Mitchell Froom and Suzanne Vega
Recording 99.9F° | Mitchell Froom, Suzanne Vega
A new slant on production for Suzanne's latest album, 99.9F°.
For her most recent album, Suzanne Vega wanted a producer prepared to radically change her sound and provide a new direction; Mitchell Froom was the man she chose. Paul Tingen talked to them both about the recording of the innovative 99.9F°.
Suzanne Vega laughs. Amusement, amazement and even something remniscent of awe come through in her voice when she says: "My last album isn't at all what I expected it to be. I still listen to it and think: 'where the hell did that come from?' It all happened so fast. Within a week of working with Mitchell I knew more or less what the album was going to sound like. Yet even then I couldn't believe the way it was coming out. It seemed right, so I went with it, but I still wasn't prepared for a track like 'Fat Man & Dancing Girl'. And the day we started working on 'Blood Makes Noise' it just made me laugh. The sounds Mitchell came up with were so totally unexpected."
Vega obviously still can't quite come to terms with it. Her last album, 99.9F°, a radical departure from her former work, has taken her as much by surprise as her fans and the music critics. The New York guitarist and singer pioneered the female singer/songwriter boom of the mid-'80s when she hit big time with songs like 'Marlene On The Wall' and 'Luka'. Her first two albums, Suzanne Vega (1985) and Solitude Standing (1987) became classics, with their elegant, acoustic guitar based songs and poignant, observant lyrics. Yet with her third album, Days Of Open Hand (1990), Vega appeared to have come to an artistic standstill. Self-produced with band-member Anton Sanko, the music had become even more introverted than before and Vega was in danger of, as they say, disappearing up her own behind. She's happy to admit that her sentiments, by and large, go in the same direction: "With Days Of Open Hand I certainly learnt what my limitations were. So I knew that for my next album I wanted someone who could push me, who could shake things up a bit and help me go in new directions."
Enter the aforementioned Mitchell. His surname is Froom, and he's the man who produced all three Crowded House albums to date, plus Richard Thompson's last three albums, Elvis Costello's Mighty Like a Rose, the songs co-written by Paul McCartney and Costello on Flowers In The Dirt and various other critically acclaimed albums, ranging from The Pretenders to Maria McKee. On top of this, he plays keyboards on most of the albums he produces, and has played live with Costello, Tom Waits and Crowded House. In short, Froom is one of the rising stars in the international firmament of top producers engaged in making high-quality, high-integrity music. It comes, therefore, as a bit of a shock to hear him say that two years ago he nearly threw in the towel because he felt that he was selling his soul to the music industry: "For me the whole thing came to a point where I felt like I was going to have to go down in flames. I didn't want to be seen as someone who was becoming more and more conservative. As a producer I had, until that point, often felt that my function was to do the best job I could for somebody, and that it was OK if that meant occasionally allowing myself to think slightly conservatively, thinking that I had to deliver something with which an artist commercially had a chance. I'm very proud of most of the records that I've done, but looking back I felt that for me personally, whenever I had been more conservative, I'd failed. Also, looking around me I saw a music industry where pop music had gone from, say, 100% of its potential, to maybe 2%. I mean, compare the US charts today with the charts during the British Invasion of the '60s and '70s. I didn't want to be part of a more and more conservative movement, and thought: 'Well, I'll just go out with a bang and find people who want to do the same.'"
Enter the Los Angeles band Los Lobos, who were, after a few lacklustre albums, also "prepared to stick their necks out." After a period of wild experimentation, Froom and Los Lobos came up with Kiko, an album listed, like Vega's 99.9F°, by O magazine as one of 1992's top 50 records. The magazine stated that Kiko was 'a record which has conjured up superlatives virtually unheard since The Band's Last Waltz', whilst noting the radical departure from the previous work of both Los Lobos and Vega. With both, Froom went for a no-holds-barred approach to production, turning the whole thing into a revolutionary experience for himself, band and artist. Making records would never be the same again. "Working with Los Lobos felt like a reinvention of what I'd done until then," enthuses Froom, "It was a breakthrough record for me, artistically. The roof blew off! I've been working with the same engineer for six or seven years now, Tchad Blake, and for both of us it was the first time that we felt that we'd finally come to some really new and individual techniques and approaches." He immediately adds, almost in the same breath, that their aim was not to be new or experimental as a gimmick, but rather to "get to the bottom of the songs and of what an artist is about and try to find a way to express that which is distinctive and not settle for something which is maybe easier or more commercially agreeable." Froom's objective as a producer had changed from purely trying to be of service to artists, to challenging them to come up with innovative and adventurous ideas. "It's not a matter of trying to do weird things per se, because that can counter the power of the song. I'm talking about arrangement and about somehow finding the source of a song. It's not window dressing or trying to be clever or smug."
