It took eight years for soulful jazz artist Madeleine Peyroux to follow her acclaimed Atlantic debut, Dreamland, an insightful piece that had critics calling her the “Billie Holiday of the '90s.” Thankfully, she shortened the bridge between her 2004 sophomore album, Careless Love, and her new release, Half the Perfect World, which came out last month on Rounder Records.
For her new album, the Georgia-born, Paris-influenced vocalist reunites with her core Careless Love band — guitarist Dean Parks, bassist David Piltch and drummer Jay Bellerose — and producer Larry Klein. Klein's broad musical palette stems from his work as a bassist for Freddie Hubbard, Carmen McRae, Dianne Reeves and Peter Gabriel, and as a producer and bassist for his former wife, Joni Mitchell, ex-Cars bassist Benjamin Orr, Shawn Colvin, Vienna Teng, Julia Fordham and Holly Cole, among others — quite a broad spectrum.
On Half the Perfect World, Klein combined traditional jazz arranging and recording techniques with the bottom-end punch found on early soul records to create an album that's sophisticated, but also represents a “unison of joy,” as Peyroux describes. “The last record came out quite dark from a songwriting perspective,” adds Klein, “so we worked with the idea of creating a more optimistic record.”
Quite by chance, and in a departure from the Bessie Smith, Edith Piaf and Patsy Cline reworkings on previous albums, Half the Perfect World brings together a higher percentage of present-day songwriters, such as Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, Walter Becker and Mitchell, as well as four originals penned by Klein, Peyroux and New Yorker Jesse Harris (best known for his work with Norah Jones). “I intentionally left things rather open. People from the label kept asking, ‘Well, what's your plan?’” says Klein. “‘My plan is to make a great record.’”
Klein and Peyroux began by narrowing down the long list of songs Klein had assembled, then tossed around additional cover song ideas during an extended pre-production process at Klein's Santa Monica, Calif., Market Street studio. Once they agreed on a song, Peyroux would retreat to her rented apartment to not just learn the material, but live with it and ultimately possess it. She and Klein would then reconvene to discuss context, arrangement and harmonic ideas, usually working things out with a simple acoustic guitar/vocal take.
The Cohen song “Blue Alert” was due for release on Anjani Thomas' debut album, but they chose to re-invent the song anyway. “He's one of my absolute high-watermark songwriters,” Klein says of Cohen. “He had just written this new record with Anjani Thomas, and we were immediately floored by the songs. So I asked Leonard, ‘How would you feel about us covering these, considering Anjani's record is coming out in May?’ He said they would love it.”
The catchy Becker/Klein/Peyroux collaboration “I'm All Right” came out of sessions for Becker's forthcoming solo album. The Mitchell song “River,” which became a duet with k.d. lang, came partly from Klein's familiarity with Mitchell's work. “I came up with an idea of what it would be like to hear two women singing a song about loss,” says Klein. “Very early on, I thought of Joni's ‘River’ [which appeared on her landmark 1971 album, Blue], although it's not a song you would naturally think of as a duet. But I thought it would be an unusual idea to hear two women doing almost a shared monologue, as if there were two women sitting at a table with a drink in front of them. In terms of figuring out who to have as another female voice, k.d.'s name came up very quickly. I knew she was a fan of the last record, so when we approached her with the idea, she was very excited.”
They recorded basic tracks at Sage and Sound in Los Angeles, the former home of jazz label Sage Records and jazz engineer/studio owner Jim Mooney. Klein, who had played on a couple of jazz records there during Mooney's tenure, heard the studio had been upgraded and renovated in recent years, and indeed it has. Current owners Steffan and Marc Fantini enlisted George Augspurger to retune the control rooms' acoustics, and the studios have been rewired, remodeled and re-equipped, though they held on to Studio A's precious Mason Hamlin grand piano and vintage Neve 8048. Klein and his engineer, Helik Hadar, chose the room partly for that piano, which had the dark tone they were looking for, but also for its abundance of Neve 1095 and 2254 compressors, as well as its European-styled 36×30 live room.
Hadar put the Mason Hamlin in its own iso room and placed drums and upright bass in the live room, both heavily baffled because of the room's hyperactive acoustics. “It has a cement floor and unconditioned walls in conjunction with a high ceiling,” Hadar says of the A room. “It's very reflective, so we spread out gobos, which slowed down the reflection that would travel when the drummer played at a loud volume.”
