Little Big Town Explores New Horizons in Harmony and Production

Little Big Town Explores
New Horizons in Harmony and Production

By Bob Doerschuk

© 2012 CMA Close Up® News Service / Country Music Association®, Inc.

One great singer is a producer’s delight. When George Jones, Tony Bennett
or Andrea Bocelli is behind the microphone, the possibilities for one-of-a-kind
bursts of inspiration are what spark the studio maven’s imagination.

this mean that when you gather four terrific singers, the opportunities for such
moments quadruple? Not exactly, but it does tweak the dynamic in an intriguing
way. Group vocals reach out differently, in blends made smoother by toning down
individual idiosyncrasies. Even where one member takes the spotlight for a chorus,
the group is fundamentally, well, a group.

To producers with a particular
sensitivity to sonic nuance, this suggests a different set of possibilities than
a single voice on its own — possibilities related to texture and timbre, similar
to working with strings or synth pads. Jay Joyce is that type of a producer. With
Cage the Elephant and Patty Griffin as well as Country artists Eric Church, Emmylou
Harris, Jack Ingram and Ashley Ray, his trademark has been to frame the performer
in vivid and often surprising colors. It sounds on paper like a perfect match
for Little Big Town, whose versatility, precision, emotional expression and shimmering
harmonic presentation seem ideal for this type of treatment.

It sounds
that way on disc too. The meeting of Little Big Town and Jay Joyce on Tornado,
released Sept. 11, delivers on its promise of mutually inspired creativity. Working
together, artists and producer have come up with a milestone, each casting the
other in a new light and bringing forth something unlike anything either has produced before.

“We just knew that we needed to do something new,” explained Little Big
Town’s Karen Fairchild. “We’ve had great success with our longtime producer
and friend, Wayne Kirkpatrick. But even in discussions with Wayne, it was like,
‘How do we continue to inspire each other?’ You do find new ways of doing
it with a longtime collaboration, but we felt like we needed a fresh perspective
in a way. We had a great, open, honest dialogue with Wayne. He could not have
been more supportive. That’s just the kind of person he is.”

With his
blessing, the band — Fairchild, Kimberly Schlapman, Phillip Sweet and Jimi Westbrook
— reached out to Joyce. They’d already met him when he laid down some guitar
tracks on their 2010 album, The Reason Why, so when they invited him
over to dinner, everyone showed up eager to trade ideas.

“He respected
what we had done in the past and he knew we didn’t want to completely leave
that behind,” Fairchild recalled. “But he also said, ‘You know what? I think
I can make a new record on you guys — something different. I’ve got some ideas
about the way we’re going to record your voices.’ And that’s what we wanted to hear.”

“I really like the classic vocal bands — that ‘70s/Eagles/Crosby, Stills,
Nash and Young kind of thing,” said Joyce, who has been nominated for three
CMA Awards this year – Album of the Year for Tornado and Single of
the Year for “Pontoon” and Eric Church’s “Springsteen.” “I thought
that if we spent enough time in pre-production, they’d know what to do and we
could go in and nail it. So we worked really hard in pre-production. We even got
a couple of players to come in and rehearse — I don’t know why that’s so
unusual here in Nashville, but pre-production is pretty key especially with vocal
bands because you can constantly change singers and keys. The options are endless.”

Those options stretched beyond replicating old-school vocal styles — though
on “Can’t Go Back” (written by Natalie Hemby, Kate York and Rosi Golan),
for example, the voicings sung and doubled by Little Big Town do clearly evoke
the classic CS&N sound circa “Helplessly Hoping.” “We did a lot of bouncing.
We did duets. We did a lot of things they never did,” Joyce noted. “The guys
would sing a line and the girls would sing the harmony, as opposed to everybody
going at once. We experimented with a lot of old-school effects. I even had them
get inside an echo chamber when they sang some of the parts of ‘Night Owl.’
And that’s Kimberly inside the echo chamber at the end of ‘Tornado.’”

That vintage echo chamber at Nashville’s Sound Emporium Studios was just one
resource employed by Little Big Town and Joyce. Special attention was paid to
the drums. “Jay was very particular about cymbals getting in the way of the
vocals,” Fairchild reported. “He wanted a clean pathway, but the foundation
underneath should be heavyweight and full. That’s the kind of record that Jay
makes anyway, but that’s also what we were looking for.”

