Branches Concept Album
University of Hertfordshire
BSc Songwriting and Music Production
Final Major Project- 6CTA1035
LISTEN TO THE FULL ALBUM HERE
Or continue to scroll for the audio of each individual track with its analysis.
I wanted my Final Major Project of my degree to be a piece of work that was really personal and I could be really invested in. I hoped it would be representative of the way my songwriting and music production abilities have grown over the past three years, and a piece of work I would be proud to showcase professionally. The idea was to write, record and produce a concept album based on family. Each track was to be about a member of my family from a different generation, and the production of each track would reflect this is some way. Each song was meant to embody the person or people it was written about. I decided to title the album Branches, as each song was about a different branch of my family tree. I referred back to this album title in the lyrics near the end of the final track on the album- Aftershave- with the repeated lyric ‘These new branches on my family tree/ Will be a little bit of you and a little bit of me’.
I recorded all of the tracks into Logic X software, using home recording set-up that was intended to emulate a professional quality recording environment. I used a variety of musical instruments and equipment; I recorded two Fender Stratocaster electric guitars, a Tanglewood acoustic guitar, a Fender Jazz bass guitar, an upright piano and male and female vocals. I used a matched stereo pair of AKG 414 microphones, a Rode NT1-A microphone, a matched stereo pair of Neumann U 87s, an H4N zoom microphone, a Behringer DI box, a Line 6 Amplifier, an Onyx Blackjack interface and a Pre-Sonus interface. I mixed the album using AKG studio headphones, KRK speakers and by playing the tracks through a variety of sound systems. I downloaded a few free audio samples for sound design within my album, as well as using some Logic instruments.
I improved my tech skills with this album, learning new recording techniques as well as becoming better at mixing and mastering. For the acoustic guitar I used 3 recordings of the same take- I used a DI box for warmth, a Rode NT1-A microphone placed in front of the body of the guitar to pick up the bass and add brightness, and the H4N zoom microphone to serve as a room mic to add atmosphere. Unfortunately this also came with a noise floor which I had to minimise in the mixing process using an expander.
I had three session musicians for the recording process and used an audio engineer for the live track. I now have a strong network of musicians that I have built through an array of professional projects; but as my album is all based around the theme of family, I felt it would be more fitting to have family members help me with the album where possible. This was obviously made easier by being related to musicians; my boyfriend Chris J Cant features as a guitarist and vocalist, and his brother Steve Cant is my bass guitarist. The only non-family member involved in the album was my pianist Angie Collins, who I chose because she is a family friend as well as a talented musician. While I appreciate that ‘atmosphere’ is essentially unquantifiable and very difficult to describe, I wanted this album to have a personal atmosphere to it and I thought this would be best achieved by working closely with people who would be emotionally invested in my project.
The album is a collection of four different stories and should take the listener on four separate journeys, but without sounding jarring when played after one another. I considered having each track blend into the next one, but I felt that each song was strong enough to stand up as a story of its own. The album is heavily driven by lyrics and vocals, and each track uses a different instrumentation and song structure.
Although each song is very personal to me and many of the lyrics include very precise details about the people or places mentioned in the songs, I still believe that they are relatable to an audience. While I attach a deep personal value to each of the unique relationships that inspired these songs, I believe that the specific feelings these relationships gave me- the feelings that inspired me to write songs about these people- are quite universal. Each of these songs is based on a theme that I hope listeners would respond to.
The first track on the album, Little Hands, was written about my Grandma who suffered with Alzheimer’s Disease. The song is about the changing dynamic of the relationship between my Grandma and myself, as well as her battle with dementia. In later years, my best communication with my Grandma was through music, so writing a song about her was very important to me personally.
As the song was of an emotive nature and heavily lyric-driven, I decided to strip it down and keep the instrumentation simply as piano and vocals although I originally wrote it for guitar and vocals. I tried different production ideas but thought that the lyrics and vocals would shine through most effectively if the track remained uncluttered. I also felt that this instrumentation suited the style of my Grandma’s era and suited her as a person. Production-wise, I wanted the track to sound reminiscent of a vinyl record. I originally wrote the song in Bb major but eventually decided that it suited my vocal range best in D major. The structure of the song is fairly simple (ABABB), but I believe that the piano part and vocal part compliment each other well and the lyrics of the song are allowed to become the central focus, which was my aim. The piano part ebbs and flows throughout the song so that it never becomes stagnant.