In the case of Los Lobos' Kiko he succeeded magnificently. The record sounds radically different from its predecessors, in fact from every other record produced today, whilst sounding more authentic and closer to the band's Mexican and R&B roots than ever before. The freshness, aliveness and directness of the record is stunning. It sounds ike a band playing live in the studio or a small room, which, says Froom, "was how we often recorded them." Instruments are panned hard left and right, creating a very distinct spatial dimension, and the guitars especially have a vibrant rough edge to them, giving one the impression of having one's ears right in front of the speaker.
Surprisingly, perhaps, given the unusual and non-glossy sound of Kiko, Los Lobos's American record company, Slash, loved the record. Froom's producing career, rather than having gone out with a bang, appeared to have gone up with a bang. It was while he was still in the euphoric mood following his reinvention of the production wheel that Vega approached him to see whether he was interested in producing her next album. She'd sent demo tapes of her new material to three different producers she was interested in. "One of the producers said that I should do something entirely different and maybe do a rap record or something," Vega remembers, laughing, "another one thought that the tape was great as it was, and Mitchell told me that he liked the songs, but but didn't like the production. He thought he could do better. This was what I wanted to hear, because was curious to work with somebody who could teach me some things. Mitchell felt that the music should have a lot more vitality and should sound more unusual. He told me that my approach was too ordinary and that it was a mistake to use a normal rock 'n' roll drum kit."
Keeping in mind that Vega's demos were high-quality, digital recordings, produced very much in the same vein as her first three albums (the track 'Blood Sings' on 99.9F° remains from those sessions - Froom simply overdubbed some keyboards), Froom's criticisms and suggestions are a stirring lesson in production technique. They're more than worth taking note of for any artist or band struggling to get the best out of their material. Vega has no problems remembering Froom's clear-cut and hard-hitting feedback. "He told me that I had a small voice and he wanted to take it out of all the competition it was having on my previous albums, especially the drums. He also felt that my previous albums had sounded too pristine and too clean. He felt that my music should sound small, dry and intimate yet at the same time have more edge to it. One way of doing that would be to bring a lot more distortion into the music. What he said made good sense to me."
Froom explains that his comments were very much the result of trying to feel into the essence of Vega's songs and wanting to bring out their power and depth: "I felt that we could go for pretty unusual arrangements; not to be weird, but because her music is a strange hybrid of things as it is. It's not pure folk music, yet it is acoustic guitar-based and Suzanne does have a very soft, pretty voice. But what she's singing about are very intense things. So it made sense to make the music more powerful to reflect the emotions of her words, rather than the tone of her voice. That was the heart of what I was trying to get to. I was therefore determined to make her voice sound as conversational as possible, right in your ear, which gives a much more unsettling feeling, rather than having these big, washy, beautiful reverbs."
This 'conversational, right in your ear' approach also reflected the origins of Vega's singing and song writing. As a child Vega used to, she says, "sing songs for my brothers and sisters to keep them from fighting one another and to amuse them. That's an intimate quality that often comes out in my writing. On the other hand, observations about power and who has it and who doesn't, are at the core of most of my songs — like, for example, in 'Rock In This Pocket', which is about David and Goliath and describes the moment when David is about to throw the rock. So there's a strange tension in my work." It was Froom's aim to bring out these tensions, to expose all juxtapositions in Vega's work, between small and large, intimate and dramatic, coolness and warmth, humor and melancholy, acoustic and electric. Vega: "He respects people's eccentricities. What interests him is what's unusual in a person. He's not interested in making someone sound like someone else but rather in emphasising the things that are strange." Yet Froom admits that further than the general ideas outlined above, he initially "didn't know specifically" how it all would sound in practice.
Vega explains why having her acoustic guitar and vocals upfront meant a lot to her: "I didn't want people to feel that this was some kind of trick. I wanted people to be able to hear that the music was actually standing on something solid, that it was acoustic based, but not in way they'd heard before." Froom adds: "The challenge was how to reconcile the acoustic guitar with tough, unusual arrangments, particularly if it's played in a fingerpicking style, which can soften the music too much. So you have to be able to counter that with some very strong and definite elements. That's why it worked out that the bass could drive the music so well, because it was the furthest away from the range of her acoustic guitar. It provided a counterpoint. That's also why the electric guitar playing is much spottier, because it's in the same frequency range as the vocals and acoustic guitar and too much of it would have drowned them out."
The bass playing on 99.9F°, courtesy of Bruce Thomas and Jerry Scheff, is stunning and is mixed right upfront. Tracks like 'As Girls Go' and 'Fat Man & Dancing Girl' swing irresistably, propelled by the fat, full-frontal bass and the innovative percussion and drum playing of, rather unexpectedly, Jerry Marotta. The man of the big, majestic, anthem-like drum sound with Peter Gabriel seems hardly a likely choice in a context where a producer wants small and intimate sounds and wants to do away with traditional rock drumming altogether. Yet Froom had his reasons: "I'd worked with Jerry before, like on Tom Finn's solo album, and I'd seen in him the ability to make music out of anything. I didn't want to use a regular percussionist, for fear that he might be leaning too much in a Latin direction and that would be whole different direction again. I wanted the tension that Jerry could provide, yet to make him play very close and very intimate and very unusual and develop something that would be highly musical. He was the only guy that I could think of who could do that. And he really liked it, because it was a chance for him to reinvent himself. He usually gets called up because people want him for the big sound he produced with Gabriel."
