Kevin Shirley’s resume reads like a who’s who of the last few decades of rock and metal. Iron Maiden, Dream Theater, Joe Bonamassa, Rush, Journey, Black Stone Cherry, Mr. Big, Silvertide – hell, he even engineered and mixed some Led Zeppelin live releases for crying out loud. He also produced Cold Chisel, and that’s a hint as to why today we find ourselves at Mushroom HQ in Melbourne sitting across from Shirley. His latest project is Jimmy Barnes’ Soul Searchin’, the fourth and final album of Jimmy’s catalogue of soul and R&B tributes. Soul Searchin’ finds Barnes uncovering lost soul gems and the musicians who made them. It also includes some legendary guests, including The Memphis Boys and Steve Cropper. And if you get the deluxe edition – which you really should – you’ll be treated to Barnes and Bonamassa performing ‘In A Broken Dream’.
It can be all too easy for an album of covers to come off sounding like karaoke. It was important to Jimmy and Kevin that this project felt like a true, fully-realised album. “It is a real challenge, when you come up with these things,” Shirley says. “I’ve been working with Jimmy and Chisel for a while and doing different things. When we were talking about doing this soul thing, it’s not in my wheelhouse. As much as I enjoy listening to the classic songs, it’s not something I’ve dug into real deeply. I got an opportunity to do my homework and go and find all these old songs. Then I wanted to find all the right musicians.”
And as these things always seem to go, there was a great synchronicity to the proceedings. “We had all the guys; I got Michael Rhodes – who I’ve used on a lot of different records – I’ve got him playing with Joe Bonamassa on the road, and he gave me a book on the Memphis Boys and said ‘My neighbour is Dan Penn.’ One day we were listening to some songs and Dan came into the studio right after we’d done ‘Dark End Of The Street’, which he wrote. We cut the song in the morning; Dan sang backing vocals on it. Then I said ‘I want to cut this song ‘Rainbow Road’, and Dan’s sitting in the corner and he goes ‘Oh I wrote that song too.’ We cut the song and I thought it came out terrific. And Dave Cobb had told me of this song ‘Mercy Mercy’ and I decided to throw that one at the guys. I hadn’t even told Jimmy. I said ‘Here’s this old song, ‘Mercy Mercy’, and I started playing it. And Dan’s sitting in the corner and he goes ‘I wrote that one too.’ The hair on your arms goes up... what are the chances?”
That experience was indicative of the spirit of the sessions in general. “I wanted to honour the songs and make soul versions of them but I didn’t want to rehash them. To be honest, Jimmy’s first one sounds a little hokey to me, like the Seal version or Michael Bolton version of those songs. I wanted them to be tougher and a little more like they were back in the day. I mean... they were tough back in the day! People have a tendency to take these great songs and make bar-band versions of them that become horrible!”
And that’s one of the really special things Shirley has brought to the album. Whenever he produces a record, you can’t identify a particular sonic signature that identifies it as a Kevin Shirley record. And yet throughout his catalogue you’ll find a directness, an edge and a lack of bullshit. “Well that’s a big thing of mine. I mean, when I work with Journey I want them to sound like Journey. I don’t want them to sound like me. And sometimes it’s actually quite a lot of work, getting them to sound like Journey, because they’ve gone into tangents and they get into different things. So you reintroduce these things they used to do. It’s not a matter of rehashing their glory days, it’s about getting them to do what they do.”
Working with Steve Cropper was a particular highlight of the sessions. “He does these iconic things. He played on some of these tracks and he was fantastic. He was probably the thrill – musically – of the whole session, apart from Jimmy, who by the way... let’s put it this way. If anyone ever gets a chance to see Jimmy in the studio, it’s mind-blowing. Because he goes in and he gives 100 percent on every single take, every single time. And these musicians are hardened studio musicians. They’ve played with everyone. And they start playing with Jimmy and he starts singing and you see them look up from the instruments and raise their eyebrows and they say ‘Fuck, this guy’s for real.’”
Soul Searchin' is out now via Liberation Music.
Photo Credit: Pierre Baroni