The Scent of Magnolia

‘unorthodox with a lot of movement’

When David Sylvian’s career-to-date retrospective album Everything and Nothing appeared in 2000, it turned out to be a compilation with a difference. Among the familiar songs from twenty years of his musical history were some never-before-heard tracks spanning the entire period. The artist was clear, however, that these were not inferior and therefore discarded out-takes.

‘There was a fair amount of unreleased material lying in the vaults and I really thought this was an appropriate time to get to it,’ Sylvian told Robert Sandall in an internet-hosted interview. ‘For a number of a reasons, primarily because the industry is changing, there’s no real security when working with the major labels. I’ve been with Virgin for twenty years, but whether I will be with them three months from now, we don’t know. So let’s say I was not to be with them in three months from now, I would no longer have access to this material at all. And as the material was unfinished it would never be released, so basically a lot of good material would have been lost. Also, I would no longer have had access to my earlier work, the back catalogue, in all probability.

‘So, I thought this was an appropriate time to get to grips with all of that and really bring to completion some tracks that I thought were quite important and certainly worth a listen. They were by no means substandard tracks. They were either not included on the albums that they were originally meant to complement because of time and budgetary constraints, or because of contextual problems. But I really felt that they were strong pieces in and of themselves.’ (2000)

The earliest track on the album was a version of the lost Japan ballad ‘Some Kind of Fool’, the original having been excised from the Gentleman Take Polaroids track-listing so late that the first print of the vinyl’s cover carried an ‘erratum’ sticker highlighting its replacement with ‘Burning Bridges’. Intriguingly, four pieces with their roots in the sessions for Sylvian’s most recent release, Dead Bees on a Cake, were also included. These were two further pieces based around Bill Frisell’s dobro improvisations as well as the songs ‘Cover Me with Flowers’ and ‘The Scent of Magnolia’.

Sylvian confirmed his belief in the strength of this material when Dead Bees on a Cake was released on vinyl for the very first time as a special twin white-vinyl edition for Record Store Day in 2018. This was, he said, ‘essentially the double album I’d always intended it to be before the label ran out of patience awaiting its arrival.

The fact that Everything and Nothing opens with one of its most recent recordings is another marker than this was no straightforward ‘greatest hits’ collection. ‘The Scent of Magnolia’ is both an elegant and vibrant start. Its scuttling percussion is unlike anything else from the Dead Bees on a Cake track-listing with which we were then familiar.

The imagery, though, was as seductive as Sylvian’s celebration of ‘love, devotion, surrender, and ultimately divine intoxication.’ It continues the LP’s ‘mood of celebration, celebrating both the dark and light sides of life and feeling the sense of intoxication, like being intoxicated with the loved one or with life in general or with god divine, whatever. That sense of overwhelming joy that you can feel through love with an individual, through love with whatever.’ (DS, 1999)

For reasons that I don’t understand the lyric for ‘The Scent of Magnolia’, like that for the collaboration with Chris Vrenna – ‘Linoleum’ – from around this time, is absent from Sylvian’s collection of lyrics and poems, Hypergraphia. However, the words were printed in the Japanese cd booklet for Everything and Nothing, the first line taking us straight to India and to spiritual encounters in the subcontinent.

‘In the cow-dust hour
Something’s going down
Whatever pierced the heart it didn’t make a sound’

The opening phrase has often been misheard as ‘coldest hour’ but the ‘cow-dust’ hour in India refers to dusk, when cattle that had been sent to nearby fields for daylight grazing returned to the village for shelter and safety. As the animals move their hooves kick up clouds of red dust; the Hindi word for twilight is godhali, literally cow (‘go’) dust (‘dhalli’). It marks the transition from day to evening, a sacred time when Lord Krishna the cowherd brought his own animals safely home. In India it is regarded as an auspicious hour for engagements and weddings, but it’s also the time when mothers call their children back to the home to avoid an encounter with evil spirits.

‘The hour of cowdust’, 18th century India, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

There are competing emotions at play in ‘The Scent of Magnolia’. Fear of the unknown co-exists with an assurance that surrender to the divine, in particular to human incarnations of the divine mother, is the true path:

‘I am terrified
But I’m not losing sleep
If I’m falling then I’m falling at her feet’

For me this song brings back vivid memories of trips to India and the technicolour floral displays of the street sellers: garlands and blooms to be presented by the devout as fragrant offerings to the deities in ornate Hindu temples close by. The senses are aroused as in another of Sylvian’s compositions, ‘Blue Skinned Gods’, where he sings, ‘She’s filling the air with hibiscus and magnolia’.

