Grit And Grace

“Lucinda Williams is as great an artist as I’ve ever worked with,” says Don Was. Having produced the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Brian Wilson, and Willie Nelson, for starters, Was knows the score.

Lucinda Williams Finds True Confidence In The Studio On Blessed

“Lucinda Williams is as great an artist as I’ve ever worked with,” says Don Was. Having produced the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Brian Wilson, and Willie Nelson, for starters, Was knows the score. “History will record Lucinda as one of the all-time greats. I really feel that. She’s got such a presence; she leaps out of the speakers. If you listen to her performances, she doesn’t waste a syllable. Her phrasing is impeccable. And it’s not because she’s studied it; she’s a natural. She just sings, and she’s for real and she’s writing about real stuff.”

Following years of frustrating recording experiences, along with the accolades, multiple Grammy Awards, and SRO shows, Lucinda Williams triumphs on Blessed (Lost Highway). Co-produced by Don Was, Williams’ husband/manager Tom Overby, and longtime engineer Eric Liljestrand, Blessed is the culmination of Williams’ 32-year career. An incredibly transparent recording (tracked at Capitol Records’ famed Studios A and B in Los Angeles), Blessed documents 12 of Williams’ bestever songs, cut with her established band (Butch Norton, drums; David Sutton, bass; Val McCallum, guitars; Rami Jaffee, keyboards) with guest spots from Elvis Costello, Greg Leisz (guitars) and Matthew Sweet (vocals). While this may sound like PR ballyhoo, Williams is the first one to say she’s risen to a new plateau on Blessed; further confirming the mastery exhibited on her recent albums West and Little Honey and her 1998 breakthrough, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.

“Honestly, the older I’ve gotten, the more prolific I’ve become,” Williams says, sitting at the well-worn kitchen table where she writes songs from her Studio City, California home. “I’m wiser and more comfortable with my craft. I’m more confident about what I do and less afraid to take chances. And I’ve stretched out to absorb other kinds of stories and material to write about. I can’t write about unrequited love forever. It’s forced me to look elsewhere for material and it’s coming more easily than I thought it would.”

But even with this new-found confidence and artistic mastery, evident on such Blessed tracks as the gritty “Buttercup,” lonesome moaner “Sweet Love,” rock-and-roller “Seeing Black,” and the celebratory title track, Williams’ past still dogs her.

“You can be comfortable and still be in pain,” Williams says. “I have a lot of pain, still. That’s not going to go away. There’s different kinds of pain. Just because you meet somebody and marry and love them doesn’t mean you’re not going to feel pain. I’m like a sponge walking through life. I soak everything up. I’ve got memories hanging around that I think about a lot. Maybe that’s why I am writing more these days. But I am more confident as a writer. I’m not as insecure about it.”

Capturing Spontaneity

Williams’ kitchen table figured prominently into Blessed’s creativity. It’s where she would place her beloved Zoom H2 Handy Recorder while writing new songs, producing the best-sounding demos of her career.

“I love this thing,” she says. “It’s brought everything to a whole new level. I’d record a song on the Zoom, then take it to Tom’s office and burn a CD. Then later we’d listen to it—instant gratification! It sounds great! That in itself boosted my confidence. It’s like having your own studio. I was able to get feedback while I was writing that I was never able to get before. We’re releasing a bonus disc, The Kitchen Tapes, which are the demos I made on the Zoom. I would give the band copies of the CD made from the Zoom and by the time we got to Capitol everyone knew the songs.”

Williams also directed her musicians as never before. Tracking vocals live with her 1979 Martin D28 (or Gibson LGO) in Capitol Studio B’s vocal booth (really a treated air lock between A and B), she’d cut three or four takes, max.

“I do everything live with the band,” she says. “I’m in the booth, so it’s controlled, which makes me feel more comfortable. I like to feel that spontaneity of everybody playing live. I used to overdub my vocals all the time, now I can go in and just knock it out. Before, I would end up punching in or redoing it. I just don’t make those mistakes anymore. Maybe I’ve learned to use my voice better and be more relaxed. So the album is entirely live.”

Williams fell in love with Capitol Studios, where she sang through the same mic that Frank Sinatra used to cut his American Songbook masterpieces (through the studio’s Neve 8068 onboard preamps).

“I actually sang through the Neumann U48 mic that Sinatra used,” Williams marvels. “It was still in its original case with his name on it: ‘Frank.’ The Neumann U48 takes that sharpness off; it gives my voice so much more depth. I can hear all these cool, grainy textures. I love the sound in my headphones with the Neumann, and if I sound good, I am going to sing better.”

Overby and Liljestrand co-produced Williams’ last two albums, and were preparing to produce what would become Blessed, when Overby decided to pull in Don Was, literally days before tracking began. Overby witnessed the fast friendship between Williams and Was during a MusiCares benefit, and knew the seasoned producer would provide a great sounding board. Overby also knew the value of surrounding Lucinda with a supportive cast.

