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Norah Jones, producer Jacquire King, and engineer Brad Bivens Embark on a Bolder and Darker Trip for The Fall

By Ken Micallef | February 1, 2010

0.00norah_MAINYou think you know Norah Jones? She of the 36-million-selling albums, languorous songs, and deep blue vocals? Well, think again. After three sweet releases of soothing tones in songs so summery it’s like dipping your toes in a warm country pond, Norah Jones locates her inner darkness on The Fall.

Inspired in some part by her breakup with long-term beau and bassist Lee Alexander, The Fall [Angel Records] casts the Norah we once knew into a strung out, deliciously dark world of torrid drumming, sultry Wurlitzer (often played by keyboard wizard James Poyser), angelic space sounds, and the strange, nightmarish guitars of Marc Ribot and Smokey Hormel, creating an aura of sonic hallucination and mental dislocation. Norah’s always gorgeous vocals and darker subject matter are encapsulated anew in a kind of beat-driven, electric swamp music. It’s like Louisiana by way of England: New Orleans-era Daniel Lanois productions meet Dusty Springfield and a postmodern Massive Attack.

Norah Jones achieves a delicate balance with The Fall. Produced, engineered, and mixed by Jacquire King (Tom Waits, Kings of Leon, Mutemath), The Fall veers wildly between the new darker, weirder Norah and the wideeyed ingénue who stole the hearts of millions on her 2002 debut, Come Away With Me. First single “Chasing Pirates” tricks the ears with a funky backward beat before straightening out to include gritty guitars and crunchy Wurlitzer, all delayed and treated, yet never harming Jones’ lovely vocal lines. “Even Though” gets stranger—reggae bass dollops driving fractured guitars and a childlike keyboard. Queen’s “You’re My Best Friend” comes to mind when “It’s Gonna Be” bounds from the speakers, all gut thumping, shuffling drums, voodoo keys, and guitar, Norah sailing above it all like some beautiful phantom describing the future. “Stuck” recalls The Beatles final organic rooftop gig, Norah pleading with some dude to leave her alone while her musicians lay it behind the beat like a bar band on narcotics. “Tell Yer Mama” kicks that same loser dude to the curb, Norah refusing to “cry for you.”

But Norah Jones hasn’t completely forgotten her old fans while cultivating new ones. “December,” “Man of the Hour,” and “You’ve Ruined Me” will appease those who still prefer their Norah sweet and simple.

Demos for The Fall began at Jones’ Manhattan home studio in May 2008, with engineer Tom Schick manning her custom Neve console (with 1073 modules), Otari 2-inch 24-track MTR- 90, and a sumptuous collection of vintage tube mics (Neumann M 49, U 47, and Telefunken ELA M 250). Knowing she wanted to create a different sound for her fourth release, Jones considered some of her favorite albums—Tom Waits’ Mule Variations, Santigold’s Santogold, and MGMT’s Oracular Spectacular—and called on producer/engineer Jacquire King (who worked on Mule Variations).

Recording in mid-2009 at New York’s The Magic Shop, Studio A (Neve 80 Series console with 1079 modules to 16-track Studer A827 2-inch 24-track to Pro Tools|HD3) and L.A.’s Sunset Sound, Studio 2 (Neve 8088 with 1073 preamps and EQs to Studer A827 2-inch 24-track to Pro Tools), Jones and King adopted a quasi Steely Dan approach, often recording the same song with different groups, then cherry-picking the best performances.

Jones’ vocals were taken from the first two or three takes. And in an era when everyone comps or overdubs to some degree, Norah Jones cuts her vocals live, with the band, typically finding her sweet spot by take three. Assistant engineer Brad Bivens marvels at Jones’ mastery in the recording studio.

“She is very in control of what is happening,” Bivens remarks. “So even if her voice sounds very kind and gentle, she is very in control and the musicians are aware of that and how she is directing them. Her efficiency in the studio is incredible.”

After platinum- and diamond-selling albums, a romantic breakup, and a new producer who helped her forge a fresh recording approach, The Fall is Norah Jones’ most daring album to date. Even Norah Jones must admit— things are looking up.

NORAH JONES ON LIVE TAKES, VINTAGE MICS, & ROTATING MUSICIANS

How did you envision this differentsounding recording?

I’ve always been drawn to these kind of sounds. This time I thought more about what I wanted sonically. On my other records, I would just go to the studio and play, mostly on acoustic instruments with an occasional electric guitar or Wurlitzer. But this time I wanted the sonic landscape to be a specific thing. I wanted heavier drum grooves, and to experiment with keyboards and have weirder sounds weaving through the background. I play more guitar [a Gibson ES-335 and 1960s Guild archtop] and I wanted the backgrounds to be dirtier than anything I’d done before.

How did you decide on Jacquire King as producer?

