“Most of the big breakthroughs I’ve had have happened when the musicians aren’t around”

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He’s the guy who, if not interrupted once in a while, could talk about the four legs of a donkey. She cannot speak or write English. His answers to the questions are therefore translated and then sent by e-mail. This is California-based Dubliner Jacknife (Garret) Lee, one of the most in-demand record producers of recent years and a soundscape technician who has helped everyone from U2, Taylor Swift and Snow. Patrol has a string of more low-key musical acts (including his latest side project, Telefís, which sees him collaborating with former Microdisney and Fatima Mansions songwriter Cathal Coughlan). She is West African Rokia Koné, one of Mali’s most revered and dynamic singers.

“Oh, I’ve never talked to her,” he said casually, “and I’ve never emailed her. Still not”

If the pandemic has been beneficial in any way – not just in the arts but also in everyday life, in general – that’s how most people found out they really wanted connect with each other, collaborate, talk or at the very least email. That’s the theory, anyway. Sitting in front of a bank of sound equipment in his Topanga Canyon home, late to the Zoom interview because he forgot to meet the agreed time in his diary, and with bursts of shrill noise coming from outside (“The Builders Are Here!”), Lee can be justifiably proud of the tradition-enhancing sounds he created for the joint album, Bamanan. I ask him to connect Malian musical traditions with what he does best, and have any musical ideas been discussed between him and Koné? “Oh, I’ve never spoken to her,” he said casually, “and I’ve never emailed her. Still not.

It lines up with something Lee said in a recent interview: that his biggest breakthroughs in the studio happen when the musicians aren’t around. “Yes, I said that,” he laughs. It feels like a counter-intuitive working practice that begs the question: do musicians really get in the way of his efforts? Apparently they do.

A little tension

He mentions the name of a well-known musician he collaborated with in his studio, and how his working methods were becoming more and more frustrating. “I plug in sequencers or play random things when there are people in the room; they look at me and I feel like they think I’m shit, that what I do isn’t music. Sometimes I just try to create a groove, or I try things out of key just to give it some tension.

Jackife Lee. Photography: Jackie Radinsky

When he does this, he adds, people in the room usually panic. “I lost their trust. Most of the big breakthroughs I’ve had with music tracks have happened when the artists aren’t around because I have the space to represent their music in a way they might not have not imagined. The steps to get there are, usually, all accidental, but I’ve been here long enough not to worry if things look terrible here and now because I know they won’t end. There will be something in the terrible experiments that will pave the way for music. It’s not that I’m brave, it’s just that I know it’s the process.

As far as Koné is concerned, the process worked, though she says her first reaction to hearing the results of Lee’s “terrible experiments” was shock. “It was so different from what I’m used to hearing,” Koné writes. “However, I understood that through collaborations like these, something fresh and new can emerge. As I received the songs he was working on, I really learned to love this in the future there may be a time when people stop listening to our music, at least in the way we sing it as it is today, and so it’s important to experiment, to develop it. Working with Jacknife, I had the opportunity to explore a different way of making music and playing. It brings fresh blood to music in general and, if God wants, opens up new opportunities for my career.

What did she expect from Jacknife with the music she and her musicians sent her? There was no expectation at all, she said. “I wanted to stay open-minded and give Jacknife the same freedom for her role that I had when I walked into the recording studio with my band to start this album. help to get the most out of my music. I think it was good that Jacknife could be creatively free when working on the songs. The result is very nice. I had the chance to share the music with my friends and family here in Mali, and they had nothing but good things to say about it.

Establish a connection

They first connected, Lee says, not only because of his work as a judge of a remix contest sponsored by the Real World label, but also through occasional work with sound equipment company Universal. Sound. He had finished his most recent album (2020’s The Jacknife Lee, which featured musicians from Ghana, Kenya and Nigeria), when out of the blue Universal Audio sent him some music Koné was singing along to.

“It was raw, and unlike a lot of selfish, conceited singers, I realized she wasn’t singing to impress but was singing for herself”

“I got into the habit a few years ago, if I liked something I heard, I would ask to collaborate, just to communicate in a different way. I asked for more music from Rokia, thinking naively that I could do something with it, but what they sent me was about 15 minutes in length, with no time signatures or keys. When I listened to it, I felt I couldn’t nothing to do with it – I didn’t know the language and felt like I didn’t know how to edit it to a reasonable size I was sure I didn’t have access to it, but I knew I couldn’t theirs send back with just a little polish.

What took him further in music, he enthuses, and what kept him going was Koné’s voice. “Usually when someone sings this well, especially now in modern Western culture, a lot of the singing is learned by watching TV – you know, vocal gymnastics, parade. As it progresses it becomes more elaborate and extravagant, but Rokia’s voice was different. She could do gymnastics, sure, but she wasn’t in tune and her timing was all over the place. It was raw, however, and unlike a lot of selfish, conceited singers, I realized she wasn’t singing to impress but actually singing to herself.

Easy inspiration

Such an approach comes naturally to Koné, who as a child learned songs from his grandmother, aunts and uncles. She writes that when she creates music, “there are times when I sing and go wild. I loose myself in the music, I let it invade me. I will sometimes join my dancers and move frantically, but it all comes from the love I have for music. Inspiration for songs comes very easily. Sometimes it comes when I sleep, if I want it. I never asked anyone for a sound or to give me a piece of music. Whether I’m on stage or in the studio, when the music starts, I open my mouth and it comes to me.

Rokia Kone.  Photography: Karen Paulina Biswell

Rokia Kone. Photography: Karen Paulina Biswell

Lee’s experimental instincts surround Koné’s distinctive and shifting voice, making Bamanan a particularly singular work. He says he completely removed the background music from the tracks sent to him and just listened to the vocals. “Like in the movie Arrival, I tried to find patterns and sounds that were linguistically related to each other. I found phrases that I liked or that meant something to me, then I found tempos that I knew I could work in. By working on what he calls “the music’s DNA,” Lee says he gets to know who the person behind it is.

“Listening to Rokia’s voice and then losing my respect for her, she fell out of context, which meant I could cut her out and find a time signature that worked. At first it felt like of biting off more than I could chew, of course, but through my stubbornness and practice, I found a way in. What his intentions are.

Bamanan was released via Real World Records on February 18.

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