Lovers, the latest album from Nels Cline, both a meditation on the ever-shifting nature of love and a record meant to evoke the era of mood music, has existed in some fashion for more than two decades. Until recently it was an idea that the California native spoke about with friends or with his brother Alex. Occasionally he’d scrawl a running order out on a piece of paper, then revise it and, eventually, revert to the original. He came close to actually making the album a time or two and, in fact, a few major record labels approached him with record deals in the late 1990s and beyond.
“They asked me about collaborations or types of albums I’d like to do,” he recalls, speaking by phone from his home in New York City. “At that level they can do some yenta work and create super groups. I would always mention Lovers as my dream project.” There was never any motion behind the idea because the deals never materialized and Cline, eventually convinced he’d never land a contract with a major label, continued to live with the record as nothing more than a concept. “There was some hope, though. Even being asked the question and then seeing the [positive] reaction to my answer allowed me to think it could happen,” he says.
The record as it stands today was not the record that Cline initially envisioned. “It was never going to be a double record. It certainly wasn’t going to be on the Blue Note label,” he adds. Though Cline is cautious about thinking too cosmically of the record he admits that the album, which has received almost universal critical acclaim, would not have existed as it does at any other moment.
“It definitely would have been a different record when I was first thinking about it,” he says. “Not only would it have been shorter, it would have been done in Los Angeles. It would have been a lot more pensive and moody and wouldn’t reference the classics quite as much as this version does.”
The project did gain some traction after Cline relocated to New York City several years ago. It was there that he met writer and producer David Breskin as well as arranger and conductor Michael Leonhart. He connected with both men quickly and even played with Leonhart in Yoko Ono’s Plastic Ono Band. One night over pizza at Leonhart’s apartment, the two friends began speaking with great admiration about Quincy Jones, Johnny Mandel and Gary McFarland. Cline casually mentioned Lovers and Leonhart immediately offered his help. “He said, ‘This would be a great project for me. I get it.’ I believed him,” Cline says. “He was right.”
The 18 songs that appeared on the final version of the record were tracked at Breskin’s urging. “He just told me to do everything,” Cline notes. The sessions took place over five consecutive days with a band that, at its core, ranged from 13 to 17 players. Honda contributed as did Cline’s twin brother, Alex. The other players were people that Cline had known anywhere from 10 to 35 years with Devon Hoff, Julian Lage and Jeff Gauthier being but three of the most recognizable names on the sessions. That he was able to gather them in one place, Cline says, was a miracle of scheduling and scheduling was almost the first thing he took into consideration when it came time to make the album.
Though some acts might find five days to be a brisk pace for recording, for Cline it was positively leisurely compared to his other solo recordings. “I’ve never spent that kind of time on a record of my own,” he says.
Still, the amount of material to be tracked along with the high number of players meant that the sessions were intense. There were no rehearsals prior to tracking and collective focus was of the utmost importance. If there were moments of doubt, he says, he needed only to look to Breskin, Leonhart or Alex Cline for guidance. “I’m not super confident at times. If I play a solo and Michael says, ‘Man, that was great!’ I’m thinking, ‘That was great? Really? Okay.’ I’m not often satisfied but I’m also not a super-perfectionist because I know I can’t be perfect,” he says. “I’m 60-years-old now, man. I know I’m not a jazz genius or anything. I just want the music to have the right feeling.”
With the essential tracking done across those five days, a sixth was set aside for strings, overdubs and the occasional extra pass at a solo. Lage added some arch top guitar and the basic part of the project wrapped.
There was only one song tracked that did not make the final cut: “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning,” a piece that dates back to 1955 when it appeared on a Frank Sinatra record of the same name. It was and is an example, Cline notes, of the utmost importance that the lyrical content of the songs chosen for the record played well together. “It’s not about wishing you could fall in love; it’s about the experience of being in and out of love. There’s a kind of weariness to it as well as a nice, nocturnal, smoky mood. That’s one element of the record,” Cline says. Some songs were selected because of personal associations he made with the material. “Glad to Be Unhappy” and “Secret Love” were songs he’d heard and grown to appreciate after hearing Jim Hall’s renditions of them.
Cline says that the small amount of negative criticism leveled at the record has come from those who’ve bemoaned the absence of material that would send them deep-diving into crates at secondhand vinyl shops. “Someone forwarded me a review from a website I’d never heard of called The Jazz Police and they were very unimpressed with my not obscure song choices,” he says. “I’m not trying to be obscure. These are songs that mean something to me for various reasons. But, also, the lyrics were important when I selected them. That’s why they’re included on the sleeve.”
The tensions and releases evident across the album’s four sides suggest a structure similar to that found in a theatrical production. That, Cline says, is not coincidence. “It was a puzzle to arrange the tracks in a sequence that had that quality [of the theatrical] which I truly was striving for. Ending the first side with ‘Cry, Want’ is where we’re planting the seeds of the darker longing,” he says. “You want to mix it up a bit so that people don’t fall asleep. But it was never intended to be as perky as it’s ended up being in its original concept. The whole thing would have been really amorphous in the 1980s if I’d done it then.”
There has been considerable chatter about Blue Note’s involvement with the record but Cline points out that the venerable label arrived late in the project. “They came in at the very, very, very last minute,” he adds with a chuckle. There was another label interested in releasing the record but, the guitarist notes, no imprint put up the money for the sessions. “It was being recorded just for me. David and I worked on it to get it done and then found there was a label interested in it. But I don’t think anyone at that label ever listened to it. I like the label a lot but I was pretty put off when I didn’t hear anything. I sent emails and heard nothing. I was a little annoyed because it’s probably the most important record I’ll ever do in some ways.”
Cline contemplated self-releasing it and even crunched numbers with a close-knit group of business associates. It would have been an expensive project for Cline to support but he remained determined to have the record heard. Then, by chance, his manager, Ben Levin, met Blue Note’s Don Was at some function or other. Levin mentioned Lovers and was suggested he send the record over. When he did, thanks in part to a watchful Blue Note employee, he knew he wanted to release it.
“He heard it and loved and we licensed it,” Cline notes, “but that was after David Breskin and I had gotten together with a designer in Los Angeles to design the record. I’d already written the liner notes; the album covers were almost in production.”
Blue Note’s involvement added a six-month delay to the release but the wait, Cline says, was worth it for the boost the record has gotten. He adds that his fans shouldn’t expect Lovers to set the tone for his next solo project. “It definitely won’t be Lovers II,” he says, “because I’ll never be able to afford to do it again. But I’m already doing different things. I’m recording more duets with Julian Lage this year. I’m recording with The Nels Cline Singers for a box set that John Zorn’s putting together. We’re adding Julian to that band and recording it in November. And I have another record idea for the Singers that I want to do at some point. It’s a kind of concept album. I won’t say too much about it because then if you don’t do it people wonder what happened. But I want to do it. I also have a bunch of other ideas and groups that no one’s going to want to listen to.” That includes his free jazz ensemble the Ring Nebula Project.
“None of these bands I’m talking about were ever geared toward a career angle,” he says. “And Lovers is not an indicator of any sort of more conservative direction on my part.”