Jacquire is a great engineer and he was a wonderful producer. I wanted somebody who could really help me get that sound I wanted. I like analog gear and recording on tape and oldsounding recordings, but I don’t know how to get it on my own. I wanted to go in that direction with some songs, then bring the other songs into the same zone so they all fit together. Part of the danger in trying this new direction was doing all that and not covering up my voice, which is the thing that needs to shine through. I can sing out but I sing the way I sing and in a very intimate way. We discussed all the interesting sounds I wanted to get while still leaving room for my voice. That was important.

You record your vocals live with the band?

I love live takes. It’s always better when you can get it that way, right? It’s easier and more natural. I will punch in sometimes. Usually I hope for a live take, but before we move on to overdubs I’ll do a couple of takes in the same space if I’m singing okay. Then if we need any fixes, we have the takes without having to go back and re-sing everything later.

How do you prepare to record vocals?

Hot whiskey or hot tea! Some kind of hot beverage that will open up the voice if I am tired. On my first record we really got into Lagavulin. I like Irish whiskey. It’s smooth. Definitely not something I can drink too much of without getting sloppy. Hot water works as well, something to help me breathe. Beyond that I just stay focused and think about the song and try to be present.

You have a great collection of vintage mics. How did you choose them?

I bought the Neumann M 49 from Sorcerer Sound where I made my first record. It has a quality with the way I sing that just works. I realized on my second record [2004’s Feels Like Home] that it was pretty special. I couldn’t get that same quality as easily with another mic. I love the M 49 and I also used a Telefunken ELA M 250 on my third record [2007’s Not Too Late]. It depends on the type of song and the way I am singing for which one sounds better. I love the 49 ’cause it gets all the grit and warmth, but sometimes it can sound a little too muffled if I am singing a certain way. Then the 250 gives some nice high end and a lot of air. And I like to be close to the mic to catch all the nuances.

After three records, do you have a general recording concept?

The only thing that I have done consistently that works is to have two different sessions spread out over a few months. My first record we meant to record all in one shot, but we ended up going in twice. It helps with perspective. You need the luxury and the time and the budget to do that, of course, but for me it’s been really helpful to go in for a week and get whatever creative ideas you have down, then take some space from it for a few months. For The Fall, I had all the songs demoed in May of 2008. Then it was helpful to listen to them, see what worked, what I liked, what I wanted to change. That’s when I hired Jacquire; we went in for a month with four different groups of musicians to experiment. We had enough knowledge from the demos that we knew exactly what we were going for.

Why did you record with multiple groups of musicians?

I was experimenting. But I also used a couple of the demos (“Waiting,” “December”) for the final recording. We didn’t need to re-record them. We added little things to the demos. I have really bad demo-itis. I get really used to demos. And even if they’re imperfect, I usually like them. Sometimes I will try to perfect something that isn’t exactly what I wanted, but then I will go back to the demo because I really love it.

JACQUIRE KING ON PREPARATION, DELAYS, & NEW DIRECTIONS

Why did Norah contact you?

Stylistically, her demos were in areas that were very familiar to her. She wanted to get away from that. She was looking for someone to get her out of her comfort zone and expose her to a new way of working. The Mule Variations record was a good starting point for us; that’s how she found me.

How did you develop the demos from the familiar Norah Jones sound to this heavily delayed guitar, funky electric Wurlitzer thing?

I did a lot of preparation. There are 20 musicians or more on the record and four different rhythm sections [including drummers James Gadson and Joey Waronker]. I was arranging certain sessions around particular musicians. But I didn’t have a plan, per se. I was there to coach her and create an opportunity for her to feel inspired and to help bring about something new for her.

Also, [keyboardist] Matt Stanfield and I did programming to all of her demos as preparation. That enabled me to create some dark rhythmic textures to the songs based around the conversations I was having with Norah. Very few of the finished songs included those elements. But it let me present her with something to further get inside where we needed to go. Also, being ready to capture something in the moment is as important as the sonic picture you paint.

0.00NorahJacquireKinRDid you bring your own mics and preamps to the sessions?

The only thing I brought along was the Universal Audio 2-610. [“And the Massenburg MDW Hi-Res Parametric EQ to add extra fluidity to every channel,” Brad Bivens adds.] The Magic Shop and Sunset Sound have wonderful Neve desks and lots of outboard gear, and Norah has wonderful microphones. So instead of carting things around, I just brought guitar pedals [i.e.: Boss CE-1 Chorus], speakers, and the 2-610, which is a tube mic pre with EQ. It was used for Wurlitzer, guitars, and bass. The vocals were recorded through a Neve 1073 module. And Norah has an ELA M 250 mic and a U 47; then we chose the 250 paired with a Placid Audio Copperphone. It’s basically an old pay phone telephone voice element in a custom copper enclosure. I put that right next to the 250. It has a very frequency limited, old time gritty, edgy sound and gave the vocal a little more texture. Sometimes I leaned heavier on background vocals to give them a different texture and separate it from the lead vocal.

