When I moved to the Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island in 2004, there was one name that I kept hearing in music circles: Zak Cohen. Zak grew up in Duncan, as a key player in the local music scene, best known for his excellent guitar work. Eventually he decided to set up shop as a recording engineer and built The Woodshop Studio in the idyllic, forest setting at his home on Richard’s Trail. Throughout the years, I’ve found myself in Zak’s studio, on dozens of occasions, working as a session musician playing bass or singing harmonies for the various artists that were recording there. I quickly learned first hand about his expertise and professionalism. That’s why it was unthinkable for me to go to anyone else except Zak when I decided to record my own 5 song EP as Sweet Potato Brown.
Zak’s first suggestion to me as a producer, was to hire professional musicians to lay down the bed tracks on drums and bass. I certainly could have played bass myself, and hired any one of a number of local drummers, but in the end, I trusted Zak’s suggestion that pros would do the job more quickly and accurately, and I have never regretted it. Zak hired two of Vancouver’s hardest working, most respected musicians for the job: Pat Steward on drums and Rob Becker on bass. Pat Steward is best known for his work on Bryan Adams seminal “Reckless” album, and as a member of one of BC’s favourite bands, “The Odds”. Rob Becker has played bass with the likes of Barney Bentall, Jeremy Fisher and Lee Aaron. He is adept at any style of music and he is also one of the most generous, humble, and hard working musicians I have ever had the pleasure to meet. These two hit the studio as a team, a rhythm section freight train, so in sync with each other, you could almost physically see the thoughts flying between them in the moment. They came prepared. They laid down bed tracks for four of my songs that day: three takes each. First take, they were learning the song, establishing the feel. Second take, they conferred, made a few adjustments, and third take, they hit it out of the park. It was a joy and a pleasure to watch them work, and honestly, their fee was a bargain. I love the feel they brought to my music. I do place myself in the country/ alt-country genre, but I grew up listening to Detroit radio, so Motown and good driving Rock are in my DNA. These two provided exactly what was needed for each of these songs. Rob brought four different basses. He primarily used his 70’s Fender Jazz, but I loved that when we came to record “No Arms to Hold Me”, my most country, in fact most Patsy Cline-ish sounding song, he pulled out a hollow body Gretsch style bass and laid down a classic “tic-tac” kind of sound. Perfect.
One thing that kept happening, that I was thrilled to report, was that each time a new song was introduced to him, via the scratch track that Paul and I had recorded some days earlier, was that Pat Steward would exclaim, “Who is that on guitar? Do I know him? What’s his name?” For all four songs! I couldn’t convince Paul to come in the studio that day, as I had to take it off work myself to be there, but all four times it happened, I would text him excitedly to report how Pat Steward had complimented his playing.
Indeed, the work of J.Paul Morelli, Paul, JMNZ on this recording is indispensable . He put his heart and soul into these songs, and in the end, they are as much his songs as they are mine. Leaving his ego at the door, he always played exactly what was needed to achieve the appropriate mood, feel and style on each of these very different tracks. He played several different guitars: a Vantage 335 on “59 Cadillac“, a Charvel Surfcaster on “Sidecar”, a Fender Stratocaster on “Molly Justice”, with that haunting tremolo effect added. When it came time to do “No Arms to Hold Me”, Zak was of the opinion that nothing but a Fender Telecaster would do the job. He was surprised to find out that Paul didn’t have one in his holster, so, he very generously put his own baby, a Vintage Tele, in Paul’s hands. Even though it was an entirely unfamiliar instrument to him, Paul laid down the whole track, including the wicked solo with the pedal steel-like licks, on the first take, without any over dubs. Zak was impressed. I have to hand it to Zak. Being a guitar player himself, he was generous to give credit where it was due.
My harmonica playing makes a debut here as well. I’d only picked it up a few months previously. It was Paul who suggested I take the back half of the solo on ‘59 Cadillac. The solo you hear there is the original scratch track recording I did, first take on the fly. I hadn’t tried to come up with anything at that point and Zak said to just play something, anything. I could never come up with a better performance at any time after that, so Zak in his expertise was able to incorporate the scratch track recording in to his final mix. I’m so proud of that solo!
Speaking of “59 Cadillac“. It’s the one cover song on my EP. Again, it was on Zak the producer’s advice that I chose to record this song, and again, I’m so thankful that I listened. I submitted many tracks to Zak, with the goal of picking four, “This Highway” already being recorded earlier was going to be re-mastered to be included. I’m quite well known in the area for being a huge Steve Earle fan. In fact, before one of Steve’s concerts, the local paper phoned me up to get my take on the man and his music! There were several Steve Earle songs in consideration for this project, as well as more of my own originals, but Zak suggested this one dark horse “’59 Cadillac” from the 1999 recording “Lost Love and Highways” by Teddy Morgan and the Pistolas. Teddy Morgan is one of the best singers, songwriters, guitar players you’ve never heard of. If you like rockabilly, alt-country, and blues with an absolutely smoking guitar, google Teddy Morgan and buy his stuff. When I played him for Paul, he flipped. He loved Teddy’s guitar sound, his writing, his voice. It may even have been the reason he agreed to play with me as a duo, that I loved this kind of music so heavily influenced by an exciting guitar sound. I had “Lost Love and Highways” playing non stop in my truck for like, a year before we recorded this project. I related to that album in a way I hadn’t done since I was 14, listening to albums with headphones on my parent’s high-fi. The first time Paul and I started performing as a duo, I pulled this song out at a local pub. We hadn’t rehearsed it, but we hit it out of the park and had the whole room on their feet. Paul was new to playing slide, but he loved Teddy’s slide and it inspired him to take it up. He just wailed that night! It was one of those all too rare moments in the life of a performing musician. So when Zak suggested we record it, I was thrilled. Our version is much heavier and more rocking than Teddy’s. I’m totally ok with that. It’s our own original take on this utterly ass kicking song, and I’m so glad we all chose it. I wonder if he’ll ever hear it. I’d like to think he’d be pleased with it.
Over all, I think that my debut recording is a smashing success. I am proud of it. I’m proud to present it to people to listen to. It sounds pro and there are no cringe-worthy moments on it. If you know me at all, you would know that’s high praise I’m putting on myself. I’m one of those people who usually cringes to watch myself on video or to hear the sound of my recorded voice. That will probably never change. But I have learned that if you trust the expertise and experience of the right people, they will happily pull you up into their league.