EQ Interview Extra: Lucinda Williams
By Ken Micallef
The March issue of EQ profiles Lucinda Williams' Blessed, recorded at Capitol Studios with producers Don Was and Tom Overby, and engineer Eric Liljestrand. Here, read our extended interview with Lucinda Williams and the team.
EQ: Do you like your voice?
Williams: I do like my voice sometimes, I don’t like my voice sometimes. It’s hard to describe. I like it a lot on “Born To Be Loved.” And “Sweet Sweet Love.” As opposed to when I am singing higher. My voice doesn’t have enough air around it then. Eric knows how I like my voice, he knows what to do. “Put some of that stuff on it.” Sometimes it’s too much and he will take some of it off. It’s like magic to me. I like a lot of compression, right in your face kind of sound. Presence. I want to be able to hear everything. One of the first things that Don Was said was “this is all about Lu’s vocal. We want the vocals right up there.”
EQ: What enables your writing process?
Williams: Part of what I do, I never throw anything away. I’ve got tons of notes and lines and half-finished songs from years ago that I haven’t finished. Maybe I will take an old song and rewrite it, edit it and fix it up and make it more to my standards now. Sometimes it’s a matter of writing a brand -new song and other times it might be taking something old and finishing it.
EQ: Why do you like to write at your kitchen table?
Williams: They say when you go to people’s houses you always end up in the kitchen. It’s the heart of the home. I write a lot when I first get up. I make coffee or tea and I feel comfortable in the kitchen, I spread everything out on the table. It’s a handmade Formica-covered wood table, left by the people we bought the house from. It’s in the corner of kitchen, lot of light, skylights, mid-century split level house. It’s all very open. See a lot of plants, foliage out the window.
EQ: Did you cut all the vocals live with the band?
Williams: Some of the music is overdubbed; we had Matthew Sweet come in and sing harmony. Elvis Costello overdubbed his guitar part. It’s the icing on the cake. For the most part, it’s all live. Butch Norton on drums, Val McCallum from Jack Shit on guitar, David Sutton on bass. Rami Jaffe on keyboards, he’s in the Foo Fighters now, formerly of The Wildflowers. That was the core team. Then we had Greg Liecz play live on some tracks. Not that much overdubbing. Elvis was in one night while he was finishing the album. He really rocked it out. People don’t realize how good of a guitar player he is.
EQ: Did you vibe off Capitol Studio’s illustrious ghosts?
Williams: Capitol Studios has that vintage feel. Like an old guitar. The hallways are covered with the photos of everyone who has recorded there. You can just feel the vibe. What makes the older studios so great is their warmer sound. It may be because they didn’t have high tech equipment then and they had to rely more on the acoustics of the room. All I know is that when I went into that vocal booth in Studio B, I also did a song for True Blood in there (nominated for a Grammy), I fell in love with the sound in that little vocal booth. The sound is so warm, and I felt so relaxed in there. That’s when I knew I wanted to do my album in there.
EQ: What did Don Was bring to the sessions?
Williams: He really took everything up a notch. Eric and I and Tom did the last two albums. It was great to have another set of ears this time. Another opinion. He is so easygoing, a real team player. I like to work very democratically; everybody has a say. The guys in the band, everybody. Don works that way too, he asks everyone what they think and not everybody works like that. I’ve worked with people who didn’t ask me what I thought. He just brought joy in the studio, he walks in with this big smile. He is a sweetheart and is really, really smart. We are coming from a lot of the same places musically. Blues and soul and R&B and the music he has produced, and country too.
EQ: What did you learn from Don?
Williams: I didn’t feel rushed and pushed with Don. He’s one of the few producers I’ve worked with who is like that. He wants to get it right, people call me a perfectionist. Well, I wouldn’t consider Don a perfectionist, I don’t know what that word means anyway. People still ask me that constantly. I don’t know why. It all stems from that Car Wheels On A Gravel Road drama.
EQ: The press likes to say you are a perfectionist, but who doesn’t want to make a perfect record?
Williams: I’m going to remember that. I still get that question. But we just knew. We’re all listening and everybody has to feel good about it. Every single person there. The rhythm track has to be there first, cause we can always fix the other stuff. If my vocal is good, I am listening to that mainly. We want a good bass and drums and my vocal. Val can always fix his guitar solo. We might do that. When we’re cutting live we’re going for the meat and potatoes. Or we might decide to leave something off.
EQ: Did Don work in your comfort level or did he push you at times?
Williams: He would be the first one to say “we’re getting tired. Let’s address this tomorrow. Let’s sleep on it.” He is the most relaxed one in there. And the other thing he did was great was having Bob Clearmountain remix a couple tracks. Don is very honest, he will not agree with something if he doesn’t think it’s right. He’s very deliberate. He spent a lot of time living with our initial mixes. Then he said he wasn’t happy. He suggested Bob Clearmountain because they had worked so much together in the past. We heard his mixes and they were great. All Bob does is mix. He’s really good at what he does. Before I could never afford him, but we were able to get him for about half of what he usually charges because of Don. Then Bob remixed the whole album. Eric was cool about it. We all wanted it to be the best it could be.
