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Joseph Arthur’s ‘Lou’: Artist’s Tribute to Unforgettable Songs

A couple of months after Lou Reed passed away, A&R rep/music producer Bill Bentley suggested that Joseph Arthur record a tribute to their mutual friend.

Photo by Danny Clinch

A couple of months after Lou Reed passed away, A&R rep/music producer Bill Bentley suggested that Joseph Arthur record a tribute to their mutual friend.

“I thought he meant, ‘Pick a Lou song,’ for a compilation with other artists. But he said, ‘No, do a whole album of your interpretations of Lou’s songs.’ The idea came from Bill,” Arthur explains. “I’m pretty sure it would never have occurred to me. I was interested and intrigued and flattered that he thought I could do it. But it seemed like an outlandish idea: Is it even okay to do that?”

Arthur considered the suggestion further while he toured promoting his own album The Ballad of Boogie Christ (2013). “Then I got home from the tour and it was winter, and I was snowed in, in my apartment in New York. At the end of a tour, you’re sort of an emotional wreck. Even if you take care of yourself, it’s draining and you’re a little bit scattered. And then I was snowed in—and I have a recording studio where I live—and I remembered Bill said, ‘When you try to do this, keep it simple.’ That just gave me my way in on it.

“I was by myself,” he continues. “And I just started. The first one I did was ‘Coney Island Baby.’ I put down acoustic guitar and piano and acoustic bass. I didn’t plug anything in. I felt like I’d found an inroad. That simplicity gave the song something that was different from the original, but it was bound to the original and it honored the original.”

Mastering engineer Gavin Lurssen

For six days, when New York City was buried in snow, Arthur says, “I just lived with Lou. I spent all my time recording.” Arthur made Lou—a full album of spare, tender, haunting Reed covers—in less than a week. “People can undervalue something because it was quick, but it just flowed,” Arthur says. “You can’t take those times in the studio for granted, because it doesn’t always happen like that.”

Arthur used acoustic instruments and two microphones—a Coles ribbon and a Wunder CM67. On each song, he first cut his lead vocal and acoustic guitar together, then added piano, then bass, and finally his own backing vocals. “I’d just move the mics around,” Arthur says. “I’d put the Coles on the guitar body and sing into the Wunder. I have a Steinway grand piano from 1912; I’d put one mic on the low end and the other high.”

Arthur tracked to Pro Tools, running the Wunder through his Chandler Abbey Road TG2 mic pre and the Coles through a Summit pre. “No EQ on anything,” he says. “I kept it really simple, and that’s why it worked. It really put the focus on the song in a clear way, and I thought that was a valid thing to do.”

Arthur created his own mixes, and sent the files to Gavin Lurssen in L.A. to be mastered. “Mastering sessions can be like when you turn your term paper in to the teacher. Usually you’re going to get a couple of red marks and maybe even a slap on the wrist,” Arthur says. “I thought for sure it would happen on this, because on some of the rough mixes, I hadn’t even put a master fader on the Pro Tools session. I didn’t know if those mixes might be clipping a little bit. I was nervous.”

“Joseph was very close to this project,” Lurssen says. “I realized he was worried about what sort of comments I’d send back, but I found it to be very special. What he captured with very minimal tools was a very organic and sweet-sounding.”

Lurssen, who always masters in the analog domain, converted the files and brought to the project his usual philosophy of transparency. “There can never be a veil between the listener and the recording,” Lurssen says. “The most successful I can be in my job is to make it sound like I was never there.”

In the case of Lou, the most essential element to emphasize was Arthur’s vocal and what Lurssen calls the artist’s “quiet confidence,” a quality that Reed possessed as well.

“These guys are both storytellers,” Lurssen says. “We needed to make sure the listener focuses on the vocal performances, and the acoustic sounds supporting those vocals. That meant nothing oversaturated, nothing overcooked.

“Once we found a zone, we approached it song-by-song, but we also kept a global vision in mind as we got all the songs onto one canvas,” Lurssen continues. “One of the key elements was a Fairchild 670 that belongs to a rental company called Design FX; they maintain it and it’s completely dialed to integrate with our chain.

“I also used an EAR tube equalizer in combination with a GML 9000. So when I go for the solid-state EQ, I can get a little bit of lift into the music while having the tube saturation from the EAR, in addition to what the Fairchild gives me.

“At the end of the day, what’s important to me is what’s important for Joseph—to maintain best practices that give listeners a beautiful experience.”

“For Gavin to give the album such a good sonic ‘grade,’ for lack of a better term, was inspiring to me,” Arthur says. “It made me realize that when the material is as strong as Lou’s songs are, you can keep it really simple. I think Lou was one of the greatest songwriters that we’ve had. When you keep it really simple, you accentuate that all the more.”