This spiritual exploration was very much shared with his wife Ingrid Chavez and her spoken word expands upon the imagery:

‘The rose
The breath
The undying spark
The lotus hearts open
Embracing the dark
On the uncharted road
It’s the not coming back
In the language I speak
It’s the words that I lack’

This is not the first time Sylvian uses roads as representations of routes chosen and distance travelled in the journey of a life. There’s something fitting in employing such a mundane image, anchoring the spiritual in the everyday.

‘In the on coming cars
A wedding of stars’

Thalheim‘ conveys the romance of an inexplicable love affair, the object of desire expressed so as it might equally be an earthly partner or a manifestation of the divine: ‘and miracles have just begun/In which only you and I believe’. ‘The Scent of Magnolia’ has this same sense of moving beyond the realms of life-experience to date and of accepted wisdom:

‘Every sense defies
This impossible dream
None of the history books describe what I’ve seen’

Despite the uncertainty of where the path might lead, it is embraced. And like the bullet leaving the gun there can be no turning back (recalling the ‘the sound of shot and echo’ in ‘Thalheim’). It’s an analogy that also stresses the necessity of the death of the ego in pursuit of new goals.

‘Will I know your name
Or recognise your face?
Or by what means I’ll be delivered from this place
Here comes the gun
There goes the flash
Once the bullet leaves it’s never coming back’

The song captures a forward momentum in both its words and the feel of the music, moving beyond the constraints of a particular place and into the unknown – maybe even beyond the confines of time itself. Sylvian’s voice slides triumphantly to a higher pitch as he completes the mysterious final couplet:

‘I’ll fire from the future
And ambush the world’

The impetus in the song’s arrangement is driven by the elaborate rhythm programming of Andreas Allen and Sebastian Morton. In the expanded version of Dead Bees on a Cake, ‘The Scent of Magnolia’ follows ‘I Surrender‘; the contrast in the groove is marked, from mellow reflection to tireless drive.

‘I was introduced to David via Yuka Fuji, whom I’d met in London through a mutual friend working with Ryuichi Sakamoto,’ Andreas explains. ‘Yuka informed me he’d relocated to northern California and was working on new material there. Coincidently (or not) I was in the process of moving back to LA around the same time to work on the last OUTSIDE album for Dorado Records, after nearly a decade in London working alongside Matt Cooper. Yuka had mentioned that David had specific programming needs for his current projects and forwarded on my work. It was at this point that David and I connected, leading up to our first meeting in Sonoma shortly after.’

OUTSIDE was a duo of Andreas and keyboard player Matt Cooper; it was through this outfit that Sylvian subsequently identified Cooper to join his band for the Everything and Nothing tour. OUTSIDE also linked Andreas with his accomplice for the assignment on ‘The Scent of Magnolia’. ‘Sebastian Morton was my production partner at the time and instrumental in the creative process. Fortunately, he was also familiar with David’s work, so we quickly aligned on a direction and feel. Seb and I had formed a partnership after working together on a Santana record and OUTSIDE’s Out of the Dark album. He’s an incredibly talented engineer, musician and composer in his own right. We are still collaborating on various projects to this day.

‘If I remember correctly, Dead Bees… had just been released and this was a track from those sessions that didn’t make it onto the album. David was then in the process of reworking existing material and unfinished tracks to be included on a retrospective for Virgin Records. ‘…Magnolia’ was one of those tracks, with a working title called ‘100 Years’.’

