HADDAM — “My parents had an incredible record collection and we had music all the time… in the car… at home. They had Crosby, Stills and Nash, James Taylor, the Eagles, Joni Mitchell, Linda Ronstadt, Dan Fogelberg,” said Eric Michael Lichter showing us around his studio at Dirt Floor Recording & Production on Monday afternoon.
A small framed photo of Randy Newman hangs on the wall of the vocals room, one musician who has inspired Lichter since he was a kid.
“When I was in middle school and kids my age were listening to Iron Maiden and Judas Priest and heavy metal, which I also liked, but I never really strayed from Crosby, Stills and Nash. It became part of my DNA.”
Those influences launched his later career as a music producer, when he started singing and playing guitar as a teenager.
“People would tell me even at the age of 16, you play guitar like Stephen Stills or your vocal inflections are like Don Henley or Dan Fogelberg,” he said. But as Lichter learned to play other instruments and developed his own ways of playing, he said he didn’t realize he was setting himself up to produce records and be a stylist.
Lichter, 49, describes himself as a multi-instrumentalist. He can compose and play multiple parts, including strings, piano and percussion which can bring a song to life, and that, he said, sets him apart as a producer.
“I don’t sell the studio as a business. I sell what I do as a producer and multi-instrumentalist,” he said. “Anyone can open a recording studio and buy equipment, but it’s what you do to set yourself apart or create something that is unique… that’s where the magic is. So I started doing this about a decade ago.”
Finding the missed opportunities
Lichter was hanging out in the studio on Monday with his puppy, Ollie, an 8-month-old black Labradoodle, and singer and songwriter Charles Maring, known as Charlee.
Maring, 47, is a professional photographer and painter who said he started getting serious about music about three years ago. He plays in the Outside Reality band but was at Dirt Floor to work on his first solo album, and with Lichter.
“It’s almost like a re-introduction to your own song in a beautiful way because he’ll apply a couple of parts and you can say I love this or I don’t, but it gives you an angle of the places he can take it,” Maring said
“I’m seeing myself grow in the direction of what we’re doing here,” Maring said. “It’s awesome to be able to study what your songs can be as opposed to what they are right out of the can.”
Lichter said he listens for “possibilities and possible missed opportunities” when he works with a musician. “In the hands of other studios, there would be infinite missed opportunities. First, I listen for what they’re saying. Hearing the lyrics, I need to make sure the music matches the sentiment of the song.”
The process allows the musician to hear a song in a new way, uncovering directions where it could go, said Maring.
“It’s almost like a re-introduction to your own song in a beautiful way because he’ll apply a couple of parts and you can say I love this or I don’t, but it gives you an angle of the places he can take it,” Maring said. “I play in a band with four other guys, but these are songs that I don’t necessarily bring down to the band that have a lot of meaning to me. They’re about my own life and journey and people and love and places lived. And so I’ve brought these songs to [Lichter] and he just got it right away and started delivering on the sound, it was like we were brothers.”
Lichter said that his work requires building a level of trust with the artists who come to the studio.
Lichter smiled and said, “Trust your pilot. I fly the plane.”
“I usually have a meeting with the artist well in advance. If Charlee came in cold to start working, it would have been a very, very rough start. We try to spend a little bit of time together in advance, so we get to know each other, so he can sort of know where I’m coming from,” said Lichter. “Sometimes disagreements arise but it’s all because of the deep passion for the end product.”
Maring said he was ultimately taking Lichter’s advice. “It takes me down the path that I want it to go anyway — it’s just you need to be open-minded about suggestions.”
Lichter smiled and said, “Trust your pilot. I fly the plane.”
Life takes a turn
Lichter said that ten years ago when is daughter Inara, now 12, was very sick, he re-ordered the priorities in his life, including how he ran Dirt Floor.
“I had Dirt Floor and I was doing my thing… but I was a bit halfhearted up until she had a health scare. When you have a child that is that sick and with something that threatening, it realigns the things that are important,” he explained. “I knew I wanted to do this because I didn’t want to get to the end of my life and say I should have done it. She was recovering and she was coming back and [the studio] was a gift to her because I wanted to show her you can do the thing you want to do with your life, but you’ve got to be focused, driven and have one foot in practicality.”
“I’m cursed with practicality. I wanted to do it and I wanted to do it my way, during my normal business hours. Artists will say we’ll go all night and I’ll say you can, I won’t be there, but my chief engineer will. I want what I want,” said Lichter.
Before opening Dirt Floor, Lichter said he did a lot of traveling as an artist, singer and songwriter. Among other adventures, Lichter and his brother Jeremy worked as backup singers for Carly Simon on Martha’s Vineyard and played in five different bands there.
With his daughter in recovery, he said he decided to figure out a way to make a living doing what he loved as a music producer. He didn’t want to be on the road as a musician. He wanted to able to return home at night and be with his family.
