Whether it’s country, indie rock or something in between, the vibe is king

By Michael Gallant

For Jay Joyce, producing isn’t a matter of hitting every right note, tracking with the finest mics or working with the hippest software plug-ins. Nope, it’s all about the vibe. “My job is knowing when and where a beautiful moment is happening, and capturing it,” he says. “Making records is a totally spiritual thing.” Joyce’s approach has proven successful for albums by a wide variety of acts that includes Cage the Elephant, Emmylou Harris, Derek Trucks, Sleeper Agent and Patty Griffin, as well as last year’s all-star compilation Sweet Home Alabama: The Country Music Tribute to Lynyrd Skynyrd. Most recently, Joyce’s third collaboration with country star Eric Church, Chief, opened at the top of Billboard’s Top 200 and Top Country Albums charts.

Joyce found his calling early on. “Growing up, I was always the one who wrote songs, tried to record them and get what I wanted out of people. So in a sense I was producing records before I knew what it was called,” he says with a chuckle. “It feels natural to me.”

Nonetheless, he first made his name as a musician playing alongside artists ranging from the Wallflowers and Iggy Pop to Macy Gray and LeAnn Rimes. He now brings those wide-ranging skill sets to each of his studio dates as a producer. “I play a lot on records I produce,” he notes. “Guitar, keyboards—it’s just a nice thing to be able to do. If a certain musical element is needed, I don’t necessarily have to bring in a session player to lay it down.”

Joyce’s musicianship always informs his production process. “Playing guitar in bands, I got a real sense of what works in songs and what doesn’t,” he says. “Now, when I’m producing, I come more from a player’s perspective than from an engineer’s perspective. If a player I’m recording is feeling inspired, chances are the take is going to be great.” We spoke with Joyce at his Nashville home studio about the scarcity of analog tape, the creative dangers of headphones and his endless quest for that all-important vibe.

How did you develop your studio?

When I was working with Patty Griffin, I had a little eight-track setup at home. We cut some demos here that ended up being most of her album Flaming Red [1998]. We did go into a “studio” studio to overdub a few things, but the heart and soul was done here. From then on I started using my space for preproduction, but bands and artists would say, “Do we have to go to another studio? This place is cool.” I haven’t done a record in an outside studio for quite a while. We’re now into our third room and we’re still adding.

What’s your technique like?

Everybody’s in the same room, except the drummer who’s sometimes in another room nearby. It’s not a typical separated studio environment. It’s spacious, but everything’s close enough to keep everybody unified. I’m not a fan of huge studios that separate players. I want everybody together, sweating, talking, communicating. It’s all about playing—artists and musicians don’t even notice we’re recording, or at least I don’t want them to notice. That’s one thing that creates the vibe I’m always looking for. Ideally nobody’s wearing headphones—they can prevent spontaneity, prevent a moment.

You don’t use headphones?

I’m not saying there aren’t situations where they’re thrown in. If the drummer is really loud and isolated, then of course he’ll be using headphones. But everybody else is in my control room. We have a huge sound system here with four subwoofers. It’s loud. When it comes to headphones, though, as musicians we deal with lousy sound every night. We adapt and play and learn what we can get away with. Sometimes I even prefer a bad headphone mix. It can make people more comfortable to not hear things so perfectly—it can give them less apprehension. It subtly affects the vibe, and the performances tend to be better.

Do you do vocals live?

Depending on the project, I’d say it’s about 50-50. With Eric Church, at least 70 percent were live takes—just capturing the moment. Then there are records like the new Cage the Elephant [Thank You Happy Birthday], where we had some live takes, but other songs were built as we went. We could spend days nailing down the arrangements. In those cases the vocals would come later. If I’m doing vocal overdubs, I like to get it done right away instead of booking another day. There’s something about the moment, even in an overdub. There’s a certain excitement going on. The singer might be coming from a particular mental place that he or she can’t get back into later. I’m not a believer in, “Let’s track guitars this week, drums the next, vocals after that.” I like to record an entire track in a day. Sometimes we even mix the same day we track.

How has your working relationship with Eric Church evolved?