Having met face-to-face in California, Sylvian and Allen agreed to collaborate remotely. However, these were early days in the process of sharing tracks as digital data files, with systems and standards yet to establish a stable basis for such an approach. ‘It was 1999 and Protools was only really being used by bigger artists and commercial studios at the time, so you couldn’t run it without the expensive TDM hardware. Sebastian and I were running a MOTU Audiodesk system, which was incompatible for them to send us a DVD with stems.’ This meant reverting to tape using the latest digital technology available, but Sylvian’s approach to building up the arrangement meant over thirty tracks were required, with each tape having a maximum capacity of only eight. ‘David’s engineer Dave Kent sent us four Tascam DA88 multitrack tapes, but the problem was we only had one machine. So we had to dump eight tracks at a time via SMPTE code lock, and they drifted, so we actually recorded a snare hit at the end of each tape and lined up the hits afterward inside the computer, like a 2-pop for film, to make sure all parts transferred correctly. Sakamoto’s orchestral mix was on DAT sent over from London, so that was flown in separate.’

Once the complexities of accessing and synchronising the masters was complete, Allen and Morton could get to grips with the work that had been created to date. ‘On the tapes David sent there were keyboard parts, ambient guitar textures, bass, David and Ingrid’s vocal and a little percolating top loop to keep time. I don’t remember the exact brief from David, but he was looking to do something different rhythmically, so we agreed to start working on the drum programming.

‘Our initial approach was to do something unorthodox with a lot of movement but retain the vibe David had constructed. We began by adding some sliced vinyl loops from the MPC to the percolating part to make it more of a groove.’

The technology of the time allowed samples to be assembled and sequenced, however manipulation of the sound required some ingenuity. Fortunately, workarounds sometimes result in happy accidents. ‘This was a time when there were almost no plugins and definitely no modelled filter plugins like today, so we ran the different sliced grooves through the Studio Electronics ATC-1 synthesizer’s external input. This synth has four separate filter cartridges attached so we used the Minimoog and the Oberheim.

‘The problem with doing that is that in order to have audio pass through from the audio input in the back you have to trigger a note. Usually we turn off the oscillators so there’s no actual pitch but we forgot, so by accident there’s a low bass note coming through as a sub on the filter which almost adds a percussive bass and we loved it. That’s what you hear at the very end of the song when it sweeps down to nothing with a strange pitch. It also made the resonance distort in an interesting way.’

Some live playing was recorded specifically for the track, but it was subject to extreme manipulation. ‘Once we had the filtered grooves as a bed, we called in drummer/percussionist Paul Gonzalez from Santana’s crew to play a mini cocktail jazz kit with brushes. It sounded slightly too traditional so we chopped up his snare strokes and reversed them.’ Andreas explains how the technology of the time was used to build up the intricate sounds and rhythms that come together to form a series of movements complementing the different phases of the song. ‘In the chorus we added a breakbeat slice from vinyl, programmed on the MPC and distorted it through the Empirical Labs Fatso to get that tape warmth. During Ingrid’s spoken word section, Sebastian manually played along with the loop on the ATC using the Oberheim SEM cartridge as a band-pass filter and edited together the best takes. That’s the strange sweeping percussion you hear in that part. The shaker was performed live by myself through a Neumann U87 mic and a Manley Vintage tube compressor crushing the tube gain for some lo-fi crunch.’

Studio snapshots of Andreas (above) and Seb (below) that were taken later at Rocasound Studios in Burbanck, CA. ‘They are unique in that they feature much of the original gear used on the ‘…Magnolia’ sessions, in particular the SE ATC, Akai MPC and Manley outboard gear.’ (AA, 2021)

It’s fun to listen back to the track picking out these various elements in the knowledge of how they were created. So how much from those tapes that Dave Kent had sent made it through to the finished track? ‘All the keyboards, bass and textures from the original multi tracks were used and made it to the final mix. We filtered and processed the top loop into something completely different and integrated it as a texture.’ I particularly enjoy the contrast of the modern electronic-based groove against Sakamoto’s momentous orchestral arrangement. ‘Yes, the drums work really nicely against the orchestral arrangement and add a certain framework around the dynamics. I remember there being some mic bleed from the string recordings that needed to be masked in quieter sections, which posed a slight challenge.’

With the early copies of Everything and Nothing there was a third cd of bonus material including an edit of ‘The Scent of Magnolia’, perhaps hinting it had been considered as a single release, and an alternative version known as the ‘Portobello Mix’. For this take on the song, Andreas and Seb’s work is replaced with drum programming by Steve Jansen. For me it’s treasure to have two different takes on the track. ‘His version was independently created,’ confirms Andreas, ‘I wasn’t involved in any specific conversations around the alternative versions. However, I’ve been a big fan of Steve’s technique since the Japan days. One of the most talented and underrated drummers of his time!’

