Stephen Hague on bringing Big Blue Ball to the finishing line

Peter approached me with the Big Blue Ball project hoping that I could sort through the piles of tracks, all in various stages of completion, and pull enough of it into focus to assemble a proper album.

I was given ruff-mix CDs of around 25 tracks, including alternate versions (some ‘songs’ were worked on over a few different Recording Weeks). From these I picked 12 or so I thought I could do something with. Richard Chappell then transferred all the original recordings over to digital format and sent them to my studio in Woodstock (New York), and I plunged in. Richard was there for all of the actual Recording Week sessions, did much of the engineering, and helped me keep in touch with the vibe and spirit of the collaborations as I tried to make some sense of the hours and hours of recordings.

I felt a bit like a prospector, sifting through finer and finer screens, trying to highlight the best elements of each track and all the individual performances.

‘Habibe’ started life as an 18 minute jam by Natacha Atlas and an amazing improvised string section over a drone and percussion track. I had a hard time coaxing it into any kind of shape until I introduced some chords to help support her melodies. Being a veteran of the pop wars, I can’t help but fall into a verse-chorus kind of arrangement. I asked Peter if I was straying too far from the original recording, but he liked what he was hearing and was very supportive, telling me he just wanted the best setting for the main performances, and to make a great record, wherever that led.

I spent about fives days on ‘Habibe’, and in the process set the tone for an overall approach to the album.

Habibe (featuring Natacha Atlas)

The original ‘Whole Thing’ was another fairly long-winded affair, a bit shapeless, but with a very strong melody. I knew there was a great Peter song lurking in there. After an initial shakedown, we re-recorded most of the vocals over the revamped structure and groove, and, as with most of the tracks, the final shape constantly evolved all the way through to the final mix.

The official video for 'Whole Thing', featuring scenes from the Recording Weeks at Real World Studios.

The tracks on Big Blue Ball featuring lead vocals by Peter often had incomplete lyrics.  As the new versions took shape he settled in to finish writing the songs, often building on snippets of lyrics from the early sessions.

‘Burn You Up, Burn You Down’ had complete choruses, but no words in the verses, for instance.  Joesph Arthur and Karl Wallinger also went back in, armed with hindsight and the revised backing tracks, and touched up some lyrics and vocals.

The Recording Week sessions were all about vibe and momentum and the buzz of having all that talent in one place for only a short time. Work on one song often led to the start of a new collaboration, and a brand new track became that evening’s focus. There ended up being a lot of loose ends. I had a great fun helping to pull it all together —very rewarding— even if every time I thought I knew what the forest looked like I’d run into another tree.

I’m especially pleased that now that the album is finally finished, everyone who was actually there for those magical sessions feels that the spirit of ‘the big blue ball’ is alive and well.

Special Offer

Big Blue Ball is now available in glorious 24bit/48kHz high resolution audio through the Real World Records Bandcamp store. Also, for a limited period, you can purchase the album on CD and vinyl in the Real World Store with a 30% discount.

Featured Release

  • Big Blue Ball

    Various Artists

    Released 26 July 2008

    Almost eighteen years in the making, Big Blue Ball grew from three extraordinary Recording Weeks at Real World Studios in the summers of 1991, 1992 and 1995. With Peter Gabriel and Karl Wallinger at the helm, the album features a huge cast of performers with a global reach.

By Stephen Hague

Stephen Hague is an American music producer who worked with some of the biggest acts of the 1980s and 90s, including New Order, The Petshop Boys and Marc Almond.

Published on Thu, 02 August 18

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