Why less is more, but talent is everything
Chiccarelli with singer/songwriter Keaton Henson
at Sunset Sound in Los Angeles.It’s hard to imagine anyone with a more diverse collection of successful major album and singles credits than Joe Chiccarelli. Having jumped at the chance to engineer with Frank Zappa in his just-getting-started days, he hit the ground running and has been moving along at a great clip ever since. The list of recordings bearing this multiple Grammy winning producer/ engineer’s soulful touch is as long as it is broad. From Etta James to Alanis Morissette, from U2 to The White Stripes, Chiccarelli’s devotion to building creative mixes, showcasing stellar voices, and crafting enticing aural atmospheres points to the diversity of his own outstanding talents as an engineer, musician, and producer.
Chiccarelli has just finished up a number of projects, and iTunes and radio airwaves are buzzing with his signature production sound and creative influence. On some of these albums he’s the sole producer, and on others he’s sharing the role. Producing the new Alanis Morissette album along with composer and producer Guy Sigsworth (Madonna, Seal, Bjork), has given him new insight on collaborating in the studio, and his efforts are currently riding high on the charts with Morissette’s “Guardian” and Jason Mraz’s new single “I Won’t Give Up.” Electronic Musician caught up with him while he was on a break from the action in Los Angeles. Always talkative and eager to share, he was happy to discuss his personal recording philosophy and the technical and performance particulars of albums you’ve heard or will be hearing soon.
You’ve been credited by many with having a great propensity to showcase amazing vocal performances in your work. There is a real up-close and personal connection that seems to be going on from the singer to the listener on many songs.
A song is only as great as the singer. I’m really old school about that. A great singer makes your job really easy. In a sense that’s the first and foremost thing that you hear. Maybe you hear a great guitar hook in the intro of the song, but if the vocal and the story don’t carry it through the three-and-a-half minutes or whatever it is, you’re not interested. It’s still all about that, and recently I’ve been very lucky to have worked with such great singers such as Alanis Morissette and Jason Mraz, but also with others like Elton John, Beck, and Bono. These are people who are just masters of pumping big emotions through a microphone. I think it’s the key, getting it so that you’re committed and connected for that entire vocal. Sometimes it’s a simple thing, just one magical take. Jack White can be the master of that; when he’s on, it’s really simple. Other times, it’s about crafting a vocal performance. Jim James from My Morning Jacket is great at knowing how to layer his voice and use echo and effects to deliver a beautiful emotional blanket. Alanis is such a pro after so many albums; I mean, she just gets up to the microphone, and two or three takes and you’re done. She’s got a beautiful tone, and it’s pretty easy that way.
What do you do to as far as your preproduction process before tracking sessions?
It’s something I definitely take a lot of time with. I make sure that songs are in the right key for the singer. However, sometimes it’s a matter of doing the opposite—putting the song in a key that may not be the most comfortable but provides them with a different tone. They may have a big, strong voice that’s really full, and if you put them on the lower edge of their range, it can make them sound maybe softer or more vulnerable. From there, it’s choosing the arrangement and instrumentation so that it doesn’t fight the vocal, choosing a guitar sound that doesn’t swallow the singer. It’s easy to get a big guitar or a big drum sound, but I’m always keeping the singer in mind. When I’m working in rehearsal for preproduction the singer is there and singing along; same thing goes for when I’m tracking live, and if the singer isn’t there, I like to have a guide vocal that I can build things around. It’s really important to me that the singer be the focus, no matter what the band is about, soundwise.
On Alanis Morissette’s new album, Havoc and Bright Lights, it must have been an unusual way to work, with Guy Sigsworth programming the songs first and then you working backward with the live tracking…
It was a challenge, indeed; it was almost like the “remix” album was done first, having sort of reverse engineering going on. It was actually kind of fun; she was great, in that she gave me a lot of freedom. I used several members of her band but coincidentally a lot of them were people that I’ve worked with before on other projects as session musicians. The tracking sessions included Victor Indrizzo, the L.A.studio drummer who also plays in her band; Sean Hurley did most of the bass playing along with Paul Bushnell; Dave Levita, who is her live guitarist, played almost all of the guitars on the album. Lyle Workman, an L.A. session guitar player and film composer , did a lot of the big rock guitars as well. These are people that both Alanis and I have great relationships with. They understand her and what she likes, and that kind of made it easier for me.
You seem to have a relaxed way of getting involved in the songs, of inserting your influence into the arrangements and production values—almost like you are a member of the band.
Most artists come in with an idea of what they want; it’s rare when someone doesn’t. No matter what the credit reads it’s always an equal collaboration with the artist. Truly, It’s almost always the songwriting that determines where an album is going to go. Sometimes we’ll do a number of very different versions, just trying to find the most honest place for the song. On [Jason Mraz’s] “I Won’t Give Up,” we did a very simple acoustic version, which ended up being the current single version out now, but also we did a blue-eyed soul, Memphissort- of-feeling version; and we did a much more uplifting pop ballad version of the song, as well. You certainly want to serve the song, but at times you also want to serve the audience and the record company and a lot different people, so you’ll try different things to see what will have the most honesty and impact.
There usually seems to be a very prominent percussion sound going on up front with the vocalist in your mixes that works very well. Can you elaborate on that?
Groove is really important, no matter what the music is; it’s the vehicle in which the vocal rides. It’s like the train or the automobile underneath it, so I really to make sure the groove kicks the vocal in the butt, that it percolates it, keeps it alive. Whether it’s the syncopation with the kick drum, or if it’s something more intricate, I definitely pay attention to that.
