J.S.: This is for June Millington, the record producer. When making Fanny Hill, did you or Jean have any ideas that you weren’t able to try due to budget or time restraints? Were you subsequently unsatisfied with anything on the final record, like you heard a mistake you played but Richard Perry decided to leave it in? What about on other June Millington produced records?
J.M.: I don’t think there was anything we didn’t try with Richard due to budget constraints…in fact, I think the opposite is true. Because Richard was given free reign, it seemed, to experiment with and expand his production skills. He did an awful lot with Fanny kind of under the radar (by that I mean, a lot of middle-of-the-night stuff, when rates were cheaper) and under our budget. Although I’m sure it cost a lot, the advantage was that we were learning a lot, too. In fact, we were learning how to record – with established protocol. And that’s important, because recording is like running into a hall of mirrors. Endless choices! So you need to know how to make decisions, always an important life skill (in fact, I pass that on to the young women attending our Rock ‘n Roll Girl’s Camps here at IMA today).
Richard was always meticulous about everything. He heard everything, and I have that inherited skill, too. For example, because I only hear in one ear, I’m incredibly sensitive to pitch. (I leave panning up to excellent engineers, but I can hear the effect for sure – it’s essentially a volume move.)
What I don’t like, and disagree with, is when something of mine (I’m talking guitar parts) is included – or removed – without my inclusion (read, participation). Because there are so many choices, sometimes you just throw things out, or are warming up. The first time that happened to me, I had prepared parts for a song that was on our second album, which we were recording as the first was being released and we started to do a massive amount of gigs. But still, I prepared, and it was at least in 2-part harmony, which I love (three is my bliss), and I was using a Fuzz-Tone in my early stages with that device – so it was new, exciting, and provocative. I was excited and proud of what I’d done. Richard recorded it all without any real comment – but when I heard it later, he used my warm-up, in fact tuning, in the intro. I hated it then, and I hate it now. Internally, it’s embarrassing.
Opposite to that would be my solo in “Think About the Children”. That was at Apple with Geoff Emerick, and I had something specific in mind. Bear in mind that, with tape in those days, you’d have to execute pretty flawlessly in one take – you could punch in but that was dangerous, everyone had better know what they were doing. Wrong punch, lost forever! (I watched Skunk do the solo to “My Old School” and they did one punch; it was brilliant.) In this instance, it was a case of: my fingers went ahead and did their own thing. I asked Richard what he thought, because it was close, but in some subtle way so far off! But he didn’t know what I’d had in mind, and he pushed down the talk-back and said something like, “uh, I thought it was good!” So I said ok, because you could never retrieve that mistake. And I still think it was the right choice, because to this day I can’t quite figure out what I did! (The same thing happened on “One” on the FWTE album, except I didn’t do it with the producer, I was just with Lee Madeloni—Jean’s son—and one of the engineers. Sometimes you just gotta go with that first take…)
Speaking of Jean, I don’t ever recall her having any struggles around her bass parts. I mean, she was always so good, so in-the-pocket, and brilliant, how could you really argue with that? I’m sure she made a few mistakes and they punched, but I never paid attention if that happened – I knew it was minor and they’d get the job done. She definitely knew what she was after, and we didn’t go without her – at all!
The key is pre-production. See, we’d rehearsed the songs for awhile before we went into the studio (the exception was “Charity Ball,” which we’d started in our dining room with acoustic guitars, then went into the studio and jammed, with Richard on tambourine, egging us on, and then completed at home – point is, even that was an intentional process). Even today, I prefer recording an entire album as a 2-or 3-day demo, initially, to check on arrangements, keys, parts, and sequence of songs…it’s invaluable.
I also use charts – rhythm charts, which I write myself, whether my song or not – to get into the internals of a song or arrangement. There’s just something about it that communicates, as if the spirits of the songs themselves are speaking directly to you, when it goes into your brain, out through your fingers, and onto manuscript paper like that. This, I learned from the brilliant arranger and producer Tom Sellers in 1976, when Jean and I did Ladies on the Stage (mostly in New York – Tom was from Philadelphia, and was doing arrangements for Gamble and Huff while still in high school. Absolutely brilliant, a true genius). I also try to tape everything as a song unfolds so as to catch nuances or mistakes as they happen. You’ll miss a lot if you aren’t careful, or mindful. Takes more time, but absolutely worth it.
So, pre-production. Let’s take Cris Williamson’s album Strange Paradise. I probably did most of the capturing on cassette, and listened to that (Cris isn’t so into the endless minutiae of playback; she’s more off-the-cuff and excels at that, and part of being a producer is recognizing an artist’s strong points), although when we rehearsed, that’s when we would discuss and make any changes. I probably did more critical listening in pre-production with Jackie Robbins, bassist/cellist on that project (and on Cris’ previous album, The Changer and the Changed).
By the time we got to a sort of retreat time in Oregon, to listen and make final decisions, we mostly hung out and talked about anything that interested us; we didn’t play much. One tune I loved, and still do, was “Native Dancer,” which was about the racehorse. Cris loved that horse’s spirit, and would go into rhapsody talking about what heart it had, how the races would so inspire her – I got swept up into it. We had already gone over the cello parts in California (including pizzicatos, which I always adore on recordings), so what happened was I got inside the song through her tellings, to the point where, when it got to the recording, it was just a matter of execution and capturing that very excitement and spirit – which Cris is excellent at. She usually gets it in one or two takes; three is a lot.
