By Michael Hamad
12:25 PM EST, December 31, 2012
Becky Kessler and Floyd Kellogg
w/ Goodnight Blue Moon, Jan. 3, 8 p.m., $5, Black-Eyed Sally's, 350 Asylum St., Hartford, (860) 278-7427, blackeyedsallys.com; w/Little Ugly & John Torres, Jan. 5, 10 p.m., Arch Street Tavern, 85 Arch St., Hartford, (860) 246-7610, archstreettavern.com
For more than a year, Becky Kessler and Floyd Kellogg have been working on an album together at Casa de Warrenton, a century-old house situated on a half acre in Hartford’s West End, owned by architect Jeff Jahnke. Kessler has only lived in Connecticut for two years, but she’s already well known to Advocate readers, having won this year’s Grand Band Slam award for Best Singer-Songwriter. Kellogg, a multi-instrumentalist and producer, splits his time between Nantucket and Connecticut, working with bands and playing in You Scream I Scream with partner Audrey Sterk and keyboardist Jake Vohs. I showed up at the house one recent morning to listen to raw tracks with Kessler, Kellogg, Jahnke and Andy Comstock, Kessler’s partner.
Kellogg walked around, drumming on a desk. The previous night, he and Kessler had opened for guitarists Nels Cline and Julian Lage at Hartford’s Arch Street Tavern. Now, at 10 a.m. on a Saturday, Kessler wore a dazed, happy look and last night’s clothes. Two years ago, she owned a restaurant with Comstock, a chef, on North Carolina’s Outer Banks; they currently manage a friend’s property in Roxbury, Conn. and plan to start an organic farm. They keep chickens. “I moved around tons when I was growing up,” Kessler said. “The Outer Banks was the 11th place that I lived, and I was 14 when we moved there. But that’s my home, because it was the longest place I ever lived.” She came north for college, enrolling at Boston’s Berklee College of Music. Kessler studied jazz guitar for two years, went part-time for a spell, and left. “I was definitely one of those typical Berklee dropouts,” she said. “It was too much.”
Kessler went quiet for a few seconds. Jahnke, playing at psychoanalysis, offered her a space on a couch in front of a flat-screen TV, which displayed a ProTools-like recording program. Kessler teased Kellogg for cutting his own hair. “You can’t tell, right?” he said. Jahnke said it looked kind of mullet-y. (I stayed out of it.) We walked to an adjacent room, where drums are sometimes recorded. “The bass is recorded in the basement,” Kellogg said. “There’s a guitar cabinet in the other room.”
Kellogg, who runs the recording end of Casa de Warrenton, met Jahnke at UConn, when Kellogg was in a band called Adios Pantalones, and knows him from then and from a string of later encounters. They run headphones everywhere, for communication. Bands from New York and Boston come through town, to record and stay at the house. Neighborhood musicians pop into Casa de Warrenton, to add parts as needed. Once, Kellogg and Kessler rolled home a vibraphone they borrowed from jazz player Ed Fast of Conga Bop. Some recording takes place elsewhere; Kellogg brought a portable getup to Kessler and Comstock’s farm to add a piano part, using the property’s 1920s Steinway.
The album wasn’t supposed to take this long. “It was funny, because Floyd kept saying, ‘Minimal, organic...’ Kessler said. “And then we got into it, and it was such a blast. He got real inspired and went nuts.” Early on, Kessler said, “We had one big block session for three days, up until five or six o'clock in the morning. We would get up at noon, and we would start again... We were totally absorbed in it. It was like the outside world didn’t exist.”
“Some records take a year to make, or more,” Kellogg added, “especially when it’s just a couple of people going at it, playing all the parts, producing it, engineering it — which you can do, but it becomes a little more painstaking.”
