How Very Like Sweet Anne
This was one of the more interesting musical pairings on the record: A duet between actor/writer/producer/comedian/director/activist Harry Shearer and Kevin Griffin, lead singer of the platinum record selling New Orleans rock band, Better Than Ezra.
Harry is a vocal advocate for the city of New Orleans on his radio program, Le Show, and in his film The Big Uneasy. I have been a fan for years. Years ago he portrayed my absurd future of life in a rock band with Spinal Tap, (they went through drummers, we went through bass players) and many times when we were lost backstage at a big show opening for Hootie or Bare Naked Ladies, the rallying cry would be, “Hello, Cleveland!”
Mighty Wind made me laugh though a bit uncomfortably because I was far more serious about my love of folk music when I was young and they played that seriousness to full comic affect in the film. What I am saying is that he has made movies that resonated in my life and made me laugh as well. I am such a fan that, though I have met him many times, I am almost always at a loss for words in his presence. (That damn self awareness again.) Harry actually came to see my old band, Cowboy Mouth, 19 years ago at Jimmy’s, he left a note for us saying, “Dear Mouthmen, play LOUDER!!” and signed it “Derek Smalls”.
Kevin Griffin has been a friend through the rock scene for years. Ezra enjoyed the kind of success we used to dream about in Cowboy Mouth but never came close to. Platinum record sales, television appearances, arenas, a song chosen as the theme song for Desperate Housewives at the peak of the shows popularity, they had quite a run and are still running.
I thought it would be really fun to have these two sing together because it seemed an off the wall choice.
Matt Perrine had outdone himself on this arrangement with a baroque four part harmony which he wrote into the song. The new melodies were so integral to the songs structure that we had to write additional lyrics and Colman and I decided to give Matt a song writing credit. So complex were the backing vocals that we had to take them out for Harry and Kevin to record their lead parts. Hell, I had to take them out to do the guide vocal and I wrote that melody myself. It was not the first nor the last time I would refer to Matt Perrine as a “mad genius,” a term of high endearment from me.
I had told Matt that I was glad he would be in the studio because the vocal arrangements were so intricate that he might need to lead the singers through the recording. As luck would have it, the day Harry was to come in, Treme called and this time wanted Matt for a scene. Sticking with our deal I said I’d handle it and did for a bit but was glad when he showed up toward the end of the day just to make sure I got it right.
We had sent Harry the original lyrics and needed to write more to send but Colman is old fashioned about writing and, throughout the two year process of writing Nine Lives, had insisted we be in the same room when we write, (a habit which I have since, mercifully, broken him of), so we didn’t have time to write the lyrics before the day of the session when Colman flew back to town.
Harry was completely prepared for the parts we had sent and tried to hide his surprise at being handed additional melody he hadn’t heard and words he had never practiced singing upon arriving at the studio, not a pleasant surprise if you are into being prepared. He was game to sing the parts he knew and have me guide him through the new parts from the control booth so we set about it. Harry let us know that he had decided to sing the voice of George Montgomery as “Bing Crosby, drunk on red wine” which was perfect as I am a fan of “Der Bingle” and vin rouge so after I stopped laughing I told him it was a perfect choice.
Throughout the session, I remained too intimidated by my love of his work to actually engage Harry in a conversation about his film, life, where his favorite po’ boy place is (For goodness sake, Paul, you’re 51 years old!), but fortunately we bonded on our mutual love of Bing and did dueling Crosbys from the vocal booth and control room throughout his vocals so I got that going for me, which is nice.
At times I could hear him talking with Matt, Mark and Colman behind me but I was focused on the work and tongue-tied as usual. He added the right touch of comic pseudo pomp to the character and, once he learned Matt’s new melody and the new words, he knocked the song off very quickly. Harry, I would venture to say, has spent a lot of his adult life in a recording studio. The amount of voices he has recorded for The Simpsons alone has probably given him more studio hours than most bands will see in a career. He had fun with the phrasing, played with the character and, of course, knew just how to hit the comic lines to allow them to hang in the air for just that extra beat.
More on Harry when we get to King Of Mardi Gras.
Kevin Griffin hasn’t lived in New Orleans since the flood. He landed in Los Angeles and wound up writing songs for American Idol which could be called “landing on your feet.” He has since moved to Nashville where he had a hit record on a Sugarland record before he unpacked the first box in his new house. Kevin is that talented and that successful. I am always humbled by the fact that he will take time out of his schedule to sing a song or two of mine for one of my records. He had sung on Between Friends back in 2005 B.K.. The song called Someone Again – a lilting ballad with strings (The Craft Brothers) and Peter Holsapple on piano -was a song about moving to Los Angeles and feeling displaced. Ironically enough, I wondered after the flood if he ever heard the song from time to time while living out there and wondered if it resonated. He has moved since so perhaps it did. Boutté tells me that too many of my lyrics come true and I better not ever ask him to sing about dying. Kevin also sang a children’s song I had written for Between Friends called Wake-Y-Up-O which he learned in a day and sang as if he were singing to his own child.
