One Voice: Steve Gadd & Edie Brickell

steve gadd and edie brickwell

On the eve of the release of Look Out Now!, the sophomore album from Steve Gadd and Edie Brickell’s side project, The Gaddabouts, we spoke with the pair about the unique bond of rhythm and melody that brought them together for the first time 12 years ago in New York, and led to this powerful 17-song, double-album follow-up.

Together with guitarist Andy Fairweather Low and bassist Pino Palidino, Gadd and Brickell craft lush, café-cool folk-rock gems full of airy, real-time energy captured in the almost-live recording scenario you’d expect from musicians of this caliber. Though Gadd – on conference call from Maui where he was kicking back for a little well-deserved r&r – produced the album and was the driving force in the band’s creation, the ever-humble drummer was quick to point to Brickell’s guiding hand as the band’s lyricist and chief songwriter. Brickell joined us from her home in New York, which she shares with husband Paul Simon, Gadd’s employer at the time he and Brickell first met back in 1992 when Gadd was out on Simon’s Graceland tour. And even from 5,000 miles apart, their conversation crackled with the shared enthusiasm and energy that comes through so crisply on the album.

DRUM!: Can you tell me about how the songs were built? Did you come in with a lot of preconceived ideas and prep, or was it a very organic in-the-studio, see-what-happens kind of process?
Steve Gadd: This last album was pretty organic. We just sort of came in and things just started to happen. Edie had some ideas, and they sort of evolved after we all got together.
Edie Brickell: Yeah, big time. You give these guys a little kernel of an idea … I’ve used this analogy so many times, but you give them an acorn, and within minutes you have a gorgeous oak tree with these guys. They fully realize the potential of any idea and make it so much bigger and better than anything you could have dreamed of.

DRUM!: Edie, when you’re writing songs, do you have a particular drum beat or pattern in mind, or are you strictly thinking melody?
E.B.: No I can’t touch that. I mean, I feel a sense of rhythm, but I certainly wouldn’t know how to communicate that. And Steve is so intuitive, and obviously the best there is, he just makes it swing and groove so hard. There was one song in particular called “Free,” that I came in, I was playing it super-straight, and he looked over at Dino [Paladino, bass], and said, “We’ve gotta make this thing groove.” [laughs] And it just transformed into this beautiful swing of “Free.”

DRUM!: Edie, when you come in with a song written, I imagine you have a particular tempo in mind. Are you married to that, or are you open to the idea of it getting faster or slower, depending on the band’s input?
E.B.: Basically Steve is the leader here. We play it how he feels it and hears it. He always hears things more on an enlightened level. [laughs] His instincts are just so on and so electric, he’s just a natural leader. He pulls everybody into this space that he’s in, and we all have a good time. And I’m not just saying that cause he can hear me. [laughter]

DRUM!: Steve, at this point in your career, I imagine when you walk into the studio, there’s a lot of trust from the other musicians, engineers, producers, even people whom you haven’t worked with before. But do you think people have a hard time telling you, “That part really didn’t work; let’s try something completely different.” In other words, do you think people have a tendency to defer to whatever you want to lay down?
S.G.: Nah, we share ideas. At the end, someone has to make a final decision, but I got guys together because of what they bring to the table and how much I love what they do musically, and also as people, as my friends. Because this is a special project that I wanted to not just hire people but I wanted to share it with them. And they’re respectful of that, so we all give two hundred percent. The goal for all of us is to allow the music that Edie brings in to be the best that it can be and to be what Edie wants it to be. And it’s like, as it blossoms, everyone sort of gets it along the way, you know what I mean?
E.B.: The personality of the players is what makes it so musical, though. You know, you can come in with any chord progression but it’s the personality of the players that breathe the life force into it. It’s like that Frankenstein lying on the table and the band comes and gives it the electric shock that makes him walk out of the room. [laughs]
They got the parts, but they need to be electrified, you know?

