Visiting John Barrowman for the recording of You Raise Me Up!
Antje’s Report 1st July 2014
Back in March, I was lucky enough to be able to attend two of the studio visits John Barrowman did for his new album “You Raise Me Up.” (now available everywhere) that was founded through the Pledge system by his fans. We were there and saw it being made. You can’t really get any closer than that.
Having been to two of the studio sessions now, I start to see a pattern. First, John would join us in the room we were sitting in, which had a big organ and also a black grand piano. On the piano Matt would play and John would rehearse a song or two.
On Tuesday these songs were “A Thousand Years” and “Skyscraper” and on Wednesday again “Skyscraper”. This time John also recorded it as a video for his pledging page. One time Matt sang along as well to help John with what he wanted and they sounded really lovely as a duet.
Here is the video they did that day:
They also tried out different height levels for “Skyscraper” and one was an E which is very high and John asked if he really shall do that on tour every evening? Then John would go into the glass cubicle we were sitting right across from to watch him work. It was a bit like animals in the zoo but he obviously didn’t mind that we followed every step he did.
On Wednesday we watched him take off his blue sweater (he had a grey tshirt under it), take off his rings and watch and lay it all down on the table. Then he grinned as it really did seem a bit like a strip tease but he did not continue with it.
At the right side was another glass cubicle with all the technical stuff. There sat Matt and Gavin and Katie with lots of computers. We had all gotten headphones so we could listen to what they said to John, and hear John singing of course. Before we started, he made sure that everyone was able to hear him: “Can you hear me? Nod if you can hear me.” After everyone had given the okay, we were ready to start.
It was amazing to have him right in our ears. You could hear every little breath and throat clearing.
Another interesting thing to learn about was the burping. Someone on Twitter commented on it after the first studio session on Tuesday, and he mentioned it to us again on Wednesday. It’s because he sometimes takes in so much air for those long notes, and it has to go somewhere after again.
Well that would be the saucy and icky stuff out of the way, now we can concentrate on the singing. If him singing just to the piano in the room already had sounded great, I really was not prepared to what the first song – “Loch Lomond” – would be like. He asked for the lights to be dimmed, to get him into the right mood and also for none of us to take pictures during that song.
They started out with singing the song as a whole through once or twice, just to get him into the mood. Later they would break up the song into several sections, so John would just sing the first part and sometimes even only the same line again and again until it was perfect, then the second part and then the last part. Doing it like this helps them construct the ultimate good song out of the single parts. “See? This is how hard I work for you!”
He explained to us that he likes to do it in sections as it is easier to work with. Technically, they could even construct it out of different words. Some singers, who don’t know how to sing, do this and then the computer does all the hard work to make them sound good.
So, they started to work on the sections, and we were witnesses of seeing something that already was great, becoming even better during the hour. Matt knows exactly what he wants, and he tells John in a lot of technical terms I did not exactly understand, as I am no musician. He told him where to breathe, where to do the vibrato, whether to go close to the microphone for intimacy or more far away, and also sometimes they discussed which the right lyrics were and then Gavin would check them with the lyrics sheet. John had a bit of a struggle to remember the new words, as he had been singing “Loch Lomond” for years with other ones, so they were ingrained into his brain.
Same with “Mandy”, there was a little break one time and he had time to go through the song and really look at the notes, and make notes for himself in there. “Isn’t it amazing how you sing a song for years and have not the right melody,” or something he said.
The lines on the sheet were numbered, so they always knew about which number they were talking at the moment. Matt would say for example, “Let’s start from bar 67.”
At one point two girls in the front row got into the music so much that they started to sway in rhythm – only, they had the wrong rhythm and John was motioning to them to please stop as it was bringing him out of HIS rhythm. But after he had finished singing he smiled and said, “I’m happy you enjoy it so much.”
“Mandy” was the first song on Wednesday, the same like “Loch Lomond” in a dimmed light, as it also was a very emotional one.
There was a bit of mishap with that song. When John sang it through the first time to the music track Matt had done the other day for it, he broke off after the first verse and said: “You will probably hate me for this but I think it is too slow. Will that cause us trouble?” Matt agreed that it indeed did sound too slow and he was right, it sounded as if he was sleeping on his feet while singing! So John went into the other cubicle and they tried to speed the track up a bit. He sang along with the new one and it sounded much better. We were also asked our opinion and raised our thumbs.
It then took 15 minutes for them to make all the right changes and while we were offered a toilet break nobody wanted to miss anything. John went back to his own room and tried to fill the time. First he invented a bit of music with rasping his sheets along the metal music stand, then also tapped the steel which sounded like a Xylophone, and finally tapped his fingers at the microphone. I’m not sure but I think he even did a bit of tap-dancing. He had a lot of energy in him which he needed to let out somehow.
