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.
A large-scale operation in a relatively small-town setting just minutes away from the George Washington Bridge, the converted 100-year-old Victorian railroad station housed two world-class rooms in the Neve VR60-equipped North Studio and SSL4080 South Studio.
Although the facility was often bustling with activity for elite artists including Trey Anastasio, Rob Thomas, Teddy Riley, k.d. lang, and – of course – Tony Bennett – ultimately the one-two punch of escalating overhead and shrinking major label budgets proved too costly for Bennett Studios to overcome.
“I’ve been doing this for over thirty years, and I’ve been through many ups and downs,” Dae Bennett said. “The economic downturn, combined with the collapse of the music industry, was a little more than I could get through. We managed to stay busy, but the industry itself isn’t trending well.
“We tried to hold the rates as much as we could, but the costs keep increasing,” Bennett continued. “The energy costs have literally doubled over the last three years. Without the record companies being interested in records anymore, the math doesn’t add up.”
Bennett applied “a little poetry” in curtailing operations on September 6, 2011 – ten years to the day after the Andy Munro-designed studios opened its doors. The facility went out in style, hosting the entirety of mixing and editing for Tony Bennett’s “Duets II”, the highly anticipated album from Dae’s universally respected father which features pairings with Andrea Bocelli, Natalie Cole, Sheryl Crow, Aretha Franklin, Lady Gaga, Willie Nelson, the late Amy Winehouse (in her final recording) and many more. Michael Bublé and Josh Groban tracked their songs for the record, which will be released September 20th, at Bennett Studios.
The closing puts four full-time staffers out of work, and leaves NYC’s area freelance engineers and artists with one less resource for large-scale, world-class tracking and mixing. “We were one of the last facilities in the tri-state area with the space to do the kind of projects we did here,” Bennett notes.
A 30-year veteran at running recording facilities – he previously helmed New Jersey’s Hillside Sound Studio – Bennett will continue to maintain his focus on engineering, working on select recordings as well as an ongoing regimen of location and TV post production projects.
The rooms in Englewood may have gone dark, but the sense of optimism and adventure with which Bennett lighted them is worthy of note. As much a laboratory for adaptive music industry ideas as it was an audio facility, Bennett Studios will be missed by the many artists and sound professionals who had the opportunity to work there. “18 records from here won GRAMMY Awards, and one of them won an Emmy,” Dae Bennett concludes. “I’m very proud of the accomplishments here.”
– David Weiss
HARLEM, MANHATTAN: Who are the lighthouse keepers for New York City’s brilliant musical beacon? The giant of jazz known as Wynton Marsalis surely stands as one such sentry, an adventurist and nine-time GRAMMY winner radiating original sound experiences from our musical epicenter out to the world.
The master capped off 2010 with the release of Vitoria Suite, an epic 12-part sound voyage recorded over three days in June, 2009 with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and a world-class roster of guests — including virtuoso flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucía – at the Jesus Gundi Conservatory in Vitoria, Spain. A tribute to the city and its storied jazz festival headed by Inaki Anua, Vitoria Suite is a nonstop sonic odyssey – from its fiery takeoff to the dizzying climax, the opener “Mvt. I: Big 12” takes listeners to such a breathtaking place, one can only imagine what lies ahead.
Richness and musical dimensions of every color, shape and size define Vitoria Suite, a record that represents a true journey for the listener, musicians, and – naturally – its impassioned producer/engineer/mixer/editor. The latter is Jeff Jones (email@example.com), the self-proclaimed “Jedi Master” whose versatile discography includes Public Enemy, Talking Heads, Slick Rick, Willie Nelson, Norah Jones and scores more. The Jedi Master takes recording very, very seriously, as we shall soon see.
Motivated to match and build on the legendary recording contributions of Rudy Van Gelder, the Harlem-based Jones watched over every detail of Marsalis’ years-in-the-writing masterpiece, while allowing its warmth and excitement of discovery to come shining through. For Vitoria Suite’s mind-blowing meld of jazz, blues, Basque music, and flamenco, our talk with Jones confirmed that nothing less than an obsession with perfection would do.
You’ve said that you want to be the “Rudy Van Gelder of tomorrow”. That’s a bold statement. What do you mean by that?
I have been studying records and record-making — and film-making — since I was a kid. I always checked out articles, books, documentaries…anything I could get my hands on. When mixing I explore each style of music, learn its stylistic center and way of being recorded. Since I’ve been studying, apprenticing under Wynton Marsalis and veteran producer Todd Barkan I’ve gotten a deeper understanding about the center of jazz music.
