Alanis MorissetteLyrical Mistress Adds Another Recording to Her Time Capsule 4/01/2004 7:00 AM Eastern
“I can be an asshole of the grandest kind,” AlanisMorissette sings as she walks across a cavernous green-screensoundstage at Hollywood's historic Raleigh Studios, filming her latestmusic video for “Everything.” This is hardly the sentimentone expects from the diminutive, yet powerfully voiced singer —especially not as a song to launch her new release with. YetMorissette's latest album, So-Called Chaos (Maverick), is filledwith such characteristically frank and introspective lyrics; her legionof fans would expect nothing less of her. Bringing the songs to lifeturned out to be a complex and time-consuming task that took up nearlyhalf of 2003.
In late spring of last year, the singer contacted former Ringo Starrengineer Scott Gordon, with whom she had recorded “Still,”her contribution to the 1999 Dogma film soundtrack. “Sheasked me to put together some drum loops,” a frequent writingtool used by the singer, Gordon tells Mix. Working at Gordon'sAtlanta Studios in Los Angeles, the engineer worked with Morissette'sdrummer, Blair Sinta, to compile a large library of loops. “Beingher drummer, he knows the kind of vibe she likes and what turns heron,” says Gordon.
Sinta typically would play for 15 minutes at a time, with Gordontracking the simple recordings (generally two mics: a kick and anoverhead or two) on his Pro Tools rig, where he would edit the rhythmsinto loops. “We'd take that, and we'd process it with cheapdistortion pedals, filters, delays and phasers — whatever wecould think of to take the sound and f*** it up.” After about 10days' work, the two had compiled more than 300 loops, an ampleselection for Morissette to choose from.
Once completed, Gordon, Morissette and Tim Thorney, her longtimecollaborator, assembled in Jackson Browne's quiet, out-of-the-wayGroove Masters Studio in Santa Monica, Calif., to begin thesong-writing process. “It was all about finding a studio that wasenough off the radar, where there weren't tons of people walking aroundor peeking their head in,” Morissette says. “For me to feelreally safe and inspired, I want it to be very contained.”Morissette and company were also impressed with the technical prowessof studio manager Ed Wong and his team and with the large collection ofvintage gear. “Tim and Scott were just drooling over itall!” she says with a laugh.
Morissette used the venue to churn out a dozen powerful, yetpersonal, new songs, using the drum loops as inspiration.“Sometimes, I'll write a song just out of thin air, and thenother times, loops pull something out of me,” she says. Gordonwould play her a number of loops until one stirred her into action.Once selected, Gordon set up the loop in Pro Tools to play repeatedlyfor an hour or so, while Morissette sat at a keyboard (or a guitar) inthe live room, playing (while Gordon recorded on Pro Tools) until anelement of her song emerged. “At a certain point, she'd say,‘Okay, I think I have a verse,’ and she'd play and sing theverse,” explains Gordon. The process continued until verses,choruses and bridges were written, along with some lyrics. “Shewould then tell me, ‘Okay, this is the order that I want —this is the song structure.’ I then took the chunks of recordingthat she indicated and assembled, essentially, a road map of the songin the order she laid out.”
“If a song took longer than 30 minutes to write, then I wouldjust stop writing it, 'cause, to me, that meant that it didn't want tobe written,” Morissette says. “I was ruthless this time.Rather than writing 25 songs and picking from them, I wrote 12 andpicked from them.” Even then, just 10 songs made the album, whiletwo others, “Wounded Leading Wounded” and “Finally,Acknowledgement,” were left behind.
The writing process took place not only at Groove Masters, but attwo other venues — West L.A.'s Village Recorder and Hollywood'sSage and Sound — all during a period from April to October 2003.Throughout the process, Morissette began tracking the recordings tocreate what ended up as demos from which to launch a second phase ofrecording. The artist worked with members of her touring band andothers, including guitarists David Levita, Jason Orm and Joel Shearer,drummer Sinta, bassists Eric Avery and Paul Bushnell, and keyboardistsZac Rae and Jamie Muhoberac.
Surprisingly, Morissette also recorded her lead vocals early on inthe process. “After we were done assembling the basicarrangement, she'd go out and sing,” Gordon explains. “Thismight be anywhere from 45 minutes to two hours after she picked thedrum loop.” “I'd say a good 60 percent of the vocals arethose initial vocals,” Morissette adds. Gordon recorded thosevocals using an AKG C 12, Morissette's mic of choice, with a string ofcompression tools, which he brought with him from studio to studio.“She likes a lot of compression,” he says. “I'd runit through a Neve 1073 preamp, through an ADL compressor and a BSSDPR-404. She also likes to hear compression on playback, which I'd dousing compression plug-ins within Pro Tools.”
By fall, the process was considered complete, and Gordon preparedmixes for the 10 songs. It was then that Maverick Records executivesGuy Oseary and Danny Strick suggested that Morissette allow producerJohn Shanks to try his hand on a few of the recordings. “It'svery atypical of me to open up to the vulnerability of the songs whenthey're in this ‘being made’ mode, let alone open it tosomeone else's interpretation,” Morissette comments. “But Ireally did get to the point where I didn't want to overfunction as aproducer or as a human being.” Though she was unfamiliar withShanks' work, she took the suggestion and liked the results.“What John did was so intuitive and so aligned with where I wascoming from, it was great,” she says. Notes Shanks, “My jobas a producer is, a lot of times, like a blind date. You come in andyou're trying to gain someone's trust.”
