Mix Interview: Producer/Engineer Joe Chiccarelli - Mixonline

Mix Interview: Producer/Engineer Joe Chiccarelli

'THE SONG TELLS YOU WHAT TO DO'
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Photo: Ana Gibert

Chances are, if you checked in on what Joe Chiccarelli was up to in almost any month dating back to the dawn of the ’80s, you would have found him involved in some interesting recording project. What a career! The producer/engineer/mixer has weathered the fads and fluctuations of both the music business and the recording industry with hard work, grace and good humor, and along the way he’s worked with dozens of amazing artists from so many genres—rock, pop, folk, blues, classical, country, Latin, jazz; he’s done it all. It’s impossible to pigeonhole him, but it’s fair to say that Chiccarelli has always had a special affinity for working with idiosyncratic singer/songwriters, relishing the challenge of capturing their essences and their songs in the studio.

He sometimes points to his engineering work on various Frank Zappa projects as an early turning point—it’s a testament to Chiccarelli’s talent and temperament that he worked so successfully for so long with one of music’s true eccentric geniuses. But his resumé is filled with singular, creative types: Oingo Boingo, Elton John, Lone Justice, Steve Wynn, American Music Club, Counting Crows, U2, Etta James, Café Tacuba, Beck, Rufus Wainwright, White Stripes, Raconteurs, The Strokes, Tori Amos, My Morning Jacket, The Shins and the Kronos Quartet are just some on a very long list. What are the common elements? Passion, intensity and commitment. He’s had uncanny success working with up-and-coming young artists, helping nurture and refine their vision, and that continues to be true—recent successes have included Christina Perri’s superb debut album, alternative darlings Young the Giant and Australian stars Boy & Bear (whose Chiccarelli-produced album is about to be released in the U.S. after winning five ARIA awards Down Under).

If you think, looking at the list above, that a mellow, mainstream singer/songwriter such as Jason Mraz might not be on Chiccarelli’s wavelength, think again. They collaborated on Mraz’s new album, Love Is a Four-Letter Word, and it was an extremely positive experience for both of them. The band Chiccarelli assembled for the sessions at Sunset Sound broadened Mraz’s musical palette and stretched him a bit, without sacrificing the pleasing commercial qualities of his sound. It’s already produced a pre-album iTunes smash in “I Won’t Give Up,” with more hits no doubt to come. At the beginning of February, we caught up with Chiccarelli in the midst of sessions at Sunset Sound with another distinctive talent, Alanis Morissette. We chatted about the Mraz album and some other aspects of Chiccarelli’s studio journey.

How did you happen to hook up with Jason for this record?
I had worked with Christina Perri, who is with Bill Silva, who is Jason’s manager, and they were real happy with the way that turned out, and it’s been pretty successful, so he asked me if I’d be interested in Jason. So, I met with Jason and I met with Sam Riback, his longtime A&R guy, who discovered him, and we had a really good meeting. I liked where Jason was going with his songwriting. There was something about it that struck me as really classic, like great Billy Joel songs or Paul Simon songs. There was something simple, honest and universal about the writing.

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Joe Chiccarelli in the legendary Sunset Sound.

Photo: Ana Gibert

There’s definitely a certain earnestness and sincerity he manages to pull off in a non-cloying way.
That’s right; that’s a good way to put it. It touches you, the lyrics are really heartfelt and there’s no denying them. They get under your skin. I said to Jason, “If you want to do something that is a bit more honest and classic and not so much of the moment—not the sort of obvious, processed radio pop songs that people are doing these days—then I’m in.” He sent me some more songs and they were even stronger, so then I was really excited about it.

So I decided to put a band around him of studio players I thought were really good at adapting to different styles. A lot of his stuff has a little reggae influence in it and we certainly wanted to tap into that almost Paul Simon-in-Muscle Shoals sort of vibe—that classic “Kodachrome”/There Goes Rhymin’ Simon feeling. So we had Matt Chamberlain on drums; he’s fantastic. Tim Pierce, who’s one of the best guitarists around—one day he’ll be doing Shinedown and the next day Madonna; he has such a musical vocabulary. I got Jeff Babko from Sheryl Crow’s band to play keys. Justin Meldal-Johnsen was the main bass player—he’s a longtime friend who played with Beck for years. I like him because he comes up with some really interesting stuff. Paul Bushnell, who’s a really great session bassist, also played on the record; he’s got a great sense of R&B grooves. And Zac Rae is the other keyboard player—he played with Alanis Morissette for a long time and with many other people. David Campbell did the string arrangements. We recorded the strings over at East-West.

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Mraz’s vocal booth at Sunset Sound.

Photo: Ana Gibert

We also used the horn section that plays on the road with Jason, the Grooveline Horns, out of Austin, Texas. They did all the horn arrangements and performances on the album, and they’re really great. I was a little nervous about it because the way they work is you send them the idea for the arrangement and then Carlos [Sosa, saxophonist] does it all on his own and then sends it back to you. I thought, “Mail-order horns?” [Laughs] But he was fantastic, and any time I didn’t like something he was able to tweak it.

