Lucinda Williams Gets Happy
Oct 1, 2008 12:00 PM, By Bud Scoppa
THE MAKING OF "LITTLE HONEY"
The seeds of Lucinda Williams' new album, Little Honey, were sown during the sessions for her previous album, West (2006). Partly inspired by her then-new relationship with music-biz veteran Tom Overby — “Everything is before Tom and after Tom,” she said at the time — Williams went on a writing binge, demo'ing up each batch of freshly penned songs at Hollywood's Radio Recorders, singing and playing acoustic live off the floor with her touring band. Then, at Overby's suggestion, Hal Willner was brought in to produce the project. After listening to the demos, Willner decided to keep all of her original vocals. “We were gonna start from scratch again,” he says, “and I went, ‘Damn, why?’”
The tracks were stripped down to their essence and reimagined from the inside out. Engineer/mixer Eric Liljestrand painstakingly performed the countless minute edits needed to achieve aural coherence and flow, after which a crew of A-list players, including drummer Jim Keltner and guitarist Bill Frisell, overdubbed their parts around Williams' vocals. Everything was rolling along until she pulled one of the infamous studio freakouts that have marked her recording career.
“When the record was 80-percent done, there was a big blowup between Lucinda and Hal,” Overby reveals. “Even now, she loves him, but it was just one of those nights where tensions had been building. In some ways, they're a lot alike — they're both pretty obsessive — but we decided at that point that we'd get someone else to finish it.”
After throwing around the names of producers, Williams and Overby realized they needed to complete the record as originally conceived, so they turned to Liljestrand. During those final two weeks, it became obvious to all three that they worked extremely well together, so what had started out as a compromise became a direction. “I was there every night for West,” says Overby, “and I saw the pitfalls — the places not to go. That helped form what to do on the next record.”
Not only that, but Williams already had the core group of songs for what would become Little Honey — six from the Radio Recorders sessions, including “Real Love,” which turned out to be the new album's opening track and no-brainer first single (Willner had rejected it as too pop-y), plus the newly written “Tears of Joy” and “Little Rock Star.” “I was already thinking the next record needed to be more upbeat because West was so dark,” says Overby, “and we had a nice group of songs that fit together really well.” When Overby sequenced West, he decided to close the album with the title song. “It points toward the next record,” he says, “with the line, ‘Who knows what the future holds?’”
“I chose Tom to produce this album, along with Eric,” Williams explains during the final stages of the new album's creation. “After the recording of West, it became apparent to the three of us that when we returned to the studio to record this new album, we wouldn't need to hire an outside producer. Between Eric, Tom and myself, we have it down. By the time we'd completed the tracks for West, there was no doubt in my mind that I would never work with anyone other than Eric Liljestrand — he's just the right guy for me. There are other great engineers out there, but finding someone who understands your needs; knows how to get the right sound for your own voice; knows which particular vocal mic to use; has an extensive knowledge of the history of blues, soul, R&B and country; is fun to work with; has a great sense of humor; never complains about working long hours — what else can I say? Wherever Eric is working, that's where I'll be — kinda like biscuits and gravy!”
Did I mention that Williams is unusually happy these days?
Whereas West had been about assembly, Little Honey would focus on performances, so it was natural to use Williams' current road band — guitarists Doug Pettibone and Chet Lyster, bassist David Sutton and drummer Butch Norton. “We were out on the road for nine months last year playing most of these songs,” she points out.
For the sessions, they returned to the Village Recorder in West L.A., setting up shop in Studio D where most of the sessions for West had taken place. Along with a sizable tracking room, ideal for live-off-the-floor recording, D boasts a Neve 88R console. Liljestrand never goes into a studio without his trusty Genelec 1032 near-field monitors, but that was unnecessary this time because there was already a pair sitting above the board. The mains in D are big, honking Augspurgers.
Coincidentally, Willner was nearby in Studio B working on the follow-up to Marianne Faithfull's Strange Weather and on his sea chanteys project, and reportedly sent good vibes in the direction of the inhabitants of D.
The other West alum was second engineer Vanessa Parr, who “has become almost like a younger sister to me,” Williams notes. “Every so often I will arrive at the studio and surprise her with an armful of rock 'n' roll T-shirts that I've outgrown. All in all, we have a very special team.”
This is a tight posse indeed, consistent with the community vibe at this West L.A. landmark, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary and enjoying a renaissance under the leadership of Jeff Greenberg. Williams has some love to throw in his direction, as well: “Jeff is a real, true music guy,” she enthuses. “He speaks from his heart, and he's in this business for all the right reasons. He's become a part of my extended family and has treated me with the utmost hospitality and respect. I'll never forget the time he brought in sprinkles cupcakes and presented me with a big bouquet of flowers on Valentine's Day last year.”
“The album was tracked predominantly live off the floor with just Lucinda and her road band,” Liljestrand explains. “Two guitars, bass and drums, with Lu singing and sometimes playing guitar. I love it when she plays while she sings; it's like one thing — a package — and it comes out great.
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