03 April 2008

House Guests 2

When writing Something So Strong I really enjoyed interviewing long-time Crowded House engineer Tchad Blake. He came on board towards the end of the first album, and was a stalwart during Temple of Low Men and Woodface. Those magnificent textures on ‘Whispers and Moans’ are his work.

Blake is the best kind of Californian: intelligent, relaxed, but not too-cool-for-school. Low-key, and happy to have his achievements speak for him. His work with Mitchell Froom for artists like Los Lobos (the masterpiece Kiko), Richard Thompson, Bonnie Raitt and the Bad Plus certainly do that. Many other engineers one meets are blowhards, but not Blake. His website is minimalism itself.

It’s rare that you see an interview with Blake, and this recent one is really for tech-heads only. It’s about the gear he used to engineer Suzanne Vega’s Beauty and Crime, for which he recently won a Grammy. A much better interview is this one from Mix, when Blake was based at Peter Gabriel’s Real World studio in the UK.

But this posting isn’t about Blake, it’s about the net and how it has made the world a smaller place. It was while writing SSS that I started using the net every day, and it quickly came in handy. There was no Google then, but through user-groups and people’s generosity you could easily get some Irish folk buff who knew the lyrics to, say, ‘The Parting Glass’. Or track down the engineer of ‘Weather With You’ (Blake is the exception to the rule that if someone has a personal website, they will usually love talking.)

In 1996 I was a subscriber to the Randy Newman newsgroup Little Criminals. There were only 60 of us, and I wasn’t one of the half-dozen who regularly posted. The only other site that I subscribed to was Tongue in the Mail, brilliant for tracking down facts and keeping up with the news but, like Little Criminals and any fan site, also an outlet for those with too much time on their hands.

The reason I subscribed to Little Criminals was that Newman’s archivist was also a subscriber, so you got news pretty much from “slot-mouth” himself (to quote one early reviewer of his singing). One day in 1997 the archivist wrote that Newman was about to make his first proper album (ie, not a film soundtrack) in nearly a decade. What did the fans want from it?

Well, I knew what I didn’t want: an album with the Eagles as backing vocalists, Toto providing drums and Jeff Lynne on synths. So I made the case that the album should be produced by Mitchell Froom. Like Newman, he loved the piano, appreciated real, analogue instruments, was a “classical” producer who knew the orchestra and had a palette of sound, and, most importantly, appreciated a good song. He was also intelligent and shared the same mordant sense of humour.

I heard nothing back. But a few weeks later Something So Strong was launched and Tchad Blake happened to be in town. I mentioned to him that some Newman fans were pitching for him and Froom to produce him. “Oh yeah,” he said. “We heard from his people the other day. Unfortunately we’re booked up.”

Bugger. Meanwhile Newman was booked to score Maverick and Pleasantville. A couple of years went by, and suddenly – after 11 years – Newman’s non-soundtrack album Bad Love was released. The producers were Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake.

I interviewed Newman on the phone about the record. Without prompting, or telling him I had written Something So Strong, he mentioned that Neil Finn was one of his favourite current songwriters:

“Crowded House – that’s of interest,” said Newman. “But most stuff isn’t. I just met [Neil] out here he was doing something. They were good records. I remember Knopfler when we were making Land of Dreams, he just loved that band. I hope he told Neil, or told ’em both.”

So I couldn’t resist telling him the story of how I had written to his archivist suggesting Froom and Blake. He listened patiently then said enthusiastically, “Oh yeah – that’s how it happened.”

Bad Love was beautifully produced, but not the most consistent set of songs Newman has ever released. Still, ‘Miss You’ is like a heart-breaking haiku, and gets me every time. The album was Newman’s worst selling, he later cheerfully recalled. It only sold 70,000 in the US.

But he went back to Mitchell Froom when the time came to record The Randy Newman Songbook – solo piano renditions of his best songs. It was sub-titled “volume one” but the Little Criminals are still waiting. Froom almost eschews making records to be hits, and he has succeeded at that a few times. But he makes great music, and I’ll always remember Newman signing off the interview: “And hey – thanks a lot for the tip about Mitchell!”

You’d think they might have heard of each other on the tightly inter-connected LA musical grapevine. But then, Brian Wilson didn’t surf, either.

Update: in news just to hand ...

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