Fiona Apple's Tracks
Dec  '99


Producer Jon Brion and artist Fiona Apple talk about their working relationship during production of her new album

Meet the music man of the new millennium...

Friday nights here in L.A., producer Jon Brion hosts a (humorous) musical variety show at a nightclub dubbed Cafe Largo. Improvisation, new tunes, oldies done with a devilish twist, surprise guests, retro instruments, colorful rock, and tasteful roll. You might hear Brion playing "Sympathy For The Devil" on an accordion. Spirits of The Beatles and The Doors appear from out of nowhere and get bent out of shape.

Someone shouts out, "This guitar string is wrapped around my heart," and Brion weaves a believable song around it. A recent show featured the mighty Finn brothers, Neil and Tim, formerly of Split Enz and Crowded House. Brion has the remarkable ability to be both a leader extraordinaire or an accompanist with fitting flare. His stage antics have led to the taping of a pilot for VH-1.

Born in the rough woodlands of New Jersey, Brion has been living in L.A. for the past decade, gathering accolades for his ability as a multi-instrumentalist with an eclectic collection of string and keyboard instruments. His first solo album is in the works and, as a producer of nots, his recent albums include exemplary work with Rufus Wainwright, Aimee Mann, and the new offering from Fiona Apple. We met at Extasy Recording Studios South during the final stages of mixing Apple's album. I was invited to listen in as the year-long project neared completion, and then enjoyed two chats in the studio canteen. First, Jon and I talked. Then he returned to the control room and Fiona stepped out to speak about her work.


Mr. Bonzai: Fiona strikes me as someone with good taste...

Jon Brion: Exceptional taste, and that's one of the reasons why it is so good to work with her - that, and the fact that she's articulate. Artists make comments, but you sometimes just hear ego talking. She's not like that.

Do people have the wrong impression of her?

That is definitely the case. It's just an impression based on what they saw on TV, when she was on an award show making a speech about the world being bullshit. She looks like a mess of trouble, and the songs on her first album are about terrible things that happened to her. People assume that she is a dark and negative person - but, as you can see, that is not the reality at all.

She's extremely bright. If something upsets her, she feels it acutely, but she also describes it acutely. She is not what most people would think of as the "difficult artist." She is not a diva, and she is open to ideas, and it is not a dark soap opera. She treats everyone well, and there is no feeling of a ladder of command common to many recording situations. With many projects , there is almost a class system in the recording studio, but not this one. After all, making records is supposed to be a creative working environment -
most of us do this because we didn't want typical jobs that mirrored the way society works.

How did you meet Fiona?

I was a session musician on her first album. I got a call from Andy Slater, the producer, who I knew from jam sessions at Cantor's delicatessen here in L.A. He was producing her demos and asked me to play guitar. I brought some more instruments and he learned that I could play a variety of things. When the album got started, I came in as a multi-instrumentalist, and sometimes arranger.

You play the Vibraphone. How does that instrument work?

The Vibraphone is like a Xylophone, except that it has metal bars. It is hit with softer sticks and it has a pipe of equal length to the resonance of the bar. If it's an A440 on the bar, the pipe itself - if you were to blow into it - would create an A440. Then it has a little disk which spins, opening and closing the aperture to the pipe, thus creating a Doppler effect. When the aperture is open, the pipe resonates at the same pitch and is twice as loud. As soon as the disk closes the pipe, the pitch changes and you get natural chorusing between the two. It's completely ingenious and absolutely acoustic. It only needs a little electricity to turn the disk.

What about the Dulcitone?

It's a Scottish instrument, turn of the century, which essentially plays pieces of metal shaped like tuning forks. It sounds like a muted Celeste. The lowest notes sound like a thumb piano. My mom found it in an antique shop in Connecticut and thought, "Oh, weird keyboard - Jon will love it."

Reminds me of the eclectic collection of Mitchell Froom...

I love Mitchell's work. Ten years ago, when I started collecting archaic keyboards, the only other people I knew who were collecting as well were Mitchell Froom and Tom Waits. Every time I found a keyboard that I thought nobody had, a record would come out and Mitchell had used it first.

Van Dyke Parks also contributed to Fiona's first album. What is the essential value of Mr. Parks?

I came to Van Dyke the way many have, through his Beach Boys work. I bought a book about making the Smile album and found an ad for Van Dyke's first record, which stated: "How we lost $100,000 on the album of the year." At the time, his was one of the most expensive records ever made. I went out and got the record and was floored by the scope and span of the work. So rewarding. It's a complete world you enter with Van Dyke.