Starting in late September, Shanks, working at his permanent base inStudio C at Henson Studios in Hollywood, spent a total of five to sixweeks (spread over a nine-week period) building the tracks in hiscustomary fashion. Shanks initially worked on four songs (“EightyEasy Steps,” “Out Is Through,”“Everything” and “Not All Me”), restructuringthe recordings, adding programming elements and recording additionalparts. “I took the hard drive and just started going throughit,” he says. Morissette, at the time, was in South America, andwhen she returned, she was so pleased with the results that she askedShanks to continue bringing the rest of the songs to the next level.“He's just really great at cleaning everything up and presentingit,” she says. “It's like taking a little girl and puttingher in some pretty fantastic Sunday clothes when she showed up insweatpants!”
Shanks' lair at Henson, where he's been settled for the pasttwo-and-a-half years, is loaded with vintage gear — everythingfrom amps to guitars to processors — which he happily shows offlike a man in his garage proudly displaying his coolest tools. His ampcollection includes matching gray-top '63 Vox AC-30s (used to a greatdegree on this album), Divided By 13s, Marshall cabinets with a varietyof speaker combinations and others. Inside the control room are stacksof more amp heads: a Diezel VH4, a '68 Marshall 50W Plexi, an earlyMatchless Clubman and a solid-state amp designed by Dweezil Zappa,which looks like the dashboard of an Aston Martin. “That's veryDweezil,” Shanks says.
Prized, though, is a board-mounted collection of pedals, 20 in all,located in the control room, which Shanks thoughtfully uses as part ofhis chain to craft his guitar sounds (nearly all of which are played bythe producer on the record). “The great thing is, since it's myroom, everything's always set up. We can always switch veryquickly.” The guitar chain feeds signals first to the pedalboard, which, for some units last in the chain, produces a stereooutput. That output is then often fed to a pair of amps, which aremiked before going to the preamps. The system allows an incredibleamount of control and an incredible amount of choice. “We caneasily switch amps, switch effects, switch guitars because everything'salready set up. You don't have to go out and stop the session and gomike something,” he says.
For Morissette's album, besides adding layers of guitar (andsometimes bass) himself and new programming, Shanks brought in drummerKenny Aronoff, and called on bassist Bushnell and keyboardistMuhoberac. The final result, drum-wise, is a skillful combination ofdrum loop programming and live drumming. “It's a blend, andKenny's great at that. He really can mix well with loops.”
The final backing track, on many cuts, is a combination of itemsfrom Gordon's initial sessions with Shanks' new recordings. “Insome cases, it's almost a re-recording, but in others, it's really amorph between the two,” Shanks says. “There are aspects ofthe recordings with her band that I really liked. If there's a greatguitar part that's key to the song, I'm not going to change it. Thatwould be ridiculous.”
Besides instrumentation, Shanks did re-record some new vocal lineswith Morissette, including harmonies, something at which she excels.“Some restructuring and rearranging of songs and changing chordsand dynamics required it. And she was a champ,” Shanks says. Thevocal mic was an AKG C 12, run through a similar chain as before,through a Neve preamp, Pultec and LA-2A.
Once the recording was completed, Shanks brought the four tracks tofrequent collaborator Chris Lord-Alge at Image Recording, just twoblocks from Henson, to try his hand at mixing. Explains Shanks,“I was doing some rough mixes for her and she liked them. And Isaid, ‘Well, if you love mine, I think you should have Chris mixsome of these songs.’ Once those first few were done, it all fittogether and clicked.” Lord-Alge completed mixes for theremainder of the disc.
Like Shanks, Lord-Alge keeps a battery of vintage analog gear ready.“We're mixing rock 'n' roll music, and that's what it reallyboils down to,” he says. “We use Pultec EQP-1S3s, NeveModel 2264X compressors, old UREI 1176s. And I have an SSL G Plusconsole. That's my little combination that I feel is the best. And wemix to half-inch.” Typically, he preps recording for mixing bytransferring the Pro Tools recordings to a Sony 3348 48-track,carefully reducing some tracks in preparation for the final mix.“It's all about compiling vocals from Pro Tools and moving thelevels around as they go to tape, before we even move a fader. It givesus that flexibility to be able to get her that in-your-face-clear andintelligible. 'Cause with Alanis, her lyrics are everything.”
“He's very intuitive, and it's a very artistic process, hisway of mixing,” says Morissette of Lord-Alge. “He very muchgoes with his gut, as opposed to some people who very much stay intheir head.”
The finished album, says Shanks, is “lean and mean. I likethat it's 10 songs — just 40 minutes. It's like those albums weall grew up with, where you finish the record and you want to hear itagain.” Each of the songs, he notes, are like mini-movies.“It really is a time capsule that's this year in herlife.”