Beatles fans are always scouring the band members’ solo albums for interesting credits. On the newest release, “Ringo 2012” (Hip-O/UMe), they will find one they’ve never seen before: “Produced by Ringo Starr.”
Since recording his first solo album in 1970, Starr has been recorded by rock ‘n’ roll’s top producers, including George Martin, Richard Perry, Arif Mardin, Don Was, Jeff Lynne and Mark Hudson. But for his last disc, “Y Not,” he co-produced himself with engineer Bruce Sugar. “I was a bit nervous, because I hadn’t done it before,” Starr said. “But it worked out so well that I thought, Well, I’m gonna do the next one.”
Starr’s recording process is as unique as his drumming. For his albums with his previous recording band, Starr and his songwriting team would sit together and write songs, complete with music and lyrics. His writing process for both “Ringo 2012” and “Y Not,” however, was completely different, writing and recording without a live band in the studio. “We essentially work backwards,” he said.
Sugar added, “It’s a weird process, but it works.”
Working on a keyboard synthesizer, Starr will first generate a basic rhythm pattern for what will eventually become a new song.
After Starr has come up with the rhythm and chord pattern, he’ll turn things over to Sugar to formalize. “He’ll come up with a groove and say, ‘That’s a cool sound’ or ‘I like that groove,’ and then he’ll go to lunch and I’ll put it into a song format,” Sugar said. When Starr adds his drums, Sugar added, “That’s when it comes alive, that’s when the magic happens. You immediately know it’s a Ringo Starr track.”
Starr will often take a single pass at his drum track, nailing it fairly quickly. “I’ll try to get him to do more, but he’s usually happy with the first thing he’s recorded,” Sugar said.
While in the past, Starr’s drums received a healthy helping from the microphone cabinet, he now prefers to keep things simple, creating a sound that envelopes the listener in … Ringo. “Bruce will mic the bass, the snare and set a pair of overhead mics, and that’s enough,” he said. “We also have two incredible ambient mics, set up as far away from me as possible, to pick the room sound up, so you get a lot of depth.”
His drum sound never fails to impress even his closest of friends. “He’s added some additional percussion overdubs on this album to complement it, but the drums are not overdone,” said pal Joe Walsh, who plays on several tracks. “His approach is a real study in the way he layers his drums into each and every song. And his timing is impeccable — a well-known fact to all musicians.”
With the basic rhythm in place, Starr will invite over a favorite songwriter to collaborate with — Glen Ballard, Van Dyke Parks, Dave Stewart or Gary Nicholson. “I’ll play them the track, and without fail, they’ll go grab the guitars to write a song. And I tell them, ‘No, no — we’re writing to this track,'” to which the pair will create a melody and lyrics.
He then applies the tried-and-true Ringo formula of bringing in friends to play on the track, such as Walsh, Stewart, Parks or blues man Kenny Wayne Shepherd. “Kenny plays on ‘Rock Island Line,’ which I first heard when I was 15 as a skiffle track by Lonnie Donegan. I played him what we had for it, and he said, ‘It sounds like a pop song to me.’ It didn’t quite make the blues,” he said, laughing.
Once completed, Starr and Sugar will take the tracks to Starr’s other studio at his home in England, where the pair will mix the album.
“The thing about Ringo is he doesn’t overthink it,” Sugar said. “Most producers keep adding and adding stuff. For him, if something feels right, it’s done”.