What ideas did Norah have about recording her voice?

She was into adding delay on her voice, trying not to just make it pretty with reverb. The delays were both analog and plug-in. I use Audio Ease Altiverb, SoundToys EchoBoy delay, some of the UA plug-ins—they have a nice EMT 140 emulation—and the Cooper Time Cube Delay. We used The Magic Shop’s Marshall Tape Eliminator AR-300, a tape slap simulator. And Norah had an old Ibanez analog delay. We used a Roland Chorus Echo and EMT 140 plate reverbs, too. Sometimes I will use an Eventide H3000 for harmonic delay effects, and as I get them going I will print them in Pro Tools with the transfer from analog.

How did you record “Chasing Pirates,” the first single?

We recorded that four times; the third version is where the drums, bass, and Wurlitzer came from. The programming that we did prior to recording was kept and used to play to. I used the vocal from the second version and got it going with the band. We got some interesting sounds going and built a vibe where we were creating something different from other versions. It’s a combo of different bands and different recordings.

Overall, how did you help Norah find a new direction while retaining her signature vocal sound?

I had to pay attention to what felt comfortable and what Norah reacted to and what she felt inspired by. I wasn’t there to tell her how to sing in a new way. It was about surrounding her vocal and letting her react to the change in the music and direction. I wanted to create a different vibe to support her voice and have her follow that lead. A vocal performance is about words and conveying an emotion and supporting that with the right kind of sonic atmosphere; that’s what gave her the result of her sounding different vocally.

0.00brad_bivensENGINEER BRAD BIVENS ON ISOLATION, MIKING, & QUICK TAKES

How did the tracking break down?

We did three weeks at The Magic Shop and one week at Sunset Sound. Half of the vocal takes you hear are what Norah sang live with the band. Every time we tracked, she did multiple vocal takes just to see if she could beat what she’d already done. But she is so quick and precise that often what she sang with the band was by far the best version.

When tracking vocals live with the band, how do you adapt?

We knew what Norah was singing at any given time would potentially be on the record. We made sure she was isolated from the group. At The Magic Shop she was in the live room with half the musicians, but their amps were isolated. When she played piano [recorded with Neumann U 69 and U 67, Soundelux E49, and Neumann M 582 mics], we covered it with packing blankets to isolate her mic piano mic. Getting levels set beforehand was important, and Norah works very quickly. We were ready if anything went wrong, and we had backup scenarios.

 

What did you use to record bass, and how did you approach compression and blending?

We used an Avalon U5 DI with a dbx 160 for electric, and a Neumann U 47 with a dbx 160 for upright. Basically, just having a subtle compression on the bass from the 160 helps when anyone is digging a little more. It controls the level a slight amount before going to tape. We don’t want to overcompress the bass because the tape will do that for us.

How did you mic and record the drums?

We used a Sennheiser MD 421, AKG D 12, and a GML 8200 EQ for the kick drum; Shure SM57 and SM7, Altec 633A, and GML 8200 for snare; MD 421 for rack tom and floor; Neumann U 67 for overheads; and two Coles 4038s through Urei 1176s for room mics. We ran them all through the same Neve module on the console. We chose mics on how they helped the drum translate. We would change out the drum before changing the mic, like switching a smaller kick drum for a larger one or how much the head would ring. The GML 8200 changed according to the song. The drum mic choices are pretty go-to for what we do along with what was available at the studio.

Are we hearing more close miking or room sound on the drums?

It’s an equal balance. Certain songs you can tell that they are leaning towards the close miking. It’s a much drier, pointier sound. “It’s Gonna Be” was a double-tracked drum scenario where we added toms to double up the sound. That song has more of a room mic sound. We used a ’60s Ludwig and Gretsch kit. Everything was song dependant. As you go through you can hear the focus on a drier sound versus a wider room-mic sound. “Chasing Pirates” is more room-mic sound. More decay translates into more room mics and overheads than close miking.

Do you mic amps direct to the cone or off-axis?

We used Neumann U 67, Sennheiser MD 409, Beyerdynamic M130, and AKG C 414 TL II mics on the guitar amps. The guitars are mostly upfront in the tracking scenario because we had to isolate the guitar amps to keep the main room quiet for her vocals. There’s a lot of close miking, and if there’s any space to it, that’s done with guitar pedals. We never mic guitar cabs at a distance, but we shift it around on the cone to find the best sound. But mostly right up on the grill.

What was the main key to capturing Norah’s vocal?

Finding the right mic. After trying out several, we ended up with the ones she’s used on her earlier records. And the Copperphone gave her a new edgier character. She is so quick in the studio; it doesn’t take her long to nail a take. We rarely did more than three passes of vocals, including the tracking take. And it usually ended up being the one she did with the band that we used. That is pretty rare. Usually the vocal you hear on record is the result of numerous takes after the band tracks the song. People might comp together the vocal from different takes, but for Norah, what you hear is one full pass.

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