Instrumental: Sarah Davachi’s Studio Is A Haven For Experimentation

May 14, 2020

Sarah Davachi’s Studio. Courtesy Image.

By: Matt Williams

Even the simplest sounding of Sarah Davachi’s experimental music often feels ornate. There’s a meticulousness to it that comes across as thoroughly handcrafted—Gave In Rest’s ambient moods are sometimes so dense it feels like the atmosphere they conjure is palpable; on Pale Bloom, Davachi gently weaves piano, organ, and vocals into an expansive but understated tapestry. Her compositions create a remarkable sense of space, one that unfolds continuously outward while remaining intimate.

And so it’s not such a surprise that when I got in touch with Davachi about this series, she wanted to talk about the recording studio as a compositional tool. Davachi works at both her home studio and at rented studios, depending on the project, and prefers to be alone in order to take her time experimenting with sound.

“The idea of just recording something and having it be done has never really made sense to me,” Davachi says over the phone from her home in L.A. “I didn’t learn how to make recorded music like that. I learned in an almost academic way of recording a sound, and then editing it and manipulating it and building the music in the studio, so to speak. That really stuck with me. So even when I record in a studio, when I take that stuff home, I’m always adjusting things and maybe not even editing things necessarily. But the production aspect of it in my own studio is a thing that I spend a lot of time with before anything’s finished.”

We explored Davachi’s relationship with the recording studio, how it fosters experimentation, and how spaces affect her work.

What do you need from a space? Does it stay mostly the same, or does it shift depending on the work?

I would say it probably shifts a bit depending on the project. But the project can shift depending on the space that I’m in. I think I’ve worked in so many different scenarios over the years that I’ve learned that nothing is perfect, and you can’t have everything be exactly the way that you want it or need it to be. So you have to be a bit flexible to work within what you’re given. I think it’s maybe more that the music changes depending on the kind of environment that I’m able to get myself into.

Do you gravitate toward a specific setup?

I don’t light candles or whatever. But I like to be alone in a studio. Traditionally people think of a studio as where you go once all the music’s ready and it’s done. You go into the studio and you record it so that it can be finalized. And that’s not how I think of the studio. I think of it as a place of experimentation where you can try different things out and build in the studio. Often when I go into the studio, I don’t have everything completed. A lot of it happens there. So, I like to be alone, because I feel like it’s easier for me to feel like I can experiment with things without people wondering what I’m doing.

How does the studio encourage experimentation for you?

I think it encourages experimentation because so much of what I do is about the specific sounds that are going to be on the record. It’s hard for me if I’m just rehearsing something on piano to try to get a structure of something—it’s hard to know exactly how it’s going to sound until I hear the exact sound. So when I’m in the studio, when I’m actually recording something, and I can hear it as it’s going to be, for me, that’s more of an easier starting point of being like, ‘Okay, I want it to sound like this instead,’ or, ‘I wasn’t expecting it to sound like this. Maybe I could do this with it, that would work.’

Does what you want to make arise from experimentation? Or do you go in with an idea, and then experiment on that and decide where it goes?

It’s a mix of both. I don’t go in with absolutely no plan whatsoever, but it varies, depending on the project, of how much. The last time I recorded in a studio, I knew exactly what I was doing. And it was just a matter of getting the recordings more or less. But yeah, it’s definitely a case of like, I’ll have things in mind and things laid out that I want to do and that I’ll start with. But I would never be able to imagine the way that it’ll turn out in the end until I’m actually in the studio doing it. And those things would just be sort of base things that may not even get used in the final thing, but they’ll be like starting points. Once they’re there, I can sort of build from it and see what direction it makes sense to go with for that studio and how it makes sense to work in that studio and what things are available. Then the music grows out of that.

The process sounds a lot like prose writing, where you have an idea but you’re following impulses as well and seeing how they turn out. 

Absolutely. It’s definitely that way. I think it’s a nice thing that people like me can do now, because I think it was a thing that professional musicians who owned their own studios and had limitless money—like in the ’70s or whatever—to pay for tape to just experiment endlessly in the studio, you know, that they could afford to do that. But at that time, the average artist like me, if they were going into a studio, it’s expensive and the tape is expensive. So they do have to know what they’re doing and just lay it down and kind of get out, you know? I think in this time, it’s a nice equalization of the studio for people like me, who aren’t recording to tape necessarily, and can actually just be in the studio and experiment and see what happens and record things 20 times if I want.

Can you speak to the way a space has affected a particular record of yours? 

The last record I made, Pale Bloom, was a pretty different record than what I’ve done in the past because it grew out of this live piece that I had, and I don’t usually do that. Usually, for a studio recording, I start from scratch and I don’t engage with anything that I performed live. And when I do live stuff, I don’t think of how to make it for a record. But I did this live acoustic piece that I really liked and I wanted to turn it into a recording. So it grew from that. I decided to keep the whole record acoustic and record the other side of it with acoustic instruments, and I had these ideas of stuff that I wanted to do. So that record was really composed beforehand. I knew mostly what it was going to sound like before I even went into the studio. There were some edits that I did at home, but for the most part, the B-side of that record was just a single take of a live performance. And that was interesting because when I work my own way, which is recording and editing and processing and all that, it’s really about the tone that I’m trying to get. I add different effects and stuff like that to get this particular sound. And with that recording, I wasn’t doing that. So I had to rely just on the acoustic space and the mics and the way things were set up while we were recording to capture the kind of sound that I wanted right from the beginning.

Your music creates such a sense of space. Are there particular spaces that specific compositions are meant for, and if so, are you looking to recreate the feel of those spaces in the studio?

I don’t know that there’s any specific space that anything’s meant for. It’s hard for me sometimes to go in just because of the way that I work. It’s hard to go in with really specific ideas. I might have an idea, but then it just turns into something else. Which is still okay. But there are definitely certain vibes that I go for. I like things to sound very intimate and very closed off in a way or like you’re hearing it from a different room or something, to get this sense of privacy or interiority. And it’s also interesting sometimes to juxtapose different spaces. I did a track a couple of years ago called “For Voice,” which is just this soprano singer that I was working with in Vancouver at the time, and I recorded her singing in the apartment I was living in at the time. It was this big, concrete loft. Very reverberant. And when I recorded it, it sounded the way voice would in that kind of space. But when I listened to the recording I think I tried really hard to remove that sense of space, but still get this mixture of the voice coming from a very small space, but then having this sort of paradoxical space around it to remove it from something that’s like reality, I think. That idea of world-making and building little worlds in sound is really interesting to me. I like playing live because it’s a different experience and you can get a different sound, but I prefer being in the studio for the reason that it’s like sculpting these little worlds. And you can do that with a lot more precision in the studio than you can live.

About the Author

Matt Williams

Matt Williams is a writer and photographer. Born and raised on the Prairies in Winnipeg, he’s slowly made his way farther and farther east, spending a few years covering music in Toronto before running clear out of country and ending up on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean. In between, he’s made numerous detours, interviewing and photographing countless artists across North America and beyond. He heads up Amplify’s Instrumental series, where he talks with musicians about the relationships they’ve formed with their most important tools.

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