The Little Willies—Norah Jones, Lee Alexander, Jim Campilongo, Richard Julian, and Dan Rieser
Photos by Christian Lantry
The Little Willies: It's the band name that makes grownups giggle (though the musicians insist it's an homage to Willie Nelson). The latest record of mostly country covers from this group of musical friends—Norah Jones, Lee Alexander, Jim Campilongo, Richard Julian, and Dan Rieser—For the Good Times, is named for the superb Kris Kristofferson song, which Jones sings so tenderly on the album. It's no secret what a sensitive interpreter she is, and her fans will love these inspired versions of Cliff Friend/Irving Mills'' “Lovesick Blues” Loretta Lynn''s “Fist City,” Ralph Stanley''s “I Worship You,” and more.
As on the Willies'' self-titled debut, Jones trades off on lead vocals with singer/guitarist Julian, rendering unique versions of a dozen familiar tunes, plus one hot Campilongo original written for the album: “Tommy Rockwood.” By all accounts, the sessions were live, informal, and fairly relaxed, with keeper versions of the tracks coming quickly—usually in two or three takes.
“The hardest thing about making a Willies record is getting everybody in the same city at the same time,” says electric guitarist Campilongo. When the group does manage to come together, a new album starts with a couple of live shows to test drive the material.
“I''ll usually book us a couple of gigs here in New York, and we will play under a false name. We don''t call it the Little Willies, so it won''t be mobbed. Once the gigs are booked, we''ll all start sending each other MP3s of tunes we like. Then we''ll get together at somebody''s house and play, and that is usually very informal. Maybe I''ll bring an acoustic. We don''t book studio time. Dan Rieser has never brought a drum kit to one of those meetings; he''ll play brushes on a phone book or something like that, which sounds pretty great, actually.”
Also contributing to the relaxed vibe of the Willies'' process is the flexibility they have to record in Jones and Alexander''s studio, which is built into an apartment in New York City''s Carl Fischer building, a former sheet music-publishing house. Alexander worked with studio technician/designer Matt Marinelli to turn the condo into a tracking space, where space is at a premium, but the musicians feel at home.
“This is the second time we''ve recorded there,” says Campilongo. “It''s a small space, so I just brought two things: my ''59 Tele and my Fender Princeton, which we actually put in a bathroom. It''s old-school. You stick the amp in the bathroom, and it sounds good.”
Campilongo is a Telecaster virtuoso, who puts a lot of care into perfecting solos for his own records, but he's learned to embrace the Willies' live vibe. “I personally enjoy overdubbing, he says. “I love sitting in the control room and hearing the track playing through the speakers, and I have three amps miked, and it sounds fantastic, and we're going to add even more stuff to it later. With the Willies, it's live and there's always a compromise, but that's what defines us as friends and family. My greatest guitar solo might not be the take, for example, because the vocals might have been better on another. I did a solo on the [Cal Martin] song ‘Diesel Smoke and Dangerous Curves’ that I would have made more perfect if we were overdubbing, but we're recording live, and in the end I really love the wild abandon of it.”
Campilongo plays a couple of solos in “Diesel Smoke”: one that''s pretty close to the original version—which Alexander calls a “pretty, burning little entrance to the song”—and another where he says he thought he should “go a little more crazy. I thought it needed to be cinematic. We needed to hear the Diesel horn [which he imitates on the Tele], we needed to hear some derailing. I''m also really proud of Richard''s reading on that.”
Alexander says that “Diesel Smoke” is a great example of the way arrangements typically come together for the band in the studio. “We''ll just play the tune down as straight as possible, with whatever we think the groove should be, and then, as far as my bass part, the arrangement becomes a matter of deciding when I want to lay out, when I want to come in on the tune. You don''t want to have the same entrances on all the tunes, but there''s a certain feel that comes from waiting, especially on the bass. On that song, the arrangement changed when I was mixing. I just decided I didn''t like where I laid out, so I just muted it.”
