Last updated on October 19, 2020
I don’t review books on music much, but the unique concept of Mirror Sound: A Look into the People and Processes behind Self-Recorded Music by Spencer Tweedy, Lawrence Azerrad, and Daniel Topete (photography) drew me in deeply.
So a writer/musician, a photographer, and a designer get together to do a bunch of interviews with professional, full-time indie rock, acoustic, electronic, and rap musicians who self-record. They basically ask “How did you start self-recording? Why do you do it?” and let the interviews flow from there. They take a ton of photos of people’s home studios while they’re at it. Then they write up a sort of ethnographic research report on the themes they found, include the selected text of the interviews with 20+ different musicians, design it meticulously, and cram it all into one book. It is an impressively big project.
It’s a bit ironic that it’s a sprawling project, because the fun part of self-recording is about doing things small, weird, and idiosyncratic. And the creative team here knows that: even with the sprawling concept and cross-country interviews (they even visited R.A.P. Feirrera up in Maine), the whole thing is charming, personal, and lovingly done. People tell their weird life stories and their weird professional stories. They get surprisingly candid. (Sometimes incredibly candid: Bradford Cox talks so much that there aren’t even questions listed in his interview. Instead, they just cut things out with ellipses and start on another topic. Also, did you know that Bradford Cox and Eleanor Friedbarger are married? I did not either.)
The main themes of the book are that self-recording is freeing and challenging, really an art form all to its own. Many people start self-recording because they have no other options, but then become experts as they go. (The most charming interviews were a few younger self-recorders who said basically “I have no idea what I’m doing but it is working out ok.”) The ethnographic section that spools out these themes is interesting and motivating. The ethnographic report moves quickly–it was easy and fun to read. The 20+ interviews are really not intended to be read back to back to back like I did; that section is more of a process to linger over.
This invitation to linger is particularly true when you take into account the size of the book (9-1/4 x 11-1/2; coffee-table size) and the prodigious amount of beautiful photography in the book. Daniel Topete took photos not just of the artists in their workspaces and the artist at work, but little details of the studios of each person. They are almost uniformly creative spaces in their own right, as almost all have their studios packed with gear, cables, art, items, and ephemera. (A notable exception is Sadie Dupuy of Speedy Ortiz, who looks almost unbelievably minimalist in her photos; I have more recording equipment than Sadie does, it seems. This is impressive in its own right.) They are beautiful, fascinating photos.
The only downside of this whole book is a design choice to list the captions on the photos vertically instead of horizontally; given that there are dozens of photos in the book, I had to turn my head sideways a lot to figure out whose studio I was looking at. This problem may be solved by the actual size of the physical book (I read a PDF review copy), but it seems odd to break the flow so often by turning my head 45 degrees to read the captions. Other than that, this book is absolutely excellent–a great piece of music writing, a fascinating look into worlds music fans don’t often get to see, and a worthy coffee-table book.