Rosanne Cash on The List: “We wanted to acknowledge the original and most definitive versions of the songs, and with respect to that, kind of let it go.”
John Leventhal makes no secret of his disdain for gear talk. It is, he says, “one of the least interesting things about the recording process.” So uninteresting, in fact, that the above quote was pulled from a prepared statement that he issued to accompany press materials for his wife, Rosanne Cash's, new album, The List. That statement also includes a rundown of what Leventhal used to record the album. (For the curious: Steinberg Cubase, “with an assortment of mic pre's, compressors and microphones that I have gathered over the years,” including a pair of Coles 4038s, a Neumann CMV563, an AKG C-60, a Gefell UMT-70, “an AKG dynamic mic from the '80s used on my Fender Vibrolux Reverb” and a Neumann U67, which is his standard for Cash's vocals.) So it seems almost fitting, given this aversion to discussing gear, that the couple's 10-year-old son would walk in during Leventhal's interview to request use of his father's digital camera. “He also set up my iPod Nano,” Leventhal confesses.
It's not so much that Leventhal is against gear; it's that he'd much rather discuss the organic side of record-making: the songs and the sounds. “I think whatever gift I have as a producer is that, first and foremost, I'm fairly musical,” he says. “My main instruments are guitar and bass, and I appreciate the language of most instruments, and the languages and genres of a lot of music. I'm still passionate about it and moved by music like I was when I was 12. At the same time, I have taken the time to understand what it is about music that moves me: voices, arrangements, harmonies, melodies.
“It wasn't a grand intellectual enterprise, but I thought about it, processed it and internalized it, and I bring that to my productions. I want to be moved by the music at the end of the day, and I'm looking for how to feel moved and for the artist to be moved. More than wrestling every bit and binary code to have them all lined up, in the box and overcompressed, I just hear it the way I hear it. First and foremost, it's music and not technology for me, and that's why the whole thing of gear… People tend to fetishize gear and obsess about it, and at the same time we all know that it has nothing to do with gear, with this mic pre, that plug-in, that compressor. It has nothing to do with that.”
Leventhal does know his way around a studio, of course, and for a number of years he's done much of his work at New York Noise. This studio was formerly on Gansevoort Street in the trendy meatpacking district, but since The List was completed, it has relocated uptown a ways on West 20th Street.
For The List, Leventhal's main studio foil was once again New York Noise co-owner and creative director Rick DiPofi, who co-produced, co-engineered and contributed a few musical parts — horns, piano and bass clarinet. In its Gansevoort incarnation, New York Noise was a homey single-room (i.e., no separate control room) facility with a great, warm vibe and lots of vintage and modern gear — everything from a Neve 8816 summing mixer to LA-2As and Distressors. (The new New York Noise has a dedicated control room for the first time, but retains a homey atmosphere.) As usual, Leventhal played all manner of guitars, basses, mandolin, keyboards (ranging from Wurlitzer piano to a harmonium), harmonica and even some drums. There were other musicians involved, too, including upright bassists Tim Luntzel and Zev Katz, drummers Shawn Pelton and Joe Bonadio, fiddlers Larry Campbell and Jenny Scheinman, string players The Mels and various backing singers. Some tracks featured a small group laying down a basic track live, while others were constructed around Cash/Leventhal duets.
Leventhal says he went into The List — 12 songs selected from a list of “100 Essential Country Songs” as presented to Cash by her father when she was 18 — with three objectives: to focus on Cash as a singer vs. the usual emphasis on her songwriting; to bring a “first-time” listening experience to traditional songs; and to do these things via simple production.
“I think I succeeded with those goals,” he says. “Rosanne sounds phenomenal. I had been thinking about doing this record for a while. A lot of her identity is wrapped up in her songwriting, as it should be, but she has never embraced the spotlight as a singer, and it's a different framework for her. I also feel that my other strength is as an arranger, and I think I've done a decent job making songs that have been covered extensively sound fresh.”
John Leventhal focuses on his musical gifts rather than technology.
