SO – recently, I was approached by a musical colleague with a proposition to produce his debut album. I was (and continue to be) flattered – it’s not a scenario that comes up often, even though I’ve been involved in production for some years now.
We’ve been going back and forth for a week or so, exchanging thoughts and demos and such, and tonight he sent me an email with the question:
“…do you think I should even be thinking about making a record right now?”
I sat down to reply to his note, and several hundred words later, I finally got around to hitting “send” and thought – maybe these words might find a nerve with a larger audience, so – here you go. Reprinted here in its entirety.
Boy….you’ve asked the $64,000 question, there.
And of course, I’m not gonna be able to go to bed without spitting out an answer of some sort.
There’s really only one person who can answer that question, and that’s ultimately you. BUT – there are some points to consider when thinking about something like this.
You can’t really base the answer to “should I make a record?” on the number of Facebook followers you have, or how many people are showing up for gigs, or statistics, or algorithms – because none of that is gonna give you the right answer.
First of all, you should come to terms with a couple of universal truths:
1. Your first album will underperform your expectations. Even if it sells a quarter million copies, it will fall short of some mark you’ve set for it in your mind. It’s just the way our brains work. There’s nothing you can do about it either before or afterward, it’s just the way it is. Might as well prepare for it.
2.You will hate your first record for the rest of your life. I won’t try to explain that to you in an email, it’s best saved for a conversation – but you should also make peace with that beforehand. It’s yet another universal truth – you will likely end up hating your first album. Jackson Browne hates his first record, and it’s universally considered one of the best debuts ever. Counting Crows’ first record is brilliant, as is the debut by Crosby, Stills and Nash – they’re the exceptions to the rule, as those records represent something unique to their frames of reference….but if you surveyed a thousand bands or artists, 997 of them will hate their first record. They will almost all have fond memories of making their first record, they’ll have stories about the making of their first record, they’ll tell you all about what they learned making their first record, but they’ll insist they hate it.
NOW – that last point is important.
Because – not unlike having children – making your first record is something that it’s easy to convince yourself to put off, to postpone, to talk yourself out of making that first record.
But days become weeks become months becomes years until it becomes “why bother” and you end up shelving it indefinitely.
So the answer to your question is yeah – you should make a record.
BUT – what’s a record?
Does it need to be a full length, 12 song effort? Can it be an EP? Does it need to be physical product? Can I release it on iTunes/Spotify/etc. only, or do I need to actually have something you can hold in your hand?
This is all stuff you have to think about and come to the best conclusion for yourself, but I’ll tell you this:
Every single artist whos’ ever walked the earth has been in your shoes. Everybody started somewhere, everybody had to figure this out for themselves, everybody had to make mistakes to learn valuable lessons from, everybody played to empty rooms, everybody slept in rest stops, everybody lost sleep and worried too much…frankly, if they didn’t, they’re not doing it right.
Making your first record is a rite of passage – no matter what the final product is (EP, CD, Vinyl album, iTunes only release)…it doesn’t matter.
You’re gonna learn the process, you’re gonna figure out what works for you and what doesn’t, you’re gonna develop preferences for certain rooms, certain microphones, certain instruments, certain players – and honestly, man…the only way to do it is to do it.
I feel like my job in this process is to make it as painless for you as possible, and the way to do that is to develop as clear a vision as we can for what you want the final product to sound like and come up with a way to get you there. What form that product takes is up to you, and we don’t necessarily need to know that out of the gate…obviously, with limited budgets, that’s going to affect the process and we’ll have to make decisions around that once we start devising the game plan. You have options. A veritable SHITLOAD of options. There’s no one right way to make a record, and our mission is to figure out YOUR right way to make a record.
I don’t need charts at the moment, but I appreciate the offer.
Since you’re not on a timetable, then right now my advice would be to keep writing. Keep making demos.
Momentum generates momentum.
If you tell yourself you’re making a record, it grants validity to your efforts, it creates inspiration, and it makes you feel like you’re working towards something.
So write and record at home and think about this vague concept of a “record” and write with that in mind and write so many fucking songs that you’ll lie awake nights thinking about which songs belong on the record, and what the record will sound like based on your choices.
Some folks might call it anxiety, but I tend to think of it as feeling alive.
Let the work call the shots, and we’ll figure the rest of it out as we go – it’s far and away the best way to make a record.
That way, when you’re seventy years old and thinking back on this time of your life, you can look at the whole experience with a smile on your face.
Yeah, you’ll hate your first record, just like everybody else…but if you don’t make your first record, you’ll never make your second, or your third, or your fourth – so at some point, you gotta jump on into the water, brother.
some years back, i did an innocuous session for an artist named amanda penecale at cambridge sound in newtown, under jim salamone. amanda’s drummer (and later, her partner) was erik hischmann, a nice dude and an accomplished bassist and percussionist to boot. i played pedal steel, baritone guitar, and maybe some dobro as well…it’s been a while.
well, in the era of myspace and facebook, you never really fall completely out of touch with people…and i had gotten a note from erik during the winter, asking if i’d be willing to work on a project he was producing (!!) for an artist named luke mitchem – who i’d never heard of, but then there are a lot more artists that i’ve never heard of than there are those that i have. anyway, erik – it appears – has come a long way in a little time. after taking classes at the recording workshop and apprenticing with jim at cambridge for a time, erik made the acquaintance of sam kassirer, an independent producer and sideman in josh ritter‘s band who has amassed an impressive list of clients in the new england singer/songwriter realm – including ritter, mark erelli, kris delmhorst, erin mckeown, allie moss, langhorne slim, and others. erik took amanda’s next project there, and began interning for sam in the interim as well…and ended up becoming a full time assistant at sam’s amazing rural maine studio, the great north sound society.
