I was thinking about why people work together, choose each other, and how these pairings make for good music. I'd love to focus on the relationship aspect of artist and producer, and how the two come together.
Amanda Shires (A): That's fun. I’m going to let Lawrence lead, because Lawrence came into my life via Lawrence first.
Lawrence Rothman (L): I discovered Amanda before Amanda discovered me. I first caught wind of her beautiful music via The Highwomen. I had heard that record [The Highwomen] and thought it was a masterpiece, from top to bottom. Some of my favorite songs on it were the ones where Amanda was singing the lead vocal, so that brought me down the rabbit hole of Amanda's music. Record after record I was discovering a gem that I had never known about. I loved the focused intent on great lyric writing and poetic lyric writing. Lyrics are my number one thing, as far as what grabs my attention. The richness and the softness at the same time in her voice; I was very, very drawn to it. When it came time for me to make my album [Good Morning, America], I wanted to have a few features on it. My voice is so low, so I like to team up with people who have higher-ranged voices. Sometimes that can be a male voice or a woman's voice. A couple of the people who I reached out to on my short list luckily responded and wanted to get involved on singing on my album. Amanda was one of the first people I reached out to, and one of the first people to come on board. I sent her a song called "Thrash the West." She responded to it, went into the studio, and sang on it.
A: This is where I come in to interject. I got "Thrash the West" during COVID lockdown. I'm not really one for checking my emails, and then, during lockdown, I was struggling a bit. I'd already been intent on not going into the studio ever again. That was my choice, and I was happy with my decision. But, during that time, I was thinking about how John Prine never let anything cross his desk without giving it a listen, because it disrespects folk's art and time. So, I listened to Lawrence's song "Thrash the West." There are not many voices that inhabit that low range. On top of that there was the production; the sound of the strings, and the string parts, really got to me. The sonic landscape. Then the subject matter. So, since they [Lawrence’s preferred pronoun] asked me to sing on it, I said, "Okay, maybe I can do that." When I went to the studio and heard it – not just on my computer speaker – that's when I was all in with the sounds that Lawrence was making. Eventually I sent them a song, and they were like, "We should get in the studio." Then there was another song, and we decided to do a trial date. I didn't want to put all my hope and faith into making a record, because I wasn't ready to make one at that time. Mentally, or in any way. We did a trial day and that went well. From there, my joy was rekindled, and my love for music was rediscovered. Creativity begat more creativity, and it didn't stop.
You were writing together remotely?
L: We loosely wrote a song via text before we met. It was a wonderful thing to write with somebody that I didn't know well, but to get to a spot where we delved into a lyrical theme that was close to me. We started with a story from my childhood. It went well. Then we did this trial day, and on the trial day we tracked "Fault Lines," "Stupid Love," and "Don't Be Alarmed" that all appear on the album. At the top of the day, I knew it was going to be a great session, but I didn't know a single person in the room. I didn't know any of the musicians, the engineer, or Amanda. I just had this feeling that it was going to be great. By the end of the day, we had those three songs, and we were talking about, “When can I come back? When can we make a record?” It was this instant, "Wow, we work great together." We were tossing the ball back and forth without knowing each other well, and creating sounds and ideas without too much explanation. We were going on feeling. And to do it with somebody that I barely knew, I knew that we were up to something that could turn into something great. At the end of the day or two that we were recording the trial session, Amanda invited me to come back a few weeks later to make a full record. She had sent me some songs prior, but I asked her if I could get demos. She didn't like demos, at that point. She said, "I'm going to go back in these next two weeks and write the record." She wrote upwards of 16 songs in those two weeks. At the end of every day, I'd get a song or two demo. It was a great joy at the end of the night to have these presents in my email. I'd open them, and every single one I was like, "Oh, my god, that's the best one!" Then, the next day, it would be like, "You beat that! That's the best one." I had this pile of great demos that she had. I went back in January 2021, and we made the record at RCA [Studio] B.
A: One of the crazy things is that it didn't take much for us, as far as finding the language for what we both want to hear. There's something about our tastes; our influences align all the time, for the most part. Then things that I don't know about, Lawrence shows me, and things that Lawrence doesn't know about, I bring. It didn't take long. I don't even know if it took any time for us to establish what we both liked or didn't like. I don't know that we even talked about it that much. After the first trial date is when we started sending sound "ideas," if that's a word for what I'm talking about.
L: For me, and I believe you as well, it was a rare moment. You don't get this too many times in your musical life where you're able to find a musical partner and you're producing something where all of your tastes align unforced. If Amanda shows me a record or something, 9.5 out of 10 times I'm going to love it. I always had this reservation about producing, because of the fact that you have to take somebody's vision and bring it to life. If you, as the producer, aren't completely invested in it emotionally and creatively, like it's your own band or your own music, I don't feel you can really deliver the ultimate vision of what that artist has in mind. I never wanted to throw myself in those positions, because I'd have to be very emotionally invested with the creativity and be aligned with it. With Amanda, I found that perfect combination for myself.
