From left: Steve Lillywhite, Zooey Deschanel, M. Ward, Avatar Studios studio manager Tino Passante, Avatar Studios president Kirk Imamura and Foye Johnson in Avatar’s Studio B
Have you ever wondered how Grammy Award-winning producer Steve Lillywhite (U2, Dave Matthews Band, Peter Gabriel) approaches a recording session? And what would happen if you paired Lillywhite with newly established artists whom he’s never met?
Find out on June 11, when the NPR-syndicated World Café program debuts Lillywhite Sessions at Avatar Studios, offering a rare glimpse into Lillywhite’s expert session work. What’s more, following in-studio performances and artist interviews, World Café host David Dye will interview Lillywhite about each session, as well as about Lillywhite’s career experiences and insights as a producer.
“I’m going to be talking about a few albums I’ve produced,” Lillywhite says by phone. “But I don’t really ever listen to any records I’ve done, so it’s a bit weird. When you listen back to something you did 20 years ago, it’s certainly quite different. That’s going to be fun, as well.”
World Café is produced by WXPN-FM in Philadelphia, the University of Pennsylvania’s public radio station. The program’s producers will select and schedule the guest artists, who will work with Lillywhite for the first time in re-recording a few of their recently released songs for the hour-long broadcast. The Lillywhite Sessions at Avatar Studios premiere on June 11 features Lillywhite producing up-and-coming indie/country/pop duo She & Him (Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward), who released their debut album, Volume One, on Merge Records earlier this year.
According to both Lillywhite and Avatar Studios president Kirk Imamura, WXPN had been searching for a venue in New York City where it could record artists who happened to be in town for World Café appearances. “Steve does a lot of work at Avatar,” says Imamura. “A mutual acquaintance, Foye Johnson, suggested, ‘Well, why not use Avatar? It’s a great recording venue, and Steve’s here—most of the time, anyway [laughs]—and we’ll tie up with XPN and record the artists here.'”
“The catalyst was a friend of mine at WXPN,” says Lillywhite. “They were saying, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to do something in New York?’ And my friend said, ‘Well, maybe we should ask Steve.’ I went up to XPN. We had lunch, and the great thing is, half of lunch was spent doing favorite lists—you know, ‘What’s your favorite song by so-and-so?’ And these people are so knowledgeable about music, it’s breathtaking, because they listen to music all day—and different music! I listen to the same bloody song all day, whereas they [laughs] listen to all these finished records. And their knowledge of what’s around is fantastic.
“I like what they do at that radio station,” Lillywhite continues. “It’s completely eclectic. NPR is a good thing because it can be art-based maybe more than some of the commercial stations. And I’ve always been a great believer in arts, and art mixed with commerce is perfect.”
Lillywhite adds that the series’ title purposely harkens back to one of Lillywhite’s more well-known projects: “I made an album with the Dave Matthews Band back in the day that was never released. And then it was released to Napster and was called The Lillywhite Sessions, and I thought, ‘Why not own that brand?’ This record was released for which I didn’t get paid anything, but millions of people have it. Maybe I should own that name because it is my name, and this record was named after me.”
Lillywhite says that each session will last approximately three hours. “It’s so quick,” he says. “The artist comes in, we have a chat about how we’re going to set it up. My job is to help facilitate what they want to do. I think it’s a shortened version of what I do [as a producer]. When I produce, I help with an artist’s vision. I’m not a songwriter, but I can help you arrange your songs. I can help you realize how they should sound, both artistically and commercially. [The session format is] almost like [the way] people used to make records, back when there was no time to make records.
“You spend your life making records, where you dot the i’s and cross the t’s a certain way, and I just thought it might be fun to do something that is a lot quicker.”
Imamura and Lillywhite point out that the artists who appear on Lillywhite Sessions at Avatar Studios will most likely be on tour at the time, offering polished, energized performances in the studio. “Most of the time, the timing of this is that the artist has already finished an album and they’re promoting the album,” Imamura says. “They’re in the middle of a tour, so they’re really well-rehearsed. They just nail these performances, and they’re great performances. Sometimes you find that artists have added things, or changed things compared to the original recording, and I think that really adds to the musicianship of the artist.”
Lillywhite concurs: “Getting artists when they’re on the road, their chops are really good. You get a singer who’s actually on the road at the time, and the vocals have been, to my mind, spectacular and better than the singing that they’ve done on their album—which is a little bit controversial, but I think it’s great.”
On June 6, prior to the series’ debut, Lillywhite will discuss the top five most significant songs from his career as part of the show’s weekly Top Five feature.