session log: michael tearson’s stuff that works, part one

so, ever since we’d done the initial robert hazard tribute at steel city ages ago, i’ve been telling michael tearson that he should do an album.

in michael’s words – “since i’m in my sixties and they’re not really making albums anymore, it’s about time i did one.”

we had toyed with the notion of doing it completely DIY – recording it on my laptop and keeping it relatively low key – but i knew i wouldn’t be happy with the results, and that he deserved better than what i’d have been able to do.

luckily, fate intervened and brought andy kravitz into the mix.

L to R: andy kravitz, michael tearson, and yours truly

andy literally doesn’t have any more wall space in his control room for gold or platinum records…his list of credits include joan osborne, james taylor, shawn colvin, taj mahal, david bromberg, and a ton of other acts that other folks might find more impressive than those…but those are my personal favorites. 🙂   andy’s home studio, just across the ben franklin bridge, is a home studio only in consideration of the technicality that andy actually lives there. it houses a neve console and outboard gear that any A-list room would be proud to own….separate control room and iso rooms (which, in english, would be the den, living room, dining room and kitchen), and some really solid microphones to boot.

so michael had decided on the final list of songs that he wanted to cover for this record….he’s not a songwriter, and he realizes that – and he also picked songs that would find service in his own interpretations.

so on the night that we went in for our first session, we sat down to hash out the general philosophy of what we were hoping to accomplish, and how we wanted to go about it. we divided the songs up into two categories – those that would be centered around the initial performance (which we’d do without a click track), and those that would need rhythm section accompaniment (which we’d do with the click track in my headphone mix, but not michaels’.)

for the first session, we decided to concentrate on the former – logically enough.

michael had made me a disc of songs that he’d chosen for the album, and had scrawled on the disk, “stuff that works”.

it was the name of a guy clark song, one of which he’d planned on recording for the album, and was included on the disc – “old friends”.

but, as time elapsed, “stuff that works” became a strong contender for the title of the album…and i think we knew going in that it’d probably end up sticking.

so – we singled out a few of the songs from the disk – “old friends”, “clumsy old world”, “grand hotel”, “buy for me the rain”…and “this beggars’ heart” – to be the victims of the first nights’ festivities.

based on the conversations we’d had leading up to this, i knew that “this beggars’ heart” was going to be a tough song for him to sing. not for any technical reasons concerning his vocal style or his physical ability to sing it, but because of the lyrical content and how it relates to michael’s life experiences.

…these eyes of mine, they take your picture
these eyes that see in two and four
i close my eyes and i still see you
and see myself no more…

…these words i sing – they ring familiar
these words i sing we’ve heard before
oh, fare thee well…my one and own true love
i’ll see you in my dreams once more

this song i sing – is finally over
you’re free to go about your way
so bang the drum and turn the house lights on
i’ve really nothing more to say…”


now, if you know michael, or anything about his personal life…you know why this song would be hard for him to get through….and if you don’t – well, it’s not my place to broadcast his story here. you’ll have to get that on your own.

andy set us up in the tracking room, facing one another…myself on the piano bench with the acoustic guitar and michael, standing, facing me from just a few feet away.

we started with “grand hotel” and “clumsy old world” – and did a couple takes of each, although we usually ended up keeping one of the first two passes of each of the songs we cut.

when “old friends” came up, we debated running through it before rolling, but i telegraphed in to Andy to just go ahead and roll it – let’s see what happens.

so – what you hear on the record is not only the first take, but it’s the first time we ever actually played the song together…ever.

so…it was time to do “beggar’s heart”….i had planned on doing this with just michaels’ vocal and weissenborn, and i’d set up one of my weissenborn replicas (one that i’d gotten from phil madiera, emmylou harris’ utility guy) with lighter strings and tuned it to a high-G tuning (the open E string relationship, up three half steps) for the recording. i played it through for michael so that he could hear what the instrument sounded like, and what the chord changes would sound like, presented on this instrument instead of a traditional guitar, and he loved it.

so we moved the mics for the weissenborn and ran one verse to get levels…and i knew we were gonna have to nail this one quickly.

what you hear on the record is michael’s second pass…removed enough from the first one that there’s an element of composure, but…well, not much of an element of composure. by the end of the second take, we were both in puddles on the floor of the studio, and i don’t think we could’ve possibly gotten a more perfect performance of the song. maybe a better technical rendering of it, but you can hear the ache in that pass.

so that’s the one we kept.

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One thought on “session log: michael tearson’s stuff that works, part one

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