“Everyone I’ve played this album for,” says Paul Brady of his new album ‘Say What You Feel’, “uses the word ‘free’ when commenting on the vocal performances. I think they’re right: I felt completely free making the record, in every way.”
Upon listening to ‘Say What You Feel’, it becomes clear that Brady has rediscovered a more spontaneous side of himself, foregoing complex studio production, endless overdubs, the confinement of click-tracks in a return to making music “the old-fashioned way.” Brady”s knack for insightful, soulful compositions is finally brought to the forefront. ‘Say What You Feel’ frames an insightful new batch of Brady originals in airy, uncluttered surroundings that allow the songs, along with some of his most unguarded singing, to shine through clearer than ever.
The sessions that kick-started ‘Say What You Feel’ were nearly as spontaneous as the performances they captured. Though producer and Compass Records co-founder Garry West had long been encouraging him to try recording in Nashville, Brady had never felt like taking the plunge and commiting to it, despite the fact that he had visited Nashville many times to write. Once he was finally coaxed into a room with some of the city’s finest musicians, however, he was hooked.
“I was coming to Nashville in October of 2003 to pick up an ASCAP award for ‘The Long Goodbye’,” he explains, referring to the Brooks and Dunn’s number one country hit he penned with Ronan Keating. “Garry West suggested that we lay down some tracks while I was in town, as an experiment.” The blend of southern hospitality and Irish intensity proved to be a dynamic, unexpectedly fruitful match. “In that two day period we recorded six tracks. They turned out so well that I felt I’d like to complete the album in Nashville. I came back in January and April of 2004 for two weeks at a time and finished the recording in July. September we spent mixing and mastering. In all, I crossed the Atlantic eight times. That’s how much I believed in how ‘right’ this record felt, how right for me this new direction was.”
That “new direction” is less about innovation than it is about faith in the simple power that Brady has long brought to the stage. The Nashville recordings are marked by some of his purest, most direct performances – with the bulk of the tracks cut with a small band. The musical collaboration is undiluted by technology: sequencers or click tracks. Brady embraced this mode of recording with his recent ‘Paul Brady Songbook’ project, a full-band-live-in-studio CD/DVD and RTE TV series, still fresh in his mind. The success of the ‘Songbook’, which documented his vast catalog of original songs in fiery, vital form, inspired Brady to build ‘Say What You Feel’ around his abilities as a performer.
“Although songwriting has been good to me and I get a lot of satisfaction from it,” he reflects, “I’ve always seen myself as a singer and live performer first. In the nineties, for one reason or another, a combination of technology and isolation imposed by geography often led me to creating the foundation of a record on my own, building arrangements like they were Lego sculptures – one piece at a time, only getting other musicians involved late into the process.. MIDI, sequencers, all that disease that came into music in the 80’s and 90’s – I was infected like everyone else was. But I got to the stage where I wasn’t enjoying making music like that anymore. The process was too long, and I lost perspective because I was too close to every aspect. What I needed was to go back to the concept of an immediate performance with a group of spontaneous musicians who were totally new to me and then do what I do best, which is to stand up in front of a group of people with a guitar and just let fly.”
“I haven’t made a record like this since ‘Hard Station’ in 1981,” he says. “It’s like going back to square one. The musicians didn’t always know what was coming next, and it made for an electric, slightly dangerous atmosphere that came through in the music.”
‘Say What You Feel’ was captured very quickly, relying on the sharp instincts of the Nashville musicians brought together by co-producer Garry West. The core studio band included Kenny Malone (drums); Danny Thompson, Byron House, and Viktor Krauss sharing string bass duties; John R. Burr (piano); Reese Wynans (Hammond organ); and Tom Britt (guitars). “The musicians didn’t have weeks to learn the material,” Brady explains. “We just passed out chord charts, spent twenty minutes to learn the song, then rolled tape. Everything we laid down on the tracking sessions is on the finished record: drums, string bass, acoustic guitar, piano, and me singing live with the players as we cut the track.” The immediacy of the sessions never comes off as unfinished or hurried, thanks to the combination of the musicians’ assured, deeply-felt performances and the quality of Brady’s new songs.
“The songs are all very different,” says Brady. “The majority of them are recent and co-writes, though one is more than 10 years old and one I started more than 5 years ago and had never finished. Some instinct made me keep the older songs back and not record them until now.” With ‘Say What You Feel’, Brady stopped holding back, finding the freedom he muses on in the album’s lyrics. “If you feel something,” Brady explains, “just say it. Get it out. The sky isn’t going to fall, and it’s going to be better than if you sit on it and let it fester. That’s a fundamental belief of mine, and it underpins what is said in quite a few of the songs” Brady keeps his own counsel: the sparse performances on ‘Say What You Feel’ leave little for him to hide behind. “It feels good to know that I didn’t drain the life out of these songs by recording them to death,” he explains. In particular, the vocal performances are some of his most enticing and natural on record.
“For some reason, I seem to be singing in a vocal register that is much lower than I have ever done in the past,” he reflects. “In the past I’ve sung pretty high up. Maybe subconsciously you think that if you sing something higher up or more intensely then people are going to get the message sooner! I got to the stage in this record where I didn’t feel the need to do that any more. It’s an interesting discovery, and part of the process of being an artist. Things happen, but it’s only after the fact that you start asking why it happened. I could have finished my recording career and never learned this lesson… I’m happy that it happened this way.”
Brady’s newly affirmed confidence spread from his relaxed singing to the choice not to tinker endlessly with the recordings after the fact. “Every record is hard to make, and we learn lessons each time,” he says. “We actually tried overdubbing horns on three or four of the songs but I ended up going back to it, listening and deciding to remove them. on all except one song. It destroyed the vulnerability and the fragility of the record. We had the best guys playing it but it didn’t really add anything and we scrapped it. I think that comes from confidence, too.”
The experience of recording in Nashville, coupled with the bold themes of his new material and his own continuing self-discovery, has made ‘Say What You Feel’ one of the most memorable recording experiences of Brady’s remarkable career. “I knew by the end of the first two days,” he concludes, “that I’d found a really good way to lay these tracks down and that these musicians were a magical bunch of people to work with. It was very inspirational to me. Really I think the best Nashville musicians shine brightest when they play something that’s outside of country music. I’m not remotely country. I’m a white Irish soul singer.”