We sat down with Caleb Willitz to talk a little bit about his new record, HOME — coming 9/29/17. We also recorded an intimate performance with Caleb in his studio, located in Chicago’s historic Fine Arts Building.
Emulsion: So, today we're making a video together, and you're recording the audio on tape. Can you tell us about the tape machine you're using?
Sure. I like recording on tape and especially this machine. The tape machine I use is really bizarre, and probably a bad sounding machine, in certain ways. You wouldn't necessarily try to make commercial recordings with it. It's imperfect, and that's what makes it fun to work with. And it totally colors the sound, which becomes a big part of the recording. The machine becomes part of the sound, it's not as transparent as digital. That's one of the benefits of recording on tape.
We just finished a record that we've printed to LPs. These are pretty clean recordings, in the scheme of things. To me, it sounds clean — maybe it doesn't to other people — but the recording technique is very clean. So now I'm starting to make recordings that are a little more raw, where the fidelity of the sound becomes a consideration in the creative process.
Emulsion: What songs are you playing today?
We're playing two tracks off our upcoming album, HOME. So we'll be playing the title track, "Home," and the opening track, "Queen of All Mothers."
Of course, these sound really different today, since we're playing with just 3 people, mostly acoustic. On the record, these songs feature 9 musicians recorded live.
Emulsion: OK, cool... so tell us about your new record, HOME.
It's called HOME and we're releasing it on 9/29 at The Hungry Brain. You can hear a few preview tracks from the album at calebwillitz.com.
I'm really happy with how it turned out. It's really interesting how the music grows and evolves through the recording process. But now that I'm finished with it, I see it for what it is.
The original concept was that I wanted to have a songwriting project where you could feel the band playing live. I just wanted to have something with a live feel to it, and that's what we got. As an engineer, I mostly record jazz, and so I think it's just burned into my brain — I want to hear the sound of the band playing together.
Emulsion: What was the recording process like?
We had two live tracking sessions with the full band — one in March 2016, one in August 2016. The record comes from those two sessions.
My friend Jeff Breakey was the engineer. This was actually my first time working with another engineer. I've been engineering and producing music for a long time. It was a whole new experience for me to work with someone. And it's been really neat to work with Jeff. It's kind of cool to just pick up all the little things he's doing and notice it all.
Emulsion: You've made a lot of records as an engineer, mixer, and producer... how has that influenced your music?
One big influence has been the community of people, the musicians I met as an engineer. I started out working in Chicago as an engineer and mixer, and even then, I was always writing some of my own music. But I was working all the time as an engineer. Many of the people who play on the new record — I met them when they came to record in my studio.
I had a studio where I would record 30-50 sessions every month. I got a lot of enjoyment from working with so many musicians. It was great to feel actively involved with musicians in such a productive, helpful way.
Then in summer 2015, my studio burned down, and that changed everything.
Emulsion: Wow, yeah. Now that the studio fire is behind you, and you've had some time to reflect... what's changed?
Well, the main thing is that I don't have a studio anymore. I still work as an engineer and mixer. I make records for other people. But since I'm not supporting a studio, I don't have as much pressure to keep sessions going constantly.
I have more time to focus on building my band, playing, touring, and recording my music.
And I don't miss the technical component so much. I don't miss engineering music all day, every day. But I do miss the feeling of being so actively involved in other people's creative vision. I miss the sheer amount of creative interactions that I had with the studio. And I built my whole studio by hand so I do miss the space.
I do have a rehearsal space in the Fine Arts building where I come to write songs, mix, and be creative.
Emulsion: What's your writing process like?
Most of the songs I write on my own, some songs I write with Tara's. Then I'll show a few songs to Rami & Raul and we'll whittle it down, play it as a trio or quartet.
By the time we rehearse it with the full band, 8 or 9 people, the song has usually gone through a few different versions. I probably write 5 songs for every 1 that we use.
Emulsion: Who plays in your band?
Well, we do have a flexible band that changes based on the situation, and that's really fun. The core group is Tara Smith (vocals), Rami Atassi (guitar), Raul Cotaquispe (drums), and Tatsu Aoki (bass).
We also have featured musicians on the record, and for our larger live shows. On the record, we have Edward J. Wilkerson (tenor sax), Greg Ward (alto sax), Fred Lonberg-Holm (cello), and Charles Rumback (drums).
We're lucky to have so many great musicians who play this music with us.
HOME will be released on 9/29/17 at The Hungry Brain in Chicago. You can RSVP on Facebook here.
Want to hear the music? You can preview the first three tracks at calebwillitz.com.
And you can catch Caleb and his band this fall in Chicago and the Midwest:
9/29/17 at The Hungry Brain Chicago — RECORD RELEASE w/Sun Speak
10/13/17 in Lafeyette, IN at The Spot
10/19/17 in Milwaukee, WI at Bremen Cafe
10/20/17 at The Good Wolf House in Chicago