It’s been a year of reinvention for me.
2820 Press has been rolling along for six years now, and it’s been a long time since I’ve had bandwidth to devote to personal projects.
Maybe that’s why I’ve been reflecting a lot lately on parts of my career that have been in the rear view mirror for a while.
Many of the folks I work with now are surprised to find out I spent the first decade of my career as a radio producer, recording engineer, and indie record company co-owner.
I spent most of my twenties around radio stations, particularly WXPN in Philadelphia, where I spent a few years working up the ranks from production assistant all the way to producer.
We had no budget, but we had a fantastic red brick building on what was then the fringe of the University of Pennsylvania campus. Our recording studio was really an old record library, and the spines of each old LP served as acoustic insulation for the acts we’d haul up three flights of stairs.
There’s probably about 600 two-track recordings with my initials on them, long-since digitized thanks to an influx of support from NPR Music. (In my day, NPR was never quite sure what to do with a series that highlighted singer-songwriters and Americana acts.) I can still tell which recordings are mine when they show up on reruns or as “coffee house” alternate tracks on SiriusXM.
From that collection, I usually think about these five sessions as moments in time that may not have resulted in the most sonically perfect recordings, but taught me a lot about myself and about what it’s like to be a creative person in the world.
Elvis Costello & Steve Nieve
World Cafe wasn’t always a magnet for big names. In 1996, the show was only five years old. Our talent bookers often had to wheel and deal to get A-list musicians to swing through our neighborhood, instead of just settling for the New York, Nashville, and Los Angeles stops on their press junkets. A miracle happened, and Elvis Costello said “yes” to our pitch because he had a layover through PHL.
If you have met me in person, you have probably heard me tell the long version of this story. In short, this was one of the most trying days of my career, but it underscored two things:
- You really do have to persevere to get what you want as a creative professional.
- The folks who have figured this out and truly embraced it are also the people who act the most gracious to the folks trying to help them.
The airline lost Steve Nieve’s keyboard, so the other engineers and I ran across the street to borrow one from a Penn fraternity house. (The keyboard’s owner turned out to be someone who’s played an important role in my professional life for so many other reasons, but that’s a different story.)
This thing sounded awful.
But it didn’t matter. Steve actually loved the little farty sound it made, suitable for the ska night performances it was used to playing. When I offered some of our meager craft services, Elvis took me aside and shared crucial advice on how to properly prepare a good cup of tea. Always cream first into the cup, then tea from a brewing pot. Anything less is just uncivilized.
Despite the protests of their tour manager, they hung out to look at some of the new gear in our studio. We had cobbled together some early open source sound editing tools using off-the-shelf x86 processors, DAT machines, a then-giant 10GB hard drive, and lots of custom audio interfaces—all still hooked up to an analog board and a bunch of tube compressors. They dug it, and they taught me so much about how to love raw sound that day.
Elvis’ former producer taught me a huge lesson about surviving the world when he stopped in for an acoustic set. He tells a story about how he wagered almost everything he had on a bad business bet, then had to move into his son’s attic when it turned all wrong. He pretty much gave up on music, and struggled to think about what he could do with his life in a world that didn’t always appreciate his talent.
Not long after, he said, there’s a knock at the door and it’s a courier trying to track him down with an important package. It’s the first royalty check from the soundtrack to “The Bodyguard.” Nick had nearly forgotten that a Curtis Stigers cover of “Peace, Love, and Understanding” landed in the back half of the album. The check, as Nick described it, was more money than he had ever seen at once in his life.
He was back.
(That album, with over 42 million units sold, remains the biggest selling motion picture soundtrack of all time.)
Lyle Lovett & His Large Band
I am not good at saying “no.”
When we were offered the chance to record Lyle and his entire band, of course we told them yes.
This session took over the entire building.
Lyle was in a vocal booth. Horns in one studio. Rhythm section in a side office usually reserved for a volunteer phone bank. We set up microphones in a hallway. We had one guy playing in a bathroom.
These guys couldn’t even see each other for most of the session, and I recall at least three of us (hello, JD and Chris) running separate mixing boards to make it all work.
Tracey Thorn & Massive Attack
I never understood the value in sending electronic artists out to perform versions of their songs over backing tracks. Especially on a show that catered to fans of acoustic music. Nevertheless, I was thrilled to spend time with one of my favorite vocalists. (She was equally confused by the approach, but eager to get on the road to help the record sell.)
Our control room led out to a fire escape, where a bunch of us usually hung out in between sessions. I forget exactly what the snafu was — I think it was a missing limo driver — but we ended up with a whole lot of time to kill. So I sat outside on a beautiful day with Tracey, 3D, and Mushroom, just enjoying a breezy conversation about music, art, and how hard it is to really make a living as an artist.
It’s one of the crucial conversations that inspired the series of books I wrote about the music business in the 2000s.
It’s also, as I will tell myself until I die, the time I got to hang out with Banksy.
This session was the next-to-last recording I made in the studio before I hung up my headphones and shifted full-time into website production and writing. I spent nearly a year battling with hearing issues. Besides, work I was doing with partners at AOL and elsewhere was leading to projects that could do a lot more to take care of me financially for the long run.
In that context, there’s a bittersweet undertone to this session. I still pick this recording apart, but folks tell me they still love hearing these versions of Gregg Alexander’s songs. Gregg was struggling with the transition from producer to touring artist, and the music industry was taking its toll on him. Danielle Brisebois was aching to put her “child actor” days behind her. They’d both go on to huge success as songwriters and producers.
In hindsight, nobody really wanted to be in the room that day, but we made one of the most complex and rewarding recordings I think I ever worked on.