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Lille Mulder: The Travelling Girl

This article has originally been published in 50K MUSIC MAG # 13 in March 2010

  by Pete Strobl

I made the switch from gym rat to studio rat when I realized that breaking fingers on the basketball court didn’t add much to a bass track. So I hung up the old sneakers, grabbed my bass with both hands and took my gym rat mentality with me into any studio with a good espresso machine. What can I say? The things I would forego for a chance to be in the room with the guys and gals is a very short list. And that is why I jumped at the invitation to travel to Holland to work on Traveling Girl with some good friends who also happen to know their way around a recording studio. I was picked up at Amsterdam’s Schipol airport by the Traveling girl herself, Lille Mulder. As we knew each other only by email, we both did a few laps around the terminal before the process of elimination successfully put us into the car together. The two hour drive to Dick Kemper’s Studio in Doetinchen gave us a chance to tell our life stories and lay the groundwork for the two week’s work ahead. S&K Studio reflected all the know how of the seasoned musician/engineer/producer that is Dick Kemper. Dick toured the world as the bassist of Vandenberg sharing major concert venues with Metallica and Ozzy and that experience combined with the intervening years of recording have served to create a consummate studio pro. I was here to work with Lille only on the vocal tracks but a quick tour of the studio and a listen to the basic tracks told me that she would have plenty of inspiration to draw upon when it was her turn on the other side of the glass. As good as Dick is at his job, any engineer or producer will tell you that they are only as good as the talent holding the guitar or bass, or in the case of Nico Groen, hitting things with sticks. And in this department Dick had plenty to work with. The producer of The Traveling Girl is my good pal Casper van Vulpen and Casper started the project off with plenty of wind in his sails by choosing great songs to record and the right combination of players to make the magic happen. This project was truly an international effort as Casper had gathered the forces of a Russian from Poland, a Polish songwriter from England, a British writer from London, an Austrian from Los Angeles, a rhythm section from Holland and one of the best singers I’ve worked with in years. Lock the doors and get the coffee going. This was going to be more fun than a pick up game at the Fourth Street cage in the Village. Lille was a dream to work with. Many singers can be temperamental, moody or demanding. Lille was all of these but in a very unique way. Where some singer’s moods or demands are driven by insecurity, inability or lack of preparation, Lille took full responsibility and her demands were only of herself. And where some singers might hit the wall of their endurance or storm out of the room blaming it all on the headphone mix or the color of the pop filter, Lille forced every mood directly through the microphone and into her vocal performance for upwards of eight hours at a stretch. The main focus of my involvement was in creating authentic and sincere vocal performances with a singer in English as a second and sometimes third language. Regrettably, I only know how to say “Goddammit” “Two Beers” and “Screwing in the kitchen” in the Dutch language but Lille and I were able to work together in German as well as English. I find sincerity to be the most attractive element of any vocal performance and this must be based on not only a thorough understanding but also a convincing belief in the lyrical content of a song. Whenever studio rats get gather in the temple of sound they follow a timeless ritual. Everyone let’s everyone else know who they know, which new plug-ins they use, choice of recording software, past, present and future drug, alcohol and gambling profile and whatever other factoids seem pertinent to the session. It’s just a bit of canine butt-sniffing really, but it serves to lubricate the initial get-to-know-you period better than passing out resumes. We already knew each other via the internet so the circle sniff was just a bit if handshaking and joke telling. Before I hit the pillow that first night I felt warmly sniffed into the pack. My second day in Holland Lille and I went to work in earnest. As we went line by line dissecting the finer points of pronunciation we also discussed the inner meaning of every phrase. Sometimes when writers create in a foreign language they might say something that makes perfect literal sense but loses symbolic meaning or poetic value in the translation. There were a few corners to smooth over in this department and we changed a few words or phrases to insure that Lille was portraying the feeling behind the meaning with belief, conviction and precision. I had initially thought to coach Lille into a strictly American pronunciation but her delivery has a certain international charm which we certainly did not want to lose. So we concentrated on clarity and those areas where letter sounds differ between Dutch, German and English while retaining the feel and passion which went into the original demos of the songs. On a technical level, most problems arise when losing the distinction between voiced and un-voiced consonants. Using the word “Love” as an example, the ‘V’ must have pitch. Dutch and German speakers pronounce the word as “Luff” because their ‘V’ is our ‘F’ and so “Live” becomes “Life” and “Very” becomes “Fairy.” Another pitfall is the American ‘TH’ sound which doesn’t exist in many European languages. To make the sound one must extend the tip of the tongue between the teeth and blow out a puff of air. Euros tend to replace the ‘TH’ with either the hard ‘D’ or the sibilants ‘Z’ or ‘S’ as in “Vaht do you Sink about ziss.” And, as the sentence indicates, even our ‘S’ sound has voiced and un-voiced versions as does the ‘TH’…hear the difference between “This” and “Think” “What’s” and “Was.” And then there is our ‘W’ which is their ‘V’…so our “Was” would be pronounced “Vass” two corrections for the price of one on that one. The key was to make the corrections seem effortless and allow the vocal performance to be driven by Lille’s amazing sense of phrasing. As I got to know her day by day I learned that Lille is fierce when it comes to learning new things. She was hell-bent on mastering whatever I suggested and made notes on the lyric sheets, wrote on the leg of her jeans, pounded the table and repeated the ‘TH’ sound until I had to cover my coffee cup. But I didn’t want her to obsess so the best and most efficient learning came through simple conversation. We decided that when in the studio we would speak only English and I would try to catch and correct every mispronunciation as it happened. There are many structured exercises aimed at engaging the diaphragmatic-intercostal musculature but none is more efficient than uncontrolled laughter. Being among new friends gave me a fresh audience for the jokes that elicit groans from my stateside friends and I took full advantage. Teaching the jokes to Lille was also a way to practice Americanized idiomatic pronunciation. What seemed to be breaks in the work were actually quite useful and her delivery of the songs as well as her complete understanding of the intent behind them improved at a fast clip. Two weeks later my job was done and Lille dropped me at the airport where she had first found me. We were in the studio every day and the two weeks seemed like one long session. Working with Casper, Kostek, Dick Kemper and especially Lille had made the time go much too quickly and on the Los Angeles bound flight I wished that we had been making a double album. The musicians played their asses off, Lille sang her ass off, Dick engineered his ass off and now my ass was off for home. Traveling Girl will be available online and represents the hard work of very talented people from all corners of the globe (yes, I know that the globe doesn’t have corners, just go with me on that one). It was a ton of fun to be involved with the project, the music and, most importantly, the people. I hope you all enjoy it. This post is taken from Pete Strobl's blog on www.petestrobl.com