I Wish It Was Tomorrow
This was a wonderful session and, other than hiring the talent, I wanted to stay out of the way as much as possible.
The scene in the book is 8 year old Belinda, dreaming of a better world like she sees on TV in The Waltons. She dreams of escaping the Lower 9 and New Orleans by going to college and finding the perfect life.
I wanted to find a little girl who could really stir heart strings with her singing. Shamarr Allen works with a lot of young kids teaching music and I figured he would know someone. I called him up and asked if he knew of a little girl that could carry a big ballad on the record. Shamarr is a man of few words and he answered simply, “Andrew Baham’s li’l niece, Tionne Johnson. She can blow.” I asked if he thought she would be up for it and he responded, “I don’t know but she can blow. Call Andrew.”
Drew is a Facebook friend. He plays with Big Sam and I like to follow the ever unfolding exploits of Big Sam’s Funky Nation, so I hit Drew on FB. He got back with a contact number on Tionne’s mom, Andre. I wanted to see if there was any YouTube footage of Tionne performing and was surprised and delighted to find out she had been on The Ellen Show at age 8 and again at age 9. My wife, Shelly, and I are fans and had seen both shows but I didn’t make the connection until I pulled up the videos on YouTube. I watched in awe as this incredibly poised little girl blew the walls down with her singing and charmed Ellen with her interviews. I knew Shamarr had done me right again.
I called Andre. She said it sounded interesting but that Tionne would need to hear the song first so I offered them a demo that Margie Perez had been sweet enough to record for me. A week later they drove to my house and I went out to the curb to give them the song. Andre took the disc and looked in the back seat saying, “Tionne has a couple of questions.” I asked what she wanted to know and this adorable little girl, still in her school uniform, leaned over the back seat and asked, “I was wondering. Belinda has two songs in the musical but I only get to sing one. Why is that?” I smiled at her charming question, a question any singer would have wanted to ask but an adult might have been too intimidated to ask, and explained that she was playing Belinda as a child and that Tanya Boutté would be playing Belinda as a gown woman. She smiled the quick, understanding smile of a child and said, “Oh. I just have one more question. When do I audition?” I explained that I had seen her performance on Ellen and she wouldn’t have to audition. She grinned and they left.
I wanted David Torkanowsky to be the sole accompanist on piano.
I did not know David Torkanoswky before the flood. He read an interview I did with Keith Spera in The Times Picayune when I first got back from living in Belize after the flood and he wanted to see what I was like. He didn’t know my songs and, to be honest, my stuff is probably the simplest music he lays his hands on all year. He just saw something in my interview that made him reach out and I hope to do something one day to pay him back for all he has taught me.
David helped me in so many ways after the flood, flying himself to gigs that I could not afford to pay him for playing, just to help me crawl out of the hole I was in. He taught me things about being a professional, how to pay your band, how to prepare them with charts, and, mostly, he hit me with a thought that changed my playing and songwriting over the last few years with something he said to me. Once, when we were driving across country to a gig in Chicago, we were talking about songwriting and he said to me, “You know, you hear a lot more complicated than you can play. You should think about that.” I did and thinking about it lead me to guitar lessons with John Rankin which made me a better songwriter and guitar player. I owe David a lot.
But this wasn’t why I asked him to play. It was because of watching him record on Exit To Mystery Street when he did four different passes on Adios San Pedro, each of them more beautifully orchestrated than the one before. I knew David could play the part of the entire orchestra if need be and even considered just having it be he and Tionne.
I also wanted to put him in a situation that brought out his gentle side. Tork is a cut up, a very funny fellow who likes a dirty joke, bawdy reference or just to gasp at the sight of a gorgeous woman. When I told Bingham that Tork would be on the session with Tionne he smiled and said, “This should be interesting.” Someone else in the studio remarked incredulously, “PG-rated Tork!? This will be fun.” It was more than fun, it was lovely.
As with the other tracks, the session was able to flow seamlessly because of the engineer, Wes Fontenot, who had set up the grand piano to be near the vocal booth Tionne would be singing in so Tork could lead her through the number.
