Wake The Neighbors
Well, this was it. Whatever level of professionalism or glory my
little Pizza Hut of a recording studio ever achieved was
achieved through this project. Having pretty much abandoned my
own pursuit of a career in music, I nevertheless began dating
and eventually married someone whose musical dreams were still
intact. So, me being me, I painted an "S" on my chest and dug
in, obsessively determined to make someone else's dream come
true. Only, as men tend to do, I was falling into the trap of
trying to be a problem solver. Women don't necessarily want men
to solve their problems for them. They want us to listen, to
empathize and to understand. At that point in my life, I wasn't
well-practiced in any of those disciplines.
This project represents four years of investment and very hard work. It is the best (and last) work to come out of Eagle’s Nest, my little home studio. It's kind of impossible to omit it from any review of who or what I was and, frankly, it's pretty unfair to even ask me to do so. I presume memories, much like photographs or, in this case, recording masters, should be considered community property in a divorce. Older and, God willing, more mature than the man I once was, I am normally happy to agree to whatever terms of surrender there are. Still, in this 2013 rebuild of these pages, I've chosen to keep this collection intact. Looking back, I’m sure we must have irritated the neighbors with all the many takes of singers and wailing guitars going on in a tiny den of an apartment complex. We actually didn’t notice. I mean, it was magic time.
After some miscues, Yanick and I began dating, I think, in
the fall of 1988. Hollis Stone’s slow and cancerous death began
in March of 1989 when I began working on Yanick’s demo. Our
marriage ended the summer of 1993, maybe two or so months after
the finished press kits arrived. This is very much The Story of
work is the best my little demo studio ever got, the strongest
writing and best playing from real musicians and singers Yanick
and I recruited to up our game in the studio. I am extremely
proud of this work, though much of it may sound awfully 1989.
Considering we had very little to work with— a 4-track Tascam
246 PortaStudio and a few effects processors— this stuff is a
I gave Yanick my very best. I gave her absolutely everything and every creative impulse I knew. Yanick and I worked very hard on this and, for the most part, had a great time doing it. It was a great time of life, and the work crackles with energy and enthusiasm. This stuff was the crowning and final achievement of Hollis Stone's career, and I'm quite satisfied with that.
Yanick was and remains the kindest human being I’ve ever met. Generous to a fault and possessed of an almost ethereal grace and innocence. Anointed. The rarest of rarities, an intelligent and sophisticated woman who still possessed a childlike innocence and sense of wonder. Possibly the most noble soul I have ever known. She drew me out of my darkness. This was a person who routinely ran herself ragged giving and doing things for others. She was annoyingly kind and generous and she was the most warm and loving woman I have ever known. In fact, I could truly find fault with her only in the studio, where her ambition, drive, singularity of focus and strength of will made me want to choke her (and her me) on many occasions. But, this was a person who put up with me for five years, who taught me what real love was, and who shaped my life forever.
Gregg Sullivan, a wonderful guitarist I believe Glen Alexander turned me on to, works with Yanick on the most inexplicable, most ridiculous song I’ve ever written, I Know You Don’t Believe. What makes the song ridiculous is the song was written about our relationship; my sense of her lack of faith in me. The Apostle Paul teaches us not to be unevenly yoked with non-believers [2 Corinthians 6:14]. Today, as a pastor, I'd apply that scripture beyond the spiritual imperative to advise you to not be unevenly yoked to anyone who does not believe in you; who does not fully embrace all that you are. It's hard to live on faith, the song says, I would be stronger with someone in my corner. Had she written that for me, it would prompt one of my famous bouts of paranoia, self-recrimination and doubt. It is not a benign ballad but a cry for help from someone completely invested in someone else's dream.
I wanted to impress her. I wrote largely about us, about who we were. Having known her since high school, having seen her through many relationships, I’d hoped this time things would be different for her and for us. This Time grew out of that idea, and that song became her signature. I wanted a big sound, the best and crowning achievement of my little 4-track history. By then I’d truly mastered my little recording studio and knew I could get a good sound out of the gear. I was king of my particular donut shop. Donut Emperor.
