Americana Highways had a chance to talk to producer Brad Jones, who’s produced and/or mixed albums for Marshall Crenshaw, Chuck Prophet, Hayes Carll, Josh Rouse, Allison Moorer, Dolly Parton, Tommy Womack, the Autumn Defense, Tim Easton, John Prine, Justin Townes Earle, among many others. We really wanted to hear how he worked.
AH: I saw that you started in music producing your own music. How did you branch from there into producing?
BJ: By accident (laughs)! In the back of my mind I had wanted to get into studiocraft one way or another and try the production side of things, but before I ever got started, I was at a rehearsal and the band liked my ideas and asked me to produce their album. My initial reaction was “No, I can’t do that” because I’d never done it before. They said “No! We think you should try it” because at the rehearsal they liked my arrangement ideas. I had already dabbled in engineering and sound, but I was asked to do my first production work for arrangement reasons.
Some guys are primarily sound guys, or marketplace guys, but I am an arrangement guy. I come at it from the perspective of getting the right arrangement on a song, and figuring out how to voice it. So I started that very day and did that album, and people around town liked it and asked me to do a couple more, and that led to me getting my own space so I could do it just the way I wanted.
AH: Speaking of arranging, has the music that inspired you growing up played a part in your arrangement?
BJ: Well yes, and that is the same thing that inspires everybody. The music that you hear growing up is fundamental.
AH: You are the bass player the Long Players, how does that band work?
BJ: The Long Players is a local collective that gets together and does a musical exercise; I’m not always the bass player in the group, but usually I am. We pick one of the great rock albums, and then we have to figure out how to play it in order, with a different guest singer on each song. It’s a musical exercise that keeps me from neglecting my instrument, which is bass. I like the puzzle solving that comes with working with them, I can challenge my brain with those puzzles.
AH: What was the last album you did with them?
BJ: Abbey Road! They’ve done 65 records, and I guess I have been on about ¾ of them.
AH: Is Paul McCartney one of your biggest influences?
BJ: Oh yeah! And Leland Sclar was another one. Jerry DuMont, and David Hood was a fantastic creative player.
AH: Conceptually, you said you prioritize the song arrangements when you are producing an album.
BJ. I try to stay aware of the idea of the song arrangements the whole time we are doing pre-production. The best songs work the same way a perfect story should work: they should have a trajectory and build up to something by the end. And the sequence of events should all add up in a way that’s going to move people. You don’t want to lose sight of that. Some people spool out their verses and choruses like they are link sausages and they kind of figure out how much they need and they’re done. But I try to push people to put a little more shape onto it and a little more meaning into it.
AH: How do you go from doing a pop record with room to play with the complexity, as opposed to for example Hayes Carll’s last album What It Is which was a little more subtle?
BJ: I do a lot of colorful pop records, and the sky’s the limit on those. There’s no set palette that you are supposed to stay within. Those are fun records because you can just try any jackass thing you want to and get different colors and shapes. But in the case of Hayes, I have to choose a palette that’s more believable to him and his fans. More acoustic instruments, instrument that we recognize, and instruments that we can localize within a room. So when you listen to Hayes’ records, there’s no sound that’s coming from ethereal space. Every sound that’s coming at you sounds like it could be coming from that room where you’re visualizing him standing and singing. That’s a different approach to people like Hayes, creating an effect that you can accept. Whereas with pop or even trippy pop, you can invent all kinds of weird stuff that isn’t necessarily believable in a sort of wooden, 400 square foot sounds stage. And I do both kinds.
AH: Your studio looks so comfortable and homey.
BJ: Come visit
AH: (laughs) Are most studios like that?
BJ: Our studio has a lot of wood and older objects and books and indirect lighting and there are very few grey surfaces. Ours is a little more homey and antiquey, and I think it puts musicians more at ease. If people are in a homey setting, they will play more freely, and we will get better stuff.
AH: Do the objects change the actual sound quality too?
BJ: Yes, and in a good way. For example in the control room, three of the four walls are lined with books. Books have a fantastic diffusion quality, so they’re a great way to treat your studio walls. Not only do they look good, and provide a choice for people to maybe pull one out and get a song lyric from out of the blue, but they actually make it sound good in the control room.
