HARLEM, MANHATTAN/JOPLIN, MO: Sometimes you go looking for a story. And then, every now and again, a story finds you. I think John Lennon put it best when he said, “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.”
You may have heard about his town. It was recently decimated by a massive tornado; one of the worst in more than fifty years [see some of the unforgettable photos of the devastation here]. Or maybe you’ve forgotten by now. It was in the headlines for a while but not anymore. Along with the 24 hour news cycle, we’ve all gotten on with our busy lives: Always another terrorist act, YouTube video, depressing economic bombshell, or political scandal in the headlines tomorrow to steal your attention, right? Surely those folks must be fine by now.
And why, you may ask, are you reading this on SonicScoop? Who is Ross Gipson and why should you care? Because, ultimately this a story about music, New York and what New Yorkers do best, which is pulling together when the going gets tough and helping their fellow man. If like most people, you too have forgotten the details of how Joplin, Missouri made the headlines, here’s a little refresher in Ross’s own words:
“I am getting ready to move to North Carolina to attend law school and have been living with my friend Sean Poindexter and his wife Amanda until that time. When you live where I do tornadoes are something you deal with every year, and most people I know have always had a jaded attitude toward them.
“For the most part, they are isolated things that form in fields and tear up farms. So when they issued a tornado warning that day we weren’t overly concerned. The sirens went off on our side of town and the Poindexters and I gathered our cats and went to their bathroom, which was the safest place since it was an inner room. The reason we went is because the radio said that a tornado had actually been spotted outside of Joplin.
“When there’s one on the ground near you then you should always take shelter. So we did but we still weren’t that concerned. Like I said, this has happened before. We sat in the bathroom and actually joked about it. This was the day after the supposed Rapture was to happen that the crazy preacher predicted. I remember Sean saying, ‘I guess this is the Rapturnado.’ We all chuckled.
“Then the radio started coming in with reports that a tornado was actually entering Joplin and had been spotted at a location a block away from us (This report actually turned out to be inaccurate. The original storm was so big that it had been spotted from a camera at that location, but we didn’t know that). The mood became very somber.
“Suddenly my thoughts became very existential. It was one thing to be in a situation where tornadoes were around you. It was quite another to actually be in one. I thought, ‘So this is how it ends? Sitting on a toilet, with the Poindexters, surrounded by cats? Great.’ Within about five minutes the power went out, and we heard the storm roaring through the city. Again, we thought it was a block away from us, so I expected the roof and the walls to start giving away, and I thought I was probably going to die. It sounded exactly how people describe it – like fifty freight trains coming through. We continued to listen to the battery operated radio.
“They sent a reporter out after the storm had passed to survey the damage. He reported as he was driving, and when he got to Rangeline he started screaming: ‘THE WALGREENS IS GONE! HOME DEPOT IS LEVELED! WALMART IS RUBBLE!” It was that report, coupled with reports that St. John’s Hospital had been hit and destroyed, that made me realize this was no small tornado. This was a big one and I was lucky to be alive and to still have a car and a place to live.
“I went outside after the storm passed and two things struck me immediately: First, the smell of sawdust was thick in the air. Second, was the sound of sirens in the distance and the sound of thousands of car alarms going off. It wasn’t until the next day that I actually witnessed the damage firsthand.
“I actually drove what was left of a neighborhood I used to live in around 24th and Pennsylvania. This is the area the high school was in. It looked like a nuclear bomb had gone off. Trees looked like barkless sticks jutting up from the ground, twisted wreckage as far as the eye could see against the back drop of a blank horizon. I instantly thought of all the people I knew in these neighborhoods, of the grocery store that I still shopped at, of how I could have easily been out and about when this storm hit.
“I was lucky. None of my friends or family lost their lives. A few of them lost homes. My friend, Beatrice Haase, lost her friend and co-worker at Missouri Southern State University, Professor Jose Alvarez. And her daughter Victoria DuBuis lost a good friend named Will Norton who had just graduated high school and was on his way back from graduation with his father when their car was carried up by the storm. I spent four days with this family, and it was difficult to see them going through this anguish. It once again showed me how fortunate I was, but also made me sad that I couldn’t do more.”
In the end, 160 people lost their lives, more than 8000 homes were destroyed and 211 businesses were lost.
