INTRODUCTION: Eva Cassidy’s album EVA BY HEART was released in 1997, almost a year after Eva’s death from cancer in November of 1996. This posthumous album was produced by Eva’s longtime friend and collaborator, Chris Biondo. Chris had told me a little about how he worked with Eva’s unfinished recordings to complete the album. It was so interesting that I asked if I could interview him. I think that Eva Cassidy’s fans will enjoy learning about…
THE MAKING OF THE ALBUM “EVA BY HEART”
Laura Bligh interviewed producer Chris Biondo in August, 1999. (Note the date. Many of the “unreleased” songs discussed were included in subsequent CDs.)
Question: Is this album what Eva was working on when she got sick?
Biondo: The very last thing she was working on was the song “Waly Waly.” She wanted to put that on the end of the Blues Alley record, but we couldn’t seem to make it the way she wanted it.
I didn’t really like the song that much. It was a Buffy Ste. Marie song, I think it’s a traditional folk song. I always made fun of it, I called it her “celtic favorite” which really made her mad because she loved the song. Now I think it’s great, it’s one of my favorites. That was the one thing I most wanted to do for Eva, out of all the things I could have done, I wanted to try to make things right since I had really said mean things about the song when she was recording it.
Question: Was there anything you did on the album that Eva might not have liked?
Biondo: I tried to do what she would have liked. Everything I did, I did with her in mind. Some of the songs were done and some of them weren’t even close to being finished. There were a lot of degrees of completion. Some of the songs, Eva had recorded and we were going to come back to them later. Looking back, our work ethic was really terrible, we’d leave so many things undone, too many little holes here and there. We’d get tired of working and go to the movies. If we had just finished things when we were working on them, they could have been just the way she wanted them.
Question: I have the album booklet here. Why don’t I list the songs, and you can tell me a little about each of them, how you did the recording, and so on.
The song “I Know You By Heart” — a lot of people have been asking me about Diane Scanlon, who wrote that song and also “Love Heals the Wound it Makes.”
Biondo: I talked to her a couple of times, but I didn’t get too good a take on her. I sent her Eva’s record as soon as it was done and she wasn’t as enthusiastic as she might have been, she thought the record was too “all over the place” in style. She’s a lyricist, she lives in New York City. I think she works with some big-name gospel singers. “I Know You By Heart” was written about someone who died and I think it was cancer, I don’t know if it was a male or female.
Question: How did Eva come across those songs?
Biondo: Eva’s manager, Al Dale, got the songs. He was doing some snooping around looking for some material for Eva. He got some tapes from publishers; when people are looking for songs for their records, they have some tapes to supply to them. I remember the tape of “I Know You By Heart” that we got sounded very different from the way it is on EVA BY HEART, it was like music from a Disney movie. I believe the demo was just a piano and a vocal. Eva did change one line of the lyrics, “I see your sweet smile” was changed from “I see your profile.”
Eva’s brother Dan added the violin solo to that recording when Eva was sick and he was visiting from Iceland, it was fitting to have him be part of “I Know You By Heart.”
Question: What about “Love Heals the Wound it Makes”?
Biondo: That one was done. The backup singer, Mark Carson, is assistant pastor of a church. She really liked his singing. He wrote a song called “Darken World” that she recorded. Eva thought he was one of the most talented people she ever met. Larry Melton played upright bass on that, he was a friend of hers who played in a band with her in high school, “Stonehenge.” It was a progressive rock band.
Question: The next song is “Wayfaring Stranger.”
Biondo: Every inch of that arrangement was hers, it was a pretty original approach to that song. I remember that one day she went down to the Smithsonian museums, and while she was in the subway going home, this concept suddenly came to her. She got in her car and came right over and said she wanted to do “Wayfaring Stranger” like a 60s R & B song. She knew how the bass line was going to go, the guitar and drumbeat.
It was a “scratch vocal,” that means she sang it and was going to sing it again, she was just singing to hold it together on the recording.
Question: What about “Wade in the Water”? I love the trumpet part.
