I'll be the first to admit - despite spending a great deal of my time talking to and conversing with musicians and the like, I don't know a lick about the recording process. Outside of the general, I am about as woefully ignorant as any production Luddite could be. Luckily, there are people like Noah Gurley of Summer Palace, who was more than patient enough to answer my questions about recording, bedroom production, and what not during our time together. He's the primary entity behind Summer Palace, a sort of 8-bit meets 808s and heartbreaks project that stands in a unique realm of Nashville's music scene all its own. Gurley has a prolific production rate, with hundreds of songs created, stowed, and ready for disposal whenever the next Summer Palace release whim may arise, but he's also realistic. He helps shine a light into the dilemmas that arise as an independent artist having prolific output, but inelastic financial backing. Our conversation covers everything from self-production, the silliness of networking, his new EP Extended Play, and his unique recording process. Consider it a masterclass in how to be a wholly self-sustaining artist.
Now/It's met with Noah Gurley at the Downtown Branch of the Nashville Public Library in Downtown Nashville.
Noah - How’s it going?
N/I - Pretty good! You?
Noah - Good. It’s been awhile since I’ve been in a library. I just got my library card today. Got here a little early.
N/I - Every once and awhile, I’ll end up at this library, but I find myself at the Green Hills branch most often, just because that’s closer to where I live.
Noah - Where is that?
N/I - Belmont Boulevard.
Noah - I used to live over there a few years ago. I like it there, I kind of miss it.
N/I - It’s not that bad! It is interesting being around the Belmont campus, despite not being a student…. Did you go to Belmont?
Noah - A lot of my friends did - two of my friends from high school went there - I’m from Knoxville. I didn’t want to stay there. I didn’t want to got to [University of Tennessee], so I moved here just to play music. I was going to Vol State for a while, but I didn’t finish my degree. I’m going to go back in the summer, actually. So I’m just now getting back into school. I hate school, though.
N/I - I understand. I’m glad to be done with it….
Noah - See, I feel stupid because all of my friends are done [laughs]....
N/I - I don’t think that’s stupid at all….
Noah - [Laughs] I just feel late. I feel old.
N/I - I understand, but that’s one of those things where I’m of the belief that there’s no such thing as being “late” on any sort of life experience.
Noah - I mean, I felt…. Not late, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do that first time around. But now I do. Or I sort of know. I know what I want to study, at least.
N/I - Again, when you’re seventeen, eighteen years old, to be forced with the decision that will potentially carry weight the rest of your life….
Noah - Exactly. My little brother is struggling with that right now - he’s about to go to college, but it’s like “How is he supposed to know what he wants to do?” He shouldn’t go to college, he should work, he should travel somewhere.
N/I - Right. When I was in high school, I thought I could become a professional basketball player. I figured I could will my way to being seven feet tall, somehow.
Noah - That’s about how I felt when I was eighteen, at least in terms of music. “I can just make money playing music!” Wait, no I can’t [laughs]. At least not easily.
N/I - Well you can and you can’t - I mean, you were eighteen….
Noah - It does depend on what you want to do, I guess. True.
N/I - And at eighteen, you’re really not able to dive into the world of being a musician.
Noah - Also, not knowing anybody in a city, that can make things even more difficult.
N/I - Exactly. So when did you move to Nashville?
Noah - 2013. It doesn’t seem like I’ve been here for five years, but I guess I have. It’s weird to me.
N/I - It is one of those things where you realize after the fact.
Noah - Something about it is kind of terrifying.
N/I - Sometimes the recognition of time can be paralyzing. Existential crisis is a fascinating thing.
Noah - You know, it’s not easy to be alive [laughs]. It’s like spinning around in a drain [laughs].
N/I - Except it’s clogged, so things are delayed.
Noah - Exactly [laughs].
N/I - So when you got here, how long did it take until you started to feel ingratiated into various communities?
Noah - I still don’t feel fully ingratiated, necessarily.
N/I - Okay. So why is that? Do you feel like you an individual can ever feel fully “ingratiated?”
Noah - I used to feel like I was part of community…. Most of my friends who were going to school moved away. So recently, this past year or so, year and a half, two years, has been way different in the sense of that community isn’t what it used to be. I still have my friends who are here, and I still have connections through them, so I can still play out. But most of the people I started playing with are gone.
N/I - Like out to LA or New York?
Noah - Actually, a lot of them did move to LA. Or just back home. Wherever they’re from.
