Tone Talk with Marchelle Bradanini

Photo by Balee Greer
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Marchelle Bradanini here. I’m a songwriter who sings and plays guitars (in that order). I’m a bit of a wanderer, but now have two little humans (aka children) that are anchoring me in one zip code longer than I’ve ever stayed put. I currently call Los Angeles home, which to me, is the city of Tom Waits, Warren Zevon, Stevie Nicks, Joni Mitchel, X, NWA, The Beach Boys, David Lynch, and Werner Herzog to name a few inspirations and influences.

What is your definition of tone, and how has it changed over the years?
I’ve always been a little obsessive over tone and sonics. I would pour over Phil Spector recordings, trying to figure out how exactly that slap back on say “Instant Karma” when John Lennon’s vocal was achieved and whether the distortion went through an echo box or what. The sonics of all Spector’s recordings and everything tracked with the Wrecking Crew still absolutely floors me.

As far as guitars go, I love a bit of chaos and junkyard sounds. I want the tone to feel alive and have always been drawn to analog gear or stuff that doesn’t hide warts and rough edges. That’s where the magic is for me. I’ve also been lucky to collaborate with producers who are stone-cold genius guitar players: John Would (Fiona Apple), Rickie Lee Jones, Warren Zevon, and Adam Landry (Deer Tick, Diamond Rugs, Lilly Hiatt) in particular. I can reference any tone I want to try out from an old Muscle Shoals Swampers feel to Neil Young to John Lennon to Howlin’ Wolf, and they can capture what I sometimes can’t quite articulate or pinpoint technically.

The other nice thing about working with such stellar players is that there was no ego to shred or overplay. On my new record, Only A Woman, I really wanted to focus on the lyrics and vocals, so the guitars are way more subtle than anything I’ve ever done. I used to be so insecure musically and wanted to hide behind a lot of distortion and effects (which I still love), and it took me years to be confident enough just to strip something back to a simple acoustic guitar without much fuss.

Which guitars, amps, and pedals are you currently using and why?
Some people like buying shoes, but I’ve always loved collecting guitars (and well, shoes, too!). I was in a band for a long time that tended to buy gear and sell it when we needed money to record or buy new gear, so I learned to appreciate the relationship with the instrument when it’s mine, but also pass on when it’s not being played, or it was time to try a new instrument. My now husband bought me a 1956 Barney Kessel Kay that is my prized possession. I loved the Wrecking Crew, and I know a lot of these musicians at the time just licensed their names to cheap guitars they could sell in Sears, but it’s a gem. It’s got that full Kelvinator headstock, Kleenex pickups, and just a ton of fun to play.

On the acoustic front, I have a vintage Gibson L-00 and a Mini-Martin with a hilarious cowboy scene on it that I tend to write most everything on.

My favorite live guitars are hands down my 1961 Silvertone U-1 by Danelectro. I actually picked up two of almost the exact same guitar at different times from Rivington Guitars in NYC. One is just fried, and I love it. They feel great to play and can take a battering. They’ve survived many baggage handlers and lived to tell.

For pedals, I actually run my vocals through a Memory Man Deluxe to dial in a bit of analog slap back. I’m actually going to be playing acoustic guitar when I can tour for Only A Woman and will probably just bring a tremolo and maybe an analog chorus pedal and probably my go-to Aqua-Puss Analog Delay. I highly doubt a woman named that pedal, but it creates a great atmosphere.

For amps, Fender Blues Junior or Princeton are my go-tos.

What about strings?
Pretty basic when it comes to strings. I still want to get more into alternate tunings and learning more whenever I can, but having a new baby and toddler means I’m lucky if I change my sweatpants these days.

Are there certain recording techniques you prefer in the studio?
Feel is everything for me. When I was younger, I’d be in situations that were really just about digital editing. Takes were so over-comped, and to me, the atmosphere felt so synthetic and lifeless. I think the key to getting a good take for me as a performer is mostly about turning the analytical side of my brain off and just feeling without judgment. To do this, I try to remove as many obstacles as possible. For me, this means only recording with the bare amount of humans and necessary gear. I made my previous Pony Boy records mostly on tape, which was a great experience.

For Only A Woman, we recorded everything except harmonies with just my close friends and musical heroes Adam Landry and Amy Wood over a few days. I really like getting a live take where we track everything together if possible, and I’m known (out of laziness or just wanting to capture a moment in time) of using first take vocal passes or single takes whenever possible. I really prefer not to use a click track, which makes it really difficult to edit, but I want the pulse of a person, not a computer.

How do you keep your sound consistent onstage?
The recordings are the template, but I like to mix things up on stage. After I moved to Nashville, I loved that folks would play in everyone’s bands. One night I could throw in an experimental pedal steel player to supplement the sounds of keys and just slightly play with instrumentation depending on the gig and who happened to be in town that night. I make sure the songs are recognizable, of course, but it’s fun to see what other musicians can bring to your work.

What does your practice consist of?
I never had any formal training on guitar. I tried a handful of lessons that I just didn’t connect with. I basically taught myself guitar by figuring out my favorite songs. Some days I would just try to commit to learning as many Dylan songs possible or John Prine or Johnny Cash or Hank Williams, which is all pretty accessible stuff for a not so great player. Something else would usually enter my brain, and I would go off on a tangent writing new songs, and then a few hours or days had passed.

The only time I formally practice is when I’m playing live. I really like fundamentally simple chord progressions, but they can get all mixed up! I remember seeing Lucinda Williams play live once, and she had a binder of her songs on a music stand. I remember thinking, she’s my hero for so many reasons and I want to have that many good songs I need a binder to keep them straight.

What is your advice for young women who hope to work in the music industry?
Find people who support and inspire and nurture your creativity. Seek out mentors and people who know more than you who want to share their knowledge and passion. Reach out to people through blind emails and social media as you never know who may respond. Be kind, but take no s–t. Collaborate and say yes to things that are terrifying. Even if it’s not a great experience, you’ll learn something and grow. You’ll get so many no’s and people who can be so brutal and demoralizing. Move on. Not everyone will get what you’re doing. Don’t waste your time on them. Basically, find your people and do the work for the sake of it first and foremost. The art is in the doing.

And listen to Townes Van Zandt’s “For the Sake of the Song” if you get lost along the way.

RELATED:  Video Premiere: Marchelle Bradanini’s “Chinese New Year”from upcoming album, ‘Only A Woman’

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