Biondo: The only thing on there when we recorded it was acoustic guitar, bass and drums. She knew she wanted a trumpet solo with one of those mutes on it. We brought Chris Walker over to do it, we had him play half a dozen tracks just over the solo part, because we didn’t know how we were going to make it, where we were going to put the trumpet part in the final version. A long time later I put it together.
That was a “scratch vocal” too. The chorus didn’t sound very good on the original, she was planning to redo it. So I added the backup vocals when I was producing the album. I had some guys in the studio, recording something unrelated, their own project, and I was working on “Wade in the Water.” They were on their way out the door, and I stopped them and asked them to sing this. I just kind of threw it at them, it took them five minutes.
Question: “Blues in the Night.” Did Eva like Big Band style?
Biondo: Yeah, she did. For “Blues in the Night,” we got all the people together. Lenny on piano, Raice would play drums, Keith on guitar, she’d put down a guide vocal, then we’d put in some more things. Originally the strings in “Blues in the Night” were keyboard strings, but after Eva died a violinist contacted me, Karen Van Sant, from the Kennedy Center Opera Orchestra. She was a big fan of Eva’s, she volunteered to help. She listened to the string keyboard and then I recorded her maybe 20 times to swell it up to sound like a string section. I thought Eva would want to hear real strings. We had talked about the strings but never got around to it. She liked the part Lenny played, she just wanted real strings.
Question: How did you meet up with the wind players? I know that some of them are members of the military jazz bands.
Biondo: We went to see a group called Too Funkin’ Heavy, at O’Briens in Annapolis, it was an all-girl band, and Eva was friends with a couple of members of the band. That was where she met Leigh Pilzer who plays sax. She ended up doing all the horn arrangements for Eva and Chuck. Her husband is Chris Walker, the trumpet player, who is in the Navy jazz group The Commodores. Doug Elliott, the trombone player, is in the Airmen of Note. Eva loved them, she thought it was great, she just wanted it to sound a little bit bigger with real strings.
Question: What about “Songbird”?
Biondo: “Songbird” is one of the ones that was finished already. She put those keyboard strings in there, she really liked the way they turned out. Eva played a guitar solo in it, she played all the instruments except the drum machine I played, she had a pretty good time messing around with that.
Question: Tell me about “Need your Love So Bad.” Someone asked me about when Chuck says “Love you, Eva” at the end, and she doesn’t reply.
Biondo: He wanted to say it as a kind of goodbye. That song was originally a solo with full vocal, I just turned it off for the places where Chuck sings, to make it into a duet. It was real hard for him to sing. When he’d hear her voice, he would get pretty emotional, he would cry a lot. It took three sessions.
That was guitar, bass, drums and singing when we recorded that, we put horns and I think Lenny came back and did organ, Keith came in and did a guitar solo. Eva came across the song on an album by Doug McLeod, he’s a Canadian folk singer she really loved.
Question: Tell me about Steve Digman, who wrote “Say Goodbye.”
Biondo: Steve wrote the lyrics to that, he is really an excellent poet, I love his lyrics. He lived near my studio in Rockville. He used to come by to hear Eva sing and she recorded some of his songs. One of them, the “Anniversary Song,” is one of my favorite songs that Eva recorded. I also love a song he wrote after his first child was born, it’s about a husband and wife talking about going to the 7-11 store. At the end of the song, they decide to stay home. It’s a great song. Eva didn’t sing that one.
About “Say Goodbye,” it was probably the least complete of all the ones on the album. There wasn’t a whole lot finished with that song when Eva died, it was her guitar, drums, and I played bass. So I had Keith Grimes come by to add guitars. I thought about how Eva would have liked it. She really admired Chris Isaak so we tried to do that style.
Question: Where did the song “Nightbird” come from?
Biondo: That’s one from Doug McLeod, who wrote the song. We hired the dobro player from the Hula Monsters, Eva really dug that, then we hired a guy from Blue Miracle named John Gillespie to play keyboard vibes, Eva sang backgrounds on their record. He’s the guy who played organ on “Time is a Healer.” That song was finished but the mix wasn’t very good. I remixed that one.
“Nightbird” was one of the first songs she wanted to do when we put the band together.
Question: We already talked a little bit about “Waly Waly.”
