In the studio

The song is structured in three parts, the central “I’m a blackstar” portion bookended by the opening and closing “Villa of Ormen” sections.

I’m pretty sure that was the first take. I remember David saying, “Well, why don’t you just naturally dissolve it and it will go into this other part,” which we had recorded right after. And that first time we tried to dissolve it, that’s what appears on the record.
Ben Monder, 20 January 2016

‘Blackstar’ began life as two separate pieces of music, although David Bowie decided to combine them prior to the recording sessions.

Bowie knew it was going to be the same song. It wasn’t that they were two separate songs. He actually said in the email that we would connect these two parts with a freeform middle bit. That was that. It was a two-part suite rather than two different songs.
Jason Lindner
Rolling Stone, 4 December 2015

According to McCaslin, the song was recorded in two parts, which were subsequently edited together.

In terms of how ‘Blackstar’ was put together, we recorded it in two halves. From what I remember, I think David always knew it was going to be one song, but we recorded it in two different sections. I didn’t know it was going to be sax on the first half and flute on the second. What happened was that flute solo at the end was something I had added on an overdub day when I was there just overdubbing flute parts, so that came a little bit later in the process. It was really cool they included it.
Donny McCaslin, 20 January 2016

The backing track was recorded on 20 March 2015, at the Magic Shop studio in New York. Although the middle section was recorded separately, the opening part and the dissolve into the second section was a first take.

There’s definitely a fresh energy to it, and that’s certainly got something to do with so much of it being a first take. But the song has its two distinct parts, and David basically said, “Somehow dissolve this into the next section of the tune.” Somehow we did that dissolution perfectly on the first attempt, and that’s what you’re hearing on the album – no punching-in or anything. We did the middle section separately, but the way it all dissolves into it was totally improvised. There wasn’t an effort made to over-polish or overproduce it.
Ben Monder
Premier Guitar, 15 January 2016

Further guitar work was overdubbed at a later date, as were the string and flute parts.

I overdubbed the sort-of Phrygian-sounding chords on the title track a couple of times with a pretty distorted sound, and then again with a clean tone and that shimmer setting on the Strymon BlueSky. I think Tony and David brought the distorted part in and out a lot as needed.
Ben Monder
Premier Guitar, 15 January 2016

Bowie’s vocals were recorded at Human Studios, owned by Visconti’s son Morgan, on 2 and 3 April and 15 May.

In April, I did a day of overdubs at Tony’s place, some flute on ‘Blackstar’ and another saxophone part for ‘’Tis A Pity She Was A Whore’. David and Tony spent a lot of time there, after we did that first round, listening to the stuff over and over and sifting through the material to make it what it is. I know David did some more vocal stuff.
Donny McCaslin, 31 October 2015
Uncut, January 2016

‘Blackstar’ was also the theme tune for The Last Panthers, directed for Sky Atlantic by Johan Renck, who later directed the song’s video. Renck’s assistant contacted Bowie’s New York office, and received a positive response.

It’s a weird experience, to get a phone call and it’s like, “Hello, this is David Bowie.” What are you going to do? It’s hard to grasp. He’s a brilliant man, he really is, but we just got right into things immediately.

I was back in New York, I went to see him and he played it for me in his office space so I was there with him. He put his hand on my shoulder and just before he started playing he looked me in the eyes and said, “It’s 10 minutes long,” just to sort of warn me!

Johan Renck
CBC Music, 23 November 2015

The opening titles required a reworking of the song. The song had been recorded but not mixed, but Visconti recorded new parts and remixed the song.

We assembled different parts of ‘Blackstar’ and used them in different ways to restructure the separate themes the director needed. We recorded some extra guitar and keyboards to make this work. I mixed all the different versions. This was done over the course of three or four days, with constant back-and-forths on Skype with the director in Sweden.
Tony Visconti
The Complete David Bowie, Nicholas Pegg

The Blackstar album was mixed by Tom Elmhirst at Electric Lady Studios. ‘Blackstar’ was the first song to be worked on.

The record was mixed quite quickly. Maybe 10 days. This might be because I mixed the song ‘Blackstar’, which had been created out of two separate songs as one piece of music, and I also mixed the last two songs on the album as one piece of music, because they flow into each other. The vocals were there, the performances were there. I didn’t have to do a lot of work. It was quite painless for me, the whole process, because it was recorded and produced so well.

‘Blackstar’ was the first song I worked on. It took a couple of days, which for me is quite long. I like to work quickly. But it is about 10 minutes long. It needed form. Obviously, not a lot of people put out 10-minute singles. So you have to approach it slightly differently. You can’t give it all away too early. You have to allow the natural dynamics to come through. When it drops into that middle section, the solo voice, there is a sense of relief. It’s really quite restrained up to that point, and then it opens up more.

Tom Elmhirst, May 2017

Bowie and Visconti visited Elmhirst daily in the studio to make changes to the balance and effects.

Often I do mixes unattended, without the artist there. But Tony and David were very involved. They’d come around three in the afternoon and stay a couple of hours. We’d go through stuff together, and then they’d take a mix away with them and live with it. That was the process. Sometimes they would suggest changes in different vocal balances. But a lot of the mixes didn’t really change hugely from what I handed them, which was really lovely. Quite often you end up changing stuff for months afterwards. David was quite decisive. He would say he loved it, and be very onboard and happy with how the mixes were going. I had a lot of freedom.

I could tell that David wasn’t well. He couldn’t stay very long. He didn’t have a lot of energy. But when he was there, he was incredibly present, funny and really encouraging. He was really incredibly encouraging. And he really enjoyed the process. I think on other projects for them, the mixes took longer. This seemed to come together quite quickly, and to everyone’s satisfaction.

Tom Elmhirst, May 2017
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