Multiple JUNO Award-winning Blackie and the Rodeo Kings co-founder Stephen Fearing presents fans and audiophiles with a rare musical experience, The Secret of Climbing – a limited edition, vinyl-only release that captures the subtle emotions of his mesmerizing voice and masterful guitar work in their purest form, unobscured by computers or studio wizardry.
Stephen collaborated on the project with two music industry legends: the album’s co-producer and veteran engineer Roy Gandy, co-founder of UK-based hi-fi manufacturer Rega Research, and renowned International Mastering Engineer Ray Staff, who has worked with an array of iconic artists, from Cab Calloway, Van Morrison, and Cowboy Junkies to Led Zeppelin, The Clash, and The Rolling Stones.
For Gandy, vinyl is king – in the midst of digital overload he believes that’s where the purest sounds are heard. He and Stephen share a passion for authentic music, and that connection sparked an idea for Gandy: invite Fearing to his home studio and see how much music they could capture on his newly refurbished Studer 8 channel tape recorder, then cut those tracks directly to vinyl with no overdubs, processing, or studio gadgetry in between.
“I’ve spent my career chasing that sweet spot where craft and soul merge,” Stephen said. “With this record I think we achieved that and listeners will experience the intimacy of that stripped-down session. What you hear through your speakers or headphones is as close as you can get to what I played at Roy’s on that chilly winter day in the heart of the English countryside.”
Arriving at Gandy’s home in the midst of a packed international tour, Stephen was road-weary but committed. The studio set-up was simple, just a chair, his beloved Manzer acoustic, and two mics — one for vocals, the other for guitar. With only two days available to lay down tracks and see what might happen, Stephen let go and allowed the music to speak, recording a selection of his previously-released tracks and one cover, Tom Waits’ Time.
“[Co-producer] Gary Bennett and I just looked at each other in the booth as we realized something truly magical had happened,” Gandy recalls. “Stephen expressed every word like a poet while simultaneously playing his exquisite arrangements. He created a beautiful aura around the guitar, making it sound like effects were added. Three of the songs we got in first takes, and most of the others were done in two.”
Raw tracks in hand, Gandy was able to lure Staff out of retirement to delicately coax Stephen’s music from analog tape to vinyl. The renowned engineer finished the record in a place of legends – Sir George Martin’s historic AIR Studios in London.
“The approach to the music set the stage for the rest of the album production,” Stephen explains. “This is like a return to the early days of my career when vinyl was the lead format and cassettes just came with miniaturized versions of the album art. I chose a gatefold cover because I missed the days of lingering over full-size liner notes while the record played.”
Watch the video for Long Walk To Freedom
The lead track from The Secret of Climbing was inspired by the writings of Nelson Mandela.
Unsurprisingly, as head of the world’s most respected turntable manufacturer, Gandy was particular about who he would trust to press this special release. He chose Germany’s Pallas Group, who have been making records for 70 years. The 180 gram vinyl was crafted to deliver an exceptional platform for signal delivery at a weight that, like the music it holds, will endure for decades.
“While every step of recording and production was designed for vinyl, the album is being released into a mobile-driven world. To accommodate these seemingly competing realities I asked Audio Engineer David Travers-Smith (co-producer of Every Soul’s a Sailor) to develop the digital download for The Secret of Climbing,” Stephen said. “The files were lifted directly from the album’s test pressing and preserve the detail and warmth of analogue as faithfully as possible.”