Back in October, I posted some notes on a new song for a pedal steel guitarist in the US, Bruce Kaphan, that was about to play on a song of mine called 17 Hills. I mentioned to him that in addition to adding touches all through the song, he could take a crack at the solo section; but I warned him that I was trying to locate Mark Knopfler, who I thought would be perfect for a lead guitar part for that solo. Well, six months later my wish came true: I was invited to Mark’s studio in London where he took some time out of mixing his own album to play on my song.
I’ve been lucky to work with some of the world’s most iconic guitarists—including Jerry Garcia and Eddie Van Halen, two guys that were possibly past their sell-by date… but Mark’s playing is a gorgeous as ever, and he’s matured as a storyteller and songwriter, which made him the perfect choice for 17 Hills. He really grokked to the fact that his guitar helps propel my story. The song is nearly eight minutes long and has an epic, road movie type feel; it’s very dreamy at times, but his guitar brings it sharply into focus. I think very cinematically, and Mark’s entrance is like a jump-cut. One minute we’re in a wide shot of a car kicking up the dust on a distant desert road; suddenly we cut to a closeup of to the radio in the car’s dashboard.
British Grove studios ars a perfect blend of old and new. He has a couple of EMI desks with levers instead of faders; an ATC board beloved of guitarists (Steve Vai also has one, and swears by the mic preamps); a more modern Neve board, and of course a ton of Avalons, Fairchilds and LA1076s, all going to classic 1″ and 2″ analog machines or state of the art hard drive recorders, as the project requires. Presumably has has more guitars than God lurking behind closed doors, though only two or three emerged for our session, and the chosen one was a custom Don Grosch. Its tone was somewhere between a Strat and a Les Paul, though of course in Mark’s hands it could sound however he wanted. At one point while transitioning between sections I asked him if he’d changed his tone–no, of course not, it was all in the fingertips!
I was relieved that my song sounded pretty accurate on the big monitors, as it was the first set of tracks I’ve worked on in the Nutmeg and brought elsewhere. It was a pleasant, relaxed session. I always skirt the line between letting a musician like that just do his thing, versus giving too much direction and cramping his style. And I’m a keyboard player after all so I don’t really have the vocabulary to explain what I’m looking for. But our communication was good, and I think we got something great. Mark gave me upwards of 12 takes, and we did a fairly hasty comp while I was there, though such is my reluctance to let anything great slip away, I think I’ll give the rest of his takes a good going over tomorrow and make sure no sweetness slips through the cracks.