Joplin, MO, Meet NY, NY
A few weeks after the tornadoes hit, while the news was still fresh here in New York, singer Chris “Breeze” Barczynski, whom I had played with for some time in a band we had together, Citizens Of Contrary Knowledge, approached me about a project to help the people of Joplin.
He said he wanted to record a version of the Pretenders’ song, “I’ll Stand By You” and asked if I would be into producing it. The idea was to send it up online, ask people to give to this cause and donate the proceeds directly to the folks in Joplin. It sounded like a good thing so I said yes.
I picked up the phone and called some of my talented musician friends to see if they would be into lending their support to our effort. All responded with a resounding YES! From a production standpoint, one would be hard-pressed to improve much on The Pretenders’ classic arrangement so we took a decidedly more acoustic, Americana tack with our approach, which was performed as a duet with another great singer we both knew, Christine Tambakis. The song came together very nicely and every time we needed a particular musical element, it just seemed that the right person was there to say yes. It was kind of effortless.
So in that spirit, I posed a funny question as we were completing tracking: “Wouldn’t it be cool if we reached out to mix guru, Bob Clearmountain, and see if he would want to come onboard to help out our cause and make this effort the best it can possibly be?” Aside from an incredible discography of some of the biggest hit songs and albums over the last thirty plus years, he also mixed the original hit for the Pretenders.
Well, in that “F*ck it, why not” moment I emailed his manager, told her our story and flat out asked if Bob would possibly be into it. A few days later, she wrote back to say that if we could be flexible with the mix date, he might actually consider it but he wanted to hear a rough mix first…(damn, really?) So we crossed our fingers and sent off a rough mix to him.
To our great surprise, they wrote back around the Fourth of July and said he liked our arrangement and that he was onboard to mix it. We were floored. But the caveat was we would have to wait a few weeks as he was finishing up Bruce’s new record (yeah, that guy from New Jersey). What do you say when Bob Clearmountain says he wants to work with you but you have to wait until he finishes up with the Boss? You wait!!!
Experience “I’ll Stand by You for Joplin” produced by Rainbow Bridge NYC.
Way too Late – or Right on Time?
So we used that time to start reaching out and planting seeds with some key connected folks we knew who could help our message spread. Not surprisingly, some people responded by asking the question, “Isn’t it a little late now? It’s already been like more than a month (now almost four!) since this was news. A lot of people are already helping. Who’s going to care about your idea?”
(Of course! Why didn’t we think of that?!)
Surely, these folks must be out at Best Buy buying their new replacement plasma TVs by now, right? And that’s when the lightbulb went on to illuminate our mission: After the news trucks have all left and the major disaster relief corporations have done their part to help stabilize a recovering community by rebuilding some of its basic infrastructure, what happens to the folks who are staring down a very long road asking how they’re ever going to rebuild their lives to some level of normalcy? Who is there to rebuild their hopes and dreams?
And so our project, Rainbow Bridge NYC, was officially born. Musicians bridging the gap in the aftermath. Checking off the Joplin “Things to do” list one situation, one soul at a time. It was our way of saying to the folks in Joplin that 10 years ago on September 11th, when we New Yorkers found ourselves in the headlines during a time of major crisis, the world responded with a huge outpouring of love and support. It helped to pull us through a tragedy no one could ever have anticipated.
We wanted to say to the people of Joplin that, “Today, NYC has got your back and we’re going to help remind the world that you could still use a little help.”
Our approach is to build this awareness by making people a part of the story, rather than passive observers. We began to seek out artists in Joplin to let them know what we were building in New York on their behalf and asked if they would be interested in becoming a part of our production to help establish that two way communication between us. Music would be the bridge.
Building the Rainbow Bridge – Meet Ross Gipson
That’s when I happened upon Ross Gipson, searching Google for singers in Joplin. He had a song he wrote, “Wounded Town,” that he has up on iTunes and was donating the sales proceeds to the relief effort in Joplin. He had a different look about him, and the high voice I heard in the song made me wonder if it was him or someone else singing. It turns out his answer is one hell of a story that began long before his town ever became headline news.
I wrote to him and introduced myself, which began an email conversation that painted for me a firsthand picture of the situation on the ground in Joplin. Ross opened my eyes to a tiny slice of life somewhere out there in that “real America” we sometimes hear about from the concrete confines of our great big city.
