Laura Tsaggaris Interview
I was finally able to Track down the elusive Laura Tsaggaris and bombard her with questions!
She was more than equal to the challenge. She also brought friend/producer/engineer Ian Schreier along to offer additional insight. Cheers Ian!
Laura Tsaggaris is an extremely gifted songwriter as well as an amazing and original singer and guitar player.Be sure to check out her first full-length 'Proof' as well as her fantastic new album 'Keep Talking'.
'Keep Talking' is due for release on May 5th, 2009.
Thank you very, very much Laura.
Mike: When did you first start playing music?
Laura: I first started playing music when I was about 16. My dad had a nice Guild guitar that he'd had from his submarine days in the Navy, and he'd taught me a couple of chords and I spent a lot of time transitioning slowly from chord to chord. Then when I went off to college, he got me a guitar of my own and I just spent a lot of time learning and playing other people's songs.
M: When did you first start writing your own music? What kind of music was it?
L: I guess I first started "writing" music right after I left college and I would describe it as not very good. I put writing in quotes because I don't read or write music in the classical sense, so most of the time the writing is in my head. I've learned I have a good memory, and it serves me well with this. Anyway, it took me a long time to get to a point where I thought anything I was making up was any good. That took another 3 or 4 years. But all of these first forays into writing were attempts to emulate my early influences of Joni Mitchell, Ani DiFranco, Indigo Girls. I guess it would be considered folk, but I never thought of it with that word in mind.
M: When and where did you make your first recordings? Do you remember what the setup was?
L: My first recordings were tapes ((recorded on one of those Sony handheld recorders I'm old!)) of all the covers I'd learned how to play, and I gave a copy of those to my aunts, I think((?)). I can't even remember. I was spending a lot of time with them at that time in my life, so that probably is the case. Then, when I moved to DC in 2000, I was making taped recordings of some of the songs I was starting to write. And then in 2001 I made my first studio recording of a live 6 song set... from then until my first produced album in 2005, 'Proof', I experimented a lot with home digital recording using a MOTU 828 interface with my Mac Powerbook . I was using some free software I'd gotten called AudioDesk, and I had a pretty limited understanding of it, but, it allowed me to get some ideas down and start the learning curve.
M: What does your current guitar rig consist of? Are you using the same setup live as you are in the studio?
L: Rig isn't really a word that applies to my setup right now. I basically bring my wonderful Taylor 714CE to every gig, plug it into my stompbox tuner and plug directly into the venue's PA system. I'm looking forward to using the new Epiphone Casino ((electric guitar)) I got and coupling it with a nice tube amp for solo and band shows, and experiment with tremolo and reverb sounds to start creating some different live soundscapes. So, working on that.
Getting back to the second part of the question, yeah, you know in the studio it's not much different for me, although mostly we ran two mics to the acoustic with no DI for recording.
M: Was there a point at which you made a conscious decision to create your own playing style and guitar sound?
L: I don't know if there's much that's been conscious about the path I've taken. I've just tried to be open to the creative energies that have come into and out of my life. When I first started playing, my songs were much more guitar-centered. I was really shy about performing, and singing made me feel really vulnerable ((when I did it in front of other people: alone, nothing felt better than to sing)), so, my guitar playing took more of a center stage. And I think I had a unique style. I didn't play with a pick and was heavily influenced by folks like Ani DiFranco and Dave Matthews that had really unique playing styles, and my playing was more aggressive at the time. But it was suggested to me that I had a really great voice and that I should really concentrate on that, and though I didn't take to the suggestion right away, subconsciously I starting writing songs more for my voice leaving more space for vocalizing over driving chords and that's what you see on my full-length debut, Proof. The new album, Keep Talking, features a significant amount of growth in my lyric writing and song structure, and the vocals and guitar playing styles all work together to bring the song to its highest level, so it's less about which one thing I do well, or whatever, just really how is it going to add to the whole and make it the best it can be/what it wants to become?
M: Can you tell me about your most recent studio recording experience? What was the writing & recording process? Did you have the songs worked out prior to entering the studio? What was your focus in terms of production? Did you have a clear sound in mind for the finished album?
