in the studio with: anonymous artist Stillwater Blackball

"Some records I love are recorded horribly, but the music is great, and the sound of them becomes a part of that magic."
15 August 2022

Elusive musician Stillwater Blackball returns with the groovy synth-fuelled banger Flesh and Blood. The track, which fuses p-funk vibes, Nile Rodgers guitars, and a huge chorus, takes an honest look at relationships in the online age.

“I got the idea when I found out my cousin’s life was falling apart around him, but online he made it look like he was living the dream,” Stillwater explains. “It made me feel this strange distance between us and made me realise how little we know about the people around us if everyone pretends they’re fine all the time. In the track I tried to cover the darker side of all that stuff, but dress it up as this big dancey synthy banger, to reflect that mindset of never admitting anything’s wrong.”

So who is Stillwater Blackball? Good question. We don’t really know, and it seems he likes it that way: “there’s so much noise today, so much you’ve got to do on top of just making music. It seems you have to sell yourself to sell your songs. That’s not me, I’m a quiet guy, so for a long time that held me back. Then I just decided to do it on my own terms”.

A touring musician by trade, Stillwater uses the time when he’s not on the road to hole himself up in his home studio (based in an unknown UK location) and bring his own music to life, playing and producing everything himself. It was only when he sent Flesh and Blood off to be mastered by Chris Chetland at Kog Studio, NZ that anyone else heard it. It seems to be a winning formula for the up-and-coming musician, who has huge tracks behind him and a bright future ahead. Flesh and Blood‘s music video comes out on August 19th. You can listen to the track below.

Stillwater has kindly joined us for this installment of our In the Studio interviews series, sharing some of his behind-the-scenes processes, tools, and insights. Keep reading to learn more!

How do you go about recording vocals/instruments/mixed instruments?

Experiment! Read up on what’s usually a good approach, maybe make that your starting point, but then just see what you like. My own take on this – and I know a lot of people wouldn’t agree with me – is that a totally clean, crystal clear-sounding recording is fine, but can be kind of boring. It’s not to say don’t do that if that’s your bag, and there’s loads of records I like that are that, but when I’m in my studio I’m usually looking for an interesting sound, something with a bit more grit to it. And sometimes that means something that technically sounds kind of “bad” – but if it’s right for the track, it’s right. Never put this in front of the art either. Some records I love are recorded horribly, but the music is great, and the sound of them becomes a part of that magic. Imagine Robert Johnson recordings that were totally clean and pristine, recorded on a beautifully set up guitar to 92khz .wav. It wouldn’t be the same.

What recording equipment do you have in your studio?

Nothing hugely fancy – a decent set of monitors, an interface I’ve had for probably 15 years, a bunch of mics, some synths, some fun 90s keyboards, a bunch of instruments, and a cassette player. The coffee maker is probably the most important thing.

How much time would you say you spend in your studio per week?

Usually about 3 hours less than I wish I could! I’m in the studio every day that I’m not on the road, but a good amount of the work I do (particularly the work that pays the bills) is for other musicians. And I’m into that and it’s good work – but I get really frustrated if I can’t find the time to work on the things I’m really excited about. I have a rule that I try and stick to which is that no matter how busy I am with other people’s projects, I’ll always fit in an hour on my own stuff every day. It can be tricky to stick to but I do my best! I also usually carve out one day in the week that’s just totally for my stuff – but that’s also often easier said than done…

Which DAW do you use and why?

I use Logic, mostly because that was the first one I ever got my hands on. I’ve been using it for so long now that anything else just feels weird. I try not to get too hung up on which DAW I’m using, because in theory you should be able to do the same or similar things in them all, but I guess they do have their individual strengths. I always liked how Logic works with MIDI, for example. Occasionally I get really excited about a style or an artist that generally uses a different DAW than I do, but every time I try and go and use that one, I end up spending hours working really slowly cause I don’t know it, and then, in the end, feeling like I could’ve done a better job in Logic anyway! I guess it’s that idea of a true craftsperson not blaming the tools, but the other way around – the craft isn’t in the tools, it’s in the craftsperson.

Do you have a favourite piece of gear?

I have an old three-head cassette player that I can send audio out of Logic into – that’s a lot of fun. Usually, I’ll use it to overload the tape a bit for a bit more of a hands-on saturation/distortion sound, but I have a few cassettes that I’ve frozen or screwed up or messed with to see how that can be used as an effect. It can be a bit hit and miss but it’s a lot of fun. Cassettes were the big thing when I was a kid so they’re kind of like vinyl to me.

What would you say are the three most important resources for an independent artist in 2022 (online or off)?

Good question… one would definitely be the crazy amount of music we have at our fingertips in 2022. I still remember when you’d own like 50 CDs, and that was it. That was all the music that you could listen to easily – and a handful of radio channels I guess. Now you can just invent a genre and look it up and see if it exists, and sometimes they do, and you can check it out. Or remember a song from when you were 8 and look it up and hear it 5 seconds later. That’s staggering.

Another would be how much cheaper it is to have a decent home studio set up. Once you’ve got a mic, a DAW, and a bit of know-how, you can really invest time in working out how you want to sound – experiment, layer stuff up, make mistakes, revisit stuff, remix stuff, etc., etc., etc.. It doesn’t always have to end up being pro quality or anything, even if it’s just in terms of demo-ing – for independent artists to have that powerful a tool is really something. It’s a big part of my musical identity, and it’s funny to think that 30 years ago, most people would have had had to convince a label that you were a worthwhile investment before you could get in a studio – the type of musician I am didn’t really exist 30 years ago I guess.

The last one would be whatever gets you inspired. This is different for everyone and not really a new thing. But just constantly doing music all the time can be pretty draining (I’ve been there), and also makes you kind of boring as an artist I guess (I’ve been there too). For me, spending a day outdoors going on a hike or a bike ride or something gets me creatively fired up, and the next time I sit down to make music there’s so much more there to draw on. So yeah, whatever makes you you – that’s what people want to listen to – nurture that.

What is your definition of success in music?

That’s a great question. Probably something like… feeling creatively satisfied whilst paying the bills, and keeping that in balance with your lifestyle (family, friends, time off, adventures etc.)