A track like Lawrence's "Benadryl and Cereal" versus The Highwomen songs is so different. "Don't Be Alarmed" might be what I would have expected from an Amanda Shires record, but that's not all this record is. It's got '70s country pop orchestral arrangements, rock, and there are parts that remind me of Danger Mouse and Broken Bells. But it hangs together because lyrically it has themes that are pervasive throughout the record. When you sent demos to Lawrence, was it more in line, musically, with what people might have expected?
A: I don't like demos. I don't like the idea of it. Especially back then, when I was in a vulnerable place with music. With Lawrence, I got to where I felt safe and comfortable and so I did my best with it. You can tell in my other records I was trying to find sounds, even going back to Down Fell the Doves when I worked with Andy LeMaster. My language and vocabulary for that was not there. Lawrence and I have both been in the music business forever. We were both working professionally at the same time, in different fields, in '95 or '96. Anyway, to your question, no they weren't like you'd expect. Lawrence had some cool ideas and would send me tracks that I could see if I liked and could write to.
I didn't realize Lawrence was providing ideas for you to write to.
L: It was very quick, during that two-week period. It was between Christmas and New Year's Eve of 2020 and 2021. Amanda would demo up a demo of her own, and then I took the risk. I didn't know how she was going to react to it. We call them “randoms.” It's a little folder of sonic tracked ideas. She picked out a couple of those and wrote to those. Mostly I don't like elaborate demos, and Amanda, at that time, didn't either. A lot of them were stripped piano, guitar, or whatever. Even just a voice memo, because it's easier to imagine the song when you don't go too wild on a demo with it.
A: I think a couple were autoharp and voice, and a couple were ukulele and voice. A couple were my voice recorded shoddily over an MP3 track of Lawrence's. I would stop and start my computer. It's kind of comedic.
L: They're really cool though, the few that ended up being a music bed that you top-lined over. She'd start and stop them in spots and sing to her voice memo. It was all very raw. It kept a lot of space for us to imagine what we could do to it all and not get that demo-itis thing. I am the master of demo-itis with my own work, so I was hoping to avoid that pitfall with what we were doing.
End listeners don't always get the access and privilege to see what producers do. Sometimes it would be interesting for people to hear that. This record is cinematic in so many ways, which speaks to your production, Lawrence.
A: We have some of them. A lot of them I would do on video. I'm not scared for some of those to come out, but they're neat in that way, like you said, to be able to see how it was done. It's also not the quality that it became. I guess the person who would suffer in the release of a video demo the most would be me, being goofy. [laughter]
L: It's interesting with "Fault Lines," which is one of my favorite songs on the record. Amanda sent it to me on a ukulele, and I was in London at the time. In the Ubers and such, I must have played that ukulele demo until it broke. I played it so many times. So, when it came time to do the trial date with her, I was so in my head about loving the stripped version with her voice and a ukulele that I had to go, "Okay, I've listened to it too many times. I need to imagine this as a full band production." That, to me, was one of those moments where the reason I love this project and her songwriting so much is that we can have it on a ukulele, on a piano, or on an acoustic guitar, and the melody and the lyrics hold up. There are a lot of scenarios where we do demos and get elaborate because they're not driven by a strong melody or a lyric. That's okay, because sometimes music should be more about the production and all of the sonic treatments; and that's what the song is about. In the case of what I gravitate towards, and what Amanda does, it's all about the lyrics and the voice. So, her music can exist very stripped and keep your full attention.
Where did you make this record?
L: RCA Studio B. Tracks that were recorded there are everything from [Roy Orbison's] "Pretty Woman," classic Everly Brothers, to Dolly Parton's "Jolene." It was the house of Elvis Presley for over a decade. The lights are still the way Elvis left them. It was originally known as RCA.
Why there? There are so many studios in Nashville.
The Country Music Hall of Fame [and Museum] runs it, and they run tours through it for folks that come to Nashville looking for music history. During COVID there were no tours. Nobody was recording records in there at that time, so we had the run of the place. And, with the run of the place, we had a run of problems to deal with too, like power issues and all that that Lawrence can speak to. Even Jason [Isbell], with the guitar, he said, "I figured out why Chet [Atkins] liked the Gretsch so much; it’s because it's the only one that'll work in this room."
L: Yeah. We were originally supposed to make the record at Sound Emporium's Studio A. They were booked during the first two weeks of January 2021. We really had our hearts set on recording during those two weeks. We did the trial date right before Christmas, and we were in that mode of, "Let's make a record." Amanda threw out some names, and when she said RCA Studio B, that was a dream come true. I didn't even know you could record there. You kind of really can't, because it's an operating museum. Full records haven't been made there since the days of Elvis. Amanda had access to getting us in there, but since it isn't really a working studio, there wasn't much equipment in there. There weren't many mics or mic pres.
