How did the songs for this album come together?
I flew to Los Angeles to meet with [producer] Mike
Elizondo five days before I had to play a festival in Australia. At that
time, I didn’t really know if I had an album, or what the project would
sound like, because I have a lot of songs that have been sitting around
for years. Those older songs would haunt me because they weren’t
finished yet. I’m lucky because many of them were at least recorded by
somebody at a show and put on YouTube. So they exist, but they’re still
not how I hear or would orchestrate them.
Every time I make a record, I make lists, sometimes of as
many as 30 or more songs. When I went to see Mike, I had no demos. I
never make them. I just played all the songs so he got to hear them live
for the first time. I played them all on piano, and he’d say, “Let’s do
that one.” So by the time those five days went by, we basically had the
songs for the record. Then when I came back to start work on it, we
were totally on the same page.
If you don’t make demos, do you at least record ideas so you can remember them?
Now I do! I record them into my iPhone like you’re
doing with this interview, but for the longest time I didn’t record
anything. I’ve lost so many songs from not recording them that it drives
me crazy. I’m grateful to people like Joe Mendelson, who recorded the Songs
record for me. He has tons of my songs on his computer that I otherwise
would’ve forgotten by now. I’m also grateful to all the people that
came to the shows I played all over New York City and recorded me and
put those songs online. A lot of the time, if I can’t remember a song,
I’ll go online and re-learn it from a fan posting!
What about Mike Elizondo made you want to work with him again?
When I worked with Mike on my last record Far, it felt like we began something that got cut short. I learned a lot from him about sound. Mike
is also a virtuoso bass player. I’ve worked with other producers who
bass really well, like David Kahne or Jeff Lynne. But Mike could have an
actual orchestral career on upright bass. That let me express some
parts of the songs in a completely different way. Mike playing
upright—bowing and playing crazy harmonics that sounded almost like
flute solos, like on the instrumental section of “Firewood,” is amazing.
Because I’m so used to “Frankensteining” records together with the
producer and me playing almost everything ourselves, it was incredibly
fun to explore the “live” side of things.
“Small Town Moon” begins with what sounds like a routine IV-V-I progression, but develops into a conversation between your hands. Do you like that sort of deceptive simplicity?
I love things that are melodic and not obscured.
I’m a fan of clarity and economy, which I guess you have to be if you
play a solo instrument. Some of my favorite things to play are the
classical pieces I grew up on. When you play a Bach fugue or invention,
it’s all there in front of you. The same goes for a Mozart sonata or
something by Chopin, where you can hear the “trade-off” when the melody
gets picked up in the lower register. In that sense, classical music is
pop music to me, in that the simplest and most pure elements are right
there, as opposed to music that’s maybe more progressive, which I have
to work a little harder to connect with.
How does your classical training influence your songwriting?
It’s funny. When you play classical, it takes a long time
to get dexterity and make your hands independent of each other—which you
want in order to get “off the page” and feel the music without having
to think about it. I started writing songs late—at 16. At that point, my
piano playing was so much more developed than everything else, it was
like I had to relearn an entire language. I didn’t know how to play
without looking at music, and it took me forever to be able to sing while I played, so I had to use really simple rhythms. A lot of it was almost like, “Oom-pah, oom-pah.”
So I set my sights on getting more free while playing and singing. I
slowly added more difficult left-hand parts. I also started listening to
different bands. When I went on tour with Kings of Leon and the
Strokes, it was my first time really watching parts interlock, which caused me to write songs with more bass parts where I pedaled.
When I first started booking shows, I played with a
bassist I met in college. It was very jazz-influenced—I’d play some
piano songs, and some with just upright bass and voice. I felt, “Okay,
there’s enough diversity.” If two things were too much alike, I’d feel
like they were boring and nobody would listen to them. When I stopped
playing with the bass player, I started booking shows that were half an
hour instead of an hour, because I thought, “Nobody wants to listen to
an hour of just piano.” If one song was really arpeggiated, the next had
to have a totally different rhythm. I was terrified of people being
Do you still strive for variety in your sets?
Yes, it’s really important. I also feel that everything is context.
I love putting things together that are very disparate, but they all
take you on a journey, so each influences the other. It’s like you won’t
feel as much relief from a certain song if you didn’t experience the
three songs before it. In some ways, I really like the world of people
just listening to random songs in shuffle mode. But at shows, you can
create atmosphere by how you put those songs together.
Your left hand also creates a lot of compelling bass movement and counterpoint.
The more you can do in the left hand, the more you’re able to change the topography
of a song. That’s really exciting—to be able to alter a song’s course
and feeling. That happens on one of the verses in my song “Fidelity,”
where for a moment, the bass goes to D. I love that and look for
it every time I play that song. It comforts me when that bass “suspends”
things in that way. It’s like when I developed my voice more and built
up a stronger, higher range, I started writing different kinds of songs.
