Ethan Johns: The Analog and the Ecstasy

Music Features Ethan Johns
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Tucked into the intimate confines of Studio 3 inside Hollywood’s hallowed Sunset Sound, Ethan Johns sits at a drum kit facing Ray LaMontagne, a newcomer whose publishing company, Chrysalis Music, is footing the bill for an album it hopes to eventually place with a label. The budget is miniscule, so how is it that LaMontagne has procured the services of one of the hottest young producers in the business, a multifaceted talent who’s produced the likes of Ryan Adams, the Jayhawks and Kings of Leon, and whose fee for a project would support a family of four for a year? The simple answer is that Johns loves what LaMontagne is doing so much, he’s deferred his fee for the opportunity to work with the artist, whose songs and singing echo such past greats as Otis Redding and Sam Cooke, The Band and Van Morrison. For Johns, LaMontagne’s music was love at first listen. The epiphany occurred during the producer’s first meeting with Chrysalis, to which he’d just signed as a writer. “I played them a handful of songs,” Johns recalls during a break. “They in turn played me Ray’s tunes. After the first song I said, ‘I’d really love to make a record with this guy. Is there any way we could make that happen now?’ It was just instant.” Johns made time in his busy schedule to produce the album between projects with gifted singer-songwriter Leona Naess (an Adams ex) and pop wunderkind Ben Kweller. On the other side of the glass, an assistant engineer rolls the two-inch multitrack tape as Johns taps a slow groove, playing the snare just behind the beat in classic Charlie Watts fashion. LaMontagne, who’s playing an acoustic, leans toward the mic, emitting a sound both wounded and thrilling. The two musicians are laying down the basic track for “Trouble,” which will lead off the still-untitled 10-song album. This segment will also produce the lead vocal. It’s a simple but radically unconventional setup in this Pro Tools era.

Pre-production took place at The Alley, a busy rehearsal facility in North Hollywood. The first song they tackled was “Hold You in My Arms.” As LaMontagne recalls, “Ethan could tell I wasn’t comfortable with the song — things weren’t landing right — and he started throwing out ideas and chords, then I would throw something back. At one point, Ethan left the room, then he popped back in and said, ‘Oh! Think of it like this,’ and he threw out a couple of lines. I don’t think he meant it literally, but it worked. Everything fell into place.” After they’d worked up a song, Johns recorded it live to two-track for reference. The original version of “Hold Me in Your Arms” is one of three songs laid down at The Alley that will make the album. “It captured that feeling that we had when we got the song together,” says Johns. “The energy of that performance really reflects and relates to how we were feeling about what we just created. It really set the tone for the rest of the record.”

They then went into Studio 3, a room Johns favors because of its vibe and the fact that there’s not a computer in sight. “That’s commitment,” he says of the old-fashioned analog arrangement. “You’ve got to get it right there — there’s no going back. You can’t get too clever; you’ve got to be doing it right from the start — you can’t rely on any tricks to jazz it up later. It’s about arrangements, performances and the material. We’d recorded the entire record once at The Alley, so by the time we started recording, we knew exactly what we were going to achieve.”

Later, Johns will overdub his bass and piano, record his string arrangements, and mix the album on the concluding weekend. He’ll also play a burning electric guitar part — the only one on the album — on “How Come,” which summons the magic of Traffic’s “Feelin’ Alright.” “I like working in this environment a lot,” Johns says of the unfettered methodology he employed on the album. “It gives the artist a lot of room. I don’t have so much to think about as far as doing arrangements on the floor; I can concentrate on just listening to Ray. It was very direct. No scratch vocals; they’re all live. It’s the real deal. But that’s the way I like to work. I value performance, the song, what Ray’s trying to communicate. The emotional aspect of record-making is the pinnacle to me.”

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