Dave Stewart: the blackbird diaries documents wild ride in Nashville.
It’s an iconic group of albums that bear the name of a recording studio. The Beatles’ Abbey Road, Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland, and Elton John’s Honky Chateau are a few … and after his many decades of studio work, as half of Eurythmics, as solo artist, and as producer (Tom Petty, Aretha Franklin, Mick Jagger, Stevie Nicks, Joss Stone, etc.), there’s no question Dave Stewart understood the significance of calling his latest solo album The Blackbird Diaries.
In the liner notes to this made-in-Nashville, eclectic, only slightly countrified rock record, Stewart describes first meeting Blackbird Studios owners John and Martina McBride, who treated him to a great night of hi-fi listening and high-end adult beverages in Studio D, where they would later record: “I remember being in a room with two-and-a-half thousand little sticks of wood pointing at me while Sgt. Pepper’s was coming at me in surround sound. John was serving vintage dessert wine and laughing … John McBride’s enthusiasm for music and recording was so infectious that I knew I had to record with him in that very studio.”
Stewart proposed five days of cutting live in the studio: “… not trying to be country, just my own style, a little Dylanesque-meets-Leonard Cohen-meets-Tom Petty-meets-Lou Reed-meets-Johnny Cash-sounding kinda thing with my low vocals and some quirky Beatles-type chords and melodies thrown in.” He asked McBride to put together a band of musicians who would fit his complex sound.
“I get an email from Dave that says, ‘I want to make my first solo album in forever, put a band together for me. Think Neil Young Harvest type feel, yet a bit more ethereal.'” says McBride. “I’m thinking, ‘Ethereal’–doesn’t that mean more reverb? I’m not sure, exactly.'”
Enter the bandmembers: drummer Chad Cromwell (actually plays with Neil Young live); bass player Michael Rhodes (a consummate country sideman and versatile, melodic player); electric guitarist Tom Bukovac (Stewart: “Tom instinctively knows not only which of his 50 vintage guitars to pick up, but hones in on the exact tone within minutes”); pedal/lap steel guitarist Dan Dugmore (McBride: “There should be a law in Nashville that he needs to be on every recording session”); and keyboardist Mike Rojas (Stewart: “He plays a grand piano like he’s tickling under a baby’s chin”).
By phone from the office of his Weapons of Mass Entertainment business office in Southern California, Stewart says, “John helped pick certain musicians who were known for their amazing character of playing, but also because they could play improvising on the spot, and they also loved English music. It wasn’t just straightforward country players. Each one of them had a huge amount of musical knowledge. And they also had all of these amazing vintage amplifiers and guitars and things. It was kind of an instrument fest.”
Stewart, who says he has been inspired by vintage instruments and gear since Kraftwerk producer Colin Plank turned him on to vintage synths in the 1980s, also calls McBride’s studio “Aladdin’s cave of amazing equipment: vintage instruments, vintage microphones, old valve amplifiers. And John is somebody who mixes live sound; I asked him to engineer the studio sessions because I wanted to have that feeling.”
With an insane amount of instrument and recording technology at hand at Blackbird, an artist/ producer could spend endless hours belaboring sounds, but that is not how Dave Stewart rolls. During five days of basic tracking, he worked a “schedule” of songwriting in the late morning/early afternoon hours (either in his room or over coffee at the Pancake Pantry), tracking with the band from 2 to 7, and pouring vodka martinis for musicians, crew, and friends in the evening. (A tip from Dave: Coconut water cures a vodka hangover.)
McBride says that working at the pace of “Dave’s world” was liberating–all ideas were welcome, but nothing was “tweezed or overanalyzed.” But that doesn’t mean McBride didn’t put a lot of care into the recordings:
“Technologywise, I went for the moon, as I like to do,” McBride says. “I wanted this to be real, not a bunch of manipulated, processed sounds. I also wanted to make a record that the band would be able to play live and have it kill.”
McBride says that 95 percent of his miking/mic pre choices could have been made in 1970. He used loads of tube mic pre’s, because “Dave has a beautiful way of rounding things off, and analog distortion is beautiful. It sounds good to our ears, whereas digital distortion sounds like ass. I wanted to make sure that if we were going to overload a microphone or mic pre, there were tubes involved. Also, we recorded to Pro Tools at 96k so I wanted to frontload everything as analog as possible and as tubeand transformer-heavy as possible, so we could keep the warmth and the beauty and the love that I experience when I hear great recordings that have been made on tape.”
Just a few of the details of his miking scheme include:
Guitars: “You’ll love this,” McBride says. “On [each of the three guitarists], I used one microphone, an RCA BK5B, on each cabinet running through an RCA BA11A mic pre. That’s a ribbon mic going through the right mic pre with the matched impedance. Never once in the entire process of recording, overdubbing, and mixing did I ever put one touch of EQ or compression on any guitar. The guitars you hear are these guys plugging in and me hitting record. They sound incredible! We just had great players who have great tone, and we stayed out of the way.”
McBride also notes that many of the guitars played on the album came from his studio’s collection, including a 1956 Strat, a ’55 tele, a 1949 Gibson SJ200 acoustic, and a 1937 Martin D28.
Vocal miking: “I had a [Neumann] U47 [mic] on Dave with a V76 mic pre. I also had, at various times, a couple of EMI mastering EQs with a [EMI] Curve Bender, and that always seemed to work well. We also used a Pultec once or twice on Dave’s vocal, just for fun. His voice doesn’t need a lot of EQ by any means. And we were using a really over-the-top amount of compression on Dave’s vocal. I know it won’t say this in any instruction manual, but I ran Dave’s vocal into a [UREI] 1176 then into a Fairchild, then into an [Empirical Labs] Distressor, and then back. It’s a rarity that you would chain together those three compressors, but it worked. And if it’s unnatural, it’s not in a negative way. It’s just in your face.”
Stewart also sang a couple of keeper vocals into a Shure SM7 in the main tracking room with the band: “On the song ‘Beast Called Fame,’ which has a big drum part–I mean loud drums, rockin’ guitars–he liked the vocal he did [in the room],” McBride says. “So I took all the 10k off the vocals, because the cymbals would have killed us all, and it still cut through in a beautiful way.”
McBride also kept a couple of Neumann U47 vocal mics set up for guests, including his wife, Martina, who duets with Stewart on the track “All Messed Up on Love,” and The Secret Sisters, who added their harmonious backing vocals to a couple of tracks.
Other vocal guests include Colbie Caillat on “Bulletproof Vest” and Stevie Nicks on “Cheaper Than Free,” a sweet love song that was co-written long-distance between Stewart in Nashville and Nicks in L.A.
“I’m sitting there in the control room, and Dave and Stevie are on the phone together writing the song,” McBride recalls. “They’re writing the lyrics right there in front of us, and 10 minutes later, we’re recording [the band tracks]. The whole experience of being in Dave’s world was like that. It’s crazy, but it’s crazy in a great way.”
Barbara Schultz / Electronic Musician (p28) / August 2011