DRUM!: Edie, when you’re recording this stuff and playing it live, how important are the drums to you as a singer? Is that something that’s a subconscious addition where if it’s working it’s working, or do you find yourself actually focusing on the drum parts?
E.B.: Before I met Steve, it’s interesting, I always noticed singers, but I hardly knew what people’s names were because my introduction to music was my mom’s record collection. So I knew there were a lot of songs that I loved. Then when I joined a band, The New Bohemians taught me to pay attention to who the musicians were. I sort of started to hear those different personalities emerge, and before I knew who Steve Gadd was, I was very attracted to his records. And later, when I met him, then I found out, Oh my god, he’s the drummer on that and that and that and that, and I have always been a big fan. [laughs]
And yeah, I have been drawn to what he does, so the mystery of the magnetism of musicians to come together when you have always loved them is sort of an amazing gift and honor to be in that studio and play with somebody who I always loved, even when I didn’t know it.

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DRUM!: Tell me about the actual recording process. What when down first, next, etc.?
E.B.: Well, it’s so live, those guys all play things right the first time. It is so, so live, and then Steve preserves the integrity of that live energy. But, please, I will let Steve say more. I just wanted to say that because I don’t think Steve would toot his own horn like that. [laughs] But that’s how it goes down. It’s amazing.
S.G.: It all starts out with whatever idea Edie brings in. Sometimes it’s a complete song. Sometimes it’s like an idea. And when the process happens, Eddie gets into this zone creatively, where it’s like there will be a bunch of things that she has already demo’d, and on the way in, she will write a completely new thing, and the choices are limitless. So, we listen to a bunch of things and we all just decide what’s the next thing we are going to work on. And then the process is, we just listen to Edie play it a bunch of times. And she’ll either play the demo, or if it’s a new one, she sits and plays it live. I listen to Andy Fairweather Low on piano and start learning what the chords are.
We all love the ideas that she plays originally on the guitar. They all become part of the arrangement. And then it’s just, for me, it’s about listening to the song and trying to find the way that it flows the most naturally, what kind of groove will make it feel the most comfortable – for Edie to sing and for us to do what we do. And from my point of view, Edie’s ideas encompass so many different kinds of music. It encompasses anything that she has ever heard, from funk to R&B to old jazz albums. I mean, all of those ideas show up in Edie’s songs, in my opinion, and so there’s a lot of different ways to cultivate them.
And then it becomes trial and error – then it becomes like, you know, how to make the form interesting. But it’s a fun process. I mean, I really love it and, and what Edie was saying about preserving the life – it’s like, in my experience, in the studio, over the years, a lot of the magic happens on earlier takes before the musicians are trying to just repeat what they did on the earlier take, while they’re still just listening and letting the music sort of take them for a ride. And so that’s what we try to preserve.

DRUM!: So are these mostly one-take songs or were you pasting some stuff together after the fact?
S.G.: Once we learn what the form’s going to be, you know, it’s a couple of takes.
E.B.: … “Look At Now,” was one of the very first takes, though. Steve wasn’t going start it with this drum roll, and I was like, ’Start it with one of those drum rolls!’ Because just when he’s playing around in the studio, you can tell he’s just listening to his drums, the way that he plays them, it just has so much personality, and I want him to always insert as much of that in there, because you don’t get to hear that as much on other people’s records. I don’t anymore, anyway. It sounds like all the older records that I love. So encouraging all these guys to play as much as possible and bring a lot of music back into recordings is very exciting to me, especially because they can all play it so beautifully live. I mean, so many of the records that I love to listen to are way back, like early Bob Wills, and Duke Ellington and, sort of, big band jazz era. You get a sense – or, Stéphane Grappelli and Django Reinhardt live at the Hot Club – the way that that energy comes through on those recordings is so different from newer records where everything does feel processed and layered. You get a sense of air in the music and the band, and Steve understands that and knows how to do that. And that’s a very exciting artist statement.
S.G.: It’s like an approach, and Edie’s voice, to me, is so beautiful that it challenges me to allow her to be able to just tell the story and not have to shout it. Just be able to tell it and not have to, you know, say it over someone else’s playing. It’s about allowing every instrument, including Edie’s vocal, to have enough room and not have to fight to be heard.