when you think about records that were made by bands living together in a communal space…records like music from big pink or august and everything after, the place you’re probably picturing in your head would look a lot like GNSS. it’s an old maine farmhouse, built in 1790, sitting just off a curvy rural road in what my wife, the maine native, informs me that the locals refer to as “the willywags”. it’s been modernized only in the essential areas (insulation, electrical service, et cetera) and is absolutely charming…and i don’t mean that in the martha stewart vernacular…the place literally does charm you after you’ve been there a few hours. i think you could pick any cast of one of those awful reality shows that seem to be all the rage on VH1 and places like that and send them to GNSS for a week, and they’d all be knitting and exchanging recipes by the end of the week. something about this place really does amplify whatever good you bring there with you.
to his credit, erik did about as thorough a job of prepping everyone involved for this concentrated block of studio time as anyone i’ve ever worked with. we discussed my involvement during the winter, and he already knew then, roughly, when the sessions would be taking place…within a month or so, he had it nailed down to the week the recording would be taking place and had given me the dates that i should plan on being there. not long after that, i had an email link to a DropBox account with demos of the songs they’d chosen for the album. then, about three weeks before the sessions were scheduled to begin, i had detailed directions to the studio, an itinerary of what would be taking place on which days, full details about accomodations and the like…and a request for anything specific that i might need from a dietary standpoint (which is quite funny if you know me better than erik did at the time, but kudos to the guy for asking, right?)…dude really covered every single bullet point on his agenda, and did so well in advance. an absolute seasoned pro.
i had gotten home from the boris garcia west coast run late monday night, and essentially had tuesday to get myself together, do some laundry, prep the instruments i was taking with me, and get ready to leave for maine. wendy and danny were coming along and would be going to her brothers’ house outside of freeport to spend a few days with him while i was working, so packing the car was going to be the usual adventure…but we pulled it off.
i brought two lap steels (my number one rickenbacker and the national that i got from the BG guys), the new carter pedal steel, a dobro, a weissenborn, mandolin, banjo, baritone guitar, the mandoguitar, and my pedalboard. i was going to bring “the toaster” (my tweed gibson GA20), but i left it at home due to space constraints…and because i was pretty sure they’d have something that would be well within my ballpark at the studio. what i was able to bring certainly covered what i was asked to bring, and then some…so i wasn’t worried. it was tight in the lil’ ol’ Elantra on the way north, but the trip actually went pretty quickly, all things considered. there was actually a bit of daylight left when we crossed the maine border, which i didn’t expect at all.
when we got to the house, the folks who’d already assembled were jamming in the living room when we knocked on the door…luke and erik were there, obviously, but they’d been joined by erik’s friend jordan, who’d played keys on amanda’s record that they cut there, and bevin foley – luke’s friend and fiddle player from colorado. we unloaded the car, walked wendy and danny through the place during introductions, and they went on their way to uncle chris’ house…at which point, i settled into the control room with erik while he took me through the songs in the state they were in as of that point, and we made some notes about instrumentation ideas over a beer or two. all the guitars had been done at that point, as well as drums on everything that would be getting drums…and bass had been cut on some of the tracks, although not everything that had been cut at that point was a keeper – but it was certainly enough to get an idea as to where we should go with what i was bringing to the table. we decided to start the next morning with pedal steel and go from there.
we started with a song called catacomb…they had cut a fiddle figure that erik really liked as a melodic hook that came in at the top of the song, and he wanted me to revisit it with the steel at the point that the drums and bass came in…so we started there and ran through to the point where the drums dropped out again. i ran it a couple of times, to give him some options, and then the damndest thing happened.
he comped the track on the spot!
that’s right…instead of amassing a boatload of garbage to wade through during mixdown, he picked the part that he liked from the second pass and comped the two passes into a single track before we moved on to the next thing…which leads me to believe that he already knew, for the most part, what he wanted from the first and second passes when they were done, and he opted to save the time during mixdown and just getting the two parts into one piece while it was staring him in the face.
as a lot of you know, this whole “comping” process is a bit of a head scratcher for me. i’ve never understood why people would want to put themselves through such torture. when left to my own devices, it never, ever happens. if i don’t get a full pass that i like, i do it again. now, granted, not everyone has the perceived luxury of working that way…but generally speaking, i spend less time getting the one pass that i truly like, start to finish, than i’d have spent running it three, four, or five times to give myself choices later on. but – i do it my way when it’s left up to me, and when it isn’t my call….i do what the client wants. if they want six passes, i’ll give ’em six passes.
so…it set the tone in a refreshing way to get out of the gate the way we did on the first track.
also, because we weren’t working on an hourly basis, it freed erik up to experiment a bit as well…there were a couple of songs where he wanted “slidey stuff” that didn’t necessarily fit into the typical pedal steel fingerprint – one song, omaha lilly, was a good example – it has pedal steel on it, but just three harmonic notes, a la the old NBC chimes. (we overdubbed two different patterns of mandoguitar on that one later.)
so we worked on pedal steel most of the morning of day one, and had wrapped pedal steel by lunchtime. after lunch, they did some fiddle work with bevin, and we worked on baritone guitar and mandoguitar a bit later that afternoon. luke and i were in the control room with erik while bevin was overdubbing a vocal harmony on catacomb, and luke told me, “if she’s in there long enough, she’s going to start asking questions about the lyrics. just wait.”
sure enough, after a couple more passes, a voice comes over the speakers….
