Rosanne Cash Hits New Heights

Jun 1, 2003 12:00 PM, By Elianne Halbersberg

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Like the beginning of a classic Dickens novel, the past few years have been the best of times and the worst of times for Rosanne Cash. She gave birth to a son (best), lost her voice due to a pregnancy-related polyp on her vocal cords (worst), wrote and recorded new songs (best), had to shelve the project while waiting for her voice to return (worst), finally released her brilliant new album, Rules of Travel (best), and, because she has spoken out against the war in Iraq, is receiving hate mail and is the target of a campaign to boycott her records. You can guess which category that falls under.

Rules of Travel, which pairs her with her father, Johnny Cash, on one of her compositions, “September When It Comes,” is the culmination of lessons learned. “When I look at the album now, I see that it's all about loss and recovery,” she says. “It will always represent the period in my life when I had my son — a beautiful, life-changing experience and part of the recovery process — and the loss and recovery of both my voice and this record — not knowing if I would get my voice back or whether these songs would be lost — and realizing that my parents won't be here forever. So it was a circle for me. Everything became more precious because it is finite, and I feel incredibly grateful for the things I have.”

Cash's partner, in music and in life, is producer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist John Leventhal. They have been making records together since her 1993 album, The Wheel, and have grown as a songwriting and recording team. “We're definitely better at it,” she says. “We used to take our personal stuff into the studio and work it out at $250 an hour; how stupid could that be? Also, we've developed respect for each other's styles. I focus in bursts, and he focuses for 10 hours straight without looking up. It's a lot more fun now: We're relaxed as a couple, and creating something together can be very romantic.

“We have very different strengths, and that's the key to working well together. He has a much wider musical palette, in that if he wants to create something, he has the ability to find it quickly. I don't hear voicings and arrangements and sonics, and I've learned to get out of his way, although everything is open to discussion. Someone recently described John as a sonic sculptor, and that's very apt. He's also very intense, and if he's going to spend eight hours on a guitar part, I'm not going to stick around. I'll check back in a few hours!”

Leventhal's production discography reads like a who's who of singer/songwriters: Joan Osborne, Shawn Colvin, Marc Cohn, Rodney Crowell, Jim Lauderdale, Kelly Willis, new tracks with Michelle Branch…the list goes on. Try to pinpoint what makes him good at his craft, however, and he responds, “I have no idea. I'm not even sure I am a good producer. [Rules Of Travel] is my best so far, because I distilled a lot of my ideas to their simplest form. I've never thought about it. I think I'm a fairly musical guy with a good arranging sense, and I think I have a sensitivity to what songs are trying to put across. It's not just about gear and compressing and drums. My theory is that most musicians try to tap into that adolescent feeling of what music did to you when you responded viscerally and didn't understand why. I think I can still tap into that part of my psyche.

“Being a musician and songwriter are huge for me, but you can be a good producer without being either,” he continues. “There are all sorts of different ways to come at this thing, and however you get to it is great. It can't help but enhance and help you to have a fundamental knowledge of music. Gear and compressors and miking the amps — to me, that's the least interesting part. I understand the seduction of sonic manipulation, but the song is so much more important. If you hear a singer sing a great song they sang into a Shure 57, you don't care as long as the music is great. Don't get me wrong: I like that stuff, and I like making great-sounding records, but there is an incredible amount of emphasis on that. When I first started making records, I knew nothing about gear. Now, I probably know too much about it. We all work on a lot of different levels, and you want your peers to appreciate what you do, as well as your non-peers. If other record-makers like my records, that's great; but at the same time, I want someone who doesn't know anything about making records to like them, too.”

In keeping with that theory, Cash and Leventhal kept things as simple as possible while making Rules of Travel. That is, between the original sessions and the final ones that took place two-and-a-half years later when she regained her voice. “I recorded at the three New York studios I use,” Leventhal says. “Sear Sound, where we tracked rhythm sections, 12th Street Studios, which is my studio, and New York Noise. I engineered with Tom Schick, who worked with me on Shawn Colvin's last record. Roger Moutenout mixed at Allaire Studios. I played a lot of the instruments on it: guitar, keyboard, a good portion of the bass and drums on at least one song. That tends to happen when I map out parts, and in my spontaneous ineptitude they have a vibe and I say, ‘Let's keep it.’ I try to balance it out. There are very few records on which I approach the rhythm section the same way on every tune. So, it's me on some tracks and a band on the others.”

