Since arriving back in Malawi in January, I've gotten my head down and built up an entire studio. It started with a room in our flat, which is a really nice space to begin with, but then how to deaden the sound? How to capture a real clean take with no 'room' sound? We flew over a load of gear; mics, stands, and speakers when we moved as we knew we we wouldn't be able to find quality recording equipment once we arrived, but for the actual studio room I wanted to take a leaf out of the Malawian's book and work with whatever I could find, we are in Africa after all! Here they use plastic bags as shoes, sugar packets as book holders, and coke crates as stools; so I was inspired.
So I started by completely covering the walls with Chitenji, a traditional fabric worn by women used for dresses, wraps, head scarfs and baby carriers! And their colours are amazing; no matter where you go in Malawi, the locals are covered in them head to toe, it's just beautiful. I went to the factory on the outskirts of the city where the Chitenjis are made, and got to know the workers there when I kept coming back again and again... 'Annamaria, why you only take 7 pieces today, why not more?!' (in my best Malawian accent). Covering the walls sounds easy enough, but hanging them from the ceiling, not so much. Let's just say there were a few heated discussions as Andy and I jumped on chairs and each other's shoulders to try and get them up by hooks and string!
Once the Chitenji was up the room was sounding good, but not quite dead enough. So because you can't get treated studio materials here, the next best thing is foam, something that Malawi has in abundance. Foam is used for everything here, seats, cushions, mattresses, you name it, it's made out of foam. So Andy and I went to a huge shop right in the middle of town called 'Vista Foam' which - get this - has its own theme tune blasting out the speaking on the front steps.
After being shown around all shapes and sizes of foam piled up high, we went for three huge mattress sized high density pieces which we could turn into some kind of vocal booth. Sounds simple enough...
One thing I've found so amazing about Malawi is the locals and their skills. So at home, if you want new clothes you'd just head into a shop, because our country has been built up and that's brilliant. But here in Malawi things just aren't developed, which for some things is awful, but for other things is actually really nice; back to basics. The streets are lined with tailors, sat on the pavements with their sewing machines, and there are carpenter's workshops tucked away along the dirt tracks. If you want a new book case at home, you'd head to Ikea; but if you want a book case here, you find a good carpenter and have it made. You literally give them a picture and they make it, it's so great!
So in Blantyre, if you need anything, you head to Blantyre's Market, a huge hub of hundreds of people, wooden stalls, cooking pots sat on fires, spices, fruit and vegetables, music, chatter and every type of dodgy phone chargers you could imagine. It's one of those places that you have to see to believe, it's just amazing.
So we went in and found a carpenter... who didn't speak English. Now my Chichewa is coming on OK, but nowhere near good enough to try and explain what we wanted to do with these huge pieces of foam rolled up in the back of the truck. But the great thing with Malawi is no matter what the job; changing a tire, fixing a pipe, pushing a broken down car, you take the number of people actually needed for the job, and times it by atleast three. So by now we had the carpenter, and four more Malawians gathered round, and the group was growing fast! Fortunately one of them could speak English so we began translating to the carpenter what we'd like to do. Now, trying to explain that you'd like to fill your car up with petrol at a petrol station is hard work in Malawi, so trying to explain that we would like two free standing wooden frame built to hold pieces of foam to make a vocal booth was nightmare! We had note books out drawing sketches, people where acting out ideas... It was hilarious and the crowd and doubled in size.. . Half an hour later we'd finally decided that the best way to explain it was like a giant spice rack, but where the foam could be slotted down the middle, which from what we could tell seemed to make sense with the carpenter. So we measured up the foam, paid MK40,000 (about £37) and was told to come back on Thursday and they would be ready... who knows what we were going to get!
But when I arrived at the market two days later, and saw the stands, they were just perfect, I couldn't believe it! And the Malawians were so pleased, it was great! Check out the video below I took when we tested one of the frames with the foam for the first time!
It's just so great to have used locals in the making of the studio, and knowing the that money goes straight to them. But it works both ways; I love the feel of the space, I love it's made from things in Malawi, I love how the walls are covered in colour, I love how inspiring it is. I want to portray Malawi in as a many elements of this project as I can. I really do think it's as much about the feeling of the space as it is the music that's captured in it. When I started this project, my main focus was to write good songs and record them to the highest quality I could, but at the same time really capture the country. Having the chitenji on the walls while I'm recording just reminds me of where I am, and what an amazing opportunity I have; I never thought I'd get to write an album in a different country, let alone Africa!
So here I am a two weeks later after the studio with a finished take of one of my brand new songs, 'Size of The Sky'. It's been great to get used to the space and learn how best to approach recording here... all I need to do is dodge the power cuts and I'm there! Last Wednesday morning, I was finishing off the track and the power cut out half way though. And it didn't come back on until Sunday. Sooo frustrating! But hey, there's nothing you can do about it and it's all part of the experience. Although you may have an angry 'there's no power' inspired song on the album... haha! And the heat in the studio is unreal. I mean, it's hot anyway, but with all the walls covered in fabric and the foam stands, man, it's like a sauna!
This particular recording of 'Size of The Sky' isn't going to be used for the final album, it's just a bit of a tester to see how it's all working and how the room is sounding, but i'm so pleased with it, and I thought why not share it with you all as a bit of a idea of things to come and what i've been working on! Thanks so much if you've come here from the BBC Introducing segment on Saturday 4th March, or if you didn't catch the interview you can have a listen to 'Size of The Sky' here:
I really hope you've enjoyed reading this ramble from me, I just think sometimes it's so great to know a bit more about the journey rather than just the final product. There's so many stories behind this album and I'd love to share them with you!