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Jackson Browne and ‘Let the Rhythm Lead’

Jackson Browne’s Personal Approach to Songwriting, Recording and Social Activism

Photos by David Belle

There’s a bit of pride in Jackson Browne’s voice as he relays how he overheard one of the students in the breezeway at Haiti’s Audio Institute singing the hook of his song “Love Is Love.” “Love is love, love is love, love is love,” as the young man took a stroll during a break where 40 students convened to learn the art of recording, all in connection with Browne’s most recent benefit project, Let the Rhythm Lead.

Most people familiar with Jackson Browne know that he is a songwriter, recording artist, producer and social activist. This project, recorded in two weeklong sessions in Haiti—back in April and November 2016—united all those roles: As a songwriter, Browne contributed to a few songs, but “Love Is Love” was his (David Belle collaborated on lyrics) as writer and artist. He produced the record with Jonathan Wilson, and proceeds benefit Artists for Peace and Justice for the Audio Institute in Jacmel, Haiti. It’s just his most recent humanitarian effort.

As soon as he had any kind of profile, Browne was involved in making the world a better place. Shortly after Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island nuclear accident in 1979, he helped found Musicians United for Safe Energy and was later arrested protesting against the Diablo Canyon Power Plant near San Luis Obispo, Calif., which happens to be about 100 miles from where he makes his home.

As a small example of his passion, during the 1980s Browne performed for Farm Aid and Amnesty International and contributed to the AIDS benefit album Red Hot + Country. He has been involved in projects promoting music education in schools, supporting orphans, foster, and homeless children through Safety Harbor Kids Holiday Collection, with proceeds going to help educate at-risk youth, human rights in Tibet, the environment, mental health treatment services, ALS research, brain tumor research and treatment. He has also been extremely engaged in the Democratic party.

Aside from being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Songwriters Hall of Fame, Browne holds the Chapin-World Hunger Humanitarian Award, the NARM Harry Chapin Humanitarian Award, and is the first artist to receive the Gandhi Peace Award from the organization Promoting Enduring Peace.

Jackson Browne cares about the world around him.

Growing up in the 1960s, first in the Highland Park area of Los Angeles, which Browne describes as predominantly Mexican-American at the time, with a fair share of racial tension. He credits both his parents— in different ways—for his social consciousness.

His dad, as a musician, loved jazz and Dixieland and introduced him to Black music. He was the one who sat his son down to have that important conversation about racism, called prejudice back in those days. His mother protested the Vietnam War. Then, while living in Orange County as a teenager and encountering real class divisions for the first time, his older sister Berbie went to San Francisco to demonstrate at the Republican convention against candidate Barry Goldwater in 1964. By the next year, he was visiting his sister at her apartment in San Francisco, experiencing peace and love in the renowned Haight-Ashbury district.

The Recording Artist

By 1967 Browne was an aficionado of bluegrass music and joined the newly formed Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, a traditional jug band whose members at the time all switched instruments; Browne even played washtub bass and jug. After a few months, though, Browne realized that he had to depart to concentrate on his own very personal music. Ultimately, politics and social issues found their way into that mix.

Subsequently, about four albums into what appeared to be an extremely promising career (he said with tongue in cheek), Browne figured out that he needed a studio. Well, it was more like his business manager figured that out. He told him: “You spend so much time in the studio and it costs you this much an hour, you might want to think about having your own studio. It would end up saving you a lot of money, even though it would be a big cash outlay.”

I still don’t know how anything works,’ Browne says. ‘The engineer and I have a dialog, which turns out to be the best way for me to get what I want out of the studio; to be able to say it in so many words.’

He also said to him: “And look at you, you traded in your job as an artist for a job as producer. Congratulations! You’ve just taken a 90 percent pay cut. But if you worked in your own studio, at least you’d be making some money on that end.”

Around the same time Browne struck up a friendship with the late engineer/producer Greg Ladanyi, who helped get his studio up and running. The first things he bought were a couple of LA2As and a few mics. When he finally found a studio space, first Downtown and finally Groove Masters out in Malbu, he bought a Neotek console because he considered it the lowest-maintenance board available.

“But it didn’t sound as good as what I wound up getting next, which was a Neve, but that was quite a few years later,” Browne says of his Neve 8078 that David Manley found for him. He says that even though he can’t talk about the equipment technically, he knows how it sounds.

“I still don’t know how anything works,” Browne oversimplifies, indicating that he is able to explain well to the engineer what he wants. “The engineer and I have a dialog, which turns out to be the best way for me to get what I want out of the studio; to be able to say it in so many words. The engineers I work with have become more and more like a confidant to me. There are times when I explain why I want to do what I want to do, so they are there to facilitate that.”

The Artist-Engineer Connection

Singer/songwriter/producer and studio owner Jonathan Wilson, who has known Browne for nearly a decade and accompanied him to Haiti to work on the recent project, indicates that Browne knows more than he lets on.

“He’s built himself an amazing, first-class studio that he sits in every day,” Wilson says. “’Does he bother himself with al the model numbers?’ No. But Greg Ladanyi was sort of his guru, and Ladanyi told him a lot of great stuff to get, and when you get into the habit of sitting with an engineer, you know what it does. And he certainly knows when something doesn’t sound right.”

Most artists who have studios don’t book them out, but to defray some of the costs, Browne does, and the benefit is what he learns from the other artists recording there. While Browne says he doesn’t “haunt” the studio and hang around while others are working in it, he talks to his engineers and takes note of how they are working.

“It’s like having a master class, only they don’t know they’re giving it,” Browne declares. ”I don’t ever touch anything, but I may come in and see where they put the drums. Some people do some crazy stuff. David Briggs had this band in there that was set up in a circle. The singer was in the center of the room, and everyone was set up around him.”

