Archived Story

Dave Carlock: The song is always in charge

Published 5:30pm Thursday, September 5, 2013

Steely Dan was the ultimate studio project. Extreme perfectionists who met when they attended Bard College, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker were a dynamic duo who stuck together as bandmates and songwriters until finally getting a break as staff songwriters for ABC Records in the early 70s. Feeling that their songs were largely too unique for other artists, producer Gary Katz pushed the two to form a band with other musicians that became Steely Dan.
After a few hit records and following the release of Pretzel Logic, well known for the hit “Rikki Don’t Lose that Number”, the band concept began to dissolve due to Fagen & Becker’s reluctance to tour and focus on perfecting record making with their songs.
The legend of Steely Dan’s recording process began to take shape in the next few records. It wasn’t uncommon to ask musicians to cut up to 40 takes of a track. Working with A list session players who could do or play much of anything you asked, Fagen & Becker were able to fully explore the possibilities of their songwriting vision as never before. Famously, when recording Aja, they would track a song’s charts with one group of studio musicians and then call in an entirely different band of players to try again, searching for the right feel in basics and looking to capture the magic in one group versus another. That process is what defined the sound of the best Steely Dan records, such as Aja.
I’ve been thinking about Steely Dan a lot this month as I’ve been chasing down the rabbit hole for the right way to bring a song alive for Florida songwriter, Larry Lange. He pulled me in to produce some of his country songs long distance, taking my suggestion to hire talent in the Michiana area. Of all of the songs we’ve been working on, a song called “Get Outta Dodge” has been a real challenge to find the right fit of a singer.
When I think of my exhaustive vocalist search over the last month, the legend behind the guitar solo on Steely Dan’s “Peg” comes to mind. After finally settling on the best group of musicians for basics, Fagen & Becker tried many different A-list guitarists before catching Jay Graydon’s stunning performance, which made the final track.
Fagen: “We hired a couple of guitar players, you know, to play the solo and it wasn’t quite what we were looking for, uh… till we got through three or four… five… players.”
Becker: “Six…”
Fagen: “Six players…
Becker: “Six or seven, you know…”
Fagen: “Six or seven… eight players…”
Yep, that pretty much sums up “Get Outta Dodge”!
A few weeks ago, I wrote about recording Nashville recording artist Justine Blazer in a Michigan hotel room while she toured through the area, and yes, she was the first vocalist to try the song. But after sitting with the results for a few days, her rendition was too laid back and cool, much more soul flavored than country. After talking it over with Larry, we both felt the song wasn’t hitting the mark yet.
In order to deliver the song as more upbeat country pop, I determined we really needed to recut the track and look at raising the key. By raising the key, there was no way around recutting everything, not just drums. So… back to the drawing board! I laid down new drums, acoustic guitars, bass, and a guide vocal all in the new key. Having focused on laying down a forward feeling groove instead of a laid back feel, I played the results to Larry and he loved it. He’d been resisting the idea of recutting the drums, but now he could see just what a difference a new drum track made, even at the exact same tempo. The results were night and day.
With new basics cut, I called Mike Davis to come in again to replace his previous electric guitar tracks in the new key. This time, being ultra cautious of Mike’s original Memphis soul vibe, I steered him at critical points to “country it up”. His new tracks were much more genre specific. Now I was better equipped with a more exciting backing track to solve the initial problem of locating the  “right” vocalist for the song.
WYSIWYG singer Jennifer Cooper-Peterson came down to do a quick audition on the chorus so Larry could hear her sound. He seemed focused on wanting the sound of a younger, 20-something vocalist so Emmie Hill-house, a previous Funkin’ Rock School student of mine, layed down a rendition. It still wasn’t quite right. Where Emmie did a great job, this particular song needed a belter, hard to find in young singers.
Resolving that a more experienced singer would be older, I remembered the winner from the Texaco Country Showdown I judged a few weeks ago, Stacey Lee Davis. She was a dynamic singer with a great live performance and one of the best belters I’ve ever heard in the region. After a quick audition,  Larry loved her voice, and she was onboard.
Just like Jay Graydon walked in and delivered the classic solo to “Peg” after the efforts of seven or eight other A-list session players, Stacey Lee Davis was the right fit for this bear of a song. A good producer always remembers that the song is always in charge, and they listen to what the song tells them to do. Sounds like a walk in the park, no? Sure it is!

Dave Carlock is a 26-year veteran of the entertainment business whose work as a recording engineer and producer, touring
musician, and songwriter made him Googleable.
His continuing work as an Independent Content Creator of Sound and Image has earned him a Grammy Award certificate, two Platinum Record Awards, and a Paragon Award in advertising. Currently, he brings national and international artists to make records and music videos at his production studio in the Benton Harbor Arts District.


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