The studio recordings were captured to Pro Tools by engineer Tom Schick. Alexander helped determine the mic choices, which he says were “a little bit dictated by the fact there was going to be a lot of bleed in the room,” with most of the players quite close together. He placed lightweight baffles around his upright bass, and lower baffles between Campilongo and Jones, but drummer Rieser was the only musician who was in a separate room.
“Initially we tried to go with more dynamic mics that weren't going to pick up as much, but it didn't sound as good,” Alexander says. “So we ended up going with full-on condensers. On Norah's vocal, we used a Neumann M49, which is actually the mic she used on the very first record—we bought that off the studio. On my bass, we have this beautiful Elam 250. We used a [Neumann] U67 on Richard's vocal, and one AKG C12A on the upright piano.
“I really like the mono thing,” Alexander continues. “The drums were all mono as well.” The kit was captured with one Coles ribbon mic overhead, an SM57 on snare, a D112 on bass drum, and a U67 that Alexander says was placed “a little far away—kind of like a room mic, but the room itself isn't actually roomy enough for a room mic to do much; it just helped with a little bit of high end because the ribbon mic overhead is a little bit dark.”
Campilongo''s amp in the bathroom took one SM57. “Part of Jim's sound is he cranks that little Princeton up pretty loud,” Alexander says, “so it was going to be impossible to have that in the room with all of us. When we built the studio, I built microphone tielines out to the hallway, so we'd have some options.”
Schick and Alexander run the electric guitar through an Empirical Labs Distressor; on vocals and acoustic instruments, they use Pendulum Audio 6386 compression, which Alexander really likes: “They're just really transparent,” he says. “Whatever is going through it, it tightens it up a little bit, and that's all. You can crush the thing, and it doesn't sound crushed. It really suits acoustic guitar, and I've always felt it really suits Norah's voice, and I love it on the upright piano.”
Engineer and producer mix on a Neve 8026 console that Marinelli customized to fit into the little studio. Alexander has only 28 channels to work with, eight of which he says are “basically just faders—I just use those for effects, for reverbs.” However, he finds it easy enough to submix tracks in Pro Tools and send a stereo channel to the console to minimize his track consumption. For example, the last track on the album, Dolly Parton's “Jolene,” includes a string section that Alexander stacked and manipulated until it became one overall effect that he added to the track.
“I stacked different parts on top of each other to get these dissonances, because I wanted it to be murky—especially on the outro. I wanted it to be this swirly thing going on underneath.”
The effect is apparently so subtle that Campilongo wondered if he were just hearing some manipulation of his guitar work on the track. “It ended up being more of a textural thing,” Alexander says. “It's hard to add another melodic instrument to our thing anyway, but on a tune like ‘Jolene,’ it's more about mood and vibe, which is the way Norah's music has been, too. The subtleties are what make it interesting to me.”
Recording in Close Quarters
Lee Alexander worked closely with tech/designer Matt Marinelli and acoustician Fran Manzella to isolate a studio that shares walls, floor, and ceiling with other apartments:
“Luckily, when they converted this building to condos, they'd floated the floors already—not to the same level you would if you were going to build a studio from scratch, but it helped with the isolation up and down. We also decoupled the studio floor from the rest of the apartment—just cut with a saw around the perimeter of the room and built the new room on that.
“I also needed help with the ceilings, which aren't super high; they're about 11 feet, and with the hard floor and the hard ceiling, we were experiencing a lot of flutter echo. Fran Manzella helped Matt design a dropped ceiling. For the wall treatments, I just copied the walls at Avatar Studios [in NYC]: the alternating maple slats with fabric behind and an air gap between that and the wall.
“We didn't want to lose the windows, because that's part of the beauty of that space, so I also installed a second set of double-pane windows, so we can get fresh air if we need to; it does a good job of getting rid of the street noise.”