“When you
have four main vocalists, that’s a lot of real estate in the two-speaker area,”
Joyce added. “A lot of times, people cram the vocals on top, so my idea was
to carve out that niche right from the beginning. It might feel a little strange
and empty at first, but once we put the vocal right there, they didn’t have
anything to fight with. They can live without competing against anything else in the mix.”

Using the drums more sparely also allows them to speak with a greater presence.
They underscore the space and intimacy of “Sober” (written by Liz Rose, Hillary
Lindsey and Lori McKenna). The ominous imagery of “Tornado” (Hemby and Delta
Maid) is lit by a snare backbeat that cracks like lightning and anchored on the
downbeats by a kick drum that stalks like footsteps in the dark. And the four-beat
rhythm on the verses of “On Fire Tonight” (Luke Laird and Little Big Town)
ignites a sizzling, Sly Stone-like party groove.

But rules are made to
be broken too. On one track, “Self Made,” the formula is reversed during choruses,
where the voices are buried within a thunder of drums, washes of cymbal and squalling
electric guitars. Powerful on its own, “Self Made” packs an even bigger punch
through its contrast with the rest of Tornado.

“‘Self Made’
is a really special song,” Fairchild said. “Jimi and I were writing with Natalie
Hemby. She played us this thing that she and Jedd Hughes had started, called ‘Self
Made.‘ We knew the band would flip out over that lyric. It’s not just our
story, it’s the story of every working man and woman in this country that has
to try to do something for themselves the hard way. It’s about perseverance and believing and looking ahead.

“When we went in to track this song, we saved it for the end. It was like
the culmination of all the work we’d done,” she continued. “Jay was literally
standing on top of the B-3 (Hammond organ) in the middle of the room, almost conducting
and inspiring us to give more. It was something I’ll never forget. I know you
can feel it when you hear that song. We wanted it to be about that moment, and
if you push the vocals too forward, you’re not going to feel the way everyone
was playing. It felt like it should just sit inside that band moment because what
everyone was doing was necessary.”

“A lot of Country Music vocals are
shoved up front automatically,” Joyce added. “I like to hear what a vocalist
is saying, but I also like the Rolling Stones. So it was intentional not to do
the typical thing on ‘Self Made.’ With a rock song, if you’re going to jam
four beautiful, big-sounding voices to the front, the song is not going to rock.
No matter what you do, it’s going to sound like karaoke. To keep the rock feel,
I balanced the vocals just above what I would do for a rock band.”

this track in particular, that energy stemmed from how everyone configured in
the studio. Little Big Town lined up as they do onstage, on individual microphones
in a row. The musicians surrounded them, pushing the music into them from all
directions. “We weren’t worried about bleed-over into the mics,” Fairchild
insisted. “We worried about the energy of what we were doing. We even invited
some of the writers to drop by because we wanted them to make us nervous. It ups
the energy when someone walks into the room to listen as you track. We could see
everybody; it felt very in the moment with them. Jay would go, ‘All right, let’s
go. Bring your A-game. Sing!’ He’d count us in, and we were in the moment, bringing it.”

That was true on the album’s antithesis to “Self Made” too. The most delicate
moments on Tornado come at the end, with “Night Owl” (Hemby and Little
Big Town). Accompanied by acoustic guitar, with vibraphone and electric guitar
adding a glistening sheen, it presents the singers in an unusual configuration,
the male and female voices answering each other in a dreamlike dialogue of imminent
reunion. Listening, one hesitates even to breathe, for fear of disrupting its fragile, floating beauty.

Amazingly, it took just seven days for Little Big Town to track Tornado.
After a short rest, they came back to listen with some perspective and tighten
a few details. “Jay said, ‘You guys sing every night. You’re good singers.
There’s no reason why you’re not just laying this down live in the studio
all the way,’” Fairchild remembered. “I’m not saying we didn’t cut and
paste some things together. But what you’re hearing is a moment in time of about
seven days of rehearsing and then singing live at night, just as we would in a
show: The boys have a shot of whiskey, we have a little glass of wine, and we’re
off. We worked at a fast pace because we were so excited, we wanted not only our
label and management to hear these songs; we were ready for the world to hear them. We’re ready now!”

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On Twitter: @LBTMusic

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