For Julien’s latest record Little Oblivions, the singer/songwriter once again enlisted the help of her longtime collaborator and engineer, Calvin Lauber. We sat down with Calvin to talk about Julien’s newest work, the process behind making the record and some of the production choices made along the journey.
Let’s start by talking about the established relationship that you have with Julien Baker. You’ve worked on several of her releases. How do you think that affects the creative process, now that you both have worked together quite a bit?
Julien and I grew up playing in Memphis, our high school bands played shows together. When I was 16 or 17, I was recording all of my friend’s bands and all of the local young pop-punk bands above my Mom’s bedroom. I never recorded music for Julien’s old bands (The Star Killers, Forrister), but we started working together on her solo material after she released Sprained Ankle, and we’ve worked together on basically everything she’s released under her name since.
We have a musical synergy when we’re in the studio, partly because we grew up in that same music scene and probably have similar sensibilities and influences. And also due to the fact that we have worked together as much as we have. When we get in the studio, usually Julien will start tinkering with an idea and while she’s explaining to me how she wants it to sound, I’m basically already halfway through dialing in that reverb sound or distortion sound or what have you.
We honestly don’t have to speak that much while we work. If we do maybe it’s more esoteric in regards to the song or just completely unrelated to music. We have an unspoken language where we are just on the same page musically. If she starts playing a drum loop idea, I’m adding Devil-Loc or chopping it and looping it while she’s walking back into the control room. I try to anticipate what she’s chasing and make that happen as quickly as possible.
Julien works fast and especially with this album, there was a lot of jumping around to different instruments and trying weird stuff. My ability to anticipate her needs is a big part of why we work together, I think. On top of the fact that she’s just someone who rides with the people she came up with. Her drummer Matt Gilliam has been playing with her since they were kids. I really admire that about her.
Julien’s known for that personal, intimate sound in her tracks. Is that a challenge to capture sonically? What considerations are made when recording an artist like that?
It’s not a challenge really whatsoever to capture the emotion and intimacy in her performance. None of that is due to decisions I make on a microphone, compressor or reverb. That comes naturally for her, it’s why people love her and it’s really my job to not get in the way of that feeling when we record.
If there’s any challenge, it’s simply being prepared with my chain and having a good sound dialed in very quickly. Usually, her first or second take feels really good and that’s it. I don’t want to ask her to do it again for my sake. She really puts herself into the song emotionally when we record and I think it would be torturous for me to ask her to do more and more takes, just because I want to adjust the mic or adjust a compressor’s setting.
My usual move is a U67 or a U47. I like the U47 because it has an extended low end and thick low mids that balance out her higher-register voice. Very light settings on a compressor, like an LA-2A or 1176, only catching peaks and not adding much character or doing heavy lifting really at all. I’ll do more in the box so she can hear a little more compression in her ears without committing to it. She’s a very dynamic singer.
Facilitating a good vibe in the studio and being laid back and friendly is huge when working with any artist that is going to really open themselves up in the vocal booth. It can be awkward with a new artist and I find just chatting and being able to get real about whatever struggles you may be facing that week or that year of your life can help the artist feel like they can give you a really honest vocal performance. Of course, Julien and I are longtime friends so that trust is already there.
I want to talk about the recording process a bit. You recorded most of the music out of Young Avenue Sound in Memphis, correct? How is it working out of that spot? What are some of your favorite pieces they utilize?
Yes, we did the majority of the recording at Young Avenue Sound in Memphis. Julien started recording a handful of tracks on the album with some friends at a studio in Alaska called Tone Palace, and also with Collin Pastore at Trace Horse in Nashville. Those were all essentially demos that we opened back up at Young Ave and added to or replaced tracks. We also started maybe half of the songs on the record from scratch at Young Ave.
I love working out of YAS. It’s a great studio in Memphis, it has a fairly low profile and we work with a lot of indie bands and singer-songwriters. Well, sometimes Justin Timberlake records on the other side of the building, but it’s usually low-key with newer artists coming in. I work out of Studio A primarily, which has excellent gear and a great homey vibe.