This track was recorded live and without a click track as I wanted to capture the raw emotion and authentic fluidity that comes with a live performance. The piece changes time signature between 3/4 and 4/4 several times, and has many tempo changes and pauses that I didn’t want to over-rehearse and lose the natural feel of. I consciously chose to record a slightly out of tune piano for this recording- I wanted it to not be so dramatically out of tune that it was off-putting, but enough so that it fit the era I was hoping to emulate and lost a certain amount of polish that would make it sound too modern. I thought it being slightly out of tune would add a feeling of age and rawness to the track. For the same reason, I also made the decision not to cut out some small noises that the piano made during the recording. I didn’t want the mix to feel too clean or clinical- these touches added an atmospheric feel without being so audible that they took focus away from the song. I added a vinyl crackle effect to complete this.
The second track, Photograph, is written about my Mum. I have a very close relationship with her, made even more significant by the fact she gave up work for years to care for me when I was diagnosed with a serious illness; this is referenced in the lyric ‘a nurse, a guide’. I wanted to capture the many roles my Mum has played in my life. The overall message I was hoping to convey was gratitude.
The production of the track underwent many transformations until I was happy with it. My Mum grew up around the music of The Beatles, and I wanted to reflect that in the track, without the transitions between the different songs on the album becoming too jarring. I listened to a lot of The Beatles tracks, namely Here Comes The Sun, because it is one of my Mum’s favourite The Beatles songs. I didn’t want the production of the song to sound too clean, especially after the previous track in the album.
After a tutorial, I changed some elements of the song; the bass was originally very simple and far too monotonous throughout the song, so I completely re-wrote and recorded it. Similarly, much of the guitar seemed too repetitive, so I changed the chord structure in the middle 8 to add more variety, as well as adding a few more layers of guitar and changing the instrumentation between verses 1 and 2 so that the song had a sense of momentum and didn’t become stagnant. I was happy with the drum part that I wrote for this song, particularly the way it builds up within the middle 8. The drum layer was originally quite boring but once I rewrote it, I felt it added a lot to the song.
I created an analog tape imitation sound on this track. By adjusting the feedback amount, the wet to dry ratio and the LFO rate and depth, I could control how subtle or obvious this effect would be- it has the effect of making the song go slightly out of tune every so often, but I think this adds ambience and authenticity rather than detracting from the song. I automated the feedback to a lower level for 2 bars at a crucial juncture towards the end of the song, as the tape effect seemed to distract from an important emotional moment.
September, the third track on the album, is about my brother’s wedding. To create a feeling of progression and momentum within the album, I felt like this was a good time period to focus on; with much of the focus of Little Hands being around my early childhood and Photograph being mostly about the ‘growing up’ time period, I felt September represented a more recent time in my life; a snapshot from a part of my life where I would consider myself an adult.
I wanted the production on this track to be cleaner and more modern to represent my brother and sister-in-law. To represent them and their taste in music, I thought this track needed to be less guitar-focused than the tracks it was sandwiched between. As I had referenced a harp in the lyrics, I wanted a harp sample in the song. I also took inspiration from their first dance song- Genuwine’s Differences, which is an R&B song. This is wildly different from the style of music that I would usually make. It uses a very bassy drum machine that reminded me of a heartbeat, which inspired me to include some sound design in the track. After realising it was not realistic to make my own audio sample of a heartbeat, I downloaded a free sample and manipulated it to match the bpm of the track. I also used bass guitar as one of the lead instruments, as a way to find a middle ground between my genre and something that suited who the song was about.
For ambience, I used a string synth through most of the song although I heavily manipulated it using Logic’s plug-ins such as the Fuzz-Wah filter and several EQs.
After discussing in a tutorial that the vocals in the middle 8 were effective in achieving an ethereal feel that suited the wedding theme, I added backing vocals to the chorus with some extra reverb on them. I used a reverb setting on the whole song based on a preset meant to represent a church- however I significantly reduced the wet to dry ratio in order for it not to sound too unrealistic. I started the track with the heartbeat and the extra reverb on the vocals because the first two lines of the song are crucial to setting the scene and I believe that the visual image created by the lyrics was echoed in these audio effects.
