Interview: Dan Emery & Matt Heckler Talk About The Magnolia Sessions
Over the past few months regular readers of The Shaman will know we’ve become huge fans of The Magnolia Sessions. The stripped back and raw outdoor live recordings focusing on folk, country, bluegrass and Americana have been somewhat of a revelation that we wait with bated breath for the first Friday of the month to see what the next instalment will bring.
With the imminent release of the tenth session, intrigued to know more, Neddal fired some questions over to the mastermind, and sound engineer extraordinaire behind these sessions, Dan Emery, who records, mixes, and masters the recordings through his Black Matter Mastering setup, then releases them via his own label Anti-Corp Music. He also managed to get Matt Heckler involved, who released the very first The Magnolia Sessions way back in September 2020.
Can you tell me about the genesis of The Magnolia Sessions?
The idea came to me as I was doing mindless yard work. I get a lot of ideas while I’m doing menial things, like washing the dishes. Not all of these ideas are good. In fact most of them are probably pretty terrible, but I have been known to chase down wild concepts until I either feel like I’ve accomplished something or my wife tells me to stop. Ha. She hasn’t told me to knock it off with this one just yet, so who knows, I may be on to something here.
How did you decide on who to approach?
For the first round of artists, I stuck with people in my circle, and they suggested some artists that I wasn’t aware of yet for the most part. It was all very organic. Everyone that I approached either agreed to do it or wanted to do one down the line. It was all very high speed with the first round. It was already late summer when I thought of the project and had to really pull some strings to get some of the artists here. I’m in the process of starting Year Two, and it’s a bit easier. Along with there being more time to plan around some of the artist’s travel plans, a lot of the artists I’m approaching are already familiar with the project, and I’m finding myself not having to explain the entire concept or pledge an oath that won’t be a huge waste of their time.
There aren’t many rules to the sessions, but there is a clear, unspoken ‘no electric instruments allowed’ clause…
The intimate, sparse production really suits the music. Was that something you’d planned from the outset?
I really just like torturing musicians by making them play in the dark, outside, during the hottest part of the year while getting eaten alive by mosquitos. Kidding. I had briefly flirted with the idea of recording someone outside to capture the ambiance, but it was just something that I put in the back of my mind. Then one day I was toying with the idea and really decided to go all in on it and make a whole series of albums based around it. The sparse production is essential. Too much excess would ruin the vibe. There aren’t many rules to the sessions, but there is a clear, unspoken ‘no electric instruments allowed’ clause.
You mentioned that you used a binaural mannequin mic set up for ambience on the recordings. Can you tell me a bit about it?
I had played around with one back in 2002ish when I was in community college. It really stuck with me and all these years later, I still wanted to find an excuse to use one. They are very expensive to buy, so I built mine. While it may not be an $8k Neumann, it still sounds remarkably clear. One of the most important parts that people who build them sometimes miss, is that it needs a torso. Otherwise, the sound won’t reflect properly, and you may get your up and down confused while listening to the recordings. There’s nothing worse than being a disembodied head floating around, and not knowing if the fucking airplane is above you, or if you’re above it. I hate when that happens.
The songs happen in the moment…
How does your work as a mastering engineer inform your recording process?
I started out as a recording engineer, so this is just an excuse to keep the chops up while not having to make too many huge commitments. I still occasionally record, but not nearly as much as I used to, or as much as I master, for that point. This style of recording is pretty laid back. There is really no deep editing involved. The songs happen in the moment. Mistakes are left in. Aside from some tonal adjustments and fighting with phasing issues, it’s really not so bad. Those are things I have to pay attention to in mastering anyway, so it’s got more similarities than differences, I suppose.
The Magnolia Sessions have been really well received. Are there plans to keep it going? Or to possibly do a second set of sessions?
Yeah, I feel like now that it’s starting to get its legs, a lot of artists that I really like are taking interest. So, I’ll probably keep it going for a while. Like I said, I’m in the process of laying out Year 2. I’m not going to name any names just yet, but it’s gonna be a stellar year. I’m very excited.
I basically only do records for artists that I’m personally into…
Anti-Corp has a fairly eclectic roster… dark country, hardcore, hip hop, but it all flows. How do you maintain that consistency of vision?
I basically only do records for artists that I’m personally into. I don’t really go out seeking things just because it will sell. Sure, I like not losing my ass on every release, so I can’t put out everything that crosses my desk, but if something strikes a nerve with me, I’ll take a chance. There are some consistent themes with the titles I release. I definitely don’t listen to too much happy music. I like stuff that’s weird and unpredictable. I also love stuff that can just move you mentally. Art is a journey, and if you’re only looking at it and analyzing it, and not having it completely transport you to another place, then I think you’re missing an awesome opportunity. Get vulnerable, let art fuck up your emotional state.
And now its over to Matt Hecker…
What prompted you to take part in the Magnolia Sessions?
I had been trying to do a simple field recording album of just my fiddle (Old Red) and I for about a year. I kept running into issues with the equipment I had and was about to give up on the idea when Dan asked me to do a Magnolia Session.
What’s your favourite track from your session? Can you tell me a bit about it? The story behind the song?
Whew, that is a tough one. Old Rub Alcohol Blues was the first clawhammer banjo song I learned about 15 years ago and I still play it to this day if that says anything. Going Across The Sea I first heard in The Cobblestone pub in Dublin. There was a session going on and they were playing American old time, and eventually played this tune. I couldn’t remember the words so I had to come up with some of my own, but this was the general melody of the song. That might be my favorite song on this album just because I have such fond memories from when I first heard it.
What’s next for you?
Well, I’m gonna get back to touring and someday I may learn how to play the fiddle.
Anti-Corp Music: Official | Facebook | Instagram
Black Matter Mastering: Official | Facebook | Twitter | Instagram
Matt Heckler: Official | Facebook | Bandcamp | Instagram
Interviewed by: Neddal Ayad