“She used to not enjoy the studio very much,” Overby explains. “On Happy Woman Blues, without Lucinda knowing it, Folkways added a band over what she had done. Then Car Wheels . . . got made once, then remade; it took six years to finish. Lucinda made the first version with Gurf Morlix and her band producing, but it wasn’t going right. Then she got Steve Earle to co-produce, that’s when the falling out with Gurf happened. That experience was crazy for her. Then Steve Earle pushed her buttons. But it was a great record. She never liked being in the studio after that.”

The Meaning of Was

Given that history, Don Was was the perfect choice for producer—his dreads, flip flops, and smiles-formiles putting everyone at ease.

“The whole idea was to clear a path for Lucinda,” Was recalls from his LA home studio. “Like clearing a path with a machete ahead of the queen! We wanted to keep everything out of the way of Lu’s performance so she’d have room to sing. We made sure we could hear every breath of her voice. In Lu’s singing, the way she ends a line, where she breathes, that’s as important as the most emphatic syllable. You have to get the full dynamic range of what she’s doing to fully appreciate it. That required leaving a lot of space.”

With the danger of too many cooks in the kitchen lurking, Was stepped lightly during the Blessed sessions, but he ultimately added just what Williams needed and what Overby envisioned: an ear for detail both macro and micro.

“I always listen to the singer,” Was says, defining his role. “You try to leave a little demilitarized zone around the singer’s note. Don’t play her note, man! If you play it, and you’re hitting the note in a different spot, now you’re messing with her phrasing. If the listener hears that, they think the singer’s phrasing is off. Willie Nelson suffered for years in Nashville because everyone thought he didn’t have any timing in his singing. He has genius phrasing, but everyone else played into this rigid grid while he was singing over the bar line. There is never a good reason to play the singer’s note, unless that is an effect you want, like to double the melody.”

Engineer Eric Liljestrand.

Unlike most producers, Was sits in the live room with the musicians, not in the hermetically sealed control room. Does he micro-manage the musicians’ parts?

“Someone like [multi-instrumentalist] Greg Liesz is not hurting for ideas,” he laughs. “A lot of it has to do with feel. What is the rhythm? Is the groove giving the singer something to float on top of? Or is it restricting the song? What did Lucinda have in mind when she wrote the song? And what is the groove of that, and are we fighting it? Where does the song lay? You can tell that if she isn’t singing it well or it doesn’t sound good, we are doing something wrong. These songs are Lu’s babies. It’s more helping everyone else to find where she’s putting it.”

Beyond production assistance and good vibes, Was hipped Williams and Overby to his favorite Grado headphones, which he carries with him wherever he goes.

“I use the Grado SR325s everywhere; I am on my fourth pair,” he says. “It’s the one headphone that doesn’t have that boxy sound; it’s very open. If I had to, I could mix with these. When I am jumping between studios, they are always consistent. At home, I listen on Yamaha NS10s, some JBLs that you can tune, KRKs. And I always have the Apogee Duet. If you use that with your MacBook, everything sounds great. The headphone jack on the MacBook is the weak link. “

Tracking From the Player’s Perspective

In addition to his longtime association with Lucinda Williams, veteran engineer/producer/musician Eric Liljestrand has worked with Hal Willner, Ringo Starr, Diamanda Galas, and Pharrell Williams, among others. Liljestrand has very clear philosophies about sound, recording, and the space in between the instruments.

“I come at it partially from a player’s perspective,” he says. “I thought about it: What am I trying to achieve with a track? If I am doing an acoustic guitar overdub, why am I aiming the mic slightly below the 12th fret? Why is it a cardioid? Because that’s the way I’ve always done it. That’s when I bought a matching pair of Schoeps omnis [CMC6/MK2]. The Schoeps for guitars and horns are clean and have virtually no coloration; you’re getting the sound of the whole instrument. [Realize] that the sound doesn’t come from one spot, it comes from the whole guitar, from the reflection off the floor, from how the player is holding the guitar: Is he muting the back, or is the back angled and open? There is a lot to it, and you don’t get that if you mike that quarter-sized spot on the upper strings.”

Liljestrand used a wide array of hardware from Capitols’ plentiful goodie bag (Urei 1176s, Pultec EQP-1s, UA LA-2As, GML EQ, Alan Smart Compressor), and made use of Capitol’s famed concrete echo chambers, but he’s not against plug-ins.

“I have the Waves Mercury Bundle and I use the API emulations and the VEQ a lot,” he explains. “So I am not against plug-ins. I do like the sound of the 8068 pres, but I will use external pres. I have a pair of Amek 9098s, the only ones I’ve ever seen. I’ve used those with a Manley Vari-Mu, as opposed to a Neve pre and an LA-2A. These are four-band parametric and a preamp, so it’s a little tweakier. The knobs don’t have fixed frequencies and they’re sweepable. The cut and boost you can knock in half, so it’s +18 normally, but you can knock it down to +9 so you can do very fine adjustments. It’s got an extremely ballsy top end, so you can get a big boost way up high.”

