Rock, pop, country or jazz, it’s all about serving the music      

By Michael Gallant

In more than three decades, Joe Chiccarelli has amassed an impressive roster of production and engineering credits—from Alanis Morissette, My Morning Jacket and the White Stripes to Jason Mraz, Elton John, Christina Perri and the Shins. But it all began humbly for the multiple Grammy winner. “I started in music as a bass player in rock bands, and that kind of failed,” he recalls with a chuckle, “but I was always fascinated by the studio.”

That fascination led to a move from his native Boston to L.A. in the late ’70s, where he landed his first studio gig working as an assistant engineer at Cherokee Studios. A no-show by the engineer working with Frank Zappa created an opening for Chiccarelli, and he filled the new role with aplomb. The album, Sheik Yerbouti, became a hit and propelled Chiccarelli’s career in the process. Further engineering collaborations with Zappa followed, as did early calls to produce for acts like Oingo Boingo, Poco, Pat Benatar and American Music Club.

“Engineering records is something I specialized in for a long time,” says Chiccarelli. “I still enjoy mixing records, and while these days the job of producer and engineer really feels like one and the same, my role is different for every project. Sometimes I’m involved in every note of every song, but other times my role is much more limited. Sometimes I engineer myself, but there are also records where I hire someone else because I don’t think I’m the best engineer for the specific project. It’s all about what best serves the music.”

Chiccarelli’s career encompasses a diverse range of musical genres, from rock and pop to country and Latin, but he holds a special place in his heart for jazz, and has worked with Larry Carlton, Kurt Elling and Pink Martini. “The more jazz I can do, the more inspired I become,” he says. “I love jazz and grew up listening to it, so it’s something that’s truly important to me.” Chiccarelli talked with us about his recording philosophy, keeping flaws in the music, and managing egos in the studio.

What are you working on now?

I’m in the middle of a solo album for Bernard Fanning, who was lead singer in the hugely successful Australian band Powderfinger. It’s been a lot of fun. He’s a great singer, and we’re working on songs that sound like classic rock, but with a very modern twist. I’m also working on an album for an indie band called Hellogoodbye from Orange County, Calif. They had a huge hit a few years ago.


Describe your process with Alanis Morissette for her recent album.

That one was different because Guy Sigsworth had done the writing with Alanis and put the songs together in a way that was very electronic and programmed. She decided that she wanted to give this new album a bit more edge and human element, and that’s when I got involved. I took the work that they’d done and, in some cases, kept many of their parts. In others, we kept nothing but the lead vocal and rebuilt everything around it. There were some songs where we kept the arrangement that had been programmed but had the parts replayed by a live band. There were other situations where those same arrangements didn’t work with live musicians, so we came up with different parts that would work in that context. The whole process was really about augmenting what had been programmed, and sometimes changing song structures and arrangements to fit the new vibe.


What was tracking her vocals like?

Once she’s written the songs and lyrics, Alanis goes in and rather quickly does a vocal in a few takes. All of her albums have been very spontaneous once the song is written. In some cases, we worked harder at the vocals in terms of trying different approaches, but she goes in and does her thing very quickly.


What about vocal mics?

Alanis always records with an AKG C12 and specifically asked for that mic when we started working. She knows how to work the AKG and is very good with it in the vocal booth. But every singer is different. For Jason Mraz, it’s a Telefunken 251. Petter Ericson Stakee from Alberta Cross, who I just produced, uses a Telefunken U 47. Bernard Fanning’s vocal mic is a Sony C-37A.


How was it working with Jason Mraz?

Jason’s a great singer and the perfect collaborator. I felt as though I had a tremendous amount of freedom throughout the process. But if things got too left of center for him—if we got too weird with keyboard sounds or the arrangement got too tricky and began interfering with the lyrics—he’d politely reel things in. He’s a storyteller, and his emotions are voiced strongly in his songs, so it’s always important that the arrangements and production not crowd the story. It was a wonderful project to work on, and it’s been fantastic to see it do so well. The single has sold 2.5 million copies and the album is at gold.


Prefer digital or analog?

Both. It just depends on the budget of the project. Analog tape is certainly a choice of sounds now—another option on your color palette—as is working on an analog console versus mixing completely inside the computer. For record companies, mixing in the computer is beneficial, since somebody always wants you to do a remix or recall a session to fix some tiny detail. It’s a blessing to be able to call things up easily in the digital world.


You worked with Etta James.

I adored her—and learned so much from her. For me, she set the bar as far as great singers go. She was comfortable in the studio and very quick when it came to tracking vocals. It was never more than a few takes, and if we didn’t get the vocals on any given day, we’d come back when she was feeling it a bit more and get another one or two takes. She was all inspiration, and the biggest trick was knowing how to record her, making sure the mood was right and the gear was set up, so all you had to do was be inspiring—and press record. There was always a strong chance that her first vocal take would be the vocal take, and you didn’t want to risk missing that.


Is producing Latin music different?

Not at all. I just did a new Café Tacuba album, and the thing I love about bands like them is that they rely on their traditional influences, but at the same time, they draw so much from British or American pop. They are extremely adventurous. It’s a real pleasure to work with them.


How have you evolved as a producer?

One thing I’ve learned is that it’s important to trust the musicians you’re working with and offer them space and freedom. It’s your job as producer to gently guide them. I used to be much more hands-on and had very specific thoughts about how parts should be played and how things should sound. Over time, I’ve become much better about looking at the big picture and understanding the things not to worry about.


For example?

Sometimes you get so caught up in your specific interpretation of an idea or what a guitar part should be that you don’t leave enough room for the musician to put his or her own interpretation on it. I’ve learned to be much more of a collaborator and director than—dare I say it—a dictator.


How do you deal with big egos?

Ultimately, it’s the artist’s album and it’s your job to get inside his or her head and help fulfill a vision for that specific record. It’s almost easier with big personalities because they tend to be very specific and vocal about what they want, what they like, and what they don’t like. It gets harder when you have somebody who isn’t clear about what he or she wants, or isn’t vocal about it. That can get tough. Someone who is very focused and clear about where the project should go makes your job as producer much easier.


Do you avoid overperfecting a record?

Perfect is boring to me, and the concept of being perfect is one I try to avoid. Bands I’ve worked with like the Raconteurs, the White Stripes, or even My Morning Jacket leave little oddities in their music that make things special. It’s often the flaws and idiosyncrasies you didn’t get right that tend to be the most attractive things.


How do you know a record is done?

It just feels complete. It satisfies you and you feel engaged for the three-and-a-half minutes of that song. You’re glued to the story. I watched a great documentary on the abstract painter Gerhard Richter, and he was asked the same question. He said, “It talks to you and says stop. That’s it!”


Do you see the producer’s role changing in the future?

It’s going to be largely the same. If you think back to Teo Macero, who worked with Miles Davis, or even George Martin, it’s still the same. The job changes from artist to artist, and sometimes you have to rely on your strengths more as a technician than a musician—or vice versa. Technology will continue to get better and cheaper, and perhaps things will be done more in informal environments rather than commercial studios. But nothing can replace a good-sounding acoustic space, whether it’s at home or in a commercial studio.

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