In my life, I’ve found that real community, real tribe, is born of common efforts, shared goals, and what happens in the trenches working toward those goals. When trying to achieve lofty things, people start to polarize around you- naysayers and cheerleaders, helpers and hinderers. Sometimes the same person can oscillate. When I first decided to move to Los Angeles, my Dad and Step-mom, who have always been my biggest fans, were die-hard in their opposition. I wasn’t ready, I didn’t have a plan or enough money saved, I was being childish, impetuous. They went as far as to cut off money for school- money which I was never entitled to, but which they nevertheless had promised to put toward my education. (Later, at my Step-mom’s urging, they took over my student loans from that period, intent on keeping their word, and also desiring to help me in a life they saw as increasingly fruitful.) But the people with whom you’re in those trenches, whose boots are muddy with the same soil, who’ve seen who you are in your truest, darkest, most heroic moments- these people make up a tribe that girds you throughout your life, both inside and outside the trench.
I was introduced to Jon Kaplan, Grammy Nominated Mixer and Producer, through one of his closest friends, Mike Shimshack. Shack was also a producer, and he was in LA to work with another artist under our manager, Joe Simpson, (of Jessica & Ashley Simpson fame.) I walked in to Joe’s penthouse apartment, on the beach just north of Santa Monica pier, to find him playing Anchor + Bell, my guy/girl duo, on full blast. Shack loved it, and we made plans to write that evening at our studio in Woodland Hills. After a Maker’s & Diet, or two, which Joe literally had on tap, and a lot of music listening, I left to finish my errands for the day and head home. Shack called me with an idea later that afternoon.
“Hey man, I’ve been thinking- I’m staying at my buddy Kaplan’s place. He’s a killer writer and producer and would be a good guy for you to connect with. He’s free this evening and down to write with us. You in?”
“Yeah man. Send me the address and Emily and I will be there with bells on.”
That evening, Emily and I had our first co-write as a duo. Up to that point everything we had written, we had done just the two of us. Even our record had only one other musician on it, whom I hired and worked with without Emily in the studio. We got to the Kaplan’s house in the Hollywood Hills, which was large and beautifully appointed, and met Jon’s wife Rana, who at the time was a VP of Operations at Capitol Records, and his 11 year old son, Rex, an aviation enthusiast and sports fanatic. Rana was in torn jeans and a Led Zeppelin t-shirt, with a kind hospitality and a “don’t f*%$ with me” vibe; Rex was watching an LA Kings game wearinga Dodgers baseball cap, already embracing their newish California lifestyle, after Rana had been relocated from New York to LA a year prior. I loved everything about this place, and these people.
We walked out to the studio, which was in the backyard, and started in right away. Emily and I played a few of our songs for both Kap and Shack, and we got a bead on what kind of song we’d want to write together. It was a slow process, full of fits and starts, restarts and overhauls; some songs come easy, but we earned the song we wrote that night. We recorded a room-mic scratch demo and called it a night. Shimshack headed back to Nashville, and left it to us to finish firming up the details and record the song for real. Over the next couple weeks Kaplan and I got together and spoke often about the production, and fell quickly into a rhythm. We decided we should write again, and so we did, and then we wrote another, and another.
When it was finally time for Anchor + Bell to record our next record, we had Kap over to my place for beers and grilled chicken, to write a song and talk about who should produce the record. We had several names in mind, and we were thinking big since we had a big name manager.
“Oh I should produce it.” He said bluntly, and let that hang in the air. I wasn’t surprised, per say, but I wasn’t quite expecting that response.
“Well alright,” Emily and I said collectively.
In our first pre-production meeting, we met at the studio to play him the records we had been listening to, and share our vision for what our record could sound like. I kid you not, 8 out of the 10 records we shared with him, he’d had a direct or indirect involvement with. I’d say ‘I love the sonics on this record,’ to which he’d respond, ‘Yeah I mixed that.’ Emily would say ‘I love how the vocals sound on this record,’ and Kap would say ‘Yeah I produced that record… I engineered that record… I’m in a band with that guy… I produced their previous record…” It was unbelievable. All these records that I loved, Jon Kaplan had made or helped make. I hadn’t realize it, but I was probably his biggest fan. But I had the benefit of getting to know him without the fanfare or accolades- he was just Kap to me. Sharp witted, unaffected, unimpressed, a usurping sense of humor that stole the self-importance from any moment, he was the hyper-aware overseer of things, the reductionist who forgot a long time ago what romance felt like. But he was making records that I loved, and so during that meeting my respect for him grew, and my excitement about the project did too: I was about to make a record that I would love.
So we decided on songs and set to work. On our first day in the studio, Kap and I sat down to work on a song called “Miss You.” He sat at the desk programming a drum loop to go along with a piano that Emily had already recorded. It wasn’t my first rodeo, and so I sat on the couch quietly observing, allowing my thoughts to collect around me, before I offered any input. After about 20 minutes, I made a suggestion.
“Can we lose the second kick drum in the pattern? It’s making it swing a little too hard.”
Kap slowly turned around in his chair, right ankle on left knee, elbow resting hard on the armrest and hand on his chin. He said deliberately, “Can you let me finish a fucking thought? If this is what it’s gonna be like making a record with you, it’s really gonna suck.”
I blinked. I’m positive that up to that point in my life, I’d never suffered a verbal accosting like that without my hackles rising and my skin turning hot. But for whatever reason, I felt neither shame nor frustration. Perhaps I felt a slight disappointment because I thought it was a good note to give, but none of the “screw this guy” type feeling I probably should have had. Instead, inexplicably and by no virtue of my own, I was calm.
“Sure man, I get it. Keep at it.” I was almost appalled at myself, but Kap turned around to work again, and instead of continuing to complain, he immediately started explain what his thought process was as he was working. It was like two bears stood on their hind legs and looked each other in the eye, each sizing the other up, and then instead of fighting, went back to fishing together. Over the course of making that record, Kap and I went from co-writers to colleagues, from colleagues to friends, from friends to partners on almost every creative project we were involved in, and this past year I rented their guest bedroom, cooked and cleaned and helped Jon & Rana through one of the very toughest seasons of their lives. I left for Nashville 4 weeks ago. Kap and I text almost every day, and Rex & Rana face-timed me last night because they miss me. And I miss them.