Audio Pro International editor Daniel Gumble speaks to renowned composer and producer Jennie Muskett about her career in the TV and film industry, as well as the production process behind Boys Don’t Cry, the brand new album from singer-songwriter Rumer…
In her role as lead producer on Boys Don’t Cry, the follow-up to 2010’s critically acclaimed Seasons of My Soul, Jennie Muskett could well be seen as treading somewhat unfamiliar territory with her latest project. Having carved out something of a reputation as one of the world’s most revered composers in the field of TV and film, she has amassed no fewer than two Emmy awards and five Emmy nominations for her work in Hollywood, not to mention two BAFTA nominations for her hugely successful work on BBC series Spooks.
However, while her work with Rumer may represent her first foray into the world of pop music production, this is by no means the first time Muskett has undertaken production duties, adopting a hands on approach with many of her previous projects, which could see her performing, conducting or producing at any given time. In fact, it was her early work composing scores for Natural History films for IMAX, National Geographic, BBC and Discovery that offered her the opportunity to develop her skills as a producer. “Each month they would give me an orchestra and a new project to score, which was fantastic training for writing to picture,” she explains. “I’d be writing, orchestrating, conducting, and producing. You weren’t given a producer; you just had to get on with it. So I didn’t really think about these different roles; when I started I didn’t have an arranger because I didn’t know that there was such a thing. You would simply think ‘right, how do I want this to sound?’ and then just get on with it.”
Splitting her time between such studios as Air and Abbey Road, as well as her home studio in Highgate, London, Muskett subsequently moved further into the realm of writing and producing scores for a raft of TV dramas; most notably, BBC’s Spooks. It was ultimately these projects that allowed her to hone her talent for painting pictures and storytelling with sound; a talent that would lend itself perfectly to the task of bringing to life the stories that lie at the heart of Boys Don’t Cry – an album made up entirely of songs written by male singer-songwriters from the 1970s.
So, just how did Muskett come to be involved with the project? “I had decided to take a year off to write my own project, which is an album of songs. And I was friends with Rumer at the time so I asked her if she’d like to sing on it. So, we recorded a couple of tracks together, but then her debut album took off, which was amazing - and we still managed to work on a few sessions together - but our time was restricted due to how busy she was with promoting the album.
“However, during her work on Boys Don’t Cry, she unfortunately fell out with her producer and asked me for help, and if I would finish and produce it for her. At that point, we tried a few things to change it a little bit, which didn’t really work that well, so I thought about all the musicians I’d been working with over the years, put a band together and mapped out all the tracks. We then used some of the vocal takes that she’d originally done, as well as some new ones that she did here [Highgate studio].”
With a hand picked band now in place, the album’s music, as well as some additional vocals, were recorded in Studio 1 of London’s RAK Studios, a workspace that Muskett was more than happy to occupy. “They have a fantastic 1976 API console and a lovely big, warm room. I think we initially went in to do seven songs with the band, which went really well, and then she [Rumer] asked me to do another 12. It was a brilliant time, and it is from those recordings that she eventually selected the tracks that she wanted to use on the album.”
While the album was recorded using Pro tools through the API console, Muskett is still keen to extoll the virtues of recording in a studio with an analogue desk, as opposed to conducting the entire process ‘inside the box’. “I would always want to go into a studio with a proper desk,” she states. “Absolutely. I know people talk a lot about the digital sound but programmes like Pro Tools I use more as a tool for composing and arranging. And for that it is a fantastic programme.”
Another of Muskett’s skills that came to the fore during the recording and production process of Boys Don’t Cry was her ability to work under intense pressure, with little over a month between her initial involvement with the project and its subsequent completion; a time scale and environment, which, on the surface, presents a stark contrast to the “warm and fuzzy” sound produced on the record. Yet, while some may have found such an atmosphere stifling or problematic, Muskett insists that this aspect of the production in no way rendered the sessions fraught or difficult, with everyone involved utilising the momentum of the process to garner the best results. “We had a limited time, so we just worked and worked and worked, and it was really intense. It’s about as intense an experience I’ve ever had musically. But when you’re writing for film, that’s also intense, so, to me, this felt luxurious; being able to produce one or two songs a day. And it meant that everyone, from Rumer, to the band, and myself was contributing ideas. It was amazing.”
As an album that is essentially designed to allow Rumer’s vocal prowess take centre stage as a means to tell the story of each individual track, Muskett is keen to point out that the approach to both the recording and production of each song was something that was tailored to meet the needs of each number specifically. “Sometimes she would go off and do vocals with Helen Atkinson, who was the recording engineer on the album, and then sometimes she would sit down and sing live with the band. Those occasions were especially moving, as they really showed what a wonderful vocalist she is; they would rehearse a couple of times, get the feel right and discuss it a bit, and then just go for it.”
Muskett also elaborates on the prospect of bringing something new and unique to a batch of songs already synonymous with their original artists: “One of the challenges was to bring out the emotions of the song, respecting the original, but finding a new voice for it. For example, 'Same Old Tears on a New Background'; Art Garfunkel had a massive, lush string arrangement. This was far too expansive an approach for this record. Knowing I could not hope to ‘compete’ with this, I had the idea to go the opposite way and used the simplicity and intimacy of a solo guitar and piano as the accompaniment for Rumer’s beautiful vocals.
“One magical evening, Rumer came into the studio and sang it live with the band. It was one of those occasions when I just couldn’t stop the tears – it’s a litmus test and when that happens, I know I’ve got the right take!”
Furthermore, one of the album’s core values was the absolute authenticity of both the vocals and the band’s performance; an especially rare commodity in a pop industry that is currently brimming with sub par ‘artists’ and suffering an intoxicating saturation of synthetic processing in the drive to mask the absence of genuine talent. “There wasn’t even a synth in the room on this record," Muskett offers. "While some singers may feel the need to process their vocals in post-production, Rumer simply doesn’t need to.”
With a critically acclaimed album now under her belt as a producer, Muskett is intent on pursuing the path of pop production and composition a little further before returning the more familiar pastures of film and TV. “I’ve got a couple more music production projects coming up, which I’m thrilled about, and I really want to do more of. I loved it, and it felt like a very natural step for me. I also didn’t know I could write songs prior to this, so that’s also something I will be doing more of.”
So, while she is unable to reveal the finer details surrounding her upcoming projects, and bearing in mind the acclaim with which Boys Don’t Cry has already been met, we probably won’t have to wait too long to find out.
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