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Classic Tracks: k.d. lang’s “Trail of Broken Hearts”

Greg Penny and k.d. lang originally bonded over an Indian lunch. Producer/engineer Penny and his engineering colleague Joe Seta had signed on for some projects with Warner Bros., and the label flew Penny to Calgary, where lang was about to close the Winter Olympics with her version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”

“I flew up to meet her and her collaborator [and co-producer] Ben Mink, and we went to get an Indian meal together,” Penny recalls. “We sat down in an empty restaurant in the middle of the afternoon, and first she asked if I were a vegetarian, and I said, ‘Yes.’

“The next thing she asked was, ‘Are you listening to the music in this restaurant?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, it’s my favorite. I know all about this stuff.’ Ben said, ‘They tune the top two strings of the fiddle; that’s how they get that sound.’ And k.d. said, ‘That’s what I want to sound like. I want to sound like an Indian artist.’

“I said, ‘No problem. We can do that.’ And that’s where ‘Trail of Broken Hearts’ came from, tonally.”

Those bending tones are established right from the brief descending acoustic guitar intro that Mink plays and repeats periodically, and are carried through the song via lang’s brilliant vocals.

“Trail” was one of the first songs recorded for Absolute Torch and Twang; it was purposefully intended to serve as a musical a bridge between the countrypolitan sound of lang’s previous record, the Owen Bradley-produced Shadowlands, and the rich, emotional pop vocals of her Torch follow-up, Ingenue (1992).

“[Before] Torch and Twang, there was this preconceived notion of k.d. as the performance artist, the cowpunk vegetarian girl from Alberta, the reincarnation of Patsy Cline. There were all these different ideas that people were spinning,” Penny says. “And the label wanted to capitalize on it in silly ways. I remember them saying, ‘Do the theme to Petticoat Junction with her.’ But we wanted to create a path for her to be a substantial original artist, so we looked for songs that would give a nod to country, but take it in the direction she wanted.”

lang and her team decided to record just a couple of tracks at first: Willie Nelson’s “Three Days” and the lang/Mink original “Trail of Broken Hearts.” Penny would take the songs straight to the label to make a case for the new sound. “Three Days,” with its more traditional Nashville-ish arrangement—not a huge departure from the sound of Shadowlands—would represent the place that lang was coming from, whereas “Trail of Broken Hearts” would show where she was going.

“So, ‘Trail of Broken Hearts’ and ‘Three Days’ were the first tracks we cut with k.d., probably a year after I met her,” Penny says. “We cut those in Vancouver as a test to see if the label would let us do this album our way.”

“We demoed [“Trail of Broken Hearts”] at Ben’s house in Toronto first, and we all carried the tapes around with us for several months while they finished the tour to support Shadowlands,” Penny says. “Then Ben and I toured studios in Vancouver, looking for a place to track the album. We went to Big Mountain; Bob Rock was in there with Bon Jovi, I think. We went to Mushroom. But the right studio ended up being a new place that a young guy, Bruce Levenn, had put together: Vancouver Studios. It was in an industrial park and had good-sized rooms—sort of removed from the heavy rock scene.”

“The rooms already existed, but Bruce wanted to get the studio on the map, and so equipment-wise, he was willing to gear things to our specifications,” Seta says. “We could say, ‘We’ll go elsewhere when it comes time to mix because we like SSLs,’ and he would say, ‘No problem. I’ll get you one.’”

Levenn did acquire an SSL console; Penny believes it was an E Series board (though the studio later acquired a G Series). They scheduled a tracking session to coincide with a gig that k.d. lang and the Reclines had in Vancouver, so that multi-instrumentalist Mink and all of the other bandmembers could be there: David Piltch on fretless electric bass, Gordie Matthews as well as Mink and lang on acoustic guitar, Michel Pouliot on drums, Michael Creber playing piano, Graham Boyle on percussion, and guest Greg Leisz coming in toward the end to play steel and slide guitars.

Penny talks about developing the arrangement with the band: “We knew that we wanted to have this expansive string arrangement that would sound very much like a classic pop record by Glen Campbell or the Carpenters, but with a little Indian influence. So in the center section, when the pedal steel and acoustic guitars take over, you have this support from the strings; they all work together to create a beautiful center arrangement.

“There’s also a solo section where there’s a beautiful dance between the acoustic guitar, steel guitar and strings. Ben played all the strings, by the way. There were at least 12 string parts to get that thick sound.”

The tracks were laid down to the studio’s Otari MTR-90 analog tape machines. “Every time we had to make another slave, Bruce would just go get us another,” Seta says. “He would either buy whatever we needed, or rent from this great rental company, Reely Unique Studio Rentals. It was owned by an engineer/producer named Greg Reely, who was working with Sarah McLachlan [on the album Touch] at the time.”

