It takes a perfect storm to make a great album an audacious mix of tension and release, passion and calm, love and violence.
Hallmarks associated with all true forces of nature, these mighty attributes were exactly what Little Big Town had in their corner as they blew into the studio in late February for the whirlwind recording session that produced their strongest work yet, their aptly titled fifth album, Tornado.
LBT didnt set out to break any land speed records in the studio. However, considering that the majority of Tornado took just seven days to record, thats exactly what the recording process felt like to Karen Fairchild, Kimberly Schlapman, Phillip Sweet and Jimi Westbrook, a group famous for their trademark four-part harmonies.
The elements that would produce Tornado started brewing earlier this year. After doing a bit of soul-searching, the band realized they were ready for a change. Despite a solid 13-year career during which theyve sold 1.5 million records, racked up multiple Grammy, CMA and ACM nominations, and crafted Top 10 country hits ("Boondocks" and "Bring It On Home" from their platinum 2005 album The Road to Here, and "Little White Church" from their acclaimed 2010 release, The Reason Why), LBT was feeling a little too secure in their time-tested way of doing things in the studio.
They decided to shake things up a little.
The change started with the draft of producer Jay Joyce (Eric Church, Patty Griffin), who stood in for their longtime collaborator Wayne Kirkpatrick at the boards. "We adore Wayne: he really helped us in the early days when we were trying to define our sound," Karen says, fondly. "And hes part of the reason why were a band. We love our past records, and we wouldnt change anything about how we made them, but we wanted to break up our routine for this one and get a little bit out of our comfort zone."
LBT was already familiar with Joyces work, both as a producer and a performer: a noted guitarist, he had played with the band on The Reason Why. However, theres a big difference between dropping by the studio for a few hours to gig on one track and masterminding an entire album.
If there were any lingering doubts that Joyce was a good fit for the project, they all fell away when the producer showed up to his first meeting with the band brandishing a plan for a recording experience that was unlike anything else they had ever done before.
"Jay was the only guy we talked to who said, I know what I would do with you guys. Ive loved your other records, but I have some things Id love to try," Karen recalls. "When he talked to us about what he wanted to do, there was no hesitation," Jimi adds. "He was all there; in Jays mind, he had already started working." The band quickly followed suit, launching into what would become a wonderful cyclone of a recording session. Rehearsals began in late February; a month later, they had recorded the entire album.
Adapting to this swift course of action was admittedly a bit of a shock to the bands system. The week before entering the studio, LBT was on the road, removed from any kind of preproduction. "It was Sunday night, and we were going into the studio the next morning," Karen says, "and there were still 25 potential songs that needed to be whittled down. And we needed to figure out who was gonna sing them, and in what key, with what arrangement... We panicked. But when I called Jay, he said, Dont worry about it. Just show up here tomorrow and well figure it out together."
Flying by the seat of their pants was an entirely new way of working for four avowed perfectionists accustomed to a much more conventional recording process. Joyce encouraged them to approach their work with feeling rather than reason. "He really pushed us," says Kimberly. "We tend to toil over things; we like to rethink and discuss problems. Jay stopped us from doing that. Literally, we would be in the middle of talking something out, and he would tell us to stop thinking and start singing."
"Less thinking, more singing" became LBTs unofficial slogan as they followed Joyces plan of action, which was new to him as well. "The process wasnt typical of how Jay works, either," Jimi explains. "It was exciting to see what would happen. Because of that, there was a great energy all the time in the studio, and I think you can hear that on the record."
If some of Joyces methods were foreign to the band, others were rooted in familiarity. For instance, the producer encouraged LBT to use their road band in the studio. "That ended up being a huge part of the energy and spontaneity that comes across on the album," Kimberly says. "We have a natural chemistry with those guys," Phillip adds. "We already loved playing with them on the road, so being with them in the studio made sense. It was amazing how great it felt."
The team worked together, in one room, with Joyce taping everything, including four days of rehearsals. No recording was off-limits: some practice tracks ended up on the album. "Even if it was a loose version of what we going for, if it had the right vibe, it was used," Karen says. Wishy-washiness was also stricken from the agenda, Phillip says: "If it didnt come together fast, then it didnt come together at all. Wed drop it."
On the fifth day, the group headed to Nashvilles Sound Emporium to start recording. To keep the sessions feeling organic and relaxed, Joyce asked the band to pretend that they were on tour; each session was treated like a live show. "He told us to come in dressed to go onstage, and to do whatever we normally do before we play a show," says Karen. "Wed go to dinner and come back laughing with some drinks in us, in a great mood," Phillip remembers." And it continued into the studio.