So was it like that working with him in the studio?
No‚ because I really think both Michael and I have so much respect for his sensibility‚ and this seemed like the perfect project for his sensibility. At one point‚ I asked him‚ "What are you going for with all this crazy stuff?" because he would just send it to me in Vermont‚ and be like‚ "Hey‚ I got this trumpet player and we're going to lay down these percussion tracks with the trumpet." At one point he said he was hunting for vintage‚ futuristic sounds‚ which was how we had described the Hadestown show: vintage futurism.
Which does fit the sound. It's in the future‚ but it's kind of broken down and dirty‚ old and vintage.
And I think Todd was running with that idea. He's great; he's very decisive‚ which is so important in a producer. He's also really open to other people's ideas and input. There were always things where‚ if I said‚ "Hey‚ I'm not sure about this‚ can you try this? Can you edit this thing?" he would always have time for me for that. There was never a moment where he was like‚ "You're out of line‚" which is really cool. But he also made some very important calls‚ and I felt really okay about letting go of certain decisions where I was like‚ "This guy's ears are really good and really fresh‚ and Michael and I have been living with this stuff for so long that it's sometimes hard to hear. It's sometimes hard to hear beyond what we know.
Can you give any specific situations where he made a call that you were hesitant about? Where later you thought‚ "Thank God I listened to him."
One was a Greg Brown song that Greg had sung the parts and he also had spoken them‚ and Todd was very clear that we should use the spoken parts. I think vocally he was really able to hear certain things that I couldn't‚ because I had heard myself sing them so much. I was just like‚ "Oh‚ I want to hear the melody‚" because you become so attached to it‚ but he was just like‚ "It's just way more compelling like this‚ and we have to go with it."
It's such a funny thing in the studio‚ man‚ like when he first sent me the intro of "His Kiss (The Riot)‚" with all that crazy shit going on‚ I was like‚ "What is he doing? This doesn't sound like this song at all." But ultimately I was like‚ "Okay‚ he's got a plan." I think what he realized was that when you remove certain elements‚ other things become possible harmonically. And with that song‚ for example‚ when Greg Brown is speaking the thing‚ there's not instrument that's playing the melodies. It's taken on a different life. Same with "How Long." Ani DiFranco sang an initial version of her part in that song‚ which is the melody‚ but she never really felt good about it. It felt like kind of a shrill to her‚ so she went back and rerecorded it and she actually didn't record the melody; it's something akin to the melody‚ but it's like a fourth down. And it's crazy‚ and it wouldn't work if I were playing the song the way I play it on my guitar. But because my guitar isn't in there‚ this other melody becomes possible. And Todd could hear all of that.
That says a lot about what he brought to the project.
Yeah. He's very patient‚ too. It was a long process‚ and with all of the vocal stuff--I can get a little OCD about the vocals.
It is your record.
Right‚ but he was great with that stuff. He can hear the spirit of things. He can hear the forest and not just the trees‚ and that's hard to hear if it's your songs.
So after working with Michael Chorney on Hadestown for so long‚ what did he bring to the recording?
Well he brought the score. [laughter]. I mean‚ that's fucking huge.
How much did that change‚ from the stage show?
I think there were a lot of revisions during both years. Of course there were new songs‚ so there were new scores. Michael‚ his presence in the studio is very special and was very important to the album. He's just the kind of guy where every note he plays‚ he has his whole focus and his whole spirit into it. You can tell it's Michael playing guitar because he chooses certain notes -- and his Gibson sounds a certain way -- but also‚ you can tell because there's so much presence in the notes. And I think that‚ obviously Todd was totally focusing in on that session‚ I was totally focused‚ and Michael was totally focused‚ and I think that brought something to the other musicians who‚ you know‚ it was a gig for them.
Yeah‚ it was just another session.
Yeah‚ and they had just learned the stuff and it's easy to go get on your phone in the other room. It was really nice to have the three of us all hurling our intention at everyone else. So that's an awesome thing that I thought Michael brought to the album. What's also amazing about Michael is that he is really able to step back in the studio‚ almost in a way that‚ for me‚ is tough. I remember when Tanya first started to play the viola‚ I was like‚ "Oh my God‚ it doesn't sound right." I'm used to hearing Caleb Elder [the original Hadestown violist] playing it‚ and he plays it like a folk fiddle player. She's a classically trained violist‚ so it came out in this different way. My instinct would be‚ "Oh‚ you've got to do this differently‚ it should be like it was‚" and Michael sort of took the tack of‚ "This is what we're doing‚ it's going to be better if we let people be who they are." That was a big lesson for the whole record‚ with all the singers‚ especially: let them be who they are‚ because that's who we asked to be on the record.
Good point.
I don't know how much feedback Michael gave Todd on his choices. I really feel like his approach was‚ "All right‚ we're working with Todd." And he was able to sort of step back and say‚ "Okay‚ my work here is done. Let's see how Todd can work with it and present it." For everyone it was a process of stepping back -- working as hard as possible and letting go.
You and Michael had worked together on your last two albums‚ The Brightness and Hymns for the Exiled. How did you make the decision to work with a different producer instead of doing it like you did before‚ working with Michael‚ recording and producing in Vermont?
Well‚ I think we both came to that conclusion independently‚ that it might be good to step out of Vermont‚ especially when we started thinking about the guest singers getting on board. It was cosmic that Todd got involved‚ because there aren't a lot of producers that both of us would dig and want to work with‚ but also would be interested in taking on a project. Todd is a collaborator‚ and he said that at the beginning. And I think he has a ton of respect for Michael's stuff.
What was the lyric writing process like for you? How did it evolve from the very beginning to being in the studio? Were you making tweaks last minute‚ or hearing something differently‚ or adding new songs in order to tell the whole story?
Well‚ it was a total process‚ like you're saying. The stuff was very inspired and abstract at the beginning‚ and the lines were coming and I didn't know what they were about‚ and they were about this thing. And at the beginning it was sort of like "Anything goes!" I pulling all this imagery‚ like‚ "Sure! Stars‚ trains‚ whatever…."