Lucinda Williams with engineer Eric Liljestrand (left) and co-producer Tom Overby at The Village
The seeds of Lucinda Williams' new album, Little Honey, were sown during the sessions for her previous album, West (2006). Partly inspired by her then-new relationship with music-biz veteran Tom Overby — “Everything is before Tom and after Tom,” she said at the time — Williams went on a writing binge, demo'ing up each batch of freshly penned songs at Hollywood's Radio Recorders, singing and playing acoustic live off the floor with her touring band. Then, at Overby's suggestion, Hal Willner was brought in to produce the project. After listening to the demos, Willner decided to keep all of her original vocals. “We were gonna start from scratch again,” he says, “and I went, ‘Damn, why?’”
The tracks were stripped down to their essence and reimagined from the inside out. Engineer/mixer Eric Liljestrand painstakingly performed the countless minute edits needed to achieve aural coherence and flow, after which a crew of A-list players, including drummer Jim Keltner and guitarist Bill Frisell, overdubbed their parts around Williams' vocals. Everything was rolling along until she pulled one of the infamous studio freakouts that have marked her recording career.
“When the record was 80-percent done, there was a big blowup between Lucinda and Hal,” Overby reveals. “Even now, she loves him, but it was just one of those nights where tensions had been building. In some ways, they're a lot alike — they're both pretty obsessive — but we decided at that point that we'd get someone else to finish it.”
After throwing around the names of producers, Williams and Overby realized they needed to complete the record as originally conceived, so they turned to Liljestrand. During those final two weeks, it became obvious to all three that they worked extremely well together, so what had started out as a compromise became a direction. “I was there every night for West,” says Overby, “and I saw the pitfalls — the places not to go. That helped form what to do on the next record.”
Not only that, but Williams already had the core group of songs for what would become Little Honey — six from the Radio Recorders sessions, including “Real Love,” which turned out to be the new album's opening track and no-brainer first single (Willner had rejected it as too pop-y), plus the newly written “Tears of Joy” and “Little Rock Star.” “I was already thinking the next record needed to be more upbeat because West was so dark,” says Overby, “and we had a nice group of songs that fit together really well.” When Overby sequenced West, he decided to close the album with the title song. “It points toward the next record,” he says, “with the line, ‘Who knows what the future holds?’”
“I chose Tom to produce this album, along with Eric,” Williams explains during the final stages of the new album's creation. “After the recording of West, it became apparent to the three of us that when we returned to the studio to record this new album, we wouldn't need to hire an outside producer. Between Eric, Tom and myself, we have it down. By the time we'd completed the tracks for West, there was no doubt in my mind that I would never work with anyone other than Eric Liljestrand — he's just the right guy for me. There are other great engineers out there, but finding someone who understands your needs; knows how to get the right sound for your own voice; knows which particular vocal mic to use; has an extensive knowledge of the history of blues, soul, R&B and country; is fun to work with; has a great sense of humor; never complains about working long hours — what else can I say? Wherever Eric is working, that's where I'll be — kinda like biscuits and gravy!”
Did I mention that Williams is unusually happy these days?
Whereas West had been about assembly, Little Honey would focus on performances, so it was natural to use Williams' current road band — guitarists Doug Pettibone and Chet Lyster, bassist David Sutton and drummer Butch Norton. “We were out on the road for nine months last year playing most of these songs,” she points out.
For the sessions, they returned to the Village Recorder in West L.A., setting up shop in Studio D where most of the sessions for West had taken place. Along with a sizable tracking room, ideal for live-off-the-floor recording, D boasts a Neve 88R console. Liljestrand never goes into a studio without his trusty Genelec 1032 near-field monitors, but that was unnecessary this time because there was already a pair sitting above the board. The mains in D are big, honking Augspurgers.
Coincidentally, Willner was nearby in Studio B working on the follow-up to Marianne Faithfull's Strange Weather and on his sea chanteys project, and reportedly sent good vibes in the direction of the inhabitants of D.
The other West alum was second engineer Vanessa Parr, who “has become almost like a younger sister to me,” Williams notes. “Every so often I will arrive at the studio and surprise her with an armful of rock 'n' roll T-shirts that I've outgrown. All in all, we have a very special team.”
This is a tight posse indeed, consistent with the community vibe at this West L.A. landmark, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary and enjoying a renaissance under the leadership of Jeff Greenberg. Williams has some love to throw in his direction, as well: “Jeff is a real, true music guy,” she enthuses. “He speaks from his heart, and he's in this business for all the right reasons. He's become a part of my extended family and has treated me with the utmost hospitality and respect. I'll never forget the time he brought in sprinkles cupcakes and presented me with a big bouquet of flowers on Valentine's Day last year.”
“The album was tracked predominantly live off the floor with just Lucinda and her road band,” Liljestrand explains. “Two guitars, bass and drums, with Lu singing and sometimes playing guitar. I love it when she plays while she sings; it's like one thing — a package — and it comes out great.
