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What The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach is doing in Nashville
Judy Woodruff: The band The Black Keys debuted its first album in five years recently at the number one spot of the U.S. album chart. Its vocalist and guitarist, Dan Auerbach, has also been making a name for himself in recent years in another setting.
Jeffrey Brown visited him in Nashville recently as part of our ongoing arts and culture series, Canvas.
Dan Auerbach: The idea here is to be able to see everyone and kind of make eye contact. I can even see the singer in the other room over there.
Jeffrey Brown: Eclectic, functional, and intimate, it's a space that seems to sum up Dan Auerbach's philosophy for making music.
Auerbach is best known as one half of the two-man rock band The Black Keys, as well as for his solo work. But he's also made a mark as a record producer as head of the label Easy Eye Sound, based here at his studio in Nashville.
It's a nondescript building, a former call center, but now the source of nearly a dozen albums in the past two years.
Dan Auerbach: That drum booth, the way it's set up, I set it up after Muscle Shoals Sound.
Jeffrey Brown: It combines features of famed recording studios Auerbach loves, such as Muscle Shoals Alabama, a 1970s mecca for soul, blues, and rock.
Dan Auerbach: I did a lot of investigating. I went to Memphis, and New York City, and L.A., and visited the classic rooms, and talked to the classic console makers.
And so this studio is hand-picked down to the wire. You know what I mean? Every little part of it. And it's completely unique, and there's no other studio in the world like it.
Jeffrey Brown: Every piece of vintage gear works. It's fully wired, ready to record, multiple keyboards, four sets of drums, dozens of guitars.
Dan Auerbach: I used this one on of the very first Black Keys recordings we ever made.
Jeffrey Brown: Oh, yes?
Dan Auerbach: An old Stratotone.
Jeffrey Brown: So, each one of these has got some history, huh?
Dan Auerbach: Each one of these has some history and each one of these has its own sound. It's like having a toolbox full of different tools.
Jeffrey Brown: But tools alone, Auerbach says, aren't enough to replicate what he calls the famous music factories.
Dan Auerbach: I think when you start, you are attracted by all the lights, and all the faders, and all the knobs, and then when you get down to it, you realize it's mostly just the musicians.
Jeffrey Brown: But then -- but I'm -- I mean, we're in a studio surrounded by instruments...
Dan Auerbach: Yes.
Jeffrey Brown: ... and gear.
Dan Auerbach: Well, this is a city where the people know how to play them.
Jeffrey Brown: That's why Auerbach started Easy Eye here in 2017 by hauling some of Nashville's best session musicians out of retirement, including Billy Sanford, who created one of the most famous riffs in rock history for Roy Orbison's hit "Pretty Woman."
Billy Sanford: That was one of them.
Jeffrey Brown: Yes, I think everybody knows that.
Billy Sanford: Yes.
Jeffrey Brown: Yes. Yes. But that's you, huh?
Billy Sanford: That's me and two other guitar players.
Jeffrey Brown: Yes. Yes.
The Easy Eye house band now includes Sanford and keyboard player Bobby Wood, renowned session musicians who can improvise, collaborate, learn a part quickly, and record six to eight songs in a day.
Billy Sanford: You never know what's coming next. But that's good. That keeps you on your toes.
Jeffrey Brown: Here, everyone sits side-by-side, Sanford says, like the old days of recording, very different from the way many studios now record vocalists and musicians, in isolation, mixing it all together in post-production.
Billy Sanford: The main thing is, all the players are here. You're not looking at some guy doing some guitar work here in Nashville, and then sending it off to L.A. or somewhere else, or -- I think you missed the heartbeat of a record unless everybody's playing together at the same time.
Jeffrey Brown: I asked Auerbach if he'd set out to preserve something important being lost.
Dan Auerbach: I don't feel like a preservationist. I feel like everything we're doing is new.
I don't want to cut -- we don't cut old songs here. We cut new songs. I just want to make something I'm proud of and make something that feels like the records that I love, the records that I just want to live with forever.
Jeffrey Brown: That's meant a variety of genres and a growing portfolio of rising artists, including Yola, Shannon Shaw, Robert Finley, and 21-year-old Dee White.
White, who is from Slapout, Alabama, had barely started singing when he was brought in by a mutual acquaintance. He and Auerbach clicked, and that led days of intensive songwriting, followed quickly by a recording session, with special guests like Alison Krauss stopping by to sing harmony.
Dee White: Part of the reason that this is such a blessing for me is there hasn't been any kind of molding or shaping of what I should be doing musically. I feel like that is something that a lot of people who come to town face.
Jeffrey Brown: You mean trying to put you into a certain box, or...
Dee White: Yes.
Jeffrey Brown: Yes?
Dee White: You know, as far as a sound or whatever. And I feel like a lot of people have to compromise in some ways, and I never had to do that.
Jeffrey Brown: Easy Eye Sound has signed 10 artists so far, with several high-profile announcements expected in the coming months.
And for a long time Black Keys fans, the band's new album was recorded here recently.
Is this like the long-term sustainable way of life? Is that you -- what you're building?
Dan Auerbach: Well, I mean, if you talk to my accountant, he'd probably tell you no, but...
Jeffrey Brown: Really?
Dan Auerbach: ... I mean, in my heart, I believe that this is what I'm supposed to be doing.
Jeffrey Brown: A blend of old and new, one song at a time.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in Nashville.
Judy Woodruff: Jeff gets all the good assignments.
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