Lee Townsend: Creative Music from the other side of the Glass
By Mike Brannon
Many of us who love music have been guilty of thinking less than positive thoughts regarding those dwelling behind the scenes in the recording industry. They have often been a catchall for artistic criticisms, sound quality, release holdups and anything remotely related to greed and cheapness regarding music production.
Lee Townsend, on the other hand, represents a new breed of producer at work today that genuinely cares about the artists and how they come across both onstage and when we run our lasers through their latest efforts. This has seemingly come about, in part, due to more indy label producers having actually been musicians and thus having better ears and an empathy for the lives and challenges of those of us who've chosen music as our life's work.
As testament to his commitment he brings us quality works by guitar (and bass) icons, Frisell, Metheny, Scofield, Abercombie, Holland and Charlie Hunter; most of which require only a single name at this point for us to know who we mean.
AAJ: How did you get started in production and are you a musician as well?
LT: I studied piano first when I was in grade school, then I played trombone in the Junior High School Band. I was in kind of a hokey singing group for awhile, too. Then in High School and College, I played around a little bit with guitar, but I never really considered myself a performer. It's not something I ever felt really drawn to. Since I took up record producing, I have found it to be such a challenging and absorbing endeavor that I have pretty much let playing go by the wayside, which has not been too frustrating since I am still concentrating on finding ways to get better making records. It's a lifelong process, really. So it feels like I have my hands full.
AAJ: What is your background?
LT: As far as growing up and all that, I was born and grew up in Southern California. My mother played the piano beautifully and even some accordion all throughout my childhood. Prior to that, she had been first violinist in the Los Angeles Youth Orchestra. We were always singing songs and listening to records. My brother played trumpet around the same time I was playing the trombone. And my Dad, even though he was not a musician, listened to music a lot. Altogether they provided an atmosphere where a lot of joy and inspiration came from music. So I guess I ended up with some sort of blending of my parents musical interests. In High School, I got into rock and popular music, just like everybody else. And to this day, I still haven't lost interest in it. When I went to college at Univ. of Calif., Santa Cruz, I studied Psychology. I even went to Berkeley for a year of graduate school in Clinical Psych. But all through these years, I just became obsessed with investigating Indian music, jazz, blues, reggae, classical music, African music, 20th century composers. I had a radio show, hung around studios, etc. At some point in there, it dawned on me that there was at least a craft, if not an art, to producing records. I think the first time might have been between high school and college when I heard Stevie Wonder's "Innervisions" on a good stereo for the first time. I just couldn't believe it. I pretty much flipped out at that point. But, in the 70's, I also heard something special and deep in the work of Manfred Eicher, Teo Macero, Brian Eno of course, and on Glenn Gould's, Joni Mitchell's and Bob Marley's records - to name only a few. From that point on I was pretty much ruined in terms of my prospective career in Psychology. Music and the idea of producing it became such a driving interest that all of that other stuff just took a back seat. Finally, the year my Dad died (1981), in the midst of a lot of pain and sadness I came to the liberating realization that life is too short not to pursue one's passion. So I started down this path.
AAJ: It's true...whatever causes us to come to that realization happens for a reason. What attracts you to a prospective artist?
LT: Originality, commitment, honesty and soulfulness above all, as well as a certain sense of the music flowing out of them or even through them. So execution is obviously a part of it. But a singularity of sound or voice is much more important to me than ostentatious virtuosity. And even though originality is the essential component, I also appreciate when an artist has a sense of history so that they know what kind of legacy they are a part of and trying to bring something fresh to. I am fortunate to work in a number of different genres with many different kinds of artists. But some qualities which many of the musicians I work with share are a gift for conveying melody in a memorable way, a strong sense of lyricism and rhythmic vitality, regardless of whether they are an instrumentalist or vocalist. These are talents and musical values to which I am truly drawn. And last but not least, I like people who have a sense of humor and whose work reflects some playfulness and wit. If we're not having a good time working on their music together, it's a squandered opportunity and something is wrong. Obviously not everyone is on the same level of brilliance as everyone else. But if I like the people involved and somehow resonate with some important aspects of their music - and if I feel like I can learn something from them and make a meaningful contribution to their work, then I like to dive in.
AAJ: You've worked with some of the most original and talented guitarists in contemporary jazz: Metheny, Scofield, Frisell, Abecrombie, Hunter and in particular on some very creative sessions such as 'I Can See Your House from Here' etc. What was that session like, for example?
LT: First of all, it was an honor to do it. Let's face it. Those guys are monsters. And in addition, we had a rhythm section of Steve Swallow (who in my mind is a legend) and Bill Stewart. So to be entrusted with what had the potential to be such an important inter-generational meeting was a responsibility that I took seriously. Part of the task was to balance the way John likes to work with the way Pat likes to work. The dynamic was pretty fascinating. And it was a challenge to have the record tell a story that transcended whether a particular song was John's or Pat's and not have it be an album that came off like a string of impressive guitar solos - because spectacular soloing is a given when you are dealing with improvisers of that caliber.
