Luke Elliot’s wonderful album Dressed for the Occasion dropped this past August and the singer/songwriter/pianist already has another collection of songs ready to record.
Dressed came together serendipitously. After playing a gig in Oslo, Norway, Elliot was approached by a seemingly random concertgoer, who asked if Elliot wanted to record an album in his studio. Elliot said, “I don’t have any money.” But the stranger answered, “I didn’t ask you that. I asked you if you want to make a record.”
Before long, Elliot found himself in a beautifully equipped studio called Athletic Sound in Halden, Norway, a couple of hours south of Oslo. And with the help of producer/engineer John Agnello (Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., Kurt Vile), Elliot and band made an impressive album that often echoes the gothic beauty and mystery of Nick Cave’s arrangements, but sung in a warmer tone.
Keyboard spoke with Elliot before the holidays, as he was looking forward to go back into the studio.
What’s your songwriting process like?
I work in a couple different studios: one in Norway and one in New York. They’re very simple. It’s just me and a piano.
Do you carve out dedicated time and say, “I’m going to write today”?
Yes, absolutely. I try to set times on certain days per week.
What do you use to capture your ideas?
I’m untechnological. I just record onto my phone. I end up with hundreds and hundreds of recordings that I then have to sift through. I star the ones I particularly like. If I’m recording ideas with others, then we’ll often use Pro Tools, but mainly I do things the same way I did when I was 13 years old with a tape recorder.
Do you always compose at the piano?
Sometimes it happens with a guitar, but an idea has to really strike me to get me to write with a guitar. Most things happen for me at the piano.
Did you take lessons as a kid?
Yeah, I took lessons once a week from age 8 to 13. I had an idea of discipline from taking lessons and having to practice when I was little, but most things I learned on my own.
Do you play any keyboards other than piano?
No. I have a Korg Grandstage for when I’m on tour with a band, but I just use it for portable piano sounds. Occasionally I’ll press something for organ and I’ll realize I better just bring in an organ player. I should stick to the piano.
What is Athletic Sound like? How did you end up choosing that location to make your record?
We didn’t really choose it. It chose us. It was probably only the third show I was doing in Norway when this guy asks if I want to make a studio album. So we went to his studio and it was a dream. They had apartments upstairs, and it was all analog. They had a Bösendorfer piano, and it was an incredibly beautiful place. I thought it was going to be a laptop-and-keyboard setup. I had no idea.
How did John Agnello end up getting involved?
A friend that I grew up with was working a day job where she’d become friends with a girl whose dad is John Agnello. I was working on an EP and I asked my friend if she could get it to him. She said, “I don’t know if he’ll listen to it, but I’ll give it to him anyway.” He called me that night and said he loved it.
It was really just the boost I needed at the time. We’ve become very close, and now we’re talking about the next record and the next set of songs.
I read that you cut a lot of the tracks live. Did that include your piano and vocals?
We tried to do as much live as possible. We wanted an authentic feel to it, as raw and organic as we could make it. There’s always something you have to go back and edit, but it’s those recordings you get live that really make the record and make the song.
When you’re recording, do you like to play while you sing?
I do, as much as I can, as long as there’s not too much bleed. I like bleed. I enjoy having vocals bleed into the piano or the guitar, so if we can get away with it, that’s my preference.
What was a typical day like when you were recording?
We tried to complete a song a day in the studio if we could. I’d get to the studio and John would already be mixing from the day before. I’d have a cigarette and a cup of coffee, and we worked 10 hours a day for a couple of weeks—just constant work, laying down musicians’ parts, making sure they were refined, doing vocal takes or piano, or we’d be jotting down notes while we were looking over the lyrics. Then we’d go out and have a beer, and then get up and do it all over again. It was really an intense process.
It must have been amazing to go from not really planning to make a record to doing something so intense and purposeful.
Yeah, and I’m glad it happened that way. I think it set the tone for how we’ll be making records in the future.
What does John bring to your music-making the process?
John is a workhorse. He is also the best engineer I’ve ever met. His attention to detail is uncanny: every little sound, how he goes about it, culling these gems out of riffs—it’s really something. If he gets an idea in his head, he doesn’t stop until it’s realized.
Do you record with the same musicians you perform with live?
I use different backing bands, depending on people’s availability. When I’m in Europe I use a different band from when I’m in New York. I’m going to Australia in March and I’ll use an entirely different set of people.
That means that the songs you recorded for the album were probably pretty new to the musicians.
I think there’s a lot of beauty comes out when you don’t have things too planned and you go at it for the first time, and if we can capture that on tape, it tends to make a great record.