CATCHING FIRE: After Eight Years, Maxwell turns the Studio Heat on High for the Intricate, Sophisticated Blacksummers'night Trilogy
When Maxwell was 14 years old, he heard a song in a commercial advertising the movie She’s Having a Baby, and was awestruck. The song was Kate Bush’s “This Woman’s Work.”
Years later, Maxwell fortuitously signed to Bush’s label, Columbia, and released his own album, Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite, in 1996. Not only did his debut help forge the neo-soul movement—along with R&B singers such as Erykah Badu and D’Angelo— but millions of women swooned.
Soon after, when he was asked to do a cover for an MTV Unplugged performance and live album, he chose “This Woman’s Work.” It was no easy feat for any singer considering Bush’s mezzo-soprano to soprano range. But blessed with a captivating falsetto, Maxwell pulled it off with chilling perfection. Not that singing the song live is a cakewalk for him. “Let me tell you, it’s a song I can’t wait to be done with every night,” Maxwell admits. “It’s very tough to get to that place in terms of notes, and I sing in different ways throughout the show, so I’m always concerned that I will blow out my falsetto before I get to ‘This Woman’s Work.’”
But he doesn’t regret his decision to bring the song into his repertoire: “She’s such a genius, such a visionary, and she inspires me to stay sophisticated, to believe that people can be more than the basic words and lyrics that we hear everyday.” Maxwell, who also admires the new wave of Kate Bush–alikes, including Bat For Lashes, still has a framed letter from Bush thanking him for doing the cover.
Much like Bush, who had a strong and steady career for years and then went under the radar for more than a decade, Maxwell hasn’t been in the public eye for a long time. It’s been eight years since his last album. “I just wanted to reboot, recalibrate the system, and get my batteries in check because I want to love what I do,” he says. “I don’t ever want to feel like I’m just trying to get a paycheck, especially with music.”
Now he’s back with a vengeance. His fourth studio album is the beginning of a trilogy of releases coming out over the next few years. The first is BLACKsummers’night (Columbia), later to be followed by BlackSUMMERS’night and Blacksummers’NIGHT.
Getting back into the swing of things after such a long time out of the studio, Maxwell looked to longtime songwriting and production partner, Hod David (who Maxwell has known since he was 19). The first thing they agreed upon was to make a grittier-sounding album than they’d done in the past. The second goal was to limit the sonic palette to give the album an overarching theme. “We wanted to make the album sound like one color, instead of every song having a different thing, like, ‘Here’s the song with strings, and here’s the song with a drum machine,’” David says. “So we made the conscious decision to keep it within the realm of certain instruments and then tried to change up the sounds within those instruments.”
Organ, electric piano, horns, bass, guitar, and drums were mainstays throughout BLACKsummers’night. Within the scope of those instruments, the musicians worked hard to tweak sounds in order to change the vibe from song to song and hold the listeners’ attention. But it wasn’t just about varying the sounds.
Between Maxwell’s Pro Tools demo studio and David’s studio, the two bounced ideas back and forth. When songs took shape, Maxwell and David fine-tuned them in such a way that things wouldn’t get redundant. “It’s not like, ‘Second verse, same as the first,’” David says. “For the most part, the bars will change or the instruments will be different or the chords are different from verse to verse.”
And it’s not just for the listener’s benefit. “We do it even to hold our own interest,” David says with a laugh. “To me, doing the same thing like you did the first time but with just a different lyric gets a little bit, you know, boring.”
Sometimes just a short cameo of a guitar solo can add a new level of interest, as on the emotionally urgent “Fistful of Tears.” “I just try to go with what Max is saying in the song,” says David, who plays guitar throughout the album. “I don’t want to get too much into guitar-solo world. I’m just trying to say through the guitar the same thing that he’s saying in the song.”
Similarly, Maxwell recorded cameos of vocals to contribute to the element of surprise. “He’s trying to not do the typical, so all of the sudden there’s a background vocal, and then it just goes away,” David says. “So you don’t ever get too accustomed to anything. It’s like, ‘Why did that happen? And why is it gone now?’ You just really notice it that way.”
But sometimes after piling on so many small parts, David pulls in the reins. “Sometimes I might put on a ton of different things, and then hate it,” he says, “and then you’re like, ‘What was the thing that happened originally, and why did I want to go away from that part? Why wasn’t it really satisfying to me?’”
The constant adding and subtracting of ideas is part of the process, but David has to remind himself to take a few steps back to look at the whole picture: “You gotta be really conscious of, is this something that’s gonna work live? What can happen is you can get too much into a patchwork of stuff, too many different sounds and tones, and that might sound cool to you. But then you’re like, ‘Does this sound real? Can a dude play this in front of me right now?’”
