Excerpted from the Morning Call Saturday Magazine, March 27, 2004







"I like to take risks:
It's the only way to grow."

Jackie Tice


Jackie Tice puts her heart into recording a vocal track at Signal Sound Studio in Coopersburg.

Photos by
Rich Schultz
Special to The Morning Call

Common Ground

Synergy between Center Valley singer Jackie Tice and Native American producer Bill Miller results in a heartfelt CD

By Geoff Gehman
Of The Morning Call

It's March 4, and Jackie Tice is struggling in a recording studio deep in the rocky woods of Coopersburg. The singer-songwriter from Center Valley just can't get the vocal right for ''Coming Home,'' a lilting song about romantic limbo. She's clearly drained by a long week of putting her family on hold to play musical den mother. Even the chocolate she passed around for a shot of communal energy is distracting.

Sitting at the console, on the other side of a glass wall, producer Bill Miller offers advice that Tice knows by heart. Stand closer to the microphone, reminds the guitarist-flutist-composer, who has worked with Alison Krauss and Robbie Robertson. Open your eyes. Breathe with the instrumental tracks. Follow your heart like a metronome.

Miller's gentle, firm coaching succeeds. After spending a half hour to cut a four-minute vocal, Tice sounds natural, as if she's recording live with people rather than digital data. Her tough victory is celebrated in the pine-paneled, lodge-like control room of Signal Sound Studio, where Tice has made three of her four recordings. Everyone at the studio knows the sacrifices the single mother with two teens and four jobs is making to work eight days with Miller, a much better-known musician who, for the first time in his 27-year career, is producing a record for someone other than himself.

The Details

JACKIE TICE /
BILL MILLER

What: Singer-songwriters and new recording partners share their first concert
When: 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday
Where: Godfrey Daniels, 7 E. Fourth St.,
Bethlehem Tickets: $18.50; both shows sold out
Info: 610-867-2390, www.godfreydaniels.org


 

Bill Miller of Franklin, Tenn. and Tice first met at Godfrey Daniels and later when Miller performed in Sellersville, where she asked him to produce her next album.


Tice will open for Miller on Thursday and Friday nights at Godfrey Daniels, the Bethlehem listening club where they met and have independently made CDs. (Both shows are sold out.) The performance will cap a dizzying 10-week period where Miller agreed to produce a virtual stranger and Tice became everything from a travel agent to a rock 'n' roller.

Tice is accustomed to balancing careers with life paths. For three decades she's been writing songs of bliss, cruelty and faith. At clubs and festivals she's performed ''The Marijo Tonight,'' a journalist's report on an essential Irish pub, and ''Soul's Urging,'' the healthy vow of a woman abused in an Irish convent laundry for unwed mothers. She's won prestigious awards (the emerging songwriters prize at the 1996 Kerrville Folk Festival) and shared prestigious projects (''Life's a Stitch,'' a 2002 book of comic writings by the likes of Gloria Steinem and Erma Bombeck). Simultaneously, she's been fertilizing what she believes are her Native-American roots. Her search has led her to write a song invoking the ghosts of bison, and to share a sacred bison hunt in North Dakota even though she's a vegetarian.

Tice's quest led her to Miller, who grew up in a Mohican-German family on a Stockbridge-Munsee reservation in Wisconsin. She liked the way he blended rock with Native-American styles, nature with human nature. She liked his passion for Indian causes establishing a Native-American category for the Grammy awards and his passion for painting Indian scenes. Tice's most recent record, last year's ''In These Bones,'' was inspired by her own paintings and a Native-American synergy between body and land. On ''The Rape of Leah'' a bottle-cap shaker adds an Indian spookiness to the lament of a woman ''drowned alive by tears too numerous to cry.''

Tice decided to ask Miller to produce her next record last November, the same month she was offered a mortgage. ''I like to take risks: It's the only way to grow,'' says the native of Swedeland, Montgomery County. ''Opportunity doesn't come knocking on your door unless you've let some light in. I didn't know if Bill produced or if he didn't produce. I didn't even have his latest records. I just thought he was somebody that I intuitively trusted, through his music and through what little personal contact I'd had with him.

