San Francisco local musician Leon + the Fantastic has recently come out with an animated music video for “Grieving Friend of a Superman.” You can check it out below. The track comes off of his May 18 release, “Let It Cool,” an album that taught him some important lessons about being in a recording studio. He graciously offered to guest blog for us to share that knowledge with any local musicians out there looking to record an album. Here is what he had to say.
It was a moment of memory in a now-vanished incarnation of San Francisco. Ed Jones ran an analog studio on Berry Street. I was about 15, my dad brought me and a friend from School of the Arts to his friend’s recording studio to lay down what particular opus I was working on at the time. It was me, fellow pianist Will Kirkpatrick, and a drummer I don’t recall, who impressed us at the time for having a girlfriend. We called ourselves “Revelation T Sphere.” Just thinking of Will and I, foppishly appropriating Thelonius S. Monk’s name for our little homage still makes me smile. It was my first experience in a recording studio.
I was never much of a concert goer, and perhaps this is why I rarely perform. When it works it feels great. “I should do this more often!” However, the people around me who witness me barely get through the process are less enthusiastic. I love it. It takes the world out of me… and recovery is slow. I should mention at this point that I am a full-time music maker, blessed to have stellar mentors and lucky fingers.
Flash forward to the present day, I’ve done a good share of recording. I have rarely released anything. Every time the edge burns to do music, I just book a recording date. Then, straight away to beg borrow and steal to make it happen. I love it, this is my jam. We have to be cool with ourselves in this life while continuing to grow and learn. I have much to learn about the soul of the stage. Meanwhile, allow me to share a bit about my recording obsession, as I’ve experienced it in our town, San Francisco, and the wider Bay Area.
I went to the amazing New School Jazz program in NYC, and after dropping out, spent a few years abroad on another path. I moved back to the Bay in 2012 after not having stepped foot in America in seven years. The clock was ticking on “making it” so I decided it was time to dig in. I recorded first at Northerly Sound, a studio in Project Artaud artist cooperative with Norman Rutherford, then Hyde Street Studios with Jack Kertzman. After this, I moved to Tiny Telephone and for the first time worked with a producer, Rob Shelton. As I was doing this I wanted to also produce my own material where I’ve worked with Jesse Nichols at Fantasy Studios. There have been others too. I don’t want to get into dishing about the respective pros and cons of each spot, or I will be in trouble! But I can share this:
I’ve come up with a list of questions for myself and I’d like to share them. They’ve helped me stay in tune over this album making process, which can be challenging. I’ll put them in the first person so as not to assault your eyes…
Do I know the language and common pitfalls of recording? Do I know what the engineer goes through? Do I prattle on endlessly with her while she’s working on developing tone? Have I been practicing with a mic to find mid-range volume? Do I know the basic signal flow on the console?
Am I too focused on impressing someone? How cool do I feel it is important to be during this process? Am I really the type of person who can really listen and know what I think in real time? …or do I need to schedule a time to think about it between schedules, before making big decisions? Am I thinking about each choice of life and death or can I let some things go and keep moving forward?
Is it hard for me to share the word no? Is it cool to say some difficult things by email or text? in person? Am I creating a positive work environment for everyone? Am I over concerned about my impact on the environment? What do I need to get in the mood to record? Is it working? (We may not be stars, but it’s ok and important to have your own rider contract, even if we have to provide it for ourselves) On the first day at Tiny Telephone I ordered the most ridiculously large lunch and was completely trashed for the second half, but it was golden!
Is the recording engineer the same as the mixing engineer? If so, is there a feeling of pressure, or charm which led to this decision? Is it embarrassing to ask for the files? Is that a situation I created or is there a bit of hustle involved too? Can I stay chill and still make sure to get my files? (I do it every time, and every single time it is a bit sad to tell the recordist, “I don’t want you to mix.”) For me, a mix is a totally honest reflection on what is down on the tape, so to speak. I love having both a separate engineer and producer on both ends. Should the project use session musicians? Its perfect, its clean, it’s gorgeous.
Leon’s session musician checklist: They love their job. They love your music. They get paid, but they also want to have a beer. They respond quickly regarding dates. The vibe is right. If they do not, keep looking.
Am I being hustled? This is a big one. Believe me, I know of this trip we share: The heartache of not having a permanent band. I completed this Tiny Telephone recorded, Fantasy Studios mixed EP over a year ago! And its taken two years since then to be brave enough to set a release date: Let Me Cool comes out on May 18, 2018. My hope is that this EP will be proof of concept, to help attract a group of lovely like-minded musical geniuses who’d love to pitch in, share the stage, make grand plans and see great victories and abysmal failures, together.
Music is our life but entire industries are based on ‘helping us’ chase our dream. So, we have to own when we choose to get hustled. You and I both know we’ve done it before, we’ll do it again. Got to have forgiveness for self in this business. If you decide to go with your gut, its ok. Own it, and move on. Always we charge forward. Music recording is best served with a full belly of intention…
All of the above are important questions for a recording artist around personnel. I want to address one for the stage.
Very little for a singer-songwriter worse than ending a night of a performance, and the session musicians say “thank you, man.” Nothing says ‘we are not in it together’ more than that. Its like saying thank you for sex. At a certain point, I decided it was not worth it to be up on stage often unless its a feeling we are together, in it for the real life, in celebration, and for the hang, for win or loss.
So, for some of us, the answer is in the recording studio. I hope I’ve been of some help, and I hope you check out Let Me Cool when it pops out of space and time this May.
With a moniker like Leon + the Fantastic, one can’t help but be curious about the artist behind the name. Now back in his hometown of San Francisco, Leon + the Fantastic is currently preparing for the release of his new album Let Me Cool this May. Touching upon themes like justice, passion, and the glorious chaos of daily life, the 6-track collection is contemplative, forward, and raw and finds Leon joined by a brilliant team of musicians who helped him bring his vision to life. Let Me Cool drops May 18, 2018