“I'd start out in the afternoon with the band, getting sounds, trying different guitars, amps, snare drums, cymbals. We had so much stuff out there — I counted 58 guitars one day, and when Doug walked in with a bunch more I stopped counting. And then Chet's guitars and mine, my amps, Doug's amps, all the drum stuff. We had two kits set up: the main kit and a cocktail kit. So we'd just bang around for a couple hours, not work on it, really.
“Early in the evening, Lu and Tom would come in and fart around for half-an-hour, and then bang-bang-bang-bang-bang. Most of them are no more than six takes, and in most cases, pretty reliably, take four or take five was the keeper, always going for her vocal first. A lot of them are complete takes; some had an insert from another take, no more than an edit or two. And most of the vocals are not comped at all.
“Lu has an incredible voice,” he continues. “It looked like a press conference in there — I'd start out with four mics on her and whittle it down to one. I have a Brauner Valvet, and that has been her main vocal mic since West. But I also put up two [Neumann] 47s and an [AKG] C-12. The Brauner won out on a few songs, but on most of them the 47 worked best this time — a 47 into a [Neve] 1081 with an LA-2A. I had the Brauner going through a [Focusrite] Red 7 [preamp], which was really like a finished vocal combo — gets you all the way there.”
Those mics captured some of Williams' most compelling performances ever, including the epic, nearly nine-minute ballad “Rarity.” “She got that one in one take,” Overby recalls. “At the end of it, she was in the booth and she started to cry. She said — and this is from a big perfectionist — ‘I can't do any better than that.’” Another jaw-dropper is the album closer “Plan to Marry,” a powerful affirmation of the redemptive power of a lasting relationship during a time “When leaders can't be trusted/Our heroes have let us down/And innocence lies rusted/And frozen beneath the ground.” She laid down the stark vocal-and-acoustic performance for the band to work from — “but when we listened back to it,” says Overby, “everyone said, ‘Let's not touch this.’”
The album also boasts inspired performances from several handpicked guest vocalists: Elvis Costello gets right in character as a hopeless loser on the delightfully acerbic “Jailhouse Tears”; and the great Charlie Louvin enhances the down-home authenticity of “Well Well Well,” as does Jim Lauderdale, who also lends his voice to the soulful chorale of “Jailhouse Tears”; while Matthew Sweet and Susannah Hoffs appear on three of the album's linchpin songs: “Real Love,” “Little Rock Star” and “Rarity.”
“We were listening back to ‘Real Love,’ and I thought of Matthew,” says Liljestrand. “I've always loved his thing with steely harmonies over rough, rocking tracks. Both Tom and Lu were kind of noncommittal at first. The next day, though, Tom came in very excited by the idea — he'd gone home and listened to [Sweet's classic album] Girlfriend, I think. A day or two later, they had listened to the ‘Sid & Sue’ record [Sweet and Hoffs' Under the Covers Vol. 1] on the way in, and Lucinda was very excited about Matthew and asked if I thought we should call Sue, as well. I said, ‘Yeah, why not?’ Then Jeff contacted you.”
At Greenberg's request, I called Sweet. We've been friends since 1991, when I signed him to the Zoo label and we released Girlfriend. For that one phone call I scored a “thank you” from Liljestrand in the credits.
“The first session went great,” Liljestrand says. “Both Matthew and Susanna are so nice, and Lu was blown away by their harmonies. We ended up spending the whole evening on ‘Little Rock Star’ instead of ‘Real Love.’” Soon thereafter, Sweet and Hoffs laid down harmonies on “Real Love,” and the synergy between their layered vocals (which Sweet had arranged in his home studio) and Williams' leads was by then so undeniable that they then went straight to “Rarity.”
“Lucinda was floored by how brilliant Matthew was,” says Overby. “At one point, she said, ‘Omigod, it's like working with Brian Wilson.’”
In March, when it was time to mix, Liljestrand went down the hall for the first project in Studio B following a radical renovation of the control room, which now houses another 88R snagged by Greenberg from Sony Studios in New York. Remarkably, the makeover had been completed in just three weeks; Greenberg says he can't stand to see one of his studios sitting idle.
This was unquestionably the most positive and gratifying recording experience by far for Williams, whose mere presence once struck fear in the hearts of everyone who was in the studio with her. “She got on such a roll and there were such good vibes that there are all these wonderful moments — I think that's what marks this record,” says Overby. “To me, this is her White Album or her Exile on Main Street — the best of all the styles she does, plus some new ones.”
Looking back on it, Williams reflects, “It's great when you can go in to make a record and you already know who your backing band will be, who your engineer will be, who will be producing, what studio you will be working in and, I might add, who your mastering engineer will be — Gavin Lurssen. Of course, these folks are all pros, but I can't stress enough how crucial it is to work with people I like — people I've come to love. Besides musical prowess, love and respect are the ingredients that turn good art into a great record.”