Isaac Vallentin: Hedera

Tags
Music
Author
Graham LeBron
Date
07 15, 2015

Hedera is the debut album by Isaac VallentinSelf-released on June 26, 2015, it was written, recorded and produced by Vallentin at home.

It is a superb mix of electronics, acoustics, ambience, and emotion. Beautifully sequenced and impeccably recorded, it is everything I look for in a record.

The marks of an excellent producer and songwriter are evident throughout. The right things are blown out and the right things are clean -- the mix is immaculate in that respect.

A blend of sounds old and new, rough and smooth, blurred and clear. If it is all uniform, it is easy to see through. It leaves nothing to find and explore.

I prefer albums that aren't laid out for me, that warrant and reward repeat listening. It is how I could listen to this one several times a day for 2 weeks while traveling across the United States in a moving truck.

Hedera is perfect in its flaws, just like a classic album should be.

One important mark of an excellent producer, especially one that is self producing, is to know when an album is done and it is time to let go. Regardless of how long it takes, the authors likely will always hear what could have been done better. In most casese, it is doubtful anyone would even notice, even if things were pointed out to them

Kevin Parker of Tame Impala remarked that he had a hard time finishing his most recent album, CurrentsEven saying in an interview that "I still think this album is completely unlistenable."

I think most folks would disagree

Isaac spent about a year on his first album, and that seems like just the right amount. He knew when to let it go and live with the flaws. They make it unique.

This album also shows greatness because it inspired me to make more music. It upped the ante and made me want to do better. To try new things and push myself again. What a great thing for music to be able to do.

Honestly, it is the first record this year that has blown me away, a complete surprise. His voice is beautiful and moving. The tone is a lovely melancholy major. 

It reminds me of some of my favorite records by Chad VanGaalen, Jim O'Rourke, Nicolas Jaar, and The Sea & Cake. There is so much going on here and yet there is still so much space. 

Starting out with Cloud of Smoke, the sparse electric guitar is soon joined by an honest baritone voice, eventually, Eno-like synths begin creeping in as it builds. The hiss and buzz from the guitar amp is audible and the lyrics read like poetry.

Like a cloud of smoke hangs in the air, I float above your bed until you wake up. 

I picked us some fruit we could eat in the morning; I’ll break off your glasses if you resist. 

Hold out my eyes in front of your hands, wash them out in burgundy. It’s incredible that we do this so often; I’m starting to forget my voice.

By the time the snare drum comes like a machine gun at the end, I'm sold. 

After several listens, every song feels special to me. I love the lyrics on "Distance, Time" of course:

Distance is pure, but the waves are golden. 

Distance is pure, but I can see you lying out.

Distance is pure, but I can’t hold it in. You know time? You tell me time. 

Distance, time? You tell me time’s enough if we don’t wait, and we are golden.

On the epic "Garden Pt. 2. (Yellow Ire) the acoustic strum almost gets too loud towards the end, but I can't turn it down because it is perfect. It needs to be that loud to elicit the response. It also means the record was mastered well. With most records these days, those kinds of dynamics would be lost, squashed with compressors and limiters, so that everything is as loud as everything else. But this album breathes, and that loud strum leads perfectly into the electro groove of "Selena," where most of the percussion sounds were created with samples of fax machines, pagers, old printers, and rotary phones. It reminds me of the electronic music I was getting into in the 90s by Orbital, 808 State and Ultramarine. The vocal sample has a great sentiment as well.

I have learned how to live: how to be in the world and of the world, not just to stand aside and watch. 

I will never ever again run away from life.

Now, here is the best part about discovering this album. Because I write about music, I get a decent amount of emails from folks asking me to write about them.

Most of the time, they haven't spent time on the site or tried to understand what it is I'm trying to accomplish. They just found another blog that might write about them. Which is fine, but not what I'm about.

Isaac wrote to me because he had been reading. Because he knew records I had worked on in the past and had been turned on to things that I've curated.

It's a simple start to a wonderful conversation.

