Photo: James O’Mara
Elvis Costello's latest album, Secret, Profane and Sugarcane, was produced by T Bone Burnett, and it bears some resemblance to the 1985 King of America, the last album Costello put into the capable hands of his longtime friend and collaborator. Like King of America, this new release showcases Costello's Americana leanings (a genre without a name in '85), and surrounds him with a band of top-grade acoustic players who help realize an inspired collection that's made cohesive with a consistent, uncommonly authentic sound.
Costello, Burnett and the “Sugarcanes” (Jerry Douglas, dobro; Jim Lauderdale, harmony vocals; Dennis Crouch, double bass; Mike Compton, mandolin; Stuart Duncan, fiddle; Jeff Taylor, accordion) assembled in Sound Emporium Studios (Nashville) in March of last year to record a group of Costello originals — including a couple of songs co-written with Burnett and one collaboration with Loretta Lynn — and one cover, Lawrence Coleman and Joseph Darion's “Changing Partners.” Sessions comprised three days of live tracking, managed by Burnett and his longtime engineer, Mike Piersante.
“The musicians all sat toward the back of the room. There's a space we usually gravitate to so we set everyone up in a circle there, all facing each other, including Elvis and background singer Jim Lauderdale,” Piersante says. “It seemed like the best approach, but I wasn't sure at first if Elvis wanted to be part of a circle — actually singing out there — because that brings up so many limitations as far as things you can replace or fix. But there's also an immediacy between the musicians. Everything you hear on the album is done positively live. No overdubs, no one in a booth.” Also worth noting about these sessions: no drums.
Piersante captured the live tracks with a collection of vintage mics that he and Burnett bring to all of their projects. “You probably understand that the circle poses a bit of a technical challenge,” Piersante says with a laugh. “But I've learned over the years that if you use ribbon mics with their figure-8 polar pattern and face the artists a certain way, the rejection points on the mics will face the person next to the one you're miking. If you set them up where those null points face the next guy, and go all the way around the circle that way, you actually get pretty darn good rejection. I'm still surprised sometimes, if I solo an instrument, to hear how little of everyone else I have in that mic.”
These mics were mostly RCA 77s and 6203s, as well as one or two of Wes Dooley's AEA mics. A Blue Cactus mic was used for Costello's vocal, also in a figure-8 pattern. He also places a pair of Neumann KM84s overhead. “That provides a lot of space and a little bit of ambience for the larger picture we're taking,” Piersante says.
The production team also travels with a collection of Burnett's instruments, and they rent a selection of classic Neve modules: 1073s and 1081s. “It's classic mics through the Neve pre's and pretty much straight to tape,” Piersante says. They record to the studio's Studer A827 tape machine, backing up to Pro Tools.
“We try to keep a really good, pure, short signal path,” he continues. “We might use a compressor on some things, but just touching them — a tickle here and there.”
Though Piersante and Burnett typically bring in a lot of their own gear, the engineer stresses that Sound Emporium Studio A, one of Burnett's go-to facilities, and the studio staff, are also essential ingredients in their relaxed recordings. “It starts with the people who work there,” Piersante says. “Owner Garth Fundis, [studio manager] Juanita Copeland and all the assistant engineers — everyone is fantastic there. We worked with an assistant engineer named Kyle Ford, and he has been my right-hand man there the past several projects we've done there. Matt Andrews has also helped us over the years. He started working with us on O Brother, way back then. We also like that the studio is not right on Music Row, and that it's an older studio designed in an old-school fashion. Cowboy Jack Clement was one of the original owners and builders. They made a classic room that sounds great.”
Burnett and Piersante took the tracks back to Burnett's Electromagnetic Studio in L.A. to mix on a custom analog console built by Sunset Sound Reorders in the late 1960s, though the engineer says that the mixing process involved little in the way of sonic manipulation. “Everything's bleeding to some degree, so basically it had to be a very simple, honest mix — not a lot of outboard gear or treatment, just balancing and a little tone shaping here and there,” he says.
The team's “honest” approach comes through, especially on the Costello/Burnett-penned tracks “Sulphur to Sugarcane” and “The Crooked Line,” both of which have a very front-porch vibe. The latter also features Emmylou Harris singing harmony.
“Great songs, great players and, first and foremost, great singer,” Piersante sums up. “You have these great guys in the room, and I'm just there to take a picture of it.”