Mindy McCready's final album was partially recorded at the Blasting Room in Fort Collins
design/illustration by Jeff Livak
Country singer Mindy McCready is thought to have taken her own life this past weekend, on the front porch of her home in Arkansas. That part of her story has been widely reported. What you may not know, however, is that toward the end of her career and, ultimately, her life, the 37-year-old artist had strong ties to the local scene. Her final album, 2010's I'm Still Here, was at least partially recorded at the Blasting Room in Fort Collins by Andrew Berlin (and later mixed and mastered by Jason Livermore). The bulk of that record was steered by Christopher Jak (Heyday, Northern Way), with whom we've spoken, and features performances by Jak and Jeremy Lawton of Big Head Todd and the Monsters. The cover art above, meanwhile, was even fashioned by a Nashville-by-way-of-Denver artist/graphic designer named Jeff Livak.
We caught up with Jak yesterday and spoke with the lauded local producer about his time working with McCready. He gave us some insight into their sessions, and he also shared with us how he came to work with her on what ended up being her final album. Many had hoped it would ultimately mark her comeback, a batch of songs that would return the controversial country singer to prominence. Our full conversation with Jak is posted below. But first, a little background:
McCready's greatest acclaim came early on with the release of Ten Thousand Angels, her well-received mid-'90s debut. As solid as that record was, though, if you're a casual music fan and you recognize McCready's name, it may not necessarily be because of the music she produced, but rather the sensationalistic headlines she generated with her seemingly tumultuous personal life, from the turmoil of her estranged relationships to her ongoing legal problems and her well-publicized struggles with addiction.
But while the notoriety McCready attracted over the years has threatened to overshadow the acclaim she garnered, she was a talented artist and a tenacious singer with a story most would consider inspirational. She got her start in Nashville as an aspiring transplant from Florida; after gaining some notice singing karaoke in her home state, the precocious and especially driven then-eighteen-year-old made her way to Music City in pursuit of a music career. As the story goes, she gave herself exactly one year to make that happen, and in some sort of deal she made with her mother, if she wasn't successful, she'd move in a different direction. Sometime toward the end of her self-imposed deadline, one week shy of a full year, reportedly, she earned a recording contract.
With the release of Ten Thousand Angels in 1996, McCready generated a decent amount of momentum. Her growing renown was bolstered by the release of her 1997 followup, If I Don't Stay the Night, but the shine eventually began to wear off by the time she issued I'm Not So Tough in 1999, at which point McCready suffered a minor setback when she parted ways with her label. A few years later, she landed another deal in time to issue a self-titled album, but that record also failed to connect, and McCready was a free agent once again.
It was shortly after this that things in McCready's personal life began to unravel. A fellow musician she was involved with was later arrested for attempted murder as a result of manhandling McCready. That high-profile domestic-violence episode was followed by a string of other incidents (and alleged incidents) that kept her in the news, including an alleged youthful tryst with Roger Clemens, the emergence of a sex tape with another man, multiple arrests for various infractions, surviving several unsuccessful suicide attempts, and even being hospitalized at one point for a presumed overdose.
Toward the end of the decade, McCready sought help for her addiction and appeared on the VH1 reality series Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew. Around this time, McCready and her team had started working on a comeback, and that's when Christopher Jak came into the picture. Having already worked on some other projects with her co-manager, Jak was looking for something he and the manager could work on together, and McCready's project seemed a good fit. So Jak and McCready convened for what ended up being McCready's final album, I'm Still Here, and worked on it for the better part of a year.
There's some speculation now that McCready left a farewell message of sorts. She reportedly sent a clip of a song she'd been working on with her late boyfriend ("I'll See You Yesterday"), producer David Wilson, who also took his own life recently, to a private investigator she'd been in contact with. The investigator, Danno Hanks, assumed the message was in reference to Wilson's death and didn't think much of it until after McCready passed. Hanks, who took to Facebook after her death, says he now considers the gesture to be a "video suicide note."
Certainly seems plausible. Listening to "Wrong Again," the opening track on I'm Still Here, a song which Jak says they finally found after an exhaustive search, it's clear she was attempting to make a statement. Even though, like "I'll See You Yesterday," she didn't write the words, she sang them with an expressiveness that made them her own ("I've come to terms/I've made amends/Asked forgiveness for my sins/
Loneliness is not my friend/Been wrong before/I'll be wrong again"). It was a poignant tune, as was the title track, which she co-wrote, and cuts like "Songs About You."
