Professor Louie on building trust with an artist
When it comes to production, getting the artist to entrust you with their work and feeling confident that you see and share their vision for it is crucial. Aaron “Professor Louie” Hurwitz knows this all too well, having striven to earn that trust with every artist he’s worked with, whether they’re veteran, well-respected acts like The Band, Graham Parker, Commander Cody and others or young aspiring artists acted like folk artist Stella Prince. In this expert guest blog post, Professor Louie shares his thoughts on building that trust, using the example of how he began working with Stella Prince at his private studio, LRS Recording.
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I have lived in the Woodstock, NY area for years as an engineer, session musician and producer and have owned LRS for approximately 23 years. I’ve brought forth artists at all stages of their careers and I’ve learned that for any project, it’s best to take your time.
I recently got a call from a longtime friend, Jason Rothberg, a music supervisor, who introduced me to a young singer-songwriter in our area, Stella Prince. Stella has a voice and sensitivity well beyond her years, and is able to captivate listeners with her vulnerable lyrics and captivating vocals. She’s put out a couple of singles and I played a Stella song on my radio show, Professor Louie’s Woodstock Rockin’ Revue on WKZE and got great reactions, so I invited her over to my studio to hang out and listen to a few their new songs.
The first step in working with Stella was listening to the songs and working on them together to get you ready to record. I wanted to hear her thoughts on where she’s headed musically and her approach to her writing. For most songwriters, their songs are the most important part of their lives. I was very impressed with her focus and concrete ideas, but she was still open to new directions.
My first impression of Stella was that she knew very well how the music industry works today. She had done her musical homework and was very enthusiastic about evolving and improving her performance and she was ready for new ideas. However, one of her traits is that she doesn’t take no for an answer and sticks to her beliefs.
When I sat down with Stella, she played me about six songs and I chose one to record. She had a clear idea of what she wanted to achieve with the single. Unfortunately I had to go on a small tour so she took this song, recorded it in another studio and released it. I put it down to her being anxious to get the song out.
I started thinking about the big recordings I had produced and the element of time that helped me now with Stella.
When I co-produced that jericho CD by The Band they wanted to make a comeback as they hadn’t released a new recording in 17 years. I worked with them for over six years prior to the album to gain their trust to let me record their music. They finally gave me the green light to reconstruct and mix their version of “Atlantic City,” which became a hit jericho The CD was released in 1992. Taking my time made the biggest difference.
Stella came back to my studio and played more songs for me and our professional confidence increased. She played half a dozen more songs and this time wanted to take a different route – she wanted to pick one to record singing and playing with musicians live in the studio. She was very open to any ideas of arranging her songs for the musicians; Having never played with musicians in the studio before, the challenge came up. We chose the song “Closing Doors”. I felt that the lyrics were very close to her and that she would sing them with a very heartfelt performance.
Since all of their previous recordings had few instruments and a folk format, we decided that “Closing Doors” should take it a step further and aim for a folk rock feel with drummer, double bass player, guitar, piano and Hammond organ. It was a bit of a gamble – I’m very wary of musicians overpowering the lead artist on a recording, and having never worked with musicians in the studio before, I was concerned that her performance could be overwhelmed by big drum sounds and too much Production.
At this point in her career, I didn’t want to stray too far from her earlier recordings. She had already established a simple production, “retro” sound. I didn’t want her words, voice and feel to be overshadowed by too much production and potentially wiping out the fan base she’s built.
Another challenge with “Closing Doors” was that there are two different tempos in the song from the verse to the chorus. This led to the question of how the musicians would follow the tempo changes. In this case, clicking was out of the question to keep the song feeling right.
The selection of the players was decisive. Our Woodstock section is a great resource of players and I wanted to find musicians closer to Stella’s age who had experience and would take her seriously. They needed to understand the depth of their writing.
My first thought was to find a drummer who could go with the flow, and the right player came to mind. Luckily Lee Falco, whom I had brought along to some of my gigs years ago and who had additional experience playing with Donald Fagan, was available and ready to go. He did a great job following Stella, and once Lee nodded confidently that Stella was going on, all the other players fell into place – Vito Little Rock on guitar, Ryan Berg on bass, me on organ and piano, and Stella sang and play the guitar.
We had the record in a few hours and I gave Stella a rough mix to check out. My only concern was that since she had a few showcases ahead of her and was on her own schedule, she would have to get the track out as a single. During the recording process, the singer sometimes needs a bit of sharpening, and while listening, I found that some of the words were a bit overloaded.
Being live singing there were also a few concerns; One was the microphone. You’re always trying to guess which one suits a singer best, but you never know until you hear it again. If the singer likes the performance you can sometimes EQ or compress and work on the sound, but in this case I realized after about a day that a Neumann U87 would be much better for her voice than the Audio-Technica 4050 I was using . She has a quality in her voice that needed a smooth high end for this song. We decided to re-record the vocals again, so I called my friend, producer Jerry Marotta from Dreamland Studios and borrowed some U87 mics.
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I realized early in the recording process that this could happen. I have a couple of rooms in my studio and Stella’s original vocals were in one of the rooms which gave us a lot of isolation. I recorded her acoustic guitar with mics and a DI – a decision that turned out to be very helpful as some of the original vocals leaked into the mics, forcing me to mainly use her guitar DI sound and inject the mic sound to capture the to give acoustic guitar the right feel and sound.
Another concern with re-recording the vocals was that Stella would have to follow the tempo changes she originally created with her performance; now she would have to follow the drums that had followed her originally.
I’m very sensitive to recordings that don’t communicate, which is why I always prefer to record vocals and musicians live in the studio. When you record vocals live and each musician follows that vocal, it helps communicate the song. Stella and I finally figured out if she just sang the song the way it was intended it would work together, and it did. She certainly came across as a pro and “Closing Doors” is currently on the radio; when I hear it on the radio? Mission accomplished. The production certainly doesn’t detract from their song or performance. The singing remained heartfelt and is very relatable and impressive.
For me what makes a great recording 99% of the time is the quality of the song – hence the need, especially with a songwriter, to listen to all the songs that he has written rather than record right away. Listening and showing an interest in their material helps gain the artist’s trust and prove to them that you are there to help them advance their career and not just for your own personal gain.
Stella claims that “Closing Doors” is one of her favorite songs and I’m proud to have helped her through this recording experience. Also, I look forward to seeing her songs make a lasting impact on the folk/americana music landscape.