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Joss Stone, Dave Stewart Get Loose at Blackbird


Photo: Kristin Burns

At the ripe old age of 24, Joss Stone is already a wily record industry veteran. The gritty and passionate British singer made her initial splash in her mid-teens with the trans-Atlantic hit album The Soul Sessions, which played beautifully into England’s long love affair with American R&B, and in retrospect helped pave the way for later UK “blue-eyed soul” sensations such as Amy Winehouse and Adele. More chart successes followed in Britain and America. She’s been nominated for numerous Grammy Awards and always seems to be available for high-profile benefit concerts when they crop up, from Band Aid to Live 8 to Live Earth, and many more. She’s nearly as famous for her collaborations as her own records, having worked with everyone from Melissa Etheridge (a heart-stopping duet on two Janis Joplin tunes at the Grammys) to Herbie Hancock, Patti LaBelle, Stevie Wonder, Common, Jeff Beck and countless others. What could be considered her ultimate collaboration—the group SuperHeavy, featuring Stone, Mick Jagger, Dave Stewart, Damian Marley and A.R. Rahman—is hitting the stores this month.

Stone’s also been in the biz long enough to have had a dispute with her last record label, EMI, over a variety of issues. After much legal wrangling, she managed to free herself (though EMI will be releasing Super Duper Hits: The Best of Joss Stone in late September), and, feeling newly liberated, has taken a slight left turn on her latest album, LP1 (on her own Stone’d label), which was co-produced by the singer and longtime friend and musical associate Dave Stewart, and recorded in Nashville at Blackbird Studios in less than a week using local players. No, she hasn’t gone country—the album is still brimming with characteristically soulful performances (maybe more Memphis, in some cases, than past records). But the change in scenery and musicians and the relaxed way the album was cut resulted in a record that feels as if it may be her most intimate to date.

The story of LP1 actually begins several months before Stone showed up at Blackbird—with the recording of Dave Stewart’s latest album, The Blackbird Diaries. In June 2010, Stewart flew to Nashville to meet with Blackbird owner/engineer John McBride and his superstar wife, Martina, about a proposed television show called Malibu Country. They met at the studio, went out for dinner and drinks, “and then we went back to the studio and listened to some music in a couple of rooms, and Dave got to experience a little of the Blackbird thing,” John McBride says. “He had already arranged the following day to have a writing session [at Blackbird] with Martina, Hillary Lindsey, who’s an extremely successful songwriter in Nashville, and a guy named Gordie Sampson. So the four of them got together and started a couple of songs. Dave flew out the day after that, and then I get an email from him that said, ‘John, I want to make my first solo album in 13, 14 years. Please put a band together for me. I want you to engineer it. I want to call it The Blackbird Sessions and here’s the album cover.’”

Stewart told McBride to “think along the lines of Neil Young’s Harvest” in forming the band, so he started by calling one of Young’s favorite drummers, Chad Cromwell, and then built the group around that anchor, and included such Nashville stalwarts as bassist Michael Rhodes, A-list guitarist Tom Bukovac (“because he’s a little left-of-center and incredibly tasty,” McBride says), Mike Rojas on keyboards and versatile guitarist/steel master Dan Dugmore, “who can play anything and is the sweetest and coolest guy on Planet Earth.”

Dave Stewart (foreground) with John McBride

In July, Stewart flew back to Nashville, and with McBride engineering in Studio D (a great API console–equipped rock room, where Grammy-winning albums from Kings of Leon and The Raconteurs have been cut) made Stewart’s entire album in just six days, employing scads of vintage gear. The regimen was that Stewart would write in the morning and then teach the band the songs. Around 1 or 2 p.m., they’d run it down once or twice and then record it live, usually getting a usable take in just a couple of tries. It was love at first twang!

“Then about 7:30 or 8, it was Martini Time, and it was hard to get too much done once Martini Time kicked in,” McBride says with a laugh. “But we’d do overdubs at night usually—background singers, whatever. In five days we tracked 16 songs and overdubbed most of them. A little later we got back together for five more days and we did more overdubs, mixed [on the vintage Neve in Blackbird A] and mastered this whole record. So in 10 days, essentially, we had a record. I’m not accustomed to working that way, and I loved it! It was intense but fun.”

Not long after that, McBride relates, “I get a phone call, and Dave says, ‘Hey, let’s put the band together and do a Joss Stone record!’ So we ended up doing the same thing with Joss Stone, though I didn’t mix that one. But again, the tracking was about six days; same guys, same kind of schedule—including Martini Time!

“After Dave’s sessions, these players were walking on air. They had such a joyful time making that music and just playing like a band. It got them out of the Nashville grind. So when I called about Joss, they were in immediately.”

“It seemed like an obvious thing to do,” Stewart says from his L.A. office. “In jamming with the guys, I knew they could play anything, and in fact they loved Stax and Motown. Michael Rhodes, the bass player, is incredible! But they all are. I knew that Joss had been feeling a lot of pressure in that pop-soul area, and it got to a point where she was getting frustrated. I knew she would have such a good time [at Blackbird] and would really enjoy the process and being surrounded by great players. When people have a great time in a recording environment, usually something sparkly happens. Then there’s also the fact that we get on so well, just as mates. We have a very similar attitude.”

