Q & A With Top Session Guitarist Adam Levy
Throughout his work with popular artists like Norah Jones, Tracy Chapman and Amos Lee (to name a few), Adam Levy weaves a tasty blend of Jazz, Blues, Country & Americana guitar textures, into a sound rooted in tradition, but also very fresh and new. He’s a guitarist deeply committed to the song, crafting subtle lines, riffs and hooks that often define the mood and feeling of a piece. From Norah Jones’s hit “Come Away With Me” to Tracy Chapman’s “Give Me One Reason” to Amos Lee’s “In The Arms Of A Woman”, you can hear a clear through-line in Adam’s playing, and sense his rich palette of sonic influences.
Aside from being a busy session player, Adam is also a talented singer, songwriter, producer and educator. His 7 original releases can be found at adamlevy.bandcamp.com. He has also authored the Alfred course Play the Right Stuff and 3 courses with Truefire.com.
We really enjoyed catching up with him on multiple subjects; from his formative years, to his thoughts on session work and music production, to writing and performing his own music, and much more. We’re also pleased to introduce his services to the AirGigs community, as he offers a wealth of talent and experience to any project.
You can find Adam’s services here: https://www.airgigs.com/user/adamlevymusic
Can you share some of your earliest musical influences & inspirations?
Early on, I had the later Beatles records—Abbey Road and The Beatles (aka “the White album”). I wore these out, listening nonstop! I also had a few 7-inch singles from the 1950s—including Buddy Holly’s “That’ll Be the Day” and Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode.” Great energy, perfect little solos that fit the song, simple yet mysterious.
In your formative years, was making a living as a musician a conscious goal?
It was always a goal. My grandfather was a professional composer and arranger, working on TV variety shows. I’d go to work with him sometimes when I was a kid, and I got to meet many of the top-notch players he worked with. Working as a pro studio musician seemed like a good job and a realistic goal to me, even back when I was 12 or 13 and just learning the instrument. I played my first real session in 1986, when I was 20. There were two guitar players on that date—myself and the already well-established Laurence Juber—plus about 18 other musicians in the room, all tracking live. This was at the end of a golden era in recording-session work. Things have changed so much since then, but I still love session work.
Was there ever a time / moment when you doubted whether a career in music was an attainable goal?
Last Tuesday, around 4:32 p.m. This morning around 7:12 a.m. I’m kidding—sort of. I have doubts all the time, but not doing it has always been scarier to me than doing it.
Can you share any important ways that the Tracy Chapman gig changed your life?
That was my first really big gig. Serious on-the-job training! More than anything, that gig taught me the importance of doing what’s best for the artist first, what’s best for the group dynamic second, and then whatever my own agenda may be comes last. That’s hard for some musicians. They want to do things their own way. I encourage creativity and originality, of course, but working as a sideman or session musician requires a particularly selfless mindset. Danny Barnes shares some wisdom on that here: http://dannybarnes.com/blog/how-play-someone-elses-band.
What are some of the things that helped shape you as an artist?
When I first joined Norah Jones’ band in 2001, I didn’t own an acoustic guitar. No big deal—she had an acoustic guitarist in the band at the time. We’d both play with her on local gigs around NYC. When first she started touring, in ’02, she couldn’t yet afford to take two guitarists on the road, so I suddenly had to buy an acoustic, figure out the best pickup system to amplify it, learn to fingerpick, and so on. I was such a “jazz guy” at that point, I barely knew how to use a capo, but it was clear that she needed a player who could switch back and forth between electric and acoustic. If I wanted to stay on the job I’d have to grow my skill set basically overnight. That was a major ass-whooping, but becoming fluent on the acoustic guitar has opened the door to more session work for me—as well as leading me to make some of my own acoustic music.
Was writing & performing your own music always an important direction for you?
That evolved slowly, over time. For many years, as I was developing, I simply wanted to play guitar. I had no interest in writing my own music or singing my own songs.
Who are some of your biggest influences as a player?
