A Bedroom with a View
As Berklee follows safety precautions for weathering the current global coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis and makes an unprecedented shift to remote learning, the question on a lot of our minds is: how do we create when we no longer have collaborators nearby?
Within the history of recorded music, there's a rich tradition of do-it-yourself types and those looking for unique recording spaces, not to mention the allure of the home studio (just check out this long list on Wikipedia of albums recorded in home studios). While this playlist doesn't seek to answer the above question in a comprehensive way, we thought it would perhaps be inspiring and comforting to take stock of artists who have created enduring music under limited or atypical circumstances. Take a listen, and below, read a little about the special situations that gave rise to these songs.
1. "Flume," Bon Iver
Even though the debut album from Justin Vernon's Bon Iver project came out on Jagjaguwar in 2008, the story behind it feels timeless: A songwriter retreats from society to mend a broken heart, and somehow, from sharing and distilling pain, creates something that brings catharsis. Taking the band name from a playful spelling of the French bon hiver ("good winter"), Vernon holed up in a remote cabin in the middle of a frigid Wisconsin winter and crafted an album, For Emma, Forever Ago, which was filled with simple but inventive acoustic textures and a vocal delivery that would become his calling card. Later albums would feature more personnel and garner accolades, but none of that would've happened without this bare-bones debut.
2. "Brand New Colony," The Postal Service
The band name for this side project comprising singer/instrumentalist Ben Gibbard (Death Cab for Cutie) and producer Jimmy Tamborello (Dntel) is as literal as they come. The duo exchanged audio files and song sketches through the mail until they had eventually created Give Up, an album about loneliness and connection that felt futuristic in some of its lyrical content and also in its glitchy synths and bleep-bloop rhythmic textures. While both artists would continue to find success in their respective careers and genres, their joint achievement on Give Up showed the heartwrenching power of electronic music when shifted out of the crowded club and into headphones everywhere. Bonus: Gibbard has been playing solo versions of his songs, including Postal Service cuts, in his Live from Home series, which he's been streaming from his home studio since coronavirus precautions have kept him from touring this spring.
3. "bad guy," Billie Eilish
As far as DIY success stories go, it doesn't get much more inspiring than Billie Eilish and her collaborator/producer/brother FINNEAS creating When We All Go to Sleep, Where Do We Go? in their bedrooms and then winning a record-breaking five Grammys for their efforts. In fact, during a campus visit in the fall, FINNEAS talked about how working with big-name producers in expensive studios stunted their flow, and that they needed a less supervised environment. As he said, "And that’s probably the best recommendation I can give for home recording, is being unwatched.”
4. "It's All About the Benjamins," Puff Daddy and the Family
If you're going to be stuck in one place and told to work on music for every waking minute of the day, there are worse places to be then in a beach house in Trinidad, which is where Puff Daddy (who now goes by Diddy) brought his team of producers and beat-makers, the Hitmen, while making No Way Out, which would go on to be the first hip-hop album to debut at no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 200 chart.
5. "Everybody Wants to Be Famous," Superorganism
As their band name implies, Superorganism take a democratic and collective approach to their music. With members from England, South Korea, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand, the band started writing their self-titled debut album through file sharing before most of the band members moved into the same house in London, where they wrote and recorded the remainder.
6. "Mind Mischief," Tame Impala
While there are core members who tour with Tame Impala, the "band" is really just Australian musician Kevin Parker, who has created all four Tame Impala albums almost completely by himself, including instrumentation and production. Pretty much anything from his discography is a good example of what can be done when an artist is left alone to follow their creative vision, but how could we pass up a cut from an album titled Lonerism?
7. "Nostalgia," Chance the Rapper
Chance the Rapper's debut mixtape, 10-Day, isn't a good example of social distancing, since it features a number of collaborators. Rather, the limitations surrounding the record have to do with the 10-day suspension he was serving in high school (yep, he was still in high school), and how he used that length of time to make the album. Apparently, if life gives you lemons, you can either make lemonade...or a debut release that sets you on a course toward rap superstardom.
8. "Kill v. Maim," Grimes
When Claire Boucher, who performs as Grimes, was working on her third studio album, Art Angels, she was intent on producing it the way she envisioned. For previous records, she'd grown increasingly frustrated with professional studios not taking her production work seriously, or seeing critics give disproportionate focus to her gender identity. So for Art Angels, she produced and recorded the album alone in her home studio, which involved teaching herself new instruments and programs such as Ableton Live. The result was an in-your-face electronic pop album that strikes a perfect balance between experimental and accessible, and topped end-of-year—and eventually end-of-decade—lists from major publications such as Billboard, Spin, and the New York Times.
9. "Cherokee," Cat Power
Before releasing 2012's Sun, Chan Marshall had eight studio albums under her Cat Power moniker, having fostered a devoted fanbase in the indie folk-rock scene since the mid-90s. So when Sun's lead single, "Cherokee," was released, it was clear from the song's synthesizer and electronic textures that the artist had gone through some kind of transformation. Marshall revealed that she had written an entirely different record before Sun, but scrapped it when she realized it wasn't pushing her forward as an artist. To call the road after that rocky would be an understatement; it involved heartbreak, hospitalization, and bankruptcy. She retreated to her home studio, turned to electronic music to reinvigorate her artistic practices, and finally moved to France to record what would become her first record to crack Billboard's top ten list.
10. "Cannons," Youth Lagoon
The name of Youth Lagoon's debut record? The Year of Hibernation. 'Nuff said.
11. "Hot Knife," Fiona Apple
In less than seven years, the Beatles released 13 studio albums. Fiona Apple has released four albums over the course of more than 20 years. It's typically not a sustainable business model for a musician, independent or otherwise. Yet for Apple, her obsessive and insular process has earned her a Grammy, among many other accolades, and has cultivated a fanbase that flocks to every rumor of new releases (in fact, current rumors have it that we'll get a new record in 2020). She kept the making of her 2012 album, The Idler Wheel..., to herself so much that her label didn't even know about it until it was finished.
12. "Let Him Fly," Patty Griffin
Grammy-winning folk singer/songwriter Patty Griffin's debut record, Living with Ghosts, is about as simple as they come: an acoustic guitar and vocals. But it wasn't supposed to be that way. Her demo tape had impressed A&M Records enough to get her signed, and the label sent her to work with guitarist and super producer Nile Rodgers (who received an honorary doctorate from Berklee in 2018). The result was a pristine, full-band record that should've worked. But...it just didn't. So in a rare move for major labels in the '90s, A&M let Griffin release her demo versions, recognizing that those recordings captured the raw, soul-stirring power of her voice in a way that a professional studio session just couldn't. It was the right move—even though she's gone on to a successful career with many more albums after, Living with Ghosts remains her best-selling record.
13. "Purple Rain - Piano and a Microphone 1983 Version," Prince
At 1:26, this early draft of one of Prince's most famous power ballads is over seven minutes shorter than the final version that would come out a year later in 1984, lending its name to the album and a subsequent film. Less a version than a sketch of things to come, this one-take recording wasn't released to the public until 2018 in the posthumous album Piano and a Microphone. And while we may never know if the Purple One wanted us to hear this version, it provides an empowering reminder to all of us taking refuge in our homes and dorms from the coronavirus: that what we create in isolation can sometimes go on to bring millions together.