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Interview: Joe Bourdet

Joe Bourdet
17 June 2021

Photo by Leigh Newman

From the moment “Songbird Revisited” kicks off Joe Bourdet’s debut album, Meadow Rock, there’s little doubt everything about the release is an homage to the soft, singer-songwriter pop-rock of the mid-to-late ’70s. It’s not as much of “spot the influence” as it is “close your eyes and dream of the simpler life before technology invaded every corner of our lives” on the nine well-crafted tracks.

Of course, the album cover is your first clue. Bourdet’s glorious moustache is a brave statement in these modern times though one suspects Bourdet might be a time traveler who has traveled from 1975 Southern California and completely missed the last 45 or so years of music.

In a thoroughly fascinating and engaging conversation, Bourdet demonstrated his deep knowledge of recording gear and production aspects and shared how this shaped the delivery of the acoustic-driven songs. It’s no surprise that somebody who is into the mechanics of recording as much as he is into writing songs that will stick with listeners is a bit of a perfectionist; there’s no “first take and we’re done” going on here and had it not been for deadlines which required Bourdet to consider a song done, he might very well still be tweaking things to get closer to his definition of perfection.

I always like to browse dollar bins at record stores and buy singer/songwriter albums from the ’70s. When I saw your press shots and album cover, it all looks like something that comes from that era.

JOE: You’re onto something. A big part of how I discovered this music, part of it was simply not having the money to buy anywhere other than from the dollar bin. Of course, I love all the music from that era but the fact that it was readily available, I’d come away with armfuls of albums from the early-to-mid ’70s. They sold enough so that they’re not rare records. If I was trying to make jazz music, which I love, if I was trying to accrue a jazz record collection, it would have cost me thousands and thousands of dollars. But, instead, in college with my loans, I was sifting through dollar bins. So, my record is almost an homage to the dollar bin, underappreciated stuff from that era. And, it’s unironic. It’s not intentionally ironic what I’m doing, unlike so much of the stuff that’s really meta-modern genre hopping and ultra-referential. I’m actually trying to capture some of the spirit or feel of that music a little more deeply.

Meadow Rock - Joe Bourdet

I often think I should sell all the records I own and just go forward buying jazz records. But, I don’t think what I’d make from my collection would allow me to buy too much jazz because you can’t find much for cheap.

JOE: The way to get the jazz collection is to find a private seller, you just kind of fall into it. It’s usually estate sales. I just picked up the jazz collection from the actor who played Cookie from McHale’s Navy. He was clearly a trombone enthusiast, trombone and fluegelhorn, and so I got some beautiful jazz records. One is a rare Art Farmer and Gigi Gryce 10” EP, engineered by Rudy Van Gelder. It’s just a gorgeous sounding record, it’s probably the best sounding record I own. It’s worth maybe $150 and it was just sitting in a pile. I could never buy that in a record store. If it was on a record store wall, it would be $200 and I wouldn’t consider it. It’s the prize of my collection and it’s even sweeter that it was basically given to me.

I didn’t grow up with older siblings and my parents didn’t have a deep record collection. The stuff from the ’70s that I listen to, in many cases, is brand new to me.

JOE: It’s great songwriting and the melodies are not the same as they used to be. Hooks are not the same. I really respond to those melodies. I don’t know what it is, it’s not necessarily a nostalgia thing for me because I’m too young. Yes, I heard that all, and I certainly associate it with my parents and other kind of parental-type influential figures but something about the melodies and something about the absence of that type of melody today makes me want to show that it can be done.

You do it well. You capture the spirit of that type of music. I described your stuff to a friend as the lost James Taylor/Laurel Canyon record.

JOE: I can’t sing half as good as James Taylor, but aside from that, the sound of James Taylor’s records were made by a really fantastic production team and the sounds of those records and the production style is something I’ve played close attention to. I wanted to capture some essence of that here and that would be the Los Angeles studio sound of the early-to-mid 70s, the very distinctive way they treated drums then. It was a confluence of the technology, the arrival of 16-track machines and the recording consoles were all still discrete electronics. This was before integrated circuits and they were all transformer coupled, so you have this convergence of technologies being as they were just getting to a certain level of fidelity before cost efficiencies and specifications took over. Equipment started measuring better but sounding worse shortly after that. And when you got into the 24-track machines, you have smaller strips of magnetic tapes picking up the signal. The story of sonic fidelity is not a linear ascension in the music business. It got better but in some ways it degraded and the production styles changed with it all down the line. Something is very seductive about the dead drums from that era, the plate reverbs in the chambers and I think they were all really inspired by the band. I think the band set the pace. It’s not naturalistic but naturalistic is a good word for it. Nothing about it is technically naturalistic. If you analyze it deeply, because an acoustic guitar is so quiet, playing with a drum kit, it would never happen naturally. Only in a recorded world can the acoustic guitar be front and center and then you can have a rock and roll back beat with it. It’s a combination of fantasy and the illusion of a natural kind of vibe.