If you study jazz, you have to study Rudy. He developed his own unique sound partly by taking control of the process from recording through mastering at a time when very few people did that sort of thing. He built his own studio and bought a lathe to cut masters. As a result his sonic vision was consistent because he did everything himself. I’ve taken on wearing all the hats now from recording through mastering. You have to do that to make the artistic vision consistent.
Dr. John called me the next Tom Dowd — both Tom and Rudy were inventors. You have to be a bit of a scientist to come up with new stuff when melding such deeply complex worlds as music and recording technology. Those two guy just did so many records that are now considered classics: It’s impossible to be a music listener and not hear their work. Their records have stood up to the test of time. That’s the kind of records I make also.
Nothing half-way about that philosophy! So how do you go about actually accomplishing your approach, in actually practice?
I’m looking to bridge the core elements of historic recordings with new techniques, used with today’s technology to make something new and unique.
Doing something that’s never been done before is really, really difficult. It requires a lot of shedding and a lot of thought. The questions I ask myself are, “Conceptually how do I bridge the gap from the old to the new? What was the old? What equipment? How was that equipment used then? Who manufactured that equipment and how was it built? What were the limitations? And how did they work around them? What were the mediums used? How do they differ from the mediums used today? What are the strengths and weaknesses of yesterday’s mediums and the same for today’s? In total how do I make something new with today’s tools, that is grounded in the history of all recorded mediums that existed before now?”
With such deep musical thinking, it’s little wonder that you and Wynton Marsalis would eventually work together. How did you and Wynton first meet, and what made you really connect as artist/producer?
I first met Wynton when I recorded him at a small Lower East Side benefit concert at the House of Tribes. I was asked to make the recording by the producers of the concert — I suggested we also bring video cameras. I had seen a short amateur clip from the previous year’s concert, and I knew the music would be outstanding.
I made an eight track recording and asked my friend Chuck Fishbein to bring his cameras. After the concert I spent the next five months editing, color-correcting, mixing and mastering to make an hour-long pilot which I hoped at the time would eventually become a television show. The audio from that recording was released on Blue Note and nominated for a GRAMMY and the video played on BET Jazz — you can find clips from that original concert on YouTube.
I think Wynton Marsalis and I pair well because we’re both all about making history and classic purists. He demands excellence from anyone that he works with, and he totally respects the art. My background has both classical and jazz in it — that also makes us a good match.
Fast forward to Vitoria Suite – the origins of this project are pretty interesting…
The head of the Vitoria Jazz Festival asked Wynton to write a piece of music for him, and Wynton ended up writing a twelve-movement piece that took him 10 years to complete. Wynton started the project long before I met him. The recording, editing and mixing process took a full year to complete.
Vitoria Suite was recorded in a music Conservatory theater in northern Spain. The Pro Tools recording equipment package came out of Madrid — I knew that we couldn’t record at 96/24 because the equipment supplier didn’t have enough AES inputs, so the master session was recorded at 48 kHz/24-bit.
My basic approach was to ultra mic everything. The reed players alternately picked up flutes and clarinets so they had double mics top and bottom. In some movements there was extra percussion and a flamenco dancer, plus the arrangement called for the band to add handclaps. I figured I would pick through the mics and use the best combinations in the mix.
Before the recording sessions I saw portions of this twelve-movement piece performed at a jazz festival in Canada, I realized there was no way to separate any of the band members acoustically. Wynton usually records without using headphones anyway, so I set up the risers on the stage to facilitate the normal live setup of the band. It’s a challenge to record so many instruments in an acoustically live room. I recorded 50 channels of individual microphones plus a live stereo reference mix simultaneously.
Why do a live mix? That seems like a stresfful undertaking on top of an already huge undertaking.
I like the energy of a live mix — it’s a kind of Holy Grail that you never get back at any other point during a project. The live mix serves as a template for doing the massive amount of editing needed on Wynton’s projects. I do all my editing on the two-track before editing the multitrack, and each of the 12 movements in Vitoria has at least 15 edits across a 50-track multitrack. There’s no such thing as isolation of the instruments because it’s all played in one room.
In some cases, takes were time-stretched to three different lengths to tempo match. All this kind of work is calculated first with the live mix before executing it with the multitrack. Then once the edit decisions are finalized, I use the edited live mix like a cookie-cutter to edit the multitrack.
That’s a meticulous method, but I can see how, ultimately, it would be the more efficient approach. When it came time to mix, where did you mix and on what system? What was your approach there? You indicated that Wynton had a lot of detailed communication with you on that phase as well.
