On the surface, it seems like a weird cross-pollination experiment: pairing avant-garde R&B/jazz artist Meshell Ndegeocello with a producer/performer like Joe Henry, who''s all about live playing and recording. Ndegeocello''s music grows where the rhythmic meets the ethereal. Henry''s forte is getting the best out of singular performers like Bettye LaVette, Solomon Burke, and Elvis Costello. Just as an example, the keyboard credits on Ndegeocello''s beautiful new album, Weather, include “various soundscapes.” The keys on Henry''s terrific recent solo project, Reverie? An upright piano. But look just beneath the surface: The keyboard player on both records is Keefus Ciancia. Ndegeocello and Henry''s musical similarities are not necessarily greater than their differences, but they do share an aesthetic commitment to serving the song.
Ndegeocello and Henry have actually been friends for about 15 years. Henry sang a duet on Ndegeocello''s album Bitter, and she returned the favor by playing bass on Henry''s Scar, which also includes performances by Ornette Coleman and Marc Ribot. “That was an ambitious and important project to me,” says Henry, “and she volunteered her services for that, which was wonderful. Since then, we''ve often talked in the abstract about working together.”
When Ndegeocello''s record company, Naïve, suggested she join forces with a high-profile producer, yet still make what she calls a “jazz-budget” record, it seemed like the perfect time to call upon Henry, a multiple Grammy winner who records in his basement—albeit a pretty cool basement.
“Meshell and her family came to visit my home when they were in L.A. a year ago December,” Henry recalls. “I think she was intrigued by my studio here—that it is professional as it is, and homey also. I live in the Garfield House; it was built for the widowed first lady in 1904, after President Garfield was assassinated. It''s a big, old craftsman house and they put the kitchen in the basement with a couple of rooms for the cooks—a full basement that opens to the backyard, with windows on three sides.”
Prior to beginning sessions in the Garfield House, Ndegeocello had put together a collection of songs she wanted to record. “I usually do a lot of songwriting at home. I use Logic, but I still play bass and guitar, so there''s a lot of hand instruments involved—not just processed instruments,” she explains. “For beats, I would do all programming, and I usually try to emulate something that will go with the drummer I play with, Deantoni Parks. He''s one of the most incredible electronic musicians I''ve ever heard, and he also writes all the time. He walks around with his laptop, whenever we''re on tour or just anywhere, and he''s constantly programming.
“Deantoni and I exchanged songs to make this album. ‘Chance,'' ‘Dirty World,'' ‘A Bitter Mule,'' and ‘Dead End'' all started out as his music, and I wrote the lyrics and melodies.” Ndegeocello also collected songs, or parts of songs, from L.A.-based songwriter Benji Hughes and Ministry''s Chris Connelly, who wrote the lyrics to Parks'' music on “Rapid Fire.”
This was a different process from the way Ndegeocello has created material for other albums, which she says have typically been “more conceptual. “I don''t think like that anymore, though,” she says. “Now when I look for music, it''s more like I get a splash of something and just go with it.”
Ndegeocello says that she also switched up her main instrument before making Weather, picking up a Fender P Bass rather than her usual Jazz. “The P Bass has a whole different pickup system—it''s a lot more dubby and not as bright,” she says. “I''ve also been playing a Silvertone guitar, and using a series of Malekko pedals—fooling around with a lot of different sounds.”
Henry encouraged Ndegeocello to shake things up in the studio, too, where his MO is to capture songs spontaneously and fairly quickly—to get the best out of the amazing musicians in the room—in this case, Ndegeocello, Parks, Ciancia, guitarist Chris Bruce—in the moment. With Ndegeocello and her bass in a vocal booth and the rest of the musicians in his main tracking room, Henry had these experimental musicians working like a band, laying down live tracks with live vocals.
“I would say 90 percent of the album is live takes,” Henry says. “And Meshell was always playing or singing something. I encouraged her to play bass as much as she would, because I love her playing, and at the core of it was, for the most part, those four people playing.
“I''m not in any way against overdubs, but I find that if you cast the room appropriately with musicians who really know how to listen and are really willing to disappear into the song, leaving the right amount of space, the right amount of articulation—when that happens, it''s not screaming out for a lot of overdubs,” he says. “For the most part, if more noise needed to happen, it happened. If singing needed to recede and an instrument needed to step into the foreground, it happened.”
One of Ndegeocello''s sonic signatures, in fact, concerns where her vocal sits in a song; her voice is beautiful, elegant, but it''s often treated as just one part within a musical environment. She''s not one of Henry''s singer/songwriters sitting front-and-center, telling a story. “The vocal is just a sonic color to accompany the rest of the music,” she says. “On some specific songs, like ‘Rapid Fire,'' it''s not even about the words. It''s about the intended emotion, and the fact that people are going to move their bodies to it. But Joe is about the singer, and he definitely taught me something. He taught me that when musicians play to your singing, the songs have a better flow.”
Some of that singing during the live tracking was somewhat subtle—Ndegeocello just humming along to add her voice to the sound—and a lot of her final vocals were re-cut and overdubbed, as were some of Ciancia''s soundscapes.
“Keefus creates a whole sonic palette from found sounds, manipulated sounds. He''s sort of like a sound designer in real time,” Henry says. “He has a lot of old, arcane keyboards and then a lot of sounds in his own computer bank, so you never know what exactly is going to come out. Keefus is changing the weather in the room sonically all the time.
