AT !" He once the man from Was (Not Was); he was also a producer of , , , Randy Newman, Marianne Faithful, , , and many others. Now he just is... the cat in the hat.

Text: Paul Tingen

Don Was is one of the most iconic names in I guess they just wanted to shake things up; you “I can tell you my perspective on how these tracks the world’s production !rmament. He’s the don’t want to keep making the same record over got the shape they have on the album, but that go-to producer for top artists looking for a and over. I had bumped into Lucinda in January doesn’t mean I was the governing force. Lucinda helping hand in realising inspired, soulful 2010 at a charity event called MusiCares, which is had gotten together with before the recordings and, in many cases, reviving their part of the Grammy foundation and which helps recordings, but they hadn’t done any rehearsals careers. Was enjoyed his highest pro!le as a musicians in trouble, and for which and the arrangements were not yet done. I sat in producer in the ’90s, when he worked with big was the honouree. I was the music director and the room with the musicians, put headphones on names such as "e Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, played bass, and Lucinda was also on the show. so I was hearing the same thing they were, and Bonnie Raitt, Randy Newman, Marianne Faithful, We spent some time together and got on very I listened to the vocal. As a producer I’m always Willie Nelson, Joe Cocker, and many others – well. I think Tom noticed that, and made a mental listening to the vocal. When the vocal shines winning a Grammy Award for Producer of the note that this could be helpful later on. When through, you know you’re doing the right thing. Year in 1995. For a variety of reasons (see boxes) they asked me to work on the album, I didn’t need I’d heard the demos, so I knew she sounded good Was has had a slightly lower producer pro!le any persuasion: she is one of the greatest artists singing these songs alone. If you’re not enhancing since the turn of the century, but his credits on the face of the earth and to be in the studio that, you’re doing something wrong. You make during the last decade have still included big with someone like that was an irresistible o#er, the singer come forward, and then everything names like "e Rolling Stones, Bette Midler, Kris especially a$er I’d heard the demos of her songs. falls into place.” Kristo#erson, and "e Black Crowes. She’s also an incredibly expressive singer. I’ve BLESSED RECORDINGS worked with many great singers over the years, ’ co-production of ’ Another person who can shed light on the and she’s right up there with them. You make new album, Blessed – the main focus of this goings-on during the making of Blessed is, of great records with great singers and great songs.” article – shows that Was continues to operate at course, engineer/producer Eric Liljestrand. the highest level. Blessed was recorded in Capitol’s Blessed has been released in a deluxe 2-CD Hailing from New York, his credits include Laurie Studio B in , and Was was dra$ed version: one CD being the regular album, and the Anderson, , John Cale and Bill just three days before recordings began. He other CD containing demos of the same 12 songs, Frisell, with whom he won a Grammy for Best co-produced the album with Williams’ partner sung by Williams at her kitchen table, recorded Contemporary Album in 2004. Liljestrand and manager, Tom Overby, and engineer Eric with a Samson Zoom Q3. "e album contains is also a composer and has scored the music for Liljestrand, both of whom also produced the some of her hardest-rocking songs to date, with several TV-shows. He recalls, “It really worked Williams’ previous album, (2008). Williams’ striking voice in the middle, framed by for Lucinda that nobody had played the songs "e latter was Williams’ most commercially guitarists Val McCallum and in the le$ until the last minute, because she doesn’t like successful since her debut album Ramblin’, and right channel, respectively. From the demos to overwork things or sing the songs too many making one wonder why Was’ involvement was it’s not immediately evident why any of the songs times. She wants to be really fresh and for the sought at all, and at the last minute. "e great ended up being given particular treatments. When band to be really fresh also. Because Don came producer himself, however, was so keen to work Was is asked for clari!cation, he seems reticent to in at the very last minute, and we never really with Williams he never asked her that question. give too many details, as if concerned about taking sat down together to discuss how we were going too much credit for the making of Blessed. “To be honest, I don’t know why they asked me! to do things, I don’t think anyone was sure of

