This week I’m doing things a bit differently. My band, The Villettes, is releasing our first EP called “Passersby” next Wednesday, May 6. We started recording around September of 2012. Since it’s now two and a half years later, I thought it might be interesting to share a little bit of what it’s like for an indie band to self-produce a record.
To start with, the word “self-produce” is misleading. While yes, we have funded this with our own money and put countless hours into seeing it brought into the light of day, there’s no way we could’ve done this without the help of many, many friends. First of all, two friends from a band called The Sour Notes, Jared and Amarah, approached us and offered to record our EP under their DIY collective called No Play Music. They share half of the production credit with us.
Jared has a home studio with excellent recording gear and software. Through his years as a musician, he’s also made some great friends who are geniuses at mixing and mastering. Right from the start, we knew our work would be in capable hands. Plus, recording in someone’s home gave the whole thing a laid-back atmosphere. We didn’t feel the ticking-clock pressure that comes with recording in a studio where you have to book a certain amount of time and pay for every minute you’re in there. Of course, we might’ve finished a lot sooner if we did have the pressure, but none of us in The Villettes like to bring unnecessary anxiety into our lives if we don’t have to. Since this was the first time we’d ever done a serious recording, we wanted it to be as stress-free as possible. We might go the studio route later, but for our first recording endeavor, this was excellent.
As we were recording, our band went through some lineup changes. We also had a complete turnaround with our sound. At first, we were strictly acoustic. Our only instruments were guitar, mandolin, and cello. But to be honest, that wasn’t fun enough in a live setting. Plus, we had drums and bass on the recordings and thought it would make sense to deliver that in our live performances as well. So my sister, Erin, learned how to play bass. We went through a couple drummers and finally landed on Savanah. We also discovered that Katie, who’d only played guitar in the band, was an incredible piano player. She’d never written music for keys, only learned classical tunes, but after some gentle yet insistent prodding from the rest of us, she came up with brilliant keys parts.
After we recorded the skeleton of each song (drums, bass, guitar, and scratch vocals), we asked more musician friends to contribute their talents. We brought in drummers, strings players, and vocalists. We also wrote some extra synth and guitar parts. For every extra instrument, I’d have one or two individual rehearsals with the musicians to write and master the part. These usually took around three hours each. Then we’d go in and have a three-hour recording session. Sometimes after recording a part, we’d hear something—like a buzz or a scratchy noise—and we’d either have to record it again or leave out the problem track. As disappointing as that is to discover after the fact, Jared and Amarah pushed us to be as perfect as possible. In the end, this perfectionism took our music to a higher level.
By fall of 2013, each song had all its parts in place, and it was time to send them to get mixed. I don’t have an in-depth understanding of how mixing works, but I do know it’s an extremely important step in the process. It’s the step that takes a song from “home recording” to “professional.” Each instrument and vocal track has to be adjusted to fit in perfectly with the whole of the song. Watching someone mix made me realize just how tedious the entire process is. A great mixer hears things that most people wouldn’t notice. It’s truly an art, and I’m positive only a few people in this world have the patience and skill to master it. Erin and I got to visit the studio where our EP was mixed, SugarHill Recording Studios, in Houston. Our mixer is a wonderful guy named Steve Christensen, and he definitely took our songs to the next level.
After the mixing was done, our music then traveled to New York City to a woman named Heba Kadry at Timeless Mastering. Digital mastering is a type of post-production. With mastering, the music is compressed and polished in a way that will sound good across many listening platforms, whether it’s in your car, in your earbuds, or booming from loudspeakers at a party. For the first song she mastered, Heba sent us back two variations based on trends from similar-sounding bands, and we chose our favorite. Then she applied that same sound to the rest of our songs. Again, our work was in amazing hands and we couldn’t have done this alone.
The masters were completed in May of 2014, and we’re finally having our release show a year later. My cousin, Katie McClendon, did the art for the cover design. We’ve been emailing blogs about the release, and all of us will dedicate an evening to crafts—T-shirts, lyric books, buttons, and decorations. On top of this, we have several guest musicians playing with us, so I’ve been crazy busy over the past couple of weeks with three to four extra practices on top of our regular band practices. Things have been so hectic, and yet, so fun!
The truth is, I feel like we weren’t ready to put these songs out there until now. I love Erin and Katie and Savanah. I feel so comfortable and safe with them. They’re my family, and it takes time to build such meaningful relationships. So even two and a half years after starting this recording journey, I remain proud and in love with our songs, and more importantly, I’m still in love with this band. We’re so different than we were when we started. Yet, at the heart of it all, we’re exactly the same. We’re still learning, still evolving, and still taking our time when we need to. I’m excited to share this music with our friends and family, and with anyone else who may happen to come across it. This EP carries a tiny little piece of my soul in it. My only hope is that The Villettes continue to accomplish that every time we put our music out there.
If you’d like, you can download our opening track “Carried Away” for free here. The rest of our EP will be available to download on May 6th on our bandcamp page and on our website. You can pre-order it on Amazon, and hopefully it’ll be up on iTunes as well. (Since this band is a total DIY operation, our iTunes submission doesn’t get high priority it in the review queue.)
If you happen to live in Austin, our EP release show will be at Cheer Up Charlie’s on Wednesday, May 6. There’s no cover charge and the music starts at 8:00 p.m.
Our good friend, Christopher Kim, shot us singing a song called “Celestial Pabulum” underneath one of the oldest bridges in Austin to give you a little taste of what our show will be like. Maybe I’ll see you there! If so, come say hi! I’d love to meet you.