“does she have big boobs?”
after exchanging puzzled glances, we asked her, over the talkback, why she would ask such a question.
“well, the river running between two mountains…she’s crying, right? so if the river is running between two mountains, she must have big boobs, right?”
i think i fell in love with bevin a little at that very moment.
needless to say, it only got sillier from that point on, but she turned in a great vocal and we put my first day at GNSS to bed not long after…we had dinner and settled down to watch a movie together before bedtime (the life aquatic, which i never need to see again, thanks very much). we all got a chuckle out of the fact that most of the movies on the top shelf of the library, while none actually WERE adult titles, all had titles that COULD have been porn flicks.
the plan for day two, since bevin had friends in portland who were picking her up that night, was to get through what was left for her early the next day, so there’d be no pressure for her to complete her parts before they paid us a visit that night to pick her up. as such, i woke to the sounds of bev playing fiddle above me in the attic the next morning….which was ok with me. 🙂
when she was ready for a break, i did a lap steel part on man on fire, and later did some banjo and mandolin overdubs.
we also found out that day that levon helm had passed away, a few miles to the south of us.
knowing beforehand how sick he was, i knew the news was coming…but it’s never welcome, whether you’ve had time to prepare for it or not.
later, while luke was putting down vocals, jordan and i were jamming on guitar and mandolin in the living room on the other side of the house. we ran a bunch of old grateful dead songs, and made sure to run up on cripple creek during the jam. i don’t know that i’ve ever heard a somber version of that song, and that would’ve been the perfect opportunity…it’s just a plain and simple expression of joy, and that’s how i’ll remember that afternoon.
i had a handful of great conversations with luke during the sessions as well…i got there knowing almost nothing about him, but he felt like a kid brother by the time we parted ways on saturday. in a lot of ways, he’s new to this whole business…but he’s got three albums under his belt already. he’d been working with an engineer from colorado on his previous records, but wanted this one to have more of an ensemble feel to it, and since he was a fan of josh ritters’ music, he connected a few dots that led us all to GNSS on this particular occasion. we talked about beater cars, about touring, about day gigs, about family…he really is a Good Guy.
before darkness had fallen on the second day of work, both bevin and myself had completed all our parts – bevins’ being fiddle and vocals, mine being lap and pedal steel, baritone guitar, mandoguitar, mandolin and banjo…while it would seem natural to assume that this much work could be covered in the space of two full days in the studio, it honestly didn’t feel as though we worked that diligently – there was a lot of downtime for meals and in between moving from song to song and musician to musician. again, the amount of work that was done can largely be attributed to the manner in which erik ran the ship. while none of us were working constantly during the course of the day, erik was running the ship from the time he rolled out of bed in the morning until we wrapped at the end of the day – he kept everything on the rails and moving forward, and seemed to have near-expert intuition with regard to pacing the lot of us.
bevin’s friends, lauren and jason, got there a little before the sun went down, and we made dinner and enjoyed some adult beverages – then, after dinner, erik set up mics in the live room for a group vocal on one of luke’s songs called charlie, it’s alright – an idea that jordan claimed bragging rights for, having apparently hit erik with it at the moment he got off the plane. erik set up the session in pro-tools, then ran back into the room to participate in the festivities.
after we finished the vocal, another impromptu jam session erupted in the living room with our new friends before we said goodbye to bevin. erik was clearly enjoying himself, and reveling in the sense of accomplishment from having gotten so much work done up to that point…we had a short listening party in the control room for a few of the songs before they left, and he was totally animated while listening to the playbacks…it really put a smile on my face to see everyone so happy with what we’d done.
we walked our departing friends outside, exchanged lots of hugs, and the newly formed boys’ club stood outside as the car was swallowed up in the darkness, listening to the quiet and staring up at the stars much like a manhattan tourist would in the forest of skyscrapers that make up the city. it was just luke and i, erik and jordan…we got to hear some great stories about food fights at erik and jordan’s alma mater (including a story about the launch of an orange that should’ve been the start of a major league pitching career), luke’s encounters with the dogs along the road during his morning runs…and whatever else seemed to pop into our heads at the moment. nothing quite like male bonding under the stars in the middle of a stretch of rural maine access road.
i don’t know what time the rest of the guys woke up on saturday morning, but jordan and erik were working on piano parts to the end of the kingdom when i came to, so i stumbled into the shower and ultimately made my way downstairs, luke was making omelettes for everybody. i had already packed all my gear up and had everything staged when wendy & danny arrived with uncle chris, so i hung out at the kitchen table with luke for a bit while we waited for them to arrive. it was easily the least stressful recording experience i’d ever had, and in talking to luke that morning, the satisfaction that he felt with the way things had gone was palpable. he was clearly over the moon with how things had gone, and i don’t think he really had any barometer for what to have expected…but we were all really excited by what we’d managed to accomplish in our time there.