Ross Gipson is 31 years old and didn’t exactly have your run-of-the-mill childhood, as it turns out.
“When I was six years old I was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia. The doctors put my chance of living five years in the single digits. The way they treated leukemia and other cancers in 1986, as compared to now is very different. The best metaphor I can give you is that I went through bloodletting compared to what people go through today.”
“Growing up was hard. I was smaller than all the other kids. I couldn’t run as fast, kick the soccer ball as far, or do the other stuff kids my age did. I had friends and the kids at school were nice. They didn’t tease me for looking different or being different but I never really felt like a normal kid completely.”
Ross began his musical journey playing drums in 5th grade because he didn’t have the lungs or lips to play a horn or a saxophone, and he always had a knack for rhythm. He started writing songs around his senior year of high school, which is also about the time that he discovered Robert Johnson and started exploring blues music in general.
He cites Bob Dylan as the king of lyric writing and the catalyst for his true journey into the craft of songwriting. Other influences include Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon, Jackson Browne, Ben Folds, The Mountain Goats, Dan Bern, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Robert Johnson, Son House, Skip James, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, “and anyone else who writes a good song.” It turns out there’s also a strong visual component to Ross’s art.
“Up until my senior year I wanted to be an artist. Ever since I was old enough to pick up a pencil I have drawn pictures. I still draw today, though now I think I am better at songwriting than art. After I started writing songs and I noticed people starting to like them my fantasy became the stage.” But it turns out that performing didn’t come so easily for Ross.
“I have small hands to begin with. And I have joint issues in my hands so playing a guitar is nearly impossible. I play ukulele because it’s small enough that I can at least play most of the chords. I also don’t have the lung capacity most people have, so my vocals tend to be on the quiet side, which makes running sound on me an issue unless we have good mics. And sometimes I just don’t have the energy to do it, which is why I have been exploring song publication rather than becoming a performer.”
So I asked Ross what he would most like to accomplish if he could do more with his music.
“Three things, I think. First, I want people to hear my songs and draw something from them they can relate to. When you can make an experience a shared experience then that opens the door to understanding, and then you’re really communicating.
“Second, and this is going to sound selfish but it ties into my third thing, I want my songs to help me make a name for myself. I want Ross Gipson to be a name people associate with songwriting because…
“Third, I want people to define me through my accomplishments as a musician and songwriter, and not as the guy who had cancer, or who looks and sounds different. I want the Ross Gipson story to be about music.”
When he asked why we wanted to pursue this project for Joplin I explained to Ross that we felt a certain compulsion to give something back and show some of our own love and support, considering what the world had shown New York in our time of need. Hell, after Katrina there was also a bit of “Never again, not in our backyard,” considering how badly America handled that travesty.
Said Ross, “I don’t know anyone specifically who went to New York and helped during 9/11. I do know that both sets of grandparents, my mother and father, myself, and other members of my family contributed to Red Cross during the recovery efforts. I know many, many good people who live in New York City, and my thoughts were entirely with them throughout that time. It’s good to know those good people are thinking of me during my city’s bad time.”
Quite contrary to the typically never-ending artists’ life struggle for recognition of their craft, tell someone that you are putting your time and artistic passion into creating a new movement, all with the goal of helping other people through music and suddenly the response is, “How can I help? How can I be involved?” The experience so far has been nothing short of transformative.
Here’s Where YOU Come In
So now you, the reader, have a choice. Joplin, Missouri is officially old news. So much has happened since then to fill up the headlines and our Inboxes that it could very easily disappear from your mind the second after you read this and who could blame you?
I mean you’re busy. You’ve got a life. Who has the time? And you could choose to leave it that way with “them” somewhere over there and “you” over here at a safe distance from caring. But these folks in Joplin, they still have a very long road ahead of them.
In fact, I just spent a recent weekend in New York playing tour guide to Rick Castor, band director for Joplin High School, which was another casualty of the storm. We’re working with him to help replace some of the many band instruments lost to the tornado, among other issues. He had been invited with five of his students to be on “Huckabee” to tell their story and jam with Mike.