You have a deep knowledge of how music is made. Do you record and produce bands?

JOE: I hope to do more of it but my credits are miniscule. My engineering credits are film and TV which I’ve been doing for a few years as a supplement. My music production is mostly records that I’m a part of as a musician. I do my own engineering but I don’t do a lot of other people’s engineering though this record I’m hoping is an advertisement for what I can do. That’s something I’m looking to expand but by no means am I a seasoned pro music producer or engineer. This is my passion project but I’ve accrued enough skills to do the album you’ve heard. I have some tricks in my bag.

Is it hard recording yourself and trying to say something is finished? Do you want to keep tinkering with it?

JOE: It wouldn’t have been finished were not for lockdown. My little studio is at home here and when I was forced to not leave my house, and not work, I had nothing to do but finish my passion project. So I did. Every day for most of that time I made some progress. It’s very, very hard for me to sign off on stuff. Although the record isn’t perfect as in every part is played to perfection, it’s kind of perfectly imperfect to my own vision and that was hard to do. I found out I’m very particular.

I thought I was going to learn to play the piano we have during quarantine but I never even sat down to try.

JOE: Piano is difficult. I acquired a piano during quarantine. You can hear that piano on “Unwritten Story”, the second song on the album. I had already been playing keyboards but I’m really a self-taught keyboardist. My only application is to write parts tediously for my own music, I couldn’t get up on stage and competently perform on keyboard. I can make parts and get sounds. I spent weeks if not months restoring this piano, taking it apart, dusting it and cleaning everything, learning how to mic it too, finding where in the room the mics want to go to get the realistic picture of the keyboard that I wanted and then teaching myself the part. It was tedious and obsessive. I can get that way, but thankfully I can make a product out of that.

Are you planning to go out and play these songs live or was this a project to document this time and the songs you’d written?

JOE: I have a lot of collaborators and a lot of my friends play on this record and before Covid, I had a band and played locally. It’s something I would be happy to pick up where I left off and there’s no reason why these songs can’t be performed even though in some instances I played most of the instruments, but in a lot of other instances I didn’t. That’s not a hold up for anything, the hold up is that it’s all very tenuous bookings. And, frankly, I’m finding it refreshing to not have to stress out about it. Being a DIY musicians, you have to wear all these hats, basically do everything. So if you take a huge chunk of being a musician, which is live performance, and you just put that out of your mind, you’ve freed up 50% of your energy to promote, to record more, to write more, to do interviews. In a way, it makes it a little more manageable and a little less hectic so I’m enjoying it.

I recognized Jason Soda’s name from the album credits. I interviewed him and the band he was in, Everest.

JOE: I’ve known Jason for at least ten years. He’s perhaps my closest collaborator. He definitely taught me a huge amount of what I know about engineering and introduced me to all the studio techniques that I’m using. We worked together on a lot of this record. He’s got his own studio not far from me, a much more impressive place. I work with him still and he plays a lot of the really great guitar that you hear on this record. He recorded several of the drum tracks on various songs like “Songbird” and “El Capitan” and “Sea Mist”. Those drum sounds are his baby and I think they’re great. I had my own vision and I knew I needed to do it in my own time and if I need to do 90 takes, I will do 90 takes and I can’t put my collaborators through that kind of tedious, obsessive behavior. Doing some of that work and shielding my friends from over asking leads me to do as much of it as I can by myself.

Who are the other people that played on the record?

JOE: Everybody down here is in several bands, I won’t even going into analyzing why. I could talk about that for half an hour. We’re a community down here, there’s a lot of talented people. Everybody wants to make records and everyone wants to play on records and when everyone gets tired of sitting at home, they want to play. It’s easy to collaborate with people if you’re social about it and friendly and the music’s good. So, everybody on this record plays in multiple projects. Jason’s got his studio. Jason played with GospelbeacH most recently. I played on the last Gospelbeach record and will hopefully play on the next one. Drummer Justin Smith plays with Howlin’ Rain. Will Scott was also in GospelbeacH and played with Wolfmother. George Sluppick, another drummer on the record, has played with everybody including Albert King. He was with Chris Robinson Brotherhood and now he’s with some Memphis bands.

I interviewed Duane Betts and I know you’re a fan of his dad, Dickey.

