Having known singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Brandon Gurba since he was 16, I was already aware that he possessed a degree of musical talent almost eerie in both depth and scope. His former band, The Little Red Men, was a regional favorite a few years ago, but the members parted ways and have moved in different creative directions. During the past six years, Brandon has matured into a confident, assured artist whose new material reveals just how much he has grown. Back at the end of April, slightly more than a week after the April 17 release of “Paperman”, Gurba’s debut single, we set aside time to catch up and talk. Our conversation roamed far and wide, with Brandon sharing his thoughts and experiences on launching a solo career, the intricacies of the one-man recording process, and his journey from being a four-year-old songwriter (!) through today.
Roy Abrams: So, as of this morning (April 26), “Paperman” reached #3 on the New York City Metro indie chart on Reverbnation, and it is ranked #13 globally. From what my ears are telling me, this single is going to do a lot of things for you.
Brandon Gurba: Thank you so much! I don’t know why it’s doing so well. On Spotify, I reached my goal of breaking 1,000 streams in the first week. I had some friends message me, saying, “Wow, that was fast, congratulations!” I was so thankful, you know.
RA: It even jumps out of an iPhone speaker! My prior experience as a recording artist taught me that if you can get the song sounding good out of a pair of small speakers, you’ve done your job well. That was the old school method, at least. Let’s talk about your debut release, including the writing, recording, arrangement, and production. I understand this is a D.I.Y. effort.
BG: Yeah, although my friend Stevie Lomangino played drums on the track based on my original demo version. I had a drum demo that I recorded at my house, and we based his part off of what I was doing.
RA: After more than a dozen listenings, I am absolutely captivated by your vocal arrangements. You’re talking to a harmony fanatic. I love the notes that you picked out of the air and how you placed them in the mix. You know, when you were 16, you were already creating music that had a real “wow” factor but you’ve attained a whole new level here. Vocally speaking, you possess a very Zen-smooth delivery. To my ears, Radiohead’s Thom Yorke comes instantly to mind.
BG: Wow. That’s such a compliment, because when I was writing the song, working the song out, I was really influenced by In Rainbows, specifically a track called “Weird Fishes.” There’s something about the momentum they create in that song that’s incredible; specifically with the vocals. Thom Yorke has this wonderful mixed voice, a very light and soft tonality. Something about it reminds me of “easy listening” but it has this really interesting experimental arrangement I think as I’ve gotten older, my voice has matured and softened. I (also) started listening to a lot of R&B music. When I was younger, I was self-taught; I really didn’t know how to sing—like, I knew how to sing, but I didn’t really know. Then I had a vocal injury when I was a senior in high school, It was from not knowing how to use my diaphragm. I never told anyone that; I mean, a few people know that, but yeah, I had vocal nodules, which was really from not knowing the proper technique and being so self-taught that I didn’t know how to sustain, like breath support, and I didn’t know anything about shoulder tension. I found a vocal coach, and he helped me a lot. I studied with him for eight months, and it was incredible. I went to a vocal therapist before deciding to go to him. The therapist was like, “I don’t know if you’re really going to be able to sing again like you used to,” and it scared me so much so I really got into the vocal/technical things regarding not just singing, but also performing. I went to the vocal coach and he helped me out; I healed within a month and a half. The things that I can do now far surpass what I could do when I was younger in every way: The amount of time I can perform live and sustain my voice without being tired; the riffs and vocal runs that I can do, I can do stuff now that I really never thought I could do, and I’m really happy about that. Definitely, the last few years, vocal technique and all that has been extremely important to me. When I was a little younger, it was more about energy and vibe and feel, but now it’s a lot more about sustaining and lasting in a performance, lasting in a career. I want to be singing for as long as I absolutely can. I don’t want to lose my voice when I hit a certain age, because that happens to a lot of singers that I look up to.
RA: Let’s circle back to the song itself. We had a really interesting discussion the other day about the genesis of the lyrics. You were talking about trying to figure out why this is resonating with people. As you and I both know, it’s not just the words, it’s not just the music; it’s the combination. This is what my ears are telling me, which even goes down to the key that the song is in. We both know that the mood or emotional pull of a song is also predicated on what key it’s performed in. I think that where your voice is going melodically, with those lyrics and what’s going on with your arrangement, is what’s tugging at people’s ears and hearts. There’s a certain yearning, desperation, and yet a sense of resolution contained in your lyrics.