AAJ: What do you find yourself doing at these sessions to help make them happen?
LT: You know, part of what keeps producing music interesting is that every project is different and each one requires something different from me. My responsibilities range from helping develop the idea for a project to planning the logistics of it all; helping select material, musicians, the engineer, going to rehearsals, making suggestions about musical arrangements and overdub orchestration, recognizing when there is some magic happening and of course, helping shape the whole thing sonically. So it is often a balancing act between paying attention to the smallest details while at the same time maintaining a larger overall vision for what the project can become - having a respect for the process to insure an engaging and hopefully, provocative product.
AAJ: Why do you think artists want to use you most? What do you bring out in a session?
LT: I'm not so sure. Hopefully because we share a sense of exploration and wonder and have some fun working on their music together. I guess to really find out you would have to ask them. But I can imagine that it comes down mostly to trust and taste. I am simply trying to bring the level of the production up to the potential of the music - so that it somehow elevates it rather than suppressing the spirit of it in some way - which is always a risk when you are in such an artificial and stressful situation with the burden of posterity on your shoulders under time constraints. Part of it must have something to do with making people comfortable and helping to elicit good performances and giving them a feeling of confidence that the stuff is going to come out sounding good and engaging. I don't want to make too many claims on my own behalf, but I guess I have a pretty decent sense of when something feels good rhythmically and maybe even a bit of a knack for recognizing when an exceptional performance is taking place or a special moment is happening .... bottling that and then building upon it. Part of the job is coming up with right kind of idea to take a piece to an unexpected or more fully realized place. Sometimes that happens, but I wish it could happen more.
AAJ: Can you discuss your production company Songline/Tonefield and its evolution?
LT: Well we started it in 1988 when I left ECM and New York and moved back to the Bay area. It all started with Bill Frisell and that relationship has continued to grow and blossom ever since. In fact, the entire situation with Bill has in a certain way, turned out to be something like a foundation for my work especially in the way our musical values have developed in a parallel way over the years. It's very reassuring and rewarding to have that kind of camaraderie. It really is a privilege to work with someone of that level of artistic importance and extraordinary humanity. I am very grateful. As you mentioned, I guess I am known for working with a lot of guitar players. But that was never an intentional plan. It just kind of worked out that way. Those players happen to reflect the multi-faceted sensibilities that I am drawn to in music. Scofield is a perfect example of it... even someone I would call a master of it. And in a way, Bill is the embodiment of the cross-genre approach to a lot of the work I do with other artists - singer/songwriters, composers, improvising musicians and what people like to call "World" musicians. His composing and his playing are so unfailingly lyrical in any context that it seems more like working with a singer-songwriter than an instrumentalist. In recent years I have had the opportunity to work with some extraordinarily talented singers from all over the world like Shweta Jhaveri from India, Vinicius Cantuaria from Brazil and Gabriela from Argentina. We were able to place all of them in situations where they are playing with cross-cultural collaborators. And that has been very stimulating for me - and them too, I am sure.
AAJ: Why did you leave ECM?
LT: Basically I wanted to put more energy into developing my craft. And I wanted to broaden the types of music I was involved with in order to better reflect my other interests beyond the ECM aesthetic. I had been there for four years, which was a great experience and even a dream come true, at the time. And while Manfred Eicher was kind enough to allow me some plum producing opportunities, most of my time was spent running the U.S. operations of the company. So I decided that it was time to stick my neck out a little and risk coming up with my own approach to production outside of the protection and limitations of such a prestigious and influential company.
AAJ: What makes a good producer, would you say?
LT: Well, one analogy for the role of the producer that I hope isn't too corny or overused would be to that of a midwife. Obviously making a record involves musicians playing music, but it is not only a documentation of that. It is also about sculpting something together that will hold up to repeated listenings and have a reason for existing beyond the moment it is being made. So in that sense, the objective is for it to have a life after the birth. And in another sense it shares characteristics with a birth in that there are often difficult and painful moments in the recording process as well as exciting and even euphoric ones. My feeling is that the producer needs to recognize those moments and use them in a way that is constructive for the goals of the project, empathizing with the musicians at those moments while at the same time maintaining a perspective about the overall outcome of the endeavor. One thing I have learned is that the inherent tension of being in the studio with time pressure and what not does not necessarily need to be a negative thing. Rather it can provide an edgy sort of energy that, if harnessed, can yield some interesting and unexpected results. One other thing is for sure. You have to find inspiration and satisfaction in collaboration. It's important for a producer not to have his or her ego invested in such a way that you forget that you are primarily there to help artists realize a vision for their work. Obviously it makes the most sense to work together when there is a shared vision for that work. Or better yet, a vision that a producer can help steer in ways that keeps it fresh and surprising rather than too insular and self-absorbed. The last thing that someone needs is a yes-man. So I do think it's possible to challenge an artist to go in a different direction and still be supportive of their overall aesthetic purpose. But even though a project is shared and collaborative in nature, the producer can never forget that it is still the artist's music that is being showcased more than one's own production approach.
