The Sojourners are a great gospel trio – in the style of the Dixie Hummingbirds, Golden Gate Quartet, etc. They nail those old-school harmonies really well. I’ve been playing with them since 2005, when we got Marcus Moseley to put a group together to sing on Jim Byrnes’ “House of Refuge” album, and they’ve been at it ever since. We made a record in 2007, which turned out really well, but had some serious limitations. We tracked it live in my studio, which is quite small… so the drums were about 5 feet away from the singers with no separation, so everyone was playing super quiet, and there’s not alot of ambience in my room, so it was fairly dry sounding. Cool, but we wanted to get something a bit more lively this time around.
Off we went to The Factory, where I do almost all my live tracking. When we do full-band shows with them, it’s usually me, Geoff Hicks on drums, and Keith Lowe on bass. That was the core group that I wanted to record with, but we also wanted some organ/wurlitzer as well. My usual guy for that kind of thing is Chris Gestrin, but the guys had some experience with another great player who is well versed in gospel music – Mike Kalanj. He’s a killer B-3 player. So I got everyone lined up to come in, and the idea was that we’d record the band live, but we’d do the vocals later. Most of the tunes we were going to record were songs that the band had never played, so I knew that trying to work out the tunes with the band and nail the vocals would be way too much. We put aside 3 days to do all of the band tracks.
I had in mind some old Staple Singers records, but also some funkier Al Green-type soul records as well, so I wanted to try and get that kind of sound, without blatantly trying to make it “retro” sounding. Some unconventional drum/percussion sounds were needed, a wide range of bass sounds, different kinds of guitars, and pretty straight-up B3 keyboards and wurlitzer.
We set Geoff up in the corner of the big room with his drum kit facing the centre of the room. He has a nice sounding Yamaha kit that we augmented with some new toys of mine – Gregg Kepplinger had just made me a nasty little ride cymbal out of stainless steel that sounds somewhere between a garbage can lid and a gong. perfect. He also sent me a bunch of metal scraps bunched together on a ring, so we hung those from cymbal stands as well. I mic’d up the drums with 2 setups in mind. One was a mono drum sound, with a Coles 4038 overhead, a Sony C-37 under the snare, and an AKG D12 on the kick. Sounded great, but the D12 died after about 5 minutes, so we moved on and used a D112 (more modern version, and not quite as cool) close up, augmented with an AKG tube mic about a foot away, and a Yamaha NS-10 speaker for some real low-end. Too much, really, but I figured that would give me a few options for sounds.
The stereo kit was going to be needed for a few songs, although I preferred the simple mono setup. We used a pair of U87’s as overheads (top and side) for that. We also ran a Green Bullet mic from the snare to a Fender Blues Junior amp off in the corner. That sounds great as always. No close mics on toms, hi-hats or anything (we did throw up an SM7 on the hihat,but never used it), just enough to get an overall kit sound.
A pair of AKG 414’s went 20 feet up behind Geoff in a stereo X-Y configuration to get some room sounds. We used some heavy compression from a pair of 1176’s on them with the “all-in” setting.
That room is about 30′ x 40′, so there’s plenty of space. We built a little baffle and put Keith in there about 15 feet away from the drums. That was for his acoustic bass station. There was bleed from the drums, of course, but all very manageable. Then we just DI’d him for his electric basses – a Rickenbacker, a Hoffner, and an Ampeg lucite bass. We used my favourite bass DI – a Chandler TG-2.
Next to him, we set up Mike Kalanj on his B3 and Triton keyboard for a wurlitzer sound. The Leslie was put off in a room beside us, mic’d up with 3 mics, and the Triton was plugged into a Fender Vibroverb amp (and cranked!!) to make it sound more authentic.
I had a little acoustic room for when I played any acoustic guitars, and I had 2 amps for my electrics. A Fender Deluxe Reverb, and a Flot-a-Tone, an old 50’s accordian amp that sounds unreal. They were both mic’d with a 57 each and a ribbon mic as well – a 4038 on one, and an Apex ribbon on the other (one of my favourite electric guitar mics).
The sojourners sat in the control room and sang along so we had an idea of the melody. phrasing etc.
That was pretty much it – that was the setup for the whole session.
The main session lasted for 3 days, in which we tracked most of the main parts for all 12 songs. All 4 of us in the band played together in the main room, unless I was playing acoustic guitar, in which case I moved over to a small booth, and played my tricone, weissenborn or acoustic guitar into a vintage U47.
