photo by Nick Helderman

Jacco Gardner is a Dutch multi-instrumentalist who writes, produces and records in his own Shadow Shoppe Studio in Zwaag, The Netherlands. He has a fondness for vintage instrumentation and tones combined with modern studio techniques, and with this mélange he crafts his unique sound. His 2013 debut, Cabinet of Curiosities, and 2015 follow up, Hypnophobia, are cinematic, yet intimate listening experiences, and give one the feeling of a journey into a dream. Jacco took time to discuss his creative process with me backstage before his 2015 set at The EARL in Atlanta.

Is there a thread or purpose connecting your earliest songs to what you are doing now? 

Before music I was into painting and drawing. I was always a dreamer and into surrealistic stuff. I guess that's still the case. I got into music and recording when I discovered Syd Barrett, when I was around 15. His music, and psychedelic music from the '60s, where studio technology was for the first time used for things that did not sound like real sounds, but to add something to the sound — that was my eye opener into starting to make that kind of music and work that way as a producer as well.

How does your songwriting journey start? 

It's mostly a feeling, or something that inspires me; like a certain chord progression that feels like it belongs somewhere and I can't think of anything it belongs to. This gives me the feeling I should keep working on it until I put it where it belongs. Other times I change my approach. For instance, I make little challenges for myself, like doing a track that is eight minutes long, leaning less on the compositional part and more on the sounds and layering to make it sound exciting.

What influence does being a multi-instrumentalist have on your songwriting? 

I've surrounded myself in the studio with instruments that are all in a certain palette of sound that appeals to me. When I write with an instrument that I don't play a lot, like a Wurlitzer or a Clavinet, I don't play it the way I hear most people play. I like playing classical things and movie soundtrack things on those instruments, to I see if can make those approaches sound good. Working with those instruments in this way inspires me and songs come out of that. I do need certain things to write, like a good guitar sound. I bought a '60s Harmony [guitar] two years ago in Seattle that I love playing and writing on. I more recently got an old Steinway upright piano that I write on. It helps to have a nice instrument that sounds good, but sometimes something that doesn't sound good can be inspiring in its imperfections. It's always interesting to try a song structure you wrote on guitar and then play it on piano to see what happens. Sometimes something feels totally normal on guitar and then on keyboards it sounds totally "out there." You see more possibilities when you see the keyboard and I constantly make little changes to improve things. So, shifting from one instrument to another definitely works well for me.

You performed all instruments and vocals on Cabinet of Curiosities and Hypnophobia, sans the drums. Did you have help engineering your takes, or is recording a solitary process for you?    

Yes, it's mostly like that [solitary], except for the drums, that I don't play myself. I direct that process. I do record myself, and I am either satisfied with a take or not, and I redo it until I'm happy. I have had it where I would find out a take wasn't good enough after an hour mixing on it, then I'd think, "I better get it right in the beginning to avoid more time wasted later!"

Do you arrange during the songwriting process, or do you leave arranging to experimentation in the studio?

For me, writing, arranging and producing songs feels like the same thing. Arranging something definitely depends on the way that it sounds. Sometimes I can hear what a song needs if something sounds like it's missing. Also, shifting around with effects like delay and reverb can open up spaces where other instruments can be introduced. 

Listening to your music, I get the impression you utilize the studio almost like an instrument. Do you find some of your equipment is crucial to achieving the sound you hear in your head?

Definitely! For instance, the tape machines and tape echo I use, I change the pitch with my hands while the tapes are playing, just like the whammy bar on a guitar, basically. That in itself is already a very a studio technological way of composing or changing the sound....

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