Music: Rosanne Cash and John Leventhal

Oct 1, 2009 12:00 PM, By Elianne Halbersberg



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Rosanne Cash on The List: “We wanted to acknowledge the original and most definitive versions of the songs, and with respect to that, kind of let it go.”

Rosanne Cash on The List: “We wanted to acknowledge the original and most definitive versions of the songs, and with respect to that, kind of let it go.”

John Leventhal makes no secret of his disdain for gear talk. It is, he says, “one of the least interesting things about the recording process.” So uninteresting, in fact, that the above quote was pulled from a prepared statement that he issued to accompany press materials for his wife, Rosanne Cash's, new album, The List. That statement also includes a rundown of what Leventhal used to record the album. (For the curious: Steinberg Cubase, “with an assortment of mic pre's, compressors and microphones that I have gathered over the years,” including a pair of Coles 4038s, a Neumann CMV563, an AKG C-60, a Gefell UMT-70, “an AKG dynamic mic from the '80s used on my Fender Vibrolux Reverb” and a Neumann U67, which is his standard for Cash's vocals.) So it seems almost fitting, given this aversion to discussing gear, that the couple's 10-year-old son would walk in during Leventhal's interview to request use of his father's digital camera. “He also set up my iPod Nano,” Leventhal confesses.


Rosanne Cash's "I'm Movin' On" MP3

It's not so much that Leventhal is against gear; it's that he'd much rather discuss the organic side of record-making: the songs and the sounds. “I think whatever gift I have as a producer is that, first and foremost, I'm fairly musical,” he says. “My main instruments are guitar and bass, and I appreciate the language of most instruments, and the languages and genres of a lot of music. I'm still passionate about it and moved by music like I was when I was 12. At the same time, I have taken the time to understand what it is about music that moves me: voices, arrangements, harmonies, melodies.

“It wasn't a grand intellectual enterprise, but I thought about it, processed it and internalized it, and I bring that to my productions. I want to be moved by the music at the end of the day, and I'm looking for how to feel moved and for the artist to be moved. More than wrestling every bit and binary code to have them all lined up, in the box and overcompressed, I just hear it the way I hear it. First and foremost, it's music and not technology for me, and that's why the whole thing of gear… People tend to fetishize gear and obsess about it, and at the same time we all know that it has nothing to do with gear, with this mic pre, that plug-in, that compressor. It has nothing to do with that.”

Leventhal does know his way around a studio, of course, and for a number of years he's done much of his work at New York Noise. This studio was formerly on Gansevoort Street in the trendy meatpacking district, but since The List was completed, it has relocated uptown a ways on West 20th Street.

For The List, Leventhal's main studio foil was once again New York Noise co-owner and creative director Rick DiPofi, who co-produced, co-engineered and contributed a few musical parts — horns, piano and bass clarinet. In its Gansevoort incarnation, New York Noise was a homey single-room (i.e., no separate control room) facility with a great, warm vibe and lots of vintage and modern gear — everything from a Neve 8816 summing mixer to LA-2As and Distressors. (The new New York Noise has a dedicated control room for the first time, but retains a homey atmosphere.) As usual, Leventhal played all manner of guitars, basses, mandolin, keyboards (ranging from Wurlitzer piano to a harmonium), harmonica and even some drums. There were other musicians involved, too, including upright bassists Tim Luntzel and Zev Katz, drummers Shawn Pelton and Joe Bonadio, fiddlers Larry Campbell and Jenny Scheinman, string players The Mels and various backing singers. Some tracks featured a small group laying down a basic track live, while others were constructed around Cash/Leventhal duets.

Leventhal says he went into The List — 12 songs selected from a list of “100 Essential Country Songs” as presented to Cash by her father when she was 18 — with three objectives: to focus on Cash as a singer vs. the usual emphasis on her songwriting; to bring a “first-time” listening experience to traditional songs; and to do these things via simple production.

“I think I succeeded with those goals,” he says. “Rosanne sounds phenomenal. I had been thinking about doing this record for a while. A lot of her identity is wrapped up in her songwriting, as it should be, but she has never embraced the spotlight as a singer, and it's a different framework for her. I also feel that my other strength is as an arranger, and I think I've done a decent job making songs that have been covered extensively sound fresh.”

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