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Ronni Ancona

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20th of January

Cross And The Switchblade

Some sessions just stick in your memory.

I do hundreds of recordings every year, and have produced hundreds of songs since The Cross and the Switchblade. My memory has blurred most of them, though; it’s conflated some; plain forgotten some, and mis-remembered others. When I think back to that recording session back in July 2004, though, I feel as if I’m back in the room.

I was excited about that session, and a little apprehensive. I’d booked Barry van Zyl to play drums, and Jamie Moses to play guitar. I was to play bass. I’d already recorded the vocals and keyboards, along with guide guitars and drums, so we had quite a lot to play with. Barry and Jamie are both world-renowned top players. Although they’d played on the same bill as each other on the Nelson Mandela 46664 concerts, they’d never met. They were both friends of mine, and I’d worked with both of them, but that afternoon I was banking that we would all gel musically. In order to get the specific feel that I was after, it was important that we would play together, live, on a song that they’d not heard before. To add to the work, our recording engineer at Berry Street Studio, Malcolm, was on holiday, so I was going to have to record the session and play the bass at the same time…

It’s not often that you get players like this in the room at the same time. Frankly, it’s not often you can afford it. Charlotte wasn’t going to be at the session. For me, it’s a bit of a gamble when the artist isn’t there when you’re recording material for them. When it’s successful it’s fantastic: you give them something which exceeds their expectations, and you’re bathed in glory. Just occasionally, though, you do a whole load of work on something, present it to the artist, you make a complete arse of yourself, and you’re bathed in something else. I was pretty confident that this session would go well, but there was always the possibility that it wouldn’t. Recording isn’t an exact science: there are too many variables to be able to predict an outcome.

When musicians meet, they go through a kind of peacock-dance. They talk over coffee about who they play with and who they know to try and establish common ground, and to rank one another – essentially to see how serious a player each one is. After we’d gone through this, I could tell that Jamie and Barry potentially had a lot of respect for each other: they were intrigued and their expectation levels for the session were heightened – and this was before anyone had picked up an instrument. Clearly, they were also going to get on, which is important. After I’d mic’d up the drum kit & guitar amps, we spent a good hour listening to the song, with me explaining exactly what I was after, and the guys charting out their parts.

At this point, it was finally time to start playing. It’s no coincidence that that we use the word “play” for what we do with music. As soon as we started, this was pure fun and excitement- with a little edge of competitiveness. Barry was playing in a separate room from Jamie and I (drums are very loud…). A few bars into the song Jamie looked at me and grinned. A few bars later he looked at Barry and said “he’s good, isn’t he…”.

Sometimes something fantastic happens when you play music with other people. You just lock in with each other. Barry established the perfect groove, and Jamie & I locked in totally. We were monitoring very loudly and the music took over. The three of us were an entity. Part of my brain was in a zone where I ceased to exist other than as part of that sound: another part was razor-sharp, seemed to be watching us from the outside, and was very aware that the two guys I was playing with were stepping up a notch, that this was because they were inspired by each other’s brilliance, and that my job was to keep this positive feedback loop going, and to make sure I was recording it properly.

We recorded three or four takes in a blur. Barry overdubbed some percussion, and Jamie overdubbed some excellent guitar (I spoke to Barry in Cape Town this morning about that session and he mentioned Jamie’s “outrageous” guitar playing, and that we were fuelled by many trips to the local Starbucks). It was a very hot, sweaty, summer day, and at the end of the session we all knew we had done something special. Of course, when I listen to the recording, all this plays out in my head. Every listener will hear something different, but I hope that everyone will hear the energy in the playing and somehow feel that something special happened in the recording process.

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