August/September 2014

by Sammy Jay Dawson

Libeau: A Nor’wester Blows Through It

by Sammy Jay Dawson

Libeau: A Nor’wester Blows Through It

Natalie Lyall, aka Natalie Libeau, aka Libeau, has delivered a strikingly polished debut. Some may recall the 32-year-old artist from Christchurch rock band Murmur, though the 5-piece have left little trace.

Her first solo album was written in Garageband, before getting the full treatment in Christchurch’s Quicksand Recording Studio and Modern World in the UK, under the gaze of international producer/engineer team, Greg Haver and Clint Murphy. As Sammy Jay Dawson discovered, for Libeau, being not only self-managed, but musically self-sufficient has been a hard road, but one that has ultimately strengthened her resolve.   

People tend to forget how small a town Christchurch really is. For a city of its size, degrees of separation never tend to last long, any air of mystery surrounding an artist is a luxury most only seem to achieve through odd-ball status and cliché suspense.

Suffice to say, the likes of Libeau are a breath of fresh air. With her new album ‘Led By The Moon’ she has created a world within herself, the kind of synchronicity between artist and music that elevates it to a much higher, almost transcendent place. It’s an album of densely layered sounds and moods, rich layers that flow seamlessly with Libeau’s talents as both a great songwriter and as a powerful, soulful vocalist.

“It was kind of tricky at first,”” Natalie Libeau admits. “I spent a lot of time looking for that chemistry between musicians for the songs I was writing. For a long time I believed that the writing process needed that human element and would lack a lot without it.””

As time passed she was finding it increasingly hard to find musicians with spare time on their hands to help her project progress.

“With Christchurch being small, there’s a lot of multi-instrumentalist musicians here, but everyone seemed to be in several bands already. So I thought maybe the best way to approach the writing process was from within.

“That’s when things started moving fast. Working alone was easier than I could have ever imagined. Ideas started flowing out and I captured them in any way I could. I recorded parts on my phone, laptop, anything that was handy. I’d come up with these hooks and all these layers would just swamp my imagination. There was a big sense of imagery I was finding along with these ideas, almost as if anything was possible. It was an extremely liberating experience being so self-reliant and in complete control.””

Looking to artists such as Nick Cave and Lana Del Ray for inspiration, soon enough Natalie found herself with an album-worth of material.

“I guess they make quite dark music, but Lana Del Ray writes great songs with that dark twist. She’s not afraid to cross genres from pop. The songs I’d written were really cohesive and had really nice arrangements, so I showed a few friends, and eventually it found its way to [now Auckland-resident Welsh producer] Greg Haver who really loved it.””

Haver’s award-winning skills, not just as a producer but as an arranger, meant he would be the perfect realisation to the sounds Natalie had captured in her demos.

“The arrangements didn’t change much from what is originally on the demo. Greg understood immediately when I said that I wanted the album to sound like a nor’wester. I wanted there to be a similar sound rumbling under the surface of the music. That warm yet frantic energy that the wind brings, was consistently present in my imagery. Sonically he did a great job of capturing that feel. He’s produced a lot of great artists, so had lots to teach me about expanding and arranging the layers of what I was writing.””

The studio recording of ‘Led By The Moon’ took place over two sets of seven days in Christchurch’s increasingly productive Quicksand Studios. Refurbishing the studio with furniture, crystals and knick-knacks from her home, she describes the process as being laid back, yet with a singular vision for the record to stay true to her songs.

“We re-created the original demos while in the studio, it was important to capture those moods. If it was an energetic song, I was bouncing around the walls, if it was a sad song I was in tears. Going back to imagery, letting the stories and characters in the songs come to life for the listener was a must.””

Natalie is responsible for all vocals, acoustic guitar, programming and most of the keyboard tracks. Andrew Taylor played guitar and bass while Haver added drums and percussion as well as some synths. Taylor is a British guitarist (no, not the Duran Duran one), who Haver knows well, and was in Christchurch to record on Katie Thompson’s next album.

“Andrew Taylor as well was a great addition. He had these great surf guitar riffs that I never expected would compliment the music the way they did, like on the outro to Good Love Bad Love.””

Work on the Libeau album continued in the UK, with Haver-regulars the Vulcan String Quartet adding seven-piece strings and his Kiwi cohort Clint Murphy mixing – extending the Quicksand recordings with additional beats and bass.

It all sounds rather costly, but Haver explains that the record came about through their relationship with Quicksand Studios – the pair had assisted owner Thomas Reid with gear specifications for the proposed studio and the ‘Led By The Moon’ recording sessions were part of the new studio’s shakedown and de-bugging, back in October 2012.

Haver was going to be at Quicksand producing Katie Thompson, so the studio suggested also working on the Libeau record. Contra deals were done on studio time, favours called in from musicians and the use of Natalie’s demos as the basis of the record made the project possible. Haver adds that these days many of his records are done in this budget-conscious way. Mastering was subsequently handled by Ryan Smith at New York’s Sterling Sound.

Among the 10 tracks on ‘Led By The Moon’, songs like 11:11 and Them Birds are quick to impress, yet demand repeated plays. Album closer Tangi is one highlight, a cacophony of sounds intertwining string arrangements with the sounds of the South Island’s native wildlife, an open-armed invitation to share in Natalie’s spirituality.

“Meditation is hugely important to me, every part of the process, from getting excited about ideas, to writing, to recording and performing has been meditated upon. It needed to have that soulful atmosphere. I wanted the songs to be bigger and more meaningful than just pop music.””