An abbreviated version of this interview originally appeared in the May/June 2018 issue of Canadian Musician magazine.
By Michael Raine
Daniel Caesar’s debut LP, Freudian, was one of the landmark Canadian releases of 2017. The artist himself has quickly risen to be one the most hyped new voices in popular music, with everyone from Stevie Wonder to Barack Obama declaring themselves fans. The neo-soul collection earned two Grammy nominations and won the Juno Award for R&B/Soul Recording on the Year.
Ahead of the 2018 Junos, Canadian Musician chatted with Caesar’s recording engineer, Riley Bell, about his work and the stories behind the songs. Bell would later win the Juno Award for Recording Engineer of the Year for his work on the singles “Get You (ft. Kali Uchis)” and “We Find Love.”
CM: How did you get brought into Daniel Caesar’s camp to work on this album?
Riley Bell: I started doing sound professionally first as an intern at Revolution Recording [in Toronto] and I was there all the time. As I started to move up in the studio, one of the last big projects I did before becoming staff was Protest the Hero and their album Volition, which Cam [McLennan, Daniel Caesar’s FOH engineer] played bass on and was a producer on. So that’s how we met and that’s the background on that.
So I ended up becoming a staff engineer at Revolution and kind of, over time, I did a lot of rock albums. Really every single type of genre, but particularly when any international pop project would come through, I seemed to get a lot of those ones. So, you know, I was doing sessions with The Weeknd and these more mainstream artists, as well as all the classical and rock and stuff I was doing at the same time.
So what ended up happening was [Daniel Cesar’s co-producer and co-manager] Matt Burnett and I met in a song camp that was at Revolution and then he brought a project into Revolution that was an American artist who does more popular music. Matt was just transitioning from urban music, like beat making, and I was into pop. So when we started on this one session, we had a chemistry because my instincts were in line with what he was trying to get out of the recordings and our skills just complemented each other really well. So anyway, what ended up happening is shortly thereafter, Matt and I started working a lot together, full-time basically. I quit the studio and Matt and I started up our own studio in the east end of Toronto, which we still have, and we started producing records together full-time.
So when I was producing with Matt, him and Jordan [Evans, Caesar’s other co-producer and co-manager,] came to me and said, “Listen, we got this young kid, Daniel Caesar, and we need someone with a more traditional background.” They came from a beat-making background and a lot of Daniel’s music would end up being more acoustic and traditional in its sonics. So I guess that’s where I come into the mix. In the early days, it was very much like Matt and I were trying to get top 40 cuts or bigger cuts to make money and pay the bills while this was developing. On the weekends, we would develop this growing project with this young guy – this is before [2015 EP] Pilgrim’s Paradise. So yeah, we were investing all this time into it and I was engineering and mixing all the records from the beginning and then it just kind of slowly grew form there until we did this record, “Get You,” which is one of the songs that I’m nominated for, and then everything just exploded. Probably three months after that, Matt, Jordan, and I were working on *Freudian *full-time and that was basically all we were doing.
CM: “Get You” was included on Freudian, but like you said, it was first recorded and released and as a one-off single well before the rest of the album. So was the recording process for “Get You” much different than the rest of the album?
RB: Yeah, it was completely different than the rest of the album. So what happened was “Get You” had been a long-time work in progress, particularly on the production end with Matt and Jordan. I think it kind of slowly took form and the BADBADNOTGOOD guys were involved with it. There were kind of many steps to it.
So I came in and mixed and mastered it and also record the bass and several elements of it, but it’s kind of pieced together in very spaced out sessions and different places. But what ended up happening was it ended up being so successful that it was like, “OK, well now we have to make an album to follow this up.”
Then when that happened, a much more cohesive process started to form where the three of us and Daniel and the musicians involved in the project were all doing the sessions together and cutting them all at the same places and that is where the more cohesive aspects and elements of the album took shape. So yeah, “Get You” was kind of an anomaly on the record as far as the process of it.
CM: Do you remember the process of recording the BADBADNOTGOOD guys?
RB: So, that I honestly can’t speak to it very accurately… I’m pretty sure it was done at their studio. I remember being at their studio but I’m not sure if that was the “Get You” sessions. I just don’t really remember because it was literally, like, we’re talking months apart.
But what I do remember is when it started to be clearer what the production was going to be, me and the guys, we all just sat down and cut bass, like [multi-instrumentalist] Wesley Allen played on the record. We cut that and then it was mostly being put together and then a bunch of time went by and then we came in and we mixed the record.