Biondo: That song can bring me to tears very easily, especially the end, the last verse.
She recorded it with a click track, with a drone note — you can pretty much sing the song around a pedal point note. She wanted it to be orchestrated. She tried playing strings on the keyboard on it, we had Lenny try the piano on it, but it wasn’t the way she wanted it yet. After Eva died, I wanted it to be on the album but I didn’t know what to do with it.
What we finally did was, I took the vocals off the tape. The vocals were in two parts, the first she had done maybe six months before, the second she had done when were finishing up LIVE AT BLUES ALLEY. I gave the two parts to Lenny and said “Do something with this.” The music that’s on the album, he did at his house on his computer, and we brought it back to the studio and put it all together. He worked really hard on it. I told him what I wanted him to do, to put down a very simple piano and use things like the low celtic drum and the cymbal swells and the strings, he put that together with his tape recorder and we recorded it back on the big tape and got the vocals all synced up. I really liked what Lenny did with it, my gut feeling is that he got it exactly as she would have liked it.
Question: Did she record with a click track a lot?
Biondo: About half and half.
Question: The last song on the album is “How Can I Keep From Singing.”
Biondo: We were going through a gospel phase, we used to go to Carter Barron Amphitheater in D.C. and see BeBe and CeCe Winans. She really got caught up in the gospel thing and wanted to do a song in real church style. We got Mark Carson, the gospel guy, to play piano on it. It was funny how that worked out, he came by when we were recording it, he knocked on the door right when we needed him, so we put him into service to play on the recording! We found that guy Anthony Flowers, whose uncle is the pastor of a Baptist church, to play organ. That was recorded in 1989 or 1990. I got Dan to add the violin solo when he was in town visiting Eva after she had the hip surgery. Before that there was empty space there. The only other thing I did was, I wanted Chuck Brown to be in there in the background.
Question: What would you play for someone who had never heard Eva’s singing?
Biondo: I guess “I Know You By Heart.” The very last verse, “…you left in autumn….” Also the gospel song at the end of the album.
Question: What song is the true Eva?
Biondo: “Waly Waly.”
Question: And the opposite? Anything that’s not at all “the real Eva”?
Biondo: She picked every song that’s on there, so I would say not.
Question: What did Eva have lined up, that she couldn’t do because she got sick?
Biondo: She told me when I was taking her to cancer treatment, that if she lived, she would revamp a lot of what she did and do a lot more acoustic solo stuff than band stuff. She told me she wanted to play more of the kinds of songs that SHE wanted to play. When we first started putting the band together we did songs that different people picked, that Eva didn’t necessarily like, because we needed a repertoire, and once we were doing them we were stuck with them.
Question: For example?
Biondo: R-E-S-P-E-C-T. We got into a big fight about that song, she didn’t like the way she sang it. One night I said “RESPECT is next” and Eva said “I’m not doing it.” I said “We’ve gotta do it,” we did it and her voice ragged out, she didn’t speak to me for about an hour, she got real mad about that.
That whole thing with me and Al trying to get her to put out the Blues Alley album, that was an unhappy time, she was so upset about it, her face was red, there were tears coming out of her eyes, she was very emotional. She didn’t like the way she sang, she had a cold both nights we were recording.
Question: Why did you and Al release LIVE AT BLUES ALLEY if Eva hated it?
Biondo: I wanted to do it for a couple of reasons. First, because she spent a thousand dollars of her own money to tape the performances, I didn’t want her to waste her money. And she needed to do SOMETHING. At the rate we were going on the material that became “Eva By Heart,” it would have taken years and years.
The song she hated the most was “Take Me to the River” from Blues Alley, she didn’t like the way it turned out, I think it was a little too hard-rock for her. There was another recording of the song we did that was like R & B pop.
Question: I can hear the huskiness in her voice, from the cold, especially on “Fields of Gold” which turned out to be a sort of big hit for her. Did she ever change her mind about that album, after it got so much positive attention?
There were problems with recording it live, we were close together on stage and there was a lot of drum bleed-through on the vocal and instrument mikes, she thought the drums were too loud. Joel E. Siegel, who wrote the album notes for EVA BY HEART, he’s a Grammy winner, has told me it’s one of the best sounding live albums he ever heard. So go figure.