jordan and erik were putting down wurlitzer tracks for when atlas fell when my ride arrived…they took a break long enough to help me load the car, then more hugs and we were down the road…we stopped at the portland pie company in westbrook for lunch, then back to uncle chris’ house for a moment before heading back home. i’d planned on extending our visit by a couple of days to take on gigs with craig bickhardt in rockport and cambridge, MA that weekend…but i’d been hearing rumblings about some kind of monsoon-like rains that were supposed to start back home – somewhere in the neighborhood of four inches of rain in a 24 hour period – and i knew that i’d have serious, serious problems waiting for me in the basement if that happened and i wasn’t there to temper whatever water might come in through the corner wall. so i curtailed my plans and we drove home directly from uncle chris’ house, arriving somewhere around 1am or so.
it was now the wee hours of sunday the 22nd of april, and since the 9th of april, i had spent exactly one night at home.
i first met seamus through jd malone, when we did a show together some months ago in doylestown at puck – and i had played with him and his band on a couple of songs. i must’ve made an impression, because he called me and asked if i’d contribute some parts to his new record.
he emailed me most of the songs that he’d cut basic tracks for, along with his thoughts regarding instrumentation…and right away, there were a couple that stuck out to me for either dobro or weissenborn – my personal favorite being reno winter sky, although i also really liked thank you for the music and bell ringing out.
i brought in the dobro and my favorite of the weissenborns i own, an old superior/K&S that i bought on eBay years ago…it’s tuned down to open C, and since the song i was hearing it for was in that key – i figured it’d be a good choice. i added dobro to his song bell ringing out and then he pulled one out of the hat on me…he’d sent me all the songs, but some of them were more in line with what i felt i had to contribute than others. there was one that was a bit of a rocker that i wasn’t expecting to be asked to play on – a song called sheppard’s song that was written by a friend of his who’d passed away some years ago.
it was a rocker, something of a latin-flavored, santana-esque groove that i didn’t really see myself on…but he asked if i’d play lap steel on it, so i took a swing at it. now, whether the part i ended up cutting will find its way onto the final product or not remains to be seen, but – who knows? stranger things have happened.
i really felt good about the weissenborn part, though – it layered nicely into the acoustic guitar pattern, and added a nice counterpoint to it, without being too overbearing. and – because it’s a slide instrument, there were some nice legato passages strewn in there, too.
seamus is a monster guitarist – he was a founding member of Blackthorn, which is something of an irish supergroup in our part of the country…and there’s no getting around seamus’ heritage, but he’s not afraid to turn up the volume and rock, either…and there are some fingerstyle chet-atkins flavored pieces on the record, too – one in particular, moose rag, that’ll probably give folks a headache if they try to get under the hood of it.
we’re playing together in september at puck – should be fun. not sure if the record will be done by then, but i’m sure it’ll be great when it’s finished.
so my buddy skip denenberg had not one, but two projects he was working on that he wanted to get some input from me on before i got on the plane for the boris garcia thing – one of which he was working on with a familiar friend (andy kravitz in his comfy collingswood studio, sound and vision), and one with our mutual buddy gabe antonini (of NBC-10 fame) at the in-house studio there, run by the channel ten offshoot, the studio ten creative group.
since time was of the essence, we scheduled both of them for the same day a few hours apart – so that we’d have plenty of time to get everything done…plus, the stanley cup finals were on that night and i wanted to try to be home for the game. 🙂
the first session was for a “we are the world”-style song that skip had written, called “take me home” – it was for an animal rights advocacy project, but i know little else about it after that…save for the fact that the first voice i heard after the song kicked in in earnest was bj thomas – so they’ve gotten some talent to contribute to this thing, thus far…and they’re angling for more.
initially, we were talking about doubling a lead guitar line that had already been laid down with the pedal steel – and we did put a pass of that on, but we decided to experiment a little with the lap steel after finishing that pass, and gabe liked the lap steel for that part a lot more than the pedal steel…and i could see why. it gave it this george harrisonesque color that the pedal steel didn’t really lend itself to, and the guitar part melded with the lap steel line much more so than the pedal steel.
skip had to leave to head over to andy’s before we’d finished, so he had vacated the premises somewhat early on, while gabe and i continued to work on the track until we’d gotten enough raw material laid down to feel like we’d gotten what we needed. gabe had put quite a bit of work into this song – he played me some isolated passes of some of the stuff he’d woven into the song that you’d never know were there until they were removed…and he was definitely making it work.
the next thing we hit (after wrapping up at Gabe’s and heading over to Andy’s) was the SS United States jingle that skip had written for a TV commercial for the conservancy – the song itself was a full length song, but we were working on a shorter version of it that would be used for the commercial. i brought the mandolin along for this track, as i hadn’t heard anything else that really presented itself as a possibility, based on the demo skip had sent me…it was a three-quarter song, with a bit of a shanty-like bounce to it, and the mandolin worked great as a rhythm element, and that practically finished itself in only a couple of passes…but, as skip is wont to do, he asked if i’d contribute some harmony vocals to the song. andy put up a vocal mic next to the piano (in the customary spot) and i ran through the song with skip to find out which sections he wanted harmonies for, and to cop the lyrics. we did a high pass and a low pass for the chorus, which andy layered in with the vocals skip had already cut, and a couple of other incidental parts here and there throughout, and i blew out to leave skip and andy to mix the song.