All the students had lost their homes. One lost both his parents, was himself found technically dead but ultimately survived with a broken back and much more. He couldn’t even go to his parents’ funeral because he was laid up in the hospital. Doctors took out three lower vertebrae and replaced them with metal rods. Miraculously, he was walking with us around the city three months later. Tell us again about that really stressful day you’re having today?
Or you could choose the contrary path and get involved. It’s a similar path those heroic firefighters chose back on that tragic Tuesday morning, 10 years ago on September 11th, when everyone was running out of the burning towers to save themselves and they chose instead to run inside. It was all about putting others before themselves.
In this case, your choice is not life-threatening. But it’s no less important in the grand scheme of things. It’s about becoming aware, which begins by putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.
I hope if you are reading this, you will come onboard too and join our effort and that you will help spread this message. Our initial efforts will be focused on specific music-related causes in Joplin, which you can find out about on our new website, www.rainbowbridgenyc.com and our Facebook community page.
Some amazing things have already conspired to help us move this ball forward but that’s for another article. In the meantime, please check out the song on our website. We’re feeling pretty good about it. It did not suck to have Bob Clearmountain mix it either. We would love to know what you think.
If Ross Gipson taught me anything it’s this: John Lennon was right. You wake up one morning and the life you thought you knew, that you were going to get on with living that day just changed forever. And all you can do is try to figure out what comes next because nothing, from that moment forward, resembles what you planned it to be.
So here’s your chance to do something you were absolutely not planning to do after reading a SonicScoop article. Get involved. Get informed. Make a difference. Feel good.
NYC-based producer/artist/engineer/more Mark Hermann spends his life in the professional service of music. He has toured the world with rock legends, produced hit artists, and licensed music for numerous TV/film placements. Hermann also owns a recording studio in a 100-year old Harlem Brownstone. Keep up with him at his homepage.
SUNSET PARK, BROOKLYN: Even the most natural talent needs some nurturing. And when an emerging songwriter crosses paths with a label that understands the strength of artist development, very good things happen.
The very latest evidence of this is in with Morning Void, the new album arriving this month from the captivating NJ-bred artist Fleet Walker. A record as explosive as it is fragile in its raw expressiveness, the release holds 12 beautiful tracks for those seeiking the same emotional high they drew from the likes of Jeff Buckley and Elliott Smith.
Walker’s label, 825 Records, did more than just upload the record to iTunes and call a couple of radio stations. After captivating the ears of 825 founder Matty Amendola (profiled in-depth by SonicScoop in June, 2010), the producer/drummer/multi-instrumentalist put his heart and soul into advancing Walker’s instinctual songcraft.
A highly accomplished session player and songwriter in his own right, Amendola partnered intensively with Walker in pre-production and in the studio, then brought out a highly organic listening experience with a mix executed 100% in the box. For up-to-the-minute applications of some wonderfully old-skool wisdom, read on about 825’s approach to filling out Morning Void.
Where are you as a producer and label owner today? Let us know where your head is at.
As a label “From the Studio To the Masses” has been our motto since day one and it always will be. We’re a label that wants completely raw, natural, and honest talent to develop, get them in the studio, put out a great record, give them publicity, marketing, promotion, and help them towards the goal of getting an incredible jump-start into the industry that they deserve.
As a producer and session musician I just have to go with the flow. (Outside of 825) I’m very lucky to have the amount of work that I do. I believe in every single project I work on, but the industry is in a fragile state. It’s constantly changing. Since our last interview I’ve developed 7 artists, produced a little over 20 projects and played on approximately 131 recordings. It’s sad that half of these records will never see the light of day just because of the shape of the industry, but it’s all about going with the flow and hoping for the best.
From that, how did you get introduced to Fleet Walker? And why did you both agree that you would be a good match?
Fleet contacted our Head of A&R Matthew Kruszelnicki, and he forwarded me the stuff to check out right away. He had a MySpace page with 3 or 4 “bedroom demos.” The first demo I listened to was a song called “Faro” and I dug it before the vocals even kicked in.
I heard a really simple-sounding, yet complex picking pattern between a couple of 7th chords which was all psychedelic, enigmatic, melancholic, happy, bubbly and unique and interesting at the same time. The vocal melody, lyrics, and tone of his voice when the verse came in matched all of the same emotions. And even though the lyrics were somewhat abstract, they were creating a clear visual and intriguing story.