''I sensed Bill was on a deep journey,'' adds Tice. ''You can't come to that place in your life if you haven't walked through fire. Something inside me just kept putting him in my view. I couldn't avoid it, unless I blatantly turned my back. It was like a tidal wave.''

This winter the wave crashed in Bucks County. A Native-American friend invited Tice to Miller's Jan. 15 concert at the Sellersville Theater. That night she asked Miller, whom she'd met briefly at Godfrey Daniels, if he would supervise her next record. Then she handed him a copy of ''In These Bones,'' which Tice recorded at Godfrey's.

Back home in Franklin, Tenn., Miller liked what he heard. He asked Tice to send him demo tapes. He liked what he heard even more. He agreed to captain Tice's ship, after years of rejecting offers to produce records for wealthy musicians with visions he didn't like.

''If Jackie had been in the folkie/'Blowin' in the Wind' box, or if she had been the righteous-chick man hater, I wouldn't be here,'' says Miller, a big, bearish fellow with dark, waist-length hair and a friendly, intense manner that's equal parts dove and hawk. ''I didn't want to be part of a joke, part of something like a soundtrack for 'A Mighty Wind.' But she's not in a box. Her voice has elements of Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez, but with an edge. Her music has elements of jazz and rock. She writes songs with messages; she writes about life in general. She has a sense of Native-American culture that's very grounded, too. It's a nice, wide-open space.''

Miller had two other reasons for producing Tice's recording. One, he recently began simplifying his own production. He made his last record, ''Spirit Rain'' (2002), with only 16 tracks and without digital technology. He cut it in LaCrosse, Wis., near his home reservation and the Mississippi River, one of his favorite fishing holes.

Another attraction was the chance to return to the Lehigh Valley, which Miller considers a second home. Godfrey Daniels was the site of his first live recording, which helped him get a contract with a major label, Warner/Reprise. Musikfest spectators, he says, are among his most enthusiastic fans. He sells more recordings in the greater Philadelphia region than anywhere else, including Los Angeles and Chicago. For him, producing Tice's record meant the expansion of a spiritual circle that includes a Mohican named Bill Miller buried in God's Acre, the Moravian cemetery in Bethlehem.

Miller agreed to leave his wife and five children to spend eight days with Tice. She agreed to fund his travel, along with the transportation of Philadelphia keyboardist Joshua Yudkin, a member of Miller's band since 1999, and Nashville guitarist Pete Cummings, who worked with Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley. Producer and artist both agreed to hire bassist Tony Dominic, a Jim Thorpe resident who has shared bills with Tice and Miller.

By coming to Coopersburg, Miller postponed a busy schedule that recently went into overdrive. In February his flute piece ''Approaching Thunder'' aired during an episode of the hit TV series ''Sex in the City.'' This month public television stations began broadcasting ''Songs of the Spirit,'' his concert with flutist R. Carlos Nakai, singer Joanne Shenandoah and the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra. Miller recently learned that Vanguard plans to release his first greatest-hits collection. He's also scheduled to assist Robbie Robertson, another mixed-blood musician, on the soundtrack to the documentary ''Turtle Island Wars.''

For eight days Tice traded motherhood for musical den motherhood. She arranged for friends to provide rooms for musicians; one let Miller borrow a car. She brought meals and snacks into the studio. She convinced her friend, Steve Tobin, the innovative bronze-ceramic artist in Springfield Township, to donate a sculpture to a musician, a barter arrangement that allowed Tice to reduce expenses.

Tice moonlighted as travel agent, too. She sent a car to the airport to pick up percussionist Jamey Haddad, another well-connected musician she barely knew. Tice introduced herself to Haddad, who has played with Paul Simon and Lenny Kravitz, at the 2002 Celebration of the Arts jazz festival in Delaware Water Gap. Two years later, she e-mailed the percussionist, asking him to perform on her next record. She told Haddad of Miller's participation, gave him Tobin's Web site and reminded him that Rissmiller was their mutual friend.

