As someone familiar with Norah Jones’ music, I couldn’t help but notice the credits on the backside of one her albums. Peter Malick was a producer on her 2000 album “New York City” and he happened to live in LA, where I’m at currently. I ran into him at an audio store, I asked f he’d want to talk about his work, and the following interview is the result.
Hi Peter. Can you tell me about your experience and what kind of music you work with?
My history is in blues and roots music, but I’m currently working on a variety of things, such as with a hip-hop artist in Australia, as well as a classically trained violinist who lives in Canada. In the past, I’ve recorded a mariachi band for the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, as well as different singer-songwriters. So I’m all over the map, and I like that.
Your music experience stretches to the 60s, correct?
Yes, I started to play guitar at the age of twelve, and was playing out in nightclubs by fifteen. I fell in love with Chicago blues in particular, and was lucky enough to get to play back-up for some of my idols like John Lee Hooker and Big Mama Thornton. I played with Muddy Waters a bit too, though not in his band specifically. For a time, I was living with his piano player, Otis Spann, who played on all of the Muddy Waters stuff that came out of Chess Records. So I was immersed in that scene very quickly and loved it.
What did you learn in terms of music production and live show performance from touring with such big blues artists?
Well, it was a very different time, and some of what I miss was that those people were so fully immersed in who they were as artists. It wasn’t about trying to sell a commercial to a big company or “If we get these stage lights, it’ll be a better show and we can charge more money “. It was just about them expressing themselves as artists. Someone like Muddy Waters, who had such a regal presence, was just being himself. That’s something that I’m grateful to have experienced, since there’s not much of that nowadays.
As someone who’s been rooted in this type of music for decades, can you tell me what the typical songwriting and production process or workflow is for blues music?
As far as the history of Chicago blues goes, there was this famous harmonica player called Junior Wells. He recorded an album called “Hoodoo Man Blues” in 1965, which is cited as the first Chicago blues album because people back then would just go into the studio and say “I have a new song. Let’s record it “, and that was it. The concept of making an album as a body of work didn’t happen until the mid 60s, so the production style of the artists back then was to just go into the studio and play.
As far as workflow goes, I have a story I can tell: In 1969, I was still in high school, and had just started to play with Otis Spann. I had hitch-hiked down to New York City, and saw that he was playing at a famous place called Cafe Au Go Go, long since gone. It was an amazing slice of time, because everyone I idolized from Chicago was in New York, like Howling Wolf and Big Mama Thornton. During that time, I met this woman called Victoria Spivey, who called herself the Queen Of The Blues. She had been a star from the age of eighteen, and she was 60 when we met. She had a record label of her own, and put together a bunch of people to do a record, which consisted of myself, Otis Spann, Luther “Snake Boy” Johnson, and S.P. Leary, who was a phenomenal drummer that played with the likes of Howling Wolf and Muddy Waters. She took us into a place called Nola Penthouse Studios, which was on top of a skyscraper in mid-town Manhattan. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was a famous studio that many iconic jazz records had been made at. The most advanced technology that they had at the time was a three-track tape machine, but Victoria didn’t have the budget for neither that nor the two-track machine. So we went straight to mono, and recorded the album in four hours. I was on guitar with Luther Johnson. Half-way through the recording, Victoria tripped over Luther’s guitar cord and broke it (it was a pretty flimsy cord). As a result, I was the only guitar player for the second half of the album. So to answer your question about workflow, you can imagine how it was.
I get what you mean. Decades later though, you would produce an album for yourself and Norah Jones in 2000. Where there any things that you had to be mindful of when working with her on “New York City”?
That process came about very organically. I had been living in New York and was writing songs for my own band, and trying to make it as a vocalist. But I finally came to the realization that it wasn’t going to happen. So I went looking for a vocalist that would be willing to work with me on handling the singing and song-writing aspect. I walked into a club and heard the last half of a song in Norah’s set, and was like “whoa”. That’s how the relationship began.
What I learned from working with her was that she had a whole different interface to music than I did. My history as a blues player was about going for the moment, but Norah liked to pull back and be introspective. She didn’t want things to be heavy-handed in any way. So it was a big learning experience for me.
Did you do any mixing for that album?
No. That album was recorded in 2000, and I got my first reasonable recording rig in 2003. I had made an effort to put together a PC-based recording rig in 2000, but failed abysmally. But then I got a Pro Tools system in 2003 and started to attempting to learn it. The more I got to know, the more I realized that I didn’t know. So it was a process, and it took some time for me to get to a place where I felt like I understood how to do it.
Today’s music places an emphasis on transients and up-front sounds that are loud in the mix, whereas music from the 60s-90s seems to have more ambience that allows for a sense of depth in the music. Do you have any thoughts on why this is?
