July 1, 2003 from Tina in Nashville
Since Janis is up to her eyeballs in recording, overdubbing and various other tasks right now, I'm going to give everyone a fan's-eye view of what's been going on with the recording of Janis' new CD. There's a lot to tell!
For those who don't know me, I should tell you this: I am now, and have always been, a huge Janis Ian fan. And I don't see that changing any time soon.
The experience of meeting Janis as a 12 year old was an event in my life. Janis was someone I really admired, and she took a chunk of time out of her show-day to chat with me and sign autographs. This was huge! After all, the voice coming from the speakers and the face on the album covers were friends that I could turn to for comfort. She sang, and my world expanded through the experience in her songs. She, as many fellow fans have expressed, wrote so many lyrics that took my breath away. I just knew that she understood, and I'd never be alone as long as she was singing.
I'm very pleased that none of that has changed as our friendship and working relationship developed. And one of the perks of that working relationship is that I have been able to witness, first hand, the creation of the next Janis Ian record. Hopefully this history helps explain how exciting this opportunity has been for me, a Janis Ian fan.
The process actually began long ago, with the creation of "work tapes" of all the new songs beginning in November 2002. Advance preparations had been overseen by Janis during March/April 2003, and included everything from choosing the players and production team, booking the studio time to making travel arrangements for everyone to get to Nashville with their instruments and equipment shipped safely to booking hotel reservations for everyone and planning for a pre-production dinner meeting.
Then came arrangements for catering and menus to accommodate special diet requests, making sure that budgets had been planned and submitted to the AFM for review and that forms for filing musician benefits were in hand and could be completed quickly and accurately. Some additional equipment for the home studio needed to be purchased and ready for overdubbing sessions, and shopping for staples for the home studio needed to be done.
Then there were the song and music preparations: writing and fine tuning of the songs, recording very basic working versions of each song to be included on a CD that would be distributed to everyone involved with the project, typing lyric sheets and writing lead sheets for each musician, the engineers and Janis, getting copies made of each of these for studio use. The preparations seemed to go on and on. All of this before anyone even played a note!
Janis assembled a stellar group to work with, from producers and engineers to musicians who could all contribute something special to the songs that had been chosen. After the months of tedious tasks like reviewing budgets, checking and rechecking forms, contracts and schedules we were finally ready to go!
The initial tracking sessions took place in June at Sound Emporium in Nashville, a studio with much history, and a staff that went the extra mile to make everything right for this project.
The first morning was very exciting. Everyone arrived early and was eager to get started. (Now we were getting somewhere!) It was amazing to watch this group of musicians, (Harry Stinson/drums, Dan Dugmore/guitars, Richard Davis/upright bass, Jim Brock/percussion) who had never been together as a band, meet and connect so naturally.
Richard and Janis traded Nina Simone stories, each one outdoing the other. Nobody could argue that Janis topped all with her story that started with them shopping for shoes and ended in Nina pulling a gun on the salesman. There were stories about James Taylor, Miles Davis, Sarah Vaughn, Wynona Judd, Jimi Hendrix, Lena Horne, Bette Midler, tour managers, antics and horrors on the road, movies, books and favorite authors. It seemed these guys had known each other for years.
Janis gathered everyone in the control room of the studio and the magic began. The group, including engineers Jeff Balding and Marc Moreau, plotted musician placement, baffling and mic placement. (All very serious, and precise!) Janis and the musicians listened to the track from the very rough instrument/vocal "work disc" while looking over their charts and lyric sheets. Janis confessed later on that she was completely blown away that everyone asked for lyric sheets after listening through the first song. Apparently this had never happened before, but it was obvious that these guys were completely drawn in by the story in each lyric.
Right out of the gate, Richard Davis began asking Janis to "tell the story" behind each song, explaining the inspiration. (Good God, Thank You Richard!!!) It was mesmerizing to watch as she obliged, and how they absorbed the story. It was even more stunning to listen as they took it into the studio with them and played that story back through their instruments. I was literally watching as words were translated to music. As they played through a few times to get comfortable with their respective parts, we could hear the life being breathed into the song. I could hardly drag myself out of the control room to get some necessary work done.
So the flow had been established. Listen through, study and discuss charts, run through and try things on, and finally, record. The first songs during day one took a little longer than later on, as everybody found their groove. But as I mentioned, since these players had never played together as a band prior to these sessions, it was astonishing how quickly they became one.
From my vantage point in the control room each day, I was able to listen to both sides of this team in action. Jeff and Marc would suggest things like tempo changes, varying percussion, or a riff or lick. Janis could be heard saying things like "How about something that twinkles at the chorus" (who knew Dan could make a guitar twinkle??), or "It just doesn't swing" (Harry to the rescue.) in between things like "Richard, give me root 8th notes through the chorus" (which Richard will surely take back to his university students!) or "I need to hear bones and dust on this" (enter the king of percussion, Jim Brock!).
And amazingly enough, that's all that needed to be said! The tempos were changed on many, and varying instrument choices completely changed the entire feel and movement of the song. There were times when Dan picked up a different guitar, dropped in a lick, or Richard produced those 8th notes and suddenly it all felt right. Everyone just knew it. In the control room, faces would be grinning, toes tapping, heads bopping. Those moments were magic, and the highlights for me. The songs I'd heard many times on the work tape completely changed within the dynamic of the band.