DRUM!: Steve, when you’re approaching this type of music, as opposed to if you’re playing something on the opposite end of the spectrum – fusion or something really instrumental, is the challenge really about leaving as much space as possible, or is it more about placement?
S.G.: You know what, the challenge is always to let the music play me. You know what I mean? It’s not about thinking about another kind of way that I used to play and if I should do that now or not. It’s just, when the music is so strong and the writing is so beautiful, it’s just about not making it happen, but more allowing it to just sort of grow and blossom. You find the right groove and the right approach to allowing the foundation of the song so Edie can sing the song, and then after that it’s all coloring it and maybe leaving some more space in certain spots.

DRUM!: You had mentioned Edie’s voice being a driving force. Do you find yourself playing differently to Edie’s voice than, say, James Taylor or Eric Clapton or somebody else you’ve played with, even if it’s a similar song structure?
S.G.: When I’m working with Edie I only think about Edie. It’s not about anything else that I’ve ever done. It’s only about trying to just be in whatever I’m doing. That’s it. It’s just about being in the moment. The thing is if you allow the music to play you, then it’s not about necessarily doing something that you’ve already done before. It’s like all of a sudden you could be doing something that you never did, which is the way I’d like to approach it, because you keep growing that way. I think that you go into the studio with a completely open mind.
When you work with musicians like this it’s just about allowing it to be, allowing it to grow, allowing people to share ideas. And these are guys that love music. I mean, Edie and all these people that are in this project are people that have been playing music their whole lives and people that love what they do and bring a lot to the table. And that’s what’s so beautiful about when we’re all together because there’s a camaraderie there and a certain love and respect that we all have for the music and each other. And I think that’s why we have so much fun when we’re in that creative situation.

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DRUM!: Going back to the demos, Edie, you mentioned that most of this came from demos that you brought in. Was that mostly just singing and playing guitar or did you have any drum tracks or samples on those?
E.B.: Oh, no, not at all.
S.G.: Most of those were just her singing and playing guitar. Some were written with piano …
E.B.: … And some that evolved out of Steve’s drum parts. After one long session everybody was packing up and leaving, and Steve started to play this drum pattern with his hands. And I walked in the room to say goodbye, actually, to everybody, and heard that, and got very excited, and said, “Ooh ooh ooh, keep playing it, keep playing it.” And I got my recorder and started singing. And within one hour, they turned everything on, and we recorded “Don’t Take All Day.” So that song was recorded off his drum part, then recorded with that super fresh, live energy of having just been written.
S.G.: And you know what happens, at least the last time we were in the studio, it’s like a zone that happens creatively and Edie just gets … while we’re working on finishing a basic track after we just got done tweaking it, Edie will be out starting to write another song. It’s like the creative process gets very fertile, and it’s just nice to be a part of that. It’s a good place to be in. You know, it’s like you don’t get a lot of sleep but you don’t need a lot of sleep. Because you’re so into what’s happening and so excited about it. And that feeling doesn’t happen all the time, so when it does happen, it’s nice to be able to go with it.
E.B.: Yeah, and “Meat On Your Bones” was an improv between takes of a song called “Freddy.” In between takes Andy starts playing this little riff and I just immediately – I don’t know what happened, it just comes out. So we started playing to it and then we stopped and Steve said, “Go ahead, keep doing that.” You should have seen the look on his face through the glass. Steve was like, “What did you stop for? Keep doing it!”
So we all start playing it and we go through it one more time, and then we start and Steve’s like, you can hear him [on the record], he says “That was a good one.” It was an improv. And I love Steve’s choice to put that first on the whole record because it sets the vibe and the energy that’s so lose and creative and fearless and fun. It’s rare to get that with a band – they just roll. They just play, and they’re so good they know how to just get it right the first time because they’re feeling it. It is so cool.

