If you follow me on Facebook, you know I produced a record that we launched this week. Here is a little background on the project:
20 years ago a close friend of mine, Chad Holley, called from St. Louis to say he was engaged to be married. Having not seen Chad for a while and wanting to meet his fiance’, I flew to St. Louis to meet Claire Chamblin, soon to be Claire Holley. There began another close friendship that has only deepened since the great day 10 years ago when Claire and Chad moved to Los Angeles.
Claire is a wonderful person and very good friend who, like my closest friends, patiently puts up with my hyperbolic passion. (I’ve written before about the wonderful arguments, um, discussions we have around the dinner table.) Claire is also an extremely talented singer/songwriter/musician. I’ve had the pleasure of hearing her sing often, a few times even in my own home at magical house concerts she performs in my living room.
Two years ago, I went to see Claire at the Cinema Bar in Los Angeles. One of the songs she sang that night was a new composition, “Mariachi Band.” By the time she finished the song, I knew I wanted to produce it. Convincing her of this, however, took a little cajoling.
Not many people know it but I, too, am a musician. I was plopped in front of a piano at the age of three and forced to take piano lessons for many years. My first piano teacher was an unpleasant old woman who would cut my fingernails way past the point of comfort and rap my knuckles with a ruler. This did not make me initially enjoy the piano, perhaps the understatement of the year. She also made me do volumes and volumes of “Notes”, which was music theory paperwork designed to teach notes and chords and everything musical on the page. At the age of 5, this was Not. Fun. It wasn’t even playing the damn piano!
Thankfully, she, well, retired in a way and I moved through a few other piano teachers until I was 18, all much more fun. I also subjected my family to learning the saxophone for band. God bless ’em. While I remain merely passable at playing the piano, I was actually kick ass on the sax. Good performer or not, the music theory I learned under the old lady stuck with me and I’ve been a music fanatic all my life. Deep down, I always wanted to try producing.
When I heard Claire play Mariachi Band in her beautiful, haunting style, I had a vision for something a little different: more upbeat, a song that would make people want to tap their feet. I wanted to arrange the song in a way that would highlight her beautiful voice. And as a passionate lover of Los Angeles, truly one of the great cities in all the world, I also envisioned an accompanying video that would be a love letter to East Los Angeles, my favorite part of the city.
It indeed took a few more passionate dinners but eventually I convinced Claire to give it all a try. She helped assemble some of the more talented people I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. We then spent a couple of days in the studio recording, then mixing the song.
Click to keep reading and see the video!
This was as much fun as anything I’ve done in many a year.
Usually when recording a song, each individual instrument is performed solo then combined later in the mix. I steadfastly refused this approach as I wanted the music to have as much energy as possible and for these amazingly talented musicians to have fun playing off one another. While this can create certain difficulties later in the mix, I’m glad we did it this way because it created an electricity between everyone. I also love songs that add layer after layer, so with “Mariachi Band” we start simple then add a new element each additional verse or chorus.
While I had a pretty specific vision, sure, when you work with people this gifted, the best thing to do is step back and get out of their way. They will create things beyond what you initially dreamed. One example here is the amazing bass performance by Jennifer Condos that grounds the song even when you are not aware of her playing. On the slow bridge that leads into the final chorus, I always envisioned Claire singing a cappella, as I wanted to highlight her gorgeous voice as much as possible. Yet when we played it with Jennifer behind Claire’s voice, we knew it had to be heard this way. Which caused us to bring in Eric Heywood’s beautiful work on the pedal steel halfway through. The bridge ended up even better and more beautiful than I imagined.
None of it would have come together had Steve Mugalian not figured out the perfect tempo and beat for the song. Jordan Katz was our ‘mariachi’ on the trumpet, his was the only instrument to be added later. The takes he gave us were so good we had a tough time deciding what to use. And Kristin Mooney and Gia Ciambotti’s background vocals, which grow stronger and stronger with each verse, are so lovely and add to the depth. Kristin’s wonderful laugh during one take was so infectious, we had to leave it in as well. As I said, I pretty much stood back and left these people do their magic:
Again, this was the most fun I’ve had in years. While I hope to do it again, and soon, if it ends up being my only stint as record producer, it was well worth the effort. Besides realizing a bit of a dream, it is also so satisfying to work with a friend, wrestle creatively, enjoy the process and be proud of the final product. Kudos also to my good friend Chris Boghosian, who was DP on the video and did marvelous work, and Brian Montgomery, who took all the footage and edited something great.
And if you like Claire’s voice, be sure to check out her recent collaboration with Kristin. They are magic singing together and their new LP, Powdercoat, is sublime: