The worlds of literature and rock music don’t often mix. After all, when was the last time you saw a Philip Roth byline in Spin magazine? But when the New Yorker teamed with Mercury Records to create “The New Yorker Out Loud,” a double-CD of five short stories from the magazine read by their authors (and a few actors), they went with Russ Titelman, a producer better known for working with synthesizer keyboards than with manual typewriters.
Titelman learned his producing skills as a teenager under the tutelage of Phil Spector, the groundbreaking ’60s hitmaker behind Ike and Tina Turner and the Righteous Brothers. Titelman, who has produced records for such rockers as Eric Clapton, Little Feat and George Harrison, says he felt no culture shock in the studio with John Updike and Martin Amis. “I’ve worked with Randy Newman and Paul Simon,” says the producer, “and they are the best, most literary songwriters that we have. Certainly their level of craftsmanship is not that different from the New Yorker writers.”
Titelman sees parallels between producing music and the spoken word. “I treated the readings as if I were making a beautiful Chaka Khan or Steve Winwood vocal,” he says. The producer had each reader go through his or her story several times, and saved every misread and flub. Later, when Titelman edited the readings into a finished version, he used snippets of ideal phrasings hidden within the outtakes.
In the end, he couldn’t help augmenting some of the tales with a little music, as long as his literary vocalists remained at center stage. “I had an idea about putting something from a Puccini opera at the beginning of the Lorrie Moore story,” says Titelman. “But it was just too much. I found that a little piano music worked much better.” In an Ian McEwen story, “Us or Me,” Titelman experimented with a wind sound effect, but decided that the whispering was too overpowering and cut it from the track.
Although he tinkered with the music, Titelman left the authors’ writings alone. “I didn’t say, ‘John [Updike], this part of the story just isn’t working,'” Titelman laughs. In fact, when a couple of the pieces needed to be shortened by a minute or so to fit on the CD, it was the authors and the New Yorker editors who made the cuts. “To tell Updike, of all people, you’ve got to take a minute out of his story,” says David Silver, VP of Mercury A&R, “well, the words just wouldn’t come out of my mouth.”