Photo: Lani Lee
There have never been so many ways to have a hit. Take Christina Perri’s surprise 2010 smash “Jar of Hearts.” On June 29, 2010, Perri was an unknown 24-year-old singer and songwriter living in Los Angeles. Originally from the Philadelphia area, she’d knocked around L.A. for a couple of years looking for a break, moved back to Philly near the end of 2009, wrote the emotional “Jar of Hearts” during her time there and then returned to L.A., where she worked as a waitress by day and did some recording.
A friend of hers passed a tape of “Jar of Hearts” to the choreographer for So You Think You Can Dance, and on June 30, 2010, the song aired as accompaniment to a pair’s dance routine. Within days, the song had sold nearly 50,000 digital copies, jumped onto the Billboard charts and developed a momentum of its own. Sales of the song doubled in a month, Perri appeared on national TV singing her song and by the end of July had inked a deal with Atlantic Records. The single went on to make it into the Top 20 in the U.S. and was a hit in several other countries, and that fall she put out an EP called The Ocean Way Sessions, recorded live at the iconic L.A. studio.
When it came time to record her first full album, lovestrong, in the winter of this year, she teamed up with producer/engineer Joe Chiccarelli and went into one of his favorite haunts, Sunset Sound in L.A., along with her band, and knocked out the record in a little more than a month. “Both the ‘Jar of Hearts’ recording and the EP were both so raw and done so organically—quick and real and heartfelt,” Perri says from New York, on the day she was to appear on Late Show With David Letterman. “The feeling I got from making both of those made me know I wanted the same for lovestrong.”
Chiccarelli adds, “When she finally had all the material for the album and they were ready to go, her management company called and said they wanted to do something that was pretty straight-ahead and band-like. She sent me over a few new tunes and I agreed to meet with her. The only thing she was pretty certain about was she loved her band and they had a sound and they understood her and she really wanted them to be involved. When I started working with them, they had only been together a couple of months and played a couple of shows. But they seemed to be on the same page from the start, so I didn’t have any qualms about working with them.”
The core band on the album included guitarist and multi-instrumentalist John Anderson, bassist Jenni Tarma (formerly of Kylie Minogue’s band) and drummer Elmo Lovano. Perri plays guitar and piano, and a number of other fine players contributed to the disc. Four of the songs on the album were written by Perri; she collaborated on the rest with David Hodges (of Evanescence fame), “Jar of Hearts” co-writers Drew Lawrence and Barrett Yeretsian (who produced the two songs they were involved with, including the album version of “Jar”), Greg Kurstin and John Anderson.
Once ensconced alongside fellow engineer Graham Hope in Sunset Sound—which Chiccarelli loves for its “fat-sounding, custom-built Jensen API console, incredible mics and rooms that still sound awesome”—tracking was done mostly live. “With the exception of ‘Arms,’ everything was done starting out as performance-based,” he says. “Once a tempo is established, I’ll have the singer record a vocal take with the band and we’ll overdub to that vocal take so you always have a guide vocal that is an honest, heartfelt performance.” On lovestrong, all the lead vocals, except for “Sad Song” and a couple of unreleased tunes, were overdubbed later.
“I used a couple of different microphones,” Chiccarelli says. “I figured she’d sound great on a Telefunken 251, but she really didn’t because she’s got such a gutsy voice and it doesn’t necessarily want all that hi-fi ‘air’ that you sometimes like to put on female vocals. It’s the grit and the soul that’s more important, so a tube [Neumann] 67 was on about half the vocals, and then I also used a new mic by JZ Microphones—their V67 is like a solid-state copy of a 67—and it really sounded good on her. It sounded like a bit more open version of a 67, and being a more modern mic, it had a bit more headroom and it didn’t break up in the way a 67 does. On the really intimate songs, [the Neumann] was a little too much—a little too dirty—and that JZ mic being nice and sweet and open worked out really great.” Chiccarelli also employed some of the proprietary DeMedio preamps in Sunset’s old refurbished custom boards on Perri’s vocals, as well as an occasional Neve 1073, a Pultec and a Retro 176. He used a Purple Audio MC76 comp for some of the background vocals.
“The last couple of weeks recording we had two rooms going on, where she would come in Studio 1 with me and do lead vocals and then, when we were done, she’d go over to Studio 3 with Graham and do background vocal overdubs while I was doing keyboards or guitar overdubs in Studio 1 with somebody else. So it was kind of trying for her at times to all of a sudden sit with me for a few hours and do a lead vocal where she had to pour her guts out, and then walk in the other room, switch to the other side of her brain and think about stacking up harmony vocals.”
The album was mixed by Michael Brauer on the SSL 9000J in his new room at Electric Lady Studios in New York. “He has good taste and great ears,” Chiccarelli comments. “I sent him rough mixes of everything and he’s super-respectful of that. He’s very musical and very good at understanding what you’re trying to go for.” Perri was deeply involved in the process, following the mixes remotely in real time through a combination of Nicecast and Skype.
“She is strong and vocal and not afraid to voice an opinion or stand up for what she believes in,” Chiccarelli says. “I love working with artists like that. You can be up front and truthful and have an honest discussion about anything, big picture or small picture.”