A: We even brought my speakers from my house.
L: Yes. Blackbird [Audio Rentals] kindly rented us a pile of equipment, and we rebuilt the control room for the sessions. We brought in Amanda's PMC speakers and rented [Neve] 1073s and Fairchilds. Lots of fun outboard gear. I brought a bunch of mics from my studio in California. RCA BK-5s and some Royer [ribbon mics].
A: We did have a piano and the celeste.
L: Yeah. The instruments in there include a celeste, the piano that was used on all the Everly Brothers recordings, plus marimbas and vibraphones. There was a lot of rich instrumentation to choose from. And the sound of the room… I don't know if I've been in a more elegant and well-balanced sounding tracking room in my entire life. I've recorded in a lot of rooms, and I love all these rooms, like Sunset Sound. But at RCA Studio B, we set up the whole band and everybody tracked it live with very minimal gobos between Amanda's vocal. Many songs were cut live. The bleed was so musical that we were spoiled by that aspect of it. All the headaches it took to set up the control room and the rental gear was worth it in the end, because the sound of the room was unmatched in my opinion.
People always say, "How did they get the sound on those old records?"
L: It's the room. The room resonates right, where the drums have the right low end and ambience around them. Amanda stood in the spot where they have an X on the ground that was Elvis's spot, and a lot of the singers from that era, like Dolly, the Everlys, and Roy Orbison, there was a special sweet spot where they sang. That spot, when we put a vocal mic up there, it had a resonance to it. All those little things help to make mixing or a recording that much less stressful.
A: We got creative too, since the room's only 40 by 25 feet or something. We located a couple of mattresses and sleeping bags. I remember I was trying to force Jason to play the damn ukulele. [laughter] We put two of those little twin mattresses and blankets up. Then, at some point, he didn't want anybody to know he was playing it and he hid. I also remember Lawrence doing a hell of a lot of dancing, and I think that contributed to a lot of the sound and joy of music hidden inside the songs.
L: Yeah, during this session was the first time – and I don't ever want to go backwards on it – where I sat in the tracking room, not the control room, for the entire session. Once we started doing that, and all the sessions we've done since, I’ve remained in the tracking room.
It sounds like this record was made fairly quickly?
L: Yeah. We tracked at RCA in ten days, and we did over 20 songs during that time. There are the eleven that made the record, but we did around 25 songs or so in those ten days. It was quick. We were doing two to three songs a day sometimes. Afterwards, I took it back to Los Angeles to my studio. The goal at RCA was to set everybody up live: Drums, bass, piano, guitar, and Amanda singing with her fiddle. Like "Hawk For The Dove," that fiddle solo was on the floor with the band. We wanted to capture as much of it live as possible, with minimal editing and minimal overdubs. We got as much as we could in the live snapshot. Then I took it back to Los Angeles and I added some of the orchestration. The meat and potatoes were all captured live. For me, that made it have an energy that was something that I used to do when I started making music, but I got lost in Pro Tools overdubland. To hear a record where it's human beings all playing together, with no click tracks; it has a humanness to it that I hear the great producers always talking about, but that I have never really experienced myself. Now I don't know if I could ever go backwards.
We can post on Dropbox, and nobody even has to be in the same room these days. It doesn't mean that we can't make a good record that way, but there's something special about having people in the room together and having human interaction.
A: This might sound woo-woo or something, but I believe it: If you get the right people in the room, it's recorded on those recordings somewhere; the vibe. Whether or not you can hear it.
L: Absolutely. In our instance, the band that Amanda and I put together for this record was one of those scenarios that changed my life. I had done things like that for myself in the past, and when I've exited those sessions, they always felt sort of flat and didn't have the thing I wanted. If you have the right musicians in the room that is right for the project and right for the artist and the song, the textures and the feel of what goes down is unmatched to anything. We can't get that by sending a hard drive back and forth. There are records that are made like that that are incredibly amazing. Some of my favorite records are made like that. But in this day and age, I prefer the human interaction. We have been so isolated during the COVID times that having that human interaction in music now is a good change-up.
A: We were so happy in the room. I just remembered this. We'd get a track, and you'd say, "We got it." I'd say, "Can we just do one more for fun? We're having so much fun!" Every time, we'd get to do one more for fun. There is that feeling – coming out of isolation, getting masked up, getting COVID tests and all that – a feeling of like, "What if this is the last time we ever get to play this song?" We didn't know going through COVID that we'd come out.
L: You brought that up a lot. "Let me do this one more time, because I might not ever be able to play this song again." It was funny, because we didn't do very many takes of songs. We would do maybe three or four. When Amanda would suggest one more for fun, a lot of those ended up being the take that we used. The “one more for fun" takes would always have something a bit more fun about them.
Well, I think we got it!
A: One more for fun? Should we do one more interview for fun? [laughter]