Engineer Joe Seta with the Gold record.

“We were always tracking to 24-track tape with Dolby SR,” Penny explains. “We even did ads for Dolby SR at the time because we had an artist who could show off their truly harmonic multiband compression system. It not only got rid of hiss, but it seemed to accentuate harmonics in a lot of the acoustic instruments, like the pianos and the acoustic guitars—just beautiful.”

Basic tracks for “Trail of Broken Hearts” were cut live to a click track, with lang singing a scratch vocal. “There are a lot of stops in that song,” Penny explains. “Even though the band was not used to playing to a click, I believed it would give us the best feel.”

Penny recalls that he and Seta captured piano with a pair of B&K 4011s and acoustic guitars with Neumann KM 84s. Piltch’s Fender bass parts were taken direct in the control room, while the rest of the musicians were out on the floor. “Dave added a lot harmonically with the bass,” Penny says. “He was playing lines around the vocals that are below her vocal register. They’re not interfering with the other frequencies, so he could do some really cool stuff.”

On drums, there was an AKG D112 inside the kick, Neumann KM 84 on hi-hat, a Shure SM57 under the snare, a pair of AKG 414s as overheads, and another 414 over the left shoulder of the drummer:

“That way the mic is removed from the drum but pointing at the head of the snare drum in a hypercardioid pattern,” Penny says. “If you put your ear on a snare drum and hit it, you just hear a large, explosive thud. If you want the snare to have a sound, you need to move back from it and let the waves of sound build up a little bit.”

lang’s vocals were mainly captured with a Sanken C41 microphone. “It could take her dynamics,” Penny explains. “In several instances, she held that big Japanese mic in her hand and walked around the room while she sang. We had to go back and pull down sounds that occurred because a mic cable hit the floor, but it was really cool to hear her rip into it with that mic, because she could really use her mic technique and pull it away from her face.”

“At times, during band tracking, we also did put k.d. in an iso booth that was pretty tiny and very dead, and sometimes the only thing we had left for her to sing on was a 57—in a glorified closet,” Seta says. “But we kept everything because every vocal performance might be the one, or one of the ones. On the final mix of [‘Trail of Broken Hearts’], we had eight different vocals recorded over six months on three different mics. We even used the vocals from one night when k.d. brought some of her friends in, played the backing track and performed for them.

“But no matter what mic she was using, we always used light compression going to tape, and that same light compression coming back from tape—a dbx 160x with a 4 to 1 ratio—with that subtle restraint and harmonic tonal play that it gives.”

Also integral to the overall sound of “Trail of Broken Hearts” were the mic pre’s in the SSL console. “We also acquired in the middle of that record an SSL Logic Effects 2-channel mic pre/EQ unit,” Penny recalls. “So [later overdubs] would either have been through the console or the mic pre in that single-rackspace, 2-channel unit, and then into one of my dbx 160x compressors, and then straight to tape. We might EQ a little bit on the way in, but we tried to record relatively flat.

“We tried hard to get the vocals right from the get-go, though, so we very seldom had to do much in the mix,” he adds. “It was just finding a place for the vocals to sit and then pull the band in around her. We would never build a k.d. lang album up from the drums and set her like a cherry on top of it. This is k.d. lang, so vocals are the priority.”

Armed with rough mixes of “Three Days” and “Trail of Broken Hearts,” Penny traveled to L.A. to meet with the label. “We played it for Lenny Waronker, and he and Mo Ostin had a common door between their offices,” Penny says. “Mo walked in and said, ‘What is that?’ I said, ‘That’s k.d.’s new album.’ He said, ‘That is unbelievable.’ And Lenny said, ‘Go do your thing. Don’t look back.’”

Absolute Torch and Twang went to Number 12 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart, and earned lang a Grammy for Best Female Country Vocal Performance. Many albums later, k.d. lang will be on tour this summer to promote her project with Neko Case and Laura Veirs (see page 13).

Engineer Joe Seta, whose credits also include Rickie Lee Jones, Dwight Yoakam and others, now serves as the Visitor Service Marketing Manager for North Coast Brewing Company’s (Fort Bragg, Calif.) Jazz at the Sequoia Room Club concert series. He’s proud to work for a business that donates some of its brewery profits to the Thelonious Monk Institute.

Penny is still engineering, including ongoing archival/restoration work for longtime client Elton John. He was recently asked by k.d. lang to remaster Absolute Torch and Twang for a 180-gram vinyl reissue.