After the Factory sessions, I took the tracks back to my place, and got prepared for the vocal sessions. We’ve worked together quite a bit over the last few years, and have become pretty comfortable recording their vocals at my place. We always set them up together, with no isolation between them, so they can blend on their own, the way the song will sound in the end. The only time we recorded separate vocals was on the few songs where there were definite lead vocals – “Strange Man”, and “Another Soldier” are examples of that.
In the past, I’ve recorded the 3 of them with one mic, and also with 2 mics as a stereo pair, but this time we decided to get a bit more control and each singer had their own mic. Marcus sang into a Peluso 2247 into a Neve 1066 pre-amp, Ron sang into a U87 and a Chandler TG-2 preamp, and Will into an Advanced Audio CM-47 into a Helios 69 preamp. I used some compression, depending on the song – an LA2A, a Purple MC77, and an API 525 were the main ones.
It took about 5 or 6 days, since we didn’t want to fry their vocal chords. It’s a lot of singing to do when you’re trying to nail 3 singers at once. But they were well rehearsed, and the songs went quite smoothly, at the rate of 2-3 per day. Some of them were a breeze, and some that had some new arrangements and a few that required some harmony adjustments took longer, but it worked really well, and we got some killer vocal takes.
I mixed the entire record in Pro Tools HD, sending the mixes through a Chandler TG-2 via a Universal Audio 2192 converter. I really like mixing this way now. Those last pieces of analog gear add so much to the mixing process, and really bring it all to life.
I love the way the record sounds – it’s a good mix of old-school gospel and raunchier electric stuff that really keeps the traditional side intact, but bumps up the energy and performance level a whole lot from the last record. It’s called “The Sojourners” and will be released in early 2010. Enjoy!!
“My Walking Stick” is the 3rd record I’ve made with Jim Byrnes. The last one was called “House of Refuge” and was sort of a gospel-style blues record. We got the Sojourners together to record vocals and that has turned into a great ongoing partnership. We’ve done lots of shows and tours with those guys now, and we also went on to make a record for them last year, and I’ll do another one in a few months.
Anyway, we wanted to incorporate the Sojourners again, but I really wanted to avoid rehashing the last record, so we picked a couple of gospel tunes, but mostly had them sing on other kinds of tunes, and some greasy 60’s soul kind of stuff.
We made this record in my usual haunt, The Factory, over about 5 or 6 days of tracking. The band included me on guitars, Keith Lowe on bass, Chris Gestrin on keyboards, and then we brought in Stephen Hodges to play drums. Stephen is a great player who I knew from his work with John Hammond, Mavis Staples, and Tom Waits. I thought he’d be the perfect guy to lend an organic, but aggressive and unique sound to the record.
So we did all the live tracks with the band in The Factory, with all of us in the main room. My amps were set up in a side booth, as was Keith’s bass amp for the electric tunes. Chris’ keyboard amps were put out in the hall for isolation. I decided to put Jim in the control room, so that we could have him totally isolated and could redo his vocals if we needed to.
Setup was all fairly easy. My guitar amps were miked up with 57’s and Coles 4038’s, a C12 on the bass amp, Jim sang into a vintage U47, and then there were the drums. See photos below for some pix of the setups. The drums were wild because Stephen doesn’t use toms, but he has 3 snares. He kind of plays them like toms sometimes. The craziest part was the kick he brought up which was 38”. Massive. So we tried a bunch of things to get the sound right. We ended up using a lot of the room sound in the mix, and I really had to spend some time making that massive kick drum work with the bass guitar.
After The Factory, we moved back to my place, The Henhouse, and worked some more on Jim’s vocals, I did some keyboard and guitar overdubs, and we had 3 or 4 days of sessions with the sojourners singing their parts. All of that stuff was overdubbed. That worked well because the sojourners guys had a couple of weeks with the tracks we recorded to learn all their parts.
Most of Jim’s vocals were done at my place, although there were 4 or 5 that we kept from the Factory sessions. Most noteably though, I think, is “Drown In My Own Tears” which was the original first take, and a great performance by Jim. For his vocals, I tracked him with a Peluso LE47 microphone, and also an SM57 which I fed to a Fender Blues Junior amp that was really distorted. On a bunch of tunes, I used a combination of the 2 sounds. On “Ol’ Rattler”, it’s just the 57 through the amp. Very crunchy.