I mentioned the vintage pair of U67s and the U47 they have which I always utilize. They are workhorse microphones you can put on just about anything, and I do. I was often using a combination of U67s and more lo-fi, cheaper mics to capture the drums on Little Oblivions. They have these old RadioShack ribbon mics that are kind of crappy, but they have a really cool midrange sound. They also have a Tree Audio Branch Channel Strip that I often use on vocals which sounds excellent. My favorite piece of gear there is the vintage API 1604 side-car console. It has 16 channels and it’s what I mostly used for preamps and outboard EQ on the album.
Was there a certain sonic “vibe” that you were striving to achieve? How did the vision for Little Oblivions differ from that of previous releases?
For sure. I knew from being sent the demos that we were moving in a more “full band” direction, which was new for her. It was important to both of us that the drums had a more unique sound than the classic close mics, overheads, room mics, 14 microphone “rock” set-up. It seemed too easy and kind of obvious. I think we agreed if a Julien Baker album was going to have drums, it had to be left field, in regards to the tones. Julien referred to wanting the drums to have an “undrummerly” quality. She played almost all of the drums on the record, I maybe played one or two parts. A lot of the drums were captured and then chopped and looped into more sampled sounding arrangements.
In general, I would say the record thematically is dark and sort of based on some things in her life falling apart. I wanted the record to match that and almost sound like it was falling apart or barely hanging on sonically at times; The overly compressed breakbeat drums on "Favor" or the almost-grating and intense strings on "Hardline." A lot of the record was tracked fairly quickly, and I wanted those little imperfections that come from doing one or two takes to come through. We both shot around tracklist ideas, of course it was ultimately Julien’s decision, and it was her idea to start the record with "Hardline." I was anxious about that at first because it was just so obviously more aggressive than any of her previous music, which is all mostly very stripped back and minimal. Of course in hindsight, it was an awesome decision and I love it as an opening track.
Were there any particular gear pieces that were constantly utilized on this record? Did you use a lot of plug-ins or mostly analog gear?
For guitar effects, we were using a lot of pedals that Julien is super into. Stuff by EarthQuaker Devices and Old Blood Noise. But we probably used the Line 6 HX Effects the most. I was really impressed by its versatility and ability to dial in very specific and wild sounds. At this time we were mostly using Fender amps in the studio like her Bluesman or a Twin Reverb that the studio has. I usually just miked the amp with the classic SM57/Royer R-121 combo about an inch or two off the grill. The studio also has a killer Juno-60 that we used a lot for synth and ambient sounds. I mentioned the Tree Branch. It was used to record most of the vocals on the record. Sometimes on really shouty stuff I would switch to the API 1604 pre, as I think it handles harder signals better, but there’s less of that on this album actually. The music is doing more of the yelling.
As far as plug-ins go, there was a lot of that. Devil-Loc and all of the Soundtoys stuff were used greatly in the production of these sounds. Microshift was used often to make a sound more supernatural and wider. I usually reach for Vahalla Reverb or Universal Audio plate reverbs like the EMT 140. In especially ambient moments veering towards psychedelia, I really like using Crystallizer on a reverb send to make things move a little more. I think a lot of people associate Julien’s sound with reverbs and so there’s special focus on dialing in cool ambiance and automating them for the perfect moments. All of UAD’s stuff is great, and I often used the Pultec for tone bending. If I’m not using Devil-Loc to add crunch, I was using Fab Filter Saturn (which I think is an underrated plugin), to crunch up some drums or lightly saturate a vocal part.
The record has been out for a few months now. How do you feel about the finished product? How has the reception been?
I feel great about the record, and relieved that it’s out and people love it. We knew going into the release that, while at its core it was still very much a Julien record, it was pretty different and more experimental sonically than anything she had done before. And due to COVID, we sat on the finished record for a year before it came out. That was a little mind-bending and anxiety-inducing. Self-doubt starts to kick in when you’ve already heard it hundreds of times and it’s not fresh anymore.
The collaboration went a lot deeper than just engineering this time, so I feel myself in the record, maybe almost as much as Julien does. Although Julien really threw everything at the wall and opened up the possibilities of what her music can sound like on this record, I think people understand the meaning and context of the record and it’s resonating. That’s been so rewarding to see and has me excited to push further on the next one.
Listen below to hear Calvin Lauber's work on Julien Baker's Little Oblivions.