I was a fan within 40 seconds. It was music I wanted to listen to, it was music I wanted to write, and Fleet’s approach to tone, sound, and his writing direction really seemed to be similar to my own.
Nice when that happens! That makes me interested in your definition of a “song” and how your approach to songwriting clicks with Fleet’s talents/capabilities?
In my opinion it’s an emotion adapted into sounds, words, melody… I’m only a fan of honest music.
It’s a magical thing when an artist can portray a sometimes-indescribable feeling into “sound” organically, naturally, and honestly. That’s when music really connects with the listener. It’s something in my opinion that Fleet does so effortlessly.
You said that this record was an interesting project, starting with the pre-production. What did Fleet bring in to pre pro, and how did the two of you collaborate from there to bring the songs for Morning Void?
I called Fleet to come into the studio to do one song before committing to anything else, and he walked in and started playing me a song called “In a Dungeon at the Bottom Of the Sea.” It was dark, yet catchy in a weird way. He approached simple things uniquely.
The first thing I did was address the “standard producer duties.” All he had was an acoustic guitar part, lead vocal, two verses, and two choruses. I immediately suggested he play the song a half step down for his vocal tone to be warmer, add an intro and a bridge and write new lyrics for the 2nd verse.
In a collaborative effort we completed all of that in about 20 minutes — we worked incredibly well together and thought very much alike. I had him record a scratch guitar track and vocal to the click and sent him home, because I knew the hard part was on its way.
For the next week I sat in the studio listening to that scratch track — it was up to me to develop his overall sound practically from the ground up. I listened to a lot of Radiohead, Elliot Smith, Jon Brion, and Jeff Buckley for production ideas, artists we both love. When I decided to dive into it, I dove into it… In my mind I had three possible drum parts for the entire song i.e three parts that could bring the song in a different direction. I recorded all three of them separately, and then listened to all of them on at the same time. BAM! It took off from there.
Sounds like a good start. What did you do with the drum tracks you recorded?
I love Wave Machine Labs’ Drumagog software – I replaced some drums with different sounds and cut up certain sections between the three drum parts. I had something very, very interesting: I put a very Beatles-esque bass track down, a ton of distorted ambient guitars, feedback, and noise, programmed some subtle Radiohead-type samples and prepared a mix for Fleet to come back in and sing on.
I’ll never forget the look on his face when I played him the track. I didn’t know if he was gonna punch me in the face or hug me. He was speechless. He loved it and after we finished the track, I handed him the label contract on the spot.
Good timing with the paperwork! When it came time to record the rest of the album, you said that this record was done all in the box, yet in your opinion feels “live and raw.” How did you go about achieving these sonic characteristics during tracking?
The whole record was done at the 825 Records’ facility, it’s become such a great space. When we started recording Fleet’s record we were still in the process of construction. We were expanding, building a lounge room, conference room, vocal/iso booth, buying new gear, so I think I was already in an experimental headspace.
I made sure every instrument we used had character, too. His acoustic guitar was all beat up but sounded good under mics. We used a ‘59 Danelectro for a lot of electric guitars and that brought some twang and grit compared to the other cleaner strat and tele sounds. There’s also nothing like a violin bass, which is what I used on the whole record.
Besides some of my favorite Earthworks microphones, I also bought a Telefunken AK47, which I used on a session a few weeks before I met Fleet and I knew it was gonna be the mic for him. We tracked all of the vocals with it, and a lot of his acoustic guitars. I even used the Brendon O’Brien technique and stuck it right in front of the drum kit for that crunchy, live sound. The natural sound of that mic contributed a lot.
We did every single song like we did the first — he’d come in and lay down his lead vocal and guitar to a click, I’d work on the core of the instrumentation for a few days, and then he’d come in to finish it up with me, adding some more guitars, keys, harmony, etc…
One of my favorite drummers of all time, Jim Keltner, gave me some great advice when he explained to me how he approached playing with John Lennon: He told me everyone followed Lennon no matter what. If he slowed down, everyone slowed down, etc… There was so much connection between the feelings and performances and I needed to make sure I captured that same thing when I added my instrumentation on top of Fleet’s.