EQ: What was your approach with Lucinda Williams?
Was: It’s making sure that everything is supporting what the singer is doing. And of course, the good take is the one she sings perfectly from top to bottom. Then you go back and fix anything you have to fix with the musicians.
EQ: Is that back to musicians often wanting to play in unison when it should be more a support role?
Was: I can cite examples where playing unison works, even single note lines. But I am talking about fighting the singer. And it’s different for everybody. The charm of the Stones is the way Mick and Keith sing and play the same parts. “Start Me Up.” The lead guitar riff is also the melody. The difference between where they phrase is it the charm of the Rolling Stones. But that doesn’t work for everybody. And for Lucinda it was best to give her a lot of room. Listen to a Beatles record, the arrangements are really brilliantly constructed and that is why the singing jumps out at you. The Beatles always left room for the vocal. That was part of George Martin’s contribution, or maybe it was just something they naturally did.
EQ: Many producers seem to bring their trademark to a record, but your touch is transparent here.
Was: That’s the highest compliment, that is what I always try to do. I find it discourteous to leave your thumbprint on the forehead of a great artist. My only intention, like on a Lucinda Williams record, is to Lucinda. If I read a review that says Lucinda has never sung better before, then that is the ultimate success for me. That’s all I want to hear. If I read a review that Don Was’ production did this, then I fucked up. You’re not supposed to see the production. That’s not what we make records for. I am not the artist. T Bone is a great example of a guy who has a sound and an environment, Daniel Lanois is another. They are consistent in all their records. They make it work for people, and they do it extremely well.
EQ: Lucinda talked about how relaxed you are. Is that part of your persona, to put people at ease?
Was: I think it’s important to make people comfortable in the studio. When they’re not self conscious, and they feel they can reach for something and if they fail no one will judge them, there’s a net and they are safe to jump.
EQ: How do you do gain that trust in a limited amount of time?
Was: There’s a certain amount of mystery. I don’t really know! It’s got something to do with how I was raised as a kid. My dad is a very Zen cat, and my mom was an Alpha achiever. So I can be Zen but I can get things done. I don’t have a routine to make people comfortable. But I’ve made enough records and I am aware that people are comfortable.
EQ: Did you bring certain things out of Lucinda’s vocal?
Was: We certainly discussed the meaning and the vibe of every song. Are you sad about this or mad about this? In the case of Lucinda, she knows the songs inside out, she knows the terrain, so it was more a matter whether the arrangements were underscoring or fighting the emotional core. A couple the songs were too upbeat maybe. One was a country song. There was no point in fighting it, but we tried to do it a different way. Both versions are on the record (with deluxe version).
EQ: You came to the sessions three days before recording began. How did you figure out your role?
Was: There was a lot of improvisation, even in figuring out what my role was and what the band was going to be doing. I was acutely aware that they had made three great records together without me. I respected what they’d accomplished already. I think I was treading light. But everyone was so nice. It was never an issue, but it could have been. I spoke with my manager, and I thought everything about the situation had a red flag on it. There were a lot of potential pitfalls but they never materialized. I thought I could see trouble coming, but sometimes perhaps we mistake fear for trouble.
EQ: With that expertise between the three of them why did they get you in?
Was: I didn’t ask. Maybe just to shake it up so they don’t make the same record over again.
EQ: Perhaps you brought clarity, the third eye.
Was: Yea, objectivity. It’s like digital recording, dealing with zeros and ones. You’re dealing with yeses and nos. There’s a series of decisions of yeses and nos. And how that gets sequenced determines the fate of the record. I don’t think any of them are huge decisions on their own, but they overall the sum total of all these little decisions are impact the whole. It just happens.
EQ: How to get that purity?
Was: Just serve the song. That is key. The song tells you what to do with it. Songs come with a DNA code. Just read the code and don’t fight the song. I know that sounds abstract but it’s actually crystal clear. We do all this clever stuff we think is so cool, but maybe the things we think are cool are actually getting in the way of the emotional core of the song. If you muddy up an arrangement it doesn’t matter if you record it on your laptop or the best studio in the world. Filling it up so there is no air then squishing the mix so it fits into a rectangle that is jam packed with sound, that ain’t helping anybody. (Laughs) If you let the song live and breathe and do things that support the musical and emotional core of the song then you can make a great sounding record on Garageband. My favorite records were recorded in primitive conditions. Like Muddy Waters, most people wouldn’t dream of working on those circumstances they had at Chess Records, though they might use the same microphones. When Howlin Wolf’s voice breaks up, it’s not because someone ran him through a guitar plug in. It’s because he is pushing the dynamic limitations of the room. If he was recorded under pristine circumstances it would lack that power. It’s got to be appropriate to the song.
