Dave Cobb: Producer’s Corner

Dave Cobb’s home studio is tucked into a quiet pocket of west Nashville, in a neighborhood otherwise known for its sky-high home values and proximity to Whole Foods. It’s a cozy, no-frills place – the sort of DIY studio you’d be more likely to find across the Cumberland River, where many of the city’s creative types have started to flock in search of cheaper rent and simpatico neighbors. Cobb has rarely done things the predictable way, though, and he’s helped shape the sound of modern-day Americana by pushing its boundaries. If that means recording raw, rootsy albums in a part of town whose residents wouldn’t know Sturgill Simpson from the man they’ve hired to manicure their acre-sized lawns, so be it.

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From Simpson’s Metamodern Sounds In Country Music and Jason Isbell’s Southeastern to Shooter Jennings’ Put The “O” Back In Country, Cobb has spent the last decade catapulting some of today’s most celebrated roots-rockers into the spotlight. He’s given a helping hand to more than a few under-the-radar acts, too, willing to work for pocket change if the music moves him. In a town where music is still an industry as much as an art form, he’s someone who does it not for the paycheck, but for the thrill of creating art. American Songwriter visited Cobb’s studio earlier this year, midway through the tracking sessions for Simpson’s third solo album, to uncover some of the tricks of his trade.

Sturgill Simpson’s Metamodern Sounds In Country Music was recorded in four days. Are your sessions always that short?

I do like working fast. I don’t think music should be something that’s labored over. You don’t need to take out a calculator and figure out the tempo. You just need to stay out of the way and give the artist a place where they can be comfortable to sound like themselves. Maybe you prod them a bit to get to that place. A great artist singing a great song, though … it’s kind of hard to mess that up.

And you‘re a big fan of live takes, too.

Right. How many times have you seen an artist, and the live show is so much better than the record? That’s happened a million times. So why can’t you make a live record in the studio? Why does it have to be this big process? Sturgill’s record was completely live, recorded in one tiny room with everyone playing together. No one had headphones, and there’s a ton of bleed. The computers aren’t doing the work; it’s the artists doing the work.

How do you help your artists get into the right mindset for that kind of recording?

Basically, everything’s recording all the time. When that happens, I think people get a little desensitized to the red light being on, and they stop over-thinking everything. Jason Isbell’s “Cover Me Up” might be his best vocal performance to date.

What was happening in the studio that day?

He was in the vocal booth, stretching his arms out and saying he wanted a bigger space. So I thought, ‘Man, why not put him in the kitchen of the house?’ I put him up there, with cables running all the way from the control room. For all intents and purposes, he was on a desert island, extremely far away from us, literally doing what he does every day: picking up a guitar and singing by himself. Had he been in a small recording booth, he wouldn’t have been able to project the way he does on that song.

You usually play instruments on your clients’ records. Why?

I totally steal from Jimmy Miller, who produced the best Rolling Stones records. Jimmy would go in there and play percussion with the band to get the groove just right. Maybe that’s another signature thing with my records. I’m really concerned with getting that groove – that pocket – just right, so I’ll play with the band in order to help guide it there.

Which other producers have influenced you?

There’s a country record called White Mansions, written by Paul Kennerley and produced by Glyn Johns. It’s so epic and symphonic, with a lot of landscape. I steal a lot from the general feel of that record. I also love John Leckie, who was involved with everything from George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass to Radiohead’s The Bends. Nigel Godrich, too. Tom Dowd. Rick Hall at FAME Studio.

Is there a piece of studio gear you use on all your records?

I’ve been obsessed with gear forever … but the gear doesn’t matter. It’s all about the artist: the parts they write, the parts they play, the way they sing. If there’s a signature sound to my records, it’s the fact that I try to seek out incredible singers. If you have someone like Jamey Johnson behind a mic, it’s just gonna sound killer. Even if you use an iPhone to record it.

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