I mixed the record at my place as well, all on Protools, using an analog summing box, and some outboard gear. The fairly common chain of outboard was an LA-2A compressor on the vocal, and a Neve 1066 EQ. On the bass I used a Purple MC-77 compressor and a Helios 69 EQ. Most everything else was processed within Protools with various plugins.
Some brief track notes for some of the songs song:
- I wanted to try this song as a ballad, so I changed the feel to a waltz for the verses, and had the choruses a bit more faithful to the original Band feel. The middle section was orchestrated using some strings by Jesse Zubot, I played the pump organ, and then used a mellotron Vibrophone sound along with a glockenspiel to tie it all together. The time changes were counted out loud by me on the live take, which I was able to delete later. The banjo part that runs throughout the song was what I originally played on guitar on the live take, but I though banjo would be cooler, so I erased the guitar and added banjo. It’s miked from about 10 feet away. There was some debate about the lyric “the ghost is clear”. I thought it was supposed to be “coast”, so I pulled a “c” from a different word and changed it to “coast”. But then we found out it really is “ghost” and I put it back the way it was.
My Walking Stick
- this was done live and first take, I believe. I overdubbed a twangy electric guitar and the sojourners and fiddle were added in later. Everything else is done live. There’s a major edit in there near the end though, as the a capella section was an afterthought that was created and inserted.
I Want My Crown
- this one was tracked with a full band take, but in the end, I found it too slow, so I decided to redo it at my place. There’s a sampled kick drum on there from another song, and the random cymbal hits were done live on the slower take by Stephen Hodges, and I just flew them in. I loved it because it gave the track a random feel, even though we’re playing over what is essentially a drum loop. The bass, vocals and everything else were done after I tracked the weissenborn. The organ was from the slower take, and I manually chopped it up and placed it in the faster take. There’s about 300 edits on it! The slide solo is done on my Asher Electro-Hawaiian.
Drown In My Own Tears
- done completely live. Sojourners were overdubbed, and I added a rhythm guitar part using Jim’s L5 arhtop guitar. A great vocal take by Jim – first take, I didn’t touch it. The organ is killer throughout, and Chris Gestrin told me it’s his favourite track he’s ever done on organ.
What Are The Doing In Heaven Today
- This was probably a second take from the band. It was really simple and I didn’t see any point in redoing it a bunch of times. The drums were really nice and the organ solo is great. We overdubbed the sojourners, but when we did that, I realized Jim’s live vocal just didn’t match the timing of what they were doing. So I pulled his vocal out, and we did the sojourners stuff to just the music, and then Jim sang at my place on top of everything else. John Reischman came to my place for a mandolin overdub, which added a great flavour.
Walk On Boy
- I knew this would be a great song for Jim to do. I wanted to get a really clangy sound out of the drums, and I remember trying to get something similar on a track from the Zubot and Dawson album “chicken scratch”. For that, we brought in a big anvil and hammer and bashed the hell out of it, but it always sounded like a tiny metallic click , no matter how hard we hit it! We just never got it right. Having Stephen Hodges there was great, because he knew how to get those sounds. When we had a take (I think it was take 4), we overdubbed percussion and went for some really trashy sounds. He pulled out a tiny little anvil, about 2 inches across, and with a drumstick, tapped it so lightly, it hardly made a sound. It looked hilarious, but when you mic that up and record it, it’s the exact sound I could never get before! It sounds like someone wailing on a massive anvil with a hammer! We added some other percussion that was recorded through a Fender Blues Junior amp.
I’m really happy with how this project came out. We spent a lot of time on it, but I think the results were really natural and unique.
Well, it’s a few months later now and everything is pretty much wrapped up. I had a few final overdubs to do, and mixing. I added a few last textural parts here and there, some guitars, keyboards on Madeleine Peyroux’s track, my pal William Cairn out in Toronto did some nice trombone work on Bruce Cockburn’s track, and Jesse Zubot came by to add some fiddle to the Jim Byrnes track. So much was done at all the live sessions though, that there really hasn’t been all that much added since then.
