Cyndi Lauper & Tony Brown Cutting Country Gold, Old-Style, With Nashville's Finest
Photography by Dead Horse Branding
Producer Tony Brown admits it hasn’t been often in his vast career that he’s popped one of the projects he’s produced into his car stereo for mere listening pleasure. But that’s exactly what he’s been doing with the recent Cyndi Lauper project, Detour, which he not only enjoyed doing, but actually likes hearing upon completion.
So do fans. Detour entered the country charts at No. 4 and Billboard’s Top 200 at No. 29.
As the story goes, Lauper met with a few producers in Nashville before settling on Brown. She first showed up at his house with Sire label head Seymour Stein.
“I told Cyndi as they were sitting in front of my desk, ‘Don’t be offended, but I’m pissing down my leg that Seymour Stein is sitting in front of my desk right now,’” Brown recalls. “I’m infatuated with people like George Martin, Seymour Stein and Ahmet Ertegun, who have that magic touch. I found out with him sitting here that he really knew his stuff.”
You can hear Lauper chuckle as she lists the first couple of reasons why she chose Brown:
“It was his hair! And he knew Elvis! I mean come on,” she says. “Just kidding. Seymour Stein and Cris Lacy from Warners Nashville set up some meetings for me in town and I got to meet some incredible producers. All of them had amazing track records and had made amazing albums and worked with amazing artists, so it was really hard to choose. In the end I decided to work with Tony because I thought he understood what I was trying to accomplish with this record. I really wanted a partner I could co-produce with who I thought understood where I was going with this album, and Tony seemed the easiest to talk to. I thought it would be fun making a record with him and I knew he would be open to the different twists and turns I wanted to take.”
Photography by Dead Horse Branding
Brown was thrilled when he got the call saying they had chosen him. They presented him with about 50-60 song ideas of classics that Lauper grew up with, including “Heartaches By The Number,” “Walkin’ After Midnight” and “I Fall to Pieces.” They spent time emailing and phoning back and forth discussing the project on which they also decided to bring in guest vocalists Emmylou Harris, Jewel, Willie Nelson, Alison Krauss and Vince Gill.
For the project, Brown enlisted Willie Weeks on bass, Chad Cromwell on drums, Aubrey Haynie on fiddle and mandolin, Steve Nathan on keyboards, Dan Dugmore on steel and Tom Bukovac and Kenny Greenberg, who shared electric and acoustic guitar duties. “I just booked the people I knew that can really give me what I want and can turn on a dime,” says Brown, who also hired Bryan Sutton to play acoustic guitar and Jeff Taylor on accordion for “I Want to Be A Cowboy’s Sweetheart” for that authentic Western feel.
“The band Tony assembled for the album was incredible,” Lauper says. “They were magical. Every one of them. The challenge was finding my place in the band as the band leader, and also be one of them—that we were a whole and not an assembly of parts. What’s important when you make music together is that you become a band, not just a bunch of people playing together. Everyone in the band pretty much knew each other and had played together many times, so I just had to keep myself open and receptive and at the same time lead the charge. It happened pretty quickly; not immediately, but pretty quickly. We became a band while recording ‘Funnel of Love,’ which was pretty much a one-take song.”
Lauper brought her longtime engineer William Wittman, whom she met in 1983 through Rick Chertoff at CBS Records. Wittman recorded, co-produced and mixed She’s So Unusual and reconnected with Lauper in 2000 to become her musical director and bass player on the road.
Brown’s first instinct was to fight Lauper on bringing her own engineer. Once Wittman was there, Brown was fine. For one, Brown says, Wittman helped him know when the take was complete.
“I’d say, ‘This feels like this is a real take.’ He’d say, ‘Yeah, this is feeling like we’re there,’” Brown says.
One of the reasons the producer felt a little bit like a fish out of water was because Lauper sang everything live, something Brown was not used to.
“At first I thought that was kind of weird, and at the end I was thinking, ‘God, I just saved myself a week of vocal comps,’” Brown says. “Jimmy Bowen instituted this thing where you cut a track with George Strait or Reba and then you send the musicians out and sing three, four or five more vocals, and nine times out of ten you comp it together and you’ve got a performance. That was always the way I worked,” Brown says.
But as they approached the first vocal and Brown asked Lauper, “Do you want to do the vocals now or do you want to wait until next week when you have a fresh voice?” She said, “I just sang it.”
“I said, ‘I know you just sang it,’ and she said, ‘No that’s it. Unless it sucks, I’m not going to sing it again.’ I said, ‘It didn’t suck, it’s awesome,’” Brown recalls.
Lauper believes singing live makes a huge difference.
“I’ve recorded a handful of my records live vocal with the band; it’s just so much more magical,” she says. “I did it on At Last and again on Memphis Blues and on this album, too. [There’s] something about arranging on your feet and finding the personality of the song and the band that, for me, improves the quality of the recordings.”
It set a high standard for the musicians, too. According to Brown, she said, “Here’s the deal, guys, we all have to be as one before I’m gonna like it. Everybody be on your toes because the take is the take. No redo’s.”