I mixed that at mine and Matt’s studio here where we do a lot of our stuff with Jordan. It was mostly done but then there were talks of a feature and so more time went by and then Kali [Uchis] did her verse. And then that’s when the actual final recording would take shape. So it was fairly a non-linear process, which would be a theme in what we would end up doing, but more spaced out and less formal way, whereas the rest of the album we would start developing more of a rhythm and a consistent thing. This was more of an anomaly because we weren’t sitting down to do an album. It was a song that kind of prompted the necessity for an album, if that makes sense.
CM: From Pilgrim’s Paradise to “Get You” to the rest of Freudian, did you see a progression in Daniel Caesar’s performances and his comfort in a studio setting?
RB: Yeah, for sure. I can’t remember but I’m pretty sure Pilgrim’s might have been the first time that Danny did an album in a full studio. Whereas he had his mixtape, *Praise Break, *but I’m pretty sure that was done more in production rooms and with beat makers, whereas when we went to do Pilgrim’s, we actually had a full band and cut them live-off-the-floor and multi-tracked everything. There is a lot more traditional recording happening, which I think was progression in itself. I didn’t work on Praise Break, so I can’t say for sure, but definitely there was a lot of progression from Pilgrim’s to Freudian, which I can speak to because I was there for all that.
In particular with his songwriting he really matured. I feel like Freudian is when he really started to develop a sound that he owns. That was really cool to watch and I think it’s interesting how, like, I feel like Pilgrim’s was more of an acoustic, traditional recording than Freudian and Freudian is more of a mixture of program and acoustic elements. Pilgrim’s had that as well, but, to me, it felt more like a band record. So it’s just interesting and the process was just different because we had more resources to make Freudian and on Pilgrim’s we really had to bootstrap it. He was just at different places in his career, so that meant being able to post up in a recording studio and really flesh out Freudian in a facility rather than in mine and Matt’s production room, which really makes a difference.
CM: As I listened to the album multiple times, it stuck out to me that that Freudian sounds like a pretty piano- and traditional instrument-driven record. Whereas you expect a lot of electronic instrumentation and effects in modern R&B and soul. Was that Daniel’s decision, or you, Matt, and Jordan crafting that sound?
RB: I feel like some of that just emerged naturally. It’s funny, more of the album is actually electronic than you’d probably think by listening to it. We would take organic sounds and manipulate them electronically so that something sounds classic but it’s new, you know what I mean? Like on the early Freudian sessions, there was a lot of experimenting with different sonics and guitar tones and just different vibes. Once we hit on a specific guitar tone and sonic characteristic, I feel like it was intentional to remain cohesive to the sonic landscape that was being built. That just helps the album be cohesive and not have like an ‘80s guitar tone with ‘60s vintage [drums] or whatever. It is kind of like once you locked into a certain style of how we tracked the guitars and the sounds of those, then we kind of stuck to that throughout the album. The same thing with the keys and piano, which are recorded very similarly throughout the album, that was definitely an intentional thing.
CM: What were the key elements behind what became that signature tone on the album?
RB: It’s interesting. See, I came from a very traditional background, sonically. I came up in an old-school facility with microphones and outboard gear and I can calibrate tape machines and such. So, coming out of Revolution Recording and being kind of raised in a very traditional way in my sonic palette, for lack of a better term, to come out of that experience and with that education, but now I don’t work in a multi-room massive recording facility. I work a lot in-the-box because I have to. It’s just the space I work in with the resources I have. But I haven’t lost the ear for what a record should sound like to me that I kind of gained from Revolution Recording, if that makes sense. So everything I do, I try to make it sound classic and make it sound like the tools that I was attuned to, but I generally use modern tools to achieve it.
So, it’s neither here nor there in philosophy, and if I’m in a studio and they have tons of outboard gear, I’ll plug them in. I’m not afraid to commit to sounds on the way in by any means. But if the room only has a microphone and a preamp and an Apollo, I’m also not very concerned. I can still achieve what I want, sonically, in-the-box. It just kind of depends where I was working and what we needed to do and just adapting to the circumstances.
CM: For the Freudian album sessions after “Get You,” where were you working?
RB: We did sessions at [Scarborough, ON’s] Coalition Music Studio, their Studio A, and we did sessions at Revolution Recording and we did sessions at Red Bull Studios in Santa Monica. So I think those three sessions – and we did sessions at [Toronto’s] Dream House – I figure those sessions account for about 50 per cent of the recording and then the other 50 per cent would be done at our production room.