N/I - That’s fair. This is all secondary observation on my part - it seems like five years is the first line in the sand where people either decide to give up and move on, or put their head down further.
Noah - Right. And I’m not like a lazy person, but I’m not a fan of sending emails and stuff like that. I’m a bad email-er, I’m not going to walk up to somebody and introduce myself immediately. Because what gets me is when you’re trying to develop a relationship with somebody purely because you can get something from them [laughs], I can’t do that. That’s not me at all.
N/I - It is weird. Luckily, I don’t have to do that much of that type of thing, but it is funny when every once and awhile where I might be the person someone with that intention would approach - merely as another outlet. There’s usually no detail, but plenty of gushy verbiage….
Noah - I know what you’re saying. I’m not a super flowery language person….
N/I - And immediately of that bat, I’m skeptical of that person and their credibility. Or I at the very least put my guard up.
Noah - I hate that. I can’t do that at all.
N/I - It almost seems like you have aot have a certain degree of sociopathy to really succeed in that realm. Or an accelerated path, because you can succeed as any type of person. There was some test four or five years ago that was administered to 50 or so of the top corporate executives around the world, and a lot of them scored highly on some sort of sociopathic qualifying scale.
Noah - I think I’ve read that before.
N/I - And I mean, I understand that’s probably a necessity when working for a Fortune 500 company….
Noah - You’re just looking out for yourself, you don’t actually care about how people feel or what happens. You see someone in a position that you can benefit from, so you say whatever you need to in order to make further gains. I can’t do that. I don’t know. I’m content with the way that things are going for me. I just focus on the music. If people like it, they’ll gravitate towards it. That’s good enough for me. I’ve got so much stuff on my computer that nobody’s ever seen or heard or will ever hear, and it’s all just for my own enjoyment.
N/I - And I think that’s the sort of intention when it comes to creating art or music, it’s a very holistic form. I don’t want to say the “purest” form, because that’s trite….
Noah - Right. Any art form is valid.
N/I - But to create with no intention other than to create is a romantic notion that has a lot of appeal.
Noah - Sure. I guess a lot of people can approach music or any art form wholly in terms of an aesthetic. Or mostly just an image. I feel like you get that a lot with most SoundCloud rappers these days. It’s not about their music at all… But indie bands do it too, whoever it is, it’s not really what your music is.
N/I - You could ascribe that to almost any type of music if you tried hard enough.
Noah - And it all does sort of sound the same - not that you shouldn’t have a sound, I mean, Beach House is a sound, and they’re still amazing.
N/I - What do you think of the new Beach House singles?
Noah - I’ve only heard the first one, I really thought it was ripe to be sampled in a track song.
N/I - I can see that.
Noah - It sounded very…. Wavy? I don’t know. I’m into it. I’m a fan.
N/I - I am too. All three have been surprisingly strong.
Noah - I’ve only heard the first one. I think it’s going to be a good album.
N/I - I think it’ll be great.
Noah - There’s always too much music coming out.
N/I - Especially around this time of year. It’s ridiculous. It’s the busiest time of the year for my website, in terms of cross promotable….
Noah - Promotable cycles.
N/I - Precisely. Things seem to swell late March up and through May.
Noah - I guess people are trying to hit that Summer vibe? The weather’s nice.
N/I - I figure they’re trying to beat it before festival season. Because tours cut off around June, and then it’s just festivals.
Noah - That makes sense. I haven’t really gotten the whole promotional cycle thing down. I’ve never done a real cycle. I’ve released things in the past, but it’s mostly just been me finishing it and then putting it on the Internet as soon as it was done [laughs]. Which doesn’t always serve me in the best way.
N/I - That’s just one of those things that serves as the learning curve to being a musician.
Noah - Trying to figure out what works.
N/I - Once you start making music, you’re like “Okay, I finally have the time to make music, and it’s finished. What do I do next? Put it out, I guess.”
Noah - You feel like it’s done, and you’re ready to show the whole world. I’ve been doing the opposite lately, because I have so much stuff. I was working on a song last night, and I had the realization of “I don’t even know if I want to put this EP out?” Because I might make it longer. I might add to it.
N/I - How long is it now?
Noah - It’s just four songs. But one of them is really just like two parts. It’s like one song is a remix of the song before. I’d say four songs. So it’s only like fifteen minutes.
N/I - That’s quick. A “quick hits” EP.
Noah - For sure. Most people don’t have the patience to listen to something long anyway.
