June 18, 2013

Inside Skywalker Sound

By Jeff Kaliss

From left: Leslie Ann Jones and soprano Ann Moss, recording Moss's debut cd at Skywalker Ranch, wtih composer Liam Wade and pianist Steve Bailey. Photo by Jeff Kaliss Not long ago, in a recording studio not so far, far away, composer Liam Wade leaped to his feet in the control room, grinning at a perky female figure isolated in the middle of the spacious soundstage, on the other side of a wall of glass. “I like the spaceship thing!” he exclaimed.

This is Skywalker Sound, located on George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch, in the rolling hills of western Marin County. But this isn’t a mixing session for one of Lucas’ profitable Star Wars films, though Director of Music Recording and Scoring Leslie Ann Jones, captaining the controls, has done that sort of thing before. And the pretty target of Wade’s acclaim isn’t Princess Leia, but rather soprano Ann Moss, in the process of creating her debut release, Currents, with Jones as producer and Wade as one of the project’s composers and an abiding friendly lieutenant.

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The spacey acoustic affect in this particular Skywalker session is being applied to Wade’s Silver Apples, a setting for soprano and piano (played by Steven Bailey) written for Moss to the poetry of Poe, Stevenson, Yeats, and Lisa DeSiro. Moss’ later visits to Skywalker will have her recording songs by the late John Thow, with pianist Karen Rosenak, Vartan Aghababian’s Seven Songs with the Hausmann String Quartet, Weslie Brown’s Practice Your Flamenco with solo guitarist Jeremy Garcia, plus a Joni Mitchell suite, with five of the singer/songwriter’s tunes, accompanied by a rhythm section and by the Hausmann.

“I’m drawn to saying ‘yes’ to things that will challenge me in different ways,” says Jones, who’s also the project’s producer and mixer, “but I’ve never worked on a record with this kind of diverse material.” That’s noteworthy, since Jones’ musical menagerie over four decades has included Rosemary Clooney, Herbie Hancock, Michelle Shocked, and Bobby McFerrin; scoring work for film and TV; creating video game scores; and winning a pair of classical Grammys, for recordings of Alban Berg’s Lyric Suite by the Kronos Quartet and soprano Dawn Upshaw, and for Quincy Porter’s Complete Viola Works, played by Eliesha Nelson.

Setting the Wheels in Motion

The Tech Building at Skywalker Ranch houses the recording, mixing, and editing facilities of Skywalker Sound. Photo courtesy of Skywalker SoundThe muse of the Currents project, responsible for leading Moss to Jones, is composer Jake Heggie, who met the soprano during the 2005 SongFest at Pepperdine University and hitched a ride with her back to Northern California, because he was suffering an inner ear infection and couldn’t fly. “We had this eight-hour day together, in the car, and by the end of it, we were totally chummed,” says Moss. “I think he approaches music-making in a similar way: He’s a storyteller, the inner emotion is equal to the sound, and he’s not rigid about genre; he’s not a classical-or-nothing-else guy.”

“I remember hearing Ann sing” at the SongFest, adds Heggie, “and being knocked out, not only by the color and quality of her voice, but there was great heart to everything that she sang. She has this magic quality that somehow makes composers want to write for her, because not only does she perform [their songs], she invests in them, physically, emotionally, personally. I think she’s a transformative artist, because she can cross genres so easily. She’s not only comfortable in classics and Baroque music, but she also is expert at new music. Nothing scares her, and she’ll talk fearlessly with any composer about how they’ve written something and give them alternatives, which most singers won’t do.”

Heggie became a contributor to CMASH (Chamber Music Art Song Hybrid), the new-music repertory group cofounded by Moss, and he reconnected with her periodically over lunch, over the years. “At one of those, he dropped this, ‘Okay, when are you going to make a recording?’,” the singer recalls. “And I was, ‘Oh, I’m a live performer, it’s really about the moment, recordings are false.’ At our next lunch, he said, ‘It’s time. You’re at the age of sounding great. Think about the pieces you think you have to record. And when you like what you’ve got, I have an engineer in mind.’ He sent this e-mail to Leslie Ann, copying me, and she responded, pretty quickly and enthusiastically. And when I looked at her signature line, I absolutely freaked out!”

For Jones, the recommendation from Heggie, whom she’d worked with many times, “was enough for me to call Ann, and we had lunch and hit it off,” despite the singer’s initial nervous awe. “We ate and talked and talked, and I felt like I was with a person I’d known for many years,” says Moss. “And I could totally understand why Jake wanted to introduce me to her: We listen to music in a similar way, not making genre distinctions, listening for something soulful, something that tells a story.”

“I’m drawn to saying ‘yes’ to things that will challenge me in different ways, but I’ve never worked on a record with this kind of diverse material.” – Producer Leslie Ann Jones

Moss also came to appreciate what Jones admits is her own “wonderful sense of humor, something that puts people at ease. My siblings are all like that. Not having to say something funny all the time, but I would say we all have really good timing. And that I learned from my dad.” His name isn’t on his daughter’s Skywalker bio, yet is familiar to many of Jones’ generation and older: He was Lindley Armstrong “Spike” Jones, the bandleader from the 1940s and ’50s who specialized in satirical send-ups of popular and classical standards, retrofitted with sound effects and wacky lyrics. (Check out the first item on SFCV’s Musical Jokes Playlist.)

