Newton Faulkner came to prominence wielding his captivating and flawless amalgamation of guitar percussion and fingerstyle with 2007’s chart-topping Hand Built By Robots but, now, three more albums down the line, platinum selling status, over 1.5 million records sold, and another number one album, he’s back with Studio Zoo. Things have changed, though.
The Surrey-raised, Eric Roche-taught songwriter took a new approach to making an album, turning his home in the musical Big Brother house for five solid weeks, as he opened up the making of Studio Zoo to everyone, everywhere, allowing them access inside the Zoo as he made his fourth album. Fans could log in online and follow every detail of the ups, downs, dramas and laughs including guest appearances from Mumford & Sons’ Ted Dwayne, India Bourne, Nick Harper, Thomas Leeb, and Janet Devlin.
At the start of the project, Newton announced that he was both excited and terrified about the idea of Studio Zoo. ‘The entire recording process will be streamed live and nothing has been recorded in advance, apart from some particularly good clapping which was recorded in Paris. The album will be made before your very eyes, no tricks, no producer and no engineer – just me, a guitar and a few surprise guests!’
Live streaming to the world (hence the title) while recording an album? That’s crazy, very brave and, well, pretty genius at the same time.
‘I like to challenge myself and think of really hard things to do. I kind of think: “What should I not do?” and then go: “Right, let’s do that!” Just stick to the guitar with that though, don’t let it infiltrate your life… you might end up in prison!’ he laughs, sitting in Leamington Spa’s Head Music before playing an in-store gig to promote Studio Zoo. He’s talking with one eye trained on us, the other on his MacBook as he continues to tweet his online following. ‘Yeah, man. I’m just getting back to everyone on Twitter now ahead of midweeks tomorrow,’ he says referring to the UK midweek album chart. ‘Pulling in some internet favours, getting everyone to tweet with the Studio Zoo hashtag, you know?’ The album subsequently went on to chart at number ten, meaning every album he’s released has achieved a spot in the coveted top ten – two of which hit the top spot.
Studio Zoo has obviously fined tuned his multitasking skills, too (he wore his writer, producer, performer, and arranger hats simultaneously) because he’s now (still) tweeting, making tea, warming up for the in-store and being interviewed at the same time… Also, the attention to detail in tea making was second-to-none! Anyway, we picked Newton’s brains on life in the Studio Zoo…
This album was done in a completely innovative and out of the ordinary way…
No one has done this before, no-one knew the implications of it. As an artists, the whole thing has been completely fascinating because it’s rare you get the opportunity to be in the studio and say to the fans: “Do you guys like shakers? What, you don’t like shakers? Oh, okay – I won’t put them on there.” The interaction just stepped up every day. When it first started we’d do official Twitter Q&As in the evening because after a little while I just got completely used to the level of interaction that was possible. I stopped Tweeting people back, and I’d just have Twitter open behind Pro Tools and I’d dip in and out of it. I’d be recording and someone named Geoff would pop up asking me questions about what I’d just done. It was kind of bizarre, but it definitely worked.
What made you want to do the album in this kind of way, opening up the whole process to the world?
I guess it was a way of bridging the gap between the live stuff and the recorded stuff. It’s definitely done that, I think. It was just a way to link all the elements and areas, too. From the second and third albums, something that was moving in the same directions was suddenly going in a completely different direction because the recorded stuff got more built up just after I’d decided not to have a band, so then I started doing the mega multi-tasky things because the two things went in two different directions so the live show became more acoustic just as the albums became more layered and produced so it was a bit confusing. The radio singles painted one picture, and outside of that, the rest of the album was a different thing entirely. I just do what I do – or at least I have done on this album. Maybe before I was trying to fit into things and getting onto the radio – there were a lot of people involved then. It’s really hard to just go and ignore those people, so you kind of end up taking it onboard however much you don’t want to and it’s bizarre. For Studio Zoo I just did exactly what I wanted. I didn’t listen to anything, I wasn’t checking radio to see what was going on. I just wanted to do something that is right and see what happens!
The fact that people watched it being made led to them having such a huge connection to it more so than any other record they own because they actually watched it being made, and were talking to me as I was making it. I’m really intrigued to see who does this next. Now it has started, someone else is going to have to do it, right? All the technology is in place for this sort of thing to happen…
Five weeks solid in the Studio Zoo – that must’ve tested you in more ways than one.
