Jon Cleary is best known as a New Orleans piano player, singer and songwriter. However, Cleary is actually a versatile multi-instrumentalist who keeps both hands in every aspect of the record-making process; he writes, arranges, demos, and records many parts of his albums in his home studio. Cleary’s latest release, the follow-up to his Grammy-winning album, GoGo Juice, is Dyna-Mite, a wonderful collection of jazz and funk tunes that evolved from the artist’s constantly growing and changing “vocabulary of lyrical and musical ideas.”
Here, we go inside the record-making process for Dyna-Mite and share some of the new music.
What is the songwriting process like for you? Do you always write at the piano?
I started doing music when I was really little and I think my brain is hard-wired to be processing musical ideas or trying to solve musical problems. Part of that process is always compiling an inventory of ideas I can use. If I somebody says something I find interesting, or I read a line that I like, I always write it down. And whenever I hear music, there’s a part of my brain that sets about the task of analyzing it, breaking it down and looking for something I haven’t heard before or something that strikes me as ingenious.
All of those ideas get tucked away on paper or on my phone, and they and could sit gathering dust for decades, until I need it. It’s an ongoing process of building that vocabulary of lyrical and musical ideas.
As far as instruments, it’s what you have to hand. The piano is obviously a great tool because it has a wider range than any other instrument; it’s a percussion instrument. It’s a good tool for approximating the way an entire song arrangement would sound. You can play bass lines, you can imply what the drums are doing, you can voice chords in the way that you would harmonize various instruments. The guitar might put you in a different direction. Sometimes I write with the bass and approach things from that perspective. Sometimes I’ll sit behind the drums and a certain pattern will suggest where a lyric should fall and a mood that will accompany that particular groove, and the mood will suggest lyrics that match. There are so many different ways to get to a finished song.
There’s a song on this album that you co-wrote with Taj Mahal, “21Century Gypsy Singing Lover Man”? How did that song come together?
That was a guitar riff that Taj was playing on a break when we were in a rehearsal studio in California. He was kind of daydreaming playing this little riff, and I asked him what it was. He said, “It’s just something I play when I sit down.” Then, I had to leave the session and fly to New Orleans for the Jazz Festival, and on the flight home I wrote two songs. I took his little riff and I wrote a bunch of words and more music, wrote the bridge. I played it to him when I got back to the studio and he loved it. I ran the band through the changes, and we did it in one take with me singing, and then we took my voice off and put Taj’s voice on and it went on a record.
That was 1999. I’ve played it a few times over the years with my band, and somebody said, “When are you going to record it?” And I thought, that’s a good idea, so I did a version for this album. It’s one of many songs that got started long ago and then got through the semi-finals and was ultimately included.
I’ve got hundreds of songs in various stages of incompletion that are patiently waiting for me to get ’round to them, or waiting for me to know what to do with the bridge or the verse that’s bugging me because it’s just not right. Some songs get written quickly. Some songs can take years to be completed.
What was the recording process like? I know you worked in Parlor and Music Shed as well as your own studio.
I have a studio in my house. When I have time between the tours that pay the bills, I work in the studio and put down ideas that come to me. I go back to files and ideas and sketches, and just constantly work on music. Much of it may never see the light of day, but that’s actually where I’m doing the work.
I started this record immediately after sessions for the last one. I always try to come up with a number of songs that present a nice variety of tones and finish them to the extent that I can—lyrics, melodies, chord progressions, arrangements—and then I’ll set about recording by myself.
I’ll do everything. I play the drums, bass, guitar, keyboards, all the vocal parts. I’ll spend a long time doing that and then redoing it—scrapping stuff and getting it to a point where I think it’s good. Then I send those recordings to the other musicians I want to play on the record. I say, “This is what I want to happen, so learn these and then we’re going to go into the studio and make it better than this.”
Then we go into the studio and we record them at the same tempo and key. Sometimes the musicians present me with something much better than what I came up with. Now I’ve got two sets of recordings of the song, and then I make choices. I’ll use some elements from my original version and some from the one we just recorded. I’ll combine those and then set about sculpting it and tweaking it.
I don’t write down all the parts because I don’t want guys reading off of charts, but I also don’t want to leave everything up to the imagination of the musicians because you can end up with them going in too many different directions.
There’s the old expression, “A camel is a horse designed by a committee.” There’s a point where you need to have one brain that’s in charge. But you then have to make sure you’re not preventing these talented musicians from contributing something brilliant that you never would have thought of. It’s a delicate line to walk.
What’s your studio like?
It’s a work in progress. After Hurricane Katrina, I had some rebuilding to do. It’s a room within a room. There’s lots of layers of sheetrock. I also had to make sure my noise doesn’t upset the neighbors.
Did you design it yourself?
No, I had a builder who helped me. Actually, one of the songs on the record is about him. He died shortly after building it. He was an artist and he lived on Frenchman Street. One day he didn’t show up for work because he wasn’t feeling well. He was dead a week later. He had cancer and didn’t know it. I wasn’t able to go to the funeral, so I wrote that song “Frenchman Street Blues” to be played at the funeral.
The studio has a control room, an isolation room and a tracking room. I have a Yamaha studio recording kit. I have a P Bass, Jazz bass, an old upright bass. I have a collection of guitars: an old Tele, an old Strat, an old 335, an Ibanez George Benson guitar, a nice, fat hollow-body Epiphone they gave me a few years ago, and a German Duesenberg guitar that I like and I’ve brought to gigs. And I have Pro Tools. The Pianos are a Yamaha C6 and a 100-year-old Steinway upright that came with the building when I bought it.
What about electronic keyboards?
I have a Nord and a Roland, a Fender Rhodes, a Wurlitzer. I also have a 1963 Hammond C3 with an old Leslie speaker; it sounds really good—it came out of a neighborhood church. I’m always in the process of adding equipment. When I’m working by myself, I have all the room and all the stuff I need. But when it comes to tracking an entire band, I usually elect to move into one of the local studios where they have a more extensive microphone collection than I do, and more mic preamps and outboard gear, and then I can bring it all back home and carry on doing the post-production—all the overdubs of vocals, guitar, and keyboards—at my place.
Are all all of your vocals overdubbed, or do you sometimes sing live while you play in the studio?
I probably should sing more while I play. Sometimes you’ll get a flawed performance, but it’s got a thing. That’s what happened on the title track, “Dyna-mite”; that’s a first take. I wasn’t in good voice. I did something to my neck the night before, I was feeling really rotten, but I sang a guide vocal for that tune and I actually just liked it for what it was and said let’s keep it.
I’m used to singing on gigs in New Orleans where there’s a vibe and an audience, and a trajectory to the evening where it builds up. Muscles get loose and your adrenaline starts to build, blood pumps around faster, and there’s a palpable growing level of energy that the audience pumps back at you. I’d love to go in and do an entire gig in the studio with an audience, and then start recording vocals after I’ve been singing for an hour or two. It’s a luxury most of us can’t afford, but if you could do that, that would be a great way of making a certain kind of record.