BLACKsummers’night was recorded on a Pro Tools|HD 2 system at three New York City studios: Bowery Digital, Chung King, and Platinum Sound.
While software was important for recording, it was mainly used as a reference and for editing purposes. “I would mic everything with two mics: One of them going to Pro Tools and one of them going to a Studer 2-inch machine,” David says. “The 2-inch sound, by the time it would come back into Pro Tools, is delayed, so you can’t really record like that. So you have to have a Pro Tools mic that you record with, and then you get the tape mix and shift it over in Pro Tools, and then you get rid of the Pro Tools track. Or sometimes you keep it if you like the sound of both, or sometimes just keep the Pro Tools track because for whatever reason it sounded better. But a lot of it is 2-inch.”
The solution enabled the musicians to track in real time without having to worry about latency issues. And it didn’t require double mics on absolutely everything, according to engineer Jesse Gladstone. “On the drums, for instance, we would have two kick mics, one for the 2-inch and one for Pro Tools,” Gladstone explains. “Then the overheads went to Pro Tools, and most other mics—snare, toms, room mics—all went to tape for the most part.”
Although Gladstone respects software in terms of its flexibility and capability, he only uses it when he has to. “The analog realm just sounds so much better,” he says. “I’d have to say I’m a big fan lately of API and Neve gear. For the most part, that’s what we used to track all the instrumentation. Then having the 2-inch before Pro Tools, we got a very full and rich sound, which in my opinion doesn’t exist much in this modern era of music.”
Adding to the vintage vibe was a Premier spring reverb unit, which the guys used on everything from guitar to vocals and horns. But for horns on the opener, “Bad Habits,” it was all about vintage ribbon and tube mics. “We used an RCA 44 ribbon on the trombone, a Coles 4038 ribbon on the trumpet, and a Neumann U 47 fet on the sax,” Gladstone says. “Then for the room mic, which was a direct Pro Tools mic for monitoring, we used another U 47 fet. It all went through an API lunchbox. We really just went for the most natural vintage sounds we could get.”
CAUSE & EFFECT
The number of keyboards played on the album by David, Federico Pena, and Shedrick Mitchell (who stuck to Hammond B3 organ) were limited. Instead, they varied sounds with programming and various effects, particularly delay. Case in point was the urgent, pulsing groove of “Help Somebody,” which originated with a cut up and delayed piano part created from David’s Korg Triton. “That piano is the birth of that song,” David says. “That song had been around for a long time, and we even tried to replace that sound a few times and always failed. Then we just gave up on it. Sometimes the first thing you put down is what makes the song work. Even if the sound is cheap or whatever, it’s just the thing that always sounded like the song.”
Meanwhile, the music-box-like bells that pan from left to right on the album’s first single, “Pretty Wings,” also came from the Triton, along with delay from the keyboard and some distortion from a Line 6 Amp Farm plug-in that David says “mutates and warbles through.”
Synthetic sounds, other than on “Phoenix Rise” (which makes an unexpected foray into the trance realm, followed with a jazz twist), generally play short transitional parts in songs. Such is the case with the squeaky sound on “Bad Habits,” which David culled from his Korg MicroKorg. “I might bug out and make a bunch of sounds, and out of that we pull a few of them,” he says.
When it comes to guitar effects, David would rather use pedals, amps, and outboard gear than plug-ins. He often uses a Line 6 DL4 delay, which allows him to tap in the tempo and dial in sounds fast. “To me, half the battle is always how quick you can get something from your head to the tape, even though I’m way into sound, too,” he says. He used the DL4 for the buttery smooth guitar on “Pretty Wings,” which he played direct on his Strat-like Alleva-Coppolo guitar. He also plays an Epiphone Sheraton (often through a Fender Princeton amp) and a Gibson Jumbo acoustic.
For the acoustic guitar breakdown in “Stop the World,” David got just the sound he wanted by miking the Gibson with an Electro-Voice RE20 and Shure SM57 through a couple of Neve preamps. “If I don’t have to EQ anything and it sounds like it’s already mixed somewhat, then it’s good,” he says. “If it’s something that requires a lot of work to get it to sit right, then it might not be the right sound.”
But David will sometimes dull the highs on acoustic guitar. “A lot of people want to brighten the acoustic,” he says. “I tend to darken it. I try to get the woody sound out of it more than the steel sound. With the acoustic, sometimes I’ll boost a little bit in the low mids, but sometimes I’ll just take off a little top end and leave everything else kinda flat.”
Bass was recorded on both 2-inch and Pro Tools. For the tape signal, bassist Derrick Hodge played through a ’70s Fender Jazz Bass through an Ampeg B-15 amp, miked with an Electro-Voice RE20, and he also went direct through an Aguilar tube DI box into Pro Tools.