AH: I noticed in your own album, Guilt Flake, that you would have had to have been an avid reader, and with the Blunderbuss and Ophelia, do you find a lot of your lyrics in history and in literature?
BJ: Thanks for listening. Yeah, I read all kinds of things but at that time in my life I was reading a lot of American History.
Now, I am not writing a lot of songs from scratch, but what I do do from scratch, every day of my life, is try to help people to make really interesting visual picture of their album. I’m trying to make visual sound. So I’ve gotten far more influence in the past few years, not by reading books by the great producers, but by reading about filmmakers, and what kind of teams they hae to get together and what kind of vision they are trying to get across. Ideas on when an actor’s performance is fake and when it’s believable, things like that I get from books by Curacao, and Sydney Lumet, and Bergman wrote a great one, and the new one about Mike Nichols especially. When I read them I get massive inspiration for what I do, which is to try to make visual scenes using a team that’s working well together.
AH: How do you delegate what someone else on the team does, as opposed to what you do?
BJ: All my productions I work it into the budget where I am going to be the mixer also. That was I can live with myself and at the end of the day I know my vision has been satisfied and I know in my heart that I’ve done it right. 9 times out of 10, the artist does use my mixes, but I also tell them that there’s nothing wrong, after they’ve received my mixes, to use an outside mixer to do it all over again if they chose to, that’s totally their right and I never get bugged about that. Because I can still listen to my mixes at home. They can listen to whatever mix they want. (laughs)
I also do outside mix work. I just mixed an EP for Amy Correa last week. It was lovely to open up her tracks and see what production and song choices she had made. It’s fun to get it all at once like that too. When that happens I call them and offer choice of direction. Sometimes I offer to edit too, and they’re usually open to it. And usually they trust me to make that kind of decision too because they know I’m a producer.
AH: Do artists come to you by word of mouth?
BJ: Yeah, that’s the only way.
AH: Did that start from your first album
BJ: Yeah. I built this commercial space called Alex the Great, recording with my partner Robin Eaton, we built it in ’93.
AH: Had you worked with Robin prior to building the studio?
BJ: Yes, mostly in my home studio in East Nashville on a little 8 track analogue machine. I made a few demos for folks around town and couple of self-releases for people around town. And when we opened up Alex the Great, ADATs had just been invented so that was an affordable way for us to get into the game without having to go broke and buy expensive Studer tape machines, and the ADAT kept us going down the road until we were able to evolve into having 2 – inch tape machines and Pro-tools.
AH: How has technology affected what you do?
BJ: First off, I love my old tape machines. But I love me some Pro-Tools. Because of the power and the breadth of what you can do, and also the instant recall. For instance, today I’m going to mix four songs and I’m going to be able to skip around from song to song all day long. We never could have done that in the tape and desk era.
AH: Is there any time where once you’re in the studio producing where the artist had changed their mind?
BJ: I’ve been fired. (Laughs) I’ve been fired before, and maybe the first time I was fired it hurt my feeling but every subsequent time it didn’t hurt my feeling because I realized it’s just art, there’s no right or wrong to it. Everybody wants what they want and people manage to figure out what that is. I even get fired before the record begins once in awhile, and that’s because at the pre-production stage I’ve really hard on an artist, I’m really demanding of them to write better material or to change something or to try to reveal something more about themselves through their work, and usually that challenging causes them to come up with probably the best record they’ve ever made. But something they chafe at that, and they don’t want “Dad” telling them they’ve got to do better and they fire me and that’s fine too. They’ll find someone who’s more easy going and they’ll get a good record.
AH: When did you start working with Hayes Carll?