Leventhal and Cash agree that he had to “push” her to try certain songs, not so much because of the arrangements, but because of their classic status. “‘She's Got You’ intimidated me because Patsy Cline's voice is so iconic and in my ear,” says Cash. “At the beginning, I thought, ‘I can't do this,’ and I set myself up, but John kept pushing. It was like we had to denude ourselves of these versions and figure out why they are great songs. ‘Girl From North Country’ — my dad and Bob Dylan's version is such a part of my formative life, and I said, ‘I can't; it's almost sacrilegious.’ So John said, ‘Go to Bob's original version and approach it from there.’
“We wanted to acknowledge the original and most definitive versions of the songs, and with respect to that kind of let it go,” she continues. “There's no need to rewrite these songs, so we were respectful of melody and form, why they were on the list and what I could bring to them as a singer. A great song deserves many interpretations. For example, the sultry undertow and twist that John put into ‘Take These Chains’ brought urbanity to it. I'm honored to stand alongside Ray Charles' version, although 92 percent of people will prefer his and eight percent will say, ‘Oh, she did a nice job!’”
Four of the tracks — “Sea of Heartbreak,” “Heartaches by the Number,” “Long Black Veil” and “Silver Wings” — feature guest vocalists Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Jeff Tweedy and Rufus Wainwright, respectively. Costello's track was recorded in the studio — “He's a good friend and lives around the corner,” says Cash. The other three were done via Internet files, something Leventhal had dealt with on occasion, but never to the extent involved in making The List.
The irony of using the latest technology to record songs that date back as far as the 1920s is hard to miss, but Leventhal says it wasn't even a thought. “I wasn't trying to make the record sound like ‘old classics,’” he says. “But if it's perceived as having that dimension, I would love that because it's how my mind works. I have a deep love of so many genres of music, and nothing makes me happier than listening to two hours of George Jones. But I'm not interested in doing a stylized homage to any of it, and I don't like when people do it because you can never re-create an old classic. So the fun part is how to re-imagine them in a respectful way of the old tradition without trying to reconstruct it. Sometimes it's as specific as how to do a Merle Haggard song like a Jimmy Webb song; sometimes it's just to jar yourself out of predictability, and with ‘Silver Wings’ it worked. Or to take ‘Miss the Mississippi and You’ and make it swing, or a Hank Cochran song like ‘She's Got You’ and ignore the chord changes for half a verse. I have lots of tricks and pathways. That was the challenge and fun, and for it to still have that sense of timelessness to it would be great.
“Hand in hand with that, I don't let technology take over,” Leventhal continues. “I use a little compression and a little reverb, like they had when the record was made. I'm not trying to capture the old sound, just that old spirit, and again it comes down to Rosanne's vocal performance.”
The last time Cash and Leventhal spoke to Mix (June 2003 , regarding the album Rules of Travel), Cash had just been through a series of career and personal ups and downs. Six years later, much has changed but again there has been adversity, including her 2007 brain surgery and, between 2003 and 2005, the loss of her parents (Johnny Cash and Vivian Liberto) and stepmother (June Carter Cash). Cash explored loss and grief on her last album, Black Cadillac, and decided to step away from those themes with The List. The new album, however, still retains a certain sadness.
“I think that's definitive of those songs,” she says. “There's not a whole lot of happy ones. From Delta blues to Appalachian music, it's all fraught with melancholy, and that's why country music plays such a great service. We can relate it to our own lives, into our art and music, and it can be helpful to us. I see no upside to avoiding the sadness of these songs. ‘Motherless Children’ is the most painful song and also a period piece, so approaching it was like stepping into a time and place that don't exist anymore. A lot of them are period pieces, even ‘She's Got You’ — the list of things, class rings, records — are dated to a period in time, and I loved mirroring that content in the context of a list.”
Lists are a connecting thread on the album: the list of songs her father gave her, the list of songs that made the album, the list that every family has and how that list becomes its legacy. “That opens a question,” she says. “What is important enough to pass on to our children? Do I save this list and pass it on to my children or make my own list? What is my list? My albums? They're the list I made without knowing I was making a list. We devalue those lists but they are important. It's who we are.”