AAJ: Do you have certain studios you prefer over most?
LT: In San Francisco, I like recording at Möbius and mixing at Different Fur, both of which are small operations that are run by the people who own them. And that is something I like to support. These are folks who have been in it for the long haul and have carried out a commitment to developing something unique and strong in an area that they have consciously chosen to specialize in. Oliver DiCicco basically built Möbius himself. He use to do most of the engineering, but in recent years has moved in to doing his own artwork. It is a very comfortable tracking room with the right complement of vintage gear. And Susan Skaggs and Howard Johnston at Fur have developed a very fine mixing and editing room that just works great for me. The other thing about Fur that is very telling is that they always have an excellent staff who stick around for a long time. The Site, out in Marin county, is also a special place, although I have only had the opportunity to do a couple of projects there. In New York, I record and mix a lot at Avatar - formerly Power Station. The place has a lot of history and three wonderfully designed recording rooms with a lot of flexibility in terms of setting up a nice environment for musicians to play in. I also have had good experiences mixing at River Sound and Shelter Island. In Los Angeles, Oh Henry is simply world class in every way. Hank Sanicola is another studio owner that has really put his heart and soul into his place. He has pretty much created an ideal place to work. More important than the studios even are the engineers that I work with on an ongoing basis - Joe Ferla from New York, Judy Clapp from L.A. and up until a couple of years ago, Christian Jones here in San Francisco, who left engineering to become one of those blasted dot.commers. In the past year, I have started working more with Adam Muñoz here in town. I must say that I have learned so much from these people. For mastering, I work almost exclusively with Greg Calbi and have for at least twelve years now. He is simply the man as far as knowing how to sort out whatever sonic problems I may bring in. His new studio at Sterling Sound is, in my experience, the ultimate place to hear music. It's really astonishing.
AAJ: What is your basic philosophy of what you do?
LT: I have felt in my life the transformative power of recorded music for many years now. When I hear a Handel or Bach piano sonata performed and recorded sensitively or certain recordings of Robert Johnson, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Aaron Copland's music, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Frisell, Marley, Caetano Veloso, Peter Gabriel, Shweta Jhaveri or so many others, I feel that it changes me and challenges me to be a better person. So basically I am just trying to honor that feeling and make a small contribution to that legacy by making other contemporary musical resources available to the listening public. In the right situation, someone can get a pretty potent piece of art for fifteen bucks. In that sense, we are working in a pretty populist medium. I am still looking for ways to sculpt sound and serve music in a way that displays the most depth, dimension and texture, revealing its inherent capacity for mystery, sonic richness and new discoveries upon repeated listenings. I like to think of a mix as a sound sculpture that the listener can walk around in with a sense of wonder, examining and touching all the facets of the music from different perspectives. As with the painters and sculptors whose work moves me the most, it is also an attempt to achieve a blend of the elements of nature, humanity and technology to create, in this case, a listening experience that is somehow illuminating. It is always approaching an ideal that I can never quite reach, which I hope is a good enough reason to keep doing it.
AAJ: Can you discuss the current projects you're working on?
LT: Most recently, Bill and I just finished all of the guitar overdubs to orchestrate the trio recording we did with Dave Holland and Elvin Jones last year. Needless to say, that was a thrill. Those guys are nothing less than musical heroes. It will come out on Nonesuch in the fall. I also recently finished the upcoming Vinicius Cantuaria album. He's a great songwriter, a beautiful singer, a fine guitarist and an amazing percussionist from Brazil who is one of the most brilliant under-discovered musicians I have ever come into contact with. I hope this record will help change that. It is coming out on Transparent Music in March. The album has a number of high-profile guests such as Caetano Veloso, Frisell, Brad Mehldau, Joey Baron, Marc Ribot, Marc Johnson and David Byrne. I am also just finishing the new CD from the San Francisco rock band Laughing Stock. The group performs the songs of singer Alex Nahas, who plays Chapman stick with the intriguing instrumentation of Hammond B3, celeste, melodica and thereman, drums, percussion and a string section of violin and cello. So it's a pretty rich set of sonic textures. I like them a lot and I think the record is turning out to be very strong. Last but not least, Bill and I are in the middle of working on a recording with his band called "The Willies" featuring Danny Barnes on banjo and guitar and Keith Lowe on bass. It's Bill's take on old bluegrass, country and blues songs, as well as material that he writes sort of in the indigenous vein. It will also be a Nonesuch record, but I'm not sure yet when it will be released.