i did mention that the stanley cup finals were on that night, right? 🙂
so i got a panicked call from dean sciarra – not even a full three days after we wrapped up tracking…just like new was… “too country”.
so after i finally figured out that he wasn’t joking, i asked him exactly what it was that he was trying to say – because it is, after all, largely a country song…root-five bass line, shuffle beat and all. “it’s too twangy,” he says. “we need to fix that.”
now, let me clarify a bit – what dean was actually trying to convey was that the arrangement of the guitars on the track were taking the song off the edge of the dwight yoakam cliff. what i’d done – which, admittedly, was different than what i typically do when we play the song live – was to play the baritone guitar with a pick, very close to the bridge, and essentially play the alternating bass notes, a la pete anderson or john jorgensen…and i thought it was great, and everybody else seemed to like it at the time – and it wasn’t that far afield of what we’d been doing with the song in a live setting. so, hey – mix it and put it to bed, right?
well, that’s what i thought…but when dean and phil nicolo put it up in the mix room, dean couldn’t put his finger on what it was that he didn’t like, but he knew there was something amiss. so i went in with no idea whatsoever what he wanted, but prepared – hopefully – to try and give him what he wanted.
as it turns out, the order wasn’t as tall as i thought it was.
we pulled the baritone out altogether, and replaced it in the mix with some electric twelve string, and dean was thrilled. i also added the 12 string, and some chords on the gretsch to avalon…everything worked out about as well as one could’ve expected.
another satisfied customer. 🙂
so the only thing left – other than whatever incidental overdubs that might come to light – were harmonies. i had cut a bunch of my parts before i left for the pure prairie league gig i was playing on friday night, and i figured i was finished. dean had brought in someone to replicate the female harmony part on black yodel on the same night that i’d come in to work on the guitar touch-ups, but it wasn’t going well – she was suffering from a sinus infection, and – if the truth be told – the part was at the very upper end of her range. she’d also spent a few hours that afternoon practicing her part, and probably didn’t do any favors for herself in the process, what with being sick and all.
so – this being the case and all, i told dean that i’d bring jayda by the studio the next morning if she were able to come, and we could give her a crack at it. after all, she sang the song live more times than i could remember, and i knew that – if nothing else – she was at least in the ballpark from the standpoint of her vocal range. the worst that could happen would be that she’d come in, have a case of the nerves or would otherwise exhibit some sort of shortcoming that would keep her from executing the part in the studio, and we’d move on. if it wasn’t working, we’d call it before it spiralled out of control and move on to mixing and figure something else out.
jayda had some experience in the studio, but mostly on a homegrown level – doing vocals on songs self-produced by friends in high school and the like. and she’d been in and around studios with me in the past, so i didn’t think it’d be uncomfortable for her – although i’d be willing to spot her a bit of a case of the nerves.
as it turned out, none of that was the case.
we got to the studio at around 10am…phil was ready to start cutting vocals at around 10:15 or so – and black yodel was done…finished – at 11 o’clock. in fact, they ended up having her sing on three more tracks – avalon, the renamed leave us alone, and her personal favorite song, sweet evil things. she may have put vocals on another, in fact, but i can’t remember now…it flew by pretty quickly.
while she was in the vocal booth cutting her harmony part for leave us alone, dean said to me, “does she play guitar? does she play an instrument at all?” he was mightily impressed…in fact, i wouldn’t be a bit surprised if jayda ends up making a record herself after that experience.
the only other thing that had really bothered me – from an instrumental standpoint – was the pedal steel part that they’d decided to use for leave us alone…it was a part that i’d played to be a supporting part to the rhythmic mandolin part that normally rose to the top there when jd and i played it live, but during mixdown it appeared that they decided that the pedal steel should be the featured instrument during that part. it’s not so much that it was a bad part…it just wasn’t much of an attention-keeper when you put it out front. so we punched in a new part at the solo section and ran it out to the end:
it was a better fit…not too busy, but not too lazy, either. and it was the last thing actually cut for the record…it’s all down to mixing at this point.
almost immediately after our sold out show at steel city back in february, dean sciarra from ItsAboutMusic came up to me in full rave mode, talking about how much he loved the show, and the band…well, dean is a man who believes in putting his money where his mouth is, and within weeks, he’d hatched plans with jd malone to start work on a new full-length album, and had booked time at one of (in my opinion) one of the top two or three studios in the philadelphia area, phil nicolo’s studio four. dean’s philosophy was to record the band live in the studio – to have us set up in something of a semi-circle and play as if we were onstage, essentially.
now, this is not a novel idea by any stretch…in fact, it’s been an objective of producers and engineers since the dawn of the medium – to try and capture that raw energy and electricity of a live performance. the failure to do so has been an impediment to some pretty amazing bands – a lot of folks still believe to this day that the inability to capture the electricity of a Buffalo Springfield show on vinyl was a major contributor to their early demise (me, i tend to subscribe to the “everything happens for a reason” ethos – which is to say that had they not burned out when they did, there’d have been no CSNY or Poco, so i’m somewhat ok with it all…)
while i didn’t want to piss in dean’s cornflakes by telling him that it was highly unlikely that he’d be the one to succeed where so many have failed, i did see an opportunity to possibly get a great live-sounding product from his approach…and remembering that one of my all-time favorite albums was recorded in the same manner – and in roughly the same timeframe (john hiatt‘s bring the family) – i certainly wasn’t going to rail against the methodology, because i was pretty sure that we could end up with something pretty amazing if we were all on the same page.