When tracking vocals, Liljestrand found the U48 to be the perfect mic for Williams’ wild and rangy approach. “The U48 has a big, really fat, warm midrange,” he says. “It feels like the top end is airy but it really rolls off and eliminates a lot of harshness. It seems to have a little dip around 4k, then a little rise, then it slowly rolls off. It is obviously colored, but it feels very open. It emphasizes the lips, and all the ‘P’s are present, but not poppy. Lu is in control of all of it—the grit, the shape of her throat, and how much she throws her voice up into her nose and her forehead.

“I go U48, Neve 1072 preamp, LA-2A, into tape or Pro Tools, then on the way back out I go through the LA-2A, and generally some form of Neve EQ,” he says. “I boost a little around the 1k area for Lu. That pulls the voice more out in front of the mix. I sometimes do a little cut around the 4 or 6k area, but really, that combination I described makes that cut for me. Lucinda is a very dynamic singer so she can sing very quietly, then one syllable will be very loud because she wants to nail it in a certain way. So using two stages of compression—compression in, compression out—with the same compressor really helps me control that.”

Tracking Williams’ guitar simultaneously with her vocals, Liljestrand switched between an AKG 451 and a Sennheiser MD-504 He placed the mics “pretty close on her guitar, 12th to 14th fret. Sometimes I would place the mic behind the bridge, 16 inches away and angled in from the butt end of the guitar. You get a similar sound but without so much string noise. I used a Simon Systems DI on her guitar as well.”

For Leisz and McCallum’s guitar amps (vintage Fenders for Leisz, and either a Divided by 13 or a 65 Amp borrowed from Rick Benson and Dan Boul for McCallum), Liljestrand started with a Sennheiser 409 or a Shure SM57, one on each amp off-center on the cone. He used Neumann U67s or a Brauner Valvet as distant mics, ideally placed six feet away.

“I was never a fan of Neumann U67s, but Capitol has a boatload of beautiful 67s, so I set two on omni and got a nice, big picture of the room,” he explains. “I want the drum kit to sound like one instrument. I set the Brauner and an RCA 44DX right in front of the drum set. I like to use AKG C12As as drum overheads, ’cause they sound great. I put them in the middle, over the drummer’s head, with the tops of the mics almost touching each other. I aim the one on the drummer’s left forward, away from the hi-hat, and the other one slightly backward, to the floor tom, to get spread and de-emphasize the hat. I use a Shure SM81 on the hi-hat, aimed at where the stick strikes, so I don’t get too much air. I used the Neumann U87 on the toms; it lets them sing. I place them near the rim, aimed at that stick-hit area. For the snare, a Shure SM57, maybe six inches away, and a 451 as a bottom mic. It’s a safety net; I really want the top sound. I lean toward a Motown approach, where there isn’t much difference in EQ from the hi-hat to the bass drum—a difference in pitch, but not EQ. For the bass drum, I like an RE-20 inside and a Neumann FET 47 outside. I use Primacoustic Kickstands on the bass drum mics, and for pretty much anything loud on the floor— bass amps, guitar amps—they completely open the sound. I borrowed [legendary engineer] Al Schmitt’s, so I could have two!”

Bass duties were handled by a Manley DI or an Ampeg B15, miked with a FET 47. “Later on, we reamped the bass as well, with an Ampeg SVT and the RCA 44 in the room,” says Liljestrand. “Upright bass was miked with an AKG 451, and a DI went through a Fairchild 670 compressor. For piano, I used another pair of U67s aimed at the hammers inside the piano, or in an XY pattern outside the piano, right at the curve on the body of the instrument.”

Better Than Ever

What ultimately strikes you when listening to Blessed, beyond its rich transparency and its focus on Williams voice, is the sound of a great American artist at work (or is that at play?). Often regarded, and often criticized, as a perfectionist, Lucinda Williams moves in that rarefied air where few exist. She’s firing on all cylinders. She owns it. She knows the score.

“You gotta get great musicians and a great engineer,” Williams says, offering sonic advice. “I think it’s just getting people around you who have good ears and who know how to get a certain sound. And my confidence? For me, it comes from experience. I am certainly at a better place creatively than I’ve ever been. Now, everyone is making CDs and putting them online, but they’re not playing live. That’s how I got my confidence. I had to learn how to win over an audience. When I first went out, I didn’t have a lot of my own songs. I was so shy. But rather than quit, something in me said, ‘Okay, I need to work on my craft so that the audience will pay attention.’ I decided I was going to get really good at writing songs. At the time, I didn’t think of myself as a singer. Then over the years, that got better too. I’m better now than I used to be.”