I edited, mixed and mastered the record in my studio in a Harlem brownstone, in an area known as Manhattan Valley, where I use an Intel Mac Pro with four monitors and a combination of programs including Digital Performer, Pro Tools, and Peak. My signal path has analog summing through a Neve 8816, Apogee and Mytek A/D filters. My system is set up so that I monitor a 44/16 signal, no matter what the frequency rate of the master session. I’m a Mac Geek: I have four towers of different vintages and three laptops, and I use them all in conjunction depending on what’s needed at any given time.
Mostly, I started the mix process by doing a lot of listening. All kinds of records, all styles — even the Bose demo CD you get when you purchase one of their CD players. I like to stop mixing at times and listen to other artists’ records. It gives me a sense of perspective
I received 250 pages of music score for Vitoria Suite, where Wynton communicated with me in musical terms, bar numbers and musical sections. All my session markers were bar numbers or letters as related to the score — there is no other way to communicate about a piece of music which may be eight minutes long with no lyrics or singer, without working directly from the conductor score. Wynton and I communicate about the raw takes first in minutes and seconds based on the track time of the reference CDs. Then, after we assemble the master, our communication with musical score is in bar numbers, beats and so on.
Complex, but the attention to detail definitely shows in the final product. You said that while Wynton is bridging cultures, you are bridging the old and new technically speaking. Can you expand on those parallels?
Wynton is all about family, education, the art, hard work and integrity. He bridges cultures with that message at each show. He always combines other cultures and styles of music with American Jazz with the intent to bring people, their families, their tribes together. He bridged classical and Jazz early on, being the only cat in history to win GRAMMYS in both categories in one year. The first record I produced after “Live at the House of Tribes” was “Two Men with the Blues“. He and Willie Nelson bridged country and jazz on that one.
Since recording Vitoria which bridges flamenco and Jazz he has done shows overseas with the Berlin Philharmonic mixing classical and Jazz, to Havana, Cuba melding Afro-Cuban and Jazz. He is the Jazz ambassador of the United States.
The place where Wynton and I connect is that we are both willing to go “all the way” to make history. He instructs the musicians in his band to think of ways to play something that no one else has ever played….that, my friend, is a deep, deep statement! That is exactly the kind of recordings I have been looking to make: Recordings where not only are the musicians playing in ways that no one ever did before, but also where the recording is unique and timeless.
– David Weiss
SOHO, MANHATTAN: Whether you know it or not, you’ve been listening to Jesse Harris a lot. For this NYC music man, the song — sung by him or somebody else — really is the thing, and his songs get around.
It was Harris’ pen that produced one of the most enduring singles of the millennium in Norah Jones’ three-time GRAMMY-winning “Don’t Know Why”, from the 2002 album Come Away with Me. Not surprisingly, he’s been busy ever since with a body of work applied to film, theater, TV campaigns and an esteemed list of singers for his songs that include Smokey Robinson, Willie Nelson, Cat Power, Solomon Burke and Emmylou Harris.
While it seems Harris could simply wile away the hours churning out song ideas and checking in on his royalty statements, the fact is that he remains a prolific performer and solo artist in his own right. The end of the summer saw him releasing two albums with the nocturnally-themed Through the Night, his ninth full length, alongside of the instrumental Brazilian-folk-soul of Cosmo. He’s been touring globally in support of both of his latest babies, and two NYC shows are on the docket this week (December 10th at Zebulon playing Cosmo, followed by December 12th at Rockwood Music Hall’s Stage 2).
Unassuming about himself and his consistent success, our conversation with Harris provides a state-of-the-art update on top-tier songwriting careers. Do you have what it takes to get there? Before you make another sound yourself, listen up.
You’re wearing multiple hats with your activities. Do you identify yourself as a singer/songwriter? Producer? Performer? All of the above?
I’m all those things, although I usually say I’m a singer/songwriter, a producer, and a performer.
The term “singer/songwriter” is thrown around so often now that I think it’s worth taking another look. In your opinion, what does it actually mean today to be a singer/songwriter?
I think traditionally it connotes somebody who plays mostly acoustic guitar, and writes songs with lyrics that are in the folk rock traditions — and sings them in usually small clubs (laughs).
But a singer/songwriter these days can be into so many types of music. It’s not like the 1970’s where if someone said “singer/songwriter” you knew they were coming off of folk music like Bob Dylan, although there were a lot of them then who were influenced by jazz. Today Beck is a singer/songwriter and raps. Cat Power and Feist are singer/songwriters that are something else. There are a lot of different styles to a singer/songwriter now.
I think many people would see your career and say that you epitomize the possibilities of what a singer/songwriter can accomplish in the 21st Century. Where has being a singer/songwriter taken you, personally?
