Music: Raphael Saadiq

Jan 1, 2009 12:00 PM, By David John Farinella

MOTOWN MEETS MODERN IN NEW SONGS

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The fans who showed up early for the John Legend show in Chicago a couple of months ago got an earful of opener Raphael Saadiq's latest offering, The Way I See It. According to the singer/
songwriter/producer, that was by design. “We're going all-in tonight,” Saadiq said a handful of hours before hitting the stage. “We're not playing any of the old songs. We're only playing the new album.”

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Saadiq, who spent November and December on the road with Legend after touring Europe on his own during the summer, has a lot of material to draw from during a live set. In addition to songs from his solo releases, Saadiq can play tunes from the seminal New Jack Swing outfit Tony! Toni! Toné! that he founded in the late '80s or from Lucy Pearl, an R&B supergroup of sorts that featured En Vogue's Dawn Robinson and Ali Shaheed Muhammad from A Tribe Called Quest.

The Way I See It is Saadiq's homage to the soul music that he grew up with in Oakland, Calif. Homage, yes. Retro? No, he says. “People seem to have a problem with retro,” Saadiq explains. “To me, [this record] is more real than retro. I think retro is when you're trying to do something that doesn't fit in a real place.” Still, there's no mistaking the fact that Saadiq's album is a wonderful throwback to Motown's Golden Age, both in terms of the songwriting and the sonics. With its echoes of early Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and others, it almost sounds like it could have been made in 1965, yet there are still nods to modernity, and Saadiq's passionate vocals are always unquestionably him.

Before he and engineer Chuck Brungardt set out to record the 13 tracks on this release, Saadiq admits with a laugh, he had to forget a lot of what he has learned over the years. “Oh, about 85 to 90 percent of the new techniques,” he says. The duo replaced that experience by reading books like The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions: The Official Story of the Abbey Road Years and looking at photos from old Motown and Stax sessions.

Saadiq and Brungardt got to work on this album shortly after wrapping up work on the 2007 release Introducing Joss Stone. One evening, the duo had a studio full of musicians in to work through some of the songs, running tape along the way to catch anything interesting. (They moved over to Pro Tools fairly quickly as some of the jam sessions were running more than an hour.) Turns out that Saadiq's demos were beating what the studio pros were coming up with, Brungardt recalls. “What Raphael had done had the right vibe and tone,” he says. “The players were like, ‘You probably don't want to change this.’”

So the two got to work when possible, recording between production gigs with other artists. Saadiq has lent his production skills to artists like Joss Stone, The Roots and John Legend.

All of the sessions took place at Blakeslee Studio in L.A., which Saadiq owns. Having Brungardt in the studio was important for Saadiq. “I'm pretty open with the people that I work with,” he says. “I would ask his opinion and I was challenging him every day, in a polite way. He has a good ear, and I would say, ‘I'm thinking of this.’ Instead of him saying, ‘Okay,’ he would push back with some ideas. That's how it should be when you're working on music — whoever is in the room should be in accord.”

That said, Saadiq did discuss the sound that he was after early on. “We knew where we had to go and where we could go,” the producer says. “We wanted to make it sound old, but at the same time we wanted to make it our own. We knew what it was like to throw an 808 [Roland drum machine] on top of something, but that wasn't going to match what we were trying to do here.”

Inspired by the books and photos they studied, Brungardt set up the studio and the microphones as simply as possible. That is not to say that they avoided modern recording devices, considering Pro Tools was the recorder of choice, but they were careful to be sparse with microphones and judicious with outboard gear. For instance, before they started to record, the two took a trip down to a used-gear store to purchase some old tape machines to get some warmth on the drum tracks. “The guy there said that we could take the pre's out of the tape machines, wire them up and use them before we went to Pro Tools,” Brungardt recalls. “So we gutted some old Ampex tape machines and did that.”

The philosophy for miking a '60s-era Ludwig drum kit that Saadiq purchased specifically for this album hearkened back to the three-mic technique of yesteryear. “Our mics would change, but a lot of the sound came from the overhead mic, which was either a [Neumann] 47 or a 67,” Brungardt explains. “We also have an [AKG] C2 4 that's pretty nice. As far as the kick mics, we used an [AKG] D 12 or sometimes an AKG 414 so we could get the low end of the kick. On the snare we played with different things, but we kept it pretty standard because we wanted more of the crack of the snare drum rather than the overall tone.”

Saadiq's bass tracks were inspired by Motown legend James Jamerson. “He set the vibe on this record,” Saadiq says. “I'm really into Jamerson and the [Fender] P-Bass.”






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