Isaac wrote:

"I'm a musician based in Ottawa, Canada. I've really been digging your curation, you've introduced me to some great stuff and I owe thanks. I'm tripping on the new Tame Impala stuff -- the production is insane and the songwriting/arrangement is pure pop. Damn.

I also really enjoy all of the stuff you've done over the years. Descended Like Vultures was big for me when it was happening, and Golden Gram is a ton of fun.

I've been working on a record for the last year. It's finally out, and I told myself throughout production that'd I'd ask you for your thoughts on it. You can listen to it here. I did everything except mastering, so any feedback from the songwriting to the mix is appreciated.

Thanks man. Take care,

Isaac"

That is how you do it. I was really hoping I would actually like his music. I didn't have to worry about that. Halfway through listening I was already writing back, even though I was in the middle of trying to pack and leave for a cross country journey. Such is life. I responded:

"Isaac,

Holy crap! This album is perfect. It is right up my alley, it is kind of hard to believe you just randomly sent this to me.

If you told me this was the new hot shit guy on Sub Pop or Secretly Canadian, I wouldn't bat an eye. Your voice is great, the production is immaculate, I love the electronics, and great songs too? jeez.

Honestly, I'm blown away. Now, that I have listened as a fan, I will spend some time and see if there is anything I could comment on, but right now, I'm still kind of in awe of it.

Did you really do this all yourself? Have you been making music for a while?

I'm in a frenzy of packing and loading and moving the office I work in. I'm driving all the equipment to Raleigh, NC starting tomorrow. Then I fly to Montana to DJ Pat from Rogue Wave's wedding. It is going to be a crazy 2 weeks.

So I don't have a ton of time to talk about this, but let's definitely stay in touch. I'm going to be listening to this on these long drives coming up for sure.

Thank you so much for sending! Most of what I get is crap from people who didn't even take the time to look at the site, or don't know anything about it or me and just want me to write about their shitty band. Personal spam, essentially.

So thanks for taking the time and congrats, you made a phenomenal album.

Cheers!

Graham"

Since he contacted me, I've become fascinated and intrigued by his aesthetic and process. Fortunately, he has been nothing but gracious in our correspondence and has continued to answer all of my specific questions honestly and thoughtfully.

Here is what I have learned thus far.

Isaac lives in Ottawa, the capital of Canada, where he makes his music, he is a graphic designer for LOG Creative Bureau.

He has been producing music since his teens, starting with a 2 track cassette recorder, then moving to Logic when he was 15 or so. 

In addition to helming all aspects of music outside of mastering (smart man), Isaac also designed the album art and directed the music video.

"It's my first real record. I've been self-producing little things since I was like 13 (I'm 21 now), and I played in a band called Pony Girl for the last couple years, which yielded one record. I helped with some writing and engineering on that one, but I was primarily a guitarist/backup vocalist."

Through our email conversations, I've learned that we have similar ways of creating. A sort of combination of "if you want it done right, do it yourself" and "I bet I could do that."

He is also quite well spoken, upon first hearing it, I mentioned on twitter that:

"I haven't felt this way about a record since I first heard Chad Van Gaalen's debut album, Inifiniheart."

It isn't that it sounds like it, but there is a tone and emotional quality that is kindred.

Besides the fact that Chad is also one of those incredibly talented folks who just ends up doing things himself and achieving amazing results. I had to know more.

He responded thusly:

"On Hedera, I did everything myself except for the master. It's not perfect, but I think doing something is the only way I can learn it, and I was curious to learn more about production and engineering. I like integrating those schools of thought into writing and arranging, I think it results in something more personal or cohesive -- it's funny you mentioned Chad VanGaalen on Twitter, because that guy is such a huge role model for me. His records aren't perfect, but the imperfection reveals his personality, and I think that's why I love his albums so much. Also, the fact that he creates the accompanying visual components is a big inspiration too. I had as much fun designing the record as I did writing the songs (my other passion is design, logcb.com), and I've been challenging myself to make music videos for a few tracks as well. The first video, Stewardess, is done and I'm onto shooting I Will Be Water, and storyboarding Screaming Light."