You learned your craft in an era when commercial studios were more vibrant, and you gained knowledge in that community atmosphere. What can you tell people who are working in more isolated personal setups; how do they avoid “cabin fever”?
You know, that’s really a good question! That’s easy to get caught up in, even if you’re working in a commercial studio. The home thing…for me, it’s tricky. It’s nice having the “no pressure” environment where you can experiment and try things that you might not if you knew that you only had a certain amount of days or budget restrictions. It’s easy to get locked in routine, though. When I was doing the album with The Shins, Wincing The Night Away, James Mercer had worked on his own on the album for a while before I came in. He needed someone to bring in some objective opinions. I spent probably three months working on that record to bring an outside perspective. I just kind of showed him some possibilities and options that he couldn’t see himself, because he was working in a very isolated environment on his own.
It doesn’t always work with other art forms, but certainly some of the best music can come from great collaborations. You look back and whether it’s George Martin and The Beatles, or Gus Dudgeon and Elton John, or Lanois and Eno with U2, those are great collaborations. Having somebody there to help you see something that you missed is a great asset. I even find that myself. I’ll be working on something for months and somebody will all of a sudden come into the room and hear a track for the first time. A great A&R person can be a major asset to me; someone who can remain objective throughout the whole process. He or she may say something like, “I know you guys are really loving this track, but the groove in the verse isn’t as great as the groove in the choruses.” Or maybe, “Do you think this one section you have as a breakdown, maybe it’s too long or it doesn’t need it at all.” It’s amazing to have someone come in and give new perspective on something you may have been working on for months and you can’t see it clearly. Objectivity is really a wonderful gift.
Having stepped right into working with Frank Zappa early in your career, what ideas did you learn from him that you find you are still using today?
The best thing that he taught me is that there are no rules. He tried to break every rule wherever possible. [laughs] The minute you box yourself into a certain way of working, you’re dead. I try to embrace change and challenge.
What do you look for in demos when you are starting a project?
It’s different for different kinds of music; obviously, from somebody who is doing something that is beats driven, I would want something that has a major sense of what the groove is. For a singer/songwriter project, I want demos that are very basic. I’m happy with a very lo-fi iPhone recording of something that’s just guitar and voice or piano and voice. That way, it leaves me room to imagine all of the possibilities. Occasionally, people come in with fully formed demos that sound great, and you think, look, don’t change anything, except here in the bridge where you kept the same color going for the rest of the song; maybe it could take a left turn, maybe be more dramatic. I’ll just be tweaking them up a little bit. Certainly, the home-recording thing is great; you can make demos that are record quality.
Can you give us some advice on producing a home/personal-studio recording?
On a recording level, I think about space. People are so keen to try all of their tricks and layer things to such a large degree so that there’s no space in the recording whatsoever; it’s just inundated with overdub after overdub. I get many recordings where there’s like a hundred tracks of things on there. You know, you can get by very well with just two great guitar tracks rather than forty of them layered in the same range and same sound; as a result, it just sounds small. Sometimes two well-recorded, wellorchestrated guitar parts sound way bigger than forty tracks all layered in the same range, same tonality, same guitar; they all kind of cancel each other out.
That’s certainly a technique that has served the Rolling Stones well.
There’s a lot to be said for that, and Keith is the master of really coming up with one part that slowly evolves over the song, and it kind of incorporates those five guitar parts you are thinking of, but those parts happen at different moments, helping build the song and taking it to another place.
How do you go about tracking in the studio? Do you like to have a live feel?
Tracking-wise, I definitely enjoy when everybody is in the same room at the same time, feeding off each other; there is that sort of “X factor” that happens when you get a lot of great players in a room. If I’m doing bands, I don’t like to layer the records; I like to build it as a band. All great bands kind of fill in all the extra pieces by playing together. That’s the magic of a band like U2. Sometimes it may seem that the parts are very simple, but when you put it all together, it’s like this chemical explosion. Getting people in the same room is important. The Café Tacuba record I’m working on is being done in studios and clubs and even restaurants. We’re inviting guests, 60 to 150 people to sit in the room with them while they’re playing. It’s still a recording session, the band is wearing headphones and things are miked up the same way as in a studio, but there’s a select audience for emotional support and feel. It’s a challenge, of course, with a P.A. system in the room and there may be other distractions, but there is something about having that extra energy that’s inspiring.
What’s coming up with you?
Well, I just finished an album for this really great U.K. based artist named Keaton Henson; he’s a singer/songwriter. The songs are very intimate, stripped back, very vulnerable, and personal; he sings very quietly. Emotionally, the songs are very strong. I mixed the recordings up at 25th Street Studios, Dave Lichtenstein’s studio in Oakland. He’s got a great-sounding room and console. I’m tracking another band up there this fall—Long Beach based Hellogoodbye, who had a huge hit a few years ago on Drive Thru Records..
Later in the year I’m working with Bernard Fanning, the former singer of the huge Australian band Powderfinger. As well as being in the midst of co-producing this record for Café Tacuba, a really amazing Latin band that’s been successful for 20 years.
Can you tell our readers something they may not know about you?
Like everybody’s career, it’s up and down. You have good years and not-so-good years. I’m always pushing myself to see what’s next and what’s new. It’s important to me to be fresh; I hate getting into routines and not feeling creative or like I’m repeating myself. I’m also challenging myself designing a couple of pro audio products, and I’m working on a music TV show. I always think of those actors that do Broadway plays for years, and their ability to make it fresh every night is amazing to me. Fortunately, making new records with new artists every few months brings a new approach, but I certainly still want to bring new challenge and perspective to everything I do.
Craig Dalton is a regular contributor to Electronic Musician.