Did Jason do elaborate demos?
He did some songwriting demos in England with Martin Terefe, who produced his last album [2008’s mega-successful We Sing. We Dance. We Steal Things], and a couple of the songs that Martin co-wrote with him ended up on the album.

Jason seems to be a guy who knows what he wants and has opinions about the way things should go.
He’s definitely got a lot of ideas about things, but he really was great about giving me the space to try stuff. He’s not shy, and he’s extremely musical, so he would certainly speak up if he didn’t like something, or if he thought it was going the wrong direction. There were some things in the demo arrangements that he was really partial to and wanted to protect. But for the most part it was very collaborative between the band and myself and Jason. We didn’t do any preproduction as a group. The only preproduction was done between Jason and myself, talking over arrangements and direction. But those musicians are such experienced players that you can get in a room with them and say, “You know, I’m kind of feeling this like an old Philly soul track,” or “I hear a Motown kind of bass line”—all those kind of directions and ideas, and they instantly get it.

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From left: Bassist Justin Meldal Johnson, keyboardist Jeff Babko, and Chiccarelli in Sunset Studio One.

Photo: Ana Gibert

Almost all the songs were done live in the room, and on some songs the lead vocal is live, too: On “93 Million Miles,” that was live, then he overdubbed the harmonies and we overdubbed percussion on it. In some other cases, once we established the tempo of the song, I would have him overdub a lead vocal to one of the takes and then we would basically overdub the band and the acoustic guitar to the lead vocal.

Was Jason in a booth?
Yes, he was in a nice comfortable booth for acoustic guitar and a vocal. He always records his vocal with a Telefunken 251. He has his own and we used that, and/or Sunset Sound’s 251. They went through a Wunder Audio PQ1 preamp and then a Mercury Audio Pultec, a Retro 176 limiter and then an API 550A EQ. I would kind of get the bottom end out of the Pultec and the top end out of the API.

For the acoustic guitar, we switched off for a lot of different songs. Sometimes it was a combination of a Sony C37A and a [Neumann] KM-84, other times it was a combination of a [AKG] C-12A and a KM-84. On a few I also used a new mic on that sounded really good—a Black Pearl DC 96. Some were done on an Audio-Technica AT4050 through Sunset Sound custom mic preamps or Chandler mic pre’s. The band was in the big room and everybody was in close visual proximity to Jason, and we kept the band physically tight in the room.

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Guitarist Tim Pierce in Sunset Sound, Studio One

Photo: Ana Gibert

Were there any stylistic things you as the producer had to conform to in terms of tailoring what you do to what he does?
I don’t believe in molding. I think you do what the songs tell you to do. I think that dictates the arrangements. Certainly I made a point to listen to his past albums and get a deep understanding of who he is as an artist and understand the boundaries in a sense. If you’re getting too “left,” too quirky. Though the one thing the record company wanted to make sure of was that the album wasn’t too light. They wanted a strong sense of rhythm section, because that’s something he hasn’t had much on his past records. They wanted some muscle in the rhythm section and bigger dynamics. So that’s one thing the band tried to bring—more impactful grooves to the songs, because when you have that light, airy, beautiful vocal and you have a great sense of pulse and motion underneath it, it’s a great combination.

When you hear a song, do you instantly know it might have a shot at radio? Was “I Won’t Give Up” an obvious choice?
Not in the least. There were other songs on the album that other people thought might be singles and wanted to treat them like that.

What does that involve from your standpoint?
Making sure the tempo’s right, making sure the energy is right, making sure it doesn’t break down to the point where when you hear it on the radio it sounds like the radio station ground to a halt. [Laughs] Because you’re competing with Katy Perry or whoever it is at the moment. So you have to be at least cognizant that pop radio plays that kind of thing. So stuff can’t be too weird or too slow. In the end, though, the song tells you what to do. The better the song, the easier it is to put it together.

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Maserati, Mraz and Chiccarelli at a listening session in Maserati’s studio.

Photo: Ana Gibert

Did you know from the beginning of the project that Tony Maserati would be mixing it?
Yes, on day one they asked if I would be okay with Tony doing it. I said, “Absolutely!”

Does that change anything you do?
No. The only thing that changes is maybe I have a little bit more breathing room in terms of time to complete it, because I know somebody else can be mixing it while I’m overdubbing. And Tony is awesome in that he’s really part of the team. He would come by the studio and hear stuff midway to get a vibe of where it’s going. He spent a lot of time mixing this, and he’ll tell you there were multiple versions of some of these songs—acoustic versions, pop versions, middle-of-the road versions. He’s like the ultimate team player; let alone the quality of his work. As a collaborator, he’s incredible.

I wanted to ask you about the types of people you worked with early on who influenced the way you wanted to work in the studio maybe informed your aesthetic. There was Zappa, obviously…
It started before that. I played in a bunch of rock bands in Boston where I grew up. I always came at it from being the guy in the band who had a picture of what the band should be.

