Trust Exercises

When creating my own music I often get this strange feeling that I’m not the one making the decisions. Instead, I let the music tell me what it wants, at least when it speaks clearly enough. While in many ways my next album is bringing together all of my past musical experience, my voice isn’t the only new and intimidating element it asked of me.

For my whole musical life the idea of writing drums has intimated me. I’ve enjoyed collaborations with drummers, but whenever I’ve tried myself I felt that somehow they weren’t “proper” drum beats, or that they were missing something. Luckily much of my music doesn’t need percussion, but some songs on my next album asked me for drums, and who am I to deny them?

Levi Patel and Ezra Donnelly Discussing Drums

Through much trial and error, and a little more error, I wrote basic versions of the drum parts. They didn’t sound amazing, but I had to trust the songs, and so I committed. I invited Ezra Donnelly to play the drums, and interpret the basic parts I had written, and Matt Gunn to engineer – whose previous job, I found out later, was working for Nils Frahm. I hadn’t met either of them before, so I would be trusting them as well.

My studio is perfect for most instruments, but to get the open and spacious sound I wanted the drums needed more breathing space, so we booked a day at the stunning Roundhead Studios in Auckland.

Ezra Donnelly Drumming at Roundhead Studios

We began by testing different snare drums, and adjusting the cymbals, while Matt set up the main microphones. But the real magic of a large space with excellent acoustics is that we could also set up microphones right at the back of the room. By blending in the sound from those we could shape the atmosphere of the sound, giving it a more organic feeling but without make it feel closed in.

With only my programmed drums as a guide, and just enough time for a few takes per song, Ezra performed flawlessly. He was extremely sensitive to the songs – delicate when it counted, but also opening up when the music needed it. Excluding our undeniably virtuosic shaker duet, the most inspiring part was hearing how the drums brought the songs to life. The feeling Ezra played with, and the character of the sound Matt captured imbued them with so much emotion.

This leap of faith taught me three things. First, it reminded me how inspiring it can be to let go and let others into the process. Second, that the songs are always right. And finally, that sometimes the missing “something” is just the confidence to hit things with a stick.

Walking Sunset

📷 Hillary Johnston

Light and Nature

When I’m not being a nerd inside, I love to be a nerd in nature. Specifically, I’m drawn to ethereal lighting and soft, naturally desaturated colours. Sometimes that happens outside my house (and inspires an album), other times it takes me further from home.

Plane flying over Milford Sound

I took this photo on a recent trip to Milford Sound, Fiordland, in the south of New Zealand. It’s famous for its dramatic fiords and relentless rain, but so far I’ve only made it there on clear, sunny days. However, as the sun fell beneath the mountains at the end of my last visit, it produced the most stunning texture, with a perfectly timed takeoff to highlight it.

And if the light happens to fall on a spectacular winery in the region, well it’s all part of the process.

View from Rippon winery over the wines, Lake Wanaka, and mountains

24 May 2023