“You can spend the whole day, and people do, with Keefus doing overdubs because he''s got so many ideas and so many interesting ways into a song,” Henry continues. “So Meshell would often say, ‘I''m going to give you two environments on this song,'' There''s all kinds of different ways a song can be successful. But we just need to find one way and commit to it, and that''s why Meshell would say, ‘Do what you want, but you can do two things.''”
Live or overdubbed, everything recorded in the Garfield House is tracked by Henry''s go-to engineer, Ryan Freeland, whom Henry says is a “brilliant translator.” “I say ‘translator'' because you can have the most gifted musicians in the room holding forth, but it''s like having Gabriel Garcia Marquez reciting something,” he explains. “If you don''t take it down, translate it, it''s only for the people who were standing there. If it''s ever going to leave here and be meaningful to anybody, somebody has to translate everything that was beautiful about it, even enhance that beauty, and take it out of the room. That''s what Ryan does. He gets deeper and richer sounds than anybody I''ve ever heard.
“He also has a very musical and instinctive way of problem solving, and the greatest gift that he offers is he allows everybody to be fearless, and when people are fearless and feel supported, they''ll do anything for you. They''ll give you everything, because they know: Even if we''re bleeding all over everybody else''s mic, anything can be addressed, so don''t hold anything back. You can''t overestimate the significance of an engineer who can instill that kind of freedom.”
Over several years of working with Henry and others, Freeland, a multiple Grammy winner himself, has developed a hybrid, flexible Pro Tools/outboard racks setup that works as well at the Garfield House and beyond as it does in his own home studio. His flexibility and Henry''s devotion to music in the moment seem to have bridged any gaps between Ndegeocello''s electronic world and Henry''s old-school ways.
“Joe''s never too attached to things,” Ndegeocello says. “He''s just trying to get the best out of us. He keeps you on time, he keeps you within your budget, but mostly he''s a lover of beauty.”
Here''s more from producer Joe Henry on working with Meshell Ndegeocello.
Were the songs very well-formed when Meshell got to your studio? Did you all rehearse quite a bit before you started recording?
She came in with songs that were musically fairly structured in her mind but lyrics that she was still writing. Sometimes we would begin a song and nobody knew the lyrics or the melody, but her and we would begin to explore a song, still in performance mode, but everything we do is sort of a live performance here, no matter what we do with it after the fact.
I would edit, cut, fly, sample, tune anything to make music stand up like music and not take you out of the picture—but always beginning from a point of performance by people in a room together. But it was really interesting to be chasing a performance of a song that hadn''t been completely revealed to any of us. But it didn''t hold anything back. It was just a new way into the picture to me.
Nick Lowe''s engineer, Neil Brockbank, once told me that Nick never plays new songs for his band until the recording date because he feels there''s magic in those very first performances and he wants to capture them spontaneously.
I completely agree with that. I''m categorically against the idea of “pre-production,” the idea that you go into a rehearsal space somewhere for days or weeks and rehearse arrangements and such, and then you basically you go into a studio to read it into the public record. I think when people first come into a song as a collective, and they''re having their first response to it not only from their own point of view but how they''re acting with others who are having a similar revelation, something happens. There''s really a moment of discovery in the first few takes that is invariably what I want to record.
I don''t want anybody learning the song and then coming back. I''ve seen people do it, where they go into a rehearsal space and they''re chasing a song, and a week later in the studio, they''re invariably saying to each other, “What was that thing we were doing last week? No, it wasn''t that. No, I''m sure it was this. Well it felt different…” Then you''re constantly looking backward and chasing your tail. But when a song happens and when it really announces itself and its identity, there''s a real moment of mutual discovery. It''s a real revelation, and that is invariably exciting, and that''s the thing that I most want.
Is this your preference as an artist, as well as when you''re the producer?
For my own records at this point, I''m a really relentless rewriter. I don''t get near the studio for myself without songs that are fully written, but I''m beyond the point of demo'ing for anybody, or for myself for that matter—elaborate demos that might suggest the way forward for an ensemble. I give people the most skeletal versions I could possibly give them. Here''s the melody, here''s the words, here''s the shape of this thing, but I don''t want anybody coming into this with any preconceived notions about what will happen when we all try to conjure it into the air to be a living thing, because there is a moment where invariably it seeks its own identity and you have to allow it to stand up, and I wouldn''t give that up for anything.
You and Meshell clearly both love Keefus Ciancia''s work. Can you describe what he bring to the table on Meshell''s album, where he''s credited as creating “various soundscapes,” and on yours, where he just plays an upright.
On my new record that''s coming out, I relegated Keefus only to the upright piano because it''s a completely acoustic record. And for somebody whose mind is so expansive and who works frequently with a lot of electronic information, it was really interesting to put him just at an acoustic upright piano, and say, “You have to funnel that broad thinking into working more like a primitive.” And he''s no less expansive and no less shocking in that chair—just different.
As for Meshell''s session, he has a lot of old arcane keyboards and then a lot of stuff that sounds like he''s created with his own computer bank, so you never know what exactly is going to come out. One of the great things about recording with him in a performance mode is that, if you''re zeroing in on a take of something and everybody is sort of finding the parts that they''re living by, or living within, take to take, it''s still going to feel completely fresh because Keefus is changing the weather in the room sonically all the time. Take to take, it can be radically different. He doesn''t just keep honing in on a particular part and develop it. He''s exploring really different territory, and it''s a beautiful thing that keeps everybody hearing the song as a bit of evolution.