EQ: Does Capitol Studios have a certain feeling?
Was: There is a huge vibe in that building. It feels important in a way. Vocal booth in this sound lock to the studio. Good sight lines into the studio and control room. Originally just a hallway and closed off. 10x10 square with 6x10 rectangle off the back of it. Live room in B, check stats, but 40x30, high ceiling is golden, let’s the sound breathe. B is big and soft, so you get this…you can really feel the volume of the room. But there is no harshness, nothing slappy about it. And the reverberation is not very long. Under ? a second. Linoleum floor, wood halfway up the walls, and fabric, then acoustical tile on the ceiling. Very different sound from 60s70s wood room. No drum booth in B, not three booths in A. Drums in larger space and isolate amps and singers.
EQ: Did you ever worry that there were too many fingers in pie for this record?
Was: I was concerned but it obviously…I was sonic guy. Don hung with the musicians, an amazing cheerleader. Always something positive to say. Tom’s role…he doesn’t say much while were doing, it , gives small directions and suggestions. Tom has the overview, always thinking conceptually, while I am focused on the moment, Tom is thinking about tomorrow. Thinks how the lyrics fit with each song. He takes the broader view.
EQ: How did you approach recording Lucinda’s vocals?
Liljestrand: I like a balance of temperatures. People talk about warmth, but I like some coldness. Is the singer a participant or an observer? In “Soldier Song” she’s clearly an observer, not a character in the song. It’s about how much ambience there is. A lot of it is about panning in the mix. How hard things sound and how close things sound. I like to use at least two microphones on a guitar amp, not like the guy who puts a mic on the top and the bottom of each tom tom, I don’t go crazy. But I like to have a distant mic and a close mic and then where you place those in the stereo field can really determine your landscape and give the music movement. The sounds have a vector that move. Depending on which mic you emphasize that can feel forwards or backwards. If you emphasize a distant mic but have the close mic off on the other side it pulls your ear in a different way.
EQ: How did you record her?
Liljestrand: She’d start with one sound and as she got closer to the take the sound coming through her microphone would change. That again, is not the gear, it’s her posture, her attitude, and her proximity to the mic. She would find the sweet spot in all those areas. In a couple of them she was sitting in an odd position but it made the sound. It would often change song from song.
EQ: You generally favor hardware over plug-ins?
Liljestrand: If we’re in Capitol or the Village, why not use their gear? I will use a plug-in if there is something it can do that the hardware can’t. It makes recalls a pain, but I like the sound of the hardware and I like the way the hardware makes me think. You have to deal with it, it’s not just let’s throw this on there. It’s a little more work, it’s tactile. If every plugin had a big phenolic knob on it I’d probably be happier. But they don’t. It makes you listen more than look to work with hardware. I do a lot of mixing in the box at home, so it’s not that I am anti technology, but if I have the real stuff I would rather use it.
EQ: Don Was seems to have unique production sound, the album is transparent.
Overby: Lu and Don met at Musicares, Neil Young’s thing. I sang a Neil Young song with Patti Griffin and Emmy Lou Harris. Don was in the house band. He was grooving on the vibe on the vibe, his dreads and a big smile and his flipflops. We just had a connection. So Tom and I asked him to come in.
EQ: He gave you a pair of Grado headphones?
Overby: When Don was remixing with Bob we went over one day. Don was sending us mixes through Tom’s computer and then we used headphones to listen. I didn’t know if I was hearing what Don was hearing, I was getting frustrated. It didn’t sound right. So Don came over to the house, gave us his Grado headphones and his Apogee Duet to listen with. Then the mixes sounded incredible. Don said he could mix the record with the Apogee and the Grados if he had to. And the Zoom, it’s amazing the difference the Zoom and the Grado headphones made overall. That saved the day. We could mix the record without going to the studio to listen. I would have never done that before, that would’ve freaked me out. I would rather be in the studio so I am hearing what they’re hearing. With the Grados and the Apogee we were on the same page.
Don Was was a second pair of ears. Don said she was the best singer he’d ever worked with. And she’s more comfortable on stage. In '07, we began using in ear monitors after West tour, those allowed her to save her ears and wear and tear on the voice. Her became stronger for little honey cause she hadn’t pushed herself so hard to sing over the band. She can do 100 shows and have no problem with her voice.
EQ: Her confidence in singing has really grown over past 3 years.
Overby: She’d had problems with engineers in the past. Bringing Eric in changed all that. He was the engineer on West, though she’d already recorded the vocals. She didn’t redo them. But she trusted that I became her second ears. Then some things fell apart, and record was suspended. Eric and I went in and finished it. That was a positive experience. That set the course for Little Honey, and it worked. And this record is the realization of all of that. From day one she directed more assertively the takes, trying different things. She was nailing her takes and telling the band what she wanted. On Little Honey she would sing, but she wouldn’t direct the band. That all changed this time, the record is truly Lucinda. Now she has a list of five records she wants to record. She’s excited to go in the studio.