When I mention Thomas Dolby, most of my friends draw a blank, until I mention his 1982 song, "She Blinded Me With Science". Dolby has been busy since as the TED conference’s musical director, as a silicon valley tech entrepreneur, and as a dad who recently moved his family to the Eastern coast of England. After 20 years, Dolby has now released a new album A Map of the Floating City. The album was produced in one of the most beautiful recording studios. It isn’t a studio in Nashville or Los Angeles, but a studio on a solar and wind powered lifeboat moored in Dolby’s garden in Suffolk, England.
Dolby has long been interested in sustainability as evident from his songs like “Windpower.” Unlike some musicians who may go green for the publicity, Dolby walks the talk. His original dream was to build a seaworthy, carbon-neutral boat-studio and sail it around the world while composing and recording music. But after realizing the amount of funding needed to pull off this endeavor, he scaled down the plan.
Transforming a Lifeboat Into a Music Studio
Dolby bought a 1930′s lifeboat from eBay. It was once part of a pair aboard the SS Queen Ann, and could hold 99 people. After a German torpedo damaged the Queen Ann, the lifeboat was sent to the Netherlands and then back to the UK where it was moored for many years. Its previous owner was very upset that she wasn’t seaworthy and was determined to burn the lifeboat, had Dolby not purchased it. Dolby named the boat Nutmeg of Consolation, after a book from Patrick O’Brian’s naval fiction series and transformed it into a sustainable recording studio, powered by a 450-watt wind turbine and two solar panels on the mast and renovated with a reclaimed wood interior.
The Nutmeg has several computers, monitors, keyboards and lights that require a considerable amount of energy to power. Dolby obviously has confidence in renewable energy, enough to know that it will provide reliable power for him to work on his music at all hours. When he works at night, the Nutmeg lights up like a beacon. On the rare occasion when there isn’t enough power, Dolby takes a nap.
Music Inspired By Nature
The lifeboat studio has a lot of natural light and a 360-degree view of salt marshes and the ocean. The song "Oceanea" is an anthem to Dolby’s windswept home. To Dolby, when the light hit massive container ships in the distance, the ships resembled a city’s skyline and these “floating cities” inspired the title of his new album. Some people might be distracted by such a beautiful workplace, but Dolby confesses that for him, the initial inspiration can be the most difficult aspect of work and the studio is definitely a place of inspiration.
What makes Dolby so inspiring, beyond his innovative music and sustainable recording studio is that he views music-making as a collaborative experience. The new album was made with a complementary interactive video game, the Floating City Game, set in a dieselpunk1940s, where a climate disaster forced survivors to start over again by rebuilding society in old boats joined together at the North Pole.
Dolby’s belief in collaboration and the ability of scientists, artists and others to work together to tackle some of humanity’s largest problems is evident from his music and from his unique studio. With many non-seaworthy boats abandoned or scrapped, I’m glad to see the Nutmeg getting a second life. I’m also glad to see Thomas Dolby releasing music and gathering new fans.