Question: Tantalize us with some descriptions of other Eva Cassidy material that has not yet been released.
Biondo: Basically there’s a lot of material, enough for at least one more album. Maybe more.
There’s a bunch of stuff that Tony Taylor wrote, he played in a group called Radiant. He wrote a couple of songs that I thought were really excellent, but we’d have to take her vocals off and use real instruments instead of synthesizers. One of them was called “Take That Emotional Step,” and another one called “Flowers.”
She recorded a solo version of “You’ve Changed” that’s very good. There’s a version of “Time After Time,” it’s a Cyndi Lauper song, that’s one of the best things I’ve ever heard anybody sing, it’s maybe my favorite song Eva ever did. She sang another Cyndi Lauper song, “True Colors.”
There’s a song by Steve Digman called the Anniversary Song, that song makes me cry. He wrote it for his wife. “Together we’ll dream of paradise, I love you and goodnight.” And another blues song by Steve Digman, “Easy Street Dream.”
Question: I love “Easy Street Dream,” it’s my favorite of the blues songs Eva sang. I think it could be a real hit, it would be great as the theme music for a movie or something.
Biondo: Yes, but it’s too short, we’d need to add a bridge, lengthen it somehow. I think that one, Steve played guitar and we added instruments over the next week or so. It was his song, he recorded it with another singer, but he brought back the tape and had Eva re-record the vocals. No, actually I think Steve sang that song himself originally, then he decided he really wanted to hear her voice on it.
Let’s see, there are some songs off the Blues Alley session, “Ain’t Doing Too Bad,” and another called “Next Time You See Me,” they’re like blues shuffles. “It Don’t Mean a Thing If You Ain’t Got That Swing,” “The Letter.” Then there’s a song that Dusty Springfield recorded, “Son of a Preacher Man,” it’s a harder version, nice, really well done.
There’s another blues song we recorded when we were just recording and not being prudent in our time efficiency. I don’t remember the name of the song.
She started a new version of “Take My Breath Away,” that could be finished. An early version of that was one of our first recording projects together. And I already mentioned “Darken World” that Mark Carson wrote.
There’s a tape that has a bunch of abbreviated versions of Eva doing guitar and voice for a bunch of songs that could be polished up, some things like Tennessee Waltz.
Question: I heard a really nice tape of the Beatles song “Yesterday,” with Dan Cassidy playing violin.
Biondo: That’s nice, but I didn’t record it well, the furnace in my house kept going on. I had a “vocal room” in my house, and unfortunately the furnace was right on the other side of the door, and when the furnace would kick on it would sound like a furnace and you could hear that, it would be picked up on the microphone. When we recorded that song it was a really cold day and we couldn’t stand to turn off the furnace. [Editor’s note: Biondo has since retracted this statement, he says it was a different song that has the furnace sounds.]
Question: What about the tape we call “Live at Pearl’s”? As I understand it, Bryan McCulley plugged his equipment into Eva’s sound board to make that tape. It’s some of Eva’s best singing in my opinion, very intimate, just Eva and her guitar, as if she’s playing for friends in someone’s living room.
Biondo: I think there’s some great stuff on “Pearl’s,” especially that song by Paul Simon, “American Tune.” I hope that someday that stuff gets released. I think they could put it out just the way it is, maybe put it through some noise reduction.
Question: What singers did Eva admire? And not admire?
Biondo: She liked everybody, and she never said anything bad about any singer. I couldn’t get her to do it. I’d say, “Don’t you think you’re better than Madonna?” She’d say no. I’d say “You’re crazy, she sucks!” Basically she would sidestep that kind of question. Some of her favorite singers were Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Chuck Brown. She used to play me Louie Armstrong records a lot. She loved Chris Isaak, he’s kind of a crooner but his instrumentation is more folkey.
Question: What about the members of the Eva Cassidy Band. What are they doing now?
