Sometimes growth and improvement require change, even drastic change, and that’s what Jeff Freling and Erin McGrane had in mind in August when they went into Sputnik Sound in Nashville to make “Electricity,” the third full-length album from their guitar-ukulele duo, Victor & Penny.
Instead of recording it on their own, Freling and McGrane hired a producer, a move that required an attitude adjustment.
“We hadn’t used a producer before, and we weren’t sure what it would be like,” Freling said. “But we absolutely wanted a third person there to weigh in heavily on what was going on and in making decisions with us.”
They hired Mitch Dane, who had been recommended by Rick Willoughby, bassist in Victor & Penny’s Loose Change Orchestra. Willoughby worked with Dane while recording with the Snow Globes, the holiday-music trio that also includes Barclay Martin and Lindsey Jones.
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“We took a trip to Nashville to interview producers and look at studios,” McGrane said. “When we met with Mitch, we knew he was the right choice.”
From the start, the process was different and challenging.
“Mitch asked us to come down a week early, just the two of us, for some pre-production with him,” McGrane said. “We didn’t know what pre-production was, so we weren’t sure what we’d be doing. But that’s when we really dug into the songs with him.”
The three discussed structure, lyrics and other song elements.
“Some things went his way, some things went our way,” McGrane said. “Sometimes we changed our minds to his way, sometimes he changed his to our way. It was a real, deep examination of every song in a way I’d never done.”
“With Mitch, we were able to have super-frank, open and honest conversations about all those things,” Freling said. “Whether we agreed or disagreed, it all came from the same place: wanting to make the music as good as possible.”
The process also revealed that Dane had a clear plan.
“After pre-production, I was excited and nervous because I knew Mitch expected us to do our very best,” McGrane said. “I knew it would be a challenge, and I was excited to try. We wanted to make the best record we’ve made so far, and Mitch was very encouraging about that.
“He said, ‘That’s exactly what we’re going to do and here’s how we’re going to do it.’ We’d never worked with someone who laid it out so directly for us. And he really liked the music.”
When pre-production was done, Freling and McGrane were joined in the studio by the Loose Change Orchestra: Willoughby on bass, James Isaac on clarinet and soprano sax and Kyle Dahlquist on trombone and accordion.
Dane brought a Nashville “ringer” into the mix: multi-instrumentalist Dustin Ransom, a decision initially met with some unease.
“Mitch said he was going to have a ringer come in and, like when you pour sand into a glass jar filled with rocks and the sand fills in the cracks, that’s what (Dustin) was going to do,” McGrane said. “We were like, ‘Eh, we’ll see. Our guys are really good. We’re not sure we really need to hire some guy.’
“Then (Dustin) came in and we fell madly in love with him.”
“He’s a great player,” Freling said. “It was very cool to watch him work. I’d be scrambling around for charts and he’d say, ‘I don’t need a chart.’ He’d take one listen to a song and make his own chart on the spot, without stopping.”
As Dane prescribed, Ransom’s touch was vital but understated.
“We were afraid we were going to get overproduced, and it wouldn’t sound like us,” McGrane said. “But Dustin was really subtle.
“He asked about a feel on a song. I speak emotionally, not technically. So I said, ‘I want like a swing-door saloon and spaghetti Western feel.’ He said, ‘I got it,’ and ran into the other room and played this perfect thing on the first pass. It was jaw-dropping.”
Dane also brought in his daughter, Paton Goskie, to play violin on “Moon Over Bourbon Street,” a Sting song that Victor & Penny covered for a Murder Ballad Ball a couple of years ago. They added it to “Electricity” for variety.
“We wanted some elements of gypsy jazz,” McGrane said, “and to show one of the other things we can do.”
After recording was finished, the mixing phase began, and, again, there were discussions. Kari Estrin, a consultant for Victor & Penny, joined the process and brought another perspective.
“Mitch had a lot of opinions about songcraft, in terms of songwriting and arrangements,” McGrane said. “Jeff had lots of opinions about arrangements. And Kari had lots of opinions about how songs should be specifically mixed for radio.
“Her whole thing is promoting to radio, and no one ever talked to us about that — what frequency they need to be mixed at to sound best for radio, specifically folk radio.”
Mixing went on into October. The album was released in March. The official release party and concert for “Electricity” will be Tuesday at the Musical Theater Heritage at Crown Center.
Victor & Penny and the Loose Change Orchestra will be joined by several special guests: jazz pianist Mark Lowrey, who will re-create many of Ransom’s parts on keyboards; Adam Galblum on violin; and Jason Beers on the saw and banjo.
They’ll play the “Electricity” album and some surprises are likely, including, perhaps, a performance from Beau Bledsoe, who is performing at the VIP party before the concert, and a piece from “Overtones,” the book of poetry and lyrics that McGrane released in March.
“Potentially we’ll have nine folks, from a flamenco guitar master (Bledsoe) to a saw-wielding bad-ass onstage,” McGrane said. “We’re also going to do a couple of improvisational spoken-word pieces Jeff and I did together from ‘Overtones’ that went really well at the reading.”
The early returns are in from “Electricity,” and the numbers are positive. It was the No. 12 album in March on the Folk DJ chart compiled by the Folk Alliance International. “Moon Over Bourbon Street” charted No. 3 on the singles chart.
“It’s doing very well again this month, according to the radio playlists we’re receiving,” McGrane said. “We won’t know April until the first week of May, though.”
Beyond the numbers, “Electricity” is a success because it introduced Freling and McGrane to new processes. Yet they ultimately made the album they were aiming for.
“We came into this as artists who were super-excited about making an all-original album with new songs and even some songs that hadn’t been finished,” McGrane said. “We wanted to make the best album we could make at this stage of our lives.
“There were lots of cooks in the kitchen, but we got what we came for.”
Victor & Penny CD release concert
Celebrating the release of “Electricity.” Also featuring the Loose Change Orchestra with other special guests, including Mark Lowrey. 7 p.m. $15. Musical Theater Heritage at Crown Center. 816-221-6987.