Posted on January 13, 2012 at 11:17 am

There’s a fun tradition in gospel music of taking secular love songs and, with the smallest changes in the lyric – a pronoun here, a reversal of direction there – turning them into love songs to God. It was in that spirit that I decided to revisit the 1978 Grammy Award winner for Record of the Year and Song of the Year. The only bumpy lyric was “Don’t change the color of your hair.”

In my opinion, the original recording is Phil Ramone’s finest five minutes as a record producer. The groove, the choice of instruments (including Richard Tee’s gorgeous – and uncredited – electric piano playing [*see Sam Lupowitz’s comment below]), those wordless backup vocals (or is that a Mellotron?), the beautiful minimal string arrangement, and especially Phil Woods’s sax solo, easily the hippest sax solo on any pop record in the last half-century. Ramone has a great song to work with, of course, but it could have easily turned schmaltzy or goopy, and I think it’s to his credit that that recording is as fresh-sounding and honest as it is.

My wife thought that perhaps this version was a little too over-arranged, too self-conscious. That’s of course one of the greatest dangers an arranger has to face – how to infuse your personality into the song without overwhelming it. It’s a balancing act. I think, in this case, since the song is so well-known, so iconic, it could probably bear the weight of all the ideas I threw at it. But it’s definitely tricky. For example, it occurred to me that the best way to make sure you really understood the importance of the title was to avoid saying it – because you know the song, your ear will finish the phrase, but you’ll think about it differently because I didn’t sing it. Or maybe that pulls you out of the song and the experience too much. It’s hard to know, and I didn’t want to let “perfect” be the enemy of “good” as far as this project was concerned, so I just decided to try it.

The hardest thing about this (other than the harmonica, which I’d never played before yesterday) was finding the right style for the vocal. If I played it too low-key, the song got boring; if I pushed it too hard, I sounded like I was auditioning my club act for a cruise ship. This isn’t something I usually have to worry about with my own songs, since I feel like my job is just to bring the music and the lyrics into the light where people can hear them for the first time; since nobody’s hearing “Just The Way You Are” for the first time, it’s harder to find the tone.

In “Movin’ Out,” I thumped on the guitar for percussion; in “The Stranger,” I hit the guitar case; finally, I’ve moved on to playing the guitar itself, BUT… only a two-note figure. Perhaps by the time we get to “Everybody Has A Dream,” I’ll even play a chord.

Just The Way You Are
Music and lyric by Billy Joel (1977)
Jason Robert Brown: piano, percussion, guitar, harmonica & vocal
Recorded at Casa JRB, Los Angeles, CA, 1/12/12

Some of you have been asking about the technical process by which I’m recording these things here at Casa JRB, so here’s a very wonky paragraph about this song:

For this track, I started by beatboxing to a click – my vocal mic (which I use for pretty much everything except the piano) is this gorgeous thing, a K2 from Røde – they don’t make them in this style anymore, they’ve changed from a tube to a condenser, but I love this mic. Once I had gone on making silly mouth noises for about five minutes, I isolated the four-bar segment where I thought I sounded most on the beat, and I looped that – GarageBand makes that super easy. I needed a bass drum sound, so I thumped on my guitar and then used a GarageBand default EQ called “Isolate Sub Bass Drum,” which worked perfectly. Once I had the loop set (and to be honest, the loop doesn’t change at all for the whole six minutes of the track), I laid down a piano track. My piano is a Yamaha C5 that I bought from Bondy Piano Service in 2001 when I was writing The Last Five Years. The piano mic is a Røde NT4 stereo condenser mic. (Those two mics are really the only ones I ever use, though I did use the built-in mic on my MacBook for the handclaps in “The Stranger.”) My original version of the piano solo was actually three times as long, so then I set about tightening it up, and once I had done that, I recorded the first of many vocal takes. Then I added the snaps, but realized that I still needed something with a higher pitch for the rhythm track, so I got out a Grover tambourine that I stole many years ago from the Parade pit at Lincoln Center when the show closed. (Neither the tambourine nor the snaps are looped, for reasons I can’t possibly explain except that perhaps I enjoy the meditative nature of playing one note every measure for six and a half minutes.) Then I added the guitar (I have one of these guys, which I bought so I could write The Bridges of Madison County on guitar) and the backing vocals. At the very end, still looking for one more thing to fill up some of the air, I grabbed my daughter’s Little Lyon Easy Learning Harmonica, which happened to be in the right key, and I blew randomly into it until I hit pitches that fit the chords. GarageBand drove the entire thing, and the mics all ran through a MOTU Traveler (this one, in fact, but they make a better version now). I’ve got a MacBook Pro (17″), and I monitor using a set of Sony MDR-7506 headphones and these beauties, the Bowers & Wilkins MM-1 desktop speakers, which I got at the Apple Store and love unreasonably.

I’m fully aware that the next song is “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant,” and I’m suitably anxious.

UPDATE: The next track is now posted here!