I tried to keep it as raw as possible. I would give him three takes max for the main acoustic guitar track, and I gave myself no more than two takes with drums, bass, and other core rhythm section parts. No punch-ins, no comps, no fucking copying-and-pasting. I wanted to approach it like recording to tape. Sure enough, it feels live. It feels like it’s Fleet and a band in the room.
Extensive behind the scenes footage of the making of Morning Void is available along with the CD. Check out the trailer here:
There’s some great lessons for songwriting and tracking there. Then how did all this extend to the mix?
We started recording the album in October 2010, and I started finalizing all the mixes in February 2011. It all happened so quickly and as much as I don’t consider myself a mixer, so much of my production happens in the mixing stage and I’d rather have the magical moments come across in the mix that I hear in my head, then give it off to a better mixer with the hopes that it might sound a little better.
Everything was done in the box. Mic placements, instruments, amps, tones, and sounds were something we spent a lot of time on so the tracks felt great right from the start. I did use a lot of long echoes, backwards reverbs, delays, modulators, and stuff like that on the vocals but I kept the instrumentation pretty bare. I used Drumagog 5 and BFD on a lot of the drums, slight compression when it was needed everywhere else, but I wanted to keep all of the dynamics and raw feel.
The record didn’t even go through “real mastering.” I finalized the mixes with an L3 and a broadband EQ for a little bit of volume and translation to other systems and that was it. I wasn’t fighting in the volume war. You know that little thing called a volume knob? Guess what? Every consumer has one.
True, that! We know it’s hard to choose, but what’s a standout track or two on the record, to you?
I really love the final track “It’s Mid December.” It was such a great song when Fleet played it for me and I actually had a song of my own that I took apart to add some of the parts. I can listen to it all day. It’s beautiful and the emotions pour through on the recording.
“Faro” will also always have a special place in my heart, being the first song of Fleet’s that I heard. There’s no official single on the album but “Faro” is kind of the featured track… and check it! I also directed the music video for it that will be released with the album. It was a blast!
On that note, you said that a big part of what drives what you do is your interest in artist development. Why is this so important for a label to offer now?
Being the kind of producer I am, it’s just how I work. I work one-on-one with every artist and I’m usually their partner, their band, and their professional outlet. I think Fleet is now the poster child for what 825 Records wants to do for artists.
He’s an individual with incredible talent, dedication, and so much love for music that reached out and found a team to give him everything that takes most artists years to find and achieve. He deserves all of it in my opinion and he has raised the bar for all future 825 artists.
My team is handling everything from booking, promotion, publicity, marketing, and everything in between. We already have several major publications and blogs that will be reviewing and featuring the album. Just about every college station in the U.S. and indie stations worldwide has copies of the album, and are starting to add songs into their rotation. We’ve essentially had to build a fan base from scratch so it’s something that will take some time, but between gigs, proper social networking, and people hearing the album, I believe he will have a committed and loyal fan base for quite some years to come.
Most importantly my personal goal for Fleet has been completed. He’s out there, he’s got a great record to look back on for the rest of his life, his name is slowly creeping into industry heads worldwide, and it can only go up from here!
That’s a plan! We’ll be interested to see what happens next. Who are you looking up to these days for Intergalactic Guidance?
I mentioned producer/multi-instrumentalist Jon Brion in our last interview, and he’s probably my biggest influence. I don’t think there are many producers out there who can make records like this: from the songwriting, to the instrumentation, the direction, development, sound, etc. I asked myself one question a lot during the making of this record: WWJBD? Ha!
– David Weiss
The CD release of Morning Void is available now, with the digital release on September 27.
The highly anticipated Beatles Broadway musical concert “RAIN: A TRIBUTE TO THE BEATLES” makes its Broadway debut this fall with a limited 12-week run of performances at the Neil Simon Theatre (250 West 52nd Street).
The official opening will commence Tuesday, October 26 at 6:30 PM and run through Sunday, January 9, 2011.
“RAIN: A TRIBUTE TO THE BEATLES” stands out for good reason — the show marks the first time The Beatles’ music has been licensed on Broadway. All of the music in “Rain”, which carries a two-decade history, is performed live before the audience, and the concert is fused with historical footage and television commercials.
In addition, “RAIN” is set to tour nationally in 2011.
