While obviously we would all prefer periods of isolation to be self-imposed, it can be encouraging to know that a lot of incredible art has come from creators who have made music in isolated situations. We take a look here at some of the greatest records that were made by artists in isolation — mostly, but not always, out of choice, and often created under emotional duress. Sound familiar?
Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago
Justin Vernon made this intimate masterpiece in his father’s remote hunting cabin in Wisconsin on a mostly snow-covered 80-acre plot of land. He did this while attempting to recover from pneumonia, mono, a liver infection AND a breakup – and indeed general disillusionment with life, his menial job and stalling band projects. He recorded the album on an old Mac, a few mics and different guitars. He hunted deer to supplement the supplies his father would bring him and did various manual labour tasks for him. He traded venison in a nearby town to help repair one of his guitars. And over three hazy months, he made a truly stunning record that strikes a deep emotional chord with millions of people. In 2008, 14 months after recording the album, he told Pitchfork: “the record’s a metaphor for the personal steps I [took] throughout the past year. I was very sad and very lonely and now my family’s doing really well and I’m in love.”
J Dilla – Donuts
J Dilla’s breathtaking collage of dusty old samples ‘Donuts’ was released on his 32nd birthday, and tragically just three days before his death. The prolific producer — known for his seminal work with the likes of De La Soul, Erykah Badu, A Tribe Called Quest, Slum Village, Busta Rhymes and the Pharcyde and so many others — made 29 out of the 31 tracks across extended stays in hospital in LA across the summer of 2005 while battling both lupus and an incurable blood disease called TTP.
He used a Boss SP-303 sampler and a portable 7″ record player to take hundreds of loops and hits from stacks of 45 vinyls that his mother and friends would bring to his hospital bed. On some days his hands would swell up from his condition to the point he could barely move them, and his mother, Maureen Yancey, would have to massage his fingertips so that he could continue working on the album. Sometimes he would wake up in the middle of the night and ask her to help him move from her bed to where the equipment was set up.
Yancey Sr. told The Fader that after she snuck a listen to what he was working on while he was in dialysis “he got furious when he found out I was listening to his music! He didn’t want me to listen to anything until it was a finished product.” This incredible record is one of the all-time hip-hop classics, a rare shining gem years after the golden era, and one which was a huge influence for the likes of Kanye West and Pharrell. Along with DJ Shadow’s ‘Entroducing’ and The Avalanches’ ‘Since I Left You’, it’s also one of the most incredible sampled-based ‘instrumental’ records in history.
Tame Impala – Currents
“At some point, life outside the studio fades into the distance. That’s how I know that I’m into it.” That’s what Kevin Parker told The Guardian about the making of his third Tame Impala album ‘Currents’, which he wrote, recorded and produced entirely on his own at his home studio in Freemantle, Western Australia. Fuelled by a late-night diet of drinking and smoking — balanced with ‘purifying’ swim breaks — ‘Currents’ is an incredible testament to single-mindedness. It’s one that drove him to obsessiveness, but as he has shown time and again, his shrinking away from the outside world yields truly glorious results. “The only rule was to make an attempt to abandon the rules that I’ve set up in the past” he told Spin, and perhaps his detachment from the world emboldened his desire to make the forays towards the world of pop that took this album in a breathtaking new direction and showed him to be a master songwriter and producer.
Grimes – Visions
Grimes’ 2012 breakthrough channelled the slow-building manic energy of isolation, creating an otherworldly aesthetic that sounded suitably like nothing else in the outside world. “Once you hit day nine, you start accessing some really crazy shit,” she told The Guardian. “You have no stimulation, so your subconscious starts filling in the blanks. I started to feel like I was channelling spirits. I was convinced my music was a gift from God. It was like I knew exactly what to do next, as if my songs were already written.” It was also written in the wake of a breakup, and she told The Skinny that it was themed around “loss in general, I think. A lot of the best music that I write, I write when I’m really upset and that’s definitely pretty intentional. That’s definitely a thing. ‘Visions’ was a really intense record to write because of the process of getting there.”
Radiohead – OK Computer
Following the stress of touring ‘The Bends’ and their new-found fame, Radiohead decamped to a mansion near Bath to record their now-legendary third album. Guitarist Jonny Greenwood told Circus Magazine: “the only concept that we had for this album was that we wanted to record it away from the city and that we wanted to record it ourselves“.
The isolated setting afforded them the opportunity to record whenever and wherever they liked, recording any time inspiration struck or the mood felt right. They made full use of sprawling property, recording live takes in different rooms and spaces to take advantage of their natural acoustics. ‘Let Down’ was recorded in the ballroom at 3AM, while the vocals for ‘Exit Music (For A Film)’ were recorded on a stone staircase. Thom Yorke was pleased with the process and results of recording without audio separation and, for the most part, overdubbing. Their distance from built-up civilization may also had the added bonus of helping give a greater perspective for the lyrical themes of the album, which very much concern the urban lifestyle and inner city pressure from which they were attempting to escape during recording.
Grizzly Bear – Shields
The American indie rock band’s highest charting album in the US was recorded at vocalist Ed Droste’s grandmother’s house in Cape Cod in early 2012, six years after they recorded their sophomore album ‘Yellow House’ there (named after the house itself). Their isolation at the property followed a failed attempt to record songs for the album the previous year in arts community hub Marfa, Texas. Singer Ed Droste wrote in an annotation on Genius: “We sequestered ourselves there for six or seven weeks and it was very isolated. No one was around and there was no internet but on our phones, no TV.” The momentum the extra few months post-Marfa gave them combined with the more secluded setting made for riveting results, with Pitchfork naming it their 10th favourite album of the year.
Bruce Springsteen – Nebraska
Although not premeditated as such, Springsteen’s stripped-back 1982 album was a snapshot of one man alone in his house, recording a slew of demo tracks across a few days on a four-track recorder at home in Colts Neck, New Jersey. The bulk of the record was recorded on the night of January 3, and he later took his recordings to the studio to work on them with his group the E Street Band. However, he and producer Jon Landau agreed that many of these stark demos should remain the way they were, and that additional parts recorded in the studio would detract from their raw beauty. These tracks were chosen to form the album ‘Nebraska’, which became one of his most acclaimed records and remains so. The intimate nature of the recordings also made him feel that the album’s release should not be accompanied by a tour, which only served to heighten the isolated feeling of the record.
If you haven’t listened to any of these albums, then now’s the time to go find somewhere comfortable, plug in your headphones and escape into the world the artist made for you. We hope you’ll find some inspiration in these to make your own isolation masterpiece. If you need any tips on how to get the best recording from home or free tools to use to make your tunes, head on over to the Creators United section of our blog.