BG: Thank you so much! That was certainly the intention. I wanted the song, especially the vocal performance, to give off a sense of “I’m biking up a hill and it’s hard, but I know I’m gonna get to the top of it.” I’m sincerely trying to get to a better place, and I feel that’s sort of what it explores. The way I delivered it, vocally, I tried to pull a lot out of my chest voice, specifically. I tried to shout when it was appropriate. There’s a few parts where it almost feels like I’m yelling. It’s soft, and the timbre is nice, but I’m really pulling with my chest voice, and I feel like it creates a kind of yearning, desperation sort of feeling. I would say that I think I did that well in the choruses of the song, at the hook. I never would have been able to do that song a few years ago. It took me some time to mature. It required a lot of patience. I’m really a perfectionist when I’m doing vocals. I will spend a half hour on a word if I have to. I just want it to be right. I’m extremely particular. I know what I want. I could show a demo to somebody and they’ll be like, “Oh, the vocals sound great!” but I’ll be like, “Yeah, but this word, I gotta re-do it.” Luckily, I was able to knock that out in a session. I think I recorded the main vocal in three or four hours, but the harmonies really took a long time because of the arranging and the performance and all that. It’s funny, because whenever I arrange vocals, I don’t spell it out on piano or guitar, I just kind of do it by ear, where I’ll stand there and loop a certain section. I’ll sing a low part, above the bass but not too low, then I’ll decide (if) I want it on every word in the phrase or do I just want it on one word. That was just a beast, trying to figure out what I wanted to do with the vocal arrangement. There’s a lot of yearning and sincerity in that performance, and I’m really proud of it, looking back at it. But I’m always super critical; even when I finish a vocal, I’m like, “Hmm, can I do this better? Can I do that better?” At the end of the day, nothing’s really going to be perfect, you just have to accept it.
RA: Oh, yeah. That’s a process we all have to go through, I think. One of the most difficult things in a recording environment is knowing when to say, “Okay, the song just told me it’s done!”
BG: Without a doubt! I have a lot of music right now that I’m kind of sitting on, trying to tweak, and I have a couple of songs that I tweaked too much, and I had to go backwards. It comes down to being able to trust your performance and trust your work. Yeah, that was definitely a battle with “Paperman” because I wanted it to be right. I knew from the beginning that I wanted this to be my first song, because you only debut once, you know? I wanted it to be a quality performance, I wanted the mixing to be good. This was definitely my jump, like I jumped off a cliff right into the whole process with mixing, tracking and engineering it, figuring out which microphones would be good on this guitar part; every little detail.
RA: Was that done by trial and error or were there courses that you were taking at SUNY Purchase that gave you a lot of insight?
BG: It was really just trial and error. At Purchase, the professors will help you with a song, when you want to show it to them. They give you tips, but it’s really about the students taking control and deciding for themselves what they want to do. They really gave us a lot of time to work on the projects that we wanted to work on individually. I showed the song to a couple of professors and got their opinions and tweaked it last-minute based on that, Here’s the thing: I was working on the song and was feeling a little iffy about it and was a little bit scared because it was going to be my debut. I showed it to my professor, who is someone I really admire. He’s a GRAMMY-nominated, award winning producer and mixing engineer. He’s a brilliant guy, and I showed him the song and he was like, “Listen. I really feel like this song will take your solo career to the next level.” And I was like, “Really?!” He said, “Yes. I suggest that you get this professionally mastered by Alex DeTurk at The Bunker Studio in Brooklyn.” I had never done that before, I never reached out to a mastering engineer. I spoke to him, and we went back and forth. It was a really cool process. My point being that people believed in it and that really encouraged me to put it out.
RA: You told me that you originally planned on nipping in and out of the studio but one night, you went in at 10:00 and ended up not getting out until 10:00 the following morning—
BG: That was for the harmony vocals.
RA: Did you get all the vocal performances done in those 12 hours or was that inclusive of the full mixdown?
BG: I did the main vocal, verse and chorus, probably a week prior to the actual harmony tracking session. What I usually do is write down the lyrics, then I’ll go into a session where I’m solely just recording the main vocals. Depending on the song, I’ll usually take a week to decide if I want harmonies. I’ll listen back to it on my phone and go, “Does this phrase need a harmony? What can I do here? What can I do there?” Usually, after that week, I go into the studio with a pretty good understanding of how many vocals I’m gonna track to put over the main vocal. With “Paperman”, I kind of knew what I was gonna do; I was like, “I’m gonna do this, that, and that.” I thought that it was only going to take like three or four hours but then I’m in there and (thought), I can do this differently, let me try this. Then you go down this rabbit hole … wait a second, what if I try this? Earlier, you mentioned that the key of a song is really important to how it makes the listener feel. Usually what I do is, when I’m writing or when I’m stuck on something, I’ll take my song and pitch it up or down completely, and I’ll sing random harmony ideas over it, and I’ll actually get different ideas from it being pitched differently. It makes you feel differently emotionally, so that gave me a bunch of new ideas. It just took so long! For each vocal track, I probably did like 20 takes and picked the best of the best and figured out what sounded good together. In the end, it came out as something I’m really proud of.