CM: Was it a mix of the outboard in the studio and in-the-box stuff in your own room?
RB: Yeah. When I’m recording I’ll commit to any outboard that I’m using. It doesn’t make sense to monitor only the outboard gear that I’m using because I’m not going to go back and recall it. Like, if I’m going to use it, I’ll use it and if I’m not, I’m not. I’ll just commit to it and then take that to my space and then I’ve already gotten that flavour from that outboard gear.
But then when I go to mixdown, I’m generally in-the-box. Mainly out of necessity because I probably mixed a third of the album in different rooms, like three different rooms, so I would have to be able to pull up a mix I did in Toronto in L.A. and get the revisions to meet the deadline, you know what I mean? For when “We Find Love” came out, half of that was mixed in Toronto and half of it was mixed in L.A. It just wasn’t in the cards for me to have to be in a particular room in order to recall a mix and make changes. I did many revisions in airports and on airplanes.
When I am mixing, I generally try to set it up so I can travel as best I can and when I need something that is outside of the box, I’ll commit to tape for that and print it.
CM: Do you remember recording “We Find Love” and what was used on that?
RB: Yeah, I think the first, most foundational thing we recorded for that was the piano, which we did at Dream House. That kind of set the groundwork for what we would build around it. The main recording that we had to nail for that one was actually the choirs. What we did for that was actually use a chapel in Coalition Music. We went there because a chapel is a good place to record a gospel choir, right? So we got some pretty natural and big sounding tones there and then I would get all the gospel singers to actually cut their parts in a dead vocal booth and I’d blend the two. You kind of get a modern clarity with an organic, natural feel.
CM: Daniel’s voice sounds pretty pure on the album. Were you doing much with effects or in the mix with his vocals?
RB: Yeah, I’ve built a chain that is for Daniel that I’ve used since Pilgrim’s and it’s really not varied too much since then because we found a sound that we love and haven’t moved too far off of it. The one thing that I did change for Freudian from Pilgrim’s is I’ve been using different reverbs. I use a lot of early digital reverbs because of their sample rates are low and they’re generally fairly warm. I find that complements his voice pretty well. That is something I probably changed from one to the other, but honestly, it’s been pretty consistent.
The one thing I’ll change depending on, because every song has a different sonic character and is in a different key, which will sometimes shift my EQ points just a little bit, but overall what I’m using is pretty consistent.
CM: Other than those early digital reverbs, if you’re willing to say, what else is in that vocal chain?
RB: You know, I’m going to have to keep some of the secrets, secret. To be honest, there isn’t too much. I like to take very simple approaches to vocals because vocal is one thing that if you start affecting it too much, it starts to feel unnatural and unnatural vocals are really uncomfortable.
I find people find overly-processed vocals uncomfortable, but they don’t know why they’re uncomfortable. It’s because everyone knows what a voice sounds like and if you fuck with that too much, it becomes less familiar. Whereas, the average person on the street doesn’t necessarily know what a snare drum inherently sounds like, for example, because they haven’t analysed closely what a snare drum sounds like. But a voice they most certainly do know. So that is where I am almost most hesitant to really bend. I always try to mix my vocals as natural as possible. So for me, less is more.
CM: Often that manifests itself as a nervous feeling for people.
RB: Exactly. Because you can take a snare drum and really make it massive and really slap. That is not what a snare drum sounds like when you play a drum kit, but it still sounds good and sounds big and it sounds interesting and people aren’t going to find it out of place. But if you do that same kind of drastic change to a vocal, it just doesn’t work.
There are examples and obviously we can drastically affect a vocal and for the effect, it could be cool, but if you’re trying to do that to a lead vocal on anything that isn’t blatantly psychedelic or something, I find it is best to treat it as carefully as possible.
CM: To wrap up, is there anything we haven’t touched on that was cool or unexpected or unique during the recordings of these songs?
RB: I mean, there are a ton of things that were super unusual and super unorthodox. I definitely, coming from a technical background but then moving into the more creative side of production for all that time, even when I am operating in a more technical role, I tend to try to get as creative as possible with sonics and how I treat things.
Maybe one, for example, is the guitar solo in “Take Me Away” is not a guitar. I mean, I can’t say what it is but there are a lot of things like that where it is like, “What if we did something traditional, like a guitar solo or something, but not use a guitar solo,” you know what I mean? So it feels like a classic thing you can identify and relate to but there is something new and fresh about it. That’s something I try to bring to whatever we’re working on and there is that sprinkle across Freudian.