Music Connection first spoke with producer, engineer and 10-time Grammy winner Joe Chiccarelli for our February 2012 Producer Crosstalk. In the intervening years, the Bostonian’s career has climbed to new heights and his roster has grown to include artists such as My Morning Jacket, Vance Joy and Broken Social Scene. Ninty percent of his LA productions are done at legendary studio Sunset Sound, but he also bounces around the globe to record at storied spaces like France’s Studios La Fabrique, a 200-year-old textile mill, and New York’s Electric Lady Studios built by Jimi Hendrix in 1970.
"There's more than one way to see something. Objectivity is key."
Among Chiccarelli’s latest projects is Morrissey’s 12-track California Son, a covers record with songs penned originally by Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Roy Orbison, among others. “It’s something he’s had in mind for a long time,” Chiccarelli says when asked how the album came to be. “He’d been doing The Pretenders’ ‘Back on the Chain Gang’ during his live shows and wanted to get a [studio version] down. He came in with one goal in mind and we got it done quickly. He loved the process and how [the song] came out. That’s when he told me he’d wanted to do a covers album for years. So, last fall we came into Sunset and cut all of the songs pretty quickly—a few weeks of tracking and maybe another week of overdubs. That’s relatively quick for a Morrissey record.”
The selection of a mere dozen songs from a sea of countless favorites couldn’t have been easy. But the show—or record—had to go on. “We all made suggestions, but ultimately it was his decision,” Chiccarelli recalls. “He has a passion for music and can tell you who played on a record, who produced it and which label released it. He revered the songs that he chose and had a vision for each, even if it was just for the mood. The idea of the hip-hop beat for Carly Simon’s ‘When You Close Your Eyes’ was his. One problem was when do you try to rein- vent the song and make it your own and when do you say ‘This is what the song is and we need to respect the original version?’”
"You can never deliberately try to chase a trend. If you do, you'll always be behind it. Making something true to the artist is essential."
Usually, Chiccarelli prefers one to two weeks of advance work, but California Son was a different kind of record and only required a few days. “I’m a big fan of pre-production,” he says. “Dylan’s ‘Only a Pawn in Their Game’ was tricky because you can’t make it a 60s’ folk protest song. It doesn’t work; it was Bob’s vision in 1963. How does that fit today? It’s also always tricky because the original key might not be best suited to your voice. Some tunes stayed in the original keys and a lot of them shifted.”
Over the years, Chiccarelli has learned what success demands. “The key to being an artist is to have a unique voice; to have a singular sound; a unique stamp to create a language that no one else has,” he asserts. “That’s what attracts me to an artist—when they don’t sound like anyone else. Sometimes that comes about over time; it doesn’t happen on your first release. It might happen a few years later. But that’s crucial.”
"Trust the artist, especially ones that are established and have done well navigating their career."
In addition to California Son, Chiccarelli has been busy with many other records like Morrissey’s non-covers album, which is targeted for release early next year. In recent months, he worked with Canadian band Half Moon Run. The busy producer is also involved with Australian duo Falls. SoCal band The Jacks and indie artist Meresha also hover on his horizon.