L: After I quit my day job a couple of years ago, I wasn't really writing much and that started to scare me just that I was embarking on this new career and I wasn't getting any product down. But it was all part of the process. I started to really turn a corner and my writing started to become more of a craft. And I could tell the songs were taking on a different structure. I was tending more towards pop and rock, in the length of songs and the strumming patterns. So, I knew that I wanted to make a very different record from Proof once I'd compiled enough songs to be thinking about the studio. And I questioned whether I should work with Ian again ((he even questioned that for me)), because although we work really well together, I wondered if I wanted to expand my influences a bit. I wanted to make a rock-focused album, and I didn't know that Ian's and my sensibilities together would provide the right formula for that. But after we talked, I felt really confident that it was the right move to work together again and that we'd be able to take these songs where they were wanting to go. Ian had ideas on some different players for the record than we had used before, which, in a way was a risk, but it paid off exponentially.
I had acoustic demo's of all the songs that were pretty much ready to be pitched to the players Ian had in mind. Just to make sure, Ian came to DC for a weekend after our initial conversation and we had a pre-production session of nailing down tempos for songs and just discussing our ideas on each one. I had gotten an mBox as a present, and it really helped in this situation. We had final acoustic versions to use for production meetings with the players. The one song that was most changed ((and improved)) from this weekend was Go and Do Everything ((Again)). It went from having a bouncy, happy feeling to straight-up rocking after a small tweak in the strumming pattern that Ian suggested.
There was still one big question mark after this weekend, however... one song was structurally all there - melody, chords, harmonies. We could hear all of the things that would make this one of the strongest songs on the album. But I had no words. It was killing me -- it was really a catchy song, but I couldn't figure out what it was supposed to be about. I had been playing around with it for months, and only had one line of a verse. I knew it had to be on the record, and it was the first time I'd really put myself under pressure to write a song. It's funny that the title ended up being Out of My Mind, because I really did feel like I was going crazy writing it. But, the end result was totally worth the agony of working through it.
Once I had come through on the words for Out of My Mind a couple of weeks later, I knew I could relax and really just enjoy the process of recording. And this was a real departure from the process of Proof. All during the recording of that album, I was really stressed out. At that time, I sort of looked at it as relinquishing control over my songs instead of collaborating. And this time it was all about enjoying the process of letting the songs I had written inspire these excellent players and minds. And I think that mentality just really helped carry these songs to great heights.
Another departure was that I had asked for help from fans and supporters to finance the recording. This was a big step for me to put myself out there like that, accept help, and in some instances, subject myself to criticism. And it ended up being incredibly rewarding and inspiring. I found out I had a lot of people believing in me, and I didn't let the stress of hoping that they'd like the end product I came up with interfere with the process. I got the feeling that these folks just really support my creativity, and that was so satisfying.
So, with all the songs, I met the core band ((Bill Eagen, Rob Clay, and Sam Clowney)) that Ian had in mind and had two weekends of pre-production sessions with Ian at Osceola where we just played all the songs together and talked about rhythm and guitar parts. And we just all really hit it off. This was the most fun of the whole process because it was no pressure, just getting to know each other and just playing. I'm really excited to play with them in the future -- it is great to feel a sense of community with folks that play music because it really doesn't happen all the time. It's such a competitive business, and it's hard sometimes to find real relationships within that. So that was a huge positive from this record.
M: Can you tell me what your signal chain was for recording guitars? How about for your vocals?
From Ian ((www.iansproductions.com)):
I: For guitars; we used a combination of a di signal straight from the instrument, and a mic ((beyer ribbon)) on the amp. The di signal was later used for re-amping and Ampfarm ((modeling)) during mixing.
The vocal path for most of the record was an M149 to the Sony mic pre's in the console; through either the Manley vari-mu, or the Requisite L2m compressor. There were a couple of other set ups, but this was the most common.
M: Were you able to track much with the full band set up, or did you mostly overdub parts?
