When you’re starting a project, do you have an end goal that you’re working towards sonically?
It depends. If the artist has an identifiable sound that they just wish to expand upon, then I have an idea of what I think it can sound like at the end, so I’ll try and move towards that.
But I’m also willing to go with the flow, because the best-laid plans don’t necessarily materialize, so you’ve got to be flexible.
Sometimes it takes you a couple of songs to really identify the strength of the collective group of people in the room.
All of a sudden you go, “Okay, this is what these people really do exceptionally well,” and then you hone the sound towards that.
I still try to make it different enough from song to song so it doesn’t sound like I just repeated the same trick, but also sounding familiar enough that it feels cohesive from top to bottom.
I’ll try different drums, different drum kits; maybe instead of using a full-size drum kit, I’ll use a smaller-sized kit. Things like starting out with one sound in the verses and expanding on it in the choruses, or vice versa.
And so much of it is dependent on the lyrics. If it’s a lyrically intensive song, then I think so much of it is about space and not about the constant musical backing.
So you’re saying you actually shape the music to fit the lyrical content.
Oh, yeah. I love the musical backdrop, but I usually start my mix by pushing up the vocal fader so I’m building from that perspective.
At some point I’ll turn the voice off for a couple of minutes and listen to the musical balance, but I’m always thinking in terms of telling a story. The voice is the thing that’s leading the story; the other elements are supporting components.
What criteria do you use to determine whether you want to work with a new artist?
Good songs, the ability to perform, and a strong personality. I’m looking for somebody who’s got a vision and a passion.
I don’t want it to be so considered-sounding that they think, “I can be a musician and an artist because I’m smart and I’m technically able to do these things and my level of musicianship is high enough.”
I want people who are really passionate about music, because that’s what ultimately comes across. There are some artists out there who are really good, who may be very competent musicians, but they don’t have the desire to be incredibly successful.
Some producers try to avoid working with strong-willed artists, preferring instead to work with people who are willing to be shaped and molded.
Ultimately the artists who are most successful are the ones who are most driven. That doesn’t mean you have to butt heads with them; they can be incredibly affable people, even if that desire burns within them.
I distinctly remember working with U2 and thinking that the whole band was so driven, but it didn’t seem overt. They just wanted to be the best band in the world. They didn’t have to step over a lot of people to achieve it, either—they just let their music do it for them.
I was fortunate enough to do the first Paula Cole record and she had that same passion. She had the drive to want to succeed—same with most of the artists I’ve been fortunate to work with. Some have been more successful than others, but they all had that passion.
Often, an artist has a successful debut album working with an established producer and then they decide they can take over the production themselves on the second album and fall short.
Well, producing a record is not just about making the musical decisions. There are so many other things, from choosing the right musicians to choosing the right studio. Then there are all the intangibles, like figuring out how to work the budget.
You need to understand how all the decisions you’re making on a day-to-day basis affect the bottom line, and how that’s going to impact on how you finish the record.
Knowing how to coax the best performances out of people, having the ability to step back, keeping the overall vision. Some artists have that vision themselves, of course—Prince is a great example—but it’s a tough job.
Coming from where I sit, I think the best records are made in the collaborative process. Most artists will tell you that their record turned out sonically different and probably much better than they ever imagined because of that interaction of the collective in the room.
Some-times it happens by accident, sometimes it happens by design, but who cares as long as the net result is a compelling piece of music?