AT !" what their role was. But Don usually sat with the musicians, and he has a very positive vibe in the studio. He’s like the ultimate cheerleader: he makes everybody feel good just by his presence. “We had had a couple of meetings before Don came on board, and each of us had a list of songs with annotations like: “up tempo, ballad, hard,” making reference to the general feel of the songs in vague terms. !e actual shapes of the songs revealed themselves while we were working in the studio, and in some cases this took a while. For instance, for a long time we didn’t know where the song Copenhagen was going, and when we did "nally capture it, we were none the wiser about it until the next day when we listened back to the tracking. We recorded all the takes – and some songs took 15 takes, others only six or seven but we nearly always used the second-last take. Don o#en likes that take, so much so that it became a kind of joke, as in: ‘let’s do one more, so the one we just did will be the one!’ We recorded everything on ProTools, at 24-bit/96kHz, but didn’t do a lot of micro-editing. If we did edit something, we were generally taking out or adding big chunks.” AN UFLAGGLINGLY GOOD ATTITUDE Don Was’ cheerleading vibe is also acknowledged in the liner notes on the album, where he is Eric Liljestrand (above) has been working with Lucinda Williams for years, apparently. credited with “un$agging and unforgettable He knocked Don out with the sounds for her new album right from the get-go – in part, good attitude.” Continuing his portrayal of the thanks to Capitol’s magnificent Neve !"#! console, which he describes as “a good vintage desk that’s in fantastic shape.” sessions, Was explained, “My job as a producer is to create an inspiration-friendly environment, and one way of doing that is by casting. Casting the right people is important. I recall an actor ‘HOME’ STUDIO MADNESS: SEX, DRUGS & (SOME) ROCK ‘N’ ROLL complaining that Woody Allen didn’t give him many directions, and Allen’s thing is: “I cast the Don Was hails from , , where he was born daylight. Another time we found out that a company that in #$%& and given the name Donald Fagenson. Once he made trousers we liked was going out of business, so right actors so I don’t have to tell them how to became involved in the he adapted his we thought, ‘Man, what are we going to wear the rest of deliver each line.” It’s the same with producing other name, in part because he became tired of being our lives?’ so we tried to buy the company! We had this records. !e right musicians are the ones that mistaken for Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen. As a bassist, famous film director living next door, and because Richie will understand where the artist is coming from, Was formed the band Was (Not Was) with David Weiss is the loudest guitar player I have ever heard in my life, (aka ), which enjoyed substantial international this guy would call up to complain about the noise. Since and they’ll have great ideas, so I don’t have to success during the early ’'"s. It disbanded in #$$&, we were not zoned to be a studio, we could be closed do too much. I want to be the dumbest guy in freeing Don Was up to fully dedicate himself to his down. So we put a big bag of reefer in his mailbox. After the room! When you’re working with a band it production efforts. The band briefly reconvened in &""' that, every time he ran out of pot he would complain for an acclaimed fifth album, Boo!, and a tour. The #( years about the noise. I thought to myself, ‘Now I’m basically a can be relatively easy, because you just want the from #$$& to &""' saw Was’ production career reach drug dealer, just to mollify this guy.’ I was a mess. I had to band members to be themselves, but it can be even greater heights, during which he ran a state-of-the- get back in the real world. So I sold the studio in the late much harder achieving that working with session art studio in his Los Angeles house, called Chomsky’s ’$"s, moved elsewhere, stopped getting high and made a Ranch. He eventually ditched this in favour of working point of going to sleep every night.” musicians. But with Lucinda’s album it was easy. Everything was easy with this record. It was a in big studios. One of the reasons was, as he comments In recent years Was has also ditched the steady flow of elsewhere, that he prefers to separate the places where big name artists he tends to work with. Instead, he has in f**king pleasure to make this record!” he works and lives. The other was that the drugs ‘n’ sex recent years mainly produced relative unknowns, such as started overwhelming the rock ‘n’ roll… Jill Sobule, Maia Sharp, Delbert McClinton, , “We cut two songs a day, recorded live in the Was ended up so under the influence that much of his and Elizabeth Cook. Was’ work on Blessed is his first studio with Lucinda singing and playing acoustic time at Chomsky’s Ranch has now since turned into high-profile production job in a few years. One wonders guitar, two electric guitars, keyboards (usually a haze, but he does recall a few things. “It was in the whether the man has gone all ‘idealistic’, or is taking it B3), bass and drums. !e band was set up in a house next door to where I lived in Los Angeles and it easy having grown tired of high profile acts and with that, was a crazy place, man. It used to belong to Russ Meyer, perhaps, high stress jobs. The reality, however, turns out circle in the main room with ba%es between the director of these softcore films. It was a classic, to be a striking sign of the times. Was explains: them, and some amps placed upstairs. !ey over-the-top ’%"s Californian house. It had a swimming “Um… I don’t quite know how to say this, but today’s were all wearing headphones. Lucinda was in pool that was designed so he could swim straight into reality is that nothing sells anymore. There are no an iso-booth with her guitar, and a lot of credit the living room! I bought a Neve console and built quite a recording budgets and the royalties are insignificant. So good studio, and recorded a lot of stuff there. But I was it’s difficult to be swayed to do something that isn’t cut must go to Eric – it’s not easy to record vocals gradually losing my mind. At one stage I had lots of girls out for you [laughs uproariously!]. Nothing is going to sell and acoustic guitar at the same time and get a working for me and I was sitting by the pool. One day two million copies so I just do the stuff I really want to do. good balance. He really is the architect of the someone said to me, “you’re like Matt Helm, the character I do whatever genuinely interests me, and in many ways played by .” It just got nuts. this has made making records fun again.” sound of that record: he did a magni"cent job in a very challenging situation. I should point “I did a record with there and instead So there you have it: even the world’s very top producers of focusing on music, we tried to buy these artificial are finding it hard to get big paying jobs. out that 100% of Lucinda’s vocals came from suns that they use when shooting movies for simulating the live tracking. We didn’t overdub a single

AT !" vocal on this record. So the take was the one on a Shure SM81. I also had an RCA 44 out in which everything worked well vocally. Lucinda’s front of the kit and a ride cymbal mic, which, performance didn’t change much from take one from memory was another small-diaphragm to, say, take seven; it was more a matter of how AKG 451. !e bass guitar was recorded with a we could best complement her singing. Manley DI and another U47 FET on the cabinet. I put the mic and the DI of the upright bass “On Soldier’s Song, for example, the puzzle was through a Fairchild compressor. !e upright was how to keep the backing as emotional as her also recorded with a pickup and a 451 – I like vocal. !e solution was to play less, paring down the sound of a small diaphragm on a bright- the instrumentation and putting space in, while sounding bass. Val’s electric guitar cabinet was keeping the dynamics. !e extended guitar solos recorded with an SM57 close and a U67 about 100% of Lucinda’s vocals in the ending of Seeing Black weren’t planned. “ four feet back. I did the same thing with Greg’s Everyone was digging the song so much they came from the live amp, but in his case I used the Sennheiser 409 just kept going. It’s a very musician-like thing tracking. We didn’t close to the amp. Capitol has so many U67s… I to do [laughs]. But as a producer you worry don’t like them normally, because they sound a about that, because if everybody gets all hyped overdub a single vocal on bit brash and brittle to my ears, but Capitol’s are up, and it’s not your "nal take, on the next take this record so beautiful-sounding that I was happy