BJ: This last one was my third record with him. The first one was called Trouble in Mind, that was 13 years ago, and then we did another one called KMAG YOYO. We did most of that one down in Austin with his band, and then for this recent one he came back up to Nashville and we made that one using mostly Nashville players. I co-produced that one with his wife Allison Moorer. It was an especial joy to make this third record with him because it had been awhile since he had made a full production record, and neither of us was sure what it was going to be like. I was so relieved to see that he was stronger than ever. And it’s not just that the songs were strong, and they were, they were super strong this time. It’s that his persona was bigger than it had ever been. To me, persona is something like that when a guy steps up to the microphone, it doesn’t matter what compressor or whatever you put on it, he’s either projecting through that microphone or he isn’t projecting it. And in the case of this record, Hayes shows, through his voice and the way he sings, his essence and his personality, and what’s unique about his personality and his perspective on the world. Way stronger than he ever has. He really came into a focused place in front of the mic, and I was super happy with that record and working with him.
AH: Does that happens often?
BJ: No! That doesn’t happen nearly often enough. What more often happens is an artist gets in front of the microphone and suddenly they are all nervous about whether they are oing to be in pitch and they’re being cautious. And then tey warm up and an hour and half before they come to the studio they are drinking all kinds of lemon and echinacea tea and they psych them selves out and there’s no character in their voice. So I’m always trying to capture singers in a less guarded moment when they are just being themselves. Because we live in an internet era where people are saturated with perfect stuff and that’s not really what listeners want. What listeners want is to be able to peer into an artist’s world, peer into his voice, or peer into his brain. They want to get led into that artist’s world and they don’t want to hae slick sounds or overworked sounds to get in the way of that. They want realness, at least that’s what I want as a listener.
AH: You mentioned that Hayes’ albums used different bands, is that common?
BJ: People use different bands every time, and sometimes different on the same record. I live in a candyland a candy store of musicians in Nashville. And if I have like 4 or 5 days set aside to do basic tracking on a guy like Hayes, and it’s going to be here in Nashville, it’s way more fun and way more interesting to change up the lineup each day. One day the pedal steel rotates our and a fiddle player comes in his place or one guitar player splits and another guitar player comes in and that way every day has its own unique feel. And if something didn’t work out on the Monday, I have the luxury of recutting them with a while different lineup on Thurdsay.
AH: In Alex the Great, how many albums have you produced?
BJ: I’ve made hundreds here. I’m not the only guy who produces here, outside people prodce here too, Like the new Soccer Mommy record that was profiled in the New York Times the other day was cut here with an outside producer. So people book it all the time. I myself either here or at other studios probably make 7 and 12 albums a year. And then lately there have been a lot of EPs, so if you add in EPs, there’s another 5 or 10 per year.
AH: What’s your perspective on people recording at home?
BJ: I love how democratized music has become. I think people do lovely work in the middle of the night on their home rig, because there’s no one watching and they are just expressing themselves in unguarded moments and people bring me those demos and I feel like I can’t top it. I can give it a shinier sound but I can’t top the humanity that’s in the first document that they made. And sometimes I try to incorporate elements of it into the final production.
AH: What is on the horizon for you?
BJ: I’m a terrible planner and I’m not an ambitious person so I’m just going to see what comes down the pike, that’s what I’ve always done. In the short term, I’m going to make a record with a singer songwriter named John Bunzow, I just finished mixing the Amy Correa EP, and I’m finishing up mixing on a fantastic Australian band called This Way North. They do a celebratory tribal pop. Next month I’m going to do a band from Finland called Lone Deer Laredo and they’re kind of dream pop, spaghetti western kind of band. I’ll do a super folky Americana front porch record in April for a Nashville guy named Mac Leaphart. So, I enjoy all different kinds of music, I try not to get too pigeonholed. Just like when you go to a restaurant and you like to try something different, I like to change it up a bit, but I also don’t have to. I like a certain amount of musical variety in my life. And then even when I return to a genre where I’ve done plenty of records in, I force myself to try to set up in some way that’s different, like record the drum track in a different order, or put the tracks in a different order. I try to make it different for my own sanity too.
Find more about Brad Jones here: https://alexthegreat.com Read interviews with other producers, Dave Cobb here: Interview: Producer Dave Cobb on History, Teamwork and Now As Great Time To Be A Musician and Rodney Hall, here: Interview: FAME Studios Rodney Hall on Father’s Day and Upcoming New Album Muscle Shoals: Small Town, Big Sound and Walt Wilkins, here: Interview: Walt Wilkins on Producing the Mysterious Fluidity That is Texas Music