I wanted players, real players, not just me. I was hanging around with a colorful guy named Johnmark Brown who was working on and off with a bassist named Derek Jackson. I called Glen Alexander, but he was touring and unavailable. I think he passed on Gregg Sullivan’s number, and Gregg signed on as our guitarist. Johnmark recruited a couple of his singers, the amazing Bridget Shorter (that soaring first soprano on Reflex) and Rita Hurt, to sing with Yanick and myself. Johnmark and I arranged the vocals and, if you listen closely, you’ll hear some wonderfully understated harmonies. It was ambitious. There were no sequencers. The piano sound really sucked. It was a really, really good song. Yanick, however, was not quite ready to sing it. We recorded several takes over the next four years, before arriving at a truly inspired one in early 1993. The version included here is, I believe, an earlier take; I no longer have masters of the final version.
Nights & Days
heels of This Time, I wanted to do something much simpler. This
yielded Yanick’s other signature song,
Feels Like Forever, a
melancholy, half-hearted “love” ballad that, to me, summed up
her tentative, conflicted passion for me. Nothing on Yanick’s
project sounded happy or cheerful. It was all this hollow
ringing of a bell.
Here, Derek and Gregg (who never met before 1993's Covenant Live project) finally clicked into a real team. A gorgeous, exhilarating bit of pop structure with me playing understated stay-out-of-harm’s-way FM piano pads under Gregg’s breezy guitar parts. I twisted Yanick’s arm into getting her twin sister, Florence, to sing on the track, to recapture some of the lithe resonance from Chapter 1’s Sorry To Say, and I coaxed Yanick into belting out a diva-like oration at the tail end of the song.
She browbeat me during the mix to turn Derek's bass up, something I didn't want to do. In those days, we tended to mix the bass behind the kick drum as opposed to in front of it. In retrospect, she was right: Derek's fluid, hypnotic bass lines present much better in front of the kick, and now I wish I'd mixed all of the tracks that way.
In retrospect: I bullied Yanick a lot on this project. I was used to Bonita kind of bouncing into the studio, doing whatever I asked--improving it in many ways--and then turning cartwheels in the parking lot as we headed off for post-session ice cream. There was zero sexual tension between us. I was also used to bassist Derek Jackson openly mocking my incompetence, snickering, "I don't have to play it that way, do I?" before proceeding to rip my head off with his amazing gift. In the end, Derek gave me what I wanted; his purpose in being there, in starting his car to drive over, was to achieve the goal I'd set.
Yanick, a creative person in her own right, challenged most creative choices. My speculation is the album Yanick wanted to make might have had wistful little folk ditties and lots of cabasa shaking, maybe some lutes. I was channeling Anita Baker. I was prepared to irritate, manipulate, or otherwise stomp on her toes to get Yanick out of her mannered, polite, schoolgirl haze and show some teeth. Whatever her vocal range was, I wanted her well outside of it, gasping for air, turning red, toes curling, as she belted out those notes. Provoking the talent is what a producer does, sing, damn you. In hindsight, I now realize we never actually had that conversation: what is this thing we are attempting to build?
The easy progress I'd grown used to with other projects suddenly became a struggle and I'd become disoriented by the vertigo as, unannounced, my otherwise simple and benign session would erupt into a battle. Changed me forever... mister! Half a day lost arguing over that line, which both frightened and confused me that this project might degenerate into biting and hair-pulling over minutiae. We quickly grew weary of the battles. Being in a confined space for long hours, even with someone you desperately love, can take its toll, as these surely did on both of us. During tracking and production, only the producer knows what the song will eventually sound like because only the producer has the whole product and arrangement inside his head. I felt she was making creative decisions while knowing only preliminary pieces of a much larger puzzle, so my pleading was usually for her to record it, just once, the way I actually wrote it. After that, once she knew the complete picture the way I'd intended it, I'd record it any way she wanted and make any changes she wanted to make.
All of which sounded reasonable and rational to me, but it definitely made me the bully, forcing my artist to do what I told her to. Which was made infinitely more complex because my artist was my wife and the bullying going on in our little laundry hamper of a demo studio didn't stay there. Like bass notes, which resonate in huge 12-foot waves, our dynamic in the creative process echoed throughout the relationship. She was (and is) the kindest woman I've ever met, and I just clubbed her like a baby seal. Do it my way or else.
