Neil Young only records in the three days before the full moon. Robert Plant does not want to sound like Phil Collins. Joni Mitchell likes to listen to her music through her television, on the Dolby Surround setting. For her Vagabond Ways sessions, Marianne Faithfull just needed a place to stay.
Reading the lively and revealing new book Listen Up! by Grammy-winning Canadian recording engineer and producer Mark Howard (with his author-painter brother Chris Howard), one is struck by the peculiar and particular needs of the A-list artists while they make their records. Often their whims and stipulations are dealt with by Howard, who has worked with the aforementioned artists, plus Tom Waits, U2, Willie Nelson and collaborator Daniel Lanois and more. He spoke to The Globe and Mail about making music and meeting demands.
Bob Dylan’s music is all in his head: He doesn’t write his songs on guitar or piano. It’s like he has a filing cabinet in his head. So when [he] goes to sing a song in the studio, he doesn’t know what key to sing it in. So, he’ll do a song three times, every time in a different key. One key sounds strange, in another key he’s still kind of searching and he’ll settle into the third key. During the Oh Mercy sessions with Daniel Lanois, I would transcribe Dylan’s lyrics as we recorded. You can see the patterns he’s working. It’s genius, in a way.
Marianne Faithfull and the extremely fussy Rogers Waters: Marianne is brilliant. I rented a house for her right on the beach in Los Angeles. Roger Waters had a song for her, Incarceration of a Flower Child, which he’d written in 1968, but Pink Floyd never had recorded it. I recorded it with Marianne for Vagabond Ways, and when I was mixing the album with Marianne we invited Roger over to listen to it. He’s very much a control freak. He came into the studio and said, “No! It’s all wrong. The words are wrong. It’s wrong, wrong, wrong.” He didn’t like her phrasing. But he helped her. The song was written for [Pink Floyd’s] Syd Barrett. He came in and directed it for her. It was a special moment. She dug it.
On Daniel Lanois, who hired Howard as his assistant in the late 1980s: Daniel is very much a cheerleader in the studio. He likes to hype everything. That works well with a band like U2. That style didn’t work with Bob Dylan, though. They had a funny clash of attitudes. Daniel could have a bad temper. Making Oh Mercy in 1989, Daniel smashed a metal Dobro guitar over Dylan’s monitor. Dylan went white, and I stood in shock. So, yeah, it could get a little uncomfortable.
Robert Plant, no fan of Sussudio: I have a particular sound I usually use on vocals. It wasn’t until I worked with Robert Plant that I had any issues. He came in and said, “I don’t want that Phil Collins’s sound on me." So I used long delays and echoes on him instead. That’s what he likes.
Making noise with Neil Young: Neil only records in the three days before the full moon. It takes six months to make a record. Le Noise, with Daniel Lanois, was supposed to be an acoustic record. But it turned into an electric collage of certain sounds. Neil had a mahogany Guild guitar from the 1960s. I put a subsonic harmonizer on it. When you hit the low note of the guitar, it was like having a synth-bass playing along with you. As soon as Neil heard it, he just lit up. He’d never heard an acoustic guitar sound like that. Neil is the master of sound. So to develop a sound for him was groundbreaking for me.
Pleasing Joni Mitchell: Joni wanted me to fix her debut solo album from 1968, Song to a Seagull. David Crosby had produced it, and it was supposed to be just her voice and an acoustic guitar. But David added a second acoustic to double her parts. She hated that – she’d been living her whole life hating this record. My job was to remix the album, with just the single guitar. She doesn’t like to leave her house, so I set up my studio in her living room. We also worked on a box set. I brought in Brian Blade to add drums to old songs. She would sit on her couch, smoke cigarettes and direct him. It was impressive, really. She’d had these ideas in her head for a long time, but they’d never been fulfilled. Everything was going well, and then she suffered an aneurysm. Everything came to a halt. I’m not sure those tracks will ever be heard.
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