I sent off rough mixes of everyone’s track, and with a few tweaks here and there, we’re signed off on all of it. I moved on to mixing, which is where I’m at right now – about half way through. I’m just mixing one song a day, because I have a bit of extra time right now, and I like not having to rush. I’m mixing in Pro Tools, and summing all the tracks through a Chandler Abbey Road series preamp. In general, bass parts are running through a Purple Audio MC-77, and a Helios 69 EQ. Vocals are hitting an LA-2A (not always, but most of them) which adds some nice depth and a touch of tube zest and a Neve 1066 for a bit of EQ if needed. I’m using an API 525 once in a while on guitars, and everything else is running straight through Pro Tools and UAD plugins. I keep listening to my mixes to see where things are at, compiling them together and the North Mississippi Allstars track, which they sent me the final mix of sounds awesome and huge and LOUD. I wasn’t there for that session, but I’m guessing they recorded analog to tape, and really pinned it and compressed it when they mixed. It’s awesome. Compared to my mixes it’s noticeably louder, so that’ll have to get taken care of in mastering – probably my mixes will be slightly compressed and brought up overall to match Jim and Cody Dickenson’s hot levels.
The mixes are ranging from simple solo performances (john hammond), to full bands, so it’ll be a fun process over the next few days. The most challenging will be the track with Oh Susanna and Van Dyke Parks, where we created a 24-piece string ensemble with 2 players. I really want to work on that one to make it sound right and as much like a natural symphonic string section as I can…. should be interesting. Oh, and Matt Chamberlain added some drums to that one too, which sounds awesome. He added the drums last, which can be a nightmare, but Matt is so awesome it was fine, and also that’s the one song that we actually tracked to a click track, to accomodate Van Dyke’s string score, so the tempo is steady from beginning to end.
So I think that’s about it for this post. It’s now early April, and the mixes should be all done in a week. There’s 17 songs, which seems like alot, but I think it’s OK for a record like this where there’s tons of different styles, the material is so great, and this way I’m sure everyone can find something they really dig. Then mastering will happen and then we’ll pick a release date. There’s some talk of doing a performance of alot of this stuff with a bunch of the people involved during the olympics here in 2010. That would be really cool.
Thanks for keeping up with this exciting project. Hope you enjoyed reading about it, and feel free to contact me or post comments if you feel so inclined…
Just confirmed is the release date – Oct 20, 2009 worldwide!! I’m also attaching a copy of the CD cover, part of the extensive artwork done by my longtime compadre, John Rummen.
This was actually a pretty low-key day, after the madness of yesterday. I knew we wouldn’t be recording any drums on this day, so I scheduled the 2 performers that were not going to use drums, with the plan of working on their tunes, and then packing up and heading home that day. We were still set up at Avast Studios in Seattle. The first session of the day was Del Rey, and the second was Robin Holcomb.
I’ve been a fan of Del’s music for some time now. I’ve had a few of her records over the years and find her style of straight-ahead, but incredibly clean and widely-influenced to be an inspiration. She’s a great interpreter of old blues music, and of particular interest, she had a personal connection to Sam Chatmon of the Mississippi Sheiks, having hung out with him in California when she was growing up and learning to play. On top of all that, she lives in Seattle, so she was an obvious choice for the record.
Del originally wanted to do a tune called “Lazy, Lazy River”, but changed to a different song called “we’re all feeling good”. The idea was to have her play with a trio of clarinets, although she only had 2 clarinet players on hand – Hans Teuber and Craig Flory. I decided that the best way to get a natural, live kind fo sound would be to get her and both clarinetists to play live, facing each other, and by positioning them right, we could get a minimal amount of bleed from mic to mic, but also capture a good live performance where they wouldn’t have to use headphones or anything – I made this call when I saw them performing like this shortly after I got to the studio. I knew they’d be the most comfortable and the results would be way better than trying to isolate them and have to use headphones.
We ended up tracking Del on guitar and vocals live, with a live bass clarinet track. Then we would overdub 2 regular clarinet parts on top of the live tracks. This turned out to be a really successful concept. Del and the bass clarinet really locked in quickly and we had a great take on the second pass. Just a couple of minutes later we had the 2 clarinets set upm which was important for the interplay, and laid down 2 versions of them on top. Most of what they played was arranged by Hans, but there was some imrov as well as things went down and got into sort of a dixieland vibe. It was a terrific performance from everyone and we were done within an hour of starting.
Del, Hans and Craig hung out for a while as Robin Holcomb arrived and we started setting up for the next tune.
