Make the Most of Your Songs: Interview with producer Thom Monahan

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Producer Thom Monahan works with a wide variety of bands and songwriters including Devendra Banhart and Vetiver.
Producer Thom Monahan works with a wide variety of bands and songwriters including Devendra Banhart and Vetiver.

Part I: Songs and production with Thom Monahan
Connecting with producer Thom Monahan took a little doing, since he was halfway around the world in Tel Aviv, Israel, tracking a new album with singer/songwriter Geva Alon. We started our phone interview discussing his background, including his eight-year stint with well-respected songwriter Joe Pernice, during which time they recorded ten albums. Monahan was not only a member of the band, but he also engineered and produced. He has also produced albums by Devendra Banhart, Beachwood Sparks, Lavender Diamond, and Little Joy. One clear lesson Monahan has learned includes the importance of having great songs when you set out to make a record.

What makes a particular song memorable to you?
Personally, I’m a sucker for all things melancholy, you know, the “great lament.” That’s what makes a song striking to me. And that doesn’t mean a song has to be a sappy ballad, it can be upbeat, angry, or happy and still have that quality. Take the Ramones, for example, they have plenty of songs with the great lament, like their tune “53rd and 3rd,” a song about the drug dealing at that corner from their 1976 debut album.

Another thing that can make a song memorable is its melody. I’m preparing to do a record with a band called The Brother Kite, from Providence. As we’ve gotten to know each other, I’ve heard their songwriting progress and one of the things that really stands out to me are the amazingly beautiful melodies that they have come up with. Even in the early demos I received from the band, there was a great sense of melodicism that really caught my ear.

Tell me about demo recordings and their role in the writing and recording process.
A number of years ago, demo recordings would be pretty rough, enough to get an idea of a song’s structure, but it might not have been something to build a master around. That has all changed with the coming of age of flexible home recording tools that any musician can use. All of an artist’s creativity can be expressed working this way.

Tight Knit, Vetiver's 2009 CD showcases songwriter Andy Cabic's talents.
Tight Knit, Vetiver's 2009 CD showcases songwriter Andy Cabic's talents.

For instance, I did an album titled Bride of Dynamite with an artist named Rio en Medio, and on the demo, I heard this unbelievable kick drum sound and wondered how I was going to match that in the studio. It turned out the artist hadn’t recorded a kick drum, they had slammed a bible on a table and recorded that sound for the kick. Similarly, on the most recent Vetiver record (Tight Knit, released last February), Andy Cabic had demoed most of the songs at home using Garage Band. As it turned out, we ended up using those original demos as our basis for three of the songs, and rebuilt each song, a track at a time, to maintain the feeling that was there on those early demos. For me, there’s something really authentic in what an artist lays down at 3 AM in his bedroom. To get back to that same place emotionally, you may have to travel a long distance in the studio – or you may never get back there.

How would you approach a songwriter who is still learning how to structure his or her ideas, or may have trouble keeping their songs lean?
For me, a big part of the process is just hanging out, getting to know what kind of music they like, and finding a common language to talk about songs. You have to be totally honest. If I’m producing a band, I might ask the question, “why is this song so long?” Because once you’ve said what you really need to say, you might be able to end it. The longer a song is, the more it asks of the listener to say engaged. Sometimes I’ll mention a group called The La’s, who had a hit with “There She Goes.” Their 1990 self-titled album has a number of really good songs that are under two minutes in length. They hit everything they needed to and then they ended the song. In fact, on one track, “Son of a Gun,” the song stops halfway through the last verse, because they had said everything that was necessary. In cutting down a song’s length, you have to be ruthless, burning down the song’s ideas like a crucible, until you’re only left with what it is you absolutely need to say.

Do you think the ease of recording tools leads to over-production?
Everyone who gets into recording will try to take a song as far as they can, and sometimes that may mean you take it a bit too far. When that happens, you have to take a little time away from the song, and then peel it back a bit to get back to the basic idea you originally had. It’s a learning process that you go through to figure out just how much production fits a particular song.

The 1990 self-titled release by The La's has become one of Thom Monahan's reference points for concisely written pop songs.
The 1990 self-titled release by The La's has become one of Thom Monahan's reference points for concisely written pop songs.

Part of learning how to record and produce is also learning to recognize when a song doesn’t need any more production. On Vetiver’s second album (2006’s Find Me Gone), there’s a song called “Maureen” that from the moment I first heard the demo, I thought was beautiful just as it was. I felt that I’d have to work to get it just right in the studio to maintain the feeling of that demo. We decided to re-record it exactly as Andy hade made the demo. So we doubled the guitar, then the voice, and then when we had the same feeling, we overdubbed some drums on top of that. We were able to get back to the same place as the demo, but keeping the production very true to the simplicity which makes that song so effective.

What advice can you give up-and-coming songwriters to help them fine tune and strengthen their chops?

I guess I’d say that people should try to write about the things that they feel most deeply. A really great song can give you the experience of place; it can make you feel you’ve gone somewhere after you’ve heard it. Next, you should have a sense of classic song form. When I get to know really talented songwriters, I find that inevitably, they are music geeks. They voraciously digest as much music as they can. They process and study it all, which in turn, ends up informing the things that they end up doing. Even though we live in an era when you can musically build anything imaginable out of sine waves in the studio, a really great song always stands out.

