I am very lucky that I can call upon the services of so many talented musician friends to come and play on my records.
I have already written about the contributions from drummer Tim Bye, guitarist Jonny Miller, and pedal steel supremo Nick Zala; and when I needed inspiration for a bass part – Steven ‘Kilby’ Mears.
If my record label had said they wanted to put out the album with just guitar, bass, drums and a lead vocal, I would have been proud of what we had. But as I was writing these songs, I already had musical parts in my head, and I knew who I wanted to bring each part to life. And in each case, the guest musician said yes!
Always my first port on call for piano and Hammond organ is Adam Whyatt. Adam and I have played together in many bands. Sometimes it is scary how close he comes to coming up with keyboard lines I have in my head without me giving him any clues. Whether it’s the Country honky tonk needed for Santa Fe Sadness or the bluesy New Orleans romp of Ride the Mississippi, Adam always has just the right set of chops the songs need. In all, he graces seven songs with his keyboard brilliance. On the re-recording of Kansas City Won’t Let me go, I said, just play what you did on the recording from last year (a US only single release). Adam said: “No, I can do it better!” And he did. When I played it to a Nashville session musician, he said, “Man that cat can play!”
There is one other keyboard on American Odyssey but it is masquerading as an accordion. I had decided I wanted a Tex-Mex accordion sound on Tucumcari Sunset. I had booked an accordionist but they had to cancel at the last minute. Thérèse Miller came to my rescue by playing the part on a keyboard using an accordion sound. But it wasn’t a case of just playing the notes; she thought through the way an accordion player would approach the part, where they would put little trills in etc. and captured it perfectly. It adds a very subtle but important texture to the track.
My song Set Me Down by the Singing River is a celebration of the music that came out of Muscle Shoals, Alabama in the 1960s and 1970s. Eta James, Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin all produced amazing sounds from Rick Hall’s FAME studio. And from Muscle Shoals Sound Studio came tracks from the Staple Singers, The Rolling Stones, Paul Simon and many more.
I wanted the sound of a Gospel choir so I approached my friend Andi Hopgood who runs the Suffolk Soul Singers choir. I played her the almost completed song and hummed the kind of thing I was looking for. Andi scribbled down some notes and said, “Leave it with me.”
A couple of weeks later, engineer Ian Crow and his friend Gareth Patch who has a mobile recording studio, set up at the choir’s rehearsal room. Andi listened to the song on headphones and conducted the 30 voices through the final chorus, key change and outro. Looking on, I was both nervous and excited. The parts and the performances were everything I hoped they would be. Andi’s arrangement is wonderful and her charges did her proud.
One of my favourite performances on the album is the violin playing of Jan Rowe on When the Rain Came Down. It’s a folk song, finger-picked on acoustic guitar with just one vocal. I wanted to add a classical violin to it. Jan came to my house and I hummed her the motif I had in mind. She wrote down the notes and then on a violin that was made back when Beethoven was ten years of age, she played them back to me with such emotive playing, I nearly cried. We recorded the part on my digital recorder and she played along with that, adding another melody which perfectly complimented the original.
A few days later we met at Amblin’ Man Studios. Ian put a microphone up and we tested the sound – it was beautiful. “Let’s go for a take,” said Ian. So we did. When Jan’s final note had faded away, Ian and I looked at each other in amazement. “Er, that’s it, thank you, Jan,” said Ian. And that is the take that’s on the record. Jan then added the second melody (that too was a first take). She definitely won the prize for quickest session. As I said goodbye to her, I noticed that the bonnet of her car was still warm.
My sister, Jules, aka Tiny Diva, is my sounding board for all things musical. She is the first to hear new songs; the person whose opinion means most to me. She will counsel and cajole, steer and suggest. And when it comes to vocals, her word is sacrosanct. She chooses the keys the songs are recorded in, as quite often, the keys I write songs in aren’t always the best for my voice. I noticed that songs I wrote singing into my digital recorder whilst driving were often in the key of D; I was clearly influenced by the note that is sounded by a Buick LaCrosse cruising on the freeway!
Jules comes to the studio when I record lead vocals. If she says “sing it again,” then I sing it again. The session is not finished until Jules has signed off on my performance. Likewise, when it comes to harmonies, Jules is in command. If she decides that it would be best to have a male voice for a certain harmony, she will patiently school me in the correct notes needed – and she needs to be patient, believe me.
When she steps into the vocal booth, it’s another story. Jules is an incredible session vocalist. She can add layer after layer of great-sounding harmonies from ethereal and delicate on Robert Johnson’s Tears through to the full-on Gospel wail of Ride the Mississippi. An indispensable ingredient of a Tony James Shevlin record is Jules’s vocals.
Making an album is a collaborative process and being with like-minded people in a recording studio is such a rewarding experience. As a writer, it’s a wonderful feeling having musicians around you who can share in your vision for a song. I thank each and everyone of them for helping bring the songs on American Odyssey to life.