“I’m cursed with practicality. I wanted to do it and I wanted to do it my way, during my normal business hours. Artists will say we’ll go all night and I’ll say you can, I won’t be there, but my chief engineer will. I want what I want,” said Lichter. “I had people telling me I couldn’t do this. I didn’t study this. I just knew how to play music and I knew I was passionate enough about music, and that my passion in working with an artist like Charlee, that we would be able to create something that’s really wonderful and it will go out into the world and other people will hear it and it will just repeat itself and that’s been going on for 10 years.”
He separated himself from standard recording studios and began establishing himself as a producer, a process that took time, but paid off.
“It was lean until it wasn’t. It was lean until I had a proven body of work where people were saying, holy shit, you made that record, you made this record, I want to work with this guy, and after a while I didn’t have to sell myself anymore,” he said.
The “Music Sanctuary of CT”
Lichter said he’s less likely to work with a musician, if the goal is worldwide fame.
“Making music because you love it for me is the reason enough to work together, not because you have this delusion or pie-in-the-sky idea of rock stardom, which might or might not happen,” he said. “I’m less apt to work with an artist if that is their motivation initially because there’s a little too much desperation that’s attached to that for me. There has to be the passion for doing it no matter what, whether one person is listening or 50,000 people are listening.”
Whether a musician is on a world tour or is simply handing out CDs to their family, it’s all the same, Lichter said.
“Making music because you love it for me is the reason enough to work together, not because you have this delusion or pie-in-the-sky idea of rock stardom, which might or might not happen,” he said. “I’m less apt to work with an artist if that is their motivation initially because there’s a little too much desperation that’s attached to that for me.”
“I don’t separate those two things. The common thing I want out of any artist I’m going to work with is they just have this incredible passion for music and there’s no delusion,” he said. “I’ve learned from experience, there’s a desperation that casts this whole sort of pall over the whole project [and causes] this darkness that seems to permeate,” he said. “I decided, especially after my daughter came around the bend, I decided to refocus and I realized the people I didn’t want to work with.”
In the process, Lichter has established a reputation on NPR, which called Dirt Floor the “Music Sanctuary of CT.”
“I’m in the right line of work because I love music so much and I love having people perform for me,” he said, adding that he’s in the process of making a documentary about the studio.
A family of musicians
The musicians who work with Dirt Floor have become part of “this incredible family,” Lichter said.
“They all find each other. They play shows together, they go on the road together. It’s all over the world now — Los Angeles, New York, the Midwest, Europe — people discover each other,” Lichter said. “If Charlee goes to LA, there are four artists there who will go to his show and vice versa.”
“I knew that if I worked with him that he wasn’t going to overdo, that he was going to keep it real, and very down to earth.”
Among those artists is Kerri Powers, an Americana and blues singer based in Canton, Connecticut, who has made two albums with Dirt Floor.
“The reason I was drawn to Eric, other than he is clearly a great soul and I could tell that from the get-go, was… I wanted to work with someone clearly who had an ear for a very natural sound and nothing over-produced and I knew that Eric was the perfect person for that because he’s very soulful, we have a similar kind of ear for things,” Powers said by phone on Tuesday. “I knew that if I worked with him that he wasn’t going to overdo, that he was going to keep it real, and very down to earth.”
Working in the studio, Powers said, was like “being in my living room, I was very comfortable for the set,” she said. “A lot of artists don’t feel comfortable from the start. It’s a gift that he has. He makes you feel very comfortable … when you’re working with a producer, that has the level of artistry that Eric has, it’s definitely a win-win.”
Bethlehem, PA.-based composer Fred Alford, described a similar kind of easy familiarity the first time he met Lichter in 2007 or 2008.
“I got his name from the internet, I was searching there because over the course of 35 years I had written 20 or 25 songs and I thought I should preserve them,” Alford said by phone on Tuesday. “And the first time I see Eric, he’s got one of those big winter hats on, like one of the Seven Dwarves, and he’s sitting at his soundboard with his hat on, and he looked sort of elfish … He said sit down and play me a song — I strummed maybe three chords of a Randy Newman song and he knew it immediately and we kind of established an instant rapport.”
Alford said that Lichter piece by piece built a “real song” out of his composition, adding drums and bass. “Eric transformed the whole thing,” Alford said.
“Listening at these open mikes, you hear songs and they’re very simple and straightforward, but Eric hears this very simple and straightforward piece of music and then he hears all the other parts that go into it,” said Alford. “All my songs might sound the same when I play them on a guitar, but after they’re done with Eric they sound as if each one is very unique.”
Alford likened Lichter to a musical encyclopedia of rock ‘n roll. “He has a very broad range and he is enormously gifted as a musician.’
At their first meeting, Lichter asked Alford about his musical influences.
“I said, The Band, Warren Zevon and Jackson Browne and he said I have the history of The Band open here. We were soulmates in terms of the music we liked, not how we played,” Alford said. “He brought me to a new place with music. After being with him for one session, I practiced more and played more and it all of a sudden became more important to me. The courage Eric gave me helped. He inspired me to reach for more.”