Ry Cooder—particularly on his Paradise & Lunch and as a sideman on John Hiatt’s Bring the Family. People mostly know Cooder as a slide guitarist, I think, but his rhythm-guitar style is personal and very deep. Jazz guitarist Ted Greene, who I studied with in the late ’80s. His warm-but-clear tone is something I strive for even when I’m not playing jazz. Steve Cropper—with Booker T. & the M.G.’s, with Otis Redding, and on lots of other Stax sessions. He’s so economical. Every note counts. No empty calories at all.
When you approach a studio session for another artist what types of preparation do you do for the session? And, what type of direction do you welcome from the artist?
To prep for a session, I like to hear the songs in advance if possible. Rough demos are fine. I’m not looking to learn specific guitar parts at that point. I just want to understand the roadmap and get the general vibe.
I welcome lots of input. If I’m clear on what we’re going for, it’s a lot easier to know for certain when we’ve got the right stuff in the can.
Recording, for me, usually isn’t about considering all the possible things I could play on a particular song. It’s more about finding a few very specific things. It’s about niching. It’s about staying in character. Sometimes I’ll set boundaries for myself—playing only on a few strings, or only in one area of the fretboard, or only using certain types of rhythms.
When you produce your own music, what are some of the most important elements that you focus on?
Choosing the right players is always number one for me. Without simpatico musicians, there is no record—no matter how great the room sounds or how much cool gear the studio has. After players, it’s the engineer who makes the biggest difference.
Communication is super important. That said, I try to be mindful of the other players’ comfort zone. Some guys want to have as much info as possible, as far in advance as possible. For them, I’ll load up a Dropbox folder with charts and simple demos, and I’ll be in touch regularly in the days leading up to the session. Other players seem to prefer having less info in advance. They want to figure things out on the fly. That’s their process. I try to respect each player’s methodology as best as I can.
From a production standpoint, can you share a few of your favorite albums?
• John Hiatt — Bring the Family (Ry Cooder, guitar). Cooder is greasy throughout, with some downright nasty tones.
• Lucinda Williams — World Without Tears (Doug Pettibone, guitar). Pettibone, somehow, is refined yet totally raw.
• Joe Henry — Civilians (Bill Frisell and Greg Leisz, guitars). Leisz and Frisell are masters of push and pull.
• Los Lobos — The Town and the City (David Hidalgo, guitar). Hidalgo’s playing here ranges from sweet to spooky, with so many compelling tones.
• The Beatles — The Beatles (George Harrison, John Lennon, and Paul McCartney, guitars). Even at their most experimental, the Beatles were craftsmen. Parts are tight, tones are right-on.
• Aretha Franklin — Young, Gifted and Black (Cornell Dupree, guitar). Dupree plays like butter, honey, and hot sauce, all mixed together.
• Gillian Welch — Time (The Revelator) (Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, guitars). She plays low, he plays high. So different, yet totally interwoven.
• Pretenders — Pretenders (James Honeyman-Scott, guitar). Honeyman-Scott plays catchy hooks and memorable solos, with exciting tones throughout.
What’s your home studio setup for doing online sessions?
I use Logic Pro X. I have a small collection of mics that sound great on my acoustic guitars and on my amp. I’ve got an API lunchbox with a Neve 1073 pre and an Inward Connections Brute limiter. Everything else—EQ, reverb, etc.—happens via plugins. It’s a simple rig, capable of capturing and rendering all sorts of juicy tones.
For people considering booking your service here on AirGigs, can you suggest the type’s of projects you’d be best suited for?
I’m probably best known for my work on Norah Jones’ first few records. That cross-section of jazz/blues/country/Americana—that’s my home territory. That said, I don’t always play mellow or pretty.
I appreciate getting specific musical direction from the artist and/or producer. That said, I do have my natural strengths and there are some styles that I’m not the right player for. I would encourage any prospective client to sample my work to be sure that I’m the guy they want.
What do you see as the next evolution for you as a player and songwriter?
Great question, but I rarely know what’s coming around the bend. I just try to stay open to creative energies—internal and external.