Saturday, June 21, 2014

Musings on the Value of a Truly Good Producer

[The May 2014 issue of Recording Magazine featured a long and technically detailed cover story about the making of my album Two Pines, written by my producer Sven-Erik Seaholm. I was invited by the editor of Recording Magazine to write a guest editorial about the artist's perspective of the whole process. This is that piece.]
Making an album is not for the timid. It’s going to cost you some sleep, and more than a little money. It’s going to occupy your every waking moment for months. It’ll damage your health, your serenity, and your relationships. Some days you’ll be gripped with self-loathing and the compulsion to throw in the towel. Other days you’ll secretly entertain the thought that you might be a genius and your record a masterpiece. Then your sanity returns and you get back to work.
A journey this treacherous should never be taken alone. You’re going to need a great producer.
A producer is many things. A friend, a technician, a guide, a strategist, an organizer, a cheerleader, a shaman, a mom, a barista, a host, a roadie, a therapist, a confidant, a diplomat, a savant, a maker of sandwiches—but more than anything else, a producer is a trusted collaborator whose decisions at a thousand forks in the road could mean the life or death of your record. Sure mic placement matters. EQ, preamps, signal paths, and compression settings are all important. But the single most important element in any successful recording project is the relationship between the artist and the producer. If you don’t trust, rely on, respect, and admire your producer, you’re doomed.
I hadn’t made an album in seven years. Life got in the way. My day job as a philosophy professor and the demands of my expanding work as a writer and speaker pushed music off of center stage. I’d even fired myself from my own band The Coyote Problem. It was just all too much. But the songs kept coming. Seven years is a lot of songs. I had to do something. It was time to make an album.
As the song list came together I realized I needed a title song, one last piece to tie all the themes of the record together. I tuned my Taylor to a double drop D and wrote “Two Pines.”
I decided to call Sven-Erik Seaholm, the producer of The Coyote Problem’s two albums, Wire in 2005 and California in 2007. We’d worked well together, we had exceptional rapport, and most importantly we got great results. The two trophies for Best Americana Album from the San Diego Music Awards didn’t hurt. Art contests are weird but hey, I’ll take it.
At our first meeting we talked about what kind of record we wanted to make. Like Stephen Covey says, begin with the end in mind. I wanted a raw, warm, open sound. I wanted three things front and center—the holy trinity of acoustic guitar, bass, and drums. We talked about Neil Young’s “Out on a Weekend.” We talked about Tom Petty’s “You Don’t Know How it Feels.” We talked about Nashville vs. Austin, hi-fi vs. lo-fi, and Steve Earle. We talked about the nearly impossible goal of getting a recorded acoustic guitar to sound like an acoustic guitar. Sven listened carefully, took it all in, and found a way.
As our first scheduled session grew near I upped my practice schedule. I wanted to be ready. I searched deep and long for the soul of this album. In any artistic project or process, the most important question is always the same. What to leave in and what to leave out? The pressure began to build.
I wasn’t nervous in front of the mic. I know how to play my songs. In fact, recording is really fun. It’s the editing that’ll get you. Especially when it came to guitar overdubs...
I’d do nine takes of Dobro on a song, and then Sven and I would start editing. It’s agonizing—which licks of which takes to put where. Thankfully, Sven has the uncanny ability to remember all of the moods and feels of all of them, and deftly moves through the song mousing and clicking and splicing and blending and bringing the best of the best together into one seamless performance. I’m always torn by indecision and haunted by the takes not used—what if there’s a gem in there we’re leaving out? Watching your producer edit is like handing him a scalpel and closing your eyes. This is why trust is so important.
I came to rely on Sven to do the right thing, and nine times out of ten we agreed. When we didn’t, he’d listen and either change his mind or gently make his case. It often felt like we were one person, one man with two heads and four hands, and we were making music together. People who don’t make records have no idea how deeply embedded a producer is. I was there for every edit, but there isn’t one note on this album that Sven hasn’t touched, nurtured, birthed, and brought to life. Sure, I sang it and played it. But in a very real sense, so did he.
In the end, that’s the greatest gift a producer gives an artist—a safe place to be who they really are. It’s the little things. Having the coffee ready. Knowing when you need another take and when you don’t. Supporting you through a thousand decisions, sometimes leading, sometimes following, until you don’t know who’s in charge. You just know that something good is happening, and you’re thrilled to be a part of it.
Peter Bolland is an Americana artist, writer, and educator who lives and records in the San Diego area. Keep an eye on for information about the upcoming release of his new album Two Pines.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Two Pines