I have had the pleasure of hearing Kevin sing many times and in many different settings over the years and his voice is always just lovely. On a rock stage, in acoustic performance, radio shows, backstage jamming, the guy can sing. Colman and Matt did not have the benefit of knowing his voice as intimately and when I brought him up to sing Billy Grace they said no at first because both saw him as strictly a rock singer. I had to show them some YouTube footage of Kevin doing unplugged performances so they could hear that beautiful vulnerability in his voice. It didn’t take them long once they heard just he and a guitar to realize he was Billy Grace.
Kevin is always prepared when he arrives at the studio, another reason for his success. He knows the material, is in a confident place and ready to work. You see, fears and doubts aside, recording is simply work in the end and if you do the proper preparation, your instincts take over so you can relax into your best stuff. He asked to be taken through the song and the scene as he had not yet read the book Nine Lives. We played the song on the studio speakers while I talked him through the life of Billy Grace. It took a few minutes and a few passes of the song before Kevin stopping chuckling every time Harry’s voice came on, saying softly to himself, “I’m singing with Harry Shearer” as he laughed. Obviously, I wasn’t the only Harry fan in the room.
I explained that he was going to be singing the voice of Billy at twenty on this song. He asked for some stage direction saying that he had never sung in theater before so I told him, “There is a song of your’s on Ezra’s first record, Deluxe, called This Time Of Year. It always makes my wife think of her L.S.U days, throwing frisbees on the quad, the promise of life just beginning to unfold. Use that younger voice, your higher register, the voice that sold 6 million records and had hearts fluttering around the country.” He smiled and walked into the booth.
As I say, he is a professional and his first take would have been fine but being a professional he did what he has done for every song he has ever recorded for me and did several takes until he was satisfied. Kevin is a singer that knows what he wants from his voice in the studio and will go past what you have asked him to deliver, an excellent trait in an artist if you happen to be the producer. Colman was wide-eyed on the first take, turning to me and remarking that he sounded “younger than when he was in here just now talking to me.” As I say, Kevin is a talented singer and you can add “actor” to that now.
The complex backing vocals were sung by Arséne DeLay, Tara Brewer and Barbara Davis, the mother of Debbie Davis. Barbara is an opera singer in New Jersey where Deb is from and she was to be in New Orleans for the holidays so it was wonderful and warm to include more family in the record. The Boutté, Sanchez, Andrews, Allen, Davis, Bohren and Craft families are well represented in the fabric of the record.
Tara Brewer is a soprano, a teacher at NOCCA. and she appeared in season one of Treme singing an Irma Thomas song at a party. That caught my attention but it was Michael Cerveris – much more on him later – who suggested her for the album.
Arséne DeLay is John Boutté’s niece who I had sung with on a trip to Los Angeles with John and he had given her a big thumbs up when I asked about using her for Nine Lives. It helped that she had an instant bond with Debbie Davis who was invaluable in bring the voices of Nine Lives to life. Matt’s parts are demanding and Deb worked the singers hard knowing that when Matt came in for a listen he would work them harder.
These were moments in the session where I must confess that I stepped into the kitchen and had a cup of tea with Mark Bingham to listen to endlessly fascinating stories about records he has made and the impossibly absurd things that go on while a record is made as we surrender to creativity and reality recedes. Matt ran the background vocal sessions for the songs he had arranged on Nine Lives because he had already heard the parts played perfectly in his head for weeks and he wanted it to sound in the world as it sounded in his mind.
Loyola classical guitar teacher, singer, songwriter and incredible guitarist John Rankin, who has been so instrumental in developing my guitar playing since the flood, played a beautiful acoustic guitar part that he and Matt worked out to go with the vocal arrangement.
The final touch was Andre Bohren playing “classical sounding” piano for the bridge. Andre is a wonderful drummer in the bad Johnny Sketch and The Dirty Notes but he is also a classically trained pianist, something his father, Spencer Bohren, the incredible blues guitarist and folklorist, is very proud of.
It is well know among Andre’s friends and family that he will not cross his love of pop with his love of classical; one is for playing drums and the other is for playing piano. I wanted him to cross that line because I believed he would be surprised at how much each lends to the other. Also I dig the book Illusions by Richard Bach and there is a line which says, “Argue for your limitations and sure enough, they’re yours.”
I called to ask him if he could come up with a baroque sounding piano bit for the bridge of the song and he asked me to send an MP3 along. Later that same day he came to the studio and sat down to play. He shook his head laughing at me and said, “I hope you like what I came up with. I’ve never tried to improv like Mozart before.” I think he did a wonderful job and may even hire him to perform it in a big white wig like Tom Hulce in Amadeus.
The song is one of my favorites on the record. Delightfully different, comically irreverent and decidedly New Orleans in it’s absurd world view if not it’s musical stylings.
I grew up in the Irish Channel, dog-walking distance from the Rex Mansion and used to wonder about life behind those big windows. How Very Like Sweet Anne gave me a chance to have a peek and poke a little fun.
~ Paul Sanchez – April 14, 2011