The partial set list for “RAIN: A TRIBUTE TO THE BEATLES” includes:
“I Want To Hold Your Hand”
“Hard Day’s Night”
“Twist and Shout”
“With A Little Help From My Friends”
“While My Guitar Gently Weeps”
“When I’m 64”
“I Am The Walrus”
HELL’S KITCHEN, MANHATTAN: With conviction like his, James McCartney doesn’t have to convince anybody of anything. Just a few seconds into “Angel”, the opening cut of his new EP, Available Light, it’s clear to all with ears that his hooks are heroic. And they’re his.
Of course, with his bloodline, James has to convince a whole ton of people that he really can play guitar and sing, much less write a song. On the one side of his heritage is Sir Paul McCartney, the Beatle who transformed Western music along with his bandmates John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr. James’ DNA springs equally from Lady Linda McCartney, a primary sonic force as Paul’s muse and partner in Wings.
That kind of family tree will trigger high expectations – probably why James McCartney has kept quiet about himself for most of his 33 years. But with the kind of natural talent he possesses on guitar and vocals, it was only a matter of time before a record would arrive.
Now, the moment is right. Available Light, co-produced by Paul McCartney and David Kahne, debuts Tuesday, September 21 on NYC’s Engine Company Records, and the sounds it holds just might shock and awe. After the instant rush of “Angel” is the driving tension of “Glisten”, the bittersweet uplift of “My Friend”, and the Cobain-dark drama of “Denial”. The capper is his band’s masterful cover of Neil Young’s “Old Man”, with the power to raise neck hairs after repeated listenings.
The New York City-based Kahne, a longtime collaborator of Paul and a wide spread of artists including Tony Bennett, Fishbone, Sublime, The Strokes, Sugar Ray, The Bangles, Sean Lennon, Stevie Nicks, Regina Spektor, Linkin Park and Mike Doughty was on hand for it all. He oversaw the recording sessions at Paul’s Hog Hill Mill Studios in Sussex, Abbey Road Studios in London, and SeeSquared Studios and Avatar Studios back here in NYC, and mixed the record.
Typically occupied with a diverse palette of projects – scoring two films, working with the NYC rock band the Dirty Pearls, developing eight other artists, and finishing an orchestral ballet of Peter Pan – Kahne granted SonicScoop a rare interview about co-producing this rarest of records.
What made you the right teammate for James McCartney and Co-Producer Paul McCartney on Available Light?
I’ve worked with Paul for 10 years, and I’ve known James for about eight years, although James and I had never worked on any music. So when Paul decided that he wanted James to get a record made, he called me up and asked if I was interested in producing James’ music with him… It was really that simple. And I immediately said yes.
Knowing James from before helped, and I’ve worked with Paul a lot so he must have felt I might be a good person to collaborate with. Paul hoped we could work together well in a triangle. So we all agreed and started working. I think he was right.
There were two recording stages for “Available Light”. The first phase saw James playing most of the instruments, and Sean Pelton on drums. Towards the end of those sessions James also formed a band with members of the Dead 60s, toured with them and re-recorded several of those tracks plus six new ones. Why was this two-phase process undertaken?
We recorded quite a bit of the first recordings in Paul’s studio (Hog Hill Mill Studios) in the south of England, in Sussex. James, Paul, and me – Paul not playing by the way, except to come up with parts, a few of which stayed as Paul’s performances. We had a great drummer from New York, Shawn Pelton, come in, but James played bass, guitar and keyboards. We got an album’s worth of songs, actually more than that, done. But we were still looking for more to choose from.
Then we talked about having a band, to see what that was like, and so that James could start playing gigs. James had played some in bands, but not that much. I had produced a band called the Dead 60s from Liverpool. I called up the drummer Bryan Johnson and the bass player Charlie Turner, connected them with James, and they started rehearsing with him. Then we brought in their friend Steve Bayley, who played guitar and keyboards.
We decided “This sounds really good, too.” We recorded a bunch of new songs, and re-recorded some of the previously recorded songs to compare them to what we already had. On Available Light the new band recorded “Old Man”. All of the other songs, “Angel,” “Glisten”, “My Friend” and “Denial” were from the older sessions, but a couple of those songs have overdubs from the new band. It’s definitely worth noting that Gil Goldstein plays accordion on “Old Man”. And Steven Isserlis plays cello on “Glisten”.
