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A night at Royal Studios  

Being at Royal Studios for recording our fifth album Heart of Memphis earlier this year was a magical and humbling experience. It wasn’t the gold records that got me, or the signatures of famous musicians on the wall. The key moment was when I was in the vocal booth, where there was an old microphone in the corner, and Boo Mitchell pointed to it casually and said, “That’s Al Green’s mic.” Wait, what? I grew up listening to Al Green – just being in the same room with his old microphone was an honor (and no, I didn’t touch it). 

How did we get to that point? Well, in 2018, while we were preparing to compete in the Washington Blues Society’s IBC challenge, we had a band meeting and decided we would go to Memphis as a group regardless of the outcome.  We made it to the finals (and lost to Sammy Eubanks) but our album, Wiggle Room, did very well on the Roots Music Report (#1 for 13 weeks) and two of the songs won Global Music Award bronze medals. It seemed like a great time to go, so we made our travel plans. 

At the same time, I was setting things up to make the most of the trip. I let the Washington Blues Society know that we would be in Memphis as a group during IBC week, and that we’d love to play the Pacific Northwest Showcase. I also put my name in with the National Women in Blues, which chooses their showcase participants by lottery. Both showcases came through, and then I got the idea to record an album while we were in Memphis. I had already written several songs, some of which we had been performing live. The song Another Sleepless Night, which opens the album, was part of our WBS IBC finals set. 

I thought long and hard about where to record – Sun Studios came to mind, of course; and then a friend recommended Royal Studios. A bit about Royal – it’s in a building that was originally a theater and was converted to a studio in 1957. It’s one of the oldest perpetually running studios in the world! Willie Mitchell, who was originally a trumpet player, was instrumental to the modern Memphis soul sound and brought the studio to a new level after taking on the producer role in 1969. In addition to Al Green, Mitchell worked with Ann Peebles, George Jackson, and Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland, to name a few. Lawrence “Boo” Mitchell, Willie’s son, runs the studio today and has worked with his own amazing roster of talent. When I reached out to him about recording there, and sent some of our past recordings, he could not have been more gracious, and we lucked out because there was a night open for us! 

Fast forward to late January 2019. The band is in Memphis, we’ve performed at both the Pacific Northwest showcase and the National Women in Blues showcase, and have been having a great time seeing friends, listening to the bands in the challenge, and doing some sightseeing; Michele D’Amour and the Love Dealers band being me, Patrick McDanel (bass), Dave Delzotto (drums), Jeff Cornell (guitar), Brian Olendorf (keys), and Noel Barnes (sax). One of my favorite moments was Patrick and Brian buying matching black satin embroidered jackets at Lansky Brothers! (Brian is wearing his jacket in the photo.) 

We all piled into the van and drove to Royal Studios, unloaded our gear, set up, and dove right in with Memphis Soul Stew, the King Curtis classic, and the only cover on our album. Royal Studios has an atmosphere I can only describe as magical; certainly the energy of all the great players who have worked there and the music they’ve made permeates every pore of the place. 

We ended up recording six songs that night, ending at around 1:30 a.m. Boo handed me my hard drive with the recordings that I guarded with my life until I handed it to Steve Feasley, the amazing engineer here in Seattle with whom we’ve worked on all our albums. 

We weren’t sure what we were going to title the album until Jeff Cornell, our guitarist, and I co-wrote the song Heart of Memphis shortly after we got home. We recorded that and one other tune here in Seattle, added some backing vocals here and there, recorded a horn section on three tunes, added some solos, and we were on to mixing and mastering and all the fun finishing work that goes into an album. 

As of this writing (May 15) we’ve learned that Heart of Memphis debuted on the Roots Music Report’s jazzy blues chart at #3, two weeks before its release date! Wiggle Room is still on that same chart at #6, more than eight months after its release. We never expected to have two albums on the charts at the same time! 

We’re proud of this release and excited to see what more will come from it.

The Birth of an Album 

When people compare the process of writing, recording, producing, and promoting a new album to childbirth, it may sound like an exaggeration, but they're not far off. (And I should know, because I’ve done both!) For starters, the entire process from writing the songs to having a disc in hand can easily take 9 months or more. It takes a lot of energy and commitment to make it happen. And then there are all the (nearly) sleepless nights...but I digress. 

For those of you who haven’t experienced this process first-hand, I’d like to give you a glimpse into what our process this spring and early summer has been like. 

