Møt Rhys Marsh: An Englishman in Trondheim

Rhys Marsh is a London-born singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and producer. He now lives in Trondheim, where he also runs Autumnsongs Recording Studio. With twenty years' experience and nine albums released, Rhys has a wealth of musical knowledge and experience, and we're lucky to have him as a guitar and music production teacher. He's just released new single "To Give" with his project Kaukasus.

Congratulations on your release! Can you tell us a bit about the single? Is it part of a larger release, will there be an album?

Thank you! Kaukasus is a band that’s existed for some years, but so far we’ve only released one album. Kaukasus is currently comprised of producer / multi-instrumentalist / genius drummer Mattias Olsson and I, though the band was was formed as a trio with Ketil Vestrum Einarsen (Jaga Jazzist), who played flutes and synths with us on our debut. On the new single, and on some other new songs we’re currently working on, Mattias has written most of the music, and then I write the melody and lyrics, and add guitars, bass and some synths. We’re planning to have the second album finished sometime in the summer.

When we were forming the band, we realised that we’d already worked on about ten of the same records together as session musicians, so it made sense that we try to make something ourselves. The first album was written and recorded in two weeks and was quite a success in the progressive rock world.

Can you give us some background on yourself as a musician?

I’ve been playing guitar since I was seven. I started at the BRIT School in 1997, where I formed my first band, Mandala. We spent the best part of those three years in the school’s recording studio, learning how to break the rules, whilst recording onto 24-track tape. The VU meters were in the red a lot — as we were doing it the old-fashioned way of overloading the tape to shape the sounds — and it was great. During that time, we were very privileged to have a string quartet (featuring members of the London Symphony Orchestra) come to the school specifically to play on two of our songs. We were also asked to perform a song for George Martin at the BRIT School Gala Awards Evening. That was terrifying, but it went ok and he was a lovely guy when we spoke to him afterwards. I actually graduated from the BRIT School with the highest grades they’d ever awarded, which was amazing.

Mandala played hundreds of concerts around the UK and North America, until we broke up in 2006, and I moved to Trondheim in 2007. I formed a project called Rhys Marsh And The Autumn Ghost, and called on the help of some friends to play on three albums, released between 2008 and 2012. I was lucky to have members of Jaga Jazzist, Enslaved, Anekdoten, Änglagård, Highasakite and Wobbler join me on those records.

In 2014, I released my first solo album, where I played all the instruments, wrote, recorded and mixed all the songs. Last year I released my third solo album, ‘October After All’, which was a double album. I mostly played everything on this, but called in jazz legends Arve Henriksen (trumpet) and Kåre Kolve (saxophone) to add some solos, and also a choir — which included Rohey, Tale and Vilde, who used to teach at MUNO Trondheim.

In total, I’ve released nine albums, which I’m very happy to say have all been received very well by the listeners and press.

Other notable things I’ve been involved in include Unit, which is a multi-national project featuring Japanese producer Takashi Mori, Ingrid Chavez (Prince / Lenny Kravitz) and I. I’ve also guested — as a singer or instrumentalist — on a number of albums, including one by fellow English musician Tim Bowness (No Man / Steven Wilson).

So I’ve been busy over the years, and every time I finish an album, I’m never sure if I’ll get around to making another one, yet somehow I always do.

Where do you draw inspiration from?

I listen to a lot of music, and try to absorb as much of it as I can to give myself a richer palate of inspiration to work from. For most of the albums I work on, I’m inspired by very specific eras or styles of music. Whilst I was writing and recording my last solo album, I was mostly listening to music from the late seventies, so I could try and capture some sonics from that era.

On the new Mandala album — which we’re just finishing at the moment — I was inspired by Middle Eastern music, so we incorporated some Turkish folk instruments to our psychedelic rock-trio format, which worked really well.

I think it’s important to be open to as much music as possible, in order to gain different perspectives which can then be brought into your own music.

How does being a producer tie into your musical process? Are you the writer of the single as well? 

