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Nathan Angelo adopts old-school aesthetic to make his new album

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Since his preteen years, Nathan Angelo has been a fan of the golden age of Motown Records.

When he visited the Motown Museum last year, Angelo says his interest in the record company’s songs and studio sounds intensified to become full-blown inspiration: “I knew right then and there what I needed to do for my next project.”

That project is his new 12-song album, the R&B-flavored Out of the Blue, which Angelo recorded the way things were done at Motown in the 1960s: live in the studio to an analog tape machine.

The Greenville, S.C.-based musician recently recalled his visit to the Hitsville U.S.A. building in Detroit and its influence on him, the challenges of recording to tape and his plans for re-creating the sounds heard on Out of the Blue while on the road. Talk about your self-described pilgrimage to the Motown Museum in Detroit. What were some of the music-making techniques you learned from your visit there that you appropriated during the recording sessions for Out of the Blue?
Nathan Angelo: “In the spring of 2012, I was on tour with Drew Holcomb & the Neighbors. We had a show in Detroit, and then a day off. I had always wanted to visit the Motown Museum, so I planned it out for our day off. It was a crisp and gloomy day when my guitarist and I arrived at Motown. From the outside, it was as unassuming and unimpressive as I had imagined, but there was a totally different story that the interior of that house spoke of — a bright, colorful tale of men and women who were creating American pop music at its finest, combining classic songwriting with blues and jazz.

“One of my favorite things to see was the reverb chamber. The jubilant sound of Motown owes a lot to that reverb chamber from the embellishment of finger snaps to the majesty of the lead vocal. Also, the main tracking room was relatively small, and there were not many isolation booths. The entire band would track in the same room capturing that ‘live’ feel. They would see, smell and nearly touch each other while they were making records. Their closeness in proximity translates so well into their tightness as a band as they captured they energy of their performances. At that moment, I knew that I needed to make some significant changes to the way I recorded my next record.

After visiting the Motown Museum, did you immerse yourself in the music that was made there?
Angelo: “I began to revisit a number of the old Motown records that I was already very familiar with, but I began to listen with new ears to the tones and sounds, even more so than the songs. Years earlier, I had immersed myself in the music of that era. When I was 12, I began singing more in my dad’s church. A few hip parishioners told me that I sounded like Michael Jackson when he was young. So I picked up a copy of the Jackson 5’s greatest hits. I loved every minute of these honest, infectious yet imperfect recordings. After being enamored with the VH1 special on the Temptations while in middle school, I purchased the Temptations’ greatest hits. My older brother started listening to Stevie Wonder, so I did as well. I became terribly familiar with the songwriting, sound and aesthetic of Motown records and songs. Now I was listening from a more technical standpoint to unravel how they actually got those sounds. Now I had the clearest vision of what I wanted this project to sound like than I ever have for a recording project.”

Prior to Out of the Blue, had you ever recorded an album to two-inch tape?
Angelo:Out of the Blue was the first record that I’ve ever recorded analog to two-inch tape. We were not sure if we were going to be able to make it happen, but the producer, James Gregory, reached out to Quad Studios [in Nashville, Tenn.] and inquired about the two-inch tape machine in their Neve room. They said that they had recently cleaned and reset the machine, so it was in tip-top working condition.

“There are definitely limitations and challenges to recording analog to a tape machine. Each song was essentially an entire take down with piano, bass, drums, congas, guitar and keys. So we had to get it right at the same time. This forced us to listen to each other and play well together. It also helped us to capture the ‘magic’ of the live performance. In the past, I’ve had fans say that my live show has more energy than my recordings. I wanted to capture this energy on tape, literally. Sometimes when you know you can go back over something, you experiment and try different things you might not have, which can be good, but when you have the pressure of getting it right on a full take, you often simplify and focus more on locking in to a part and playing together rather than focusing too much on what you are personally playing.
“It helped as well that we had top-notch studio musicians who joined the producer, who played bass, and me on piano during the sessions.”

Did you totally avoid using modern-day studio equipment while at Quad Studios?
Angelo: “No, we didn’t totally avoid all modern-day studio equipment. For instance, after we recorded to tape, we imported the sessions into Pro Tools. We did overdubs after the two days of the bulk of the recording was finished — horns, strings, additional keys and vocals — although we did not manipulate the initial tracks very much at all. Engineers and producers will often use programs like beat-detective to ‘lock’ the drums to a grid and Auto-Tune/Melodyne to tune vocals. I was strongly opposed to using either of these programs on this record, so we didn’t!”

What’s your plan for touring behind Out of the Blue? Will you have any horn or string players onstage to cover those parts in the songs?
Angelo: “For the majority of the Out of the Blue tour, I will be touring with a four-piece band: keys, guitar, bass and drums. On the Atlanta and Nashville shows, we will have a three-piece horn section — trumpet, trombone, baritone/tenor sax —joining our band. If I could take out a 10-piece band with additional percussion, a second keyboardist and backing vocals for every show, I would. I just can’t afford it at this stage in my career. Hopefully, someday soon.”

— By Chris M. Junior

Nathan Angelo on tour (schedule subject to change):

* Sept. 12: Tin Roof — Columbia, S.C.
* Sept. 13: The Windjammer — Isle of Palms, S.C.
* Sept. 14: Smith’s Ode Bar — Atlanta
* Sept. 18: 40 Watt Club — Athens, Ga.
* Sept. 20: The Channel — Greenville, S.C.
* Sept. 21: Evening Muse — Charlotte, N.C.
* Sept. 22: Pour House Music Hall — Raleigh, N.C.
* Sept. 23: Jammin’ Java — Vienna, Va.
* Sept. 25: The Middle East — Cambridge, Mass.
* Sept. 27: The Living Room — New York
* Sept. 28: Club Café – Pittsburgh
* Sept. 30: Skully’s Music Diner — Columbus, Ohio
* Oct. 1: Birdy’s — Indianapolis
* Oct. 2: The Elbo Room, Chicago
* Oct. 24: Rhythm & Brews — Chattanooga, Tenn.
* Oct. 25: 3rd & Lindsley — Nashville, Tenn.
* Nov. 1: Lestats, San Diego
* Nov. 3: Hotel Utah — San Francisco