Browne says the work of his that he most loves has never turned out how he originally expected it to be. He also admits that the studio sometimes dictates the fate of a song; until the musicians have at it, he doesn’t quite know what it sounds like—there might be too many verses or the form needs reworking.

“You have to find out from the players what the song really wants, and in case I wrote too many verses; it really annoys me to have to throw shit out,” Browne explains.

“’I have to throw that verse away because I can’t say all that before I get to the chorus?’ Otherwise it will be boring as hell to go through this much song to get to that point. And I do a lot of editing, which is why all these workstations with Pro Tools have been so welcome—not because of how they sound as much as for what they let you do.”

Which brings us back to Haiti.

More Than Making a Record

Jackson Browne’s love affair and involvement with Haiti began right after the country’s devastating 7.0 earthquake in 2010, when he teamed with other celebrities to pledge long-term financial support to rebuild the country and help fund schools.

At first, and under his breath, Browne says something about not having the money. But further research uncovered his role in the five-year, $50,000 annual commitment to Artists for Peace and Justice (APJ), in a league of celebrities that included Nicole Kidman, Clint Eastwood, Sean Penn and Russell Crowe, among others. Then Browne decided that he would like to be more personally involved; that’s how he lives his life.

And so in 2015, he went back to Haiti to take a look at a school to which he contributed, at one point spotting a tile with his name on it outside one of the classrooms.

“There’s a buoyancy and optimism to everything that APJ does,” Browne says. “They got a school up and running within a year, and at this point, 10 years later, 2,600 kids go to that school for free.”

Jonathan Wilson, engineer and multi-instrumentalist on the Haiti project; Jackson Browne gives him much of the credit for making it happen.

During that trip, Browne visited the Artists Institute, established by David Belle and comprising the Cine Institute and the Audio Institute, up the coast in Jacmel. At the studio, Browne heard a band recording on what they touted in their brochure as their state-of-the-art SSL console and Pro Tools rig, in a studio designed by John Storyk of the Walters-Storyk Design Group. But to Browne’s mind, they were missing all the important analog gear of his recording pleasures.

“I thought in the back of my mind, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if somebody came down here and made a record and brought some of the old gear and showed them what that’s about?’” he recalls.

It wasn’t long before that thought went from the back of his mind to the front. Still, Browne says, ever humble, it took engineer Jonathan Wilson, game for the adventure, to make it happen. It took about a year to put together.

Of Wilson, Browne explains that they are friends and both have studios, but that Wilson “knows how to work his and I just own mine. I don’t easily focus on the technical stuff. I know how things work and how to use them, but not how to fix them or how to turn them on or even how to choose…I know the process of making records. I’ve always had the good luck of working with great engineers.”

Wilson collaborated with Browne to create a package of equipment to augment the Haiti complement. The package Wilson and Browne put together included preamps and tubes for the console, a pair of AEA N22 mics, some older model Electro-Voice and Shure mics, a pair of Neve 1073 mic pre’s, two Pultec EQs, a pair of old reissue Electrodyne preamps, a Retro tube compressor, and an assortment of gear and accessories for them to keep.

The project became so much more than teaching recording. It became a real cultural exchange with seven songwriters from four countries: Spain (Raul Rodriguez), Mali (Habib Koite), Haiti (Paul Beaubrun) and the U.S. (Jonathan Russell Jenny Lewis, Wilson and Browne)—making a record to share musical sensibilities and diversity, while teaching about 40 post–high school students the principles of recording, all the while speaking through translators

Learning By Doing

Browne recalls after they hooked up all the equipment and the students heard the signal chain, then heard the drums, “They went, ‘Oh, we were wondering how to get that to happen.’ They were awed.”

Wilson adds that some of the Western grooves were unfamiliar to the Haitians yet interesting to them; they were also enamored of the drum kit, as they mostly employ hand drums in their music.

“I could tell that seeing someone play a drum kit was a point of interest,” says Wilson, who played the kit on all songs requiring a set.

After seeing local band Lakou Mizik live, they nabbed the members who stayed close to record whatever they might need.

Browne calls Beaubrun, who played bass on all the cuts, the glue of the project. As a Haitian, he speaks Creole and English.

Habib Koite, from Mali, contributed to the project and is described by Browne as embodying ‘Mother Africa, like from their ancestral homeland singing to them, and he was singing in a language they didn’t know, so it was exotic to them too, but it had deep roots. It was the deep stuff.”

Then there was Habib Koite, who Browne describes as a sunrise: “Like this is Mother Africa, like from their ancestral homeland singing to them, and he was singing in a language they didn’t know, so it was exotic to them, too, but it had deep roots; it was the deep stuff.”

Jonathan Russell, who was “in” for the project immediately, came up with his song “I Found Out” so spontaneously one night jamming on the beach that he had no idea what he had created. They had to go back and view the footage Belle had filmed so they could record what Russell had done.

Before they knew it, they had six songs in five days, and what had started as an idea just to do some sessions, became a record, extending the project to a second week later in the year.

It was during that second session, that Malian singer and guitar virtuoso Habib Koite recorded.

Wilson also had the idea to call upon engineer Vira Byramji to join in the first week, then Trevor Spencer the second week, and they conducted technology seminars for the students, who also had the opportunity to observe in the studio in small groups throughout the project. Wilson also held Q&A sessions to share such techniques as his approach to multi-miking the drum set, displaying the effects of compression on drums, and additional American-style recording techniques.

Acknowledging that the nature of his ideas are seldom money-making concepts, but rather spending ideas, Browne says, “It was really fulfilling to be down there in a situation where we were welcomed. These students have such dignity. They were as serious as could be. Instead of working somewhere to support their larger family at home, they are being supported to become this profession. To have them respond to the joy to what we were doing was very fulfilling and the best feeling I could have.”