Despite having been away from the material for an extended period of time, Cash was able pick up where she left off. “That's part of being good at your job,” she says, “like an actor doing a scene over and over and keeping the emotional content intact. It's just a matter of retouching that place emotionally and trying to deliver from and reconnect with that tone every time you do a take.

“With ‘Will You Remember Me,’ it was a live vocal and we fixed one line. ‘Rules of Travel’ was a comp; maybe I did three or four takes. ‘Hope Against Hope’ was almost all live and maybe a couple of extra tracks to pull a few lines. I don't do lots and lots of vocals, because, although I can reconnect with the original feeling, it just doesn't make sense past a certain point, unless I'm really working up to something. It took me a long time to find the tone of ‘Closer Than I Appear,’ and we re-recorded that vocal three different times. I recorded three or four tracks, comped it, went away, came back, recorded three or four tracks, comped it, went away — three or four times — and I did that because I couldn't find the right attitude for it.

“‘Rules of Travel’ was difficult to cut because it took me forever to finish the lyrics to the verses,” she adds. “It was late in the game: We were almost finished with the record before I finished them. We reapproached it a couple of times. The first time it was recorded was before I lost my voice, and it's a different version from what's on the record. ‘Will You Remember Me’ was incredibly easy. I took the lyrics to the studio and asked John to really think about this song. I'd asked him to write music for it, and he asked, ‘Do you really need another sensitive song on the record?’ ‘Well, yes!’ He wrote the music right there and played it as if he was reading it. My voice was gone, and I put down this ‘Tom Waits with laryngitis’ vocal that stayed until I got my voice back.”

When it comes to gear, Leventhal makes no demands other than good vocal mics. “That's all you need,” he says. “I have my preferences, and I know it when I hear it. Over the years, I've wanted to keep constant with Neumann 67s. I bought two and tend to bring those with me. We cut all of Rosanne's vocals with one. I like a good compressor, and there are a lot of good ones out there. The 1176s and Distressors are my primaries, and I also own and use a Tube-Tech compressor. I have Geoffrey Daking and Millennia Media mic pre's, and I've invested in a lot of microphones and instruments in my studio: guitars, harmoniums, xylophones, keyboards. That, to me, is the fun part: the actual music-making.

“I don't use a lot of outboard gear at all: one reverb and one delay, no multi-effects units. Whatever you hear, I created with guitar stompboxes and stuff like that: wah-wah pedals for filter and all sorts of weird stuff. I have nothing against Pro Tools, and there's no question in my mind that I'm bound for a computer system. I'm a non-techno guy and I don't relish the idea of sitting in front of a screen, as opposed to just listening to the music. But the writing is on the wall.”

Cash shares Leventhal's aversion to computers. In the studio, however, she is “very involved with microphones and guitar sounds. I'm acutely aware of vocal mics,” she says. “I love tube mics — the AKG C 12, the Neumann 67, and the Neumann 47 is one of my favorites. These mics are so warm in the midrange but also in the upper end. They don't have that brittle quality in the high end that a lot of mics do. Once in a while, I'll use the 87 if it's the right thing, even though it's not a tube mic. I don't play guitar much in the studio. John, being a guitar player, has very strong ideas and works stuff out, but I generally like a mix of going direct and using a mic.”

Despite his years of experience behind the board, Leventhal's definition of a producer is “an amorphous one. It can be someone super-hands-on, like me, or a benign figure who knows when to order lunch and when to say enough. That can be valuable, too,” he says. “For me, it's an ongoing process. With each record, I learn more and I don't know what my process is. In the past, I've gotten seduced by big landscapes or whatever, and now I like to be a little simpler. When it begins to seem routine, I'll stop, because now, every record almost seems like the first record I'm doing.”






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