When I turned 12 in 1972 my brother John gave me a very important birthday present – Neil Young’s brand new album Harvest. From the opening notes of “Out on a Weekend” to the haunting atmosphere of the closing track “Words” I was caught by its spell. I had never heard anything so achingly beautiful before in my life.
In the years before ’72 it was all about the Beatles, the Doors, Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix, and even the Monkees. But behind the façade of all that glamorous rock and roll a quiet movement was building, a rootsy, acoustic, country rock feel with more debt to Dylan and the folk scene than to anything else. Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young were its standard bearers, and when Young left the supergroup he fled to Nashville and began working on Harvest with a core group of seasoned country players. The album’s success took Young by surprise and maybe even frightened him. Harvest became the best selling album in America in 1972 and when “Heart of Gold” went to number one, his first and last number one single, he backed away from the fame fearing he was becoming middle of the road. “I headed for the ditch,” he later said, “a rougher ride but I saw more interesting people there.”
Harvest went on to influence an entire generation of country rock folkies like me. My own guitar playing, singing, and song writing began to turn in that direction. It just felt like home. It’s all there in the opening track, “Out on a Weekend” – that emptiness, that loneliness, that simplicity, that bare bones honesty. A kick drum, a snare, a bass guitar, an acoustic guitar, a harmonica, a pedal steel, and simple lyrics about the redemption of the road – what else could you possibly need?
Many years later when I began making my own records I kept looking for a way to emulate that feel. I didn’t want to imitate Neil. Where’s the joy in mimicry? I wanted to find my own sound, my own voice, my own truth. But an apple never falls far from the tree.
My first album, Live at a Better World, was recorded live in the 90s at a wonderful folk music venue we were all playing at called A Better World Café. My folk duo partner at the time Mark Jackson and I stripped it down to two acoustic guitars and two voices – a simple, spare approach that let the songs shine. For my second album Frame, produced and recorded by Michael Krewitsky, we took advantage of the emerging technology of Pro Tools and the freedom it gives you. We both learned a lot about making rootsy Americana music with computers and software.
When I formed the Coyote Problem we made two albums with producer Sven-Erik Seaholm – Wire in 2005 and California in 2007. I told Sven I wanted a simple, dry, straight forward sound with minimal production sheen. I wanted it to sound like, you know, a band in a room. We succeeded. Both of the albums won Best Americana Album at the San Diego Music Awards in their respective years, a humbling honor.
It’s been seven years since California. Life got in the way. The Coyote Problem had a great run, but it was hard for me to keep up with the demands of running a band and a challenging career as a philosophy professor. I fired myself from my own band and focused on writing and teaching. I kept doing solo acoustic shows. And of course the songwriting never slowed down. In seven years a lot of songs piled up. I had to do something.
There are a lot of great producers. But in the end I went back to Sven-Erik Seaholm. We work well together, and I feel at home in his studio having made two albums there already, as well as spending countless hours as a session player on other people’s projects. We had a meeting and talked about the vision for this album. We talked about Neil Young’s “Out on a Weekend.” We talked about Tom Petty’s “You Don’t Know How it Feels.” We talked about acoustic guitar sounds and kick drums and amplifiers. We came to an understanding about what the goals for this record were. Like Steven Covey says, “Begin with the end in mind.”
Sven worked really hard to get a rich, authentic acoustic guitar sound using a complicated array of three microphones and signal paths (I try not to pay attention to any of that stuff – it just makes me feel stupid).  In many ways, getting a good acoustic guitar sound is the most difficult thing to do in the studio – the sound comes off the guitar in so many places and so many ways. But Sven did it.
Listening back to the initial tracks I realized something was missing. I needed a title song to unify all the themes of the record. So I wrote one. I tuned my guitar to a double drop D (the tuning Neil uses on “Cinnamon Girl,” “Ohio,” and “Cortez the Killer”) and I wrote a song called “Two Pines.” It came out so good we decided to open the album with it.
There are a lot of great drummers and bass players. It was an agonizing decision. But I finally decided on Bob Sale and Jim Reeves. They both have this amazingly powerful, muscular, confident feel and they play with the most arresting of all qualities – simplicity. They never clutter things up with busy, fussy, unnecessary flourishes. They find the essence and bring songs to life. We tracked them together while Sven and I sat in the control room. Our jaws hit the floor after the first song. I had goose bumps. This was it. They showed up early, stayed late, came in prepared, and exceeded all expectations. They tracked all 14 songs in one day, many on the first take. It is such a joy to work with professionals.
That session was followed by weeks of overdubs. I played Dobro, lap steel, 12 string, electric guitar, percussion, harmonica, and of course sang the vocal parts. We brought in Melissa Barrison to play violin on one song, and Sven played a piano riff on another. But the album is mostly bass, drums, guitars, and vocals. Our arrangement philosophy was “When in doubt, leave it out.”
In many ways, Two Pines is the album I’ve been trying to make all along. I’m proud of all of my earlier work, but with each album you learn a little more. You get closer and closer to the truth. The songs get stronger. The playing gets better. The singing gets truer. You relax more and more. And when you relax, the real you finally shows up.
All any singer-songwriter wants is to hear their songs recorded well, and to share those songs with anyone who’s interested. Real musicians don’t chase fame or money – they do it because they’re drawn into the spell that music casts, and they simply want to add their voice to the chorus. We all love music. We love what it does to us, how it frees us, unlocks our heart, opens our eyes, and shines light on the beauty of our own lives. We all have our favorite genres, styles, and artists. But beneath all the surface variations, it’s all just one song – our song. Music is memories; music is a new friend you haven’t met yet. Music is a feather bed and a field of stones. Music is many things, and one thing – a way to know a truth beyond words, a truth our soul is asking for, a truth that sets us free. That’s what your favorite music does for you. Let it.