Te Whanganui-A-Tara 8-piece OdESSA are back with a bang, taking a new direction with an infectious, relentlessly groovy and hope-full studio recording of a fan live-favourite. Sounding vaguely familiar? It’s Gonna Get Better has previously been released as a live closing track on their 2010 b-sides and rarities album, ‘Bring Me The Head of Pepe Lopez’. For this 2021 studio recording they roped in a stellar cast including international Covid-strandee Mireya Ramos, who stayed on after visiting NZ to perform at WOMAD in 2020, making quite a mark for the year and few months she was stranded on these musical shores. Also on hand were local brass collective Richter City Rebels. What could go wrong? NZM asked OdESSA core-members, lyricist/vocalist Matthew Pender and bassist Paul Mouncey, to go back nearly 20 years to run us through their thoughts and memories around the genesis of the song.
Matt: The song, despite the optimism of the title, is really about disappointment. About feeling trapped in a relationship but not having the guts to end it – because the alternative, being alone, is more frightening.
We first wrote It’s Gonna Get Better back in 2003. Paul brought in the music almost totally arranged and I remember writing the lyrics very quickly, which is rare for me. We demoed it for our first album, ‘Oak Park Avenue’, but could never quite get it exactly how we wanted it. It was always a song we planned to come back to, but never managed to before the band broke up in 2009.
When this line-up of OdESSA reformed late last year we went through a lot of the old cassettes and found a heap of unfinished songs, and decided to pick up where we left off a decade ago.
The original version was sung from just one point of view. We decided to reshape it into a duet telling both sides of the story, and asked New York artist Mireya Ramos to sing on it. Man, what a voice! We were chasing a big soul sound too and asked Wellington brass collective The Richter City Rebels to have a blast on it. It was an electrifying session with Dr Lee Prebble recording and mixing it at The Surgery. We’re delighted with how it has turned out.
Though the song, at its heart, is about the thin line between delusion and faith, when you say something often enough, you start to believe it.
Paul: This recording stands out like a sore thumb to the back catalogue but we wanted a change, and a big statement, to say we’re back and we’re quite different. It’s a snapshot of us and the wider Wellington scene in 2021. It’s also a time when Grammy award-winning artists are stuck in NZ as Covid exiles and have to collaborate with local musicians, lucky us!
We had a desire to record, specifically with Lee Prebble at The Surgery. In the old days it seemed like recording meant taking weeks off work, numerous lengthy boring planning sessions mulling over track listings and other minute details. This session was sorted in about five minutes with one email. Perfect!
I’d worked with Mireya when she came down for the 2020 Jazz Festival in Wellington and I was absolutely blown away by her vocal skills. Once we figured out a collaboration was a possibility, I quickly got about to re-harmonising what was essentially a bluesy 4-chord jam into something with a bit more harmony so she could really get stuck into it.
We got the basic structure down with guide vocals on the first day, did all the guitar overdubs and then mulled over what to do with the horn section. It ended up being more subdued than we’d initially planned, sometimes it’s hard to project what’s in your head to the band and sometimes MIDI playbacks don’t always do ideas justice. There was a one month gap between rhythm tracking and horns which gave us time to mull over different ideas. Guitarist Mike Taylor who also played the trumpet contributed greatly to this. Originally we were after a kind of street party vibe, wandering brass band, hopeful anthem. It ended up in a slightly different direction, which is cool.
Mireya’s vocal session was something to behold. She sang non-stop for about three hours, layering harmonies with surgical precision. I think she’d just driven from New Plymouth straight into the studio from memory. Anyway, I feel quite privileged to have witnessed it, a true pro at work.
The horn section rocked up and nailed their parts in record time. Great bunch of guys and terrific musicians, there was even time for Dan ‘One Take’ Hayles to improvise the Hammond solo before the second verse, one of my favourite parts. We borrowed “the concrete mixer” drumbeat from Ground On Down by Ben Harper, haha.
This studio recording also differs significantly from the old live demo we had kicking around. It’s much faster, more complex. There’s a horn section, keyboards, harmonies!! The lyrics were updated for good measure too.