This is the story of how I recorded the most emotionally shattering (at least from the player’s point of view) harp part I’ve ever laid on a track. Like Ringo said: you know it don’t come easy.
I arrived at Gain Studios in Pavia, Italy last night (9 April 2014) at about 6:30 PM to record the last of four tracks with harmonica for Ed Abbiatti’s new Lowlands album, “Love &tc.” We’d done the other three tracks the night before. I’d had a long (though rewarding) day, which immediately got longer when I called my wife in the USA and learned that my son had experienced serious distress a couple of hours earlier and was being admitted to hospital. That’s rough news when you’re 3000 miles away.
After I talked to my wife, I sat down to listen to the track. It had only been assembled in the previous hour, when Ed’s voice and guitar were matched up with a cello part emailed in by Nashville session player David Henry. The emotion in the track, called “Cover the Distance,” was obvious practically from the first note, even before the lyrics kicked in. It was the story of a friend who’d died suddenly one morning: beautiful, sad, and utterly appropriate to that moment in my life.
I told Ed that the cello was my anchor for the piece, and I would play chromatic harmonica, mainly in the second octave and up, which would frame the voice and guitar in the midrange between the harp and the cello. (As I’ve said on a number of occasions, when it’s time to break someone’s heart, pick up a chromatic and play a ballad.) The cello part was played in half-notes, slow and hushed, which I would match on the chromatic. Because the piece was in C, the key of my chromatics, I could use chord voicings as well as single notes to fill out the textures. A natural sound was obviously called for, and I had the engineer set up an Electro-Voice Raven mic, the same one I used at the concert in Milan on April 5. At the previous night’s session we ran two chains in parallel–the Raven straight to the board, and an amp modeled chain through the Digitech RP360XP—so we could capture two sounds at once, but for this song an acoustic chain was all we needed. We set the levels so I could stand back from the mic and use my hands to shape my tone.
My son’s situation was ever-present to me, despite my efforts to shove those thoughts into a box in my mind and close the lid. Adding to the pressure was the fact that the studio doubled as a rehearsal space, and a heavy metal band would arrive to start rehearsing in another room at 8 PM, after which all bets were off where recording an acoustic harp into an open mic was concerned. (Some sound levels are damn near impossible to contain, and that’s where heavy metal bands live.)
It didn’t help that the valves on my CX12 chromatic began popping slightly on the attacks of quiet notes on the very first take. I realized that the relatively cool temperature in the studio was making the moisture in my breath condense on the valves, a problem I don’t encounter frequently in the studio. I knew I could cure it by heating up the harp, but how? I didn’t have an electric blanket, the harp player’s preferred solution to this problem, with me.
The engineer on the session pointed out that there were plenty of tube guitar amps in the studio, and a tube amp is handy when you want heat. He turned on a big 100 watt guitar amp head and laid it face down on top of a speaker cabinet to expose the tubes. The tubes glowed orange, and a few minutes later I parked both the chromatics I’d brought with me on the grill over the tubes, with the open backs of the harps facing down to let the heat in. Before long the harps were working perfectly, and we were ready to record again.
By then the clock was at half-past seven. We tried a few takes, each of which I stopped before finishing the piece. In my efforts to focus on anything but my son, I was blocking my emotions, trying to force perfection, and in the process losing track of the subtle complexities of the harmonic structure Ed had created, not to mention stifling the song’s emotion along with my own. Ed’s songs are simple, but the harmonic rhythms are his own, and there was a quiet “wow” moment in the piece where the harmony shifted from C major to E major. I struggled to remember those changes on take after take, growing more and more frustrated as I tried to hit my marks and maintain the mood of the piece.
I must have done a dozen partial takes in quick order. None of them was really what I or Ed wanted, though they all contained moments that worked well. The process helped me find the right approach, which was anchored on a gorgeous open fifth on C and G in the second octave, held for four measures, that brought out the stark beauty in the slow-moving cello part. (Open fifths are one of my favorite harmonica textures; they sound like eternity. With a cello under the harp, they sound like a better eternity.) I was making good use of hand articulations, including a deep hand vibrato that put a symphonic string feel on my part. But I couldn’t nail the whole take, try as I might.
Chris Peet, the producer Ed brought in from Wales for this project, took over at the console to smooth out that end. We did another few takes.
“We’ve got all the pieces we need for the track,” Chris said. “We can pull them together. How are you feeling?”
“I’m freaking out,” I said, not very calmly. It was true. It was five minutes to eight. The coach was about to turn into a pumpkin. All the pressure I’d felt since I called my wife was coming to roost. And I hadn’t nailed the part, not the way I wanted to.
In that moment Chris did what a great producer does: he helped me find the performance.
“D’you want a moment?” he said.
I stood at the mic, eyes closed, breathing deeply, allowing myself to feel the sadness in the song and the moment.
“Okay,” I said. I put down the CX12 and picked my second chromatic, a Seydel, off the back of the hot tube amp. The Seydel’s tone is a little lighter than the CX12, and I worried for an instant about whether it would be easy to match it to the takes I’d already done, but I was looking forward now. I didn’t want to have to fight the harp, and I knew I wouldn’t have to fight the Seydel. It was warm in my hand, and it played perfectly when I tried a few of my lines on it.
Cover the Distance
“All right,” Chris said. “I want you to take the whole song now, one pass. Just let it flow.”
The track began to roll. I felt my sadness flow into it, no longer straining to contain my emotions. The harmonica and the cello together made a peaceful, glowing texture that was simply beautiful. My hand vibrato sounded like quiet sobbing. I made a few minor errors—an entrance here or there that was a split second late, a chord that was slightly muffled—and I knew as they were happening that it didn’t matter. The engineer could easily shift those few notes in Pro Tools, or not. Either way, I was inside the heart of the song. (Or so I thought. I might be wrong, no matter how much I loved it. You can decide for yourself when the record is released. (Update: record’s released. I still think it’s beautiful.)
A few minutes later, at eight o’clock, just in time, the last take was done.
Listening to the playback in the control room, I thought it was one of the best things I’d ever recorded. From the looks on Ed’s and Chris’s faces, I knew they thought so too.
“Give me your address,” Ed said. “I’m going to send you that Raven.”
It Don’t Come Easy
I arrived in Milan last Friday and played one of my best shows ever with Ed on Saturday. Last night I recorded one of the best takes of my musical life on a song that’s going to make some people cry, including maybe me the next time I hear it. (Update: heard it, didn’t cry. I do think it’s beautiful. Later update: the video did make me cry.) In between I did a lot of work with a lot of people, some of it as moving and inspiring in its way as the session I played last night. But the high point of this trip was the last five minutes of my last recording session of the week.
Like Ringo said: you know it don’t come easy.