Cyndi Lauper has a unique voice, one that keeps getting better. Wittman said he used an original U 47 on her vocals: “The vocal went through an API mic pre through a Fairchild 670 compressor and then my API 525 compressor going all the way back to She’s So Unusual.” Guest artist vocals were recorded on an original U 47, as well, except for Krauss and Gill, sang into a U 67.
“In addition to a close bass drum and snare mic, [Electro-Voice] RE-20 and [Neumann] KM 84, respectively, drums were recorded with two U 87s around the kit as overall left and right pickup, plus two STC/Coles 4038s spaced in front,” Wittman says. “In the mix I would often choose between either the closer 87s and the 4038 ‘room’ mics rather than use both pairs. So most drum sounds in the record are really just four mics.”
Except for the bass drum, everything was recorded with a condenser or ribbon mic.
“I like the full range and speed of the attack of condensers. I like to get the whole thing and if I want to shape something I’ll use EQ,” Wittman says. “I don’t like what dynamic microphones do in terms of limiting the range of the sound.”
The first two songs, “Funnel of Love” and “End of the World,” were cut at Sound Stage on an SSL and then they switched over to Sound Emporium where they have a Neve V Series board.
“I recorded almost nothing through either of the desks, except perhaps the synthesizer,” Wittman explains. “Everything was recorded through outboard modules, mostly Neve 1073s with a couple of APIs sprinkled in just because I couldn’t get enough 1073s. I had a mountain of rented discrete transistor mic pre’s that I recorded everything through,” said Wittman, adding that he mixed at Blackbird Studios on an API. All of the LA-2As, Fairchild compressors, RCA BA-6A, etc., came from Blackbird Rentals. “And I’m using all that to record,” Wittman adds. “I don’t wait for the mix.”
Meanwhile, Brown concentrated on the performances.
“When you cut a record like this, you don’t want to copy the original record,” Brown says. “But there are certain facets of the original record you have to include, like on ‘End of the World’ there’s that piano arpeggio that Floyd Cramer was probably doing that Tom Bukovac did on guitar that brought it into 2016.”
Speaking of “End of the World,” Brown says that when Lauper finished singing the song, “She came out of the booth and she was in tears, and I was, too. She nailed me right in the heart.”
“End of the World” came out so great that what you hear on the album is the actual rough mix. (Wittman also mentioned that “Funnel of Love” is the rough mix after the background vocals were done.)
“People know Cyndi as a personality, but she is a great singer,” Wittman says. “When you’re that good a singer, you can make a blues record or a country record. She started in a rockabilly band, so she feels a connection to early country. There’s very little editing or trickery or overdubbing on the whole record.”
All of the guest vocalists were overdubbed due to scheduling, except Vince Gill, who sat six feet away from Lauper singing and playing acoustic guitar.
“Vince played and sang on the record live when we cut the tracks,” Lauper says. “He is an absolute shredder on the guitar, and he just has this great voice. And he has a very easy, funny, infectious personality that makes the session like a party. So it’s easy just to get down to making great music because everyone is so relaxed and free.”
Brown says Lauper gave Gill a choice of a few songs he could do and he chose “You’re the Reason Our Kids Are Ugly.”
“It was so funny because before we got to the studio, Cyndi said, ‘Ya know, I saw Vince at the Opry the other night and he had on these God-awful shorts. I hope he doesn’t wear those to the studio,’” Brown recalls. “I said, ‘He wears them all summer long.’ He shows up in those shorts and what ended up on that record was spontaneous. It happened on the fly. It was so funny.”
However, Brown says, Lauper was just a little bit intimidated by Willie Nelson’s iconic status.
“Willie Nelson is so sweet,” Brown says. “If you ask him, ‘Is that okay?’ he’ll say, ‘If it’s okay with you; but if it’s not, I’ll do it again.’”
Lauper even got Brown—who, in addition to playing with Presley, sat in with such artists as Emmylou Harris and Rosanne Cash—to play piano on “Night Life” after she found him showing Nathan how Floyd Cramer might have done something.
“Cyndi said, ‘You’re playing this,’” Brown recalls. “I said, ‘I don’t play on records anymore.’ And she said, ‘You are now.’ When it was all over with, I was going, ‘That was kinda fun.’ It was a moment for me.”
Brown loved the entire experience.
“A lot of artists are just wanting to cut a hit record,” Brown says. “You want to get to that hook in 20 seconds. This was about cutting quality. I told Cyndi, ‘The thing about this, as opposed to having to please a program director or a three-minute single, is we just have to please your fans and you. We had to be just really good at this, and it turned out not to be work. It was so much fun cutting this record because we knew all we had to do was a really good job.”
They ended up producing a hit anyway, of which Brown is very proud.
He doesn’t just keep Detour in his car. He totes the CD wherever he goes. He recently went to Vegas to see Brooks and Dunn, Reba McEntire, and Lionel Richie—all artists with whom he has worked.
“I said, ‘Check this out,’” he says with a laugh. “I just don’t usually do that.”