“My wife thinks it’s a sexy record,” says Al Schmitt, who recorded and engineered the Dylan sessions at Capitol Studios in fall 2014
Multiple Grammy-winner Al Schmitt, who recorded and engineered “Shadows in the Night,” Bob Dylan‘s homage to songs from the great American songbook as recorded by Frank Sinatra, recently previewed the album in an exclusive conversation with Santa Clarita journalist Stephen K. Peeples.
Schmitt, the most honored sound engineer/producer in recording history with 23 Grammy Awards and recognitions, took a short break from another project at Capitol Studios in Hollywood on Dec. 2, 2014, to talk about the autumn 2014 sessions for “Shadows in the Night.”
Jack Frost (aka Dylan) produced them in Capitol’s intimate, finely tuned and state-of-the-art Studio B. Just down the hall is the larger Studio A, where Sinatra recorded many of his best-known big-band and orchestra sessions for the label with arrangers like Henry Mancini and Nelson Riddle in the 1950s and early ’60s. Most of those Capitol sessions were engineered by veteran staff engineer-producer John Palladino, whom Schmitt considers a major influence on his own studio techniques.
Backing Dylan on “Shadows in the Night” are the same musicians he’s worked with onstage for years on his “Never Ending Tour” – Charlie Sexton and Stu Kimball (guitars), Tony Garnier (bass), Donny Herron (pedal steel) and George Receli (drums, mostly using brushes on this set).
‘Shadows in the Night’ Emerges Under ‘Full Moon and Empty Arms’
Released by Columbia Records on Feb. 3, 2015 – in the 100th year since Sinatra’s birth, and under a full moon (these could hardly be considered coincidences) – “Shadows in the Night” was well-received by critics and fans alike based on initial reviews and social media posts.
Many remarked the 73-year-old Dylan is in unexpectedly strong voice. Because the instrumentation is not loud, he doesn’t have to shout. “Shadows in the Night” is Dylan’s 36th album, but his first project with Schmitt, who engineered Sinatra’s “Duets” and “Duets II” sessions, The Voice’s final studio recordings, in 1993 and 1994.
(Sinatra and Schmitt are pictured. Courtesy Al Schmitt.)
Dylan’s reinterpretations of the 10 chestnuts included on “Shadows in the Night” are a remarkable departure for him for a number of reasons, as Schmitt explains. For one, the songs Dylan chose were not necessarily obvious, but there’s a thread of love and loss that connect them: “I’m a Fool to Want You,” “The Night We Called it a Day,” “Stay With Me,” “Autumn Leaves,” “Why Try to Change Me Now,” “Some Enchanted Evening,” “Full Moon and Empty Arms,” “Where Are You,” “What’ll I Do” and “That Lucky Old Sun.”
It’s definitely not your “ring-a-ding” swingin’ Sinatra swagger. It’s more akin to early Sinatra the Crooner, the late-night saloon singer. But much like Sinatra, Dylan gets inside the songs and connects with them in unexpected ways, and seizes ownership.
The “Shadows in the Night” cover art visually echoes the songs’ pre-rock vintage and the wee-hours intimacy of the music and vocals. Designer and Grammy-nominee Geoff Gans of Rare Cool Stuff Unltd. drew inspiration from classically cool Blue Note jazz album covers of the ’50s and ’60s.
Schmitt, 84, whose discography extends back more than 60 years and includes recordings by Duke Ellington, Henry Mancini, Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, George Benson, Jefferson Airplane, Diana Krall, and most recently Neil Young and Bob Dylan, to name but a few, will be honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on Aug. 13, 2015.
View the Schmitt-Peeples conversation at Capitol; the transcript follows.
(Please note: Video and text are copyrighted 2014/2015 by the author and not to be used in part or whole without his permission.)
Stephen K. Peeples: And I’m sitting with Al Schmitt, who is the most decorated engineer in Grammy history. He has 23 Grammys and that’s not too shabby. We’re here at Capitol Studios, we’re going to talk a little bit about what he’s working on now, and flash back a little bit and talk about he got into the business, which is a great story, too. What are you working on right now?
Al Schmitt: I’m doing a thing right now with Burt Bacharach coming up on the weekend. It’s for the peace movement. I think it’s “Peace Song,” and I think Andrea Bocelli is going to sing. It’s a song Burt wrote, and that should be fun. I’m doing that right now. The author and Al Schmitt are pictured above at Capitol Studios. Photo: Mike McAteer. I just finished the [“Storytone”] album with Neil Young. That was 95 pieces, very cool. And I did an album – one of my favorite records I did last year, which will be out in February – with Bob Dylan. It’s a totally different kind of a record.
Peeples: And I want to talk about that, too.
How ‘Shadows in the Night’ is Different for Dylan
Schmitt: It’s totally different from anything Bob has ever done. It’s something he’s wanted to do for 40 years.
Peeples: That’s what we hear. That’s the scuttlebutt among Dylan fans. It’s a really neat project.
