Interview: How Tamara Lindeman Brought Dylan and Distorted Spontaneity to "The Weather Station"

Toronto-based musician and actor Tamara Lindeman began releasing music as The Weather Station in 2009, with a debut album of experimental music she recorded by herself on her computer. But after trying and failing to record a follow-up in a professional studio, and then working with folk/country/power-pop savant Daniel Romano, she stripped her songs to their folk roots and started building up again from there.

For her latest album, The Weather Station, she once again reclaimed the production duties for herself. As her self-described "rock and roll" record, it includes full band arrangements, distorted electric guitars, and strings, while still centering around her voice and lyrics.

Speaking with us from her tour van somewhere in Oklahoma, Lindeman shared her experiences recording the album at Montreal’s Hotel2Tango with engineer Howard Billerman, who has previously worked with Arcade Fire, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Leonard Cohen, and many others.

The Weather Station - The Weather Station

Lindeman will be continuing her tour through the summer, so to learn more about her upcoming dates and music, check out her website here.

How did you approach the basic tracking? And what was the general layout of the studio?

We just did a pretty classic setup. We tried to do vocals live in a room, but I wasn’t quite ready to do the songs yet, so we just did guitar, bass, and drums.

We had a really fun drum setup—really big kick drums, like a 24-inch kick drum or something crazy. Howard had some pretty weird drum mic techniques we used. I was really into the idea of having a very minimal drum mic situation. I didn’t want to have the modern drum sound. I wanted to have more of a Glyn Johns style, or even further back—the sound of just a drum kit in a room. We didn’t go all the way there, but we went a little bit of the way there.

We did a weird thing where we never turned on the snares on the snare drum. It’s a snare-less snare a lot of the record. My bass player, Ben [Whiteley] has a really sweet ‘60s P-Bass that he played through a Fender Twin Reverb, which worked really great. And I did a lot of acoustic guitar for some reason, which I ran through a Princeton. So, it was just sort of a little bit muddy and gross-sounding. It was great.

How did you go about arranging the rhythm section? Unfortunately, you took it down by the time I was coming up with these questions, but you used to have a public playlist on Spotify that was called something like "Rhythm Section Inspirations"—

Oh no [laughs]. Yeah, I took it down. I didn’t realize that was public.

I remember there was some Bob Dylan on there. What all were you listening to when you were planning the album and deciding how it would sound?

I got really obsessed with this idea—I wanted the rhythm section, the actual base of the songs to sound like this Bob Dylan record New Morning, which is from 1970. It’s just on the cusp of more modern techniques, but it still sounds old and kind of scruffy. We didn’t go all the way in that direction, but I wanted that. Another record I was listening to a lot is this record by Dion, but it’s not a Dion & the Belmonts record, it’s a Dion & The Wanderers record. But it’s actually a lot of the same band as Highway 61 Revisited [Dion's Kickin’ Child: The Lost Album 1965 got its first official release in 2017].

I was also really obsessed with The Impressions, which I’m kind of always obsessed with, but there’s this record called This is My Country, and it’s the kind of drumming and bass playing that I really love, where there’s just a ton of tom fills, for some reason, constantly, and the bass is very busy.

So, I was really pushing Ben, the bass player, to play like that. Or another bass playing touchstone for me is Gordon Lightfoot records. There’s a ton of—it’s this style of bass playing where the bass is constantly just hitting octaves and fifths around the root note. It’s sort of melodic but not melodic at the same time—it’s just very rhythmic.

The Weather Station - "Power," First Play Live

So how did you build the arrangements from there?

I wanted to marry that vintage rhythm section to more modern guitars, distorted guitars, and also try to figure how I could fit my voice in that music, which was a big struggle and something I thought a lot about. All the touchstone records I had, sonically, were male voices. So, I had to figure out how to make a female voice—my voice—sound big and thick like I wanted. And as with everything, I feel we got almost all the way in the direction of what we wanted to do.

Was there a certain mic setup you were using to bring more body to it?

The voice was a really funny journey. When I made my last record Loyalty, I had the great privilege of singing into a [Neumann] U 67—a legit vintage one—and it was amazing. It had so much life and energy. When you sang into it, it had a ton of body and it was really exciting. I thought, We’ve got to find a vintage U 67. Howard scoured all over the place trying to find one, because he didn’t own one. You used to be able to rent them, but the place that rented them didn’t rent them anymore ... because they’ve just gone crazy.

So we tried a copy of a U 67, and we tried a few different mics that he had, but I actually wound up just moving forward with the rest of the overdubs without vocals that I was satisfied with. For most of the recording of the record, there were no vocals, or there were scratch vocals, basically.

Then at the very end, the very last stage, I was working with my mix engineer and we were both finding the vocals lacking, and I just had this brainwave—I don’t know why I didn’t think of it earlier in the recording. But I have a mic called a Royer [R-121], a ribbon mic, and it’s the mic I used on my first two records. I just grabbed that, and we just used a really good preamp. The ribbon mic just gives a lot of body and warmth to my voice, which is naturally kind of thinner. I actually just sang all the songs again in the mix, most of them, and we did three takes of everything, and that was the performance. It was a funny twist of fate, but it worked out.

I was surprised when I saw you live because of how closely your voice matched the record. I assumed that you had gone about finding a special mic, but I think a lot of that comes through, even on a standard venue mic.

