Sometimes the greatest albums come together in the most unusual ways. Take, for example, Shelby Lynne's newest release, Suit Yourself. “It was one of those weird, serendipity kind of moments,” says Nashville-based engineer Brian Harrison. “I've known Shelby's drummer, Bryan Owings, for 25 years. Shelby was in town for the 50 Years of Hits tribute for George Jones; a lot of artists were here for the show. Around 9 p.m., Bryan and Shelby showed up at my studio, the Rendering Plant, which is in my house. I poured them some brown liquor; she saw my guitars and rig and asked me to turn it on. Next thing I knew, we were rolling tape and having fun until 2 a.m.
“The next night, after the George Jones show, she came over and we rolled tape again. Shelby just oozes music, and, basically for me, it was like meeting a younger sister who happens to dig music. We became friends, then she called later and asked if she could come here and record the album.”
Lynne had actually begun working on the songs for Suit Yourself in her home studio, Sherry Lane in Rancho Mirage, Calif. “I have a Studer 2-inch machine and very little gear,” she says. “I use a small Mackie board and I don't change anything from song to song. It's easier to walk in and push Record and be sure not to erase something I wrote the day before. It's pretty analog in my house. It's easier to put on a roll of tape and keep it on the reel, ready to go.
“I try to use the best of the best, what works with what I like on guitar and vocals,” she continues. “But my most important piece of equipment is the Studer 2-inch; it's the end-all, and seeing tape spin and hearing the big machine run — it's the God of recording equipment. I use a Telefunken mic for vocals, a Neumann on my acoustic guitar and I try to keep it as dry and real as possible without any frills — no fancy board, just go straight to tape and worry about that later.
“I realized while I was writing the songs and putting them on 2-inch that they usually don't improve from that moment. I decided to keep what I had, and when Brian entered my life, he could see my vision. We have a great deal of respect for each other and we speak the same language.”
It makes sense that she would see her project through from start to finish: She has been making records since she was 18 years old and has a very keen sense of what she wants from the end result. This comes from a history of shuffling from one record label to the next, experimenting stylistically — country, western swing, a hint of R&B and finally her stripped-down, back-to-basics approach — and ultimately giving the figurative finger to all that is “business” about the music business. For what it's worth, she won a Best New Artist Grammy several years into her career, when her best-known album, I Am Shelby Lynne was released. But ever a restless soul, she didn't merely try to repeat the successful formula of that album. Instead, she took control of her career, her music and how it was created and executed.
“Shelby did the genesis of the album in L.A.,” says Harrison. “I don't believe in demos, so six songs on the record — ‘Where Am I Now,’ ‘You're the Man,’ ‘You and Me,’ ‘Johnny Met June,’ ‘Iced Tea’ and ‘Sleep’ — were derived from her tapes. She sent them to me and we dressed them up as needed. She did a lot of her harmonies at home with her 2-inch tape machine. Those songs were cut there and we just put lipstick on them here. The rest of the stuff we cut from the ground up.”
Lynne, singing and playing guitar, gathered her musicians — engineer Harrison on bass, Owings on drums, guitarist Mike Ward, Heartbreakers keyboardist Benmont Tench, pedal steel/dobro/mandolin player Robby Turner and guest artist Tony Joe White on guitars and harmonica — and basically set up camp at the Rendering Plant. The studio has also been home to such artists as Kim Richey, Lucinda Williams, Jimmy Hall and Harrison's band, The Hubcapthieves.
“My whole house is wired — everywhere except the bathroom, although I have tracked in there, too,” he says. “We had folks in every room. The keyboard room has a Hammond C-3, a Baldwin, a spinnet, a Wurlitzer, an electric piano and a clavinet. The whole thing is old-school instruments, and other than Robby, who brought his pedal steel, we used my stuff. Shelby and Mike used my guitars. Benmont used my keyboards, Bryan used my drums and I used his 1970s Fender P-Bass.”
As the vocalist, musician, songwriter and producer, Lynne went into the sessions with a very precise — and very simple — vision: “Get together and say, ‘Here's the song; let's record it.’ I welcome anyone's input, but usually it's really easy — everybody plays and sounds great. Working with Brian, we were almost like family in the best sense of the word. I was comfortable and liked him the minute we met. He understood what I wanted to do, which was to just sit and play.”