L: We had about four days, I think, in the studio with the full band, which yielded all of the rhythm tracks. So it was a good chunk of time. And we got a lot of other cool stuff from that, including the end of Pilots which was probably the most fun part of all the tracking for me. We did a lot of electric guitar overdub work with Sam separately, as we had specific ideas on what we wanted to get from him on certain songs and couldn't really focus on that with the full band set up.
M: I imagine you recorded into ProTools or another DAW. If that's not the case, what were you recording on?
L: Yes, we used Pro Tools HD
M: Did you complete one song at a time or did you jump around between songs?
L: We jumped around between songs. Knowing that we were going after a 12-song record right from the beginning, we were able to plan accordingly and make the most out of the studio time. When the horns came in, they played all the songs they were on. And so forth with all of the other auxiliary players. And things popped up here and there that were just inspired, like, that synth track on Warning Signs that really draws you in. My friend in DC, Phil Carluzzo, had done some arrangements for the record and had lent us this sweet mini-korg and some other awesome instruments and when I was back in DC playing him some of the tracks we had recorded, I asked him to just see if he was inspired to play anything on the synth at my home studio and what came out was such a great catchy line that we just flew it into the session at Ian's studio.
So yeah, we jumped around a lot.
M: Were you comping the vocal tracks or were you trying to stick with live takes throughout?
L: We comped a lot less on this record than we had before. We tried to stick to live takes as much as possible. And, I think it helped that it took me less takes to really get into character in the studio for these songs than maybe it would have in the past.
M: How much involvement did you have when it came time to mix?
L: My involvement consisted of lying on the couch, watching Law & Order and then listening to what Ian had come up with after a couple of hours. Ha. I'm only half kidding. I mean, I definitely had a lot of input, but Ian was really good about making sure we could use my ears in the best way by having them fresh and not tired after listening to a solo drum beat for an hour straight, not to mention, I don't have experience with manipulating the controls to get the drums sounding the way they need to for a particular song, so he would start things off and get everything to a point where we were ready to make the final mixing/production decisions and I'd stick it out, hearing my voice sing the same damn song for 4 more hours and make my suggestions and comments and we'd discuss then we'd tweak a little thing here and listen, untweak and listen, retweak and listen. It can be a maddening process. Luckily, we've found a way to make it fun.
M: Was the album mixed entirely within the DAW ((Pro Tools, Logic, etc.)), was the signal routed through outboard gear, or did you do any analog summing of the mix?
I: The mixing was a combination of outboard gear and plug-ins. 12 stereo stems ((24 tks)) were summed and sweetened on the console and the stereo mix was printed to 1/2 inch tape at 30 ips. All of the automation was done inside of Pro Tools.
M: How has your recording process evolved over the years?
L: Well, I think the most evolution has come emotionally. Just being much more relaxed and open to collaboration and influence and that's all a result of gaining confidence as a producer and songwriter. I'm excited to continue to evolve too. I'm already looking forward to the next projects and how they will be different from what I've done before.
M: What did you learn from your most recent time spent in the studio?
L: Going along with the last question, I just learned a lot about my confidence as a writer and artist. And that feels good. Of course there are always times where doubt creeps in or the sacrifices that you have to make to pursue this career really get to you, but, when the process of making an album is so incredible, it carries you through those rough times.
I learned a lot about the types of energies that fuel me as well. I mean, everyone in this business has a different formula for what they're doing. And there are a lot of success stories that have employed different strategies, so it's hard to know what to do for your own career. And the fact that no one knows what the business will look like in 5 years doesn't help with trying to make headway. Up to this point, it's taken all of my energy to just really concentrate on the craft of writing and the art of performing. And that's something that needs to be constantly nourished. But there's so much more to getting a career as a musician off the ground. It's a constant search to find that right formula of people, energies, etc. that get things to a point where they really start to click. And I think I'm getting closer to knowing what that is for me, and finding the people that can help me get there. It's funny, because the title of this record, Keep Talking, is kind of a mantra for me that can be applied to this you know, like, keep talking and you will find the right way. Keep talking and you will reveal, in time, the path you need to take and the decisions that will keep you on that path. I think this record shows a lot of that growth and the possibilities for where things can go for me in the future.