David Bowie’s Blackstar debuted Jan. 8 — two days before the iconic musician died at age 69. The album was quickly heralded as a standout in Bowie’s strong discography and even earned the No. 2 spot on EW’s list of 2016’s 50 best albums. EW talked to Blackstar collaborator and jazz saxophonist Donny McCaslin just days after the record’s release and Bowie’s death to find out what went on behind the scenes during those recording sessions. As part of our year-end coverage, revisit that story below.
When Bowie entered New York City’s Magic Shop studio in January 2015 to record his 28th (and final album) Blackstar, he had already been battling cancer for about six months. But the restless journeyman was determined to continue experimenting despite his ailments: For these seven songs, the rocker tapped progressive jazz saxophonist Donny McCaslin and his tight-knit group of collaborators to bring demos like “Lazarus” and “Dollar Days” to life.
“He was singing very passionately with a lot of energy and a lot of conviction and we were inspired by that,” McCaslin tells EW of the sessions, which spanned three one-week chunks from January to March. “He said something to me like, ‘Donny, I don’t know what’s going to come of this, but let’s have some fun.'”
Despite the record’s dark lyrical content, which McCaslin says Bowie was still finalizing while recording, humor and spontaneity dominated the sessions, which would typically run from 11 a.m until 4 p.m. Bowie took an active role in the process, performing tracks in the room with the band and encouraging communication, interplay, and risk-taking.
McCaslin shared his memories of the sessions with EW, including the contributions from LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy, Bowie’s affinity for D’Angelo and Kendrick Lamar’s new albums, and his reaction upon hearing the final product.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was the mood and spirit of the sessions?
DONNY MCCASLIN: Prior to the first recording sessions, David had sent me demos that he had made of six or seven songs and I was immersing myself, trying to learn them. I got together with my band — with [bassist] Tim Lefebvre, [keyboardist] Jason Lindner, and [drummer] Mark Guiliana — and we did a rehearsal just to make sure we were all on point with everything, because I wasn’t totally sure what to expect when I got to the studio.
The spirit in the recording sessions couldn’t have been better. David was totally engaged, from the minute he walked in the door and focused and also just had this great attitude. I remember him saying to Mark, “Feel free to play some odd meter stuff. Whatever you’re hearing, go for it.” It was that kind of spirit — just really open and collaborative. The work environment couldn’t have been better.
One thing that was really inspiring about the dynamic was that David was singing with us — in the room with us. I was in the isolation booth and there’s a clear piece of glass and he was right on the other side of that and in the room with Tim and Mark and Jason. I’m an emotional player and I felt like that energy was moving around the room between us. A lot of communication and a lot of interplay. There was a lot of laughing and jokes. Fun stories going around. It was just fun.
[Bowie’s longtime producer] Tony Visconti was producing and it was neat to watch their dynamic and how they worked so well together in the studio. The two of them combed through everything we did and they made choices about what to use, what not to use. It was really interesting to see what they did with it after we finished. It was a lot of attention to detail. It was overwhelming to me just to hear the whole sonic montage and how they put it all together.
How long did the process take?
The first week of January 2015 we did a week of recording. The first week of February we did another week. And then in early March we did another roughly four or five day period of recording. Overdubbing was in April, just one day in Tony Visconti’s studio. I heard it the first time in its entirety [in] November.
James Murphy came in in the February sessions and was kind of in an unassigned role, but he ended up doing some things. He had these vintage synths. He did some neat percussion sounds, some electronic percussion sounds — I think on “Girl Loves Me.” He was there for a few days in February. He had some ideas about different sonic things to add to the tunes, which was cool.
What stood out to you about Bowie during the Blackstar sessions?
He was so present in the moment and so focused on pushing the envelope. The music on that record is not cookie-cutter pop music. It’s progressive, boundary-pushing music. He’s pushing the boundaries, completely committed to the art and living the art. My sense is that he was reading all the time, reading a lot of books, listening to a lot of different music, constantly living in that, living the art.
Do you remember any of the art he was engaging with?
I remember reading that Tony Visconti had talked about that we had been listening to Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly — I think I remember talking about that. D’Angelo’s record [Black Messiah] came out while we were in the midst of recording and I know [Bowie] had checked that out. I remember talking to him generally about the grandeur of Charlie Parker.
A lot of these songs, interpreted after the events of the last couple days, really seem like Bowie’s way of saying farewell. Had he written the lyrics by the time the sessions began?
When he was singing, the passion and the conviction of what he sang was really affecting me. It wasn’t that he said “bluebird” or “blackstar,” it wasn’t so much that; it was the feeling that he was singing with. It was inspiring to me and really exciting. He was working some of [the lyrics] out while we were recording, so some of the songs weren’t finished while we were in the studio. He was making notes — I could observe him just processing that and working with that while we were recording.
When you communicated with him in November and December, what was his spirit like? What did he think of the album?
It was mostly about the record. It was very positive stuff. I think he was very happy with how the record turned out. And I was thrilled that he felt that way.