Recording: Isaac Johnson’s ‘All The Things We Are’

One of the great parts about touring is meeting other artists and forging new relationships that might not otherwise come to pass. I met Isaac Johnson briefly when we shared the bill at a show in Hollywood. We kept in touch and quickly got the feeling that we might like to write together.

When we first sat down at QuailTop -- my home studio -- to throw ideas around, there was no agenda. Isaac brought in a lovely descending line tune that was nearly complete, but he wasn’t entirely happy with chorus. We easily found common ground in The Beatles and finished the tune in no time. That felt good, so we carried on. A couple tunes later, we agreed it was time to set the music down for posterity.

In live performance, Isaac is usually solo, accompanied only by his acoustic guitar. His first record had been expanded to a full band sound and while he was mostly happy with the results, he expressed some concern about the disparity between the live show and the recorded sound. So we set out this time to make an acoustic record.

The thing was, I didn’t want to just make a pretty, strummy batch of tunes. With Isaac’s gentle vocals and romantic lyrics, we needed to introduce a few other elements to juxtapose with the beauty. But first we needed to capture the songs.

The two of us spent a day at QuailTop, laying down guitar tracks. We quickly discovered a compelling contrast between his Taylor 316ce and my Martin D-1. Over the course of an afternoon, we traded the guitars between us and banged out the dual rhythm tracks for “My Coma” and “Home.”

The Martin ‘s woody openness provided the gentle strum on “Virginia” and muted percussive chords on “Sweet It Seems.” To further expand the acoustic guitar palate, I tracked some overdubs using my 1960s Silvertone parlor guitar, a wonderful little instrument with surprising depth that is especially good for single-note lines and arpeggios.

After cutting some scratch vocals, I set to work on the rhythm tracks. Here was where I wanted to make the difference between “acoustic version” and fully realized acoustic track.

First, I employed a wide range of human and found percussion: hand claps, snaps, breaths, suitcases, hand cymbals, sleigh bells, shaker, maraca, and even a well-worn snare drum head I’d purloined from Death Cab For Cutie’s Jason McGerr. And “My Coma” would have been nothing without Paula Kelley’s metronomic tambourine. I was also fortunate to be able to borrow Ms. Kelley’s 1964 Hofner bass for a little additional Beatlemania on “Sweet It Seems.”

While the budget dictated that we had to rely on a few in-the-box sounds, I still aimed to maintain an acoustic instrument approach, using soft-synth versions of piano, zither, and marimba. You’ll also hear a Roland CR-78, mellotron, and Wurlitzer.

Isaac and I reconvened to cut final vocals, and then I had one last go at overdubs, opting for some light mandolin and banjo, as well as minimal electric guitar using my beloved Fender Jaguar.

I sent the finished tracks off to Grammy-winning mix artist Jason Schweitzer for the final sheen, then to Hans DeKline for mastering, and our little record was done! Isaac released the EP in September, hitting iTunes the morning after his appearance as an FBI agent on NBC’s Castle. Look for him on your teevee and in venues around Southern California.

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AARON TAP is a Los Angeles-based music producer, guitarist, and vocalist who has been making records for a couple decades now and is immortalized in the song "Audio Janitor" by Pete Weiss and The Rock Band. He is currently on the road as guitarist/MD with longtime collaborator Matt Nathanson.

Find them on Twitter: @aarontap@IsaacJohnson

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