Producer Jay Joyce: Imperfectly Perfect

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Producer Jay Joyce: Imperfectly Perfect

“There’s something going on in a record that’s beyond math and digital signals,” explains Jay Joyce, the reclusive workaholic producer/player/songwriter, of great records’ combustive magic. “You can’t put your fingers on it, it’s not obvious—and you can’t feel it because you’re so inside it.

“You know everything’s right, but you don’t believe it…That’s the battle: the technical versus the gut, the machine versus humanity and heart. What I loved about records, even before I knew how records were made or what a kick drum was, was when the singer’d go off the mic a little bit. You know, something that says, ‘Hey, there’s a human being in here…’ Those little slips grab your ear in ways perfect never will.”

With recent projects spanning Coheed & Cambria’s The Color Before the Sun, the Brothers Osborne’s Pawn Shop, Fidlar’s Too, the Head & the Heart’s new one and Eric Church’s Mr. Misunderstood, what might give another producer vertigo fuels the man who’s written with Shelby Lynne, Keith Urban, Marc Broussard, Chantel Kreviazuk and Emmylou Harris.

Joyce, the unlikely kid who packed up and left Cleveland, Ohio three decades ago, has never subscribed to a blueprint. Over the years, he’s helmed Patty Griffin’s raucous Flaming Red and recently exhumed Silver Bell, John Hiatt’s Welcome to the Tiki Bar, the Wallflowers’ Glad All Over, Harris’ acclaimed Hard Bargain, Halestorm’s hard rock Into the Wild Life, Amos Lee’s Mountains of Sorrow, Rivers of Songs, Brandi Carlile’s Bear Creek, Little Big Town’s Tornado and Pain Killer, Cage the Elephant’s first three albums and all of Eric Church’s rock-country hybrids.

His diversity stems from growing up in the self-proclaimed Rock & Roll Capital of the World, which fed his insatiable love of music. With his ashy brown hair going every which way, the man resembling a sturdier Paul Westerberg mentions fear listening to his older brother’s Black Sabbath albums and laughs as he talks about gigging around his hometown as part of the Lost Nation Band.

“I was like 17. We played everything from Devo to Charlie Daniels, going from ‘In Memory of Elizabeth Reed’ to ‘Mongoloid,’” he recalls, sitting in a building marked by a neon cross in a quiet, mostly residential East Nashville neighborhood. “We couldn’t get gigs anymore ‘cause the bikers would come down to the club, set up and sell their wares. Everybody was scared to book us.”

Not that Joyce, one of a dozen children growing up in an all-black neighborhood, was daunted. School wasn’t his thing; music was. Looking around Northern Ohio, he figured there was more music than what he was seeing. “I was writing songs in Cleveland, but people just wanted to play [local legend] Michael Stanley stuff, so I knew I had to get out.”

With a brother working in Nashville’s studios and touring with Rosanne Cash and Rodney Crowell, he gave Music City a try. The credibility scare of the ‘80s was on—and local alternative bands the Royal Court of China, Webb Wilder and Will & the Bushmen were getting major-label deals.

“In Pursuit signed to MTM Records,” Joyce reports, only to have Mary Tyler Moore’s label go under. “They were spending money like crazy. Trisha Yearwood was the receptionist…”

Joyce then formed Bedlam. Championed by MCA A&R guru Paul Kremen, who’d signed Charlie and Will Sexton, their album was never released. But during the process, Joyce was given soundtrack work—including placing music in an unlikely indie, Reservoir Dogs.

“I talked to Quentin Tarantino on the phone for a very long time,” he says. “He sent me videotapes for parts of the movie with no sound. He was a Knoxville guy, lots of ideas. And like a lot of film people, two hours of description when they mean ‘make the intro longer.’”

If the path wasn’t smooth, Joyce’s scrappy nature paved the way. A series of publishing deals supplemented session work, and he eventually cowrote Faith Hills’ No. 1 “The Lucky One.” T-Bone Burnett hired him for The Wallflowers’ Bringing Down The Horse, leading manager Andy Slater to hire him to work on Macy Gray’s On How Life Is and The Id. He also had his own band: Iodine.

