"We were trying to explore things to see if we could do it differently. We may not have always succeeded, but there are places on this record where you hear something that you won’t have heard before. And that’s what’s always exciting for me."
A continuum to his recent ‘Scratch My Back’ release, this project features some of Gabriel’s biggest hits from his prodigious career, reconstructed and re-imagined with orchestral arrangements. Gabriel hand-selected the songs and enlisted the help of close collaborator John Metcalfe for the arrangements and Ben Foster as conductor of the 46-piece hand-picked New Blood Orchestra.
Great care has been taken – and much discussion shared – in deciding what songs were included on Half Blood (this Society of Sound collection of songs and their twin instrumentals) and the full commercial release New Blood. It wasn’t simply a case of giving the big numbers an orchestral re-rub; it was more a case of finding the songs that would be enhanced by the massed strings, brass, woodwind and percussion.
As Peter explains, "I was determined that it shouldn’t be just a sort of ‘hits goes to the orchestra’. So we chose songs that were more textural, more evocative, ambient pieces – less the obviously structured pop songs. When most people do orchestral projects, they keep the rock band and add orchestra. But we threw away the rock band. We took away guitar, we took away bass, we took away drum kit. It meant that we were more committed and had only the colours of the palette of the orchestra to use."
"It’s very interesting when you start to look back at stuff which you wrote a long time ago. I found – and I don’t know if this is to do with getting older – that I am more critical, particularly about lyrics, both other people’s and my own. So, things that still seem to have meaning to me were the things that I wanted to work with."
"As a singer, you’re always going to respond to whatever it is you’re hearing at the time, so inevitably the arrangements are going to change what you do. These songs had been in my blood for, in some cases, 20 or 30 years, so I sort of knew them backwards. But there was more space to approach the vocal a little differently. Also, as you get older your voice drops a little bit. I’ve probably lost a tone from the top end and gained it down the bottom. That was interesting and a couple of songs we’d put down a tone in the key. And that brings out different colours."
And the orchestral enhancements are perfectly pitched. Where the twinkle of San Jacinto was originally supplied by loops from a Fairlight sampler, piano and bows now provide the otherworldly magic. But probably the most extraordinary reinterpretation is that of The Rhythm Of The Heat where John Metcalf has recast the original’s extended African drum jam into a dizzying, swirling orchestral maelstrom.
And in front of orchestra, taking centre stage when necessary, retreating into the shadows when not, is Peter’s rich voice. Retaining its trademark emotive power, it returns to lyrics written 20 or 30 years ago, reinvesting them with new meaning and heightened poignancy.
"Recording an orchestra is really different. In a band format, the work happens layer upon layer over time. It’s a much quicker process with orchestra. It was pretty much all done in one go, with one or two small exceptions – the piano and voice were sometimes done afterwards. We knew that we didn’t want to have what is popular now in Hollywood – abrasive and aggressive strings that will scrape your eardrums out. We wanted much more of an old-fashioned idea where the warmth comes out of the instruments."
"It’s also very different performing in front of an orchestra than a band, particularly with these arrangements. I’d asked John to be stark and skeletal in a lot of places and there’s a lot of emptiness there. ..I got to really like it because it felt there was lots of room to emote."
What’s been amazing for me is the enthusiasm of the players. I think that they feel that it’s not like the classical music that they play all the time, but it’s not rock with orchestra either. When it’s right, it finds its own form. David Crosby came to the show in Santa Barbara and said ‘We really think you’ve found something new in music the way you’re doing this’. That was a great moment for me. In a lot of places, it doesn’t feel like familiar territory.
I really enjoyed the studio process itself. It was quite tight and tense – we had quite a lot to do in a limited period. There was certainly no trickery employed. It was very much a natural, live-ish experience, a very acoustic experience. I liked that. But I’m sure that the next thing I’ll want to do will be rhythmic and electronic, the polar opposite, just to balance things out. I do love both ends of the musical spectrum, when all the natural-sounding environments and the artificial electronic or hard, rhythmic elements can both do their job in a wonderful way."
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