The flip side was, in the little room she wasn't my wife so much as she was my artist or more to the point a person I was exhausting myself trying to help. The lack of trust there in the studio also echoed throughout the relationship. It wasn't that Bonita obeyed me so much as Bonita trusted me in ways Yanick never did. My time with Bonita was filled with laughter and playfulness; her escape from horrors I learned of only well after the fact. Many sessions with Yanick were filled with tension; not that it was always a struggle, but we both knew struggle could erupt without warning, so we both were kind of on red alert at all times. Finishing up with Bonita, I wanted to hang out with her a little and laugh and decompress. The end of some sessions with Yanick left me exhausted and drawn, she and I retreating to neutral corners and my resenting how big an asshole I was forced to become because she wouldn't just trust me. And so we created in each other these monsters, two idiots driving one another insane or, alternatively, walking on eggshells around each other, which really sucked. I "won," if it can be called that, by threatening to quit and bullying and breaking her spirit. Now with great hindsight, I believe I should have made the little cabasa folk album. I should have heard her.
Side One of Night & Day was the Night Side: This Time, Feels Like Forever, Summer of '79 (below), Fragile (below). This was Anita Baker country, grown-up music, night club stuff. Side Two was the Day Side, more pop-oriented. More fun. Yanick liked the more mature stuff and didn't much care for the pop stuff, which she largely regarded as my making her scream all day.
The Day Side began with Little Pretty One†, a song about a high school history teacher who exploits one of his students. This song really almost works, but it needed some tweaking of its early 90's pop sensibility and, earlier in the song, I really ruined the background harmonies. As I recall, I was just exhausted and we only had Florence for the day and had to rush things a little. I honestly didn't even hear how cringingly bad the harmonies were until we got the finished tapes back from the plant. The coda still works, though, with Yanick's brassy alto barking over the Rick James snap-groove. Florence led most of the song with a much sweeter and rounder tone that slowly unveiled the horror of the lyrical content. Yanick's coda was intended to represent the harder person the character evolved into as a result of the violation of trust. Little... was the first song I recorded where I decided to make the kick drum the loudest thing on the track. Times were changing, and suddenly Bruce Sweiden's expertly-balanced mixes of lush Quincy Jones arrangements were being drowned out by Moog bass and very loud 808 kicks. I only had the wimpier 707 drum machine, so I compressed and compressed and fattened the kick as much as I could, and stomped Florence with it for four minutes.
Florence never seemed engaged with the project, which made being around her difficult for me. After all, it wasn’t her project. She was a busy mom and what we were doing may have seemed, in retrospect, a bit eccentric. I mean, who can afford to spend the kind of hours—hundreds of them—we invested in Yanick’s project? At this stage in my life, I can’t imagine even having that kind of time to spend, as I’m certain Florence did not. But she sacrificed for Yanick who went along with my nutty scheme to market Yanick not as a solo but as part of a kind of circus act—Twynn. I felt standing out in a crowd of women her age or younger vying for recording contracts would require some kind of gimmick, and the sisters had one right there in their genetic code. Creatively, I didn’t really want to be in the laundry hamper with someone who didn’t want to be there (let alone someone who was a virtual clone of my wife). This made producing Florence very weird, I presume, for us both. She had a lovely voice that complemented the tougher bark of Yanick’s alto quite nicely, but I never felt the passion. She was extremely guarded and, much like Nadia, I couldn’t crack through her defenses to get her to emotionally commit. Florence would do whatever I asked her to do, without the Yanick “Why a duck?” struggle, and the singing was quite nice and charming, but none of this moved the needle for me emotionally because we could never achieve intimacy or at least intimate trust.
Little Pretty One, this disturbing narrative about a child’s sexual exploitation, is sung with a sweetness no different than the satirical Don’t Ask Me To Be Noble, which begins with Florence crooning, I wish you were dead. No she doesn’t. There’s no emotion in it; it’s all Mr. Spock. On both songs Yanick comes in like a freight train, pissed way the hell off and embedding that loathing—likely of me—into both songs as befits both narratives. Now, to be fair, Yanick had been working with me for four years and was the first girl on my left when I woke up in the morning, so getting there was infinitely easier for her than for her sister. Nevertheless, the thick Plexiglas of the Enterprise’s engine room separated me from Florence even as I stood not ten inches away coaching her through both songs. Okay, I’m here, let’s get his over with. Florence, this girl I’d adored since high school, since Inner City Sound and that ratty old elevator, was increasingly a stranger in my home, coming to see Yanick but not the doof Yanick was married to. We spent no time together. We took no walks. We shared no confidences. Memorable pop performances are all about passion, which cannot exist in the frozen Tundra of whatever the hell was going wrong between the three of us.