Biondo: Raice is playing in a wedding band called Galaxy. He’s getting ready to go back to New Zealand to visit his mother, this January. Keith Grimes is playing in a wedding band and giving guitar lessons. Lenny Williams and I are sharing a studio in Kensington, Maryland.
Question: Keith is such a terrific guitar player, he seems wasted in a wedding band. When my husband and I used to go hear Eva perform, I think what he liked best was listening to Keith’s electric guitar.
Biondo: I think he misses performing with Eva, the most of anybody. I want to mention, Keith helped Eva a lot, showed her a lot of things about guitar playing, he was a very good teacher for her.
Question: You’ve closed your recording studio. No more sessions with rap groups at three o’clock in the morning?
Biondo: I’m no longer working with bands. I still work with Chuck Brown. I’m writing background music for television shows. Lenny and I just finished a 26-part series for the Travel Channel, and we’re doing some other projects for the Discovery Channel and National Geographic. We’re just setting up the new studio this week. The Cassidys loaned me Eva’s honorary gold record, to put up on the wall in my new studio. I’m looking at it now. It was really nice of them.
Question: Do you have any of Eva’s “Wammie” awards?
Biondo: Yes, they gave me the one for Best Album for the Blues Alley record.
Question: You’ve read a lot of articles written about Eva, mostly after she died. Is there anything you’d like to correct, anything you’d like to talk about that the articles got wrong?
Biondo: A lot of the articles paint Eva as a very shy person, that she was very withdrawn. That was only true until people got to know her, she had a lot to say and an amazing sense of humor, it’s just that if she didn’t know you very well, she would probably let you do most of the talking. She wasn’t some poor thing cringing in the corner all the time being shy. The performance anxiety was starting to go away, too. If she was playing at a place where there was a polite, quiet audience, where people were really listening instead of talking, and if she had a lot of friends there, she didn’t mind it anymore.
Question: What do you hope happens next with Eva’s music?
Biondo: I’d like to see her win a Grammy, some kind of notice from the music industry like that. I’d like to see somebody like Patti LaBelle or Barbra Streisand get up there and talk about Eva, how she’s not here to get what she deserves, bring up Mr. and Mrs. Cassidy to accept the award for her, that’s what I’d like to see.
Question: What about movie soundtracks? Every time I see a romantic scene in a movie, I wish they used one of Eva’s recordings.
Biondo: I think that is going to happen. It’s happening already.
Question: I love the booklet that came with the EVA BY HEART album. Do you know if that’s still being used? I think Eileen White did a wonderful job with the design, it’s a beautiful booklet.
Biondo: No, the new version is a little different. There was a dispute with one of the photographers when Blix Street re-released the album, so when they couldn’t use the photographs anymore they had to change the booklet. The photo on the disc is different too.
The cover is the same. She planned that cover photo herself, by the way. She and her mother were on vacation in Canada visiting Eva’s aunt. Eva saw the living room, the way the sun was coming through it. She got her guitar, gave her mother the camera and asked her to take her picture, she set that whole thing up.
Question: Which of the songs on EVA BY HEART were part of Eva’s performance repertoire?
Biondo: The band played “Wade in the Water” and “Nightbird.” “Songbird” she did by herself when she played live, she would do “Wayfaring Stranger” by herself, none of the rest of them ever got played live.
Question: What did you learn from her?
Biondo: I learned that it doesn’t mean anything to be famous, and that at a certain point, if you know you’re good, that’s enough. I think she understood that being popular and famous was not all it’s cracked up to be. That wasn’t what drove her to make music. There are singers who are successful now, popular now, who won’t be remembered like Eva. They don’t have the emotional impact of Eva. There might only be 30,000 people in the whole world that have even heard of her, compared to some other singers you hear a lot about, but to those thirty thousand people, Eva really means something to them, there’s a real emotional connection.
The biggest effect that Eva had on me is that it is very very difficult to impress me now. I never heard anybody sing like Eva Cassidy, and when I do I’ll let you know. Any singer I hear, I can’t help comparing to Eva.
Question: Thank you, Chris, for all this information. And good luck in your new career.
Copyright 1999 by Laura Bligh and Chris Biondo. If you would like to use sections of this interview for an article about Eva, please ask for permission.