DRUM!: Edie, I didn’t realize that you’re writing lyrics in the studio as well. I figured you might have had all that stuff done ahead of time. It’s great that that process is also part of that give-and-take, living, breathing moment.
E.B.: Oh, yeah, it is. I’m very lucky because lyrics flow out like a melody of an instrument. It’s that similar kind of jazz sensibility where – I think it’s a lot about just trusting what comes and just letting it flow. And then listening back later and say “Well, look at that.”

DRUM!: And I’d also read that you were trying to get everyone in the band to do a little backup singing?
E.B.: As much as possible. I just adore it when you hear musicians’ voices as well as their instruments because it’s just so spirited. It makes me happy. It feels like everybody’s bonded. It brings a different kind of element into it that has a greater personality for a vocalist to relate to. That’s what I meant earlier when I said my first experience joining a band, they enlightened me to the personality of the players and how it could be so vastly different and what made other players special.
If you add that kind of musicianship and a voice, too, for me you get that bonus layer. I just love it. Because musicians are usually so cool and laid back.”

DRUM!: Steve, are you comfortable singing and playing drums at the same time or is that something that does not come naturally to you?
S.G.: It isn’t something I normally do, but, you know, where all the guys are singing, I’m a part of it. And Edie doesn’t let anyone slack off when it comes to that. She cracks the whip [laughs] and makes sure we’re all singing. You know what I mean? And Edie brings that out of us. That’s when Edie takes over, and has a vision and an idea and we just trust enough – even though we’re not singers – to try, and it works out.
This band is very kind. I did it years ago when I was in college with this band that we had and the parts were really difficult and I never really felt comfortable and it sort of poisoned the well for me to continue to try to do that. But with this group and with Edie, it’s a very safe environment, and even though I’m very skeptical and frightened of my own singing, these people make me feel comfortable and loved, and then it just becomes fun. And as long as it’s fun and joyful, that is what becomes part of the music. You know what I mean? It’s beyond notes.
E.B.: But Steve keeps a lot of this stuff too, from the live tracks. For instance “Corruption.” You know at the end of “Corruption” where Pino is just tearing it up with those licks at the end? And I’m walking around and I hear it and I’m going, like, “Wooo!” because I can see them through there. And Steve says, “No, we gotta keep that stuff on there. We gotta keep that.” [laughs] So he keeps all the little “wooos!”. Now in future recordings I gotta be careful with that. [laughs]

DRUM!: This is kind of a cliché question, but if you were to pick your favorite part of each other’s playing on this album, do you have a moment that really stands out?
E.B.: I like the whole thing. It’s just hard to pick.
S.G.: Yeah, every song is a little bit different and I love it all. It’s hard to pick one. We had a hard time even choosing songs to not put on the album. You fall in love with everything, you know?
E.B.: Yeah, there’s the double record. [laughs]. We were going to make it a single. We couldn’t eliminate them, so we had to make it a double record.

DRUM!: Yeah, I don’t hear any clunkers here. I feel your pain.
E.B.: Thank you. To me, uh, the genius Steve made me learn is that he can make the drums sing. Like, he makes the drums have melodies. They don’t just go bang in rhythm. He makes ’em – have a tone and, and sing. And I never understood that before. Nobody ever made me pay attention to it like that. And I’ll put on the headphones and then I’ll hear the subtleties of what he does with cymbals and I just think, ’Are you kidding me? [laughs] Somebody can - somebody can do this? All at once?’ And then, he - you know, so I’ll check it out. I’ll-I’ll listen to our playbacks, you know, ten, fifteen times, g-get accustomed to the way that he plays, really tune into it; and then get in the car, you know, with my kids, and they turn on the radio or they put on their stuff and - or I’ll put on music the way that I even I used to listen to and think, ’This is so crappy.’ [laughs] I cannot believe - I-he’s got me totally spoiled now. It’s like, you know, once you eat at that nice restaurant, have that good meal, you just don’t want to go through the drive thru anymore. [laughs] And I used to eat at the drive thru all the damn time.

DRUM!: Well, Edie, I will say, on behalf of every drummer on the planet, now you know how we feel.
E.B.: Yeah.
S.G.: Well, I appreciate that. Thank you.