What makes a great studio session? Kevin Breit explains

Kevin Breit is considered to be one of the most innovative and enigmatic guitarists that Canada has produced.

Known for his diversity, fluidity and his creativity, Breit is at home performing all kinds of music — jazz, blues, world and other styles. One of the most in-demand guitarists in North America, he has recorded or toured with the likes of Norah Jones, Rosanne Cash, k.d. lang, Hugh Laurie, Holly Cole, Amos Lee, Jane Siberry, Molly Johnson, Serena Ryder, Natalie MacMaster, Jane Bunnett and many more. His latest solo album is Stella Bella Strada, released earlier this year.

Breit has won two Juno Awards, a National Jazz Award, a Gemini Award and a Maple Blues Award. If that’s not enough, he’s also performed on 10 Grammy-winning albums, including Norah Jones’s Come Away with Me and Feels Like Home and Cassandra Wilson’s New Moon Daughter. 

Breit joined us here at JAZZ.FM91 recently to chat about how he became a session musician, what it was like to be in the studio with the tremendously talented Cassandra Wilson, and how his late father influenced his alter ego, Johnny Goldtooth.

Scroll to the bottom if you’d like to listen to the full audio of the interview.

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How does one become a session musician? How did it work out for you?

I never went out to be that. I had played on people’s records, and that’s where I thought of it. Every record I was on, I kind of thought I was in the band. That was very healthy to do. That had more legs, that if I could feel that the personalities in that studio were all together, we were creating something that was going to go places. I didn’t set out to buy studio guitar player gear. I have what I have, and one call begat another.

As a session musician, do people basically call you up and say, look, we like what you do, and we’re looking for a particular colour or texture to add to the recording, and then they just let you loose? Or do they come to you with preconceived notions?

I’m better with the former, versus the latter. If they heard something I did with somebody and they liked it, and they just trust that I’ll do something like that, or they heard that when they were planning to put guitar on their music, that works good for me.

You’ve heard all the names I’ve listed. Is there one particular artist with whom you had a really good time creating music?

Every one of them, I did. Every one. I’ve never had a bad experience, to be honest.

So, let me ask you what it was like working with Cassandra. She’s a monster talent. 

She’s a very good person. She’s very talented. Never was anything spoken about. The best stuff that I remember, you’d hear the song, we’d sit together, we’d have a coffee or some wine, and it was in a situation that was very loose. The studios were always non-studio-like. So those things were very organic — God, if you hear that word one more time — but it was, actually. You were growing something. I can’t think of a better word. That’s how it was with her. And it was also very scary, because I got it really early on when I met her that there’s a really good chance she’s not going to sing anything more than twice. You’re lucky if you get past once. Because she just doesn’t want to sing those words again. All really great singers, they really put themselves through that fire. There’s a real connection to why they’re singing those songs, and it’s hard to get through it for them. There’s something very emotional about it. So you don’t want to be the reason why, you know. You want to be connected to them, somehow, so you know what the bloody fray is to find. Before you even take an instrument out of the case, you know what it is they want.

She does an amazing version of Harvest Moon.

I’m on that song, and I can tell you a bit about that. When you hear that song, that’s how it was recorded. Everybody was drunk, to be honest. We went out for dinner, we were near the end of the record, and the producer Craig Street, he was pleading with her to do that song, and she didn’t really hear it. She didn’t want to do it. So, he was softening her up. [In the recording] you can actually hear wine glasses being put down, and the peepers that you hear at the beginning of the song are actually the doors of the barn, open. So what you’re hearing is actually how it went down. It was pretty chilling, actually.

Tell me the story of how Johnny Goldtooth and the Chevy Casanovas came to be. 

I was called to do a session, and I was to replace Mark Knopfler on a solo. His solo was beautiful. They just had heard enough of it, I don’t know. I went to do it, and I imagined a character. His name was Johnny Goldtooth, and this character was rough, ragged, tattooed, gold tooth, married multiple times. I thought, how would he play this? And I played it like that. And when the record came out, it was Mark Knopfler. So Johnny never made an appearance. So I decided to make a record of what would Johnny do, and that is that record.

Is your father involved in this at all?

My father is long gone, but he liked to dress up like matadors whenever he played — obviously, when it was a costume party. That was his default costume. He was a beautiful man. My father was a very handsome devil. So I just had that in the back of my mind, that Johnny would look like a matador, not knowing that I ran into this picture of my father playing with this beautiful look of this matador. So that became my Johnny staple.