It depends on the artist and what’s right for the project. A lot of albums that were recorded prior to Pro Tools taking over were subject to the technology. You aren’t going to have the kind of sharp transients that you hear in today’s pop music on a tape recording; it’s just not possible. I’ve heard Dave Pensado discuss how he listens to the new mixers of today and says “Wow, this is something new. We need to up our game “. I agree with him. Today’s sounds are birthed out of the available technology, which as it gets better will give us capabilities to make our mixes sound more dramatic. That didn’t exist in the same way when we were on tape. But at the same time, imagine this: if you didn’t eat anything sugary for a long time, even food that was only slightly sweet would be very noticeable to your taste. So when you solely listen to records from the 70s, 80s, or 90s, the smaller things become bigger. But if you play a Skrillex record and a Muddy Waters record back-to-back, the Muddy Waters one will sound dull.
So if you were given a record to mix that was clearly influenced by Muddy Waters, would you adhere to mixing principles from 40 years ago, or would you aim to make it sound as modern as possible?
I think something like that should be infused by things from the past, but being in the present also matters. I’m recording a friend of mine who is a phenomenal musician called Jeff Turmes. He’s very old-school. Sometimes when he sits with me to mix, we’ll pull up a track, and he’ll say, “We don’t need to do anything to that “. I get that, and it’s fine. For other things, I’ll say, “Why don’t we do this?“, to which he’ll usually say “Ah, that’s cool “. So a lot of it is a dance, because you’re never mixing in a vacuum. So you have to honor what the artist is about, and nudge him a bit if you have to push the mix in order make it better.
In blues music, it feels like the mix is trying to recreate what the music would have sounded like in a live setting, as opposed to pop or electronic music which may as well exist in a vacuum at times. Is there any truth to that?
I think there’s a value in creating a certain space around your music. It doesn’t even have to be a real hall or room. Just to have music that thrives on the space between the notes is valuable.
When you have people playing acoustic instruments, capturing the right vibe has a lot to do with the performance. For example, knowing how to tune a drum-set is huge. It’s more critical than microphone placement, in my opinion. Stick one mic in front of a well-tuned drum-kit, and you have something that’s potentially very powerful. As far as the mix goes, you can have a idea of where things should go, and try your best to bring that to reality.
Another thing I noticed about blues music is that it accommodates a lot of imperfection, in contrast to pop music, which seeks to be in-tune and mechanical at times. Even non-blues acts from the past, like Nirvana, didn’t seem to mind singing out of tune or playing off-key guitar solos. When you’re mixing your music, how do you tow the line between fixing what’s technically in-correct and leaving it the way it is to preserve the vibe of the music?
That’s a fine line that you have to walk. A lot of things that could fly in the 90s, or even ten years ago wouldn’t work today. People expect in-tune vocals and quantized beats. I mixed something recently that was very expressive and raw, but there were pitch issues that were unacceptable, so I had to figure out how to balance it. But there’s no stock answer for that if you have something naked-sounding like a Norah Jones record. For the “New York City” album, we only tuned one note in the mix, and even was just because we could; we didn’t even have to do it. But if I’m recording someone that aspires to have that pop-vibe, it has to be spot on, and I’d tweak it because I had to.
Speaking of tweaking, let’s talk about your tools. What kind of studio setup do you have at home?
I have a bunch of outboard gear, such as mics, pre-amps and compressors, but I’ve experimented with doing certain projects 100% in-the-box, and it’s totally doable. You don’t need to send a vocal to a piece of outboard gear. But at the same time, that outboard gear does things that the plugin won’t, though it’s not necessarily “better”. I love the Tube-tech CL 1A, which sounds great on vocals, though I use it on a lot of different things. I recently got a copy of the Softube plugin version, and it’s excellent. But it’s not the hardware.
Let me ask about what some of your favorite tools are:
Vocal Microphone: There’s a guy called Klaus Heyne who does radical mods of famous mics, and he has done a famous mod of the Neumann U87. The original isn’t my favorite, but Heyne’s version is a beautiful one. I recently got to use a Bock 5-ZERO-7, made by David Bock. It’s the most stunning vocal mic I’ve heard, and destined to be a classic. It’s expensive though, at almost $8000.
Pre-amp: I use the Avalon M5.
Transient Plugin: For that I use Native Instruments’ Transient Master.
Thanks for the interview Peter. What do you have in the works and the future? And will there ever be another Norah Jones collab?
You never know, but I tend to think probably not. I haven’t spoken to her in a while, though I’d love to work with her still. I try to stay in touch with everyone I work with, and never try to force people to come back. Some people still come back, which is great. But I think everyone should have their path and what comes your way is supposed to. But I’m currently working with an Asian band that’s doing very well right now, and they happened to find their way to me, so I might be producing their new album. I feel like that’s the way it works best for me.