Michele D'Amour and the Love Dealer's new album, Wiggle Room, has ten new original songs, most of which were written last year as we were promoting Lost Nights at the Leopard Lounge. We were so busy with touring and performing that I held onto most of the songs till I'd have time to bring them to the band in rehearsal.  

Late last fall, joining me on vocals and Patrick McDanel on bass, we brought Jeff Cornell into the band on guitar and Dave Delzotto on drums. Both have contributed greatly to the evolution of our sound. Then to kick things up another notch, we added two additional people to the mix: Noel Barnes on sax and Brian Olendorf on keys. These two are both seasoned players and they bring a lot to the table in the songwriting process.  

With those changes underway, I dusted off the songs I'd written earlier in the year and went through them with the band. They added their touches, we rehearsed, and we started playing those songs live by the beginning of the year. The reason we do that is because songs will often evolve when you play them live, and we prefer going into the studio with tunes that are "road tested."  

Everything really started coming together in late February of this year when I got the group together at Strange Earth Studios for a jam session running through the new tracks. The idea was to incorporate the additional instruments and just play with the songs and the arrangements. (Shout out to Jesse Weston who sat in on keys for that session, and Gary Menendez on drums.) 

The result sounded and felt magical and it felt like we were ready to move forward with the songs. That's what prompted me to schedule recording of the rhythm tracks, which we started in late April.  

One more important step before recording: we needed to bring in our producer, Mark Riley. Mark and I go way back to the early days of Tommy Wall's Raging River jam, and we talked about having him produce last summer after he heard Lost Nights at the Leopard Lounge.  

Before we started recording, I asked Mark to review and comment on our rehearsal / jam recording and had him attend a couple of live rehearsals, so he could give his feedback on song arrangement and individual instrumental parts. It’s not all sunshine and rainbows, mind you – not everyone likes getting that kind of feedback. 

After all that preparation, recording went relatively smoothly. We recorded all the rhythm tracks, plus some of the sax parts, in just two days. Let me tell you, a lot of pizza, sub sandwiches, and coffee fueled those marathon sessions! Kudos to our engineer Steve Feasley, who did a great job on this. We've worked with Steve on all our albums so far and he's a seasoned professional as well as a delight to have on the team.  

Next up, we needed to add solos, backing vocals, etc. so we called on some of our talented and generous friends to contribute. First was Angelo Ortiz, playing congas on the track Let It Slide. Then Nora Michaels came in to sing backing vocals on Sweet Lovin Man. 

Patrick and his long-time friend Greg Lyons went in to the studio late one night and recorded trombone and trumpet parts for the title track Wiggle Room, and Nothing to No One. Did you know that Patrick plays trombone? That’s what he did professionally before an on-stage mishap. Ask him to tell you the story sometime… 

Finally, John Oliver III graciously contributed backing vocals to the song Hard Times which is the last track on the album. 

For weeks I drove around playing a CD of the rhythm tracks, so I could practice my vocals. I did have a couple of lessons with my voice teacher to prepare for the recordings. I recorded lead vocals a couple of songs at a time. 

Then we moved on to mixing. That’s the part of the process where you listen to the tracks and then adjust how each individual piece sounds within the song as a whole – ensuring that nothing is getting drowned out, for instance. Mixing is a painstaking process. It can take hours for just one song! Sometimes in the final mix, parts that people worked hard on, or really liked, go by the wayside for the good of the song, and folks have to let that go. 

I was fortunate not just to have Steve and Mark in on the mixing, but also Rick Fisher sat in for one day as we were mixing Been So Long, one of the tracks that has the most going on. I learned a lot just watching and listening to how he approached the process! 

Once mixing was done, we uploaded all the tracks to Dropbox, so we could listen to them on various sound systems – computers, cars, iPods, systems with headphones, etc. to make sure the mixes sounded as good as possible on a wide variety of sound systems. 

At this point, I think everyone had a case of “are we there yet?” Well, not quite. 

Now it’s time for mastering. This is where we take the mixed album and prepare it for being duplicated onto CDs (or sent out as audio files) and distributed. The person doing the mastering will unify the sound of the record so that the tracks are consistent (one isn’t louder than another) and will make other adjustments to bring out the final sound. 

While all of this is going on, I’m working with Tim Sutherland on designing another killer CD cover. I think this one may be his best yet! 

As soon as the art is final, and the songs are mastered, I’ll be uploading all those files to the CD duplication service to have them produced. And in a couple of weeks, I’ll have a few boxes arrive on my doorstep with the final product!