RA: You did a masterful job. Here’s another question. The single came out on the 17th. Here we are .. it’s nine days later and the song is taking off. How do you feel?
BG: [Sighs] Oh, man. I’m just so thankful. These last couple of years I’ve been dreaming about releasing a song, dropping a debut, putting out something under my own name. I’ve been working by trial and error, researching how I could promote it. For the past couple of years, I’ve been doing my homework on all fronts, preparing and working. It’s definitely a process. There were a lot of moments where I was so frustrated and it was very discouraging. My goals, my dreams are so high … there’s a lot that I really want to achieve. I just kept going with it, even when it got hard. There was a lot that I had to learn with production and mixing, even singing. To look at it now, only nine days after the release, and see the response that it’s getting is extremely fulfilling and inspiring. It feels so validating, you know?
RA: When I really like a song, I have a tendency to listen to it over and over again. With “Paperman,” that’s what’s happening. Every time I listen to it, I hear something else, which leads to yet another listen!
RA: As with Radiohead, I think that musicians will be drawn to this track because of the wealth of cleverness and musical ingenuity. For harmony singers, boy, is there something to wrap your head around!
BG: A fun thing with this song in particular was the instrumentation. This is the first song that all the guitars are just clean guitars; there’s no solos, no distortion, strictly clean guitars with reverb, that’s it. I wanted to challenge myself because I (used to) rely on traditional hard rock elements. I love that, but a thing that I like to do with clean guitars is to pan them hard left and hard right. I’ll make these arpeggiated, sort of chordal, fingerpicking sort of things—I don’t know how to describe it—but each note locks in together, syncs together, and it creates this sort of harmonically rich texture, I did that a lot with “Paperman” and I think I was successful with it.
RA: When did you pick up your first instrument?
BG: I have a really weird, interesting story with music. When I was either three or four years old, I heard The Beatles for the first time, it brought me an insane amount of joy that has continued to last my whole life. From that young of an age, I wanted to make songs and be an artist. I would make songs in my head, write lyrics down, always had a melody associated with the lyrics so I would never forget the melody. I’ve probably been writing songs since I was four or five. My parents got me a toy guitar but I didn’t know how to play it. I couldn’t figure it out; I had no clue. I wasn’t the type of kid who would go on the internet (and research). The way I learned was very hands-on. I would read a book about it, but I couldn’t really understand it because I had no knowledge of chords or anything. I didn’t even know that you could tune a guitar! From a super young age up until I was about twelve, I didn’t know how to play any chords. I randomly would let the guitar be in whatever tune it was, and I would figure out little shapes and would mimic songs. When I was in 5th grade, there was this Coldplay song called “Fix You” and the chords in it are super repetitive. I had this toy, cheapo acoustic guitar and what I would do is take my two fingers, go by the twelfth fret, and just go up and down (the neck) and let the strings ring out. I would sort of make weird arrangements but I had no clue what I was doing. Finally, someone showed me when I was twelve, you know, “Here’s a chord.” I was like, “Oh, that’s a chord? Oh, now I get it!” That first week, I probably learned ten chords. When I was younger, I would make CD cases, like album artwork. I would take construction paper and just draw albums, logos, and put them in a blank CD case and go, “That’s my album!” I just really wanted to have a CD so badly. I’ve been doing all that since I was really young and I guess it was directly inspired by The Beatles. Probably The Beach Boys, too, and Johnny Cash, but I wanted to have a tangible product and be an artist. I started singing in choirs when I was like nine, and I kept doing that all the way until college.
RA: What’s your next step?
BG: I’m going to be announcing my next single in a few weeks. I want to put that out on May 22 but will probably announce it a week before that. That’s the next step.
Note: As of today, July 9, Brandon’s follow-up single, “Saw You There,” has kept him in the Reverbnation Top Ten in the NYC/Indie chart at $8, #66 nationwide, and #93 globally. You’ll want to check this song out as well!
© Roy Abrams 2020
“Paperman” recording information and credits
Snare: SM57s on the top and bottom snare
Toms: Sennheiser e604s
Kick: Shure Beta 52a
Bass guitar: Squier vintage modified Jaguar, DI
Vocals: MXL 9000 tube mic
Guitars: Fender Stratocaster and an Epiphone LP Custom.
Marshall DSL 100 w/ Marshall 4X12 Cab, Fender Mustang III Combo
Guitar Amp Mics: AT 2020, SM57
Presonus Firestudio Project, Behringer Uphoria UMC404HD
Produced by: Brandon Gurba
Written by: Brandon Gurba
Mixed by: Brandon Gurba
Performed by: Brandon Gurba, Stevie Lomangino (Drums)
Recorded using LogicPro
Mastered by: Alex DeTurk of The Bunker Studio
Recorded at: Brandon’s house, and SUNY Purchase Recording Studios