Including the original version with Andreas and Seb’s parts on the Dead Bees on a Cake vinyl adds a distinct texture as that album unfolds. ‘Naturally, I was very pleased to see the track included on the Dead Bees… reissue,’ says Andreas. ‘I’d imagine David always intended it to be part of that record in some shape or form. From my personal recollection, the album marked a very happy period in David’s life. And I was fortunate to have shared some wonderful moments and conversations with him and Ingrid around that time.’

It was a meeting of minds that went wider than the music. ‘We were independently spending a lot of time with spiritual teachers, particularly Mata Amritanandamayi, whom we both had a close affinity to. I related to many themes explored on Dead Bees… (surrender, devotion, death of the ego, etc.) and could therefore connect to the subject matter first-hand. We were pursuing similar paths as it were during that time, and these shared experiences certainly fuelled the collaboration and conversations to some extent.’

Circumstances in the ensuing years dictated that it would be a one-off collaboration. ‘Everything and Nothing seemed to mark the end of an era and the many years tied to Virgin. From our conversations I recall David keen to explore new musical territory as reflected on the Samadhi releases that followed. I had left studio life in LA and moved to Berlin to head A&R at Native Instruments, a leading music hardware and software company. We did briefly meet again in Berlin several years later whilst he was on tour, but then subsequently lost touch.

David Sylvian and Andreas Allen, Berlin, 2007

‘David is a true artist. An enigma in every sense and a lovely human being to boot. It was a wonderful experience and I’m proud of the collaboration and the positive feedback we’ve received over the years. His vast catalogue of work played a big part in my life, both personally and professionally as a musician/producer. It was a privilege to have had the opportunity to work with, whom I consider, a mentor in such an organic way and we developed a close friendship during that period.’

Andreas was left with a tangible reminder of their shared experience. ‘The image of Amma as a young girl had a profound effect on me after seeing it in David and Ingrid’s home in New Hampshire. He generously scanned the photo and sent it as a gift. The framed image and puja items surrounding it still claim a special corner in my home and serves as a memoir from that particular time and the spiritual path that connected us.’

‘The scent of magnolia
The face of a girl’

Mata Amritanandamayi (Amma) as a young girl – in Andreas Allen’s home (above) and in one of David Sylvian’s polaroids from the Glowing Enigmas exhibition catalogue, Tokyo, 2012 (below)

‘The Scent of Magnolia’

Andreas Allen and Sebastian Morton – drum programming; Ingrid Chavez – voice; Bill Frisell – guitar; John Giblin – bass; Ryuichi Sakamoto – samples, string arrangement; David Sylvian – keyboards, samples, guitar, vocals

Produced by David Sylvian. From Everything and Nothing, Virgin, 1999 and Dead Bees on a Cake (vinyl re-issue), Universal, 2018

‘The Scent of Magnolia’ (Portobello Mix)

Ingrid Chavez – voice; Bill Frisell – guitar; John Giblin – bass; Steve Jansen – drum programming; Ryuichi Sakamoto – samples, string arrangement; David Sylvian – keyboards, samples, guitar, vocals

Produced by David Sylvian. From Everything and Nothing bonus cd, Virgin, 1999

Music and lyrics by David Sylvian

lyrics © copyright samadhisound publishing

Grateful thanks to Andreas Allen and Sebastian Morton for sharing such detailed memories of how the track was made. Full sources and acknowledgements for this article can be found here.

The featured image is from the Everything and Nothing bonus cd.

Download links: ‘The Scent of Magnolia’ (iTunes)

Physical media links: extended vinyl version of Dead Bees on a Cake (Amazon) (burningshed)

‘At the root of Indian culture is the life of the spirit. Their culture is imbued with this spirit, it is rooted in truth no matter the distortions it might go through before it reaches us. It’s a complex culture and I enjoy unravelling it, growing more and more appreciative with an increasing understanding of its riches.’ David Sylvian, 2002

7 thoughts on “The Scent of Magnolia”

  1. I am so thankful that David finished this track. It is a track that strikes a very strong chord with me; the driving rhythm, the textures, counter point, orchestration and the lyrics hit home with me in a way that few songs do.

    Liked by 2 people

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