I’d never met Robin before, but had heard her solo albums, and her recordings with a band called Varmint with Keith Lowe, my bass player. She also sang on a fantastic Bill Frisell album called “Nashville”. She has an amazing voice and a really unique take on traditional music, althogh she mostly performs her on original compositions. Having Robin made on the record made sense in alot of ways – her husband Wayne Horvitz was there in the bad already playing keyboards, she was quite comfortable working with keith, and she was really enjoying diggin into one of my favourite sheiks tunes: “Blood on my eyes for you”. I didn’t know what form the song would take, as she had worked out an arrangement for it completely on her own.
We set up the grand piano for her, and she started playing around with her arrangement, and showing some things to keith. I just wanted to hang out and get a feel for which way it would lead, and I realized shortly after we started that the best approach would be to get her to get a live performance down and then we could add some textural things from there. The bass lines were also integral, so we decided that keith and robin would play live. we would overdub her vocals and go from there.
The other issue was that about 1/4 of the bass stuff was better as a bowed part, but switching between plucking and bowing with no rests was going to be impossible. so… we recorded piano and bass live, but anytime there was bowed bass, keith would just sit out. Keith and Robin spent about an hor running through the parts and rehearsing, so by the time we actually got to record, they were ready and knew the parts. Wayne and I sat in the control room following through the chart of the piece, and making a few notes. WE got through a take, made a few adjustments, the main one being that we would also break the tune up into 3 seperate parts – an intro, the main body, and an outro.
Sounds complictaed, but they actually got through it in 2 takes. Since we all knew exactly what was going on, I did a quick edit to put the 3 sections together, and then Keith added his bowed bass parts. After that, we had a complete instrumental take. We got Robin set up to record vocals, and I think I might hae edited the parts a little bit too close together, because it felt a bit unnatural the way it was flowing. I fixed it in pro tools, and she was able to nail an incredibly haunting voal part in 2 takes. It tied together this piece of really intricate music that pays homage to the sheiks, but really doesn’t resemble the original piece in any way. I’m really glad we have a few songs like this – ones that aren’t straight blues takes. It really opens up the possibilities of their music.
After the vocals were done, I was actually out of time and had to start making my way back home. It was decided that wayne would add a few overdubs of his own, and they would email me the files. I would add some guitars and ambience as well at a later date.
With that, we wrapped up the most intense 2-day session I’ve ever dealt with. three cheers for Stuart and Cameron from Avast for accomodating s, and making the session such a success!!!
After the band arrived and set up their gear, we spent no more than an hour and a half getting all the sounds up and running. Thanks to Cameron, the engineer there at Avast for getting us up and running. The first 2 songs we were going to do would have no lead vocalist, so my job was to play with the band, but also to guide them through the form of the songs. These are pretty simple tunes, but sometimes it can be really misleading trying to play something simple without hearing the singer. It was an issue for me though because I wanted to keep my live guitar tracks, which were acoustic, but I also had to either sing a temporary vocal part for the band as we went, or talk them through which part we were at and what was coming up as it was happening. That was easy for me, but doing either of those 2 things would also bleed into my acoustic microphones, so I decided to isolate myself in a vocal booth at the back of the room, so i could talk or sing through the songs without getting my voice in the mics around the room.
As I mentioned before, Madeleine had to pull out of the trip to Seattle at the last minute, but still really wanted to do a song, so we decided to record a backing track for her to sing to. She had sent me an MP3 of her performing the song “Please Baby” as a reference, so I had a good idea of how I thought the track would work. I played the MP3 for the band and we hopped into the main tracking room and started going through it. I was playing weissenborn in the booth, with a U87 on it, and then also ran it into an amp as well. Matt settled on a groove pretty quickly and Keith and Wayne fell in, with Wayne on a bluesy delayed wurlitzer part that was a nice contrast to the major tonality of the melody. We got a good take on the 3rd try, with me doing a really rough guide vocal track… Madeleine Peyroux I am not! But it really helped the band knowing where the words were going to land, so that’s what we did. I aded a fingerpicking part on the tricone, and replaced the weissenborn part that had the rough vocal on it, and we had a nice instrumental track! I’ve sent it to Madeleine, and she’ll be doing the vocals for it next week in New York.
