Merryn Jeann on using documentary-like videos collages of voice memos to make DOG BEACH

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Merryn Jeann on using documentary-like videos collages of voice memos to make DOG BEACH

Words by Lewis Noke Edwards

Collaborating with producer Rob Ellis (PJ Harvey, Nick Cave, Marianne Faithfull, Anna Calvi and Torres), the two set out to make something to push the envelope, resulting in Merryn's debut DOG BEACH.

Merryn Jeann is, for lack of a better word, and artist. Combining visuals and sonics into one melting pot of influence, she brings together a new perspective on songwriting and arrangement, all tied together with a profoundly unique, story-teller style. Beginning with a collage of sounds and textures, Merryn Jeann compiled it all into an introspective body of work.

Merryn, congrats on the release of DOG BEACH! Production and arrangement wise there’s a lot going on, how does a song usually begin for you?

Hey! Thank you!

Hmmm it depends if I’m working on songwriting or more experimental soundscapes.

Songwriting for this album was predominantly completed on the drum machine on my Charlie Armon Gracie 70’s Italian synth organ and an upright piano or my beloved 1969 Vox Typhoon guitar. The soundscapes that I make for experimental documentary-like videos are collages of voice memos I just sift through when I’ve decided to make something and one by one I let them tell me a story and then the images take shape around the music. I believe the outro of “Talking to Angels” was made kind of like this, then run through a broken, wobbly tape cassette machine.

Merrynn Jeann

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Working with Rob Ellis must have been an experience. How did he become involved?

Yeah, it was fresh AF. We got in touch via our friend Stephen Munson (SPACEMAN) who’s an artist we work with on my label Rescue + Return Records. Stephen had worked with Rob previously on an album by SWANN and when we were looking for a producer, he suggested Rob. I thought, ‘Ha good luck to me,’ but lo and behold he not only replied but said ‘yes’. He’d be embarrassed to read this as he’s quite the humble dude. 

Rob Ellis

And while it might seem obvious, why Rob Ellis specifically?

Musically, I felt to push the songs into a bigger sound, the one I was imagining whilst they were taking shape.  I was looking for that sort of production to be a classic British Pop/Indie/Rock sound. The PJ Harvey [and] Portishead era of music really really gets to me and to have the opportunity to work with Rob who was in the thick of music at this time meant that this sound could be pretty achievable. I wanted to work with someone who was a part of music from a time I wish I was a part of, it’s the time in music I feel like I should have been a part of haha it just makes more sense to me.

Was there a definitive end of songwriting, into pre-production, into recording timeline or did it all bleed together?

Hmmmm yes and no. I began writing the first songs about 3 years before we got into the studio. Once Rob and I got in touch about 6 months before getting into the studio, it was a pretty classic order of events. Lots of to-ing and fro-ing with demos for a while until we decided on the ones we would record. We recorded 12 but only 10 made it onto the album and the 13th song, that I believe would have been the best song on the album, didn’t make it in the end because I just couldn’t quite wrap my head around it in time to record it. So, once I took a moment out to accept that it wasn’t the song’s time, we went back to the demos to choose another which was in the last few days of a recording session at Middle Farm Studios. The song that didn’t make it is now the founding sound and intention of the next album.

Middle Farm Studios
Speaking of bleed, how was DOG BEACH recorded? Was the whole band in the room and vibing or did you do tracks individually and isolated? Something else entirely?

DOG BEACH began at VADA Studios. We began with musical bonding exercises Rob suggested we do this to get into a rhythm with each other. From what I remember, we were just singing weird notes together like a small foley choir, playing some of Ben’s instruments and percussion together, basically just making sounds and playing around. 

VADA Studios

We had about 5 weeks to get the album done, which at the beginning of the process felt like a fabulous long length of time but by the end of the first week, I realised that it really wasn’t at all haha, so we were trying to get through a song every couple of days. We recorded some songs together, notably “Subconscious Love Connections” at VADA and “Madame On The Rocks” . For “Subconscious Love Connections” we recorded the bones of the song live in the big cathedral room – drums, bass, guitar and piano. We really got into a groove, I could have done that for hours. We isolated a lot of things, vocals mostly but also used different rooms to capture dry or more cathedral reverb depending on the songs. The hardest vocal to do was “Present”, as it’s the most intimate song to me and I think Rob and I felt particularly precious about which vocal we’d use. It was definitely one of those ‘ah yep this is the one’ when we got the good take. Ben’s additions were all at VADA, mostly recorded live I believe except for the phonofiddle which was layered and layered and layered until the choir came out of it and we were in tears bathing in its beauty. “Talking to Angels” and “Nude in a Waterhole” we used the demo recordings for the foundations of what we put on top. Same with “Me B4 U”, we initially used the drum machine off my organ synth to float the rest of the track on top of it.

We understand you did all the visual accompaniments for the album – how did the visual and the music inform each other? 

Oh man due to my ADHD I just don’t know what my process is, it’s quite chaotic hahaha… lemme think.

The visuals come after but they are often made from footage I’ve taken years before. To create the idea of a video, I tend to scroll through the photos and videos and then let them tell me what the story is going to be. I’m not very attached to ideas and concepts so I like it this way. The images show me the story and I say ‘Alright let’s do it.’

Sometimes this works and sometimes this doesn’t but it’s the way I find works best for me.

As a closer, any magical moments during recording you can share? Maybe an accident that made its way onto the record? A fleeting moment of Merryn Jeann genius?

Woof, quite a few moments haha. I like to run with those moments the most, I’m a bit of a follower of Arthur Russell’s understanding of ‘First Thought, Best Thought’.

We were talking about new genres that hadn’t been created and got really excited about a drum and bass mash-up one late eve in the studio (at this point we all had COVID lol) and then we were like let’s do that in one of the songs which was kind of interpreted in “Nude in A Waterhole”. When Rob put the drum track down we were all laughing but very very into it. If I remember correctly, I don’t think he thought it would stick but it did and I’m glad. I’m excited to play it live. I think there are lots of different genres hidden in the drums on the album. The song may seem like a pop song but if you were to isolate the drums you’d be listening to a hip hop track.

Also, just most things that Ben Christophers brought to the studio were magical moments. Playing with that dude was such a gift. If you need someone who’s just very very curious and playful, who comes with lots of delicate, glittery vintage string instruments, Ben’s the dude for you.

The new Merryn Jeann album DOG BEACH is available now. Keep up with Merryn Jeann here.