Continue reading for more on the story.
Westword: What do you make of the news that came across this weekend?
Christopher Jak: The news of the weekend is obviously horribly tragic. It's the ultimate tragic end to what was a very complicated story for her. It feels like a shame and a waste. It's just very sad.
Were you surprised? Have you guys kept in touch over the years since you worked together?
I have not kept in touch. She's obviously had a lot going on, and none of it was musical, and our relationship was purely musical.
What was the time frame when you worked with her?
Good question. I think it was around 2007-2008, somewhere around in there. I'd have to double-check, but that feels about right.
What was the extent of the work you did for her? You produced, and what else did you do?
I produced about 80 percent of a full-length for her. [Trey Bruce and Jimmy Nichols] produced two or three tracks -- I don't remember the exact numbers. We had done some writing together, although, ultimately, not particularly successfully. But we tried that. But it was really a production thing, much of what I was doing with her. It hadn't obviously been intended to be...
It was her first record, I think, in several years, of any kind of release, so it was a big undertaking. It was a complicated process. She was getting back into things, and she's has always had a lot of other things happening in her life. She had a son and had some legal issues at the time, among other things, and I believe some health issues, as well.
My take on it, the good times -- the times that were good times -- were always really, really pleasant. She was a warm and fun person who ultimately wanted to take care of everybody who was around, cooking for people. She loved that stuff, and she was really great to be around. The difficult times were difficult. But, I mean, that's not unexpected from somebody who's had the experiences that she's had.
When you started working with her, I'm Still Here was supposed to be her comeback record of sorts.
Yeah. That was the idea.
What was her outlook at the time?
I'm not sure; it was sometimes hard to read. You know, Nashville, she and Nashville had many disagreements, and I don't know what she expected from people. It was hard to say, you know? There were some people who were just so excited to see her and hear her and just wanted her to do well again. And there were a lot of people who didn't. So I don't think she had the ability to have full clarity on what the outcome would be. I mean, I think she was cautiously optimistic, maybe, but I think she had some sense of reality about it. I think she understood the situation to some great extent.
Did you get the sense from her that she felt like this was the record that was going to help her get back to prominence, or was she pretty realistic about it?
I think -- my take on it years later, now -- as a team, including her, we all had somewhat different expectations, and that ranged from musical ideas to commercial ones, and I think that made it difficult. She really wanted to get back into the scene. I think it was hard for her. What I saw musically as best for her to regain her musical notoriety was not perhaps what she saw at the beginning. So we talked about it a lot and tried a lot of different things. I don't know whether she thought it was going to work, I really don't. I know that once she was trying, it was because she wanted to make it work. I can't speculate on anything beyond that, really.
When the record was finished, how did you feel about the prospects for it?
Well, you know, I felt some really good things. There are some tracks on that record that are really very good tracks that I'm proud of. The ones that were maybe not as commercial -- the ones that felt to me like maybe they weren't ready for country radio -- were the ones that I thought were really great and honest, and I thought her singing was the most honest, and everybody understood them the most, to where she was. They were great, and I'm proud of them. I think she was, too.
But I think also, it's very hard to change musical directions when you're at that point and do not have a clear path forward -- not just for her, but for anybody. There was some demand to where it was clearly into more country, but none of us knew whether anybody would want to hear them. We just didn't know. But there's stuff on there that's great.
Where did you guys record?
Several places. We did some in Nashville, some in Colorado at the Blasting Room. We did some in Virginia. We moved around a little bit to get it done.
You were the chief producer for the whole record?
Ultimately, yes. There was one other producer for, I think, three tracks, but I don't remember. And then they added some -- I don't remember what it was -- cover tracks or remixes or something onto the end. I don't know where those came from, to be honest with you. As far as the new material goes, though, yeah.
How did you come to work with her?
One of her co-managers, a guy who was involved in running the independent label that was ultimately intending on putting out that set of songs -- I don't know if they released it eventually. I had worked with him on a couple of other projects, and we had been looking for the right country project to be involved in together.
When you look back now in reflection, what are the biggest moments that stick out in your memory of the whole process?
Well, for sure, one of them would be...we spent a lot of time looking for songs in Nashville. We were also attempting to do some writing during that time, but we were doing the rounds, going to all the publishers, looking for songs for the record. We spent a lot of time without a lot of success. There's a song on there called "Wrong Again" that I remember we'd been at for, I think, a week by then, and it was the first time after hearing, possibly, hundreds of songs that we looked at each other and got really excited and thought, "Hey, that's something we can pull off, both of us."
