Session Guitarist Adam Levy on Tracking ¿Which Side Are You On?
“I first played with Ani in 2009 at Town Hall in New York City. We’d met before through mutual friends, but never jammed together. My pal Gaby Moreno—who was opening for Ani then—asked me to play with her that night. Hanging out backstage after Gaby’s soundcheck, Ani asked if I’d sit in on ‘¿Which Side Are You On?’ She didn’t say exactly what she wanted me to do, but she has a way of instilling a sense of trust—as if to say, ‘I know you’re going to kick ass, and I am, too. Here we go!’
“A few months later, Ani asked me to play on her ¿Which Side Are You On? sessions—and I was thrilled. She sent me several demos so I could learn the songs. Again, she didn’t tell me exactly what she wanted. I figured we’d sort it out when I to got to New Orleans with my Gibson ES-335, and we did. I’d tune into her vocal and react to that, or her guitar part. Sometimes I’d try to weave in between. The things I played and the tones I got—it was all spontaneous and raw, someplace between jazz and rock ’n’ roll.”
Adam is such a great player, and he’s a friend of many friends of mine in New York, so I’ve known him for years. I think it was about two years ago that I was playing at Town Hall in New York, and he was in town so I invited him down to sit in for a few songs. He sat in on “¿Which Side Are You On?” and another song, and he just slayed it, so I just had the idea that it’d be nice to have an electric guitar and a different approach to play off of my type of guitar playing. So I invited him down to my home studio in New Orleans for two days, and we just pulled up basically everything on the record and had him have a go at the whole record to see what stuck.
Did you give him artistic free rein or did you give him some direction?
If I’d had my druthers, I would’ve just hit record and he would’ve just played from his spleen like we did onstage. But in the studio, he was looking to me for more direction. My instinct, especially as I get older, is that I prefer to work with talented, mature musicians, and tell them next to nothing. Tell them as little as I can, and just try to have everybody bring their full selves to the table. Because, often, if I’m trying to make somebody play what I hear, there’s a compromise that happens, rather than somebody’s full vision be at evidence. I try to tell Adam and everyone on the record as little as possible.
Speaking of electric, you played electric on “If YR Not,” but you don’t play it much. Why?
It’s just a very different beast—especially the way I have my acoustic guitars set up. All the guitar players I know, when they come to my house and pick up my acoustics, they’re, like, “Arg! What the hell—I can’t play this!” I have the highest action ever.
Because you play really hard?
Yeah. I detune the strings a lot with these open tunings, and then I just play really hard. So, with a normal level of action, you get a lot of buzzing and you can’t play as aggressively as I do. So an electric guitar takes a much lighter touch, and that’s just sort of the antithesis of the way I play. Over the years of playing and going deeper into that sort of high-action, very aggressive, pulling-and-snapping acoustic technique, I just get further and further from being able to even tolerate an electric guitar.
Do you remember which electric you played on that song [“If YR Not”]?
It was one of our old [hollowbody] Gibsons, but I can’t remember the exact model. That one was tricky to record. Mike, my husband, was at the helm, and again and again, he’d say, “Mmmm…that’s not a cool enough sound.” Originally, I tracked it with my acoustic running through amps, and he’s like, “Meh ….” Eventually, we arrived at the take that’s on the recording, and that seemed to satisfy him in terms of cool guitar tones. I think what I used was a tape amp—like, a little reel-to-reel tape recorder that he uses to get a really badass distorted sound. I don’t even understand it … it’s like, you go into this tape recorder and come back out of it, and it amplifies your guitar sound …
That’s supposedly how the Stones got that cool acoustic sound on “Street Fighting Man” …
That’s right. Mike has had one of those things around for a while, and he pulls it out when he needs that badass crunch from the bad old days.
What album might fans of yours be surprised to know you own?
I don’t know if it would surprise anybody, but when I listen to music at home, it’s by and large jazz, world music, or super hardcore folk and roots music—oh, and funk. There’s so much great music in New Orleans, and I’m in love with it all. I generally don’t get into pop music, and I guess I don’t really have what it takes to get off on hard rock or amped-up music. I’m more chill, I guess.
Looking ahead, is there any area in which you’d really like to improve as a musician?
Yeah. X is singing, and Y is guitar [laughs]. I mean, I would love to get better at a lot of things. I would love to really learn how to play piano, which I’ve wanted to do my whole life—and I still talk about taking lessons. But, in the meantime, the fact that I’ve done this thing—playing acoustic guitar and singing—for so many years, it’s kind of become second nature to me. And that’s something I’m so grateful for—the fact that I’ve gotten so deep with one instrument that it’s an extension of my body. And that means that I’m less lonely when I’m lonely, I’m less sad when I’m sad, because I have this tool to release all of that from my body. My relationship with my guitar—and also with my voice—is really sacred to me. I feel like it has an infinite depth to it. Like, I’ve been doing this for 20 years, and I feel like I’ve only begun to learn how to play and sing. More recently, especially after becoming a parent and having lots of shifts go on in my personal life—getting older, getting humbler—I feel like I’m evolving in my playing and singing because of that. I feel like there’s a depth that I’m able to achieve onstage these days that I wasn’t able to achieve even three or five years ago. And I sort of feel like that will probably never end. So, really, I just want to keep going down these roads and see how deep I can go.
For years, you’ve sort of been the poster girl for DIY musicians. Having done this for a while, what would you say are the most important things for indie musicians to keep in mind—and has your approach changed over the years?
Well, I think the most important thing that I would say to keep in mind is why—why do you make music? Especially in today’s world, where we’ve had so many generations of young people who’ve been steered into making money as an end in itself, or “success” being an end in itself—to sell millions of records and be rich and famous. That may or may not happen to a musician. Probably not. But still, you can have a great, lifelong career in music without that. I’m probably an example of that. Maybe I’m more rich and famous than most [musicians are likely to be], but all around me in the folk and roots world are long and fruitful careers that don’t really end up in fame but are just playing music as a job—which I think is a great, great privilege.
My music has brought me all over the world, it’s brought me incredible adventures, it’s brought me incredible friends and connections with other musicians. It’s brought me to places like Burma, on the other side of the world, where I went with a political delegation and some other musicians. We went deep into the jungle, where these people were hiding from a very violent and oppressive regime, fighting for democracy—and risking their lives to do so. They were living in these brutal conditions. They’d fled their villages and homeland. There was a lot of ethnic cleansing going on. And we go, and we’re these rich, white Americans, coming from the complete, opposite world. We show up in this place to learn and observe, and you can imagine the distance, the chasm between those people and us, which existed for many good reasons. And then we would sit down and, through a translator, we would have a conversation with the village leaders. And then their children would stand up and sing. As soon as the children started singing, the atmosphere loosened. And then we pulled out the guitar that we brought with us, and passed it around. It was me and Damien Rice, the Irish singer-songwriter, and the minute he and I started singing, we were all family. I could cry just telling you about it: There was suddenly no difference between the rich, white, privileged people and these incredibly oppressed, third-world, you-couldn’t-understand-our-suffering-if-you-tried people. The minute we made music together and we opened up our mouths and sang, that distance disappeared entirely. It was such a powerful example to me of why we play music—to connect with each other, to make family with people we don’t even know. And as long as you can continue to be inspired by that process, by the real meaning of art, then the fame and fortune will or will not work itself out. It’s insignificant compared to what you’re doing and why.