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The Lessons of ‘Essence’

The success of Lucinda Williams’s “Essence” is due in large part to the vision of the song’s producer, Charlie Sexton, and its engineer, Tom Tucker.

Posted in Songwriter 101 on January 18, 2006 by

I’d just finished reading the excellent “Five Minutes With” Lucinda Williams interview on this website, when by coincidence my wife suggested that we try recording a cover of Lucinda’s sultry rocker “Essence” (from the 2001 album of the same name) in the studio downstairs. Though the strung-out quality of Lucinda’s vocal sounded challenging enough for my straight-laced spouse, with its loping tempo and basic chord pattern, I figured I could at least do a passable rhythm track without too much trouble. So off we went.

In fact, it only took me a few hours to go from drums to bass with several acoustic and electric guitar overdubs in between (my wife, on the other hand, required several nights, numerous punch-ins and various forms of liquid refreshment). But after a few rough mixes, it became painfully obvious that our “Essence” had little of the desperate urgency that made Lucinda’s such a powerful recording. It took several weeks of scrutinizing, re-mixing, and, above all, re-visiting the original before the track finally began to show some signs of life. Along the way, I once again came to understand how a truly skilled engineer brings out the best in a compelling piece of music.

Because on “Essence,” it’s all about the dynamics. Great guitar tones or a cool bass line are important, no doubt, but the kind of sound sculpting that you hear on a song like “Essence” - such as knowing which instruments to use, where and when to use them, and, most of all, when not to use them -is so incredibly instructive for us basement engineers.

The success of “Essence” is due in large part to the vision of the song’s producer, Charlie Sexton, and its engineer, Tom Tucker, whose clever use of overdubs and overall mix agility provides the dramatic shifts in dynamics that fully exploit the song’s storyline. Deceptively simple sounding, “Essence” employs a virtual army of instrumentation, from acoustic rhythm and electric-lead guitars and multiple basses, to violin, Hammond organ and even an overdubbed snare drum that serves as a lead-in to each chorus. Despite the abundance of tracks, however, the various instruments seldom (if ever) appear in the mix all at the same time. Therein lies the key to this evocative recording.

The song opens with a swirling electric rhythm guitar panned hard left, complemented by a simple acoustic rhythm guitar hard right, followed by the full rhythm section. With Lucinda’s opening lines (“Baby, sweet baby, you’re my drug”) the guitars are pulled back, leaving a bare-bones backing of drums, bass and tremolo electric and giving Lucinda’s distressed vocal the attention it requires. As the song moves into the chorus (“I am waiting here for more, I am waiting by your door”), the dynamics shift again; the guitars return, the volume swells, there’s a layer of B3 organ along with a pulsating fuzz-bass overdub. The sharp contrast in sound from verse to chorus magnifies the air of sexual tension, and with the release into the first chorus, we’re hooked. How effective is this kind of production craft? Though “Essence” clocks in at just under six minutes, it feels more like three.

What can we homebodies learn from the “Essence” experience? For starters, try to be creative with your faders. If you’re fond of overdubbing, go for it - but at mixdown, just remember to keep the focus on the main ingredients (rhythm guitar, bass, percussion, etc.) In other words, use the additional instrumentation only as needed and, most importantly, at critical junctures in the song. Let’s say you’ve recorded an acoustic guitar part (and/or electric guitar) for coloration. Rather than keep it in the mix for the duration of the song, instead, try waiting until the beginning of each chorus to bring it up, then mute it before the verse returns. The sound of a new instrument entering the picture just as the chorus gets underway acts as a subtle “hook,” and will help grab the listener’s attention.

Of course, a great song is a great song, and under any circumstances “Essence” would still be killer (for proof, listen to Lucinda’s live version on the recently issued Live at the Fillmore). Still, there’s no denying the many benefits that a creative production effort can bring to sensational piece of songwriting.

“A lot of song purists I know say, ‘Anything other than the voice and the guitar is ########’,” remarks ace producer Jon Brion. “But here’s the thing I’ve learned, and probably more from Beatles records than anything else: It’s the counterpoint, the tiny little things in the recording, that make it all happen. It’s hard to notice at first - you think the record sounds nice but you’re basically paying attention to the groove. But then 20 listens down the line, it all starts meaning something to you. And in the end, it makes you want to listen to the record again and again. Eventually you might even start hearing some lyric meaning that you’d totally missed early on. That’s because all these little things, like some cool guitar fill that comes in and out, are there to service the song. That’s the real value of working like this.”

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