James brought in 50 cover songs to choose from, and we chose two: “Old Man” was one of the songs we decided on. We were going through the list, and when we got to “Old Man” I heard him sing the first line and I got a chill. It was a great moment.
It’s an absolutely dynamite cover of one of Neil Young’s signature creations. In the studio, how would you describe James’ approach to recording – what sound/feel was he going for with Available Light, and how did you facilitate that?
I wouldn’t say James goes for a particular sound and feel. It’s not like a directed, “This is what I want.” He kind of plays the way he plays. He’s a gifted musician who can play bass and guitar right-handed and left-handed — he can play his Dad’s bass with either hand. And he has a massive vocal range, at least three-and-a-half octaves. His guitar playing is world-class, as his hands are so sure and effortless. And his piano playing is graceful and strong. He held a note the other day for 52 seconds.
He writes the song, he feels something when he writes the song, and when he plays it, it’s done the way he felt it. So in production, the point was to make sure that was as wholly fleshed out as possible, without squashing or stepping on the original sense and feel of what he’d played. It’s very easy in the studio to run roughshod over original intentions.
The song “Denial” is very, very dark, and “Angel” is another great example, just based on what he’s feeling when he writes it. When he performs, the songs come off the way that he felt. He has a very direct connection to what he feels and what he sounds like, and actually doesn’t talk much about what the songs mean. He’s a very feeling person.
I didn’t know any of the songs when we started, and Paul hadn’t heard a lot of them. James would play them, Paul and I would sit and listen, and there were many times when we looked at each other and said, “WOW.”
On one song we were listening to for the EP, James was singing quietly and then got so loud so quickly that he hurt my ears, just singing and playing acoustically. Paul and I jumped and James said, “Was that too loud?” He can go from 0-to-60 in a second. As I understand, he’s always been like that, since he was little. He could play “The Wind Cries Mary” when he was 12. He would listen to songs and quickly be able to play them, no matter how difficult.
Moving on to the mixing. How would you describe your philosophy overall as a mixer, and then how did that guide your approach to mixing this record?
Well, I’m usually mixing while I produce, so the way I work is that by the time I get to mixing, I’m already close to my final goal, since I mixed as I went along. Which is interesting, now that I think about it, because it’s kind of Beatley – they had sub-mixes which they had made by bouncing back and forth on four tracks. Their mix parts were committed to early on.
I use a lot of analog outboard gear, but I’ve set my computers up through a MADI system so that I have access to that gear outside the computers while I’m working on the project. So I can instantly get to or recall that gear if I recall the session. If I get a vocal sound I like, using my Federal Limiter or my Fairchild, I can keep it and continue with it through the overdubs.
We started the second phase at Abbey Road, and then finished recording at Paul’s studio in Sussex, mixed the whole record, and then I came back to NYC, to my studio, and I remixed about 2/3rds of it in recall. I’m very much vocal-first: I put the vocal up first and go around that. That was a really good thing to do in James’ case – it keeps anything from getting mixed in a way that pulls away from the voice. And of course, getting the arrangement right in the first place helps.
We would redo the guitars with different voicings to draw the voice out, for example. I call that mixing, too. It’s just fixing it another way. If there’s a vocal in there, I figure that takes precedence and has to be served.
There was some serious rock royalty all over Available Light – what did you learn personally from this project, both about songwriting and recording?
It was fascinating working with Paul and James, not only as producer and artist, but as father and son. Musically, I’m always learning about the artist and his/her point of view. If they’re good, there’s something unique and distinctive there. And these recordings were no exception. I learned so much from working with James and Paul.
James’ ability as a guitar player was astounding to me. He did things I had never experienced before. He would play a really complicated guitar part, and then I’d ask him to double it on acoustic. He would do that, and it would be as if I had made a copy of the first one. He knows where every note is, and that makes for a certain kind of power in a recording – the level of precision that comes out.
It was also different working with Paul as Co-Producer, because he wasn’t playing. It was Paul and me talking about things, then the two of us talking to James. Or Paul or myself singley working with James at times. I got to work with Paul in a different way on this album. I think it worked out really well. And James shines through.
– David Weiss