Ryan Shaw’s co-producer/engineer and musical and songwriting collaborator, Jimmy Bralower, has a little time to talk after attending the vinyl-mastering session of Shaw’s sophomore album, the retro soul gem, Real Love. Like the CD master that had been completed some weeks back, a vinyl version is being prepared by Ted Jensen at Sterling Sound (sterling-sound.com).
“There are certain things you don’t mess around with,” Bralower says. “And for me, the one thing I didn’t want to pretend I could do is what Ted does. I have plug-ins that say I can, but I know better.”
However, almost every other atom of Shaw’s sweet release was homemade from scratch in Bralower’s basement studio, even down to the songwriting. Whereas Shaw’s debut, This Is Ryan Shaw, introduced the young singer’s MO with a collection of mostly ’50s and ’60s covers (Bobby Womack’s “Lookin’ for a Love,” Jackie Wilson’s “I’ll Be Satisfied,” etc.) that showcase his almost shocking vocal talent, Real Love is more heavily populated with original tracks that only sound like old soul music.
“The songwriting and the record making were almost simultaneous,” Bralower says. “When you have the computer there while you’re writing, somehow something starts being recorded before the song is even done. The demo morphs into the finished record at some point.”
Most of the tracks began with musical ideas developed by Bralower—who’s a drummer, programmer, and MIDI expert on top of everything else—and guitarist Johnny Gale, whom Bralower calls a “forensics expert in classic music. He knows so much about voicing chords, arrangement styles—those kinds of details make the difference between it having a certain feel or not.”
Each song evolved in its own way. Shaw would often come into a song midway through the writing process, and Bralower would ask him to “react” to a rough track. “They take pieces of different types of soul music and mesh them together, but they won’t tell me what the root of it is until after they get my initial reaction,” Shaw says. “When we write together, when that energy’s in the room,” he continues, “that’s when the song just comes, stream of consciousness.”
As an example, Bralower recalls the writing process for “Morning Noon & Night,” the romantic, doo-wop-style ballad that closes the album. “My computer had crashed earlier that day, so without it, we were forced to write the old-fashioned way,” Bralower says, “with no interruptions of recording parts and ideas into the computer as we were composing.” With Bralower on the drums, Gale on guitar, and Shaw singing, the track came together organically.
“I remember when we made that song,’ says Shaw, “I was just ad-libbing, singing along, and what I sang is almost exactly the same as the finished product. I was singing ‘Morning, noon and night,’ and the rest of the lyrics started to just come. We were all feeling it. Johnny had this old cassette recorder—one that you have to press two buttons at the same time. He recorded what we were writing on that, and I recorded on my iPhone, and we just kept going.”
Later, Bralower says, it was somewhat challenging to replicate the spontaneous computerless performance: “The irony is that if I had the computer available, the performance could have been captured and not need to be redone. On the other hand, if the computer was there, the song would’ve never happened.”
For much of the new album, the core writing team of Bralower, Shaw, and Gale was augmented with veteran composers Karen Manno, who co-wrote five of the original tracks and worked closely with Shaw to shape the top line of tracks like “Real Love,” “Karina,” and “Evermore”; and Phil Galdston, who co-wrote “The Wrong Man.”
Bralower and Gale put all of their creative and technical resources into making these tracks. Once Shaw’s vocals were complete, they would shape the final arrangement further around the sound and feeling of Shaw’s performance. Weaving back and forth between Logic (their writing platform) and Pro Tools (their recording/mixing medium), the musicians use a vast range of knowledge and techniques to make big, old-school songs in Bralower’s little, carpeted, Avid C24/Focal Twin 6be’sequipped studio.
“Those old soul records are really way more complex than they might appear to be,” Bralower says. “You hear ‘Knock on Wood’; somebody thinks it’s just three chords. But those three chords are voiced so specifically. People can get caught up with that voodoo of thinking that if you replicate the tone somebody got in the place where they did it, then you’re doing what they did. It’s really the feel. It’s about where the drum backbeat is against the bass, and what octave the guitar is playing those chords in. Some really great musicians played on those records, and they’re really well-arranged. There was also a discipline to making them that we’re very conscious of when we do this. If the parts are all speaking, they’ll all carry a little more weight.”
The instrumentation on Real Love is actually a hodgepodge of real playing, programming, loops, and manipulated sounds. “Johnny has a lot of old guitars,” Bralower says. “We used an old Epiphone Granada on a lot of stuff. It has a certain tone to it. He has a Fender Jazzmaster, Strat, and Telecaster, and a great old Precision Bass. But I admit I actually always record the guitar flat and direct into the computer, and then use a [Line 6] Amp Farm or Eleven or a Sansamp to create the settings. Having the technology to not to have to commit to an amplified sound sometimes gives me the room to modify things as the track changes. Another example: On one song, I created a new horn figure by offsetting a part that was played and moving it, which I couldn’t do too easily with tape.”
Bralower has no qualms about manipulating a borrowed part from one track to create a piece of another song, or making liberal use of drum machines (which he used exclusively on Shaw’s debut), or building tracks brick by brick rather than recording live. But on the other hand, he wants full-pass performances from everyone in the studio, particularly when they’re cutting vocals, and he turns his computer monitor off for playback. The spirit and songs, the vocal was a recording of him sitting on a couch with a [Shure] 58 mic in his hand going into an Apogee Duet into Logic,” Bralower recalls. They were all different, but we found that somehow, him holding that mic in his hand and singing made it more casual for him, and as a result I got more kinetic performances. The guy can sing. That’s the main thing. When somebody can actually do something really good, all you’ve got to do is capture it. So, once we would create the track, the setting for him, the whole trick was to catch him before he had it figured out. Not to give away any secrets, but that moment of discovery is that thing you can’t buy.”
Barbara Schultz is a frequent contributor to Electronic Musician and Mix, as well as a book editor and reviewer, among other things.
Read interview outtakes with Ryan Shaw.