Yeah, it was five weeks solid. I was producing and engineering it, too. I don’t know how many producers and engineers that would want cameras on them 24/7. It’s fine for me, because it’s my job and I’m used to it anyway. I think most engineers, particularly, tend to be quite shy! Toby [Faulkner, Newton’s brother] was helping out – we wrote the songs together. It’s good to have another pair of ears. It’s just being able to ask someone: “Do you think that’s good enough?” Otherwise you just listen to it and you’re like: “Let’s keep making it better until I can’t anymore” and in doing that, you sometimes make things so much worse. I didn’t do the mixing of the recording. I sent it off to people that I could trust to get it mixed for me. It was good to take a step back at some point, otherwise there’s some stuff that could’ve come out sounding really weird!
The majority of the album was done in whole takes – that doesn’t really happen anymore.
Exactly. There was so little editing on this – most were whole takes, yeah. Studio stuff is so easily faked now because the technology has become so good that you can have someone come in who can’t sing or play a note and make them sound awesome. I wanted to show what’s happening right at the source and, you know, whole takes work, man!
You collaborated with some incredible musicians on Studio Zoo. Ted Dwayne [Mumford & Sons], India Bourne [Ben Howard], Nick Harper, Thomas Leeb, Janet Devlin… How did you choose who you worked with?
They were kind of just guys I knew from all over the place. Everyone was mind-blowing. There’s things about each of them that I love – their voices, their playing and styles. I like how some of the guys are polar opposites. They all came in and done their bit. Nick [Harper] came in, did some backing vocals and then went away and really thought about the part. He’s such a crazy man – in a good way! Thomas Leeb was the first person I ever heard using that percussive guitar technique so that’s so kind of full circle for me! I love the idea of tuning something down, and sing something up the register (and vice versa) so that it sounds really big. I write with other people, too. It’s a bizarre disciple doing that. I’d like to work with some really weird instruments, actually.
Which song(s) are you most excited about on Studio Zoo?
That’s tough [at this point Newton picks up a copy of Studio Zoo, laughs, and flips to the track listing]. It’s all still really new. ‘Plastic Hearts’ is working really well live. ‘Treading Water’ is the hardest thing I’ve ever written to play!
As usual, there are lots of technical guitar licks on the album, but you know where to draw the line before going over the top…
Well, I hope I do. I try not to cross that line. I mean, I just write song. I think if you are writing instrumental guitar pieces then the idea is just to do something that’s really complicated. That’s not one path that I really take on… maybe in the future I’ll do something like that just for fun and see how far I can push myself. In terms of songwriting I really like the challenge of getting everything on the same level – not just guitar playing, but the singing, too. The singing has gotten more technical over the years because I’ve done loads of work on it. The vocals have actually stepped up to a point where I’m doing some quite weird things. It’s trying to get the songwriting, playing, and singing all up to that same level. Playing stuck out first, obviously, then writing, and singing. Vocals, for me, were well below where they should have been for a while but I feel like everything is balancing out now.
Has this album pushed you the hardest, musically?
Absolutely. I think it was because I didn’t put anything else on it – the guitar parts had to fill up all the space and do all of the work. I limited myself to what I could do live, outside of things that I knew would be just awesome – like India’s cello part which I just love.
There’s the tuning thing that I’ve never done before, and now it’s all the way through ‘Treading Water’. You’re tuning whilst playing harmonics at the same time so, essentially, you’re playing melodies with harmonics. It’s a really cool technique because the harmonics give it such a pure sound – especially when you do it while you’re playing chords. Studio Zoo has been really challenging.
The majority of the recording was done with your Nick Benjamin acoustics?
Yeah, although I used a fretless Hutchins Telecaster on ‘In My Head’ – it’s so weird, but I was pleased I got it on there. It’s the kind of thing that would’ve got taken off if I had any A&R involvement in it. I might need a second baritone Benjamin because I’ve only got one and there are five tracks that I play live now which are played on a baritone, so if anything goes wrong with the electronics live, well… They take nine months to be built, though. I mainly switch between two/three Benjamin guitars. Some in standard, one in alternate, and then the baritone. I use my oldest Benjamin for recording, but I have one that’s pretty much a replica of that because the original is too old to fly now! In its life it has been to every country I have, but it’s also been to three countries I haven’t been to, thanks to Easy Jet…
What was a day-in-the-life of Newton Faulkner like in the Studio Zoo?
