Sarah MacDougall Writes a New Type of Breakup Song on "Downfall"
Published Oct 12, 2021With the events of the past year and a half, it's no surprise that a lot of us have turned to our trusty breakup songs to help keep us buoyed through the difficult times. But while most breakup songs are steeped in sadness and yearning, Sweden-born, Whitehorse-based singer-songwriter Sarah MacDougall has taken a far poppier approach on her upbeat and self-assured new single, "Downfall."
"Like a lot of my songs, the idea came from my own life," says MacDougall to Exclaim! "It's a pandemic relationship song of sorts, and it's about trying to work things out and not fall into a pattern of running away. It's about forgiving each other and yourself for your instincts of escape. I guess it's kind of a 'mature' love song, a love song from when you've been in a relationship for a while. Usually the love songs are about new or broken love, and I wanted to write something about the struggles in the middle, because it's not a subject that's written about a lot."
Riding MacDougall's empowered songwriting, the song blooms from its simple acoustic guitar backbone to incorporate twinkling keys, ethereal vocals and sharp electronic percussion, turning heartbreak into a bonafide folk-pop banger. With MacDougall's wise lyrics at the fore — "I don't wanna run when everything gets hard / Say 'I'm better off alone' and build a wall" — the song transforms a difficult situation into an opportunity for growth.
Musically, the song represents new growth for MacDougall as well. In writing the song, she was challenged by the folks at YSL Pro to "record a song and only use my Townsend Labs microphone, a Mojave Audio MA-300 microphone, and my Universal Audio Apollo x6 interface, as well as only use Universal Audio plugins in the mixing process," which led to her deciding to embrace her pop sensibilities. She says, "It's a slight departure in that it's a little bit more pop-leaning than some of my other stuff. However, it still has an acoustic vibe and an intimacy that I usually have in my music."
She adds, "I loved having the choices already made for me about which mics to use. I discovered the Mojave Audio MA-300 which is an amazing microphone. It has this beautiful natural compression that is really nice to sing into, and it didn't get harsh at all."
On the mixing, she says, "I am used to tracking through my Universal Audio Apollo and I often use the Unison preamps so I was very comfortable with that. However, I had never used solely UAD plugins in mixing, and I was surprised at the end of my mix session my CPU was only at 10 percent, which is amazing. I did have to be slightly careful about my plugin choices because of the UAD DSP limitation though."
Despite that limitation, MacDougall still went heavy on the plugins to process her many pieces of gear. On her setup, she recalls, "I used the Townsend Sphere L22 [microphone], The Mojave MA300 microphone, the Universal Audio Apollo X6, an iMac and Ableton Live. For instruments, I used my JU-06A synth, my acoustic upright piano, my Martin acoustic guitar, as well as some samples for drums and a synth bass. I used Universal Audio Unison plugins. On lead vocals, I used the Mojave MA300 microphone, a Neve 1073 unison plugin and an LA-2A silver compressor. On the guitar, I used the Townsend Sphere L22 with the AKG 414 emulation, going into the Unison API preamp. On the piano, I used the Townsend Sphere L22 with the AKG C12 model and the UAD Neve 1073. On backup vocals I used the Sphere L22 on the Coles 4038 model, as it's a darker microphone and would sit behind the lead."
She adds, "For mixing, I used mainly these UAD plugins: Studer 800 (on pretty much every track), SSL Legacy E Channel, Sonnox Oxford Dynamic EQ, LA-2A, 1176, Pultec EQ, API 550A, Thermionic Culture Vulture, Cambridge EQ, EMT 250, EMT 140, Lexicon 224, Studio chorus, Oxford Inflator, ATR 102 Tape, Chandler Curve Bender, Precision EQ, Precision K Stereo, API 2500, BX Digital V3." (True to the challenge, David Roman of 4130 Mastering mastered the song also using only UAD plug-ins.)
And yet, from the song's simple progression, it's hard to imagine all of the many parts that went into it, as its meditative build around MacDougall's clear and confident vocals comes off as seamless. Moving forward from the atmospheric folk-rock of 2018's All the Hours I Have Left to Tell You Anything, "Downfall" heralds a more self-assured turn from MacDougall — one that hopefully will come through on her forthcoming album, currently estimated for release "in the spring or summer of 2022."