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Kassirer’s ear for Americana’s future

Sam Kassirer, 32, of Arlington, produces recordings in his studio (sometimes the rooms of the house) in Maine. He has played piano since he was 7, and been Josh Ritter’s keyboardist for 12 years, along with producing three Ritter albums.bill greene/globe staff/Globe Staff

PARSONSFIELD, Maine — The Great North Sound Society is a retreat-style recording studio, which is a polite way of saying there’s not much else to do in these parts of southern Maine. It’s awfully quiet where Sam Kassirer purchased an old farmhouse five years ago and has gradually turned it into a factory that has shaped some of the finest records in contemporary Americana music.

After finding a listing online, Kassirer bought the house, which dates to 1790, “on a touring musician’s salary.” At the time he didn’t envision it being a studio, but rather a place to store his growing collection of instruments. It’s a bewildering warren of rooms, some of which are devoted for sleeping quarters and most all of which have been used at some point for recording an instrument or a singer in an isolated room.


An addition to the building houses what Kassirer calls “the Live Room,’’ which is where most of the recording takes place. Painted tangerine orange, it’s vibrant and warm and decked out with three pianos, three organs, various drum components, tubular bells, and a vibraphone. A giant rack of elk antlers is mounted on the back wall.

The nearest town, Limerick, is about 10 minutes away, so stop first for gas or a bite to eat. Few cars breeze past Kassirer’s front door. The back door opens to an expanse of snow-capped pine trees. Cellphone reception is spotty, and Kassirer jokes that if you want Wi-Fi, please go to the house’s Internet cafe — which means standing in front of a particular window where the signal is strongest. Aside from that, you’re here for one task: to make a record.

“I believe going somewhere to record an album has value,” Kassirer, 32, says recently en route to the studio, driving his spacious Grand Marquis (no, it didn’t once belong to his grandfather) with a reporter in the front seat and his sweet dog, Lucy, curled up in the back. “It adds focus and a vibe to everything going on.”


The Great North Sound Society might be off the beaten path, but plenty of bands have made the trek here to work with Kassirer, who grew up in Weston and now lives with his wife and daughter in Arlington. (He also happens to be a younger brother of Rich Kassirer, who works at the Globe.)

Kassirer’s production credits cut across a broad swath of indie folk and country acts, from established artists (Josh Ritter, Kris Delmhorst, Langhorne Slim) to rising stars (David Wax Museum, Lake Street Dive). Already this year Kassirer has put his stamp on “Battles,” the new album by Boston roots-rockers Kingsley Flood, and on Tuesday his streak continues with the release of Josh Ritter’s gorgeous “The Beast in Its Tracks.” Kassirer also produced the forthcoming album by Lake Street Dive, a buzzed-about folk-soul band based in New York.

Kassirer is perhaps most known for his work with Ritter, having produced three of the singer-songwriter’s records, starting with 2007’s “The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter.” He has been a member of Ritter’s band for the past 12 years as its keyboardist.

“What I love about him is that he’s the best kind of dreamer,” says Ritter. “He’s willing to cut free of everything, but he’ll take notes while he’s doing it. There’s never an idea that gets lost on him.”


For as long as he can remember Kassirer was always on a musical path: “I was one of those single-minded kids who knew from the beginning that I was only good at one thing,” he says.

He was a voracious music listener from an early age and started piano lessons at 7. He hated them. “I had this Israeli teacher who had tail-less cats that would walk all over the place and [who] would slap my hands with a ruler. It was totally classic,” he says.

His mother, who also plays piano, suspected he would fare better at jazz piano, and Kassirer started taking lessons at 9. He hadn’t even been interested in jazz at that point, but his young mind reeled with the possibilities that improvisation imparted. His world suddenly revolved around the masters: Thelonious Monk, Herbie Hancock, Duke Ellington (whose surname Kassirer took for his 5-month-old daughter).

The Great North Sound Society produces music in an old farmhouse in remote Pa rsonfield, Maine. “I believe going some where to record an album has value,” Kassirer says.Bill Greene/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

While still in high school, Kassirer took jazz piano classes at New England Conservatory before ending up at New York University to study jazz performance. He played all kinds of music around town, from jazz ensembles to salsa bands. He was hungry. He finally caught a break his senior year at NYU: Ritter asked him to hit the road with the band.

Kassirer started playing with Ritter almost by chance. Zachariah Hickman, Ritter’s bassist and a noted producer in his own right, met Kassirer through a mutual friend when Kassirer was at NYU. Hickman wasn’t able to make a gig at a festival in Vermont and suggested Kassirer join the band in his place.


“What I love about his playing is that there’s a narrative,” Ritter says. “It’s cool to play in a band where we’re all listening to each other and there’s a story going on.”

The same philosophy applies to Kassirer’s production work.

“It’s my style to make sure that whatever I’m playing needs to be there,” Kassirer says, “and that extends to producing records, too. Everything on a recording should be essential, and if it’s not, it’s gotta go. I preach that to bands all the time.”

But he’s also known for expanding a band’s palette. On David Wax Museum’s most recent album, “Knock Knock Get Up,” Kassirer encouraged the Mexican-inspired folk band to incorporate some of its influences. The opening track, a propulsive love song called “Will You Be Sleeping?,” starts with a snippet of a field recording Wax and his musical partner Suz Slezak had captured of a son jarocho musician in Mexico. It’s peripheral but pivotal in setting the joyous tone of the record.

“I don’t think I even understood what a producer was until we worked with Sam,” says Wax, who first enlisted Kassirer to work on his band’s 2011 release, “Everything Is Saved.” “I think he’s a visionary who has boundless creative ideas. There are so many pieces to pull together, and I think he identifies the strengths of the musicians and pushes them to blossom.”


“It’s hard to say enough positive things about working with him,” Wax adds. “He has a good ear for something that’s unconventional. He doesn’t want you to do something that’s already been done before. He wants to bring out the best in you.”

James Reed can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GlobeJamesReed.