Schmitt: And it’s great. People have broken down crying when listening to the record – that’s how emotional it is. My wife thinks it’s a sexy record. But people love the record. T Bone Burnett heard it and told me Elvis Costello loved the record. Diana Krall…people who have heard it just love it. Again, as they say, it’s like nothing you’ve ever heard Dylan do.
Peeples: While we’re on the subject, let’s talk about it a little bit. It’s different in what way?
Schmitt: The material. It’s other people’s material.
Peeples: So they’re not original songs.
Schmitt: No, not one.
Peeples: So it’s an album of covers?
Schmitt: In a sense, yeah.
Peeples: Or re-interpretations.
Schmitt: It’s a re-interpretation of songs that Frank Sinatra did in the ’40s, early ’50s, with Harry James.
Peeples: Right, when he was still on Columbia.
Schmitt: Yep. It was amazing, just amazing. He picked some obscure songs that are great songs.
Recording and Engineering ‘Shadows in the Night’
Peeples: From a production standpoint, or an engineering standpoint, how was it different from other sessions you’ve done?
Schmitt: What happened was he wanted to use me on it, and I was busy. I told him I was sorry – I just couldn’t do it, and I really was a little pissed I couldn’t do it. I had never worked with Bob and I had always wanted to. So, he was another one on my bucket list.
Anyway, I got a call from his manager saying… I told him when I was available, and he said, “We moved our stuff around because Bob wants to work with you,” and I said, “Wow, that sounds cool.”
So we did it at Capitol Studio B. He came in the room, looked around and we started talking. He liked the acoustics in the room. He said, “Boy, this room sounds really nice. Where would I be standing?” And we said, “Right where you’re standing.” That’s where the vocal mic went.
Then, it was his band. We had acoustic guitar, an upright bass, light brushes on the drums, an electric guitar and a steel guitar. No headphones and everybody around him. When he couldn’t hear enough of the rhythm guitar, we just moved him closer. And everything was live.
Peeples: How did you mike this [session]?
Schmitt: [Dylan] didn’t want to see mics, except the mic that he was singing on. So, all the mics were quite a distance from people. It was really unique, and I had to use every bit of my 60 years of experience trying to figure out how to do this and do this the right way. We used some great microphones. The acoustic bass mic was eight feet from the bass, down and away so he couldn’t see it – he could look at the bass player but couldn’t see the mic. Same with the acoustic guitar player. Now, the guys that played electric and steel, they had amps, so I was able to sneak the mic in fairly close to the amps. But it worked great, and overall we did 23 songs. Only 10 are on this first album.
Peeples: Is he sandbagging the other 13 for another album?
Schmitt: I have no idea, I don’t know. I have no idea. And with Bob… He won’t tell you [laughs].
Peeples: It’ll just appear on the release schedule.
Schmitt: The first day, I wasn’t sure what was going on.
When he came in and heard his vocals, he said, “I’ve never heard my voice sound this good before.” That was a great thing.
After he knew that I was on his side, it was kind of a nice collaboration between us, because he would say, “What does Al think?” And I was able to say, “Bob, come in and listen.” This was really cool, because there was tuning, and no fixing. Everything was what it was. That’s part of the draw of the whole record, the fact that it’s not anywhere near being perfect.
Peeples: It’s almost like the same approach that was taken for “The Basement Tapes,” which was like, “We don’t care, we don’t want to see the mics, we’re just going to play and come up with songs and whatever works.”
Schmitt: Same kind of thing. Now, I was working with Bob when they were doing “The [New] Basement Tapes” here. You told me about the ones with T Bone [Burnett producing]…
Peeples: That was [Elvis] Costello and [etc.]
Schmitt: And [Dylan] didn’t want to go in and hear it. He said, “No, no, some other time,” and all that stuff. I really, really liked him. I got along great with him, and would work with him again in a minute.
Dylan in the Studio: ‘Guarded’
Peeples: I think what it was like a great mutual respect. I can’t speak for Bob and I don’t know him personally, but his reputation is not one of being overly friendly sometimes.
Peeples: Once he feels comfortable… And you provided that atmosphere for him.
Schmitt: The word, I think, is “guarded.” He’s very guarded with himself and doesn’t…let in. But we worked – we’d start at 3 and we’d go to 6 and we’d take a two-hour break, and then we’d start at 8 and finish around 10:30. We’d work Monday through Friday with weekends off.
Peeples: How civilized!
Schmitt: It was totally civilized. And the band, the guys in the band – some of the guys have been with him 13 years, 10-11 years… They’ll all [be] with him forever. They respect him and he respects them, and they’re great guys. We just had a ball.
Peeples: There’s a musical intuition, I think, at this point, between the band members.
Schmitt: Right. They can anticipate where he’s going. The thing was though, he would listen to the songs over and over and get Sinatra’s intention on what he was doing with the song. Then he would only do two or three takes on each tune, but he would make it his own. It had nothing to do with Sinatra. He’d just learn what the song was about and whatever. It was an interesting way to work. It was a lot of fun.
Article: Grammy Legend Al Schmitt Previews Bob Dylan’s ‘Shadows in the Night’
Category: News & Reviews
Author: Stephen K. Peeples