(for those not in the know, the “bring the family” album was recorded and mixed in four or five days…it featured hiatt’s songs recorded by the quartet of john hiatt, ry cooder, nick lowe and jim keltner – and it’s been hailed in the years since its’ recording as the crown jewel of hiatt’s recorded output. it really is that good…especially for a weeks’ work.)
now, factored into our three-day musical orgy was a video shoot and a photo shoot, both spread over two of the three days we were scheduled to be in the studio…so we really had our work cut out for us to get all this music committed to tape in the time alloted.
day one – video killed the studio star
i had arranged to load in some of my gear the night before, during dean’s walkthrough, and i brought the lions’ share of the toys i’d be using on the record in that night…lap steels, a dobro and a weissenborn, 12 string electric, my jaguar baritone custom, a danelectro 3-pickup model, the banjo, my road mandolin…and a few other things as well. for amps, i brought the princeton as an alternative sound, but we set up the ’57 gibson GA-20T in the iso booth – and it was the right choice. 🙂
i had thought about bringing my own pedal steel in, but phil had a carter that was already there, so i used his – mine has been nothing but a black cloud in the sessions i’ve used it for, and i was thankful to have an option other than that one for this project. i really have to make replacing that thing a priority.
so, initially, we were setting up to record live versions of several of the songs for the camera crew that were onsite. everyone made it in early enough to set up in the prerequisite semi-circle (where we’d remain for the rest of the week, as it turned out) and we started dialing in our headphone mixes on phil’s semi-custom headphone mix-stations. as the camera crew got their bearings, we flew through a handful of songs just to loosen up – one of them being the cover of tom petty‘s i should’ve known it that we’ve been doing live for a little while now. as it turns out, both tape and video were rolling for that one, and they ended up not only taping it for video, but including the accompanying audio track on the album…along with several of the other live versions that we recorded that afternoon.
at that point, the rest of the video shoot went by pretty quickly – we also did i think it was a monday (which didn’t make the cut for the album, but ended up on the video and crept in as a live cut), as well as several of the other songs that we did end up cutting in the traditional sense for the record.
one of the things that i found interesting about phil’s approach to recording the band in the live setting was that he chose to place avery’s amp alongside mine in the ISO booth – mine was in the corner behind the door, and averys’ was on the other side of the room, facing in toward mine. at first, it didn’t make sense…but when i thought about it, and considered the SPL (sound pressure levels) involved between the two, it made sense that you wouldn’t have one leaking into the other, because you’d have to pad the inputs to the point that leakage would be almost a non-factor once you had both channels’ levels optimized.
this phil guy…he knows a thing or two.
we rounded out the video shoot in the early afternoon and started recording in earnest after we all came back from dinner – ready and rarin’ to go. there was a tangible energy around these sessions on all three days, but the excitement was particularly tangible on day one…dean’s choice of studio for this project was damn near perfect. phil’s enthusiasm was contagious, and like most really good producers, he knows how to get the best performance out of his subjects.
day two – say cheeeessseee…or, the birth of the cape may shuffle
avery coffee – there’s just something wrong with that guy.
look – it’s about time i publicly admitted it – avery is one of my favorite onstage foils. he and i compliment one another in a way that’s pretty much perfect for this particular band. our playing styles are dissimilar enough that we couldn’t step on one another if we actually made an effort to do so, and he’s so tasteful and conscious of what’s going on in the arrangements that he’s almost as dangerous for what he doesn’t play as he is when he opens up the volume and starts peeling the paint off the walls. strictly as a guitarist, avery would blow me through a brick wall like a giant pitcher of kool-aid…but the way we both approach this thing, it’s never been about the headcutting aspect – because we both know and respect our contribution to the band as a whole. i genuinely love playing with the guy.
but…and yeah, you knew there was a but coming…
it’s at times like day two of this endeavor that i don’t know if my not-so-secret mancrush on avery is because of our musical bond…or because of the shit that he pulls during gigs and sessions and the like.
we came in relatively early and started recording while photographer joe tutlo took candids during the sessions…and at some point during recording, avery launched into a pseudo-drunken firehall dance step that we almost immediately christened “the cape may shuffle”…since avery attributed the step to his mom, it seemed only fitting. the whole thing started to snowball during the course of the sessions, until everyone in the live room had done it at some point or another. it was just one of a perpetual parade of Averyisms that lasted the whole week.
day two was the longest of the lot…for me, anyway. i understand that day three went long as well, but i left early for a gig, so i missed out on the overdubs and vocal tracks that were cut in the afternoon into the evening on friday…but i think the work on thursday probably made finishing on friday possible for the lot of us.
some of the highlights of thursday included the remake of emmitt meets a demon…a song JD had not only already recorded, but had been the first of his songs to have a video done for it (although, it has to be said – from a conceptual standpoint, it couldn’t be a further leap from the subject matter of the song if it tried…).
we’d played emmitt live only a handful of times…it never seemed to grow legs live, and ultimately we retired it at some point. dean wanted us to record it again, though, and we were all game to give it another shot.
the challenge of the song is that it never really moves from the E form that it starts on…the whole song essentially sits on top of a riff that lives in E, and it doesn’t really veer off that pattern for the whole song. so the challenge lies in making the song interesting for the seven minutes or so that it lasts, in spite of the repetitive nature of the tune.