I didn’t really have a structure that I stuck to. There was a hell of a lot to do because it was only five weeks. I got up at around 8.30am and wandered straight into the studio with a cup of coffee. It was important for me to listen to the last thing I had done the previous day to check that it made some sense, I’d do breakfast, and a bit of skipping and punch bag. I remember one morning when I was on such a mission. I woke up knowing I had to do four lead vocals today –that’s a tall order. I went down stairs and started skipping and beating the punch bag thinking: “Come on, you can do this!”
Acoustic guitar isn’t the easiest thing to record… Did getting the right sound take a lot of work?
I’m really, really happy with the guitar sound on Studio Zoo. It was three years before this of just recording guitar. I didn’t realise, but over the last few years I was slowly getting everything in the right place, with the right settings, so when I was in the Studio Zoo I was like: “Oh, hang on, that’s just there! Awesome.” The guitar takes up so much space on the record, more so than I’ve ever done before, really. It’s not overly clinical, either – that kind of bugs me when you get loads of different mics. I think I only really used two mics which I combined to get the sound – a SE Gemini II, and a Gefell M300. I do also have two Cole 440 Ribbon mics that were elsewhere in the room. In terms of mic placement I had one right in front of the soundhole (which is really bad – apparently that’s naughty!) but then you get all the kick and that movement of air that you can really feel. The room sounds really good because it’s really loud – it’s not acoustically treated at all in there. There are some bits of audiofoam, but I’m pretty sure it does nothing! [Laughs]. You can hear life happening around Studio Zoo, it’s not ultra clean – creaky chairs, Toby moving around!
What tips would you share for budding players going into the studio to record acoustic guitar?
My guitar sound is quite specific for the way that I play. You probably don’t need a mic right infront of the soundhole if you’re strumming because you’ll get frequencies you don’t want. That twelfth fret thing is the classic for strumming or picking, but I was demanding a whole lot more from it. Recording has a lot to do with the room – if it’s a dead room then you’ll struggle to get that solidness. You need the room to capture the full sound of an acoustic.
You openly brought all of your fans into your life, home, and studio for five weeks. Being watched and scrutinised, all day, everyday. Do you worry about losing a sense of mystery about making an album?
You know the most exhausting thing I done was thank everyone that pre-ordered the album and because I opened up the doors and invited all this interactivity in, I kind of feel like I needed to. I communicate with people on social media now without thinking about it – it’s become second nature, really.
I’ve never been into that barrier – there’s nothing between me and anyone else. I try to get rid of that. There are some people that work very well as these mysterious characters, but I like doing it openly. From the point of view of making music, it’s great to get feedback while you are actually doing it from the very people that you want to buy it at the end of the process. A lot of people have said to me that this process has inspired them to go and make their own music, which is really amazing. I don’t worry about losing any mystery involved in it – I’m just a guy in my studio playing my guitar and screaming at my computer every now and then!
You’ve got a big your booked for 2014 – do you think your relationship with the fans will differ in a live situation after Studio Zoo?
Ah, yes I’m playing the Roundhouse – I love that place. It’s going to be awesome. You know something, that’s really interesting. It’s going to be strange. There are people I’ve spoken to literally every single day of the Zoo – they must’ve had jobs where they can leave it running in the background and they were just there all of the time. The weirdest thing was walking down the stairs in the morning. I’d just stumble down the stairs and put the kettle on and then get loads of tweets saying: “Morning!” Studio Zoo started out relatively simple, to be honest – it was going to be one camera, no sound and really much less intimidating than it ended up becoming. Then we went to the label and told them what we were thinking of doing and they though it was brilliant, but they then wanted audio, more cameras. They asked me how long I could do it for because they were originally thinking just in the evenings for an hour, but it ended up being five weeks solid and you could see my sleeping face on camera! A lot of people in the industry keep things really secretive, but I wanted to open it up. Perhaps now I know I can do it, I’ll write an album a year. We’ll see…