Bowie’s Producer Tony Visconti and Engineer Tom Elmhirst Take Us Behind The Scenes with David.
Songwriters, especially in these modern times, are heroic. Not always, of course, but quite frequently. Bowie, after all, is the man who invented the timeless song “Heroes,” and projected the message that we all can he heroes. If just for one day.
When he learned that his time here was limited, Bowie did that which other songwriters in the same situation have done. He wrote more songs. He made one more album. Warren Zevon did the same thing, as did Leonard Cohen and others. Seeing the final chapter coming to a close, rather than fall into despair and darkness, they turn towards the light they’ve always known: the song.
Though both Zevon and Cohen were quite cognizant at the end that they were making a final statement, it is not clear if Bowie knew this for sure. Bowie’s longtime producer-engineer and close friend Tony Visconti, as well as Bowie’s engineer/mixer Tom Elmhirst, spoke to us about the making of Blackstar, and told us that David never directly informed either of them of his illness, although at times he was quite sick and incapable of working. Whether David knew that this would be the last chapter ever in the Bowie songbook is not known. But as Visconti and Elmhirst do confirm in the following is that Bowie brought all his powers to this project as he always did. The aim was not to make another album. It was to create one more masterpiece.
He succeeded. After his death, Blackstar received a multitude of awards, including Grammys for Best Alternative Music Album, Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical, and Best Rock Song and Best Rock Performance for “Blackstar.”
Here is Visconti and Elmhirst on the making of David Bowie’s final album, Blackstar.
TOM ELMHIRST: I was in my room, Studio C, at Electric Lady Studios in New York when Tony Visconti and David [Bowie] booked the room next to my studio.
Suddenly, David just walked into my control room, sat down and said, “Will you mix my album?”
I said, “Of course!” And then we got on with it.
TONY VISCONTI: It had been a little more than a year since we finished David’s previous album, The Next Day. We always had several meetings before every album began. We would have a discussion about the direction it would take, and also listen to what other artists had recently released.
To create what became Blackstar, we hired a studio. David put down some ideas with a drummer and keyboard player, and me on bass, to test the waters. He also made demos of his own, playing all the instruments. When we would work, though, we rarely, if ever ,referred to the demos. David didn’t want the band to imitate the demos, he wanted to hear their first interpretations.
ELMHIRST: It was really easy to work with David. He was incredibly liberating. He’d say, “Just go. Go and have fun with it. Do what you do.”
I am really into reggae and dub, and David, he loved all that, and said, “Go for it.” Not that there’s much of that on Blackstar. But his attitude was very much always a sense of “Go and do what you do.”
VISCONTI: He sang live with every take of the band while tracking. It was always fun and really wonderful to see him singing live. I remember he really impressed the band, too. He was probably building up his chops for when the vocal sessions would take place. And when he sang out, he had such power. You hear it on record, but to hear him do that live, it was always stunning. The musicians felt it.
When he did his final vocals, David always loved to do many complete takes, maybe as many as four. Usually, take one was the keeper with some words or lines used from the other takes. On rare occasions, he’d punch in.
He always liked a good mix to sing to with some reverb on his voice. He didn’t like hanging around if he was raring to go, so before he arrived I would create a very workable mix. We would adjust the level by having me sing, and we would get the levels with me trying to sing as loud as he would. But no matter how loud I would sing, David would always sing louder! It was sort of extraordinary.
ELMHIRST: “Blackstar” was the first song I worked on. It took a couple of days, which for me is quite long. I like to work quickly. But it is about ten minutes long. It needed a sense of form. Obviously, not a lot of people put out ten-minute singles. So you have to approach it slightly differently. You can’t give it all away too early. You have to allow the natural dynamics to come through.
And then, when it drops into that middle section, the solo voice, there is a sense of relief. It’s really quite restrained up to that point, and then it opens up more. And you hear the power. There it is.
VISCONTI:: There was never the same approach to a David Bowie album. He would preface every album by stating it was just an experiment.
David chose the musicians most of the time. And often it would be David and me doing backing vocals. That’s only us singing backups on the whole Heroes album, for instance, and also on most of Scary Monsters, and many others.
ELMHIRST: The record was mixed quite quickly. Maybe 10 days. This might be because I mixed the song “Blackstar.” which had been created out of two separate songs as one piece of music, and I also mixed the last two songs on the album (“Dollar Days” and “I Can’t Give Everything Away”) as one piece of music, because they flow into each other. The vocals were there, the performances were there. I didn’t have to do a lot of work. It was quite painless for me, the whole process, because it was recorded and produced so well.
VISCONTI: We worked on Blackstar for maybe six months, with three months for tracking and another three for overdubs. We’d visit Tom [Elmhirst] every day to modify the balances, special effects, etc. This wasn’t a remote mix with us living in another city. We were hands on. Tom brought a magic to the mixes we never expected.
ELMHIRST: Often I do mixes unattended, without the artist there. But Tony and David were very involved. They’d come around 3 in the afternoon and stay a couple of hours. We’d go through stuff together, and then they’d take a mix away with them and live with it. That was the process. Sometimes they would suggest changes in different vocal balances. But a lot of the mixes didn’t really change hugely from what I handed them, which was really lovely. Quite often you end up changing stuff for months afterwards. David was quite decisive. He would say he loved it, and be very onboard and happy with how the mixes were going. I had a lot of freedom.
VISCONTI:: I never asked [David] if this was his final album. Some of the lyrics were very dark but I would never say to him, “Are you making a final album?” Absolutely not. It was written somewhere that I did ask him, but I was misquoted. He was already talking about making a new album before this one was released. He told me he had new demos for a new album, but I never heard them.
If anything, that idea [that he knew this was his final album] was an erroneous observation many people imagined after he had passed. After all, David’s been writing about death and decay since the ’70s.
ELMHIRST: I could tell that David wasn’t well. He couldn’t stay very long. He didn’t have a lot of energy. But when he was there, he was incredibly present, funny and really encouraging. He was really incredibly encouraging. And he really enjoyed the process. I think on other projects for them, the mixes took longer. This seemed to come together quite quickly, and to everyone’s satisfaction.
I didn’t know it would be his final album. We even talked about working on another record soon. And he was very keen. There wasn’t a sense that this was it. Obviously, in the reflection, lyrically, it really was his last statement, wasn’t it?
VISCONTI: David and I always had similar eclectic tastes in music and we took a great joy in turning each other on with something he or I hadn’t heard before. Our style of production was, for want of a better word, Zen. We made sure we had master musicians working with us, and we’d sometimes jump on their mistakes as being perfect, the thing we’d least expect. For most people it would end in catastrophe. It takes a lot of experience to work at this level. I’ve hardly ever worked with anyone else like him.