Remembering Will Oswley

I was really saddened last night to learn that one of my musical heroes, Will Owsley, took his own life last week at the age of 44.

A phenomenally talented guy, Owsley recorded his 1999 solo debut over the course of a few years at home, playing most of the instruments himself. Released on Warner Brothers’ Giant Records during the label’s death-rattle phase, the self-titled album sold about 100,000, but wound up nominated for a “Best Engineered Album” Grammy award—not bad for a home recording done with gear that was perpetually breaking down.

More importantly, the debut album has come to be regarded as a stone-cold classic pop record–one of those joyful rarities that unloads one great, hook-filled song after another. Listening to it for the first time is a treat because you keep waiting for the first clunker to show up—can he really have this many good songs on here?—and the clunker never comes.

I got to interview Owsley in 2004 as he was promoting the much-delayed follow-up, The Hard Way, playing solo gigs in between tour legs with Amy Grant (he was her road guitarist for 16 years). Any music journalist will tell you, one of the perks of the gig is that occasionally you get to talk to your musical heroes: the people who made the stuff that inspired you so much that you had to tell the world about them–and thus became a music journalist. The downside, of course, is that a lot of heroes turn out to be…well, let’s settle for the term “jerks.” That was not the case with Owsley; the guy was as unassuming and friendly as he was talented.

The resulting article (reprinted below) turned out fairly antiseptic—his withering comments about Warner Brothers executives were far too profane, albeit hysterical, to print—but it seems only fitting to run it here in memoriam. A better way to pay tribute, of course, is to check out his albums, which highlight the musical joy he was so adept at creating and sharing.

From Pro Sound News (June, 2004)
Recording The Hard Way
by Clive Young

Lots of musicians daydream of self-recording an album in their home studio, and since they’re dreaming, the disc would of course be released by a major label to critical acclaim. Pop singer/songwriter Will Owsley, however, actually pulled off that stunt in the late Nineties with his self-titled Owsley debut album, which–going into daydream overdrive–wound up nominated for a “Best Engineered Album” Grammy as well.

Five years after those heady days, Owsley has now released his follow-up, The Hard Way, on upstart indie label Lakeview Entertainment. The disc has a decidedly heavier bent than his debut–part of why he’s no longer on that major label; after years of butting heads over whether he’d written The Big Hit Song yet, artist and record company mutually called it a day, and Owsley left with his tracks in tow. Now The Hard Way, released in February, is gathering steam and its lead single, “Be With You,” is garnering respectable airplay at AAA radio.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the album, however, is its cohesive sound, despite being recorded over the course of three years at different studios in a variety of recording formats. “I started out on 16 track 2-inch and did a lot of the basic tracks,” he recalled. “Then I made slave tapes, putting drums and bass down to two tracks of a MCI JH16 track 2 inch at 30 ips, since it would be easier for me to overdub at 30 getting in and out. I did that on about half the record and then the machines broke down.”

The result was that his ever-evolving studio suddenly began accumulating gear at a ever-quickening pace. First, Owsley’s tape machines were replaced with an Otari Radar II (“It’s incredible and it has never ever blinked”) and later, a Digidesign Pro Tools rig.

Then came a new console: “I was talking with Richard Dodd, who’s an awesome mixer, and I said, ‘Man, I just cannot find a console under 50 grand that is great.’ He goes, ‘Dude, the Soundcraft 1600 is the most unsung hero; I mixed Tom Petty’s ‘Mary Jane’s Last Dance’ on one. It’s discreet, it’s old, brown and ugly, the EQ sounds like the Lord–and you can probably get one for $2,500.’ I found one up at Odyssey Pro Sound in New England, flew up, rented a van, loaded this big console in the back, and drove it back down to Tennessee; it was fun as hell.”

While much of the album was done in Owsley’s home studio, a move to a new house necessitated the creation of a new facility in his basement, which was designed by studio vet Chris Huston and built by Tri Star Contracting Company. Since creativity waits for no man, however, tracks were recorded in the meantime around Nashville, including “Rise,” which went from drums to mix in a hectic 24 hours at Emerald Tracking Room. “We never left until I was falling asleep at the console at 7 AM,” said Owsley with a chuckle. “There’s something really great about going all the way through a song in a period like that versus stretching it out over days. You don’t lose that center of gravity about what you’re going for.”

Other songs were recorded at Sound Kitchen, and also at The Bennett House in Franklin, TN (including the first single, “Be With You”), where Paul David Hager mixed the album.

Now with his home studio together, Owsley finds he’s writing and recording simultaneously. “When I’m in that moment, I just can’t help it,” he said. “When I’m writing, I’m sitting there thinking about what the kick drum pattern’s going to be. I think my whole life I’ve been an engineer/producer. I’ve done both and so now I don’t know how to make demos. I only know how to do the best I can. I can’t operate like, ‘OK, this is going to be a four-track bullshit recording.’ I need to make it sound great, because I want to blow people’s doors off. When I send songs to a record company, I’m not only selling my songs, I’m selling my engineering and my production–and in this day and age, you can’t send in crap.”

With his sparkling album now comprised of just a few of the 30-plus songs he recorded over three years, that philosophy has clearly paid off. For now, Owsley’s touring behind the CD is done between road trips playing guitar in Amy Grant’s band, but one suspects the hard way that he traveled along may be finally getting easier.