The most stand-out example of this, in my mind, was on the song "Dead Men Walking". When Janis first sent me the work tape, I listened through right away (as if that needed to be said…) and liked it, but couldn't possibly have a clue how this song would evolve into a song with a strut like this. (Pat stopped by the studio right after the final take of the song and swore she'd never seen me so excited.) Everyone was thrilled after the final listen through, and it's definitely climbed to the list of my favorites.
There were occasions where finding the right feel and performance for a song was not easy. On the first morning, the band tackled the song "Billie's Bones". There were many takes, playing around with parts, tempo changes, etc. After a few hours, it was coming close, but after the listen through no one really felt it was as good as it could be. In the interest of time, they moved on. The next day, everyone insisted on giving it another shot, and after a few runs through it finally happened. They must have put 6 hours of sweat into getting the feel of that song, and the mix of jubilation and relief were evident during the listen back. After that amount of work, it was great to watch everyone nodding their heads saying "Yeah! THAT'S the one." The flip side of that is a song like "Matthew, which saw its final take in only 45 minutes.
Of course, it wasn't exciting all day, every day. Each session had its slow times. Between the highlights there are long gaps for things like mic adjustments, baffle adjustments, musician placement adjustments. It's a hurry up and wait kind of thing. There were some storms in Nashville during the sessions, with enough lightning to cause some short power losses that necessitated a full shutdown and restart of the board and the computers. So you wait for a full restart. There's noise in a line….you wait while the engineers track it down. Tuning, tuning, tuning…you wait. Click track needs to be adjusted….you wait.
These times could have been excruciating, but ended up giving me the time I needed to get some support work done, run out on business errands or to check that I'd numbered the charts correctly. It's never a good thing to hear things like "My B flat isn't on bar 42. It's on 40" when musicians are talking through their parts. UGH!
Another impressive note is that the team managed to get 13 songs recorded over the span of three days. No small feat, but a testament to the professional attitude everyone brought to the table. These guys were serious. Nobody signed on with a casual attitude about this project, and their individual talents molded together into a unit that was beauty in action.
So the next task became the overdub sessions, which kicked right in the following day at Janis' home studio. Jim Brock stayed on for a few extra days to add layers of percussion to the songs. His "trick kit" includes instruments I can't even name, but they are interesting in looks and sound. And he seems to always have just the right thing for the feel Janis is looking for.
Of course, since the home studio is literally that, there are obstacles that need to be dealt with continually. The mics are so sensitive that they pick up everything from a truck passing by the house to planes flying overhead to birds singing happily out in the yard. (We knew it was time to break for lunch when Janis' stomach growled loud enough to drown the part she was playing...) With some creative scheduling, baffling and positioning (You're going to record that part in the bathroom??) these issues were dealt with expertly by Marc and Philip.
After Jim's overdubs were completed and Marc did some editing and clean up on the digital files, Janis started with guitar overdubs. For this they duplicated a technique she'd used on "Breaking Silence" for the guitar set up. Janis recorded all of her guitar overdubs sitting in the middle of a circle of all of her guitars, which would enhance and reflect different tonal qualities. (Genius!) And as you'll hear when we begin posting MP3s of the songs in progress, this is the stage where the songs get some character enhancements. Some are serious and some subtle, depending on the song.
Many of Janis' initial guitar parts and most of the vocals that were laid in the first studio sessions were only "scratch" takes, which means they were intended to be replaced. Some were completely redone, some in parts. And some (thankfully for her) were perfect already. Listening back to "Matthew", Janis said to Marc "I can play it better. I can play it cleaner. But I'll never be able to play it again with that much heart." The same happened on "I Hear You Sing Again", where Janis and Dan sat face to face over their guitars. The final track and vocal are what they did on the first and only take.
Janis used 4 or 5 different guitars, including a 1958 Martin 00-18, a Bozo (pronounced Bojo), her Ryan, and a nylon stringed Martin. Choices were made by the sound Janis and Marc were looking for (a twinkle, something woody, longer sustain, warm, bright…you name it, it's in there!)
That brings us to present. The next phase will be vocals, which will begin very soon back at the studio. This comes with some big news: Dolly Parton will be doing a duet with Janis on the song "My Tennessee Hills". We're all extremely excited since Dolly is such a great artist, and is perfect for this song. After those sessions are finished, everything will get edited, mixed, and mastered. It's a long road ahead, but things are going so smoothly it's almost scary.
I have to say that part of me has been 12 years old again through this entire project; wide eyed and in awe. This has been an experience I'll never forget, and we're sure you'll feel the same when we launch "The Making of a Janis Ian Record" a few months before the CD is released in early 2004
Am I excited? You bet! I love my job…
Janis' WorldCon Diary From 2001 Now Online
Originally published on her website in Ocobter 2001, we've uploaded Janis' WorldCon Diary from that year. It's a great read, so head on over to the Reading Room and check it out. Or you can just access it directly and give it a read.
Stars audiobook on CD finally available here!
Stars: Original Stories Based on the Songs of Janis Ian is now available in our online store as a CD audio book. Featuring original short stories by 30 top SF writers, including one by Janis, with her singing the prologue to each and narrating many.
The Singer & The Song & Stars both nominated for 2015 Audie Awards!
Two projects very dear to Janis' heart have both been nominated for prestigous Audie Awards! The audiobook for Miriam Therese Winter's The Singer & The Song, as well as the audiobook for the Stars anthology of science fiction songs based on songs by Janis, have both been honored with nominations.