Fred 'Sonic' Smith
I'm Alright Ma
You're So Great
Wendy James has been busy. Since the release of her superb album I Came Here to Blow Minds last year, Wendy has been traveling the world, writing, performing and recording across New York, London, Paris, and Los Angeles. She has also been working on her next album and single with the legendary James Williamson and James Sclavunos.
In an exclusive interview, Wendy James tells Dangerous Minds about working with Williamson and Sclavunos on her latest Double A-side single, which we premiere below.
DM: What are you working on just now?
Wendy James: ‘I’m getting this single out, which really is a Double A side speciality to be released on beautiful Vinyl and Download.
‘It’s a speciality as I don’t usually do cover versions and of course, because of the line up of the players. It’s the first and only time James Williamson from The Stooges has recorded anything other than a Stooges or Iggy record. And I got ‘Big’ Jim Sclavunos from the Bad Seeds and Grinderman on drums. Steve Mackay, the famed Baritone Sax player from the Stooges, does a great part too. Between us we hand in a pretty powerful sound I think!! We started off thinking ‘Why not go into the studio and make a Single?’ Well the Bob Dylan track “It’s Alright Ma” is 7 minutes long so instead of it being a 45” single we have put it onto 10”. Literally there are not enough grooves on a 45” to allow for that length of song!
‘The other song “You’re So Great” is a cover of Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith’s number from his band Sonic’s Rendezvous Band. The more space the better on a 12” or 10” vinyl so you can make great artwork, read the credits etc… It’s all very tactile once you’re on Vinyl. You master differently, you mix differently, you actually strip away a lot of the artifice of an overly-compressed digital sound, you really get bass end, you really get depth of field. It’s very, very exciting in the studio to as you literally the hear the compositions coming together.’
DM: How did you decide to cover Dylan’s ‘I’m Alright Ma’?
Wendy James: ‘I have a whole new album of original numbers, plus my choice of one cover: “You’re So Great” by Sonic’s Rendezvous Band. I was talking through the whole thing with James and he looked at his Stooges touring diary at that time (June) and he figured he could carve out a number of days for us to work, not enough time to make a whole album then, but enough to make a single. It seemed obvious to me that James should play “You’re So Great” which is tailor made Detroit attitude from Fred Smith and even to the point that Scott Asheton from The Stooges played in that line-up, so, we agreed to do that song and then just through conversation, James asked me what my favorite Bob Dylan number was, and I said “It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding”. You know the clarity and purpose of those lyrics have never been bettered and never will be. They are finite. They are IT. So… just like that, we decided to do both these covers and make it a special, and of course put the numbers onto my album later, and to deal with recording the whole album a few weeks later.
‘So that is how it came together, in a series of babbling enthusiastic sentences propelled by both of us that resulted in us then blocking time in a recording studio and saying ‘Ok, see you in 3 weeks.’ Believe me we took on more than seemed apparent at first! To tongue twist your voice around all Dylans’ words and then at the speed at which James plays guitar, and for 7 minutes, and make it flow naturally and mean it! In the end, I understood every breath, every intention of Dylans’ phrasing and choice of words, but for a good week or so, I was the crazy lady in Washington Square Park walking around the periphery of the park muttering lyrics to myself, learning them!! (But… it’s not unusual in Washington Square Park to see muttering bums! So I generally went un-noticed!)’
And Fred ‘Sonic’ Smiths You’re So Great’ - why’d you choose that?
Wendy James: “You’re So Great” is just perfect pop. Three minutes of power and attitude. I love it, it’s always been a favorite of mine. I love Sonic’s Rendezvous Band, largely un-championed, except for us musicians and fans that revel in all things Detroit and Ann Arbor! They never recorded this in a studio so I had to rely on myriad live recordings and it was impossible to understand all the lyrics, so… James asked Scott Asheton and Patti Smith if Fred ever wrote them down, but he didn’t, and Patti said ‘Go ahead and fill in the blanks’. I think we got pretty damn close! And James just plays it so good! It’s his kind of thing, and mine too… So, it worked out very well, you know jumping around the studio saying ‘This is it, This is it’.
‘My friend in NYC has DJ’d it out in New York now to 1000 + people and he said the dance floor was slamming… I got texts through the night saying ‘Your Track Rules’! Very encouraging!’
DM: How did you become involved with Williamson and Sclavunous?
Wendy James: ‘James Sclavunos and I know each other socially from NYC and West London. James Williamson and I met around December last year. My friendships with both men just naturally evolved based on music and the tentative early discussions of doing something together. I share with both of them, and especially with James W, a very similar kind of look at things and taste in music, even humor, literature, you know, those typical conversations about ‘What’s your favorite movie?’ What book are you reading?’ etc etc… so. There was plenty of friendship there between all three of us when we finally walked into Fantasy Studios in Berkeley, California.’
DM: Tell me about working with them on ‘It’s Alright Ma’ and ‘You’re So Great’?
Wendy James: Well, we’re all pretty fluid musicians, so… it’s literally what it sounds like. Jim played Drums and Percussion, James played Guitar and Bass, I sang and played keyboards… and between the three of us, playing live together and Jesse Nichols at the helm behind the mixing desk moving as quickly and as frenetically as we did! Keeping tabs on all the stuff that was going down, we really did just play both songs live until we reached a peak. Then you know, go back in the control room, listen back, identify any improvements and overdubs, and… yeah… musicians working. That’s what you do, That’s how you do it.
DM: What are you working on with them?
Wendy James: ‘Now it’s my whole album. The songs are nearly complete, I definitely have two left to write. Then it comes down to scheduling: Whether we have to grab time in pieces, or block book for a period of weeks, I expect to be underway in a matter of weeks and delivered by beginning 2013. Released Spring 2013. In the meantime this single will come out.’
DM: When will ‘I’m Alright Ma’ / ‘You’re So Great’ be released?
Wendy James: ‘October/November. The company people are debating the best time for them now, it’s got little to do with me, but it’s coming up quick! So, in preparation, I’m doing a couple of photo sessions, finishing up my song writing, and finalizing artwork choices. You know six weeks go by very quickly when you’re planning an album or a single release, and so, with something like this, there hasn’t been any let-up since James Williamson and I decided to do it!’
We look forward to hearing more from the always welcome Wendy James.
Thanks to Ricardo Gomes for the fab photograph of Wendy James.
Previously on Dangerous Minds