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Cassandra Wilson

Re-imagined Billie Holiday Tracks Come to Life

In this month’s Music section, we profile the production of Cassandra Wilson’s new collection of Billie Holiday songs, Coming Forth by Day. Album producer/engineer Nick Launay and Wilson re-interpreted some familiar tunes, and one specially written original, bringing together members of Wilson’s touring band with musicians from Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ rhythm section (drummer Thomas Wydler and bass player Martyn Casey); the album offers a new experimental way of hearing Holiday.

As soon as the album was recorded, Launay sent raw mixes to Wilson’s touring band and to front-of-house engineer DonJuan Holder, to give everyone a sense of the direction the new music would take on the road.

“This album is different from a lot of her others,” says Holder, who has been mixing Wilson’s live shows for more than 10 years. “There are more reverb and effects on her voice. A lot of people who come to see Cassandra are used to a more warm, raw sound, with just a little bit of reverb. I could tell I would be playing more with effects to get sounds that are similar to what’s on the album.”

Rehearsals followed, and the band began touring with a setlist focused on the new material, creating early buzz in anticipation of the album’s April 7 release. The sound of the songs in concert is similar to the Coming Forth by Day album, but with adventurous musicians like Wilson and her live band—guitarist Kevin Breit, drummer John Davis, bassist Lonnie Plaxico, pianist Jon Cowherd, brass/woodwinds player Robby Marshall (a new addition who joined Wilson for the album), and violinist Charlie Burnham—the stage is a place for even more experimentation.

Cassandra Wilson and her band at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley, Calif., in March 2015. Photo: Steve Jennings.

“There are so many beautiful loops and amazing guitar parts on the songs [in concert],” Holder says. “Kevin will play something, set it to loop, and play on top of it, and then Charlie will play something on top of that. On some songs there are 14 layers of guitar parts, and the combination of what Kevin and Charlie make together is amazing to me.”

This being what tour manager Sam Walton calls a “boutique tour,” Holder carries a specialized package of equipment from his personal collection. He owns Wilson’s Sennheiser EW300 in-ear monitors, for example. She’s the only one in the band on ears, and her supplemental wedges as well as the rest of the band’s monitors are venue-provided. (Mix caught an early show in March, as part of the Cal Performances series at Zellerbach Hall on the UC Berkeley campus.)

“The Sennheisers are really natural in tone,” Holder says. “I like that they don’t boost too much low end; Cassandra has a deep voice, and when she hits low notes, she doesn’t want rumbling in her ear. I purchased this unit and carry it with me everywhere.

“Sometimes she will take her ears out, or she’ll use just one,” he continues. “She likes to walk around onstage, or she sometimes will leave the stage when a musician is taking a solo because she wants that musician to be highlighted, but she wants to hear everything, wherever she is.”

Holder, whose past and current clients have included a number of other iconic singers (Whitney Houston, Luther Vandross, Patti Austin, more), also owns critical pieces in Wilson’s vocal chain: a Neumann KMS 105 microphone and an Avalon tube mic preamplifer. “The best mic for her to use onstage is a recording mic, because that gives complete, full range,” he says. “It never makes her sound too dark or too thin. Coupled with the Avalon pre, it brings out the warmth and beauty of her voice. I also use that same mic for Vanessa Williams.”

Holder also carries several of his own instrument mics and gear: a pair of AKG C 414 large-diaphragm piano mics and Helpinstill pickups, Shure SM98s for reeds and horns, and a handful of drum mics: Shure SM91 and 98, and D112.

Otherwise, Holder relies on venue-provided equipment. He does a lot of pre-show prep, using a combination of a spectrum analyzer and his own ears to EQ the loudspeaker system. It helps that Holder not only has years of experience mixing Wilson’s shows, but also is a trained singer himself—he sang opera for several years early in his career.

“I know certain notes that she is going to hit, so I will sing those same notes out in the space and see how the room reacts, and then go into the EQ or into a filter and correct things,” he says. “I’ll never sound like Cassandra, obviously, but I do know the notes that she is definitely going to hit, and I will know what to tweak to make sure things sound natural, warm and full.”

Holder is also responsible for preparing monitor settings. In the absence of any monitor engineer on the tour, he may mix the group’s monitors himself in smaller clubs, or will entrust the job to a house engineer on theater dates.

“Don is so good at what he does,” Walton says. “He’s amazing at being flexible and working his magic to make whatever the venue has in-house every night. I’m an engineer as well as a tour manager, and I know how lucky we are to have him on this tour.” 

Front-of-house engineer DonJuan Holder. Photo: Steve Jennings.

Precision Event Management: Transparency Equals Efficiency

Cassandra Wilson’s FOH engineer, DonJuan Holder, says that management of the Coming Forth by Day tour has been “extremely efficient,” and that may be the greatest compliment he could pay to tour manager Sam Walton.

“If we are operating efficiently, that’s because everything is transparent inside our company and to our clients,” says Walton, who co-owns Precision Event Management with business partner Scott Bozack. “That’s one of the major pillars of our business model.”

To illustrate his point, Walton explains that just a few days before he was to go on the road with Wilson last summer, he broke his leg and had to hand his responsibilities to another TM.

“We have a central database, an information management system and internal processes, as well as daily phone meetings between all the TMs who work for us, including Scott and myself,” Walton says. “Things happen, and we never want our client to suffer or sacrifice because something on our end changes. When I broke my leg, I’m proud to say that other than the band getting accustomed to a new TM’s personality, they didn’t notice any touring logistics hiccups. We were able to handle it with no stress or difficulty for the artist.”

Walton was able to rejoin the tour this past February, while Bozack has been serving as FOH and TM for They Might Be Giants (profiled in the January 2015 issue).

“Scott and I have been friends for 20-plus years. We met in college and have been thick as thieves ever since,” Walton says. “We both came to management from being front-of-house engineers.  Over the years, we had a number of clients who kept saying to each of us, ‘Could you handle this? You’re so organized.’ Finally, we said let’s just put a company together.

“Obviously, Cassandra Wilson is what we would refer to in the industry as a blue-chip client,” Walton continues. “We couldn’t ask for a better client, not only because of our business relationship, but also from the standpoint of being an absolute pleasure to work with. Her tour is put together with so much care, and yields really big rewards in terms of creating beautiful work and succeeding financially. The reality is, you can have as much success with a boutique tour as you can off a 200-stop arena tour, if it’s managed correctly. We’ve been able to achieve a beautiful balance of quality and quantity, and it’s such a pleasure to be a part of this show.”