Don't Ask Me To Be Noble† was kind of a sequel to This Time, a Luther Vandross-Marcus Miller-Nat Adderly Jr. 80's R&B arrangement (Luther Vandross' Never Too Much) meant to honor my heroes of the time. I tried to play piano like Nat, programmed the 707 like Yogi Horton (whom the trades called "The Human Metronome") and the wonderful Bryon Hankins did a dead-on Marcus Miller take with his buzzy Fender Jazz. I colored the background vocals Vandross dark, centering around Rita Hurt's gorgeous contralto, and then I wrote what I believed were some fun and cynical lyrics, which of course, the twins hated. I wish you were dead... the opening line, was a real battle to get on tape, and the second verse's fun Fu Manchu allegory was nearly scrapped because they thought it was stupid. I wish that Fu Manchu would acupuncture you until you repent... Ha! Loved it. The song builds to the Girl Power refrain from This Time, Nevertheless I think of you... Yanick didn't want "Nevertheless" to become a signature, so that was another long discussion. I like the way the song bookends This Time, although this one doesn't really stand up as well and sounds even more dated, despite the fact I wrote this one in late '92, three years after I wrote This Time.
A Welcome Home Within Your Heart† was borrowed from my New Witness III project. Originally a song of spiritual repentance, it became more about reconciliation and the permanence of love. These are the original NW3 tracks, which is to say it's stripped bare and sequenced and I didn't work very hard at it. We brought in Bridget and her niece Sinesta McCoy to sweeten up the backgrounds, and Yanick really shines here as she takes over from Florence in verse 2. Yanick had done several takes before and was really familiar with the song. She really nails it, here, with a biting and spot-on pop vocal. I wished I'd done more stuff like this, where Yanick's dynamic side can really shine.
Okoye's Eyes† begins with Ouidah, an African melody written and performed by Minister Darryl Cherry. A song that sounds so unlike Darryl it's a little, well, jolting to realize he wrote it. Okoye's Eyes was based upon a song written by Pierre Hillare that we both loved and co-opted into a song about the liberation of Haiti. Here Bryon Hankins' bass really wins the day, meshing off-color Joe Zawinul (Weather Report) inharmonics with a grand, sweeping anthem. This is a bad key for Yanick, but it's a great song. Gregg Sullivan's acoustic and electric guitar work is just wonderful, here, lending just enough grandeur and intimacy and, well, legitimacy to this piece. I told him, "You make us sound almost like we know what we're doing." This song has some of my favorite lyrics:
Sisters lift your voice
Love is your resource
L'union fait la force
(strength in unity; the legend on the Haitian flag)
Night & Day concluded with Minister Darryl Cherry's elegant Just When I Need Him Most†, which can be heard at the tail end of Set One of my New Witness III Project. Yanick originally recorded Just When... solo, but we dubbed in Florence for the Night & Day project. Here Florence really shines, carrying two-thirds of the song with an amazing, fluidly transparent soprano solo.
† taken from analog cassette tape. All other samples are from digital sources.
* * * * *
I've added a couple of things from Yanick's demo that were not included in the 2000 compilation. I Just Wanted To Be Your Friend was another song Yanick disliked intensely, mainly because I was stupid enough to use Rachelle's name in the chorus. The song had nothing at all to do with Rachelle, I just liked the way the name Raaah-chelle! snapped out on the chorus, but Yanick would have none of it and I ended up having to badger her into recording it, using Noelle instead of Rachelle. Not enough snap.
My Love Is True was a lighthearted romp into house music, one I had to bribe and cajole Yanick to attempt. I borrowed a track from Bonita’s project (First True Love).
I’m Gonna Fly was based on a poem Yanick’s goddaughter wrote for school, which we later discovered (to our eternal dumfoundedness) was actually written by the great Langston Hughes. For weeks after, Yanick and I would spontaneously stop whatever we were doing, turn to each other, burst out, “LANGSTON HUGHES!” and dissolve into laughter.