They’re very closely connected, because I start recording a song at the same time that I start writing it. I don’t record a demo version and then go into the studio to actually record it — quite often the things that I record in the early stages become the central elements of the song. I love the energy that comes from early takes, before you’ve had too much time to think about the song. It’s more instinctive that way.

Why did you build Autumnsongs Recording Studio?

At first it was so I had a good-sized space to work on my own music, but then I got asked to produce an album for a singer-songwriter called Silje Leirvik (who I later married, and is now about to release some new music as Silje Marsh), and then I started with a few bands on their albums and it’s been a steady increase ever since. The first studio I had in Trondheim was also in an old German bunker, but it was much smaller. It was perfect at the time, and I made a lot of records in there. Three years ago I was offered the space I’m in now, which is quite close to the centre of town, and is a much larger space with a very high ceiling, so it’s perfect for recording drums and bands playing live. Although I do really enjoy recording songs piece by piece, there’s something really special about capturing a band playing together.

What is unique about what your studio is offering?

People often comment on the atmosphere when they walk into the studio. The lights are always dimly-lit, and there are vintage instruments all over the place — some late-seventies synths, two pianos, two drum kits, a Hammond organ, some guitars, amps and effects. Lots of things to experiment with.

It’s also all set in one big space, both the recording and mixing areas. The are several reasons why I think this is a great way to work. Firstly, it gives me a very big live room, so I can put microphones at the other end of the room and it makes things sound larger than life. Secondly, everyone is in the same room at the same time, so then we’re all working together to capture the perfect take, or to help the singer or instrumentalist with their parts. There is also a lounge, so members of the band can go and relax elsewhere if they’d like. Thirdly, it’s perfect for me, as I can record myself without having to open and close doors all the time between the live room and control room.

I use the corridor a lot as an echo chamber, so the records that come out of here have a unique stamp on them.

The studio has also become a really popular place for hosting MUNO student concerts, staff events and our music production course. We have a lot of great ideas for new recording and mixing courses in the pipeline, which we can hopefully start launching in the autumn. Our students seem to love having the concerts in the studio, and I sometimes hear their parents saying to them, “if you practice enough, maybe you’ll come here to record one day!”

What is important to you when you’re recording in the studio?

The most important thing is that the atmosphere is right — the studio is tidy, the lights are dimmed, and everything is ready to go. I talk to the artists and bands quite a lot before we start recording, I make notes about which instruments we need and how to set things up, so that when they arrive, they just need to have a coffee, relax a bit, and get into the zone.

It’s important that things are ready to go, so there’s less time spent trying to figure things out, and more time spent creating sounds that are unique to the song.

What do you think is the real art in producing? 

Without a doubt, listening to the artist I’m working with and trying to extract the essence of the song. My job is to enhance the mood and feeling of the music, to make it come alive, to make it jump out of the speakers, or to retract into the distance. Whatever the song needs, it’s my job to try and understand that and add elements that compliment the lyrics and music. You often just have to do whatever is necessary to get the right result.

I was working with an artist a few years back, and on one song we needed a trumpet, but we didn’t have one and neither of us could’ve played it anyway. So I suggested we use a very old Tandberg crystal microphone (I think it’s from the late-fifties), plugged into a small guitar amp, and then he sang the trumpet part though it. I recorded that, added some reverb and delay, and in the mix it sounded close enough to a trumpet, so we kept it!

It’s about knowing which tools you have available, but just picking one and running with it to see what happens, rather than thinking too much about which might be the best and then losing the thread.

What are your best tips for how people can improve as producers?

Listen to the people you’re working with. It’s easy to figure out how to press buttons on a computer, but it’s a lot more useful to be able to understand people, and know when to suggest things, or — perhaps even more importantly — knowing when to just keep quiet.

Rhys is available for producing, recording, mixing and mastering bands and artists that come in to the studio in Trondheim, as well as remote production and mixing. To book Autumnsongs Recording Studio or any of Rhys’s services, get in touch with Rhys via email: rhys@autumnsongs.no

To book music production and other lessons with Muno, register your interest here.