The newest release by Octave Records, Shelter by singer/songwriter Megan Burtt, is a warm, intimate album of songs that have an organic, natural flow. The music is centered around Burtt’s inviting voice, piano and guitar, recorded in stunning up-close-and-personal clarity using Octave Records’ Pure DSD high-resolution recording process.
Megan Burtt is backed by a cast of superb musicians on acoustic and electric guitars, drums, electric and upright bass, keyboards, strings, woodwinds, and background vocals. Megan noted, “this record was written during COVID and a trying time in my life, so a lot of the songs speak to surrender and redemption and ultimately, hope.”
The album title, Shelter, comes from a lyric in the song “Hollow Bone,” about being a refuge for another person, “a shelter and a welcome home.” The opening song, “Avalanche,” speaks of the ability to survive and thrive even if the world is crumbling around you. “Revolutionary” features a string section and harmony vocals contrasted by syncopated drumbeats, a combination that adds musical tension that somehow works perfectly. “What Love is For” offers a rich instrumental bed of keyboards and acoustic and electric guitar, an expansive soundscape to complement Burtt’s emotive singing: “we all need an open door/I guess that that’s what love is for.” “State of Mind,” a sparse 3/4-time ballad about searching for direction in life, and love, is the perfect way to close out the album.
Shelter was engineered and mixed by John McVey using Octave Records’ Pure DSD process and the Sonoma multi-track DSD recording system, and mastered by Gus Skinas. It features Octave’s premium gold disc formulation, and the disc is playable on any SACD, CD, DVD, or Blu-ray player. Shelter also has a high-resolution DSD layer that is accessible by using any SACD player or a PS Audio SACD transport. In addition, the master DSD and PCM files are available for purchase and download (including DSD256 and DSD128, DSDDirect Mastered 192kHz/24-bit, 96kHz/24-bit, 44.1 kHz/24-bit and 44.1kHz/16-bit PCM), along with 24-karat gold CDs at standard resolution. (SRP: $19 – $39, depending on format.) These CDs have been cut directly off the DSD master using BitPerfect’s state-of-the-art Zephiir filter.
As Megan pointed out, “when recording on DSD, it’s a very specific style, because we don’t have unlimited tracks or the ability to edit or fix things later. So, you have to be focused on the performance.” She said, “I think if there’s heart in it, people hear that feeling. I think that feeling really comes across in this recording.”
I interviewed Megan about the new album and her thoughts about music, life, and other things.
Frank Doris: How did you get started in music? When did you know that you wanted to be a performer and that you were good at it?
Megan Burtt: I always say that music for me is genetic, but it skipped a generation. My grandfather was a big band drummer in the Forties and Fifties in Kansas City, which was a big jazz hub at the time. I have a great aunt who was a lifelong performer. My parents were not [musical]. So I didn’t really grow up with it in the house, but was always very drawn to music as a way of expressing my feelings and an outlet for sort of being seen through my songwriting.
FD: There’s kind of a mysterious thing about being a musician. It’s something that you feel like you have to do, not something you sort of stumble into.
MB: Absolutely. It’s definitely the thing that gets me up every day, the pursuit of the artistry and the craft. I haven’t found anything else that’s motivated me more in life than songwriting and getting better at music.
I suppose a lot of things are like this, but I think especially with music, if you’re doing it right, there’s no arriving. You’re always in pursuit of your voice and your craft and your artistry. There’s something really wonderful for me about that, that constant searching.
FD: I agree. I’ve been playing for a long time and sometimes feel like I’m just getting started. You play the piano really well and that’s not an easy instrument to master.
MB: Oh gosh. I’m so far from mastery! I can just play piano enough to write some songs. I have a long way to go. And that, you know, again, it’s like in music. But if you have a few decades with an instrument and you start feeling bored or stuck, you just pick up a new instrument.
FD: Songwriting is a mysterious process. Does it come easily to you or do you tear your hair out?
MB: There are certainly songs that I have to put more effort into than others, but the way I write songs is that I put in the effort until the point where the songs write themselves and then they just flow out of me. I sit down with a guitar or piano and play chords and sing melodies and play with lyrics and it’s like I’m searching for the map. Once I find the map, songs typically will come really quickly. So, I might sit down with the idea of writing a song, but sort of look for something that feels easy and for an hour and a half or two hours. If I don’t get to the point where it’s easy, if I don’t get to the point where I find the map, then I just don’t keep going.