Every band has a guy like that!
Yeah, whether he’s welcome or not—the techy nerd. [Laughs] But in terms of the studio thing, I worked with some classic producers, like Jerry Wexler—people who were really all about the song and the performance aesthetic. As well as more contemporary people, like Jack White; even though he has a lot of classic sensibilities, he’s of a whole other generation and aesthetic. I’ve been very, very fortunate to work with a lot of different kinds of producers who have different ways of making records. I’ve learned from all of them!

The other thing I’ve really come to appreciate is working on music of all genres, all styles—doing a jazz album, doing heavy metal albums, doing classical things. You really learn a lot about music in general and what’s important to each genre. In other words, during a heavy metal record, obviously the power and impact and the over-the-top quality of it is really, really important. And then you tend to bring those sensibilities to other projects—not that it translates to a guitar sound—but understanding what records in different styles have to incorporate to hold one’s attention.

Is it difficult adjusting to the temperaments of the artists you work with, not to mention the musical differences between them from project to project?
One thing you learn is to adapt very quickly. You start to build this mechanism in yourself where you can suss people out very quickly and you become very sensitive to them and you start to understand that, “Okay, my role in this might be to be the cheerleader and the high-energy jokester, because the artist needs that positivity and that lightness in the room.” On another project you realize, “This is a very sensitive artist and he needs a very chill environment and you need to respect that.” Trying to understand the artist and be sensitive to what the person needs is a skill you develop. I was fortunate that I was an assistant engineer for a few years and that’s a big role of the assistant—the vibe of the studio. I learned being in rooms with major artists that everybody has a different mind set; everybody requires a little different hand-holding, if you will. You become a chameleon in a way.

The thing that’s important to me is coming up with a sound for the artist or respecting their particular sound. For me as a listener, what gets me most excited is when I hear a band or an artist that doesn’t sound like anyone else—that really has his or her own unique identity. That carries over to painters and filmmakers and writers: When you have a language that you’ve developed, that is pretty powerful to me. Understanding what that language is, and respecting it and protecting it, is really a key role of a producer.

I often wonder what it is that makes one album have staying power over time and others essentially disappear. It’s so hard to predict.
That’s true. That’s a thing that drives me. I grew up listening to those classic albums, whether it was The Beatles or Brian Eno and Talking Heads. The Clash was a big, big influence on me. I live to make that one classic album, but I haven’t yet. So much of what we do is ephemeral, it’s so much of the time, but that’s the way pop music has always been. I think if you asked Jimi Hendrix or The Beatles if they thought they were making classics, they’d give you the same answer.

I’d like to close by asking you about working with Etta James.
I loved her. I just went to her funeral last Saturday. It’s sad, because it’s kind of like the end of an era. She was one of the last of those singers who started in church.

I can imagine some of those hair-standing-up-on-your-neck moments when she’s in the vocal booth.
It was always that. We would cry in the control room. So many of the performances were just stellar. On top of it, she really welcomed me into her life; she was so supportive and so sweet to me. I probably worked on half-a-dozen albums with her, and it was no-holds barred. I think about those sessions all the time, because in my personal studio life, she set the bar in terms of what a singer should be and what a vocal performance should have. She’s going to be missed, but really, she will still be everywhere.

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Tony Maserati in his mix room

Photo: Ana Gibert

Maserati Mixes Mraz Redux
A lot has changed for Tony Maserati in the years since he mixed Jason Mraz’s multi-Platinum album, We Sing. We Dance. We Steal Things. Aside from his usual bounty of superstar projects—Beyonce, Britney, Lady Gaga, Chris Brown, Alicia Keys, et al—he relocated from New York to L.A. and settled into a North Hollywood facility, owned by Rafelson Media, in what used to be a studio known as The Bakery. When it came time to work on Mraz’s latest, he found a lot was different on the artist’s side, too.

“This record is completely different in so many ways,” Maserati says. “Jason is four years older, his audience is four years broader. Those things are extremely important to me. I take into account who the audience is, who the artist is, what they’re talking about. It’s a different production team and different musicians—the way that they play, the way they create; the chordal harmony is different. And the way that Joe Chiccarelli arranged the songs is different than the way Martin Terefe [producer of We Sing…] would have. Both are complete geniuses, but they have different approaches.” Because Maserati had never worked with Chiccarelli before, he made a point of stopping by some of the sessions at Sunset Sound. “I wanted to get Joe’s feelings on things, learn what his intentions were, as well as Jason’s.”

Maserati’s mix room, Mirrorball, offers a blend of new and classic pieces of gear. He uses an Avid D-Command as a controller, “but I don’t use any of the audio functions in it. The summing goes through an EMI mixer and a Neve mixer. I’m still all-analog, including my monitoring, which goes through Cranesong [Avocet controllers]. His extensive outboard arsenal includes both hardware and plug-ins, however. For Mraz’s latest, too, he tested out the new Pro Tools 10 HDX system; he lauds this latest version for its new Clip Gain feature, which allows for more precise level adjustments, and for its “better functions for finding and organizing things, such as what buses and auxes are being used.”

With some two dozen songs under consideration and multiple versions in different styles for some of them, Maserati had his work cut out for him. “You could release a whole ’nother record with alternate ideas and some of the amazing songs that didn’t make it,” he says.
—Blair Jackson