Riptide is the brand new Robert Palmer album and the reason for him sharing his views with International Musician. In addition to some astonishing sounds the album's biggest boast is the quality of the vocal.
"I really concentrated very hard on my voice for this album," admits Palmer in an accent somewhere between Batley and Bryan Ferry." I spent 18 months experimenting at home. Developing my baritone. Sort of choosing tunes to sing like You're My Thrirll the Billie Holliday song, Autumn Leaves, to work on vibrato and control. Then I really worked hard on my falsetto. Working in the right keys because with falsetto, if you're not in the right key you don't get any volume behind the voice and you don't move the meters. It's all about finding the right register. I'd be working on a tune and then I'd shift up the harmonies to find out what range my falsetto was strongest in. My tenor is something I don't bother with too much because that's my natural voice. I can't practise it at home simply because it's so loud it annoys the family. It would certainly annoy the neighbours if I had any. There's a lot of physical discipline in constantly singing tenor so it was very interesting working out tunes in different registers because that way you can actually sing the harmonies that you hear in your head. I think the work I did on my baritone really paid off on the album and I attempted switching between all three at some points. You know that guy in Go West has got very good at that. (Sings) We CLOSE owowa eyes. He's very good. He kills me. A wonderful piece of singing."
Apart from a technically adept voice. Palmer also has a very strong line in phrasing. He often sings like a musician would play a solo. The vocal phrasing on Discipline Of Love off Riptide sounds very similar to a Jimi Hendrix guitar pattern.
"I think I see what you mean," he says intensely, "I guess it does. I very often write a song based on the vocal phrasing. I'm extremely interested in counter rhythms. In a lot of popular music the rhythm section produces the rhythm and that's all you get but I very much like to sing against the rhythm section. Really make them work... get some torque into it. Some tension. Pull off. Make it kick. Loosen it. Tighten it... I really love rhythm. The essence of all things musical. It's very funny if you sing straight across a rhythm section or if you hang back way late. They wait for you. They slow down. That used to frustrate me a lot when I was in groups."
But Robert Palmer isn't in groups any more. He's now in the enviable position of hand-picking musicians to translate his ideas onto vinyl.
"Obviously I wouldn't pick a great guy who couldn't play," he replies, "they have to be able to do it. The musicians? Tony Thompson played on half the tracks. Busy? Not at all — he plays all the way through. But I've heard him when he's been playing busily. He can get a bit hysterical during fills. Bass is mostly Gordon Edwards. Guitar is mostly Eddie Martinez; Steve Stevens who is an amazingly versatile guitarist played quite a few things. Andy Taylor played a few parts. Keyboards was mainly Wally Badarou. No, I haven't played anything myself. I haven't had to. "I did most of the vocals live and then did repairs and overdubs. Most of the tracks were played live as a band in the studio which was good to do again. A lot of air moving. A lot of sweat."
So presumably drum machines and sequencers weren't allowed in on the act?
"I've never used drum machines," he says firmly, "I used to use them at home. I've still got a souped up DMX but I never use them on record. No, I didn't like the drum machine on Sexual Healing. I liked the song but the drum machine had no soul. No matter how Funky something is if it has a drum machine on it you listen to the rhythm and there's nobody there. There's no character apart from programmed in character and you can get so much more from a drummer. I love the way a drummer changes gears without speeding up as he approaches a chorus or a bridge.
"I'm a lot more keen on sequencers. You're In My System was pretty well dominated by sequencer and that had a good feel. The track Want You More was virtually all sequencer apart from some very complicated string overdubs. The single off the album Discipline Of Love has got some PPG sequencer on it which helps the groove along nicely. Johnny And Mary was cut using a Wasp of all things. All they had was dih dih dih to work with. I built it up with some funny old Roland machine but then we put the drums on and the whole thing came to life. It's like when the drummer comes in in a dance band — people get up and dance. He gives the track personality."
Another highlight on Riptide, apart from the awesome vocal and drum sound, is Palmer's duet with Chaka Khan who, it transpires, gave him a run for his money in the volume stakes.
"She really did," he chuckles, "The harmonies between us worked very well too. They got pretty close at times. I did some on my own which were blocks of six part harmony and the counter blocks working across them. Some of the lead vocals I've done in three parts. That's something that's coming more naturally to me now, the harmonies are becoming naturally more intricate. I've been working with an engineer who records harmonies brilliantly. He almost records the voices like guitar strings. Some of them he makes you sing very heavily and thickly and other parts very light and reedy but when you put them all together the various tonalities all mesh together."
As Robert Palmer spoke his album was being mixed in New York. Why wasn't he there overlooking the work?
"No way," he grimaces, "I know what it's like to have somebody looking over your shoulder while you're mixing. I think my objective opinion at the end will be a lot more valuable. At present they're sending over eight bar sections by courier to London which is very easy to do because it's all on SSL. Then I get on the phone and say drop this in or out or alter bar four slightly."
So what did happen with The Power Station?
"Well that's what I'm telling you about." He grins. Cool bugger. "That's where the album is being mixed," he's laughing now and draining his glass, "produced by Bernard Edwards at The Power Station in New York."
Adrian Deevoy (International Musician & Recording World - Nov. 1985)