Like Miller, Haddad was impressed by Tice's genuine gutsiness. ''I liked how she felt on the phone,'' says the percussionist from California, where he was touring with a Moroccan sacred-music ensemble. ''I liked her sense of purpose. Playing with her just seemed like the right thing to do.''

On Feb. 29 Miller arrived in the Lehigh Valley, launching Tice's marathon week. The pair spent that day on pre-production and whittling a list of 20 compositions.

Miller: ''A couple of songs I had to say: 'You're going to have to let some of these kids go.'''

Tice: ''I tried to push one in the door.''

Miller: ''And I said: 'No, that kid's not coming in the door.'''

Recording began March 1 in Signal Sound, a ranch-style house in a bouldered forest. That day Domini added bass and Tice added guitar and voice to six tunes. March 2 was geared toward Haddad, who flew in that day from his new home in Shaker Heights, Ohio. Miller and Tice made sure they got a lot of mileage from Haddad, who the next day would fly to teach at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. The percussionist worked from 1 to 11:30 p.m., with an hour off for dinner. He played on five tracks, including ''Trail of Tears,'' a rattling rocker that Tice calls ''my 'Give Peace a Chance.''' It has a roll call of 30 war-torn places, Miller's searing electric guitar solo (the first electric guitar on a Tice record) and Miller's whipping Native-American chant, which Tice envisioned before Miller volunteered.

Haddad was surprised by how easily he overdubbed without a mechanical beat, a standard in the recording industry. ''At first, I was alarmed that Jackie didn't use a click track,'' he says. ''Normally, when an artist does that, it's a catastrophe. I know that no one can play that steadily by themselves. But Jackie's sense of time, and sense of creating, has so much purpose. I liked her cadences, her rhythmic gait.''

The third day was, in Miller's words, for ''balancing the ship.'' Yudkin added keyboard to ''Thunder Moon,'' the one song that began life as a Tice painting. Miller rejected two tunes, bringing the record's final total to 10. For comic relief, he flashed producer silence cards written by Bill Hall, Tice's friend and songwriting partner. Miller added profanity to such put-downs as: ''And you are here why?''

The fourth day featured what Miller calls ''frosting on the cake.'' That afternoon Yudkin and Dominic spent an hour apiece overdubbing keyboard and bass on ''Coming Home,'' which Tice wrote with Hall. After handing out chocolate for everyone, Tice entered the control room to lay down a final vocal. Her normally warm, elastic, steeped singing sounded hesitant, clogged, foggy.

Tice was simply exhausted. That afternoon she was especially distracted by the arrival of an interviewer and Cummings, who flew in from Nashville. She missed her children, too.

''All this traffic was keeping me outside of myself,'' says Tice. ''That's why I needed Bill to help me connect with me. I needed him to tell me that a perfect take is not necessarily what the moment is about. Sometimes, the moment's about the feeling at that moment.''

That day Miller described himself as a nurturing taskmaster. ''I check keys, drives, moods which songs Jackie truly owns, spiritually. I check mundane things like if she has enough light to read the words. I'm here to give her borders, to keep her in the zone, to assist her going through this portal.''

Tice mentions another portal to describe Miller's role. ''He's the frame,'' she says, ''around my painting.''

The painting isn't finished. After the Godfrey's concerts, Tice's record will be mixed in Coopersburg by Michael von Muchow, a Wisconsin resident who co-produced Miller's last CD. After the mixing is done, the disc will be shopped to record companies. Miller plans to promote Tice through his newly booming career. She plans to promote his new status as an independent producer. ''I want to make him look as good,'' she says, ''as he wants me to sound.''

Tice remains stunned by her sudden, hard-earned good fortune. She expected that if Miller agreed to work with her, it would be in two years, not less than two months. What doesn't surprise her is that he turned out to be an ideal guide for her spiritual journey.

''The end product is just a souvenir,'' says Tice, borrowing a line from her friend, Tobin, a fellow swimmer of the Delaware River. ''The process is the view from the top of the mountain. And the view is the beauty of everything around me, being at one with everything around me.''