Marc Ford: Fathers, Sons, Guitars, and Holy Ghost
Marc Ford doesn’t lug his resume around with him – he’d rather keep both hands free to carry guitars. Yeah, the list of folks he’s played with in the past is an impressive one (we’ll get into some of them as we go; you can always look them up), but that’s not what Marc Ford’s all about.
Truth be known, for however many hit records he’s been a part of in his career or sold-out shows he’s played, you’ll never hear as much pride in Marc Ford’s voice as you will when he talks about playing guitars with his son Elijah or singing alongside his wife Kirsten. They’re both key to the sound of his new album Holy Ghost, released by UK label Naim Edge Records.
Holy Ghost certainly has its moments of guitar brilliance that Ford is known for. But for the man himself, it was all about being surrounded by a talented group of players (the band Phantom Limb at the core) who brought his deeply personal, honesty-filled songs to life.
As the late, great Ronnie Lane sang in “Debris”, Marc Ford has been there and back – and he knows how far it is. Holy Ghost is the sound of a man who knows who he is, making music with family and friends – and enjoying every moment.
We were fortunate to have a chance to talk about the new album with Marc as he was preparing to head to England to kick off a spring tour. His conversation is much like his guitar playing: to the point with no unnecessary flash; riffs that say something. But make no mistake about it; just like a where’d-that-come-from guitar lick, Marc Ford is likely to dryly flip a funny line at you – or drop some bit of insight that you feel lucky to share.
BR: Marc, I want to be one of the few people who doesn’t begin an article about you with the phrase “former Black Crowes guitarist,” if that’s okay with you.
MF: Good. (laughter)
It’s not denying your past, but it’s obvious you’re not living in it, either. You’ve moved on – everybody’s moved on – and that’s a good thing.
Yeah … thanks. I appreciate that.
Most people don’t go around saying, “Yeah, I’m doing a pretty good job with this company – but I did a really great job with this company,” you know? I mean, I understand it sells papers and magazines – and promoters want to do it all the time. I can’t get them to stop … people have got to do what they’ve got to do.
So, do I have the story right: you produced UK band Phantom Limb’s album in 2012 – and that project sort of evolved into them backing you on Holy Ghost ?
Yeah, I met Dan Moore – Phantom Limb’s keyboard player – when I was on a tour with Booker T. At first, they were going to have me sit in on the record they were starting. Then they got ahold of Ryan Bingham’s record …
Which you produced.
That’s right: it all turned around to having them come out here to California and I produced the whole record for them. And it went great.
So, I had this batch of songs and wasn’t really sure who to use to record them with … the bands I’ve played with around here didn’t seem to quite fit. It finally dawned on me that Phantom Limb was the perfect band. I called Stew Jackson – he’s their guitar player and the leader of the band – and said, “I’ve got some of the best songs I’ve ever written – why don’t you produce me?”
Stew said, “Get on over here.”
And I did.
I’m glad you did.
Me too. (laughter)
I want to make sure I give everyone proper credit – is everyone in Phantom Limb on the album?
Yeah, except the singer – Yolanda Quartey – who quit just before I left to go over to the UK to record. Their album was just starting to pick up steam and they were about to spend the year touring. I don’t know the details; I told them I didn’t want to get in the middle, you know?
I was prepared for them to say, “No, Yolanda’s gone.” But Stew felt that if I still wanted to come over and do the record, it would probably be great for morale.
The great thing was, the band got to see the value of what they do – regardless of who was singing. As a band. They’re great, you know? So that was cool.
So we have Stew Jackson on guitars – who produced the album, as well. Dan Moore plays keyboards; Luke Cawthra is also on guitar; Andy Lowe on bass; and Matt Jones on drums?
Actually, it’s a different Matt: Matt Brown. The other Matt got done; he couldn’t do all the touring because he teaches. But, if I got it right, he found this guy he was teaching – Matt Brown – to take his place.
Basically, they switched out Matts.
Well … they probably already had the shirts made up, you know?
And then your wife Kirsten’s on vocals, too?
That’s right. We tracked everything at Rockfield Studios for three days and then went to where Stew lives in Bath. There’s a little boathouse there that they converted into a studio and that’s where we did the overdubs.
We were doing “Turquoise Blue” and I told Stew, “My wife has an amazing vocal part worked out for this.” We e-mailed the track back home to her; she went over to her dad’s place, recorded it, sent it back over and we put it on.
After a little bit of listening to roughs, I said to Stew, “Doesn’t it seem odd to only have her on one song? Maybe we ought to get her on some more?”
And Stew said, “Yeah – and you ought to have your friend Chris Lizotte sing on some stuff, too.”
So I sent Stew a bunch of tracks with Chris and Kirsten and let him sort out it as far as what worked. They’re not really featured – it’s more of a big background … kind of a choir sound a lot of times. But having their voices really helped blend what we’d already recorded.
Oh, absolutely – a big bed of sound that supports the soul of the songs. And your son Elijah is on guitar?
Yeah, and sings on pretty much every song, too. He’s probably the voice you hear the most. The two of us tracked the record together live, sitting face-to-face with acoustic guitars.
Elijah’s got his own thing going on musically as well, right?
Yeah: Stew just produced a new record for Elijah and his band – Elijah Ford & The Bloom. They’re working on mixing it right now.
He’s playing with family, too: his uncle and his brother-in-law are in his band. It’s a big family affair everywhere you go now. (laughs)
Elijah’s got two records out already – I produced his first one and then he did an EP.
I’ll keep an ear to the ground for the new one coming up.
So, you went into the Holy Ghost sessions with a pocketful of tunes you were feeling good about.
Yeah, a couple of them had been around for a while and hadn’t really found a home – and I’m glad they hadn’t, ‘cause they finally did on this record. Some songs just sort of graduate toward each other and make sense, you know?
Most of them were written over the past five years, while I kind of took time off to be home with my family. We moved to San Clemente and I started playing locally; playing a lot of acoustic music. This album is kind of a snapshot of that.
Let’s talk specifics about some of the tracks. That first sweet little tune – “If I’d Waited” – sounds like it’s just you, a guitar, and a microphone.
It actually was the last thing I did for the record – recorded it the day I was leaving. I told Stew, “I got this one little thing that’s only about a minute long … I think it would be a great opener for the record.”
We just took one microphone and opened it up wide so you got traffic noise in the back … as lonely-sounding as possible.
The harmonies we were talking about on songs like “Blue Sky” … “In You” … “Turquoise Blue” … “Badge of Descension” … is that how you were hearing them in your head right from the start?
I didn’t necessarily mean for it to sound that big, but I’m really happy with the way it turned out. It’s big, but it’s not overwhelming … it doesn’t sound like it’s trying too hard.
I had demo’d these songs myself in the garage, you know. And as we were recording, I started to get suspicious. I said, “Stew, have you played the demos for these guys?”
And he said, “No, they haven’t heard any of these songs before.”
They were hearing them for the first time while we were sitting there recording them: “Here’s how it goes – 1 … 2 … 3 … 4…” and we’d record them.
They were all playing practically identical parts to what I’d played on the demos … better than I did, of course. (laughter) It was so close, I thought they’d heard the demos and they were trying to mimic them. It was really cool.