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Keef in the studio: Return of the Human Riff

Some much-loved outboard was involved in the recording of Keith Richards’ first solo album for more than two decades

Several lengthy tours with The Rolling Stones and a best-selling memoir, Life, mean that Keith Richards has hardly been resting on his considerable laurels in recent years, writes David Davies. But aside from 2005’s Stones album, A Bigger Bang, and a few fresh tracks on compilations, new studio work featuring the iconic guitarist has been decidedly thin on the ground since the turn of the millennium.

That all changes this month with the release of Richards’ third solo album – and first since 1992’s Main Offender – Crosseyed Heart. A hugely enjoyable record that possesses some of the same exuberant energy as Stones landmarks such as Exile on Main St, it took shape in relaxed fashion over three years and finds him reunited with long-term collaborator, drummer/producer Steve Jordan.

“After doing all the book promotion,‎ Keith didn’t feel much like playing and I didn’t think that was right,” says Jordan. “He’s writing all the time so there were plenty of songs for us to work with. As the recording developed it stepped up to two or three days per week, but it had a very low-key start.”

Joining them on the adventure was engineer Dave O’Donnell, who has worked with Jordan on several other projects during the last decade. He confirms that the record was built around initial live takes featuring just Richards and Jordan, and observes of the duo that they are “natural musical brothers. Everything they play is great, so getting a track was just a matter of fleshing out the arrangement or the sound.”

Essence of Keith

In keeping with the relaxed mood, recording centred upon two of the team’s favourite New York studios. After early sessions at One East Studios, operations shifted to Studio 1 at Germano Studios – not least because of its Exigy S412G custom four-way monitor system (“really one of my favourites in the world”, says Jordan).

To best capture the rootsy, organic sound for which Richards is renowned, it was decided to track to 2” tape via a Studer A827 before continuing overdubs and mixing in Pro Tools. An SSL Duality desk was also employed during the sessions, albeit primarily for monitoring.

Plenty of Germano Studios’ classic gear was pressed into service, including Neve 1081 and 1084 four-band EQ/mic-pres, as well as Chandler stereo limiters and a Fairchild 670 compressor “which is all over the record”, notes O’Donnell.

Recording the primary duo of Richards and Jordan also involved plenty of tried-and-trusted equipment. Mics selected for Keith included the Shure SM57, beyerdynamic M160, Telefunken ELA M 251E and Royer R-121, while Jordan – who had two kits set up at any one time – was recorded with the Coles 4038, Sennheiser MD 421-II and Neumann U 47, among other mics.

“Some songs they would get in a couple of takes. Some took longer, simply to work towards the desired arrangement or to maybe change instruments or the sound. But performance was never a problem,” says O’Donnell.

With Richards also singing, playing bass on most tracks, and contributing keyboards, Crosseyed Heart is very much the distilled ‘essence of Keith’. Recalls Jordan: “I realised that what people probably wanted to hear from a new solo record at this point was more Keith, so he ended up playing a lot of different parts.”

Nonetheless, there was room for some striking contributions from friends old and new, including Norah Jones, Ivan Neville, keyboardists David Paich and Charles Hodges, and guitarist Waddy Wachtel. On a poignant note, the album also features some of the final recorded performances from the Stones’ much-loved saxophone sideman, Bobby Keys, who passed away last December.

‘Just a joy’

Mixing took place at both Germano Studios and another local facility, Brooklyn Recording Studio, before mastering legend Greg Calbi applied the finishing touches at Sterling Sound.

“I really feel that we got what we wanted with this album. Basically, if you’re a fan of rock ’n’ roll you’re going to love it,” says Jordan, who hopes there will be some live shows to support the release if other commitments allow –which, in his case, include a forthcoming fifth stint as music director for the Emmy Awards and work on The Verbs’ fourth album, Garage Sale, with Meegan Voss.

For O’Donnell, the sessions shared much of the sheer love of music-making that characterised one of his other recent projects, James Taylor’s Before This World, which he also produced. “The reality is that with musicians of this calibre, you set up and capture what they do as best you can,” he says. “Working with Keith and Steve, everyone knows what to play and falls into the mix perfectly. The whole project was just a joy all the way through.”

Crosseyed Heart is released by Republic Records on 18 September.

(Photos: Kevin Mazur, J Rose)