It’s taken me into a lot of different experiences — it’s taken me all over the world. But I think you mean in terms of having my songs performed by a lot of other artists, and that’s something I always wanted to do. In my first group (the duo Once Blue with Rebecca Martin) I wrote songs for the singer, and from early on I made that a criteria for my songs in writing them, that they would be flexible in that way.
Whether I epitomize something, I don’t know. It’s like anything else: certain things go well, other things are more difficult. I can’t say anything is perfectly ideal. A lot of songwriters write songs that only sound good when they sing them, but what I’m referring to is writing songs that can be covered, and have a life of their own.
How do you do accomplish that – create a song that you think might do well when it’s covered by someone else?
I think a lot is in the lyrics. But then it’s also in the melody — if there’s a concrete enough melody. There are a lot of people who are good enough singers, that write songs that don’t have a distinct melody, but they can pull them off because they’re good singers. A song that other people can sing has a melody that’s solid and discernable.
For example, on Through the Night, there’s one song that already has been covered. It’s a tune called “Way to Be,” a singer in Argentina translated it into Spanish. That’s a recent one in particular that I think can be sung by another person.
How were you approaching getting your songs covered when you got your publishing deal with Sony, in the 1990’s?
Nobody was really pitching my songs — I was pitching them myself to singers after Once Blue broke up. I met Norah Jones just on my own, we started a group together, and she started singing my songs in her group. That didn’t happen as a result of a business plan, and most of my songs that are sung by other people are from personal connections. That’s recently changed over the past year: More people know who I am, so they approach me and ask me.
And then you write something custom for them?
I’ve done that. But now people mostly want to co-write. In the ‘60’s, they’d call a writer and say, “Do you have a song for this artist?” Now people want to cowrite it. In order for me to say, “Yes”, I have to feel a connection to their music so we can do something good together. People want to co-write today because it’s so hard to make money – they want to have a co-share in the publishing.
What’s the business that goes up around a song once its been recorded, and becomes a hit or semi-hit?
It’s simple. You need someone to collect your publishing, and have your songs registered with BMI, ASCAP or SESAC. That’s about it. These days, people try to license songs off of commercials for films – it’s a good way to make money off songs, because record sales and mechanical royalties are down. You can make money if a song gets played on the radio, but only certain songs get played on the radio. You can also make revenue if your songs are played in live performances, but that’s only in certain circumstances.
The current Corona TV campaign features “The Secret Sun” from Jesse Harris’ Through the Night.
What are the big things that you’d say you’ve learned as your career has continued to evolve?
I don’t know, I figure it out as I go along. I really do. I take it as it comes.
In the past four years, I’ve been producing a lot more albums. It seemed kind of natural, since I always produced my own records. I’ve found myself in situations where artists asked me to produce records because if people get a sense they like working with me via songwriting, they might get a sense that they want me to produce their music.
You put out two albums together at the end of the summer – Through the Night and the instrumental Cosmo – both of which we really enjoyed. Why do a simultaneous release like that?
Again, I didn’t plan it that way. I was going to make “Through the Night”, and in the midst of that when John Zorn asked me to make an album on his Tzadik label, I figured I’d make it instrumental. As it happened, those came out at the same time. I thought, “What’s the difference? Just let them come out together.”
In retrospect, did it make a difference?
Actually, it has! It’s been interesting, because I’ve been dividing my time between instrumental music and playing the songs from “Through the Night”. I promoted them together and made a couple of videos myself for them.
You’ve stayed true to NYC, remaining based in Manhattan. Are you set up to record in your home?
I don’t have a personal studio. For a demo, I don’t need anything more than to sing it and play it on guitar. I only need Garageband. In NYC, I like to record at the Magic Shop in SoHo: It’s close to my house, it’s got a great-sounding Neve board, and it’s got a great vibe.
In a certain sense, the NYC music business is healthy right now. There’s more opportunities for people to get their music out there, but it’s harder to make money from music, and artists have to really tour a lot – more than ever. I think the business is narrowing and it’s difficult, but at the same time it still seems to be flourishing, and NYC is absolutely a good place to be based out of. There are so many musicians here, clubs to play and people to work with that there’s a lot going on in NYC, absolutely.
That’s good to hear. Circling back to where we began, what timely advice would you like to leave your fellow singer/songwriters with?
I think that anybody who wants to do music just has to be able to immerse themselves in it, and be open to possibilities: You end up going in directions you didn’t think you would go in. If young singer/songwriters really want to do it, they can do it – it’s a matter of dedicating.
– David Weiss