Next up was my track, which is called “Lonely One In This Town”. I really like this tune and wanted it on the album. Originally, the Sparrow Quartet was going to try to do it, but their touring schedule is so full on that it became too difficult to pull off in time. I decided to do a version of it with the band. I’m playing weissenborn and have overdubbed a lead slide guitar part, there’s some nice driving bass, organ and a very fine groove laid down by Matt. We did a take really quickly (I was trying to stay on schedule too, so tried to get this one laid down quickly), and I tweaked the arrangement slightly after listening back. It’s a funny tune because it really only has one verse, so there’s not much to it. We went right back in and blasted through it again and got it on the second take. I’m really happy with it, but still have a couple things to overdub – possibly a ukulele a track.. we’ll see.
Danny Barnes – Too Long
Danny Barnes is a fantastic musician from Austin, Texas, who now lives close to SEattle. I’m a big fan of his from way back when he had a band called the Bad Livers, then he had a band with Keith called the Old Codgers, and he also made a really cool record with Bill Frisell and Keith called “The Willies”. He plays great banjo, guitar, dobro, and sings great too, in an old-time kind of way, but with punk-rock delivery… I thought he’d be perfect for the sheiks tunes, and he knew a bunch of their tunes, so it was a perfect fit. Danny wanted to do “too long” a great song that has a really strange un-standard kind of form. The idea was to have Danny lead the band on banjo and vocals, and the band would be very traditional string-band based, with just a bit of kick drum and hi hat from the drums to fill it out. I brought along my trusty “portable” pump organ (it actually weighs about 120 pounds), but it folds up into a suitcase, and i use it on almost every session, so i brought it along. I knew wayne liked it as well – he used it on a couple of gigs we did together this year. Jesse Zubot, my old compadre from Zubot and Dawson showed up at this point, as he was going to play on this song and the next one. So we had banjo, fiddle, bass, some simple drums, pump organ and I was going to play my national tricone. Danny went to the vocal booth and we started trying the tune out. Danny and Jesse figured out a few lines to play together, and Danny had an idea that he wanted to do a banjo solo that would be really weird and syncopated, so he wanted to overdub it. We split up a fairly large solo section so each band member took an 8-bar solo. Jesse and I went into the control room to record, just to keep all the mics a little bit separate. We got up and running pretty quickly and got the song down in 2 takes. It cooked along really nicely and Danny nailed a great vocal take and banjo part. We had a few issues with the solo section, and no one was really that happy with their solos, and danny wanted to overdub his solo anyway, so we all just punched in the entire solo section as a band. We did 2 complete takes of the solo section like that, and felt we all had some good stuff, so it was done!
The Sojourners – He Calls That Religion
This is a really cool tune of the sheiks that I’ve been playing on and off with The Sojourners. They are a gospel trio that sing in the style of the Dixie Hummingbirds, Blind Boys of Alabama, etc. I hooked up with these guys a few years ago when we did a record called “House of Refuge” for Jim Byrnes. They sing really well together,a nd I wanted them to be a part of the project, so this tune seemed like an appropriate choice. It’s kind of a nasty little tune about a deviant preacher…
We’ve performed this song many times, so I knew exactly how I wanted it to turn out. However, bringing the 3 of them down to seattle was an issue both for time and finances, so I decided we’d record this one without them singing and then I would record them later at my place in Vancouver. Danny Barnes was still around for this one, so I wanted to get a pretty band-oriented sound with some organ, my tricone guitar playing the rhythm and some slide stuff, and then Danny along for the ride on banjo. It turned out to be a great combination. This tune is more of a standard blues kind of tune, so it was pretty easy to nail. I think we did 2 takes of this one, and had it down in no time. We did no fixing or punching on that, and have a great track fort he sojourners to sing to.
