Preproduction house calls and brainstorming
WASHINGTON — On a chilly Friday night in mid-October, a group of adults lounged in a rustic Berkshire home, pizza boxes open on the kitchen table, beer and whiskey at the ready. A couple of their children tested a trampoline outside while another explored the living room. It was a common scene throughout the county, perhaps, but the impetus for this gathering was not: Music was to be made.
"I feel like this is the beginning of it all," Johnny Irion said from a seat in his Washington abode.
Irion was addressing Tory Hanna, one of the The Whiskey Treaty Roadshow's five singer-songwriters. The local Americana band had tapped Irion, a singer-songwriter himself, to produce its first full-length album. With recording a month away, Irion was hosting preproduction sessions with the Roadshow's collection of frontmen: Hanna, Billy Keane, Chris Merenda, Greg Smith and David Tanklefsky. These workshops would help them choose songs for the record and further craft these tunes, ideally saving precious studio time for refinements with The Black Crowes drummer Steve Gorman and Wilco guitarist Pat Sansone. They would also allow the band to become more acquainted with Irion, who only knew Keane and Merenda before taking on the project.
"He's kind of like a Tory [Hanna] character," Keane said of Irion. "He's so energetic and positive about things that it's hard not to get inspired talking to him."
Irion's and Hanna's zest arrived at different moments on this night. Hanna, a clean-cut 34-year-old, had the bearing of an eager student from the get-go as he straightened himself on a piano bench opposite Irion, guitar handy. His wife, Susie, and nearly 2-year-old son, Quinten, played on the couch to his right.
"I was so happy," Hanna would say later of the songwriting session. "I've actually never done anything like that before."
This setting wasn't anything new for Irion, who was curled in a chair, his rocker's mop hovering over his six-string and obscuring ears that would be influencing the record's sonic landscape. The 49-year-old musician has been in bands since his teens and recording albums for almost that long, so his excitement wouldn't emerge until some original songwriting commenced.
"Give me your five songs that you think could put your best foot forward," Irion told Hanna early in the night, the same command he was giving to all of the Roadshow's members.
Hanna and the others had already shared some demos with Irion via Google Drive. On Sept. 27, for instance, Hanna uploaded "Great Unknown."
"I run open arms to you / The great unknown is where I roam," the tune begins.
Demos, however, are rough drafts, and when Hanna started strumming the song for Irion, only those first two lines remained the same.
"Give it to me again," Irion said after the first run through.
"It's in the idea stage," Hanna said.
"The chorus is great," Irion assured him, referring to a part that goes, "Just remember you're not alone / running through the darkness / looking for a home."
Hanna had written the song while spending time with Susie on a Cape Cod beach. In the background, she began strumming as Hanna played it again. Irion stopped Hanna at one point.
"See, right there," Irion said, noting that a verse should be added.
Hanna agreed. "I need you to help me write that," he said.
This request wasn't an admission of failure; writing a song isn't akin to, say, building a home. The building blocks — intro, verse, chorus, bridge, outro — may all be there, but a final structure can still elude. Sometimes, even some of the pieces may be missing. In demos and other preliminary material, songwriters are often aiming to capture certain elements of a tune that they feel good about, perhaps a melody or chorus. The rest can be determined later.
As producer, Irion is a simultaneous builder, one who doesn't need plans sketched for him to begin working. While Hanna played "Great Unknown," for example, Irion could discern some of the tune's chord progressions just by listening. He added his guitar work and vocals to Hanna's, altering the sound and delivery on occasion, both following and deviating.
"It sounds so good, dude," Hanna said to Irion after one rendition. "It's like we're The Shins here."
Irion subsequently moved to the piano, a traditional way for players to ascertain a song's roots. Soon thereafter, Merenda walked in with his 11-year-old son, Da'Jaun, who ventured outside for some trampoline time with Irion's 11-year-old daughter, Sophia. Merenda promptly knocked over a glass of beer on the floor.
"Don't worry, the dog [Dakota] will get it," Irion said, keeping his focus on the work.
Merenda grabbed his banjo and, like Irion, quickly settled into Hanna's tune. He added a solo part that had the others swooning.
"That's beautiful," Smith said shortly after walking in.
The Conway-based musician brought a different approach to the session. While Hanna and Merenda were largely deferential and supportive of Irion's input, Smith often questioned the producer's suggestions.
"I feel like some straying's good, but not total straying," Smith said in one back-and-forth with Irion.
This caution was apparent in Smith's one-on-one with Irion at the producer's home in late October. Irion was sitting on the piano bench this time, Smith in a chair opposite him. Early on, Smith played a solo from "Rock 'n' Roll Deja-Vu."
"Why don't you take that solo over the B minor?" Irion asked him.
"I've got to admit, I'm a little afraid to go into minor territory," Smith replied.
Other times, he was more direct, telling Irion he felt like they were "reaching."
"Greg has that artist's artist side," Irion later said of their exchanges.
For Smith, a little give-and-take is an essential part of the preproduction process. He has great respect for Irion.
"He's stepping in and putting in his two cents, which we love and is really helpful, but sometimes it's literally just brainstorming: What if we tried this chord instead of that chord? What if we did that part twice? What if we did that in the beginning, where we hadn't planned on doing it, because that could be a cool intro, and a part would sound familiar later in the song if you heard a little piece of it, tease of it, earlier in the song?" Smith said.
Irion calls this method "fishing." You can cast an idea out, but you can always reel it back in. During the remainder of Hanna's session, Irion kept exploring the depths of the songwriter's music through multiple tunes, a deep dive the producer would get to make with all Roadshow members but Tanklefsky. The Boston singer-songwriter couldn't find a mutual time to video-chat with Irion or visit the producer's home. Irion wasn't worried, though. He had listened to the Roadshow's demos, watched its most recent live performance and mined its Spotify and live-album material online before preproduction, so the producer was familiar with Tanklefsky's work.
"Dave's songs are kind of the most done material," he said.
That is, as much as anything is "done" at the preproduction stage. After the songwriting sessions, few concrete decisions had been made about which songs would actually get recorded, though "Great Unknown" and "Rock 'n' Roll Deja-Vu" were likely choices. Even those songs' structures were still being worked on. The studio would be the real construction site.
"When we start tracking, we'll all vote [on song changes]," Irion said to Smith during his session. "That's the thing: Being able to pivot on the floor is where it really gets fun."
Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at email@example.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.
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