach of the old records wouldn’t have served the lyrics on this one. And I really enjoyed the process of showing Sophie some of the things that could be done. She is always ready to try something new.

Why was Dan the perfect producer for this record?

SH: I loved Nick Mulvey’s debut album First Mind. I remember listening to it day and night when it came out. I thought, Wow, here’s a traditional singer songwriter who has an original sound with lots of electronic elements… That’s exactly what I needed. When my A&R Jim Chancellor mentioned that he wanted me to meet this Londoner producer called Dan Carey I had a big grin on my face – pure sugar.

Is this a way that you would like to work again on future records?

SH: I definitely want to work with Dan again but I would like to use the opposite method next time. Instead of spending six weeks tweaking sounds I’d like to put together an extraordinary band and record an album live in one go. That would be extremely interesting.