N/I - That is interesting. Again, in talking to musicians, a few of the more recent interviews have shown that people plan on putting out singles and EPs in perpetuity until someone presents them with an “opportunity they can’t refuse” type scenario and then they have to put out an album.
Noah - That makes sense. I’ve heard some people talking about how albums as an art form are sort of….. Not necessarily on the way out, but not what they used to be.
N/I - It is in a weird spot.
Noah - It is.
N/I - Like with Spotify - it’s not necessarily as important to go on a radio tour to get adds for a single, at least outside of country music, now you just hope you get putting on….
Noah - [Laughs] A fucking playlist….
N/I - A playlist! And it’s one of those things where - at least for me - have you ever met someone who introduces themselves as a “playlister?” Like that’s their job. I don’t know if I’ve met someone who is first and foremost a “playlister.” Plenty of people make them in their spare time, but who are the ones that make these all powerful ones?
Noah - And truly make or break someone’s career. It’s wild.
N/I - It’s the new version of going to the radio station and….
Noah - There are hundreds of radio stations in the US, but there’s got to be, what? Twenty curated Spotify playlists?
N/I - Of the “official” Spotify playlists, and then the rest are people who learned they can make money from doing that. “I’m a playlister now.”
Noah - If you have an audience and people are listening to your playlists…. Shit…. Why wouldn’t you take somebody’s money to put a song on it?
N/I - Absolutely. I could see it really warping someone’s perspective of their own importance.
Noah - I feel like the whole industry is warped. Not just the volume of everything out there. How do you wade through what’s good and what’s bad?
N/I - Truly! And that’s where you have someone like The National, who toil away for the better part of a decade before things really take off, or you have the Taylor Swift thing….
Noah - I think that’s how it is, you put in the work…. Unless you blow up somehow.
N/I - Well Taylor Swift’s dad was her label’s accountant, so it was one of those sweetheart deals where it’s like “Hey, I’ll put up the money, you “sign” my daughter, and if she doesn’t take, you guys don’t suffer at all, but if she takes off, you get the benefit of discovering her.”
Noah - Well how else do you take it that far?
N/I - It’s weird. But we don’t need to head down that avenue all that much further. So you have the Summer Callus record….
Noah - That was the last EP. I had some stuff before it, but I took it all off of the Internet.
N/I - Why is that? The whole making the music and putting it out in spite of a response?
Noah - It was kind of that…. Not that I don’t like any of the stuff I had put out…. With that EP, I started doing things in a much different way. It’s much more electronic. Also, I learned a lot about production in a span of time. So the quality wasn’t up to snuff, I guess.
N/I - It seems like there’s a huge learning curve of…..
Noah - Enormous!
N/I - Of self-produced music….
Noah - And on this next EP…. I have a friend who studied audio engineering mix Summer Callus. I can’t afford to pay anyone to mix every project, though, especially with as much as I’d like to put out. Sometimes I go through periods of being somewhat prolific, and I have a decent amount of output, but I can’t afford my own output [laughs].
N/I - And you can put demos out….
Noah - Exactly. You need to make every release good.
N/I - Sure. Having an idea of how you want them to be received is good. If it’s a little more uniform, that helps.
Noah - Which people don’t necessarily have a trained ear, so they might not hear the differences. So with this EP that I’m going to put out - I still don’t have a name for - I think I might call it Extended Play? That’s really the only contender on the list right now.
N/I - I like it. A little tongue in cheek.
Noah - Exactly. This is the first thing that I completely produced myself. I mixed it, I watched so many YouTube videos about mastering, because I didn’t know what the fuck that is.
N/I - So how was that? The only audio engineering terms I can think of are the buzz terms - “EQ” and “quantize….”
Noah - Right. “Compression.” It’s pretty hard to comprehend. EQ is simple, it’s just changing things based off their frequency - you boost the low end and turn up the bass, cut the treble.
N/I - Or if recording with a metronome, you make sure you’re not actually recording an audible metronome.
Noah - I do everything in Ableton…. Pro Tools, you kind of have to do everything yourself. At least with Ableton, you can streamline things.
N/I - It takes you by the hand here and there.
Noah - A little bit. You know you don’t have to worry about the click and stuff like that. Headphone bleed, though, you can hear everything in your headphones in the recording. I don’t have any soundproof headphones, so that’s why I switched to earbuds. It doesn’t bleed as much. Recording is a fucking mess.
N/I - It’s wild. The most I’ve gotten to recording is podcasting. It’s some of the same, but nowhere near as involved.