You know, it’s really funny that you say that, because that’s what I was thinking the whole time. To me, my voice sounds best through an SM58, through a PA into a bar. That’s how I think my voice sounds. There’s always this weird thing where, when I’m in front of a really nice condenser mic, my voice doesn’t sound like that, because you hear all this detail that you don’t hear on an SM58. When you lack that sound of the voice in the room amplified, everything is different, right? I totally had that thought over and over again—I just want it to sound like an SM58 at a club.

What were all the different guitars on the album?

Kay Swingmaster c.1964

When I made the record, that [1960-’62] Kay Swingmaster was actually the only electric guitar I had. It’s a weird guitar. I’m always attracted to the weirdest guitars. I found it in a secondhand store. I’d never heard of a Swingmaster before, but it’s kind of the first and last time I picked up an electric guitar, plugged it in, and just loved it completely.

But it’s such a pain in the ass. It’s a nightmare. The pickups are so noisy. At the end of "Power," there’s this sound that sounds like a power drill, and it is a power drill. It’s because I was recording and something was happening down the street and it transmitted through my pickups.

The acoustic I played was actually my friend Ben’s acoustic. It’s a somewhat mangled 1962 Martin D18. But kind of a bad one. And it has a Sunrise pickup in yet. And so we used that in the [basic] tracking—that acoustic through an amp.

Then, towards the end of making the record, I bought a legit guitar. I bought a Martin myself, a D18 that I used on, I think, two songs. But, yeah. It’s really cool, and I think it was a big deal.

The Weather Station - "Thirty" (Official Video)

When it comes to a song like "Thirty" or "Kept It All To Myself," where each part builds so much on the previous section, with more guitar and strings coming in, how much of that was mapped out in detail before the recording? Or how much of that did you assemble in overdubs and in the mixing stage?

I remember in "Kept It All to Myself"—it’s sort of just a weird song and the structure doesn’t really make any sense. If I was a better songwriter, I wouldn’t have written it that way. It’s very mangled [laughs]. We had an exciting rhythm track that we all thought was good, and it felt like it was strong, but then the overdubs for that one—I just threw everything at the wall.

I tried banjo—there’s a whole banjo track all through that song that you can’t hear. I tried so many different guitars and then the strings wound up being the thing that pulled it all together in my mind. It’s funny because now, as a live band, we've figured out the arrangement of that song way better than we had when we recorded it.

Can I ask about the musical relationship you’ve had with Daniel Romano? I know that he produced All of it Was Mine and recorded some of your EP What Am I Going to Do With Everything I Know. What all have you learned from his production style or approach to recording?

Dan’s had a huge influence on me, and he continues to have an influence on me, and really shaped my understanding of music and making records. That experience was really interesting, because I made a record myself—my very first record is just me messing around with my computer, basically. Then All of it Was Mine was the total antithesis to that.

I had gone into the studio and I was trying to make a proper record, but I had no idea what I was doing, because I was really young and my band wasn’t that good, and we hadn’t figured out anything.

Tamara Lindeman (Photos by Shervin Lainez)

But I was making a record like a normal person, and I just knew it was off. I had enough sensitivity to know there was just something wrong, but I didn’t have enough knowledge to know what. When I was in this sort of funk of having recorded a couple songs and not liked them or not knowing what was up, I rationally thought they sounded good, but my instincts were that they sounded bad. And I met Dan and he said, "Well, come to Welland, I’ll make you a record." I thought, Who the hell is this guy?

But I went to Welland, where he lived at the time and we recorded one song, "Came So Easy." There was no plan. I just got there. I had my guitar, I played him that song, and he said, "Well, that sounds like a folk song." And I had just always done my gigs as if it wasn’t a folk song, but he was said, "Well, it’s a folk song. We should just record it, two guitars."

So he had a digital Tascam Portastudio 8-Track, and we recorded the song just facing each other. We were playing guitar at the same time, so he played all the beautiful riffs. I’m just playing the classic part. And he was the one who introduced me to that Royer microphone because at the time, that was his favorite mic. On that record, he actually used that mic on almost everything, except when we needed two mics at once.

But that really taught me a lot, because I had all these feelings of intimidation around music and musicians, right? That’s sort of been a constant theme of my life, and I went and made this record with this guy and, like I say, it was recorded right onto a Portastudio. We didn’t even use a preamp. We used one microphone and everyone’s like, Whoa, this sounds so good. And that’s so funny because I recorded this same song in a proper studio with a real producer and this is better.

The Weather Station - "You and I (On The Other Side Of The World)" (Official Video)

So I was learning the lesson that gear matters, but it doesn’t matter. You know? Dan’s a bit of a cowboy in the sense that he just does whatever the hell he wants and doesn’t really think about consequences. He’ll just record. He’s funny because, whereas I’m a more rational person and I’ll think, Alright, well, we should try this because it’s a good idea, he’ll just put a mic in front of something and start playing it.

If it wasn’t immediately awesome, he would say, "Fuck that. No. Let’s try the organ." You know? He’d start playing organ. Then he’d say, "No, this is no good." Then he’d start playing piano. Then he’d just play it until it was good and then move onto something else. He doesn’t think or really hesitate, and that really taught me that if you’re banging your head against the wall over something, there’s probably a reason, and you should just do something else.

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