what we ended up doing was running the song once, with the entire band playing…and then taking it back to the top and having AC and i overdub our respective instruments over the track that we’d just done. another stroke of nicolo genius, as it was exactly what the song needed to add the elements to it that we’d left out on the first pass….for me, i’d been married to the riff that the whole song rides on from the top all the way out – so i got to add some fills alongside the riff, as well as some rotary-speaker swells and the like underneath what he’d already done.
avery…well, avery just lost his mind on the second pass. some pretty unreal sounds comin’ from that dude.
day three – the half-day.
it was a known factor that i wasn’t available for the full day, this last day of tracking – i was going to carlisle, PA to sit in with pure prairie league for their show at the carlisle theater with firefall, so i needed to get whatever work done that i could as early as possible. and, since wendy and danny were coming along, they came along to the studio for a quick morning visit and then headed off to ikea to do some shopping while we wrapped up.
one of my favorite songs, man with a worry, hadn’t made the original list of songs to cut, and since we’d all convened early enough, i put it on the table that we at least give it a shot – so we ran it once, and then took the second pass (i think it was)…and once we’d cut it, it was an easy sell. i played mandolin on the first pass, but left the break open for a potential overdub.
dan may stopped in for a short visit during the sessions on friday, as well – as we were cutting a cover version of “fortunate son”. avery and i played a harmony duet pattern on the solo section, and then traded bars on the tag, joining up for a line at the very end of the song.
then we moved on to overdubs – the dobro solo on black yodel, the lap steel solo on emerald lake that will probably become my favorite contribution to the whole record, and some vocal harmonies as well. wendy got there with the little man before dan left, and everybody got a chance to visit a bit before we had to jump in the car and tear down the turnpike towards carlisle. i took what i needed for the gig with me – an acoustic guitar and a mandolin – and planned on stopping back in to retrieve what i’d need from the studio stash for my gig with craig bickhardt the night after.
it’s hard to believe that we got as much done in two and a half days as we’d managed to do…avery and jd stayed for overdubs after we left, and jd worked well into the night with phil to fine-tune and/or recut whatever vocals needed attention. there’ll be overdubs afterward during mixing, i’m sure, but we didn’t leave much on the to-do list.
so by this time, a ton of the legwork has been done on the tearson record, and we’re getting down to the point where a lot of what’s left is essentially…the cameos.
one of those would be today, when we took the hard drive to elm street studios to have charter hooters keyboardist rob hyman cut accordion and melodica on michaels’ version of darrell scotts’ song this beggars’ heart.
i had been a fly on the wall at elm street before, during a hooters rehearsal during my tenure in john lilley‘s band – and it’s an A room, from top to bottom. from gear to amenities, i don’t think there’s a better studio in the philadelphia area…it’s a comfortable hang, the room sounds phenomenal, and the work that’s come out of there speaks for itself. (for instance, fans of dar williams may recall some of her recent work having been created there) i don’t know a lot of the history of the room, but it apparently began life as rob’s brainchild, and has blossomed into a great place to work.
the conversation that occured that brought rob into the fray on this record occured – i think – between andy and michael at some point early on, as we were fleshing out the particular song that we wanted to have rob play on. the basic track was michael’s vocal over a weissenborn track, and i added a pass of mandola right after cutting the basic track, and someone mentioned at the point the mandola track had gone down that we should get rob to play accordion on it – so after a couple of emails and phone calls, we were ready to put it down. the initial session was scheduled last week, but the weather forced us to postpone it until today.
when i got there, michael had already arrived, along with andy and rob…and john senior (head engineer at elm street) walked in the door almost right behind me – rob gave us all a walkthrough while we were waiting for the session to be set up, and we all kinda fell back into the lounge area and hung out for a bit while andy and john set about prepping – accordion would be first, through a pair of coles ribbon mics run into the studios’ API console, but folded through indentical tektronix LA-2A compressors before going into protools. once rob was happy with the levels, he laid down two separate pads of accordion – one was more of a “bed”, while the other had a little more movement to it – both sat perfectly within the track, and it’ll pose an interesting dilemma during mixdown when we have to choose between one or the other, or – perhaps – end up blending the two of them.
when it came time to cut the melodica track, we had all agreed that rob should largely disregard the mandola track that was already laid down, as i’d probably recut it after the fact to eliminate any possibility of the mandola track either clouding the melodica or potentially distracting from the note selection of the solo – and rob understood, but when he went in to actually lay down the melodica track, the part that he played ended up complementing the mandola track that was already there in a way that it might very well be an unwinnable argument to insist on recutting the mandola – i may very well be stuck with that part that’s on there at this point…but time will tell.
there’s also a walk-up, from the root chord to the five of the progression, that occurs right after the solo section…and we’d worried that the walk-up might not be stated with enough emphasis as we were cutting the basic track, but after rob’s contribution…well, i don’t think that’s a worry anymore. it’s not overstated, but it lifts the arrangement in a way that makes that lift unmissable, even if you’re just casually listening to the song. the chords pass in such a way that it sounds as if they’re part of the songs’ respiratory process. it’s such a simple thing on paper…to execute something like that…but sometimes it’s the simple stuff that really fouls you up. for a player like rob, it didn’t pose much of a challenge, though – he executed it brilliantly.