Signed to a subsidiary of hipster indie TwinTone (Replacements, Husker Du), Iodine was three pieces “who made a lot of sound.” Though they caught people’s ears, the band—whose rhythm section went on to become Ryan Adams’ Cardinals—never caught a break.

“I had no back-up plan,” marvels the working-class kid. “I barely got out of school; all I did was gig. I didn’t know I was a producer. I was just the guys who had to make it come together: write the songs, get the people there, figure out how to get the songs together and on tape.”

As Iodine was winding down, Patty Griffin’s manager came calling. “He wanted the record to have a more rock edge, so he put us together. Patty would come in, get a guitar-vocal, go on the road—and I’d have my way with it.

I’d put all kinds of stuff on it, a ‘Foxy Lady’ riff, whatever. We didn’t think about it; her vocal was more, ‘We’ll put something down and replace it later.’ Only it was a record before we knew it was a record.”

If it wasn’t a master plan, Joyce recognized the power of producing. “At a point, I realized this was a way to be creative and never bored,” he says. “I could put five records out a year instead of one every two-to-five years.”

These days, that number is low. He shakes his head. Devoid of plan, he just wanted to make music. “I’ve done so many things over the years, I’m diversified. But I like things that are interesting,” he explains. “Rock and roll is, like, wrong. Start there! It’s not learned, it’s a mistake. It’s about one’s limitations. It’s breaking the rules, not being ground down by expectation. You’re not sure what you’re gonna do, but you plug in and hope for the best—there’s nothing more to it, no figuring it out.”

There’s also faith. And believing conveyor belts and company towns are the enemy. “Great music doesn’t come from them, but places like Detroit, Athens… Cage the Elephant from Bowling Green, where nobody in the business was paying attention. It’s all about getting laid, about your friends. You can’t create a formula for that.

“To me, you don’t get people to stretch [when they’re following the boilerplate]. You have to make a fool of yourself, to sing crazy stuff to get out of your zone. But you don’t get to great if you don’t take the risks; you only get there if you’re willing to get out there.”

For Coheed & Cambria, Joyce set the band up on what was the altar of the former church where his studio resides as if they were gigging. Having the band play together, “they were like, ‘What’s going on?’ I thought they might bail, but then they heard the playback.

Cage the Elephant was the same, only they were kids when we started. It was a complete mess that all of a sudden would fall together and be magical. Knowing it could completely fall apart made it so interesting.”

Capturing the raw charge and spark that defines rock is the only common element in Joyce’s records. That willingness to press beyond expected holds the ear. Church’s recent Mr. Misunderstood is a perfect example: recorded, mixed and released in under two weeks.

“On Eric’s record, we didn’t play the loudness game,” Joyce says. “It wasn’t recorded to be loud, where people cram all this stuff on, then slam the vocal. Instead, every instrument we knew we wanted to ‘speak,’ then we turned up what was important.

The Outsiders had bombastic moments, but they were intentional. That album was pretty sparse. If the singer’s confident and believes it, people can tell. It’s not putting it under the microscope and focusing on every hamster fart, because that misses the heart to make everything perfect.”

With Grammy- and CMA-winners Little Big Town, Joyce prefers passion for the polished foursome. “We get songs from outside. They write. But I try to make them bring songs to me, because if you’re dying to sing that song, how are you going to feel it, and mean it, and really bring that emotion home? You can’t make that up. You can’t.”

The light is almost gone from the windows. Joyce, who’s worked all night, is ready to get his nose back to the grindstone. Parting, he offers, “After all this time, it’s still a hobby, but I do notice what doesn’t work, what bogs things down.

“What I’m doing that I don’t see a lot of is putting the love into it, putting in the extra time and hours—not to make it perfect, but to make it be the best picture of who and what the artist is. I’m not clocking out and letting the engineer take it from here; I’m staying to make sure it’s what it should be.”

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