Show Me, a re-fit of my plea to Nancy, was another song Yanick didn’t want to do. Gregg and I put down the basic track and waited for Derek to get free to come do the bass (he never did, I ended up playing bass on the song). Yanick heard the unfinished track and, with no bass to define the chords, didn’t “get” it. Also, Gregg got a little carried away in the back end of the song, playing right over a section where Yanick should be singing, but I liked it enough that we just recorded it without any singing there, giving Gregg a 90-second solo, a little unheard of for a pop song. This was one of Yanick’s stronger pieces (recorded with my pal Darryl Cherry who lends just enough honesty in his unpolished but truthful performance). I did not include it on her demo because I blew an important early piano riff, and because it really wasn’t recorded very well. But it is some good listening. I’m very proud of this song.
Reflex was a song Yanick hated. Originally it was a Patti Austin / Quincy Jones pop-soul thing, and a nice piece of music in its own right, but it wasn’t making the grade so we dumped it. In early ’93, just for the heck of it, I recorded a new club track and transferred the background vocals over. Then came the week-long struggle with Yanick to get her to record a new vocal for a song she hated the first time around, but one she despised in the new club incarnation. I coerced her into recording it by reminding her, if she wanted to be a singer, she’d often be asked to sing things she didn’t like; she may as well get used to it. I offered to change the pitch so she wouldn't need to sing it in soprano, but once challenged, Yanick was a fierce competitor. Cursing my name, she rose to the challenge and spent the afternoon yelling at the top of her lungs--what she called it, anyway--turning in a fun pop vocal. Reflex is not a great song, but it is an interesting bit of business to hear Yanick channeling Madonna’s Material Girl, and it certainly gets the toes tapping. My bass riffs could have been better if I’d had someone running the board, so I mixed myself into oblivion. I think this was another occasion where I was waiting for Derek (who had recorded the original version, that master now lost) but he was off recording other things.
This Time (Reprise) is the tail end of that song, the stuff lost in the fade. We played on for almost 3 minutes after the song was over, playing until we ran out of tape. Even though Derek was not there and added his bass later, it sounds like a band jamming and enjoying the heck out of themselves. Minor note of minor interest, I’m playing Derek’s 5-string bass and he’s improvising funk licks over me. This gave the track more bottom, Derek having his cake and eating it too.
Nevertheless, I Think Of You
of this chapter, and of this compilation, is a deliberate
descent into melancholy, mirroring the downward spiral of our
relationship. I find this set of songs exquisitely painful,
difficult to listen to, but creatively some of the better work
she and I have done together.
Summer Of '79 was the final incarnation of this idea. Based on the structure for the oft-worked-on Summer of’75, I sold the soul of this pivotal moment of my life to Yanick, refitting it to her own experience with a tragically lost love. Yanick and I argued bitterly over, the word “Mister,” used in an Anita Baker-like bark somewhere in the middle of the song. This was not recorded very well, either, and I had buzz problems with Bryon Hankins’ bass (and kind of wished I’d have just played it myself). I used a sequencer here to get the piano playing straightened out, making me sound like a better player than I actually am. Gregg’s amazing acoustic guitar work blends nicely into a drunken, out-of-control rock frenzy in the back, which was meant to resonate with his work on Show Me, but I drowned him in reverb here and, oh well.
Fragile, by Derek Jackson, was a song he’d written and produced but had no lyrics. Writing about our shaky marriage, Yanick immediately loved the song. We again recruited Florence for the backgrounds, a melancholy, hollow dirge that runs throughout the song, and Gregg improvised some wrenching, sad guitar riffs at the end. Mixing the track, I had the song literally fall to pieces and dissolve, mirroring our relationship.
If I Should Perish, written in early 1993, was kind of a farewell. We both saw the breakup coming. Perish was Hollis Stone’s last official appearance anywhere. I haven’t recorded since. Now, I have to assume it is more a time consideration than a creative block, but part of me is seriously intimidated by the whole process. Technology has marched on and I’d have to spend endless hours learning the new kids’ toys, all the computer wizardry that enables the new generation to do much, much cleaner and much more dazzling things in their basements than I ever did, and to do it in half the time.
Driving home one evening, Yanick and I were idly chatting in her car when her song, This Time, began playing. I reached over to turn down the cassette when I realized there was no cassette in the deck: the radio was playing. WBLS, New York's top R&B FM station, was playing her, ahem, our song. I believe we kind of shrieked like two grade-school kids, likely swerving lanes on U.S. Highway 1 late at night (not a bright move).
It was magic time. “LANGSTON HUGHES!”
Christopher J. Priest
January 2000 UPDATED OCTOBER 2013