— Longtime Young collaborator Bolas encourages a new set of approaches on a consummately personal deluxe double album —
— Bolas: “Amazing records are the ones where your second thought is how good it sounds. Your first thought is how good it feels. That’s what you try to capture with every record, and we got it here” —
LOS ANGELES, CA, November 10, 2014 — Through his career in music and beyond, Niko Bolas has had many roles: producer, engineer, mixer, technologist, consultant, entrepreneur and so on. The list of artists he’s worked with is long and varied: Melissa Etheridge, Warren Zevon, Kiss, Rod Stewart, Barbra Streisand, Billy Joel, Fiona Apple, Toto, Tracy Chapman, The Jacksons, John Mayer (for his contribution to Disney/Pixar’s Cars), Disney’s Frozen: The Songs, Demi Lovato, The Mavericks, OneRepublic, Zedd and scores of others. But his closest association is very likely with Neil Young; Bolas has been producer and/or engineer on a dozen or so of Young’s LP’s over the last three decades, including Freedom (1989), Ragged Glory (1990), Living With War (2006) and several others. An artist as driven, restless and prone to creative detours as Young is thrives with a sympathetic collaborator, and Bolas has proudly served as such for the mercurial songwriter on and off since the mid-1980s. The latest chapter of this collaboration is Young’s most recent release Storytone, for which Bolas and Young share producer credit.
The second full-length from Young in 2014 (after the lo-fi covers LP A Letter Home earlier this year), Storytone actually exists in multiple incarnations. The deluxe edition’s first disc contains the version that was recorded first – beautiful and simple solo renditions featuring solely Young singing and playing an instrument. This bare-bones document stands on its own quite successfully, but it also doubled as worktapes for some serious arrangers to do their thing. As Young toured with Crazy Horse, Bolas worked with arrangers Michael Bearden and Chris Walden to create fully fleshed-out approaches to the songs, integrating orchestral and big-band arrangements. When Young was ready to come back into the studio, an entirely new version of the album was well on its way to completion. Although Young’s records have featured lush orchestration before (notably on his 1972 classic Harvest), Bolas took this opportunity to encourage a set of new approaches in Young’s singing style – drawing upon croonerism and unique phrasing that breaks from anything released by Young in his decades-long career.
Bolas recalls, “In working on the album’s fuller version, which we recorded second, the main experiment was to have Neil sing without holding an instrument. I encouraged him not to hold an instrument because it changed his phrasing completely – he became a singer, not a singer-songwriter. There is a big difference there, and it’s one that we hadn’t gotten around to exploring before. Suddenly you’re focusing on where you put your consonants, how long you hold your vowels, how you deliver the lyric. And that is not to take anything away from Neil’s vocal takes on all the other records he’s done, with me or otherwise – obviously he’s one of the all-time great rock singers, period; but taking the guitar or keyboard away from him really changed his approach, and he adapted beautifully, and frankly it sets this work apart from all the other great albums in his catalog.”
That isn’t to say that Bolas was pushing Young into uncomfortable territory or commandeering the project: “There’s really no ‘producing’ Neil,” Bolas laughs. “What you have to do is gather the adjectives he’s giving you and figure out how to build it. He had noted to me before how it was a dream of his to stand in the middle of a room and sing with an orchestra. When we started tracking his vocals, on the downbeat it was terrifying, but within about 30 seconds, he understood and was comfortable, and there was no stopping him after that.”
The orchestrated album was completed relatively quickly over four days of sessions at Los Angeles’s Sony MGM Studios – two with Bearden and two with Walden. The earlier solo acoustic version was completed over just two days at Capitol Studios. Bolas remarks, “Neil called me up said ‘I have 10 new songs I want to record,’ and they were all really fresh emotionally. We went in the studio with Al Schmitt, one of my favorite engineers and favorite people and someone whom Neil has worked with before and really trusts. We built what I call a ‘pawn shop’ – unique old guitars, vintage keyboards, ukuleles and other toys. Nothing from Neil’s ranch, and nothing that he was used to playing. So he’d pick up a new tool that he wasn’t familiar with, and we’d immediately cut a take of a song. I believe all instruments have an energy, and there’s always a song in them. If you pick it up for the first time and you’re the kind of person that is connected to a muse like Neil is, you’ll get that energy. It was inspiring and fresh, and the results were extraordinary.”
Schmitt’s involvement was an ace-in-the-hole for Bolas: “Al is the best engineer I know. Although Neil and I share producer credit on this project, it was important that Neil more focused on his performances than the specifics of the production. I knew that if he looked through the glass and saw Al – because he trusts Al implicitly – he would stay focused on his amazingly inspired solo performances in the early sessions or the nuanced vocal approach of the later sessions, and he wouldn’t shift his concentration and try to come into the control booth too often!”
This dual song cycle is actually not the end for this material. Bolas notes, “There is a great protest song in these sessions – ‘Who’s Gonna Stand Up,’ and there are even more versions of that song that we produced. There is one that was recorded live with Crazy Horse that we added horns to, and there’s a version with a children’s choir that Neil plays a Storytone keyboard on. I’m sure these versions will see the light of day somehow. And there’s a version of the whole album that we’ve been working on that edits together different aspects of the different versions – Mixed Pages is what we’re calling that one. I imagine that will also show itself at some point.”
Through all the stylistic departures, Bolas, Schmitt, the arrangers and Young captured what Bolas considers the goal of any great record: “When you’re listening to a truly great record, you don’t think about what it sounds like, because you’re too busy being immersed in the emotion and the performance. Amazing records are the ones where your second thought is how good it sounds. Your first thought is how good it feels. That’s what you try to capture with every record, and we got it here. It was easy. When you get a chance to work with talented people, and they bring their ‘A-game,’ you can sit back and let them do their work. On the days that mattered, all I had to do was make sure the food got delivered!”
Both standard and deluxe editions of Storytone are now available from Reprise Records.
Photo Caption: Neil Young and producer Niko Bolas, in the studio recording Young’s vocals for the new LP Storytone. Photos by Chris Schmitt.