Nine Lives is 39 songs in all. We released Volume One last spring because it’s what we could afford but I never considered it complete until we could get all of the songs recorded and slid into place between the others.
There are so many stories half told on Volume One. Wilbert and Belinda are two of the main characters and on Volume One there is only one Wilbert song,. He has six in all. Same for Billy Grace and Joann.
I did not realize how long this particular musical journey would be.
Colman deKay, the crazy, sweet dreamer, had the idea that we should write songs for a musical from Dan Baum’s book about New Orleans, Nine Lives. Colman and I had written a couple of songs together so I knew he was a wonderful lyricist. I knew I could assemble melodies and song structures quickly but I didn’t realize how many songs we would need, how many different styles the decades and cultures of Nine Lives would require. I could hear it in my head but never having done this kind of project I could only chase the vision, not articulate the chase.
Colman, to his credit, trusted me throughout.
For two years, in four different writing sessions in New Orleans and Los Angeles, we worked. We would start in the morning. Well, actually a “Colman morning” which begins around 11 a.m. with a breakfast that absolutely had to include bacon because the man is a creature of habits. After breakfast Colman would have a smoke while I read pages and waited for a melody to sing to me from the pages of the book. Dan Baum likes to say that he types so fast he feels like a pianist capturing the different rhythms in the speech of the folks he interviews. I believe I heard those rhythms and that melodies were there within and I heard them as well. The pages of Dan’s book would begin to sing to me. When they had sung a verse and chorus I would sing it to Colman who was usually lying on the couch with his arm across his eyes. He would literally leap into action. Springing up from the couch to grab his copy of the book, a pack of cigarettes and a cup of coffee. I found out rather quickly that he wasn’t hearing the melodies, he was grabbing onto the words. This sped up the process immensely because once I had a catchy melody for the verse and chorus that satisfied me, we could work. I didn’t have to bother taking time to teach him the melody, just give him the meter and we could shoot lyrics at each other at a rapid pace. I would just say, “Colman I need a line here that goes, ‘da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da – da-da-da-da-da-da-da”.
Colman is what we in the Irish Channel would have called “a gentleman”. He grew up on NYC’s Upper Eastside, sat at the dinner table with the likes of James Baldwin, attended the finest East Coast schools. He is educated, cultured and well mannered. In short, everything I am not. I gave him access to the street characters i had known all of my life and that he knew mostly from films. He gave me entry into the Uptown world of culture and elegance I certainly would not have been able to capture without him. For instance, the lyric “the foie-est of gras” I could not have come up with on my own because I usually eat real food. He is fast with words. Funny, sharp and occasionally too dirty because he is a screenwriter from Los Angeles after all, always willing to have some give and take. As he said from the beginning of this three year journey, “The best stuff always starts with two guys in a room trying to make each other laugh.” And we laughed plenty.
When it came time to record, I knew long before we finished writing that I wanted Matt Perrine to arrange it. I had even approached him about it when we were only half way through the writing. I think he might have found it amusing at first that I had the brass to say Colman and I were writing songs for a musical but he said “yes” all the same. Once it was a reality, Matt was as driven, focused and obsessed about writing the arrangements as Colman and I had been about writing the songs. So much so that a few of his arrangements turned into songwriting credits because they impacted the song structure to the extent that I felt we had to share credit with him and Colman was happy to do so. This happened on a few songs where things got changed in the studio by the singers to the point where we shared songwriting credits with them. Michael Cerveris co-wrote three of the six Joann songs by making changes, both lyrical and melodic, at the mic in between takes
As the songs began to be recorded it became increasingly obvious to me as the producer of the record that we as songwriters had done a pretty comprehensive job of capturing the varying musical styles of New Orleans between 1965 and 2007 but there were gaps that Colman and I could not address lyrically and that I could not address musically.
Ronald Lewis and Wilbert were from the 9th Ward and part of a culture that I had not grown up in, with musical styles that were not as familiar to me. I wanted the songs to ring true for the fans of the genre in which they were written and to really capture more of the New Orleans musical spectrum in an authentic way so I turned the writing, arranging and producing of several tracks over to Shamarr Allen. Shamarr and I met just after the flood and despite the twenty year difference in our ages became friends. We have worked on stage, in the studio and have written songs together for the last six years. There is no one else I have ever known that I could possibly imagine trusting to the extent I did Shamarr on this project. I would describe the scenes in the book that I wanted him to write for and give a musical reference, whether I felt it should be a rap song, brass band song, instrumental.
Colman and I had already written a song called These Pies but after hearing the songs Shamarr was turning in and how well he was capturing the music and characters of the 9th Ward – he grew up there after all – I simply told him to throw our song away and come up with what he thought appropriate. He wrote some of the strongest songs for the record, five in all, and Nine Lives is a far better record than it would have been without his contributions.
The other thing I knew we would need were a couple of strong instrumentals. It wouldn’t be a New Orleans record without letting the instruments speak for themselves. I had sketched out two places for instrumentals, little snippets that Colman very sweetly clung to though they were far too brief to have been songs.
One was to be called Betsy’s Coming. I wanted it to be a jazz instrumental and I wanted Matt Perrine to write the piece. I had lived through Hurricane Betsy and it was not something I felt could be expressed in words. Matt researched jazz in 1965, New Orleans jazz in particular. His composition is a breathtakingly intense jazz piece built around the drumming of Jason Marsalis.
The other instrumental was to be Katrina and The Flood which I also felt could not be expressed in a words. As with Matt, I told Shamarr Allen the time and the place. Shamarr is a man of few words but he lived through this storm in very personal ways at a very young age. He turned in a hip-hop requiem to the New Orleans that was chilling, modern, dripping with sorrow and anger.
Matt Perrine and Shamarr Allen did everything I asked of them and more to make this story of community banding together to survive and celebrate life. A real life story of the musical community of New Orleans coming together to tell the story of survival and celebration. Their contributions are as important to this record as all of the writing that Colman and I had done going in.
Now the recording is finished. 15 more songs to insert into the story. Mark Bingham at Piety Studio is nearly finished with the mixes. I go by when he has a few for me to listen to but it is mostly to have a chat and a cup of tea with Mark. I almost NEVER ask him to change a mix. In fact one of the reasons I work with the people I do is because I trust that their standards for how they represent their work in the world is as high or higher than my own for the project. Matt, Shamarr, Mark and finally, John Fishbach who will again be mastering. Mark and John are artists and I mostly give them the music I have recorded, space, respect and they generally give me back records I am proud of and love.
It is a wonderfully nurturing, relaxing way to go about making a record, trust.
I wanted to start writing the “Making Of” the rest of Nine Lives but also to pause to remember for me, and for anyone who might still be following this journey I have been sharing for so long now, where it has taken me and us.
The great thing about writing notes or blogging is at least I will know where to read about the experience when I want. It was the most special recording project of my life. The energy, love, community were palpable and real.
Wherever Nine Lives goes from here, we got the songs recorded and the story told. A story of community told by community.
So if you are still out there reading, here we go, on to the finish.
~ Paul Sanchez – December 1, 2011