“My place isn't clinical,” adds Harrison. “It's a home, so people feel at ease here. I have mic lines running in every room, directly into mic pre's, bypassing everything. I used unusual mic pre choices for recording Bryan's drums: Langevin mic pre's [AM-301 and AM-17] that were used in the U.N. in the 1960s. In most cases, I used very little compression. I don't use it on drums unless someone wants level control. I went from mic to preamp.
“Shelby sang through her Telefunken 251 into a Vintech X73 into a UREI 1176N straight to tape. She wanted to sing and play guitar at the same time, and I dig that because it totally changes the dynamic of the songs. I used a Little Labs IBP direct box. If you've got a vocal mic and a mic for an acoustic guitar, there can be phasing issues because of bleeds. This device lets you tweak the phase like focusing a camera and makes the mics work together to capture the sound you want and avoid bleeds and overdubs.
“There are two reasons most engineers and producers want you to track separately. One is for absolute control. If you screw up a part, you go back and fix it. If you record both at the same time and screw up, you have to redo both parts. These guys are top-notch players and everything on the record is first or second takes. If Shelby has to do three or four takes, she's tired of it and moves on.
“Case in point: We tried to recut a couple of songs, but there's always something about the vibe of everybody playing live and very little overdub. Anytime we listened back to the tunes, and we all felt it — for example, on ‘Johnny Met June,’ you can hear the quivering and emotion in her voice. When we tried to recut it, halfway through, she said, ‘Stop.’ Everybody realized on that track, you can't get there again and re-create the emotion.
“I'm so proud of her for not being afraid,” Harrison continues. “There are flaws on this album. She's a great guitar player. She picked emotion and humanness over perfection, and that's a ballsy thing in this day when everybody is used to hearing homogenized music where you don't even have to sing in tune or in time and America has learned to accept crap on a stick. Three-dimensional singers like Frank Sinatra are a dying art.
“I've never, ever, ever had this much fun in the studio,” he says. “It was hard work in some ways but very, very rewarding. She wrote ‘I Cry Everyday’ and ‘I Won't Die Alone’ on the spot, which is a huge testament to her creativity and being comfortable enough here and with the guys to try something.
“It was such a complete, absolute blast to have these players. I played ‘Rainy Night in Georgia’ hundreds of times in bands and I was in awe of having Tony Joe White and Shelby 25 feet from me covering that song. It was a complete out-of-body experience to play bass with them. It was a really cool, soulful thing,” Harrison concludes.
Lynne and Harrison mixed Suit Yourself at The Village in Los Angeles with assistant engineer Andy Borham. The disc was mastered by Ron McMaster at Capitol Mastering in Los Angeles. “It was analog to the bitter end,” says Harrison, “including using plates and tape slap on old MCI machines in L.A. I tried my best not to drench anything in too much reverb, and we were really fortunate to master in the same room [Bob] Dylan and Sinatra used. I used an analog chain the whole way.”
“I almost hate to say it,” says Lynne, “but the whole thing was done in 21 days and we turned it in. It's a simple record: no strings, five musicians and not hard to mix. It was close to being mixed while it was being recorded. I don't like to waste time in the studio. I go in and know what I want. I wrote a couple of tracks there, it happened in the moment and I'm open to whatever the vibe is and being able to catch it.
“I'd rather leave something bare and naked than overcrowd it with a bunch of unnecessary things. I think the songs should do the work and everything else should be the icing. I know when I have it, when to stop, and I guess there's something to be said for that. When you have the privilege of producing, it's a tug of war with yourself. I could have made this record a lot slicker, but that's not what I want to listen to.”
“This album came on like a whirlwind,” says Harrison. “We did 10 days of tracking, 10 days of mixing, one day of mastering and the record was done. That's because she picked the right people to come to the party and she doesn't like to belabor things.
“The most important thing I could do was be prepared, have good sounds ready, be ready to change horses in midstream and wear three or four hats at one time: bass player, engineer, tape operator and bartender. We had a runner to get things for us. You're hosting all these people in your house and you don't want to run out of snacks, toilet paper, paper towels. That explains why there may be some sloppy engineering and bass playing going on! But the most important thing was to make sure everyone was comfortable, that the vibe was right and make sure my instruments were maintained. And a lot of pre-production on my behalf so that I could be ready.
“So my job was really to supply a comfortable environment and be technically sufficient enough as an engineer and musician to get out of the way of the songs.”