the whole thing was done, tracks rendered and bounced onto our hard drive, in the matter of a couple of hours – and that included horseplay time. rob did a phenomenal job, john senior made it absolutely painless, and we were on our way. hopefully, the remaining cameos will fly by with as much ease.
so, we knew going into the studio tonight that it’d be the last night for cutting basic tracks, barring a total and complete meltdown…and based on the last couple of sessions, that seemed highly unlikely. we had two songs left to do: st. louis county fair by paul metsa (we’d done his song jack ruby the previous session, two days ago)…and a quirky-assed song called wiley post, written by shannon wurst from arkansas.
honestly, i didn’t have any misgivings about the first song, but i knew the second one was gonna be a bit of a pain in the ass, just because the chord changes were a little scatterbrained…not that they were complex in structure or anything like that, but because they didn’t fall where you’d typically expect a chord change. to add insult to injury, MT decides to go directly against the grain of the instincts bred by my repeated listenings of the original by changing where a handful of the chord changes fell…so, as it turned out, i’d have been better off not having invested a lot of time into listening to the original version.
for the first song, i dropped the key from F to E without saying anything to MT, just to see how he’d react to it vocally…and got the results i was expecting. i wasn’t sure how he’d feel about some of those high notes in there if we kept it in the original key, and sure enough – it sounded as though he felt a lot more comfortable with E than with F. for the basic track on this one, i cut the intial guitar part in something of a hybrid fingerstyle pattern, and then cut a “strummier” part after the initial track was done – the two parts worked pretty well together, but i think the strummy part may be the one that survives, ultimately.
then we moved on to tackling the second one. usually, we’ll run through a song in the cutting room – in place behind the mics – once, maybe twice. when we cut the guy clark song, old friends, we didn’t even go over it – when it was time to do it, i asked him if he did it in the original key. he nodded, andy hit record, and the version you’ll hear on the record is the very first time ever that MT and i ever played or sang the song together.
for this song, though, we sat in the control room and ran it a good four or five times before we felt like we were ready to step up to the plate. we went in and strapped into position, i put the headphones on so i could hear our reference click and we took off down the road…and predictably enough, had a pair of false starts before finally smoothing the chord changes out to the point that we got a run through without any mistakes. then we did a second pass, just to be sure we were solid, and the second one was the keeper.
i was telling andy and MT about this interview with billy gibbons of zz top that i’d read a long time ago where he talked about the band opening for – and then backing – the legendary bluesman lightnin’ hopkins. billy said that, at one point, he mentioned to hopkins that he wasn’t changing chords in the typical, traditional places…according to billy, he turned around and looked at him and said, “lightnin’ change when lightnin’ WANT to change.”
so, in the midst of doing all this work on the michael tearson album, andy asked me if i’d be willing to do some session work for him…
and, of course, i’m not about to turn andy down. you don’t turn andy down. 🙂
seriously, it was something that was right up my alley, and i knew it’d be a blast working with andy on something a little different. it was for a formerly local singer/songwriter named dakota jay – originally from the doylestown area but now making his home in nashville for most of his days. andy sent me an mp3 of the rough for the track that he’d gotten from jay…a song called love you no more. it was a clever song, with pretty straightforward chord changes…and dakota was clearly a pretty deft vocalist, and he put the song across sincerely.
so i collected all the stuff that i figured might come into play for the session and loaded it into the usual spot in the front room – pedal steel, mandolin, lap steel, baritone guitar, dobro…and i lifted andy’s nashville tele for the session, too (which showed up in the mix with some of my personal nicknames attached to the tracks…so instead of “ele gtr” or “tele gtr” or any number of the usual naming conventions, we had tracks named “tacocaster” and “dick swinging lead guitar” instead…)
before i’d gotten there, andy had enlisted fran smith, jr. from the hooters to pair up with him as part of the rhythm section, and they’d cut dakota’s acoustic guitar plus a scratch vocal, plus the bass and drums – so they were ripe for overdubs when i arrived. we started with the pedal steel, as that would probably take up the most space in the track, and we’d want that to be there while we continued to work so we could play around it. after that, i put down a mandolin track that essentially acted as a high-strung acoustic guitar, in that it mirrored the rhythm track for the most part, but it had a different “voice”, so it was a little more heavy on the emphasis than a normal high-strung guitar would have been. then i put in a couple of different passes of baritone guitar – one with a little more of the twang than the other, so they’d have options – and moved on to the electric guitar.
one pass of the tele was essentially power chords, and the other pass was incidental single-noteish, lead guitar-type stuff…and yeah, by now it was gettin’ a little thick on the tape, folks. but – i tried to keep everything within the spirit of the song, and keep it simple enough that andy would have choices when it came time to mix…and, i’m finding that this is generally what he seems to expect of me in the first place, so…it’s working.
dakota and his family were thrilled with the results – his mom and dad had been there from the beginning, and i’d have to imagine it was quite an experience for them to see how this sort of thing works…building a song from a germ of an idea and some basic chords into what we ultimately created for them. a good song stands on its own with a vocal and a supporting instrument, and this song certainly could have stood on its own in that regard, but they wanted something finished and radio-ready, and i’m pretty sure that when andy finishes the mix for this one, they’ll be pleased with the outcome.
as for me…i’ve gotta hire somebody to carry all this stuff for me. AND i’ve gotta figure out a way to talk andy out of that telecaster.
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.
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.