Then, when I moved to Hollywood, I hoped to meet him. Eventually, I was asked by T-Bone Burnett to play banjo on a Sam Phillips track. I suggested that I might also play treated piano. He asked to hear my idea, so I walked out into the studio and there was Van Dyke sitting with his accordion. I lost it in a complete fan way, I was so happy to meet him. Much to my delight, when we were assembled for the session, as Sunset Sound, Studio 3, e were put in an isolation booth together. We did a couple of takes, and he was full of compliments for my playing. I was beside myself.

The next time I saw him, he was doing string arrangements for Fiona's first record, working at Capitol's Studio B. I said hello, and thought he might remember me. Van Dyke said, "Oh, I remember you - you're a bitch, baby. Your hands still do what you tell them to do!" Luckily, I have had the opportunity to work with him more. I hired him for the string arrangements on Rufus Wainwright's record, and they are classic. He is utterly unique, and there is a community of people who appreciate what an asset he is to our world of music.

Let's touch on the technical side of this Fiona album. Was there much pre-production?

Nope. The way it worked was Fiona asked if I would like to do the record. I said that she should play me songs because it may be the case that I would recommend somebody else. She's a friend, and I left that option open. She said OK, and I didn't hear from her for months.

I assumed that she was off recording with someone else. Her boyfriend is a film director, and we've worked together in the past. I ran into him and asked how she was doing and he told me that she was waiting to finish writing the entire album so that she could play it for me. She decided that she wouldn't play me anything until she had written ten -- the whole album, and had written all the lyrics out by hand, and had made a booklet for me. I went over to her house and sat next to an upright piano. She said she wanted to play the entire album and then we could talk afterwards.

I tell you - good songwriting is the best pre-production in the world. Good songs are pretty much indestructible. A good song badly produced is still a good song. She didn't want a record where she was in the studio seven days a week for 12 hours over three months. She trusted me, and I asked her to play piano and vocal, to a click when applicable, for all the songs. We had the drummer from her first album come in, Matt Chamberlain, who is fantastic. He played to those tracks and voila - basic tracks.

Where did you record piano and percussion?

Mostly at Ocean Way and NRG.

What equipment do you have in your project studio?

I have an Ampex 1200, and I just bought an old Stephens 24-track recorder. I have an Oram console and a nice selection of mic pres. David Back, who works for Sound Deluxe, has made a lot of equipment for me: compressors, mic-pres, EQs - all tube. I have a pair of Telefunken and Neve 1073's, all sorts of odd stuff. Altec mic pres and mixers. And I have a pair of Church mics - made by Stanley Church, of course. I understand that he made a lot of microphones for MGM during the classic 50's period. He heard the U 47 and ordered 200 capsules from Neumann and then built his own microphone around them. They use a great deal more power and tend to have more detail than a '47. Incredible mics, and then Neumann got wind of it and shut him down. For the most part, we tracked Fiona with a 251, Neve preamp into a Fairchild with the occasional Pultec EQ.

Could you comment on your engineer, Rich Costey?

He's been invaluable. Well-rounded guy, good engineer, good programmer, ran most of the Pro Tools stuff we've done. He's got a good ear and is a nice person, which is key to a project. Nobody wants to put up with a jerk for any long period of time. And here we are mixing on a very nice Neve console. We've had great luck since we've been working here.

As a musician, are you afraid of the Internet?

No, I've been looking forward to this. Twelve years ago, I programmed Fairlights at a studio in Connecticut and realized - because of the way information was stored - that there was a big change coming. Right now, everyone is trying to figure out ways to protect material and how to procure money from the Internet. I think it's much more socialistic than that. For most artists, the question is general subsidy. We sign record deals because it's the only subsidy that is offered. We no longer live in the Age of Kings, where the artist might live for free at the castle and write some minuets. 

I have always been interested in the notion that if you wanted to release what you have done - to the entire world - just to do it, and now we have the technology to do so. The artist can say, "I am going to offer this for free. I don't care." I am interested in seeing people move away from the plan to put a grid on the Internet, to do massive accounting.

Here is my concept, which is an unlikely scenario because it requires human cooperation. It would run like shareware. You assume that most people are going to pirate the material, but if you look at the truth of the music, you see it has the potential to genuinely touch people and perhaps change the course of their lives, or at least that given day. There are enough of us in the population who are happy to support those who affect us. The amount of money I have paid out over my lifetime to "give" to the artist is considerable. The music has enriched my life and I give back, but they don't see any of it.

By releasing records independently over the Internet, there is a fair chance that the artist might see some return. I think it should go one step further. Fuck it. Obliterate the new smaller, kinder companies because they will just become evil in nanoseconds anyway. Anybody who doesn't think so is an idiot. Let's do shareware, and in this Internet honor system, maybe 10 percent will honor it. If you fall in love with a record, it is something you live with for months. Why wouldn't you send back five or ten dollars directly to the artist?