Ndidi Onukwulu – Things ‘Bout Comin’ My Way
Ndidi is a fantastic singer who now lives in Vancouver. I produced her last album, The Contradictor, and I knew she’d be perfect for this project. She always gets into the spirit of the song, and in all the work I’ve done with her, we’ve never fixed or punched in a single vocal. It’s always live, always has great energy, and sounds like no one else… This tune. is a 16-bar blues, bt the chords fall in odd places. It’s not standard. But aside from those quirks, this song is almost the same as “Sitting on top of the World”. The Carolina Chocolate Drops recorded that song already, and do a great traditional string-band version of it. So I really wanted to make this track different from that. I thought we could do something kind of heavy and groove-oriented with it. I was watching a video on youtube of Ry Cooder in the early 80’s and there’s a great drum break that happens in the middle of the song. I’m pretty sure it’s Jim Keltner, but I can’t really tell. Anyway, I really liked the groove, and thought it would be a good starting place for this song, but it was really fast. I stuck a mic in front of my computer and recorded 4 bars of it, and then threw that into protools. Then I slowed the groove way down and looped 2 bars and played the rough idea of the song on top of it. I played it for everyone, but didn’t want to get hung up on replicating it, especially from Matt’s point of view – I knew he could come up with something just as cool, but it was definitely the inspiration for the feel of our track. We all got set up, had the full band going, and it was pretty full-on. Jesse was playing acoustic violin and was getting drowned out by the drums, so we moved him back into the control room. Everyone else was in the main room – keith on bass, wayne on organ, me on my modified strat, Matt on drums, and Nddi in the vocal booth. We did 3 takes like that and each one sort of took on a life of its own. It was great to play a groove like that with such a killer band. We worked on the dynamics a bit and Ndidi sang killer takes. I still haven’t decided which of the 3 takes to use. They are all really good.
Bruce Cockburn – Honey Babe Let The Deal Go Down
The last song of the day was with Bruce Cockburn. He had come in from New York for the session, and had worked out a great guitar picking and vocal arrangement of this tune. We all sat around in the main room playing through it a couple of times. Wayne played some very subtle organ, I played weissenborn, keith on bass, and Matt changed kick drums to get a really boomy sound with more decay and a lower tone. At first we were kind of toying with doing it without drums, but decided it would work well with the groove that Matt did underneath. We spent a while tweaking Bruce’s guitar and vocal sounds once he was set up in his booth. He had a really beautiful sounding blue guitar, built by Linda Manzer. Bruce wanted to incorporate the pickup and internal mic into the guitar sound, so we tried it a number of ways, but nothing beat just using a single U87 mic on the guitar about a foot away. I think we had an M49 Neumann up for his vocals. We were happy with all the sounds, so we started with a take, and got through the whole thing and went in for a listen. It was pretty close, but we decided to alter the tempo very slightly, and also bring othe rinstruments in a little more selectively. We did 2 more complete take of the tune, and I felt like the 3rd one really nailed it. Bruce kicked it off with a cool guitar riff that is reminiscent of the sheiks, but more in his own style, and the whole thing had a great groove right from the top. Bruce and I felt we could get a better guitar solo in the middle, so we went back and overdubbed a couple of takes, and we had it. Bruce said “now all we need is a chorus of drunks!”. He wanted to do a unison vocal over the last verse, which was definitely worth a try. we gathered everyone who was around – bruce, me, keith, my wife alice, Carrie and Daniel (who were both there taking photos), and wayne, and maybe someone else. We gathered around a single mic and did a few passes of us all singing in unison. It turned out to be really cool and that was it! There may be a horn overdub that I’ll do – a trombone perhaps… we’ll see. Spirits were high, although we were all pretty exhausted. We hung out for a while at the studio, and then headed off for a few celebratory beverages at a nearby pub… success!
So that was the end of the first day – getting 7 songs done in one day with a rotating cast of characters was probably the most stressful yet rewarding day ever in the studio. It’s only when you look back and think about all the little things that could have gone awry – gear, people showing up on time, getting set up, getting the sounds right, that it seems like we really accomplished something special. Kudos to the greatest band I could ask for, and a killer team at Avast!
Just got back from Seattle, where on Nov. 10 and 11, 2008 we held the big session for this record. I had assembled a house band (in my head) of people who I really wanted to have back up some of the artists. All of those people live in Seattle. So… surprise, surprise, we held the session in Seattle, just 2 hours south of Vancouver, where I live. It was a major undertaking getting people on board on the same day, but we somehow got everyone on board and set the dates and booked 2 days at Avast Studios. I’d been there once before, and met the manager, Stuart, once. He was really accomodating for this and liked what we were up to. His studio has lots of room, great vintage mics, a killer sounding live room, and a classic Trident A-Range console.
My wife Alice and I, and my manager Kathy, who is also doing some wrangling for this project headed down the night before. The plan was to start early on the 10th and get through 7 tracks for the record. Then the next day, we only had to get 2 done, but in a shorter period of time.