Unusual indeed. Froom confronted Marotta with all manner of crazy situations - like balancing a tambourine on his foot whilst playing something else - and getting him to play all sorts of things which would not normally be used for percussion. At the end of it Tchad Blake would warp and distort things, creating a percussive backing which was continuously fluid, moving, natural, yet unrecognisable. On the title song of the album, for example, Marotta was playing some tiny hand drums of which Blake created a loop and took all the bottom and mid out, after which Marotta overdubbed the same hand drums again, creating the effect of a loop with the original, EQ-ed hand drum "making a great crackling kind of sound." Vega remembers the whole percussion episode with great affection: Laughing: "All the percussion tracks are a combination of Mitchell and Jerry going crazy. Sometimes there were sampled and sequenced elements, but most of it was played live. Every day we'd put together a different drum and percussion kit for each song. Jerry was playing a very peculiar assortment of things in bizarre positions. It was really funny. Some of the things were very simple, like him slapping his leg with his hand and Tchad picking that up and distorting it. The silliest day was when they ended up putting a plastic bag over the mike and trying to hit that with one of the sticks and seeing how it would sound. It sounded terrible. Another weird moment was when the whole band were playing snare drums. That sounded terrible too, so we erased it."
"Suzanne Vega: He felt that my music should sound small, dry and intimate yet at the same time have more edge to it. One way of doing that would be to bring a lot more distortion into the music. What he said made good sense to me."
Erasing things that didn't work instantly was, it turns out, one of the other unsual ways in which Froom and Blake worked. Most songs were recorded live in the studio by the whole band, to get a general picture, after which elements were added and/or replaced. Vega: "But they don't hang on to anything. When it came to the mix they'd already erased everything they weren't using. Being as quick and focussed as Tchad and Mitchell were was a new way of working for me." Froom: "If you just keep things you don't know anything. Production to me is a matter of of commitment to do things in a certain way and be bold about it. You have to be willing to say instantly with every overdub: 'that's it', or 'that isn't it', and go down a certain path. You can always change it again. But filling up all your tracks and making up your mind later is nonsense. 99.9F° was recorded on 24-track analogue Dolby SR, but we could have done it on 16 tracks."
He adds that the same awareness of layering musical instruments according to their frequency ranges was also applied to the EQ-ing in the mix. Froom: "This is really Tchad's area and it's where he's become great, especially recently. The trick is to layer frequencies correctly; for example you decide where the high end is coming from, maybe from the vocals and hi-hat and then you don't put high end on other instruments. You layer the whole thing in such a way that everything has its own place. If the arrangement is simple enough and the mix powerful enough, you'll find that it will sound good anywhere, on any sound system.
"What's often done today is that you get extreme amounts of high end because it cuts through and gives you that kind of sugary sound. To this people add tons of reverb, and that can work if you're happy with that, but to me there's little emotion in there. I think it's fake energy. It makes your music sound like every other record that you've ever heard."
"Mitchell Froom: It made me really happy that the Nirvana record sold more than Michael Jackson; all of a sudden people don't know what it takes to be successful any more. That opens up possibilities for music to come out of nowhere, and that gives me hope."
With this he touches on one of the things he cares about most, and one of the great achievements of Kiko and 99.9F°: both records have a completely original and instantly indentifiable sound. In a time when almost all records have the same, washy, glossy sound, and when even musical innovators of repute (Rupert Hine, Thomas Dolby, etc) state publicly that it's now practically impossible to be innovative with sound — because of the omnipresence of samples and synth patches — and that they therefore concentrate purely on 'writing good songs', Froom and Blake's achievement is especially inspiring.
Lastly, Froom is reluctant to be drawn into any detailed discussions of how he and Blake achieved this from a technical point of view, considering this Tchad Blake's area, and adding "I'd rather concentrate on the 98% than the 2% percent. The difference in emotional effect between a track recorded digitally or analogue, on an SSL or a Neve, or with this or that mic is nil. What I'm not a fan of is hearing the same thing over and over again. So many people use the same samples and reverbs and their records all sound the same and it's destroying music. But I think things are turning around a bit at the moment. The atmosphere isn't quite as conservative as it was a year ago. It made me really happy that the Nirvana record sold more than Michael Jackson, so all of a sudden people don't know what it takes to be successful any more. That opens up possibilities for music to come out of nowhere and that gives me hope." And he concludes, with a nod to young musicians: "I hear so many demos where it is so obvious what people have been listening to and what they think they need to impress you. People get really excited today when a band comes along that sounds like the early Stones. But when The Stones came out people weren't excited about them because they sounded like Elmore James or something. The Stones, The Beatles, The Animals all made their own original noise, they figured out their own way of making a sound. What I'm really looking for is to hear people make their own original noise again, that they find a way of expressing themselves that's not tainted by expectations."
Interview by Paul Tingen
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