Isaac is an autodidact in the truest sense of the word.

He has no formal training in art, music, design, audio, or video engineering, yet he excels at each.

He pays attention and he learns. These are dying artforms in our time.

As we continued to correspond, I probed to see how he'd gone about writing all these gems and found again, that we had a similar aesthetic, even using many of the same tools and composition methods.

Isaac:

"Some songs were written as words first, with music added later (Cloud of Smoke, Stewardess, Hindsight, I Will Be Water, Screaming Light), and some songs were written as an improvised outburst (Garden I and II, Distance Time). Those songs were really strange, I just sat down and played them and they were done.

Each of the songs was arranged for voice and acoustic guitar, for like three months I sat at my bedroom window and played them all on repeat.

I then recorded each of the songs (voice and guitar) into Ableton as demos. From there, I would mult-track ideas for other instruments with the guitar.

Once I had an idea of each song's role, I began restructuring the instrumentation, adding synths and samples. Some of them ended up way different than the original demo (Distance, Time is super far out, Stewardess, IWBW), and some of them stayed pretty well the same (Garden II, Hindsight, Screaming Light).

At that point, it was just refining and refining. I re-did some of my vocal takes, but Fake Harp and Garden I are the the demo vocals. Hindsight and Screaming Light I re-tracked live off the floor so I could get a better coherency between the guitar and vocals.

All of the samples were recorded on my iPhone, all of the electronic drum sounds are modified 808 and 909 sounds from an old MPC1000, and I programmed all of the synths with a friend's Prophet 5.

For plugins, I used a lot of PSP Audioware stuff. Their Vintage Warmer is on a lot of samples, their PianoVerb2 is on a lot of the guitar, their EasyVerb and Lexicon 42 are on pretty much all of the vocals in some way. I used the Ableton stock compressor for everything and just tweaked the heck out of it. I also used some Soundtoys stuff: their Decapitator a bit in Garden I, and their Crystallizer in Hindsight.

Once all that was taken care of, I spent a week in my living room with a set of monitors and put everything in it's place for levels. I'd done 90% of the mix and placement in an old pair of headphones, so not a whole lot changed. Getting the vocal and bass levels right was the hardest part, and having let go of the record for a bit, I can already hear all sorts of mistakes! Next time I'll get it better."

Next time I'll get it better. That's exactly the right attitude to have. Just keep moving forward and creating. Would you rather look back on several flawed albums in a few years or one record, still flawed, that you agonized over for the same amount of time?

To each their own I suppose. I wondered if he'd grown up playing an instrument or studying from a young age, like Andrew Bird and his violin. That might explain the virtuosity, perhaps.

Graham: Have you had musical training?

Isaac: Nope, just self taught. Hacking my way through life.

Graham: wow. good to know. that is impressive. though, a lot of times I've seen the training hinder creativity.

Isaac: It's a double edged sword! In composition and writing it's great, there are no wrong answers. In improvised jamming or session work, I'm less equipped than my trained peers.

His lack of training seems like such a strength to me. After getting a music degree, I spent a good amount of time recording and playing in bands trying to unlearn the rules and "correct ways" of doing things.

I was happy to have the skills, but found it kept me from trying new things and being creative. I remember realizing it in a rehearsal one day when I told a bandmate we couldn't play it that way because it wasn't correct musically. Soon after, I came to understand that if it sounds good, it is good.

Isaac is able to keep that portal open to direct songwriting. Where you can pick up a guitar with an idea and it just comes out, and if you are recording, that's the song. There's no edit, there's no preconceived notion, it just flows out of you. It is the purest process and it feels great when it works because most of the time it does not. And that is fine and normal, but those moments when you capture it, it feels cosmic, like being connected to the greater consciousness. That you were able to channel this pure thing coming out of you without thought. No perception or conception or judgement, you've just created.

Isaac Vallentin is a young rare gem and I plan to keep an eye on him for years to come. Buy the album here, I doubt you'll be disappointed if you've read this far.

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