David presented almost every song as a demo. Most of them he had recorded by himself at home, but I think he had recorded some with Tony and a drummer sometime before. There were a couple he taught us in the studio, but I don’t think those made the record. We probably recorded 15 or 16 songs in total. Some I had in advance of the recording session, but then on the second go around, when we reconvened in February, he hit me with five or six songs a few days beforehand. It seemed like they came to him pretty quickly. I think “Blackstar” was one he had demo’d the night before we went to the studio or something.
It was a pretty open and collaborative process. Generally, the song you hear is what he brought in. There may have been a tiny bit of improvisation, but for the most part, the length of the song, the verse, the chorus format, all that was pretty clear from the demos. That said, he wasn’t dictating to us. He’d never say, “You have to play this drum groove,” or, “The bassline has to be exactly like this.” He was open to our interpretations of the demos – a lot of the horn lines, the orchestrations I did, the way I added different instruments. If I wasn’t sure, I’d say, “I’m just going to try this and we’ll see [if it works].” Then I’d ask David, “What do you think?” He was totally affirmative and into it. When the sax is soloing, that’s me improvising; that’s all happening in the moment. But to be clear, David would say, “This will be a spot for a solo.” It felt like he was really trusting our instincts, or my instincts. It felt really cool that way. It was the jazz idea of a collaborative democracy, where we’re passing the ball back and forth, but yet it was in this context of what he had written and the forms he’d come up with.
David is super focused in the studio. He’d come into the live room and we’d get ready to track, he would sing a little bit – and I mean a little bit. We would do a warm-up rehearsal to get it going, but when it was time to go, he was ready to go. When he was fixing up his vocal part, it would go quickly. He would add harmonies, or double track. Often, he knew what he wanted to do, or maybe it was a conversation between him and Tony – but it happened fast. They have all this history together, they understand each other. They had a very good rapport. Let’s say we recorded a track, we’d do one or two takes, we’re listening to it, and when David would say, “OK, that’s the one, let’s go with it.” Then maybe David would go in and work on the vocal. So Tony really knew exactly what to give him and how to get it to him. He was working with Kevin Killen, the engineer, who’s great, but Tony I felt was really quick to identify what section David wanted to work on, how to give him what he needed in the headphone mix. All the little details. Tony would say, “Start here. Give David more kick drum” – or whatever it is.
With David, Tony was really on top of it. This whole process, from start to finish was not that long. We’re not talking about three hours of vocals here. David knows what he wants to do and then Tony is great at facilitating that on the technical side. The whole process goes pretty quick because David delivers. But David was never consumed with his own part. He would also listen to what we’re doing – our overdubs or whatever – so he’s able to take in the whole picture.