When Brian Holl told his long-time musical collaborator that he had recorded his new solo album with only one microphone, he heard laughter on the side of the telephone line.
That’s probably because Holl and his partner Eric Hillman are best known for crafting lush and plaintive soundscapes as the Nashville-based indie duo Foreign Fields.
“He chuckled,” says Holl, referring to Hillman’s amused response on the phone.
But Holl always knew his side project Boy Bjorn would be a more stripped-down affair, even if he didn’t quite know how to achieve that sonically at first.
“Foreign Fields is more cinematic than Boy Bjorn. I wanted to use more pop structures,” Holl explains. “The whole album is very conversational and much simpler.”
Still, he initially struggled to turn his musical thoughts into a coherent whole.
Whereas his work with Hillman had often been done within well-established routines and structures, it was now entirely up to him how to write and record what was to become his Boy Bjorn solo album Mistaken Animals. But what might sound like boundless artistic freedom was, in fact, a massive creative roadblock for Holl.
“I’m sure a lot of artists can relate to this: You have all these ideas on your computer. And it bogs you down,” he says. “For this solo album, it was a big thing for me personally to go from point A to point Z.”
Less is More
Fearing he might lose his way with too many paths to take, Holl began working on early versions of his songs alone. It was then he realized that when it came to recording equipment at least, less was definitely more.
In particular, Holl was drawn to the characteristics of one specific microphone. But it wasn’t some vintage ribbon mic costing as much as a small car that caught his ear. Instead, he chose a modest studio stalwart – the Shure Beta 87A.
“I needed to be in motion while I was working through lyrics and vocal takes on this album,” Holl says, explaining how the handheld microphone gave him the freedom to be able to pace, think and move with the music.
“I just used what I had laying around for this demo phase,” he admits. “But then I discovered I could really shape what I wanted to do with my vocals with it. Less rich. A little thinner. A more live sound.”
Pleased with the initial results of the condenser on his voice, he decided to start using it for his acoustic guitar tracks as well. This, however, required Holl to adopt a somewhat unorthodox recording technique: Placing the mic on his desk, with the capsule peeking just past the wooden edge.
“You’re gonna laugh – but I would simply move my body around till it sounded cool,” he says a bit sheepishly.
Holl says he stuck with the Beta 87A at first just to keep his recording flow going, but soon he recognized how some self-imposed limitations could also spur his creativity.
“Let’s create these parameters and see what we could do within them. That was a real bonus,” he says.
After that, Holl started using the mic for almost everything: “All the electric guitars, acoustic guitars. Snare. Hi-hats. Those ended up being the backbone of the album.” Though he assumed he’d go back at some point and re-record some tracks with other equipment, by then he was already completely won over.
He reckons that the only way he managed to avoid other microphones was by carefully guarding the whole recording process right up to the mixing stage. “Honestly, I haven’t stopped using it,” he says.
Holl now jokes that Mistaken Animals is a Beta 87A concept album. But even if that’s not entirely true, he’s clearly grateful he discovered the mic when he did.
“You always want to find that one thing that pulls an album together,” he says. “I didn’t know what that thing was until I started: the freedom that the mic gave me.”
Check out Holl’s new album here: www.boybjorn.com