Was the classical-style interlude in “Firewood” written out or more spontaneous?
It was part of the composition. It wasn’t written out on
paper, but I play it exactly the same way every time. It’s weird—I get
attached to things. The only place I may change things a little bit is
in my voice parts. It’s a very classical mindset where everything is
What inspired the lyrical quote from the Animals’ “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” on “Oh Marcello”?
I really love quoting things. I have songs where I’ve
quoted from works of literature, or from other songs. Our world
logistically discourages you from doing that because you have to get
everybody’s permission to put something out. Sometimes it’s actually
unfair, because people want a tremendous amount of publishing for using
just one little line of a song. I understand that you should be
protected from someone using a piece of your art if it’s not to your
liking, but I think the reason I do it is that I really love when
passages get quoted in classical music. I started doing it myself when I
went to SUNY Purchase and discovered jazz. Quoting gives listeners a
reference point. It makes the listening experience an active adventure
where people can piece clues together.
What do you look for in a piano?
I like heavy actions. And I like ones that sing out, but
that I can control. I don’t like metallic-sounding pianos. I’ve played
Steinways for years. They’re my favorite instruments. My American piano
teacher had one when I was growing up. I play a model B on the road, and
I have a model M at home.
“Don’t Leave Me” starts with what’s almost become a
trademark for you: an electronic drum loop. How did that become integral
to your sound?
For so many years, I had little or no time in the studio,
and when I did, it was just me and the piano. So I had to trust that
people would hear the music’s trajectory based on things I would imply
in it. I had to hope that people could hear me “saying” that the song
rocked, because there were no drums on the recording. Also, since I
never got to play around in the studio for many years, anything that was
electronic or involved synthesizers or drum machines was like candy to
me. I just wanted to get my hands on them, like when your parents forbid
you to have certain things.
So you had to really emphasize the groove on your own?
Yeah, I tried really hard to imply it. This time around,
it was great working with Mike Elizondo because, for example, he really
gets hip-hop. The beats just feel so bad-ass, and I got to enjoy it, like on the song “Patron Saint.” He helped me feel
that, which isn’t something you necessarily get from classical music.
But I’m not just a classical musician, so I don’t have to be just in
that world. Things can be dainty if they have to be, or they can be
dramatic in that classical way, but they can also be gritty.
I remember singing one of my early songs with a band when I
was at SUNY [State University of New York] Purchase. I hated it. It was
like everything that was special about it and that was good about how I
sing went away. It made me feel that if I had to sing a proper cover
tune in a band, I’d just be terrible. It was actually a billion times
better with just me and an upright bass. I learned that I had to be
really careful about how I orchestrate things, or I could literally
destroy my songs.
So the moral is, be judicious in adding tracks to your songs?
Yeah. Be honest with yourself and ask, “Is this adding or
is this taking away from the music?” And if it’s taking away even a tiny
bit, get rid of it. Something else will add to it. I naturally generate
parts. I could add parts until the cows come home. I’ll go, “Maybe the
violin could do this” or, “I could add a bassoon part right here.” But sometimes those things only obscure the music. In the end, they might work well only in your imagination.
Any parting advice for musicians who aspire to a career like yours?
You could make music for 80 years, and in your 81st year,
you might discover a new way to play a chord or sing. Always want that
sense of adventure. Then things are never boring.
Mike Elizondo on Recording Regina
“What We Saw from the Cheap Seats started with just
acoustic piano and vocals,” says producer Mike Elizondo, who has also
worked with Dr. Dre, Fiona Apple, and Maroon 5. “The idea was to focus
on Regina playing piano and singing the melodies. Then we’d build off of
the different dynamics and tempos in each song by adding drums, bass,
and other instruments.
“The piano was a Yamaha C7 grand that I’ve had for years.
We miked it with two Wunder CM12s over the dampers, as well as two Coles
4038s just outside the lid. We also used an old, industrial lo-fi mic
for added effect. All piano mics went into Neve 1073 preamps, with the
CM12s going straight into Pro Tools and the 4038s going into a Chandler
TG1 limiter. The industrial mic was routed into an original ‘blue
stripe’ 1176 for compression. For Regina’s vocals, we used either a
vintage Telefunken Ela M 250 or a Blue Bottle with a B6 capsule. Both
were routed into a Neve 1073 and the 1176.
“Many sounds came from my personal Logic sample libraries, as well as soft synths including
ReFX Nexus and Vanguard and Spectrasonics Atmosphere. I especially like
Logic’s PedalBoard plug-in, which is great for manipulating sounds and
adding texture. One of us might say, ‘Why don’t we use a violin that
sounds like it was played in a tiny jar?’ So I’d create a sound based on
our conversation, and it would inspire Regina to create a keyboard part
that would support her melodies.”