It’s been a building experience, like old-school recording days when bands and artists had time to develop and grow together. We had to figure out how to do music in the country realm, and at the same time how to make music that we liked—not necessarily an easy task. We didn’t get stuck in that “let’s get that country radio hit” mindset. We wanted to come from a live performance vibe, where he’s playing for people who love him and his music.

What about Cage the Elephant?

Just like with Eric, we really feel like a team. The first album [Cage the Elephant, 2008] was very live and done very quickly. This second one is the classic case of a band having their whole lives to write the first record, then having to write the next album in one year while touring for 300 days. Some songs were completed before we were recording, but some weren’t. So half was very live and worked out in preproduction, and the other half was constructed. There was a lot of experimenting, trying different bridges, finding the one that works best, possibly even inserting another take into the master take, editing things like that. It was interesting.

What was it like doing the new Emmylou Harris record, Hard Bargain?

We spent a year picking and choosing songs for her record. We had initial plans of bringing in other players, instruments and singers but we ended up doing the whole thing with just her, [engineer and multi-instrumentalist] Giles Reaves and myself. There were lots of live vocals—a few were overdubbed, but Emmylou is feel-based. She’s very particular about her performances, and she’s not afraid to keep some imperfections that would feel better than the “perfect” note.

What if an act wants that perfection?

Yeah, that happens. If I get that sense from someone, things can take a while. In that situation I often go back to the first take and say, “Listen to this,” and A-B the first and the 20th take. It’s obvious that there’s a feel that’s lost when you hone in like that. We’re all human, and sometimes I go there myself. When you put something under the microscope, you can get lost. Coming back to something can be a perspective changer.

How’d the Skynyrd tribute go?

Doing Lynyrd Skynyrd music when you’re not Lynyrd Skynyrd is not what you’d think. The music is simple and repetitive, and you realize that it was the heart and soul of the vocals that made the originals work. We ended up getting some good stuff out of that record, and it was a chance for me to bring in some of my favorite artists to work with—Jamey Johnson, Randy Montana, Eric Church and Ashley Ray.

How did you approach the recording?

I hired Skynyrd’s live guitar player [Mark Matejka]—he had a real sense of how things should go. The rest of the players knew the songs, but weren’t rehearsed or ready to go right away. That was the best way to make it fresh. Some of the songs you can’t mess with. It’s sacrilege. We ended up doing two versions of “Sweet Home Alabama” with Ashley Ray. One was straight up, and the other was kind of a spaced-out acoustic ballad—and the ballad, interestingly enough, ended up working out much better.

Do you prefer analog or digital?

We generally record to tape, and then after an hour or two of tracking we’ll dump it into Pro Tools. I like to do overdubs in the box. Especially with acoustic instruments, sometimes the noise floor with tape can be too much. Depending on the project, sometimes we’ll still do vocal overdubs on tape. But I like the sound of doing overdubs in Pro Tools—and the audio is still going through the transformers of my tape machines, even if it’s getting recorded digitally.

Is getting tape difficult?

Getting tape sucks. I buy used reels from a guy I know who fixed my tape machine. He has old reels that have been used maybe once. They sound great. Also, after we put audio into Pro Tools when we’re tracking, we go right back and re-record over the same reel. I’ll use the same tape for quite a while.

Is there a particular genre you’re more comfortable with than others?

I don’t really want to be connected to any genre. I’ve been fortunate to work on many different types of records. For me, it’s two types of music—good and bad. I enjoy going from Cage the Elephant to Emmylou Harris to Greencards to Sleeper Agent. My rock sensibility is a good thing to have on an Eric Church record. My songwriting sensibility is something useful to bring to a Cage the Elephant project.

Do you have any advice to offer to up-and-coming producers?

Any time you have a specific bull’s-eye that you’re trying to hit, you’re not going to hit it. Often you have to step back and say, “Yesterday, this all worked in my head. Why isn’t it working now?” The answer is, “The song’s not letting me.” Each song is its own entity. It’s just going to take you wherever it’s going, so the best thing you can do is go along for the ride.

‘Each song is its own entity. It’s going to take you wherever it’s going.’

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