From Björk to Britney: Songwriter and Producer Guy Sigsworth on Being a Kindred Spirit in the Studio

on September 27, 2017, 5:00am
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Seal – Seal (1991)

ceac3cc72564cf67d5e1d3bd9b4fe97d From Björk to Britney: Songwriter and Producer Guy Sigsworth on Being a Kindred Spirit in the Studio

In 1989, I was living in my brother’s front room. I had one of those little 4-track cassette recorders that I plugged my Atari computer stuff into. I recorded some demos for a singer, and he took it to John Wadlow, the owner of Beethoven Street Studios. Wadlow didn’t like the singer or the songs, but he said they sounded amazing, and he invited me ’round. The day I went in, Seal was in a programming suite, trying to create some music, and I could hear that the engineer didn’t understand what he wanted to do at all. I just popped my head around and said, “I think I know what you’re trying to do. And I can do it.” So Seal came back to my brother’s flat, I played him a backing track, and it became the first track on his debut album, a song called “The Beginning”.

To begin with, he sang a Jimi Hendrix song over the top of it. He told me he’d write his own melody later. An hour after leaving, he phoned me to say he’d blagged us 24 hours in a proper 24-track studio. At that time, all I had was four bars of music. I stayed up all night creating loads of variations on my four bars, figuring that I could paste the bits together once I knew what Seal was actually going to sing. I loved it. I always thought Seal had the kind of beautiful, irresistible voice the world was bound to hear all over the radio. I could tell that even hearing him without a microphone. When I was recording his demos on my 4-track, I kept having to ask him not to sing along in the room because I’d mix him too quietly, thinking those extra vocals were actually in the recording.

At that time, Seal liked playing guitar, but just tuned to major chords. He played the outline chords of “Crazy” to me exactly like that. But we didn’t want it to be mainly a guitar-driven track. So my demo just used my basic gear (two synths and one sampler). When you don’t have a lot of of gear, you get more creative. You find every way to push what you have to its limits. My Roland sampler had these crunchy resonant filters. I made them sweep up ever four bars; then I gated the sound on and off with MIDI volume messages, and that became the hallmark sound of the song. Later on, when we were recording it for real with Trevor Horn, I had access to much better and more expensive synths. But we stuck with what I had because it just worked better.

There’s this amazing British filmmaker, Derek Jarman, who made these wonderful low-budget films in the ‘80s and ‘90s. I was reading his diaries, and in it he says the trick is to take advantage of your limitations to create your style. You don’t make them seem like shortcomings; you transform them into glorious features. He had to shoot films on Super 8 because he didn’t have any money, but before he knew it, directors of very expensive commercials were hiring Super 8 cameras to try and make things look like his films [Laughs]. Even when you’re feeling frustrated, remember: almost every musical instrument has at least one thing, one “trick,” it can do really well. Your task is to find it.

In a similar vein, I think it’s much more fun to work with real artists who’ve got opinions, because I love the challenge of helping an artist who wants to do something that seems impossible. It’s much more interesting than someone saying, “Can you make this sound like that other song on the radio?” If they’ve got some weird, drug-fueled dream or something, it’s like, “Okay, well, how do we realize that fantasy in sound?” That’s a wonderful challenge.

“Violet” is my favorite song that I contributed to Seal’s record. It has more of my personality in it, I guess. It has some quirky things that I hear that other people probably don’t. Seal had gone out and bought this brand-new synth and asked me to play it. I’d never seen it before. I found this noise that happens where you just change the patches — a mistake noise — but it’s still on the track as a feature. It’s wonderful when things like that survive to the final mix. Again, it’s maybe something that only I notice, but I find it charming. It makes me smile.

One thing that may affect my approach is the fact that I owned a sampler before I owned a synthesizer. Sampling makes you think of ways to manipulate the audio that’s already there, rather than simply overdub another layer. There’s a bit in the middle of the song “Crazy” where the guitarist, Kenji Jammer, plays wah-wah guitar, but pitched down to half-speed. It sounds more interesting, more unusual than a straight recreation of a ‘60s wah-wah.

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