In the studio

I’m very proud of it. None of us were in our comfort zone, that’s what’s so good about the album. This album could have taken two years to make, like The Next Day, because we were really working in the dark on The Next Day. The Next Day was full of wrong turns and red herrings whereas this one was pretty straightforward.

The Next Day came after 10 years of lay-off and now this is just a very short period between this one and The Next Day, what, two years? And actually we started working on this over a year ago, on the demos, so we’re in shape. Our ears were in shape.

Tony Visconti
Mojo, January 2016

In December 2014, David Bowie sent a first set of demos to Donny McCaslin’s band members. Although the songs were already mostly well-formed, the musicians were encouraged to contribute ideas of their own.

The demos that he made were really strong. The song forms on the demos were pretty much the same thing you hear on the record. It’s not like it was just a little two-bar sketch and we sat and worked on the tune for a whole day. These songs were all essentially in place before we started recording. And within their parameters, we were starting from what we heard on the demos. But his vibe was very open and collaborative. I remember him just encouraging us to just go for it and telling Mark if he wanted to do any odd-time things to just go with it. That was the spirit in the room, very positive and also he was entrusting us with his music, which was an absolute honor.
Donny McCaslin, 20 January 2016

McCaslin knew little of Bowie’s extensive back catalogue, with the exception of 1983’s commercial peak Let’s Dance. He began to seek out Bowie’s other work, but was quickly dissuaded by the singer. “He sent me an email saying, essentially, ‘That’s old stuff. I’m into different things now’,” McCaslin told the Guardian.

Instead of looking backwards, McCaslin immersed himself in Bowie’s demo recordings.

My process was figuring the deeper I got into these songs, the freer I was in the sessions to express myself. So before the sessions, I listened to the demos a lot, and when we were playing I was just trying to play from the spirit of those songs and also reacting to David’s vocals, which were really passionate and really compelling. He was tracked with us live. And so we were already a band and the four of us have played on the road a lot together, but even still he was such a strong and inspiring presence to us in the room. It was so natural.
Donny McCaslin, 20 January 2016

January 2015

The recording of Blackstar began at the Magic Shop in New York in the first week of 2015, and continued through to March.

We recorded monthly. We did about 10 days to two weeks per month. We recorded in January, February and March for the rhythm section at the Magic Shop and from April onwards we moved to a smaller studio called Human, part of a complex that my son Morgan Visconti owns, for post-production. That’s where David did practically all of his vocals. That took about two more months of post-production work. So I’d say by June the album was finished.
Tony Visconti
Mojo, January 2016

According to McCaslin, the musicians worked “essentially from 11 to 4 every day”, with Bowie singing guide vocals as they played.

Four songs were recorded in January: ‘Lazarus’ and ‘When I Met You’ on 3 January; ‘’Tis A Pity She Was A Whore’ on 5 January; and the ‘No Plan’ – released on the Lazarus musical soundtrack and the No Plan EP – on 7 January.

February 2015

Bowie sent more demoes to the musicians prior to the next set of sessions in February. Also invited to contribute was LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy, who had recently produced Arcade Fire’s Reflektor, on which Bowie sang, and who had remixed ‘Love Is Lost’ for The Next Day Extra.

They weren’t clear on his role. He was just in there hanging out. He did some interesting, cool things. He filtered some of my sounds through this machine he carries to all his sessions. It’s called the EMS Synthi. It has various models. The one is the EMS Synthi AKS. It looks like a briefcase and you open it up. It’s one of the first synths. Basically, it has modular ins and outs, and you can filter anything through it. A couple of overdubs of my parts where filtered through this thing. It had an amazing effect. I know it is one of James’ favorite things in the world. These are extremely rare and extremely expensive now.

Bowie said something like, “We will have a new ‘body’ in the studio as of Tuesday. He is James Murphy of LCD fame. He also produced Arcade Fire’s Reflektor album. He is a lovely bloke and he will get in the way and make lots of suggestions and we will have a ball.”

Jason Lindner
Rolling Stone, 4 December 2015

Murphy was credited with percussion on ‘Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime)’ and ‘Girl Loves Me’, and reportedly suggested a chord change in another song.

I played a little percussion. I was supposed to do a lot more but I got overwhelmed.

It takes a different kind of person than me to walk into that room and be like, I know exactly… I belong here, I should definitely insert myself in this relationship because they just can’t manage to make a record without me.

James Murphy
BBC Radio 1, 6 July 2017

According to Visconti, “At one point we were talking about three producers for the album: David, James and myself.” Drummer Mark Guiliana described Murphy as having brought in “some synths and some percussion and had a ton of ideas”.

The backing tracks recorded in this second period were ‘Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime)’ on 2 February; ‘Girl Loves Me’ on the next day; ‘Someday’ – later retitled ‘Blaze’ – on 4 February; and ‘Dollar Days’ on 6 February.

Mark and I have done a lot of live drum ‘n bass through the years. And in ‘Sue’, they let us go into that world for a second in a few spots. But a lot of the stuff was pretty meticulously demoed out, so there wasn’t a whole lot of room for improvising. And if we did take liberties, it was much more song-oriented. Like ‘Dollar Days’, for instance, was not demoed out. He taught us that right in the studio. So we had to put on our pop hats and try to figure out that song. To me, it’s pretty stunning how it came out, on all parts.
Tim Lefebvre, 20 January 2016

‘Dollar Days’ was the only Blackstar song not to have been demoed previously. The song was written by Bowie in the studio.

One day, David just picked up a guitar. He had this little idea, and we just learned it right there in the studio. I didn’t even remember it until months later when someone told me it was on the album.
Donny McCaslin
Rolling Stone, 23 November 2015

March 2015

The third and final set of recording sessions for the Blackstar backing tracks took place in the third week of March. This time the musicians were joined by guitarist Ben Monder.

The Next Day started out trying to do something new but something old kept creeping in. Not this album. David on purpose used Donny so that wouldn’t happen. If we used David’s former musicians they would be rock people playing jazz. And some of them could definitely do that, like [guitarists] Dave Torn and Gerry Leonard, they’re no slacks, they could play anything, but you’d get a different version of these songs. Having jazz guys play rock music turns it upside down. Their approach to the music was so refreshing, I looked forward to every day in the studio. Nothing was done recalling the past. There was one part where we were overdubbing just for the guitar tone. I forget what song, maybe ‘Lazarus’. I had to inform Ben Monder how Mick Ronson would have done it and he looked at me blankly. I think he’d heard of Mick Ronson but he’d never studied him. It was interesting, teaching a jazz guy how to play rock! And Ben is very jazz. Extremely jazz. Very dark jazz.
Tony Visconti
Mojo, January 2016

This third and final set of Magic Shop sessions began with the recording of the song ‘Blackstar’ on 20 March, followed by ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’ the next day. ‘Killing A Little Time’ was recorded on 23 March, as was a remake of ‘Someday’, which had been retitled ‘Blaze’. The band recorded a range of overdubs on 24 March.

The jazz I encountered with Donny is new. This is truly modern jazz. They don’t play bebop, there’s nothing traditional about them. Once during these sessions I suggested they play traditional, just for an eight bar break, and the energy just went so low, even just mentioning it. Even David glared at me, and I said, ‘I’m sorry! It was just an idea…’ They’re into something so amazing that it’s really outside the boundaries – the former boundaries – of jazz. The drummer is so totally into hip-hop music, and what you hear on this new album you’d swear they were loops but he’s playing live! Impeccable time-keeping and beautiful technique.
Tony Visconti
Mojo, January 2016