Remembering Blackstar: Bowie's Final Studio 'Experiment'
(The Making Of GRAMMY-Winning Recordings series presents firsthand accounts of the creative process behind some of music's biggest recordings. In this installment, producer/engineer Tony Visconti and engineer/mixer Tom Elmhirst detail the making of Blackstar, which earned David Bowie four posthumous awards at the 59th GRAMMYs: Best Alternative Music Album, Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical, and Best Rock Song and Best Rock Performance for "Blackstar.")
Tony Visconti: It had been a little more than a year since we finished David's previous album, The Next Day. We always had several meetings before every album began. We'd discuss the direction it would take, and also listen to what other artists had recently released.
With Blackstar, we hired a studio and put down some ideas with a drummer and keyboard player, and me on bass, to test the waters. David also made demos on his own playing all the instruments. When we would work, though, we rarely referred to the demos. He didn't want the band to imitate the demos, he wanted to hear their first interpretations.
Tom Elmhirst: I was in my room, Studio C, at Electric Lady Studios, when Tony Visconti and David booked the room next to my studio. Suddenly, David just walked into my control room, sat down and said, "Will you mix my album?" I said, "Of course!" And then we got on with it.
Visconti: There was never the same approach to a David Bowie album. He would preface every album by stating it was just an experiment. David chose the musicians most of the time. And often it would be David and me doing backing vocals. That's only us singing backups on the whole Heroes album, for instance, and also on most of Scary Monsters, and many others.
Elmhirst: It was really easy to work with David. He was incredibly liberating. He'd say, "Just go. Go and have fun with it. Do what you do." I am really into reggae and dub, and he loved all that, and said, "Go for it." Not that there's much of that on Blackstar. But his attitude was very much "do what you do."
Visconti: He sang live with every take of the band while tracking. It was wonderful to see him singing live. He impressed the band, too. He was probably building up his chops for when the vocal sessions would take place.
Elmhirst: The record was mixed quite quickly. Maybe 10 days. This might be because I mixed the song "Blackstar," which had been created out of two separate songs as one piece of music, and I also mixed the last two songs on the album ("Dollar Days" and "I Can't Give Everything Away") as one piece of music, because they flow into each other. The vocals were there, the performances were there. I didn't have to do a lot of work. It was quite painless for me, the whole process, because it was recorded and produced so well.
Visconti: David always loved to do complete [vocal] takes, maybe as many as four. Usually, take one was the keeper with some words or lines used from the other takes. On rare occasions, he'd punch in. He always liked a good mix to sing to with some reverb on his voice. He didn't like hanging around if he was raring to go, so before he arrived I would create a very workable mix and my assistant would get the levels on my voice trying to sing as loud as he would. No matter how loud I would sing he'd always sing louder.
Elmhirst: "Blackstar" was the first song I worked on. It took a couple of days, which for me is quite long. I like to work quickly. But it is about 10 minutes long. It needed form. Obviously, not a lot of people put out 10-minute singles. So you have to approach it slightly differently. You can't give it all away too early. You have to allow the natural dynamics to come through. When it drops into that middle section, the solo voice, there is a sense of relief. It's really quite restrained up to that point, and then it opens up more.
Visconti: We worked on Blackstar for maybe six months, with three months for tracking and another three for overdubs. We'd visit [Tom Elmhirst] every day to modify the balances, special effects, etc. This wasn't a remote mix with us living in another city. We were hands on. Tom brought a magic to the mixes we never expected.
Elmhirst: Often I do mixes unattended, without the artist there. But Tony and David were very involved. They'd come around 3 in the afternoon and stay a couple of hours. We'd go through stuff together, and then they'd take a mix away with them and live with it. That was the process. Sometimes they would suggest changes in different vocal balances. But a lot of the mixes didn't really change hugely from what I handed them, which was really lovely. Quite often you end up changing stuff for months afterwards. David was quite decisive. He would say he loved it, and be very onboard and happy with how the mixes were going. I had a lot of freedom.
Visconti: I never asked [David] if this was his final album. Some of the lyrics were very dark but I would never say to him, "Are you making a final album?" Absolutely not. It was written somewhere that I did ask him, but I was misquoted. He was already talking about making a new album before this one was released. He told me he had new demos for a new album, but I never heard them.
If anything, that idea [that he knew this was his final album] was an erroneous observation many people imagined after he had passed. After all, David's been writing about death and decay since the '70s.
Elmhirst: I could tell that David wasn't well. He couldn't stay very long. He didn't have a lot of energy. But when he was there, he was incredibly present, funny and really encouraging. He was really incredibly encouraging. And he really enjoyed the process. I think on other projects for them, the mixes took longer. This seemed to come together quite quickly, and to everyone's satisfaction.
I didn't know it would be his final album. We even talked about working on another record soon. And he was very keen. There wasn't a sense that this was it. Obviously, in the reflection, lyrically, it really was his last statement, wasn't it?
Visconti: David and I always had similar eclectic tastes in music and we took a great joy in turning each other on with something he or I hadn't heard before. Our style of production was, for want of a better word, Zen. We made sure we had master musicians working with us, and we'd sometimes jump on their mistakes as being perfect, the thing we'd least expect. For most people it would end in catastrophe. It takes a lot of experience to work at this level. I've hardly ever worked with anyone else like him.
Did You Know? David Bowie's Blackstar was inspired by Kendrick Lamar
(As engineers on David Bowie's Blackstar, Tony Visconti and Tom Elmhirst earned Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical for their work on the project. Elmhirst won two additional GRAMMY Awards for his work on Adele's 25: Album Of The Year and Record Of The Year for "Hello.")
(Paul Zollo is the senior editor of American Songwriter and the author of several books, including Songwriters On Songwriting, Conversations With Tom Petty and Hollywood Remembered. He's also a songwriter and Trough Records artist whose songs have been recorded by many artists, including Art Garfunkel, Severin Browne and Darryl Purpose.)