The list of artists was:
Day 1 – Kelly Joe Phelps, Madeleine Peyroux, my track, Ndidi Onukwulu, Danny Barnes, The Sojourners, and Bruce Cockburn.
Day 2 – Del Rey, Robin Holcomb
Right before we left for Seattle, we hit snag 1, which turned out to be pretty much the only snag of the session. Madeleine Peyroux called and was going to be stuck in LA finishing her album and unable to come to the session. She really wanted to do a track still, but she just couldn’t make it to Seattle. So I suggested that we record her track without her and get her to sing on it later. She was into that, so she sent me an MP3 of her playing the song, and armed with that, we headed south….
After an agonizing 2 1/2 hour wait at the border, we got to Seattle, got settled, and met up with Bruce Cockburn to say hello. He got in the night before to visit some friends, so we went out to a little pub around the corner from the hotel. We packed it in pretty early though, as the day ahead was looming.
Kelly Joe Phelps
We headed to the studio around 9AM, and Kelly Joe Phelps met us there at 9:30. He’s an early riser, and I know that he can sound great even early in the day. I’ve worked with him quite a few times over the years – playing on his album “Slingshot Professionals”, and producing “tunesmith retrofit”, as well as doing quite a bit of touring together a few years back. It’s always good to see him. He brought up a National Style-O for the project which was cool, because he doesn’t record with Nationals very often. Kelly Joe was going to do “Living In A Strain”. Cameron and Cathy were there setting up – Cameron was the engineer at Avast, and Cathy his assistant. We considered quite a few mic options, but I wanted to keep it simple, as I always do with Kelly Joe. It just sounds better with him – he moves around alot as he plays and so it’s hard to get more than one mic to sound good on his guitars. We got a couple of mics fired up and I moved them around a bit until I was happy with the sound. Nationals are also tricky because their sound is very complex – the tone of those guitars is generated at several different spots, so you really have to find a magic spot for the mics. Once we were rolling, Kelly Joe did a couple of takes, both of them vastly different. We took a little break and then did a 3rd take, with a slightly different form in mind. With Kelly Joe, he really gets into a song and tears it inside out… once he’s gotten in there and spat it out, it’s pretty hard for him to feel anything better than the original take. HIs vocals and playing are both so great that you never really deal with “mistakes” with him – it’s just preferences of what sounds better. Of the 3 takes, all different tempos and feels, we felt the 1st take was the best. So that’s what we kept. I love 1st takes. and that’s it… no overdubs, no other instruments. Just Kelly Joe doing what he does best. solo.
The band arrives
It was just like clockwork…. kelly joe and i yakked for a few minutes after his session, and then he hopped in his car heading back to his house about 3 hours south. About 2 minutes after he split, the band started arriving. Matt Chamberlain showed up first with a car full of gear. Matt is definitely one of my favourite drummers on the planet. I know of him through his work with Jon Brion, Bill Frisell, Critters Buggin’ and countless other records he has played on. He’s also from Seattle… how convenient! And he and Keith Lowe know each other. I think from playing with Fiona Apple back in the early days of her career. We’d talked a little bit about what he should bring, and decided that what we wanted was a more vintage kind of sound rather than a super-modern pop drum kit. He showed up with a 1940’s kit, I believe it’s a Slingerland (could be wrong!!). It still has the original calfskin heads on it! Anyway, it sounded fabulous and he had a wide array of percussion toys and clangy cymbals that I love. Cameron, the engineer had the drums up and running within an hour or so. I wanted to keep it simple, so we used a pair of overheads, 2 mics on the kick drum, 2 on the snare for different sounds and that was about it. There were a couple extras on toms, etc, but I won’t use them. We then set up Keith Lowe’s bass station. I knew the bass would likely be all acoustic, so we didn’t bother even setting an amp up for him. We baffled off the bass a little bit to get some seperation, but kept them both in the same room. Then Wayne Horvitz’s keyboard station was also set up in the room. A B3, a wurlitzer, and I brought my pump organ. There was a grand piano as well, but it didn’t get much use until later. We put Wayne’s amps and Leslie in a room next door. I was also in the main room for part of the time, but if I was playing an acoustic instrument, I had to go go into a booth to get enough separation.
So, we were all there and pretty much ready to go by around 2PM… this will be continued in Part 2.