Stewart and Stone have been friends for years and worked together many times. “When she was 16, I asked her if she would come and sing the track ‘Alfie’ at Abbey Road,” Stewart remembers. “Then I got her to sing a duet with Mick for that soundtrack [Alfie], and we became friends and we’d knock about. We’ve been making up songs and just hanging out—she’d come round my house and we’d enjoy ourselves. We’ve also performed together at various things. Then I asked her to be part of SuperHeavy, which has been going on for a couple of years, jamming and such. So we’re very comfortable together.”

Three of the songs Stone and Stewart co-wrote for LP1—including one they came up with during the SuperHeavy sessions at Henson Studios in L.A. earlier called “Newborn”—predate the Blackbird visit, while others were tinkered with and completed in Nashville, taught to the band and then tracked in the same manner as on Stewart’s album. Though Stone would always sing with the band, most of the keeper vocals were done later.

For Stone’s vocals, McBride says, “I had three mics set up; a [Neumann] U47 ended up being the mainstay. We have a particular U47 that George Massenburg says is the finest example of a U47 he’s ever heard. That one never leaves the studio, and was the same one I used on Dave’s vocal whenever he’d overdub vocals on the earlier project.

“Then I also used a RFT 7151 bottle mic—they were made between 1939 and 1943 and I have about 40 of them now,” he continues. “It’s a U47-style microphone, same capsule, but it has an extra gain stage. It has such a hot output you don’t need a mic pre. I’m running that right into a mono Fairchild and maybe an EQ. I might add a touch of air, maybe 15k at the top end of it. Then the third was a Telefunken MIR 251.

“Joss sounded great on all those microphones. She’s old school. She doesn’t sit there and comp together a vocal. She’s not splitting syllables and lines or whatever. She sings the whole song, and says, ‘That was it,’ or it wasn’t. She’s so good. She’d go into some stuff that was incredible, then do the next take a little different and that was incredible. Then another. But it didn’t require much.”

“Because the band was so great,” Stewart adds, “we had this foundation that was so solid that Joss was confident she could really let rip. And instead of people going, ‘Hang on, that won’t get on the pop radio’ or something, everyone was just encouraging her to go for it. So she did. I think she felt she was in a really safe environment with these musicians all playing live in the room. She loved the sound that John had in her headphones—she could hear herself crystal clear and see the people playing when she was singing. That was exciting for her.”

For guitars, McBride used the same approach he had on Stewart’s album—a single vintage RCA BK5B ribbon mic on each amp through an RCA BA11A pre. Because of the project’s slightly retro sound, McBride originally thought he might do a simple three-mic approach to capture Cromwell’s drum kit, “But because I wasn’t going to be mixing it [it was mixed in New York by Steve Greenwell], I didn’t want to tie him down with a more minimal mixing approach.” In the end, McBride settled on Neumann tube 67s on the toms; an RCA 44 along with either a Sennheiser 421 or a FET 47 on the kick; two Shure SM57s on the top of the snare and an AKG C12 on the bottom; C12s on the hats and overheads; and Neumann M50s as room mics.

“John’s such a great engineer, so conscientious,” Stewart comments. “The studio’s got all those amazing vintage amps and microphones and limiters, and the guys who are playing bring in their favorite guitars and amps and things, so basically, as producer, I’m not worried about any of that. I’m just worried about capturing the essence of the song and the atmosphere and making sure the song is a great song, as are the performances. I know the rest of it is being taken care of brilliantly.”

As he had on his own Blackbird sessions, Stewart had the Stone sessions videotaped from top to bottom for a future documentary. So the whole process—from Stewart and Stone running down tunes to the band with just acoustic guitar and voice, to the live band tracking, to Stone and Stewart’s Martini Time vocals on “Picnic for Two” (“We were so drunk we could barely do a take for laughing,” Stewart says)—was captured for posterity.

“The whole session everyone was having a good time,” Stewart notes. “In fact, I’m having a little problem editing the documentary together because you don’t have that trauma or tension where something goes horribly wrong! People won’t believe that all the time we were having a great time, but that’s the way it was. Actually, now that I think about it, it’s good for people to see that, too.”

Since the Joss Stone record was completed, Stewart returned to Blackbird for a third round of sessions the first week of August. This time, he and the band tracked a dozen new tunes—“It goes off a bit psychedelic sometimes, some of it’s really rockin’, and it has a some delicate moments, as well,” Stewart says. “It sounds like a natural progression.”

“He’s unbelievable,” McBride says of Stewart. “He’s probably the most creative person I’ve ever met. He gets stuff done and it’s all good work. And Joss, she’s just so wonderful; a ray of light. You meet her and she makes you feel so comfortable and so relaxed and at ease. It’s so great when you can have that type of vibe at a session, yet the quality standards remain extremely high. Just because everyone’s nice doesn’t mean you can get away with anything,” he chuckles.

Video of Joss Stone in the Studio