It seemed like a good time to hear something. Kellogg cued up a track called “Anytime You Fall.” Kessler sang in a dark, husky alto over delicate, reverb-ed guitar. Using an e-Bow, Kellogg draped sustained, distorted single-string guitar lines over the top; underneath, he added earthy, organ-pedal bass. “It was 4 o’clock in the morning,” Kessler said. “Floyd asked if I wanted to do one more, and I really didn’t... I can hear 4 o’clock in the morning in those vocals.”
Kessler wrote “Anytime You Fall” soon after moving to Connecticut. “Some of them are going to get thrown away, but you just keep writing. On the albums, the real good ones make it, and you just toss the rest, or save them for later,” she said. In general, the work-flow goes like this: Kessler writes, Kellogg arranges. “Our tastes just mixed perfectly,” Kessler said. “I couldn’t believe it... He acts like it’s one of his own tunes.”
The group busts Kellogg’s balls for taking so long to finish the record. But he also has a life: he lost his father this year, and his son was born in May. Summer, for Kellogg, was baby-land. Unlike You Scream I Scream records, he also has to mix this one. “Everything’s got its fucking challenge,” he said. “It’s a balance between what’s going to feel right and keeping the emotion intact.”
The next track, “Hole in My Heart,” straight-ahead, up-tempo pop, came on, and everyone fell silent again. The atmospherics of the previous song were tempered. Two minutes in, new chords and contrasting melody show up, and the phrasing becomes unpredictable. “We were playing it a lot faster than I had played it when I wrote it,” Kessler said. “I trusted Floyd, but I was like, ‘Damn, this is fast.’” Kessler and Comstock disagreed about the origins of the tempo. “When you play solo a lot, you tend to speed things up, to make up for the lack of other things around you,” Kessler said. “You have to be really careful. I finally started using a metronome and making myself be patient with it... You’re uncomfortable with how much is not there.”
Kessler first met Kellogg when he and Sterk were visiting with recording engineer Carl Nappa, who mixed You Scream I Scream’s Zookeeper album and supplied some ribbon mics. Kellogg played some of Kessler’s recordings for Nappa. (“He was like, ‘That little girl?’”) Jahnke was the bridge between them. He talked about hearing some of Kessler’s early recordings with other Connecticut musicians. “Not to bash those guys, who are great musicians,” he said. But, he thought, putting Kessler and Kellogg together, “this is going to be way better than that.”
The last track, “Right Here,” started: three chords, a hiccuping drum figure, Kessler’s wordless syllables. Then: her voice drops out, three chords change to four, the guitar/bass/drum texture darkens, expanding to include banjo, piano and feedback loops. It’s the best song so far.
“The cool thing about Becky’s stuff is that there’s tons of songs that have these odd time signatures, but I never feel like I’m playing math-rock,” Kellogg said. “It doesn’t feel like I’m walking down the street sideways.” “Stuff that Floyd does with You Scream I Scream, I actually felt like I was really inspired by that when I was writing that tune,” Kessler said. “Lyrically and manipulating the words, totally. ‘Buh-buh-buh...’ At first it was weird, me singing that. And then it just became natural.”
Recently, Kessler and Kellogg have been playing live gigs, to flesh out some of the tracks and to see how they live on a stage. They might end up changing the name of the project, from “Becky Kessler” to something else, before the album gets released. They may add other players — a bassist, a guitarist, pianist, what-have-you — but then again, they may not. The duo returns to Arch Street Tavern on Saturday.
“The stuff we’ve been doing lately is not going to be on the album,” Kessler said. “Of course, I’m more psyched about that because it’s new. But it’s going to be a lot different, a lot more edgier stuff... We’re thinking for the next one we’re going to record it differently too. We’re thinking about just putting a few mics in a room and just playing.”
“This one kind of got pushed together,” Kellogg added. The next one, he said, “would just be minimal, just a few overdubs.”
Isn’t that what you said last time? More ribbing.
Kellogg became defensive, for the first time all morning. “It’s not unheard of to take a year to do a record,” he said.
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