to use the musicians tend to start there. Consequently, them. that take will be too hyped up and manic. So you don’t really want those things to go on for “!e pedal steel went through Greg’s amp and too long. You don’t want to burn people out was recorded with the same mics. !e National either. But there was no controlling them! !ere steel was recorded with a Sennheiser and a ” were extended endings to many songs, they just Schoeps CMC6 with MK2 capsule, so it’s an happened, and people were having fun and it omni. I really favour omni mics on acoustic felt great. We did some mixes of Seeing Black guitars, you get a more neutral and open that were shorter – with some edits and fades sound, and there are a couple of acoustic guitar – but we immediately missed the feel of those overdubs done by the guys, and they all had the extended solos. Finally we said: ‘f**k it, put the same Schoeps mic setups. !e keyboards were whole thing on!’ a Casiotone which went direct; a Hammond organ recorded with two Sennheiser 421s on CAPITOL: U!"s FOR DAYS the highs and an RE20 on the lows; and the Regarding the gear with which Blessed was piano had (yet another) pair of 67s on it, which recorded, Was stated that he “pretty much le# the I moved about from song to song. Sometimes I sounds up to Eric [Liljestrand]. If I hadn’t liked had them positioned as an X/Y pair outside the it, I would have said something, but Eric has piano, sometimes as a spaced pair, sometimes I worked with Lucinda and these musicians for a had them rock ’n’ roll style above the hammers, long time, and I was knocked out with the sound depending on the sound we were a#er. !e piano from the "rst song.” So Liljestrand detailed the mics were the only ones that didn’t go through ins and outs of the gear he used: the Neve; for them I used Amek 9098 preamps. Eric: “I should preface everything by saying that !ere was also a bit of accordion, which was Capitol has one of the best stocks of vintage mics recorded with the Schoeps mics. I had a booth I have ever encountered. !ey were bought new, set up with the Schoeps in it, so anybody with an have never le# the building, and have been well acoustic instrument could jump in and be ready maintained. I recorded Lucinda with a Neumann to go. !e ‘Nail File guitar’ that I’m credited with U48, which was in a box labelled ‘Frank,’ as in on the album was me bowing a guitar with an ! I took a picture of the box because emery board, played really fast with a lot of echo. I simply couldn’t believe it. !ere’s such a sense of I recorded it on two tracks in ProTools, and had history in that building. Lucinda’s (and Frank’s) extra long delays on each track, feeding back into 48 went through the console, which each other, like a Robert Fripp technique. Finally, is a good vintage desk that’s in fantastic shape. Capitol also has six Les Paul-designed echo All mics apart from the ones on the piano went chambers, two of which we used. I always tracked through that board. I used some desk EQ on the chamber in case we mixed somewhere else.” Lucinda’s voice, and then put it through an ENTER BOB LA-2A before going into ProTools. !ere was Blessed is one of the best-sounding albums to quite a lot of spill between Lucinda’s vocal and have been released in recent years, and has been her acoustic guitar, so I recorded the latter with a acknowledged as such by several reviewers and DI as well as an AKG 451 or a Sennheiser small various fan internet blogs. !e quality of the condenser, the idea being that the DI would players and singer, as well as Eric Liljestrand’s feature while she was singing, and the 451 would engineering skills, are undoubtedly the primary take over when she wasn’t. ingredients, but in addition Don Was arranged “Regarding the drums, I had an Electro-Voice for the album to be mixed by the legendary Bob RE20 on the inside kick and a Neumann U47 Clearmountain, best known for his work with Approach with Reverence: Ol’ Blue Eyes’ Neumann U!", still with his name on the box! Incredible stuff. FET on the outside, a Shure SM57 on the top of Roxy Music, Springsteen, !e Stones, Bryan the snare and an AKG C-451 or 452 underneath. Adams, Crowded House and countless others. !e toms luxuriated in C12As, the overheads !e result is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a very rocky U67s, while the hi-hats were recorded through and muscular sound, even on the many more

AT !" Time out!: Eric and Don contemplate the next step while seated at the Neve console, during the Blessed sessions.