FD: That’s a different approach than some other musicians I’ve talked to.
Who are some of your influences? I could make some guesses, but I won’t (laughs)
MB: Who are your guesses? I’m curious.
FD: Nanci Griffith, Joni Mitchell…
MB: You’re in the ballpark. (laughs) Certainly, female artists and songwriters tend to be where I lean. Um, Shawn Colvin is a really big one. I often hear that people hear Shawn Colvin in my music.
FD: Shelter has a natural kind of flow about it. Is that something you set out to do or did it just happen that way?
MB: It’s not something that I [deliberately] set out to do, but if a song doesn’t tell you what it wants to be, then I don’t keep going with it. Don’t get in the way of the song. So that’s a compliment to hear that it sounds that way to you because yeah, that means I did my job. (laughs)
FD: The album has a sparse, almost stark feel at times.
MB: I think that part of that happened because of recording on DSD on the Sonoma system and having limited channels to work with. We didn’t have infinite tracks of recording like you do in Pro Tools. I suppose it was a little bit conscious and mostly circumstantial. (laughs)
FD: Did you record with your regular band?
MB: Yes. Again, recording in DSD is a very specific style of recording and we couldn’t do a lot of editing or comping or fixing it later. We had to get it right the first time. I don’t know if people who aren’t musicians realize how much fixing of musicianship happens in post-production [and so on]. This is a can of worms and definitely a discussion for another time. But I will say that I think digital recording has made bad musicians out of most of us. Because we have the ability to fix ourselves. I knew that we wouldn’t have that ability on this record. And so I hired musicians that could do it right the first time.
FD: Copper recently ran an article where the mastering engineer talked about having to tweak the timing of every single snare drum hit by the drummer in a heavy metal band. Just let the guy play and who cares if it’s a couple of milliseconds off here and there!
MB: To each its own. I’m a perfectionist, so I like digital recording, I like being able to fix myself. I don’t have strong feelings about the fact that people take advantage of the fact that it is possible to make fixes in recording. But it’s definitely a decision. What kind of record are you making, and how much humanity are you exposing?
FD: How did you meet up with Octave Records?
MB: Well, [Octave Records engineer] Gus Skinas and I had met over the years. He had been to some of my performances and invited me to make a record after he saw me play a show. He’s an amazing mastering engineer and he’s been around the block.
FD: How did it feel to listen and hear the music played back with such a sense of reality?
MB: Pretty phenomenal. [DSD] is something that I hope every musician gets an opportunity to hear at some point in their lifetime.
FD: Tell us about the songs and how they came about.
MB: This record was primarily written during COVID and through a pretty trying period in my life. It’s kind of a record of looking at your life and humbly moving through the trials and tribulations of it.
FD: I’ve been hearing that from a lot of artists. How could you not be affected by what’s going on today? It’s not the same world as it was three years ago.
MB: I don’t know, I think we all have pretty short attention spans. I’m watching things moving back to how it was pretty quickly.
FD: I feel like I have to ask this question to everybody: as an artist, how has the pandemic affected your music and whatever plans you might have for the future?
MB: I think we’re all still figuring that out. I don’t think you can have something as big as this was and, and actually know how it’s going to affect you. It’s certainly changed live performance, which is primarily how I make a living.
The thing that I appreciate about the audiophile audience and people who appreciate quality audio is that they typically buy music, which is not the case in this current day and age with digital streaming. I’m glad to have a new audience to meet and interact with. And I’m incredibly proud of the songs on this record and where they’ve come from. The string arrangements by Russell Durham are so beautiful.
FD: Do you just do your art and let the chips fall where they may, or do you try to think about what pleases people?
MB: Oh, you can’t do that. I did when, when I was younger. But that’s a losing game.
FD: There is one other thing I wanted to ask. How in the world, considering the rarity of redheads, did you manage to put together the band Gingerbomb, an all-redhead band?
MB: I always had this joke that I wanted to be a DJ and call myself DJ Ginger Bomb. I was living in New York and doing a lot of songwriting with a great writer and friend named Zach Berkman. We were just writing a ton of stuff and I thought, why don’t we just do this as a band? The [Wildfire] record’s on Spotify.
FD: There’s a DJ, Tiesto, and he makes tens of millions of dollars a year.
MB: Gosh. Well, maybe I should go back to my DJ dream! I can’t say that I have done a great job at chasing the market. I’ve just done a great job at chasing my own muse.