April 26th, 2012, 7:01 am · · posted by KELLI SKYE FADROSKI, THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
For Orange County-based duo Barrett Johnson and Doll Knight, better known as the folk act the Ultimate Bearhug, the recording of their debut full-length was truly a labor of love.
“It does feel like the longest relationship I’ve ever had in my life,” says Knight, a 21-year-old who is now as highly regarded in local circles for her sweet, songbird vocals as Johnson is for his songwriting.
Their album, Just South of Los Angeles, officially arrives Saturday during the pair’s release party at the Hotel Café in Los Angeles. It was produced by Dallas Kruse, owner and mastermind of Zion Studios in Santa Ana, who also plays accordion, mandolin and Hammond organ on several of the tracks.
“It’s a great feeling knowing that these songs are going to be out,” Kruse says of the new set. “I’m a huge fan of not only Doll’s voice, because I think she’s a supreme talent, but the songs. I think lyrically and melodically, it’s such a great feel-good album, and an album to fall in love to and in love with. It’s great how everything came together, and now it’s on to the next step- we’ve got to go out and get people to know that there’s a record.”
Johnson and Knight met in the summer of 2010 after the former performed at a gig hosted by the latter’s group at the time, folk-pop quartet Canvas. What would become the Ultimate Bearhug initially got together to try writing songs, and the duo instantly found chemistry.
Johnson is definitely the more reserved of the two. At 35, he’s a seasoned O.C. musician and has issued two full-length discs of his own: 2008′s In Case I Went Missing and last year’s New Jerusalem, both of which he worked on with Kruse.
Knight, on the other hand, is a bit of a firecracker; she says whatever is on her mind and isn’t afraid to be a bit silly. Her in-studio antics (like trying to get her partner to wear a bear costume) were forgiven by both Johnson and Kruse when she stepped up to the mic and consistently nailed her vocals, usually in just one take.
“I’ve worked with a lot of vocalists and some lead singers can’t sing harmonies or have trouble hearing certain parts – but Doll is just so talented,” Kruse says of working with her for the first time on a full project.
“She was always on point … and there for pretty much every session. Even though lead vocals typically go last, she was there like, ‘Oh, I can’t wait to sing to that.’ I loved that passion. Her phrasing is so unique and has a very old jazz way of signing, which I also think is really unique and cool. And she is a full-on entertainer. She knows when to turn it on, and in the studio she’s just a pro.”
All parties agree that the actual recording process felt simply like “hanging out” rather than actual work, although both Johnson and Knight shared that plenty of times during longer sessions, things got a little weird.
“You start to get delirious and you’re hungry and you forget who you are,” Knight says.
“There’s a lot of hanging out and eating food in the studio,” Johnson adds. “We ate a lot of peanut butter and chocolate. Dallas always has peanut butter around.”
“Dallas always has junk food in the studio,” Knight points out.
She shares that on one occasion, while listening back to some of the tracks, she took a photo of the junk food pile that had accumulated around the studio. “It was frosted animal cookies on top of Doritos bags on top of tortilla chips, with chocolate wrappers all over the place and soda cans and Cactus Cooler – that was breakfast! It was only 9 a.m.”
Despite that addiction, Knight and Johnson agree he was the best man to produce the Ultimate Bearhug’s debut. “The bands who have worked with him, they come back every time,” Johnson says. “They know how many ideas he has and how quick he is to arrange and that sort of thing.”
“He has really nice biceps,” Knight adds with a laugh. “He’s really easygoing and he’s flexible. He caters to you, but at the same time he’s opinionated. It’s easy to tell him what you want to happen, and he can help figure out what it will take to get there.”
Kruse also enlisted the talents of his most trusted studio musicians for the sessions, including bassist Mikey Hachey and drummer Jorgen Ingmar.
“Nothing about the recording process felt forced,” Kruse adds. “Mikey and Jorgen are phenomenal musicians- we’re always on the same page and we work so well together. They were really pumped to do this. They play on a million tracks, but when it’s something they really dig, something magical just comes out.”
For the rest of 2012, Johnson and Knight say they will be working hard to get Just South of Los Angeles into as many hands and ears as possible. Following the release party, the new collection will be available for free on the band’s website. Though they’ve marinated these tracks for almost a year, the duo hasn’t set aside time just yet to write fresh material. Their writing process, Knight admits, is sort of random.
“Sometimes it comes immediately and in 10 minutes we’re already full of ideas and trying to organize them,” she says. “But it goes anywhere from being able to finish a song in one night to taking three months just to finish one line. It’s ridiculous sometimes, but Barrett and I always make sure that if it needs to take three months, then it does.”
“Patience is a huge part of our songwriting,” he adds. “I like it that way. I think if you take time on stuff, things get better and better and you try to refine what you’re doing. It varies widely, but the thing you have to do is show up to do the work. If you write three days a week, you’re going to come up with a lot more stuff then if you only write the moment you’re inspired.”
The Ultimate Bearhug Release Party is set for Saturday, April 28, at 9 p.m. at Hotel Café, 1623 N. Cahuenga Blvd., in Los Angeles. Admission is free, but it’s 21-and-older.