Over the years, singer-guitarist Stephen Fearing has gone from having his music on cassette tapes and pressed to vinyl, on CDs and now as ones and zeroes as digital downloads.
Each of those media imparts its own sound, said Fearing, and there’s something to like about all of them.
But recently, Fearing collaborated with veteran engineer and vinyl master Roy Gandy, creating a special edition vinyl album out of a studio experience like Fearing’s never had before.
Ahead of Fearing’s concert at Smoke ’N Water Restaurant (in Nanoose Bay’s Pacific Shores Resort, 1600 Stroulger Rd.) on Sat. Sept. 29th, the NEWS spoke with Fearing about the virtues of vinyl and the kinship he felt with Gandy, who’s spent a lifetime working on the sound of vinyl.
“Roy’s in his ’70s, semi-retired from the business of running REGA, which is a hi-fi company that he started in the early ’70s,” said Fearing.
“I was doing a master class about two years ago in Colchester (U.K.) and he came up and said, ‘You know, I’m really fascinated by recording and how technology often gets in the way of what he would think of as the pure, analog signal,’ and would I be interested in coming in and making a barebones recording with him down the road.”
A date was set up a year from then, when Fearing was touring his 2017 album, Every Soul’s a Sailor, in the U.K.
With just two days to work on the album, Fearing sat with his guitar in front of two microphones, his singing and guitar playing recorded on a refurbished Studer 8 channel tape recorder, then later cut to vinyl without overdubs, processing or other “studio gadgetry” reads album info.
Fearing said he approached the song selection like a concert: he knew what song he’d start with, and went from there.
“It was really enjoyable,” he said of the experience, “once you get past the concerns that any artist in the studio has.”
The eternal critic is always working in your head, he said, especially as you and others look closely at your music.
With present-day technology, there’s a way to deal with a lot of little mistakes, making tweaks here and there to polish what was performed.
“I think that if you’ve grown up where pitch correction and cutting and pasting is just, it’s a matter of fact, it’s something that you just take for granted and in some ways, you don’t even consider whether you should do it or not, you just do it.
“I think that sometimes you might be in danger of throwing the baby out with the bath water, because if you polish something too much, you can actually polish what was cool about it away. And mistakes are cool, so you have to be comfortable with hearing mistakes.”
What’s he’d gained that comfort, the studio experience was freeing, he said, not having to worry about computer’s crashing or techs having to chase bugs in the system, pressing pause on the session as sometimes happens.
“The process became very enjoyable because there was nothing getting in the way.”
Vinyl is touted by some as being the best way to hear music like it sounds coming straight from the musician. Fearing’s perspective is that, like any medium, vinyl imparts its own sound to the music, and it’s a sound he quite enjoys.
“I wouldn’t say that I prize it above all, but I recognize that it has a sound,” he said. Fearing quoted Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan, saying, “The medium is the message.”
“The idea (is that) whatever it is you’re listening to something on, translated into audio forms, that becomes part of the message itself,” said Fearing.
Given the short period of time Fearing had to do the record, he never got to hear the whole thing until it was sent to him as digital files. “I felt that it was a little stale-sounding, a little unexciting,” said Fearing.
“Roy kind of had to talk me down off the ledge and say, as he would in this very slow, British manner, ‘Trust me, Stephen, this will sound marvelous on vinyl.’”
“Indeed, he was right,” said Fearing. “It brought a little more high-end to it, it brought a lot of warmth to it, and I really enjoy it.”
The record gained the name The Secret of Climbing, a line from a song from Fearing’s Blackie and the Rodeo Kings days called Long Walk to Freedom.
Fearing sang a selection of his previously released tracks, as well as a cover of Tom Waits’ Time for the album, but it was Long Walk to Freedom, based on the writings of Nelson Mandela, that brought it together, said Fearing.
“There is a whole line about ‘the secret of climbing these great hills is there’s always one more hill to climb,’” Fearing said.
That quote, direct from Mandela, talks about his political struggle, but Fearing saw it as also applying to himself and Gandy: both spending their lives working towards a goal, taking small steps to refine what they do to make it better and better. Getting to work with someone like that was what really interested Fearing in the project, he said.
“(Gandy) is very much the engineer. He deals in microns, the measurement that you measure hair with. But he’s an artist as well, so there was real common ground there.”
Fearing will perform at Smoke ’N Water Sept. 29 at 7 p.m.
Tickets are $30 in advance. They can be purchased at Cranky Dog Music in Parkville and Smoke ’N Water Restaurant.
Fearing said he hopes to have the vinyl record for sale at the performance, but they can also be ordered online at stephenfearing.ca.