What music would you like played at your funeral?

That's easy. The next to last movement of the Cabrielle Suites by Peter Warlock.

Do you have any advice for people entering this wonderful music industry?

[laughs] Stay in your car. Wear your protective clothing. Hmmm. Actually, Jim Phelen gave me some good advice, "You will get lots of offers that are very attractive, for one reason or another: money, power, etc. My only advice to you is to don't do anything unless you actually love it."

And here's something else: On his box set, Tony Bennett thanked Frank Sinatra for giving him the best advice of his career. "Only sing the finest songs." I believe you should put yourself in situations where good things are going on, and work with people you enjoy and respect. If you have songs that you feel are great, play them proudly.



Mr. Bonzai: What do you think of Jon Brion?

Fiona Apple: I absolutely love him - as a person and as a musician. He's very understanding, and he has the best taste. He's heaven to work with. How easy it is to take for granted the talents that he has. I look back at the time I played the songs on the piano at my house for Jon, and then when I began working with him in the studio - it doesn't even seem that he has to think about it. He just follows the music. He has an ear that allows him to suddenly play things. But he will exhaust himself working on something to get it just right, until you think he will pass out. And then he comes up with something that is absolutely key to the song. And he's a great friend. He's such an important part of my life as a musician.

What is different about your second album?

Because of changes in me personally, and also because of working with Jon, every element has been taken to the highest degree. It is more confident and less self-conscious. Jon has his genius and his visions, and will go and go and never stop and play everything that comes into his mind. He can do so much. It's easy to discuss, and take apart the song and its structure. But it's not only that he wants to make a good record - he wants to make a record that the songwriter intended. He knows that I will be going out to play this.

Are you looking forward to going out on the road?

Yes, I am. I will have my regular band and techs, and i love them.

Name for the album?

It's a very long title, from a poem I wrote during the last tours. Short title: When the Pawn...

Were you encouraged as a child to express yourself?

Yes, but I didn't want anybody to know. My parents encouraged me to play piano, but I didn't tell any of my friends. If you are 12 years old and play the piano, I knew what they would think. I couldn't stand the idea that people would think I was writing stupid things, because I wasn't. It was too important to me to just have anyone thinking about it. I just didn't want anybody to know.

Did you think this would become your life?

No, not at all. I never thought about it. I never gave thought to what I would do when I grew up. And when it came along, I didn't have to weigh it against anything.

By Rich Costey, engineer,
 When The Pawn

Even before beginning the recording process that yielded When The Pawn..., Jon and I had many conversations on record-making, and, through them, developed a fairly clear vision of which techniques and concepts might be employed to ensure the best combination of sonics and performance to  enhance the material.  Throughout those conversations, certain themes and issues presented themselves that could be solidified before beginning the project, but, of course, many more developed once the process had begun.

The primary issue was not "analog or digital," as we agree that analog is superior both for sound quality and long-term storage, yet digital offers speed and flexibility.  The issue was how, why, and when to use digital, while staying analog as much as possible.  I am a frequent user of random access hard-disk recording, and, as such, it was agreed that such a system should be used as an extension of the overall recording process, not as the centerpiece of it nor as a performance enhancement device.  The result being that the vast majority of the album was recorded directly to analog tape.  Even when a part was recorded digitally, care was taken to retain the integrity of the original performance, particularly where vocals were concerned (auto-tuning was not employed, nor was it ever needed).'

Beyond that, many of our tenets concerned abstention from commonly used recording techniques: mic the drums with as few microphones as possible; mic the guitars with as many microphones as humanly able (taking careful note of phase); only use combinations of microphones that look good together ; use only military-grade power supplies (specifically from the Canadian Royal Airforce); never allow an SM57 to even be brought into the room, let alone have a cable connected to it; when using drum kits bought at yard sales for under $5, close-mic them with only Elam 251 microphones; if an excellent-sounding live room is available, then put the drummer into the control room next to the tape machines; choose outboard gear primarily on look, not sound; begin the day not with coffee, but with dinner...

Fiona's vocal was recorded using only an Elam 251, except "Get Gone," where an excellent BLUE version of the "Hitler Mic" was employed.  Mic pres throughout the project were primarily Neve 1073 and 1066, with strong appearances by some of David Bach's custom-built tube pres as well as other preamplifiers that can only be discussed on a need-to-know basis.  Portions of audio passed through a beige G3 Macintosh running at 266 MHz.  Hard drives spun at a rate not les than 10,000 rpm.

thank yous to Brittany for typing