The final track, Aftershave, is based around the idea of a future generation. I felt it was a fitting way to end the album as it is about my own future and starting my own family. I asked Chris J Cant to feature his vocals on the track as the song was written about him and I felt it was a personal touch that added a deeper sense of meaning to the song. I have collaborated with Chris on many musical projects and intend to continue to do so, so having him on the track was a way to represent the past, present and future. It is impossible to accurately predict the style of music in the future and if I had gone down a stereotypical route it would have been a very jarring way to finish the album. I generally write songs on my guitar using standard tuning but I tuned my guitar to open G for this track; this represents my growth as a musician.
The reason I titled this track Aftershave was because I started writing the song after thinking of the lyric ‘as long as your aftershave sits next to my perfume’. The mental image of a dressing table with a bottle of aftershave sitting next to a bottle of perfume is significant to me in that stems from my childhood as part of the grown-up life I dreamed up. I wanted to include the little details that I pictured in the future, without over planning everything else along the way. The overall meaning of the song is that my dream of the future is quite vague but my one reliable constant is Chris. I wanted to end the album with this song for two reasons. One was because it made sense to order all the tracks chronologically, but also because I wanted to make the point that you get to pick some of the branches on your family tree when you choose to commit to someone and be part of each other’s family. While the whole album is about love in different forms, this song outlines the most romantic notion that I can think of; which is loving someone enough that you want to start your own family with them one day. I chose the lyrics for the middle 8 to represent this idea, but also as a nod to the album title.
I had many production ideas for this song, but after writing a bassline and percussion parts for it, I realised that it needed to be raw. When the track was more heavily produced, it felt like the meaning behind it got lost. While September was written with the musical taste of my brother and sister-in-law in mind, I wanted Aftershave to represent myself and Chris and the genre of music we make together. This is usually quite a raw style relying on vocals and guitar so I chose to stick with this. I didn’t do much processing on this track as I didn’t want it to lose its rawness. I EQd mine and Chris’ vocals in a way that I felt complimented each other. Originally I double-tracked my own vocals in the choruses and added harmonies in the verses but I didn’t feel like it needed all these layers of vocals until the middle 8. This meant that the middle 8 felt much more powerful and the verses and choruses didn’t lose their vulnerability and honesty. The middle 8 is reminiscent of Ed Sheeran’s Let It Out; Sheeran is an artist that both myself and Chris greatly admire and hope to emulate musically.
I felt that the ending to Aftershave was an appropriate ending to the album as it felt very final.
I wanted the artwork of the album to be eye-catching and simple, so I trialled a lot of different ideas including meeting with a photographer. Ultimately, I designed the artwork for the album myself using Photoshop. I wanted the artwork to be childlike as the first track on the album references my own childhood, and the final track references the family I hope to have in the future. The booklet contains the lyrics to each song, which is a common theme I have noticed in the albums created by singer/songwriters I admire who write lyrically-driven music. Using different coloured font, I spelled out a message in each lyric page, relating to the meaning of each song.
I consulted with a CD duplication company to get my album printed to a professional standard. I met with them in their Oxford office to approve the design, as I wanted to be confident with and proud of the work I was producing. Under the artist name ‘Natalie Denise’, I am essentially a brand and need to produce high-quality work to keep a professional reputation. I chose my artwork to match the colour scheme of my newly rebuilt website, in preparation for releasing this album professionally as an EP in the future.
Using Waveburner, I encoded the artist and songwriter data into the CD.
I intend to get all the songs on this album registered with PRS and PPL in order to receive any royalties they may generate. I intend to release these songs as a professional EP using an online distributor and my own record label Heartbeats Records.
I have assembled a production team to create a professional music video for the first track on the album; Little Hands. I have been in contact with the Alzheimer’s Society who have agreed to promote the song and the video as I intend to release it in aid of their charity. I have applied for a couple of grants in order to fund the project, but if I am unsuccessful in my application the plan will still go ahead on a smaller scale.
Special Thanks To:
Chris J Cant