Hadar then placed guitar in the second iso room; for acoustic, he placed a Neumann U67 three inches from the body and a KM84 on the neck. “The U67 gives me the relaxed tone of the instrument, and the KM84 gives me the pluck and the grit,” he says. Electric guitar was miked with a Shure SM57 and a Royer 121 ribbon mic, both of which ran into a Summit Audio compressor to Pro Tools HD. Upright bass was miked with a U47, also running straight to Pro Tools.
For the drums, Hadar spread out about four different pairs of X/Y omni room mics at varying distances from the kit. “The whole idea was to capture each element at different distances, as well as recording [the] close effect. So, I would capture numerous angles on each instrument, and once the songs were built up, I would have a better sense of which mic at which distance would sound best. So I spread things out as much as I could.”
Capturing the room was important on this album, which Klein describes as “a dream of a jazz record” because it incorporates traditional jazz elements even though it's not a traditional jazz record. “When you listen to the early jazz records of the '40s, or the Blue Note Records of the late '50s and early '60s, you always heard a lot of room, and there was a fair amount of compression used,” he says. “There was a certain blood that went out of the sonic character of jazz records in the early '70s; it's a very chilly feeling. With this record, I wanted to break some rules concerning the way that modern jazz records are made.”
They nailed most of the basic tracks in about six days, then regrouped at Klein's studio for vocals and most of the overdubs. Hadar helped build the studio, which features a Pro Tools HD 3 rig, a smattering of Neve mic pre's, their preferred Inward Connections compressors and line amps, good mics and no control surface.
“My career has been divided in two routes: 10 years of analog and 10 years of digital,” says Hadar, who's worked with Klein since 1998. “I started working in Pro Tools during a very early age of it, so working with a keyboard and a mouse has become a very easy task.”
They recorded Peyroux's vocals in the control room, where she feels most comfortable, with a Neumann U67 through a Neve 1073 mic pre, “recorded flat,” then into an Inward Connections compressor to Pro Tools. “I would compress the upper side of the mid, but I didn't touch the body and I didn't EQ,” Hadar says. With Peyroux in the same room as her producer and engineer, she can sing without “that scrutiny situation” from the other side of the glass, which further raises her comfort level. Plus, they can tend to her needs more quickly, which makes for a smoother process all around. “We're right there for her to make adjustments,” says Hadar. “We all wear headphones, and from that moment on, we're in her environment. We can alter balances and once she's comfortable, she can take off.”
A natural talent, Peyroux does her best work when she's not thinking about it too much. “It's a very delicate process,” says Klein. “I don't want to give her too much input or direction, because most of the time, she'll start thinking too much about what I just said. Almost always after I suggest something, I'll say, ‘Okay, now forget what I just said and just sing.’ Singing comes from a very pure place for her, so we have all sorts of methods to help her not think about what she's doing.”
The excellent cast of musicians — which includes the core band, as well as touring drummer Scott Amendola, Gary Foster (sax), Sam Yahel (keyboards), Greg Leisz (pedal steel), Till Bronner (trumpet) and Larry Goldings (celeste) — plays from that same creative place. “They're all just phenomenal musicians and share the ability to play more from their heart than from their head,” says Klein.
They mixed at Market Street, as well, with Hadar taking special care to maintain the recordings' spacious sound. “This was very fragile content, so most of the stuff was left untouched,” Hadar says. “I ran the entire mix one more time through the Inward Connections EQs, just to get some mild sheen and soft balance. I used the [ADR] Vocal stressor and Waves plug-ins a bit on the vocals, but in general, I EQ'd little and processed very little.” He then turned the contents over to Bernie Grundman for mastering.
With Careless Love selling more than a million copies worldwide, Half the Perfect World has a tough act to follow. But as Peyroux's timeless vocals move through an innovative batch of material, listeners may discover her most potent work yet. “We laid a lot of the groundwork with the last record, so from the outset, she was more comfortable and confident, and I knew how to better help her from every angle,” says Klein. “We worked together even better in every facet of the process. It feels like a nice big step forward.”