We both reacted to it. It's just one of those things [where] you have to find material to connect with, right, if you're going to do music and be successful. I think we were both starting to get a little down about it, not finding a way toward each other, because we couldn't find songs to work together on. So finding that was a really great, exciting moment, and then, ultimately, it's my favorite song on the record, as well.
What stood out about that song to you in terms of it being the right song for her?
I love her voice, and I was really interested in hearing her voice in a more adult fashion than it had been previously recorded. She was a grown woman now. She really hadn't been during her biggest hits, and it was a song that sounded like it was written by a girl to be sung by a girl. It felt very honest, and it felt musically appropriate. Lyrically, it resonated with her. It just stood out right away, and it suited my style, too. It suited the kind of style that she and I were sitting around playing.
Did you guys purposely choose that one to lead off the record, or was that the label?
I pushed real hard to have it open up the record. I thought it set a good tone. There was a lot of disagreement about that, but that's what I thought set the tone most properly. I mean, I wasn't sure any of us were ready to...we weren't trying to make another record -- at least I wasn't, and I don't think she was, either. We weren't looking to make another "Guys Do It All the Time." We were both in our mid-thirties, you know, looking for a record that made sense. So, yeah, I was trying to set a tone.
Did you two talk before you started working on the record? Did you sit down and have a discussion about what she wanted for the record or what the approach would be?
We did, and that continued throughout most of the process. I think that her notoriety made it to where I think people had pitched a lot of different stuff to her over the years, and some of it, I thought, was just silly. But you know, if you're looking to make a comeback record, you're looking for somebody with a bright idea, and if somebody comes along and wants to make a hip-hop record, you might dive on that just as quickly as you dive on what I'm pitching.
So we talked about it constantly, before, during and after -- how it was going to work and trying to figure out if we were going to get along. I mean, that's always been sort of my process, you know that. I don't want to work with somebody who I don't think that I can spend the time with in that respect for and mutual respect for.
So was she easy to work with?
It depends. I wouldn't say that she was...working with her wasn't the difficult part. Having her not be there to work with was the difficult part. Working with her in the studio, I didn't find her any more difficult than working with the average singer.
How long did the process take?
I think it was about a year. It wasn't crazy long. And, yeah, there were interruptions. So, yeah, we had to work through a few things along the way, but again, I'm not sure that's entirely different from a lot of people. There might have been different interruptions, but I'm not sure they made the schedule any better or worse. I mean, maybe her schedule interruptions were intriguing to talk about for other people, but other than that, as far as a professional, I'm not sure it changed the game all that much.
Were you entirely familiar with her work before you started working with her?
Was I familiar with what she had done? Yeah, I knew her. I've listened to country for most of my life, certainly since the mid-'80s and up. So I knew her stuff. I knew her voice.
So going into it, you kind of already had an idea of how to approach it?
Yeah, I did -- at least I thought I did. I can only do the work I know how to do. So obviously, for me to be interested in it, I was aiming it in a certain direction and hoping that everybody would think it was a good idea and get on board, you know?
With the end product, what was the response from the label and the folks she was working with?
The response from the label was very positive. I would have packaged it differently, and I didn't make a secret about that. I think putting old remixes and covers on a record, for a comeback record, when you're writing songs and putting those out and putting on old tracks and then going through the songs that we had gone through and chosen carefully, it seemed to me to diminish the final product. You know, but as far as the work we had done, I was proud of it, and they were proud of it, and I know Mindy was proud of it.
Mindy co-wrote three songs on the album. The fact that those made the final cut, was that a reflection of her songwriting ability that they were able to stand up with the other songs you had chosen?
You know, I can't answer that question super-directly. I wasn't involved in either the writing or production of those three songs. I would say that when you listen to them, you can tell that I was not involved at least in production. I think it's a different style than the style I have. But I think what it's a testament to, though, is that she was committed to making this hers, to making her voice known.
And that's true, both of the songs she was writing and the songs she was choosing and just the work she was involved in, in general, at the time. She was really committed to letting people know that this was about her and that she wasn't getting puppeted into anything. She was really interested in doing the work herself and letting people know that it was a record about her and about what she could do. I think that's the bulk of it, and it was really important to her to have songs on there that she had co-written.
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