Following the Path to Skywalker

Ann Moss (center) with the Hausmann Quartet, on the sound stage at Skywalker Ranch. Photo by Jeff KalissYoung Leslie Ann had long been attracted to the Bay Area, but had begun her career closer to home, at the ABC Studios in Los Angeles. An ad in the professional periodical Mix brought her up to the Automatt Recording Studios in San Francisco in 1978, where she worked on her first film, Apocalypse Now. She returned south for another decade at Capitol Studios in that company’s historic Tower in Hollywood. Finally, a story in Mix about Skywalker Sound General Manager Gloria Borders convinced Jones she had a place at that legendary location.

“They actually needed me for the film contacts I had, and they needed me to run the scoring stage,” she says. “I don’t think they expected that the mixing part of my job would take as much of my time as it did. But it’s always been interesting for me to have both jobs.” She likes to “get the sound and the balance while I’m recording it, as opposed to waiting till later … and, in that way, doing film scores is much more closely related to classical music than to pop or jazz records,” which are often multitracked.

Arriving in 1997 at the 4,700-acre spread George Lucas had acquired on Lucas (no relation) Valley Road, Jones realized why “people feel that they can do their best work here, ’cause it’s not a traditional environment. You’re surrounded by beauty when you come in,” including a covered bridge, grapevines, crops, and wandering deer, “and the Tech Building is a beautiful building. I’m continually amazed by George’s creativity, just in his spatial ideas, creating a building where there are so many common areas where people can meet. Everybody’s in their own rooms working” — the facility includes six mixing studios, picture-and-sound editing rooms, a scoring stage (where Moss has been working), a theater, and a Foley/ADR stage for sound effects and “looping” — “and at lunchtime, all of a sudden people are all over the place,” dining at the locally sourced cafeteria, energizing at the espresso machine, or taking a break at the outdoor pool or the fitness center. Lucas, notes Jones, “has created a place where it’s a collaborative environment.”

Yet Jones points out that “It’s precisely because we’re a little off the beaten path that I’ve gathered so much wonderful, new, and vintage equipment here, from microphones and microphone preamps to equalizers, compressors, and other effects. It’s not like in L.A., where you can pick up the phone and in a half hour get whatever you need. Even our wiring is state-of-the-art, providing the cleanest signal flow possible. And our AMS-Neve 88R console,” which dominates the control room, “is the finest-sounding analog console available. Everything we do is about getting the purest sound directly to our recorder, and ultimately to the CD or sound file you play at home.”

“It’s precisely because we’re a little off the beaten path that I’ve gathered so much wonderful, new, and vintage equipment here. It’s not like in L.A., where you can pick up the phone and in a half hour get whatever you need.” –Jones

The human touch inside the control room includes a cornucopia of quality snacks and comfy furniture on which to rest and listen to playback, while Jones checks her e-mail on her MacBook. The skill and good taste imparted to Moss’ recording by Jones and her assistant engineer, Dann Thompson, are, of course, priceless. “There’s no limit to what she knows how to record,” raves Moss about Jones, who “is already editing in her head as we’re recording. I totally trust Leslie Ann. I know she’s listening for what I would be listening for, listening for the story and the mood.”

 

Moss’ trust has allowed her to correct and re-record when necessary, on Jones’ suggestion. “She’s not an opera singer, but she can hear when my resonance isn’t open,” Moss points out. Jones credits father Spike with enhancing her listening, “especially regarding my love of orchestration, how all the pieces fit. Because that’s what he did: All his sound effects were written out on music paper.” For Wade’s Silver Apples, Jones deployed finger-snapping, percussion inside the piano, and the spoken word. She later solicited the composer’s input during the Seven Songs sessions. “If you hear anything not quite right,” she asked of him, “let me know.”

“It’s hard enough getting here, whether it’s the winding road, or the fund-raising … But once you get inside our gate, the rest should be easy and, most of all, fun.” – Jones

Jones’ caring extends beyond the Ranch. “She’s worked with each ensemble so far, outside of Skywalker,” testifies Moss. “She comes to people’s houses, she comes to the San Francisco Conservatory [where Moss earned a postgraduate degree in voice performance], and she brings her metronome and her scores and her ears. When I went down to San Diego to work with the Hausmann, which I’ve been doing every other month, I somehow let her know, and she said, ‘I’m gonna be in LA for a conference; why don’t I change my flight and drive down and work with you guys?’” For local jazz and blues singer Pamela Rose, whose Wild Women of Song Jones produced (on the Three Handed Records label, in 2009), she volunteered to mix a live show in San Rafael earlier this month. “I wanted to be there to make sure the audience gets from her what they should get,” Jones explains.

Moss’ Currents is currently in the process of being edited by Jones, who’s advising that the recording be released in September, in time for Grammy consideration. In the meantime, the singer is continuing to solicit donations to the project through the Fractured Atlas and Indiegogo websites. Her plans for self-release so far include a short run of CDs and digital distribution, with connection to a label perhaps to follow.

Jones hopes that, aside from a finished recording, Moss and her collaborators will take away happy memories of their Skywalker sojourn. “It’s hard enough getting here, whether it’s the winding road, or the fund-raising, or where you are in your career,” says Jones. “But once you get inside our gate, the rest should be easy and, most of all, fun. It is, after all, about making music — making art — together.”

Jeff Kaliss has written about opera and other classical forms for the Marin Independent-Journal and The Oakland Tribune. He is based in San Francisco, and also covers jazz, world music, country, rock, film, theater, and other entertainment. The second edition of his authorized biography of Sly & the Family Stone was published by Backbeat Books.