JOE: Oh, totally. I don’t think I’ve ever met Duane Betts but I’ve been in the same room with him and I saw him play at a small club in downtown L.A. I’m a fan, I’m a supporter. Of course, I’m an Allman Brothers aficionado, so I’m glad he’s carrying the torch. Duane Allman got really beautiful sounds. A cool thing about those guys is they didn’t use any effect pedals and stomp boxes. It was what you could do manipulating the volume control and what you could do playing with the dynamics of a tube amplifier. There’s a world of colors you can get out of that and that’s very hard to do in a contemporary setting simply because everything is very effects driven. If you’re a pay-for-hire guy, you’ve got to recreate effects the way they are on the record which means you need a pedalboard and you need a faze sound and you’ve got to have a fast delay, a slow delay, a tap tempo, a synth, a whatever. I hate watching people stomp pedals on stage. The bigger bands will have their guitar tech stomp the pedals for them on the side of the stage so you don’t have to see it, some will even operate the wah wah pedal which is really bizarre. I’ve never had the luxury. I might be into that if I ever hit that level. I kind of like the straight-into-the-amp mentality and the Allman Brothers are the example of that that I don’t think they ever changed. I don’t think in their entire career will you see a stomp box on stage with the Allman Brothers with the exception that Dickey might have had a wah wah pedal in the late ’60s. That’s a guitar nerd detail but you’ll hear it if you’re looking for it.

I saw on your Bandcamp site that the album will be available as … it’s not a regular CD but it’s an MQA CD.

JOE: Right. This is a whole bag of worms to describe MQA. It is a new technology. It’s maybe four or five years old. Gee, I’m trying to think of a CliffsNotes version of it because it’s so technically difficult to explain, it’s so tricky.

How will it sound different to the listener?

JOE: I’m going to take a deep breath. At the moment, MQA is mainly being applied to Tidal’s high-resolution streaming platform. If you pay for premium Tidal, you get MQA files. MQA stands for Master Quality Authenticated. What they do is they take a digital master from the source, direct from the artist, direct from the mastering engineer, or direct from the label. The master is provided to them as a digital master in it’s native resolution, the resolution it was mastered at or recording at, sometimes those are not quite the same thing. And then they analyze it and identify digital artifacts on that digital master recording. They identify those digital artifacts and remove them. They call it “deblurring”. The main artifact they are removing is a phenomenon that only occurs in the digital world called “pre-ring”. That’s where you hear the sound before it happens. That’s one of the cues that we hear kind of subliminally that tell us, although we can’t articulate it, it’s an audio cue that what we’re hearing is a digital file and not a natural sounding recording. So, they are attempting to push out the boundaries of what digital is capable of in realism and getting closer to analog. They do a lot more than that. They also make the file size smaller so that it becomes streamable. They fold a high-resolution file into a file the size of a CD or a red book CD file. They are doing a few tricks and that’s why it’s difficult to wrap your head around. What I’ve just explained is just scratching the surface.

To talk about the CD specifically, the CD is my high-resolution masters but folded down into CD-sized files with the deblurring elimination of pre-ring and other artifacts from my converters and mastering converters. And if you have an MQA deck, digital to analog converter, when you playback that CD, it unfolds it back into a high-resolution file. If you don’t have a converter, it plays on any CD player in the world at CD resolution and sounds fantastic and has the advantage of the MQA deblurring or elimination of some of those digital artifacts. The long story short is that it’s a really good sounding CD.

I still have a CD player in my car so am anxious to hear how it sounds.

JOE: It’s good driving music. I was thinking about it, because I have to talk so much about the record, I was thinking “What were my motivations for making the record?” I was trying to do some armchair psychology on myself and I realized that I’m kind of chasing some early childhood bliss memories. The memory is driving through the Sierras on Highway 49 with my parents and rock radio, or some cassette, and I think maybe Steely Dan’s “Reelin’ in the Years”, something about harmonized guitars and driving and the forest. It was an early bliss experience. I think my parents had briefly reunited, they had been separated my whole life, right at that era. It must have been a little glimpse of perfection that I saw as an 8-year-old. I think maybe I’m trying to recapture that in music a little bit.

What is your favorite way to present your music to an audience?

JOE: For a long time that’s been Pappy and Harriet’s in Pioneertown, California. That’s where I’ve had some of the most fun on stage and I’ve had the pleasure to play there I guess dozens of times now. That’s the place that immediately comes to mind that I have played, that I love, where the audience is always receptive. It’s the right balance of energy. Booking agents, if you’re reading this, I’ll do Red Rocks, I’ll do anything you want.


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