meditative tracks, but it suits the music perfectly. only control so much. In 1993 I was involved in DON WAS ON THE PRO TOOLS ‘ABYSS’ Apparently Liljestrand, who mixed Little the reissue of $e Rolling Stones’ back catalogue DW: “It’s easy to fall into what I call ‘the ProTools Honey, had also already mixed Blessed when for where we really put things and plug-in abyss’. I’ve certainly done that – you get hypnotised by the screen. You can descend into madness Was suggested to call in Clearmountain. What under a microscope – Bob Ludwig mastered and ruin a piece of music (and your health), especially if prompted the production heavyweight to !nally, it, and it sounded great. But when we started you’re working at home and the clock isn’t ticking away umm… throw his weight about? A/B’ing manufacturing CD-lathes from di"erent your money. The law of diminishing returns definitely plants – even two lathes from the same plant – applies after eight hours in a studio. I don’t care what “Eric is a great mixer,” explained Was, “so it’s they sounded di"erent. It depended on who was anybody says, your ears get fatigued. After eight hours nothing to do with his ability. It had to do with you should call it quits. What happens in the next four shi%, and which room they were objectivity of every one of us on the team. I recall hours won’t be as worthwhile as what happened in the using, and so on. Or there’d be a guy somewhere first eight. And not only is it inefficient, you run the risk asking for some more room sound on one track, who thinks that it needs more treble. Total of destroying your songs. After eight hours you’re in a but it actually made it blurrier. Sometimes you danger zone. You may get attached to things that are quality control is unenforceable, so you have want the objectivity of a fresh person coming not the right thing to do, and working #$ hours on a song to choose your battles. If you get the songs you without getting any sleep f**ks you up, and it’s really easy in, and someone like Clearmountain has earned want on the record, without the record company to fall into that trap when you have your own studio. It’s the respect of everybody before he even mixes demanding you do a Motown cover for a single better to separate the place where you make music from a thing. So everybody was very hands-o" while where you go home and sleep. You need to be able to or something, you got o" lightly. leave and come back. they let him do his thing, and he was able to “I’m fine these days working with ProTools. It still doesn’t cut straight to the essence of each song without “I’d like to tell you that things were better in sound as good as analogue, and digital can often sound attachment to the rough mixes that we had. I the days of vinyl, and that we had more quality the same, because everyone is using the same plug-ins also think you want to have contrasts in ideas control back then, but I don’t know. Historically, and the same samples. But I don’t think it matters. I’m more concerned about the lyrics and the music of the as well as in sound: sometimes you use Fender; there are some horrible-sounding records that songs than about that last two percent of quality that sometimes you use Gibson; sometimes you are among the best records ever made, because you get from tape compression. And these days, people record on a Neve, and also mixing on a Neve the performances and the songs are so good. listen to MP! anyway. I don’t have a problem with that doesn’t give you as much vibrancy as when you’re Nobody compared pressings from Minneapolis either really, but it certainly eliminates whatever edge analogue tape might have given you. Recording analogue recording on a Neve and mixing on an SSL.” with pressings from London. $ere were so is really something for the audiophiles. The other thing many imperfections that you just accepted Another thing that contributed to the excellent about ProTools is that it’s easier, and most of all, cheaper these things. Now in the digital age we expect to use. When I worked with the Stones on Bridges To sound of Blessed is that the album wasn’t everything to be perfect all the way down the Babylon in %&&', we spent (")),))) on two-inch tapes! #attened to death at the mastering stage. It was line. But it’s not. Ultimately you have to fall back We had so many reels we had to hire a daytime and a mastered by Ted Jensen at Sterling Sound in night-time librarian, whose sole gig was to find the tapes on the fact that everything lives or dies with New York, and Was commented: “I’ve used Ted we wanted! We ran tape all the time. Just that jam with great vocals and great songs. If it also sounds Keith for the song How Can I Stop cost (")))! We also a lot to master albums I’ve worked on. I trust good, you got the best of both worlds.” ran things off in stereo on that album during recording, him, and don’t feel I need to go to the mastering and ended up with '* DAT tapes. So let met put ProTools in perspective: for the Stones’ ["))*], sessions. In any case, I don’t see the practical Seems like Williams, Overby, Liljestrand, Was, which was entirely recorded in ProTools, we spent about value. You don’t know the room, so you don’t and Clearmountain achieved all this with (%#)) on hard drives! That’s it. And with today’s drives it know what you’re listening to. Also, you can Blessed. would have been a fraction of that cost.”

AT !"