Noah - But even still, you have to know what mic you’re using. How far away you are from the mic. The room you’re in. Pop filters.
N/I - And all you can do is turn the gain up all the way to try and compensate.
Noah - But then it’s super distorted [laughs].
N/I - And it blows your ears out.
Noah - It’s tricky. And when you start dealing with multiple tracks - I’ve got like 30 something tracks in my song, what the fuck was I thinking [laughs].
N/I - So is that pretty standard for the Summer Palace songs, then?
Noah - Not usually. Some of them are only ten or so. Others, it’s like forty. I do have a tendency to just create walls of sound rather than super sparse space in the songs. Sometimes I struggle with making something with space and somehow getting it to fit in with other tracks that are barrages of sound. Everybody has their tendencies.
N/I - I think that’s where it comes down to, by the end of the tracking, if you’re pleased with it, you’re pleased with it. Whereas contending that things need to be spread out, even if it doesn’t sound good to you, you’re alright.
Noah - Exactly.
N/I - So was it all you doing everything on this new EP?
Noah - That’s the way it’s been on these last two. Well, actually…. On Summer Callus… Do you know Callie McFee?
N/I - I do!
Noah - Well she sings on about half of the tracks.
N/I - Admittedly, I was about to be thrown off there because I heard her on some of the tracks.
Noah - “Who is this girl singing?” Besides her vocals, I did everything else. I was doing a lot of it with the Ableton push controller. It’s super streamlined. But I try to change up the way my workflow is, or how I write songs, because there are as many ways to write a song as there are songs. And half the fun is doing it in a different way.
N/I - What are some of those ways you write songs?
Noah - Summer Callus was almost all through software instruments. That’s why with our live act, we have a sort of issue in translating recordings to a live setting, because a lot of them are software instruments where you can’t play them straight out of a computer. So it comes down to the interpretation of a recording, which is also fun. They’re never quite exact.
N/I - So are you playing composer?
Noah - What ends up happening is that we have a whole back catalog of songs that we’ve been playing for years, but haven’t been recorded or released or anything, and most of our live set revolves around these songs. Like from the last EP, we only play one track off of it live.
N/I - Which one is that?
Noah - The last one - “Memory Feeling-Tone.” And then off the new one, we learned to play one. That’s because that one - it’s called “Diving” - and it came from a demo that I made more than a year ago. It just sat on my computer one day until I decided to add more stuff to it. I wanted to put it on Summer Callus, but I threw it off at the last second, because it used to be seven or eight tracks, and I whittled it down to the four. But with that song - I use a lot of electronic drums, because the hardest part about live recording is tracking drums. To me at least. Especially to make them sound good without a good room, good drums, good mics. But who doesn’t love the sound of an 808? It always sounds amazing. So I’ll just make these drum patterns. It’s a lot of guitars over 808s and really heavy bass.
N/I - Right. Vaguely like Homeshake?
Noah - Maybe. I don’t know Homeshake [laughs].
N/I - Oh, alright. Well I would recommend checking out Homeshake then [laughs]. They’re a little more RnB-ish, in comparison to Summer Palace and Summer Callus.
Noah - Sounds amazing. I love RnB. There’s really not a ton of guitars on Summer Callus, though, now that I think of it. The new one uses more guitar.
N/I - Why do you think that is? Just more access to guitars?
Noah - Well a lot of it comes down to a more practical thing. When I recorded the EP, I was living in an apartment, and usually I record super late at night, so I couldn’t play guitar in the apartment. I was doing everything in headphones, so the software stuff, I could just keep it all in the box with my headphones. It was rare that I could turn up my amp.
N/I - That’s kind of like Alt-J. I think that’s what led to the singer’s weird affectation. They were at some sort of University and the dorms were in an old monastic hall, and sound would carry, so they could only record at night, so the singer had to pick up a weird, quieter tone along the way.
Noah - A lot of the vocal takes I do - I’m not a super loud singer anyway - but it’s usually me and the mic very close to my mouth quietly singing the song at night. And I’m a night owl, so I only record at late, late night. My schedule is totally backwards. By the time my day is really getting going, it’s already getting dark. I start working on stuff at maybe 10 or 11pm. For instance, yesterday, I was like “I’m going to get shit done today!” but I had no ideas and no drive. I had no idea of what to work on, until I as like “I’ll just do something new.” So I started playing with a thing at 11pm and didn’t stop until like 4am.
N/I - Man. You weren’t kidding.
Noah - That’s just how it goes.