David was first in and he is incredibly at home in a recording studio which always makes a session smoother and more enjoyable. Folks who are less used to the studio environment are often thrown off and made self aware when it is time to record and self awareness is the last thing you want in the studio. Music should flow as naturally as it does when you have lost yourself in the song at home or on stage and once you start thinking about the notes you may as well stop rolling. Tork is very tech savy and fell into a conversation with Wes about which mics had been chosen, what effects would be on the piano. At some point in a technical conversation I wander away… and did.
Tionne and her mom, Andre, arrived and I walked them in to meet Tork. Pepsi had flown a camera crew in from Los Angeles to film some of the recording session and they were on hand to capture this song. Tionne acted as if there were no cameras there at all, as comfortable as if she did this every day of her life and I’m certain that she will be doing so very soon.
I introduced her to Tork and instantly saw a side of him I’d never seen but knew was there when I hired him: Tork, the patient teacher. He shook her hand and started asking about school. After a few seconds of making friends he asked, “So, how about you come over here and go through the song with me.” He leaned in and whispered secretly, “I’m still learning this so maybe you can help lead me through.” It was the perfect thing to say to a little girl in a room full of adult technicians and musicians. With cameras rolling and equipment flying around, it gave her some control because now she had to “teach” Tork the song. It was the sweetest tactic I could have imagined taking to relax her and it worked. (Thanks, Tork.)
I strolled in to the control room listening as he further established their bond while actually rehearsing the song and when it was obvious Tionne was ready, he said, “OK, thanks. I think I have it now. You want to try singing it in that room right there.” As she went into the vocal booth he said, “I play kind of loud banging on this piano. If you close that glass door, I won’t be so loud and you’ll be able to hear yourself better. Put on the headphones and you’ll be able to hear me just fine.” He was leading her right up to the point of recording without mentioning the word “record” and all the while making her feel like she was helping him. It was lovely and it was genius. Once she was in the vocal booth Tork nodded at Wes who knew what he meant by the nod and headed to the control room to begin recording.
The first take was sweet but Tionne faltered just for a moment toward the end of the song and when the song ended, Tork said, “That was great, honey, but I made a goof. Do you mind doing it again?” The second pass was perfect and when it was over Wes walked out to the booth and opened the door, smiling at her. Tork said, “Alright, we’re done. You sang beautifully.” Tionne looked around the room at all the smiling adults and asked innocently, “We were recording? I thought it was just rehearsal.” Hearts melted all through the studio over this beautiful old soul who had reminded us all for the day that music is play.
Tionne and Andre left for her dance lessons and Tork lingered for a bit. I thanked him because he had essentially produced the session. Being Tork, he knew very well that he had but said smiling, “Nah, man. I just banged around on the keys.”
Colman and I had discussed strings for all of Belinda’s songs and, as we were massively over budget, I saw no reason not to call the Craft Brothers to play violin and cello. They are very young but look even younger, stingingly talented and quite something to spend a day with. Sam has a head full of uncontrollably curly hair and black framed eye glasses. From a distance you might think he was the scrawny intellectual kid you knew in high school but when you get close you see his biceps and tattoos and the eccentric musician image comes more clearly into focus. Jack, more quiet than Sam, is the more direct of the two when speaking though he speaks less often than Sam and both are as dryly sarcastic as I was at their age so I feel younger around them if I don’t talk too much.
They asked what I wanted and I played down the song for them, singing some parts I had in mind and telling them to feel free to come up with other parts. They went into the studio and at that moment they are in a world of their own. Brothers who know each other inside and out musically.
They tuned out Wes and me for a while. Literally, we didn’t exist as they went into their Craft mode. Head nods, short hand language, giving each other looks and off mic whispers, all go into the few minutes it takes them to settle on an arrangement.
At some point the world came back into focus and they turned to us, as if realizing our presence for the first time, and told us they were ready to record. I didn’t lead them. They lead Wes and me through the song, telling us where and what they wanted to play. At a couple of points, I sang a few more lines I was hearing which they incorporated into their arrangement and within forty-five minutes we were done with the gentlest track on the record.
The innocence of Tionne singing, the elegance of Tork playing, the sweetness of the Craft brothers strings, all make up the simple beauty of I Wish It Was Tomorrow.
~ Paul Sanchez – April 12, 2011