May 1, 2004

Adam Levy on Recording Norah Jones’ Feels Like Home

When you’re tracking the follow-up to a smash debut album, there’s more than a little “don’t blow it” paranoia richoceting off the studio walls. For Norah Jones guitarist Adam Levy, not screwing the pooch during the sessions for Feels Like Home [Blue Note] meant keeping his guitar parts from obscuring Jones’ multi-platinum voice. To be heard—and yet not heard too brashly—Levy even temporarily abandoned his beloved Gibson ES-335 when it was proven that Telecaster tones fit the music mix better.

How were the basic tracks recorded?
The band set up in a circle and went for it live. And that was tough, because Norah likes to get a song down in one or two takes—even if the tune isn’t completely worked out yet. She’s really into rawness and spontaneity.

How did her preference for a live feel affect your performances?
Put it this way—I’ve got one or two takes to get it right, and I don’t know what right is. Ultimately, Norah decides what’s right, but you can’t ask her while we’re tracking. Her view is that I provide the [guitar] sound she wants, and if I just do what comes natural, I’ll play something cool.

Did you ever play something uncool?
If I listened to the playbacks too critically, I’d get self-conscious and start playing some really predictable parts—and Norah doesn’t like parts that sound like parts. The idea is to build the parts throughout the song—a kind of theme and variation—so I’ll listen for phrasing cues in her vocals. I can hear if she’s laying back or digging in, and react appropriately. Sometimes, I’ll even sing the song under my breath to feel where the best spots for fills might be.

Did you develop any creative concepts for your guitar on this album?
The reference points were Curtis Mayfield, and Steve Cropper’s playing on “Dock of the Bay.”

Well, those cats could comp sensitively and yet still be heard.
Yeah! I have to worry about giving Norah’s voice enough space, but the paradox of this gig is that she doesn’t want us to be timid. Although her music is very sweet, she wants everyone to play with the conviction of AC/DC. So I tend to lay out a lot, wait for a moment, and then go for it. Or I’ll play parts in a frequency range that doesn’t obscure her voice. The middle two strings of the guitar, from the fifth fret to the ninth fret, is a comfortable zone. Except for solos, I could play this gig on two strings!

How did you channel Steve Cropper for the album, yet still produce a unique “Adam Levy with Norah Jones” sound?
It’s all about being in the moment. You have to react to what’s happening in the music as it occurs, instead of reacting to your record collection. If you’re just playing recycled licks that you stole note-for-note off a record, then you’re nothing but a human sampler, and you’re not being honest to yourself or sensitive to the music you’re playing.

—Michael Molenda


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