Drums were played by Chris Dave on a ’60s Ludwig kit and a Pearl snare. “It’s a very thin snare, but it’s tuned down. If you tune down a thinner snare, it gets a cool sound,” David says. To encapsulate that sound, Gladstone placed SM57s on the top and bottom of the snare, sending both signals through Neve 1073 preamps. The top snare mic went through one side of a Summit DCL-200 compressor, and the bottom mic went straight to tape, but both signals also went to Pro Tools.
“We used a similar setup between songs with minor differences between them,” Gladstone says. “But for the most part we tried to keep it as close as possible. We wanted the album to sound like a whole piece of art as opposed to songs recorded here and there.”
Before recording live drums, many songs started with Maxwell programming beats on an Akai MPC3000. Most of the time, the drum machine part was taken out as songs developed, but in the case of the horn-heavy soul groove of “Cold” (a song Maxwell wrote about trying unsuccessfully to rekindle a relationship), his syncopated MPC beat stayed and Dave played over it.
But the programming wasn’t the most inspired moment on “Cold.” “We were in my mixing engineer Glen Marchese’s car,” Maxwell says. “It was raining, and the windshield wipers needed to be changed because they were louder than anything I’d ever heard in my life. [Laughs.] I said, ‘Whoa, this sounds dope. We should try to record this.’ So we were 11 stories up at Chung King Studios, and Jesse Gladstone drops down a mic, someone dragged the cable over to the car, we recorded it in the rain, and then we sampled it, put a beat around it, and made the basic rhythmic structure that you hear in ‘Cold.’”
Gladstone says it took about 15 cables connected together stretching 400 feet down to do the job. “Not only was it long but surprisingly heavy,” he says. The resulting rhythmic rub, which was recorded into an SSL preamp into Pro Tools, goes throughout the song and is even sampled during live performances.
THE VOICE, NOT THE GEAR
Maxwell’s voice is far from ordinary: It can be husky and masculine or leap up into a gorgeous falsetto. So obviously his is a voice that requires a very special microphone. Or does it?
“For this album, we went more lo-fi on his voice,” David says. “We didn’t stick a super hot, sensitive mic in front of him, which is what you would think you would do with someone with such a voice as his, that you’d want to capture all the detail and how beautiful it is.” Keeping with the gritty vibe of the album, Maxwell sang through a Shure SM57, SM58, and an Electro-Voice RE20. On just one song, they used a Neumann U 67. (Neve preamps and LA- 2A compressors completed the chain.)
Maxwell felt that singing through cheaper mics gave the album a “darker, warped” sound. “Those are the mics people use when they’re doing club gigs to 300 people in a bar,” he says. “Pro Tools is so pristine and so precise, and technology is so amazing now that you lose that feeling of old records with a lot of hiss and bleedthrough. So we try to recreate that. For example, we don’t use too many gates on the kick drums because you lose the actual life of the drums. Those little details add a weird buffer or shellac over the entire record.”
When it’s time to record vocals, David and Gladstone set up the signal chain to Maxwell’s liking, then turn the controls over to him and leave the room. From there, Maxwell produces his own vocals, including leads, harmonies, and doubles, never defaulting to obvious methods. Case in point are the harmony vocals on “Cold,” which he wanted higher in the mix than the main vocal, “so that they could pop out just a little more on the radio,” he says.
And his background vocals keep you guessing, with tasteful harmonies here and there. “On songs like ‘Stop the World’ and ‘Fistful of Tears,’ I tried to make it without too many backgrounds,” Maxwell says. “I have them spooned about, but I didn’t want to go down the ’90s stacking vocals route. It makes things a little too dense, so I choose wisely.”
And like most perfectionists, there’s always something he wishes he could change after the fact. “It’s never really a done record for me,” Maxwell says. “If I could re-record every album I ever did, I would do it again, just because with time, just like we age, so does a song. It gets older, and then I go, ‘Wow, now it’s 14, so what as a 14-year-old would it look like to me?’”
PAN IT LIKE THE STAGE
Producer Hod David on his panning philosophy for BLACKsummers’night: “A lot of stuff is panned how you would see it onstage. So if you were watching the band, you would see the horns are usually on the right side, and the guitar more on the left. But [on the record] I put the hi-hat to the left, which is opposite of how it would be from the audience perspective onstage. The hihat would technically be on the right, but for whatever reason, I can’t stand hi-hats on the right side in the mix.
“And if there are two guitars on a track, then usually the meatier guitar, the guitar that’s playing the most, is on the left, and then we throw the guitars that come in and out of the mix on the right side. Even the organs, which are in stereo, are more on one side than the other.
“Panning is a big thing to me on how things fit into the mix because if you just put something more on one side than on the other, you hear it more. So any quandary you have starts to get addressed that way.”