But believe me, with all the intense pre-production, I had the outcome in my head already, holding the final result with great intention and hearing it, the final result already accomplished as far as I was concerned — but that isn’t exactly easy. You have to achieve a high level of confidence and stamina to get there, and then still, it’s a lot of mental work (you could say stress) until – voila: there it is.
Strange Paradise was narrating the story of walking onto a hitherto-unknown land, which the emerging women’s musical landscape, with its powerful songs, political declarations, and new power structures, were bringing to the fore. It was beautiful and dangerous. Hence, the spooky, low synthesizer parts at the very beginning of the album.
We decided that it was going to be a trio album, which was Cris’ wish. With one exception: Cris wanted Bonnie Raitt to play on it, and with great effort I finally made contact – calling from a payphone in Yellowstone Park while she answered in LA. “But I’m too busy,” she declared, “I have no extra time. I can’t fly up to San Francisco.” Making a lightning-fast executive decision, I said, “Well, what if we fly down to you? Could you give us an afternoon?”
And that’s what we did. We took a day off from work at David Rubinson’s The Automatt, and with engineer Leslie Ann Jones, flew to LA with the master tapes carefully held next to our bosoms — they were so valuable, and vulnerable. Anything that demagnetizes any portion of recorded tape, that part is gone. If you want to erase a tape entirely, you degauss it using a super-magnet designed for that purpose. Leaving it by a magnet (every amp and speaker has one, that’s how they work) can have terrible consequences.
But we got to the studio just fine, the machines were aligned, and off we went. Bonnie, pro that she is, had her parts basically prepared, and it didn’t take that long. We had extra time, so she sang backup parts as well, we all went to dinner (including Jean, who stopped by, pregnant with daughter Marita), and Cris and Bonnie remain good friends. Now, that’s a women’s music story, mixed in with the highest-caliber professionalism, no matter what genre.
We can apply all the pre-production principles described above to Holly Near’s Fire in the Rain, as well as Mary Watkins’ album Something Moving. I did pre-production on Holly’s for around 3 months, first helping develop the music, then finding the right players (which involved auditioning women in San Francisco and LA), getting her agreement to record at The Automatt with Leslie Ann (which involved my negotiating a price, as they were very expensive – Santana was recording concurrent to us!), down to the very detail of auditioning and choosing Holly’s vocal mic, which involved an hour of free, but booked time; and finally, recording the entire album as a demo upstairs of the main studios, by David’s offices. It was epic. I even flew to New York to hear Holly play live at the Bottom Line, as I’d never heard her live before and thought that was critical. With all of the preparation, including having Mary Watkins orchestrate the string and horn parts, the outcome was excellent.
On Mary’s album, also recorded in San Francisco, it was a bit different because they’d already started the production in studio, but couldn’t get a snare sound for a week. They were panicked, for good reason. They called and I said, “No problem.” In fact, I get 2 (sometimes three) basics a day, so they decided to fly me out from Woodstock, where I was living. I hired a small women-owned studio to do the album as a demo anyway, got to know the material, and we went in, got the drum sound within a few hours (this is not rocket science, although it is a science) and our 2 basic a day, and off we went. It’s a great album, with the addition of Gwen Avery singing lead on one of the songs. That’s when I really got to know her and she got to trust me — we continued that way until her death a few years ago. In fact, I recorded a live show of hers on 18-track tape in the ’90s that I consider to be one of the best things I’ve ever done. But to get back to Mary’s Something Moving, that is a masterpiece. I wish more people would listen to it and, moreover, realize that I produced it!
From ’76 to ’81, I finally got a chance to produce and co-produce (Ladies on the Stage was a co-production with Tom Sellers); I learned so much. It was, truthfully, a thrill. But, at some point in every album, there is a place where everything blows up. It was Tom Sellers who hipped me to that on a cold and snowy night in Vermont, at a studio I’d discovered owned by a woman who’d somehow gotten the most awesome room and gear together (in fact, Foghat’s Fool For the City was recorded there, which had the hit “Slow Ride”) – I recommended it to Peter Jameson, who was also living in Woodstock at the time and was my best friend – and the next thing you know, there it came blasting out of the radio!
When we were finishing Ladies on the Stage, we did some end-stage overdubs and mixing up there (Suntreader), and Jean and I were fighting over the mix of the end section of “Heaven is in Your Mind”. We had gone to such trouble to layer backing vocals, some of it contrapuntal, in LA (only Cris and Vicki Randle would join us, it was controversial in women’s music to work with men at the time). Tom pulled us out in the hall and told us that bit about how every album breaks down at some point, like clockwork – and then the engineer, god bless him, came out and told us all to get lost, he knew exactly what to do and he was gonna do just that. When we heard the result an hour or two later, it was an amalgam – not exactly what any of us thought we so emphatically wanted – but it worked. And now, I can’t even remember what it was that we were so furiously fighting over. That’s just how it is. You’ve got to make decisions, and then move on.
I don’t like to tell anyone how they should do their record, especially if I’m not involved. But I do know this: it takes time to learn any craft, so put the time in. Learn how to make decisions so you can move forward with confidence; and never underestimate the power of pre-production (and chart-writing, whether you use the charts or not. Your brain will know).
Lastly, whatever equipment you have, learn how to make the best use of it! Don’t spend time yearning over what you don’t have. After all, it’s what you put into the mics and all that gear that makes all the difference – do that.
[John Seetoo’s interview with June Millington will conclude in Copper #81. Header pic is by Steve Griffith.]