John also talked a bit about the session yesterday and how people had commented on it afterwards on Twitter. Some apparently thought he just went there and sung a song a few times, but did not expect all the hard work that went into it.
He also asked who was here yesterday and I held up my hand and he looked at me and said. “Right, you were here yesterday” and then continued to ask me how I liked it. And I had a total brain fart. I could have said so many things there, words like “wonderful” or “amazing” or “emotional” or “touching” or even “totally blown away” but since I had his voice so loud in my head, instead of hearing him through the glass, I somehow had failed to understand that we still could talk to him through the glass wall and he could hear us. So I just nodded and mouthed something but did not say anything. He must have found me very weird.
And he talked about the music sheets going up for the pledging and then added. “I feel bad, because it’s always the same people pledging, but I want to reach out to the others!”
He also had given some of his chocolates to the team and asked how they were. Apparently it was some balls which tasted lovely and of course we had much fun with Gavin tasting John’s balls....LOL.
It probably should have not surprised me, but despite all of the hard concentrated work, there was still time for a joke here or there and a lot of banter going back and forth between John and Matt. They have known each other for years and really work well together, it was amazing to see. We laughed quite a lot. I had come prepared to be as quiet as a mouse, but sometimes you needed to let that energy out.
He also tried to apologise to us but then again, we had come to watch him work, and this was work and sometimes things like that happen. We wouldn’t have wanted to miss a single bit. Finally they were ready and we could continue.
There was one part of “Mandy” where John had a very long note, the music stops for a moment while he still holds it and then continues. He always was too long and not in time to continue with the lyrics when the music again set in, Matt then started to conduct him to give him signs when to stop and when to start again so it was spot on.
One time Matt asked John to add several vibrato’s and he did, but then he said. “It doesn’t sound like me. I don’t want to sound like Andrea Bocelli or Michael Buble” and Matt agreed that it was indeed too much and they left only one of those in. It was amazing to see that there never was an argument about who was right and who was wrong, just a mutual understanding and them trying to find the perfect song.
So the longer this went on, the more notes he made on his sheets and those that were able to buy them are quite lucky gals. It must be hard for him to remember all those little bits and changes. Finally they reached the stage where he would sing the song again from start to finish, with all the changes, and he put all of his heart and soul into it. One time after such a complete song, Matt said that most of this take will end up at the album, as it was beautiful.
When they decided they had enough of a song, they would put it together again and play it in our ears, with John sitting in the room with them listening to it. It was like hearing the CD already. Then there was a little break and we would go to a song where John was in full light in his cubicle and also didn’t mind any pictures taken.
On Tuesday he sang “Listen to the Music” and he was smiling all the time, and dancing, as it is a very upbeat number. Same on Wednesday for “Hollywood.” I have to admit I did not care for “Hollywood” much when it was at the concert back in 2011, but listening to it again and again, and seeing John having so much fun with it, made me really like the song.
On Tuesday for the song “Listen to the Music”, Matt also had invented some pieces where John would sing with himself in the duet. They would play the song they already had, and John was asked to sing the same line a note higher or lower, like a second voice, which made the whole thing richer in the end.
With “Hollywood”, the music at the end went on like forever, and John started to totally let go and improvise a lot there. At one point, he sang, “I’ll make you famous, be it with Arrow or Torchwood or Doctor Who”, we laughed quite loud at that!
When they played the finished “Hollywood” to us in the end, you could see everyone swinging around to the music. It was finally time for US to let out our emotions, before we had hardly dared to breathe let alone move, to not disturb him in any way. And we even sang along with the “Oh-oh-oh...”
Afterwards, he came out to talk with us a bit. He said the next day they would have bagpipes for “Loch Lomond” and a few other songs, and even a Gospel choir.
The Tuesday session was on March 11th, John’s birthday. At the beginning he had asked it we wanted to eat the cake first or after. We all said “After” as that meant he would be able to join us.
This was the (sparkly) cake before we all ate it!
So, afterwards we all gathered around the table with the sparkly cake on it, and John started to cut it and then gave out pieces to everyone. There is a video of this in his Youtube channel here:
With it being his birthday he also received a lot of gifts from all the fans. Some people had travelled quite far, there were fans from Australia and Ukraine, for example.
Please don’t ask what I was looking at in this picture, as I really don’t remember! But it’s not what it looks like! Hilarious picture.
You can watch this video, it shows the studio and John singing and a few behind-the-scenes:
Last thoughts: If there will ever be another CD founded by the fans and another opportunity for me to go to the studio again, I will do it in a heartbeat. Or at the drop of a hat, as John is so fond of saying. It was the best experience ever and I will never forget it. I hope I could let you take part a little in it as well.
To view more of the photos from this report, visit http://dieastra.livejournal.com/109724.html
Pictures by me and my friends Sarou and Rachel