Part II: Songs and publishing, with Gary Miller
Universal Music Publishing Group (UMPG) is ne of the largest music publishers in the world, administering more than one million songs in a catalog that spans virtually every type of popular music. Gary Miller is Universal’s Vice President of Film and Television Music Creative, a role that allows him to market Universal’s diverse back catalog of songs as well as a continuous stream of new releases to the film and television industry.

What makes a song memorable for you?
That’s such a hard question, because I hear so many different songs, all with something great about them. But to generalize, for me personally, it is a combination of an interesting melody that sounds familiar, but hasn’t been done – you know, although it’s original, it sounds like something you’ve heard, but you can’t place when or where. My ears also enjoy a nice level of production, and a great lyric. You can spot the kind of empty, thrown-together songs quickly compared to the ones that really have some substance. In my opinion, there are simply too many songs about relationships. And then there’s songs where the lyrics are just fun, and those songs can move you too; they don’t have to be heavy. For whatever reason, a memorable song will move you, and that reason may be different for each person.

Gary Miller of Universal Music Publishing Group
Gary Miller of Universal Music Publishing Group

Don’t forget that in my position, I listen to music in an entirely different way than most people. I’m not listening to find a song for a specific artist, I listen to multiple songs based on the needs of the particular project I’m working on. Yesterday, I spent the morning looking for a ‘60s psychedelic rock song for a car company. Then at lunch I went and listened to a metal band. In the afternoon, I tried to locate a song that had some of the qualities of Justin Timberlake’s “Sexy Back.” So I have to think about what it is that appeals to my client about that particular song. In this case, I know that there’s a physical comedy element to the scene in question that the music must play to, plus, there’s an actor singing it. So what songs will work in that situation, and who will be OK with an on-camera performance by an actor versus the use of a particular master recording? That defines my search criteria. It’s a very different approach than if I were looking for a great hook and a particular spin to place a song with a recording artist.

Does my production need to be radio-quality if I’m trying to get film/TV placement?
Basically, yes. We’re placing finished masters, there really isn’t any market for a simple demo, although for certain productions, I have clients that are looking for ‘demo masters.’ If you put those two words together, what you have are basically master-quality songs that aren’t released yet, but they are good enough to be released.

How polished does the production of a song demo need to be for your purposes?
It really has a lot to do with whom you’re going to be playing the song for. For a lot of the artists looking for songs, a relatively high percentage of them are looking for a song that is all but done, in the style of that artist, especially if you’re coming in late on a record. They don’t want to have to think too far outside the box. However, if you’re in touch with someone much earlier in the album-making process, they might just be looking for that right lyric and melody, one that they’re ready to put their stamp on. But more often than not, if you’re demoing a song for an artist, you should be familiar with that artist’s style and sound, and put your demo squarely in their space. That means that if you’re sending your song to an artist who uses top-level players who are doing some interesting things musically, you may need to bring some pro people in to play on your recording to get it to that artist’s level.

Can a good song overcome a poor performance or minimal production?
A good publisher might hear your song and imagine where it could go. You’ll have a better chance with a publisher than an artist hearing that same song, with so-so production values. A publisher is more likely to hear your potential as a writer, and if they become interested, they will give you the extra time and attention to develop.

Let’s say I’m purely a songwriter, not a performer. What’s your advice?
Whatever genre you want to be doing, you have to look at where that is happening, and you have to get yourself into the mix in those places. If country is what you do, you have to be in Nashville, there’s really no alternative. If you’re more into R&B and hip hop, then New York, LA, and Atlanta also have a lot going on.

What if I want to submit my songs to a music publisher? What do I do?
At this office, we don’t accept any unsolicited materials. Not only do we not have the time, but if one of our artists comes out with a song down the road that sounds a little bit like a submission we received, even if we never listened to that submission, we may be opening ourselves up to some level of liability. If you’re serous about writing and publishing, you need to become part of the community that is making the kind of music you want to be doing, and get to know the people who are in that community. Those artists, producer, engineers, mixers are all in touch with one another.

(Ed, note: Each music publisher sets their own guidelines for submissions from writers, so it makes sense to see which publishers have a strong track record in the genres you are interested in, and then find out if they do accept submissions. A number of small to mid-sized publishers do accept unsolicited song demos. In that case, be sure to include your recording, lyric sheets and a bio, if you’re a pure writer. TAXI also is a great service to subscribe to if you are serious about trying to place songs or music.)

Is there a one-to-one ratio between radio popularity and film/TV placement? That is, does commercial success lead to a lot of licensing?
Not necessarily. While an artist may resonate well with the public, for whatever reason, they may not find a lot of activity in the film and TV world, and vice versa. A current example would be a band like All-American Rejects. Their last single, “Gives You Hell,” did rather well by all commercial standards these days, but aside from a couple of uses here and there, the song didn’t get the kind of attention you might expect from the film/TV world. So no, there isn’t a one-to-one relationship when looking at a charted song versus that song’s activity in film and TV licensing.

On the flip side, we’ve got artists that may not be household names, but because music supervisors often want to be the first on the scene to introduce a band to the mainstream, those artists find a good deal of success in the film and TV world. As a result, there are a lot of opportunities for indie artists and writers. Get your MySpace page and get your music out there. It’s possible today that you’ll get some attention to find a placement for one of your songs a TV show. There may not be a lot of money for such deals because some of the uses are pretty brief and music budgets are shrinking, and the amount of available material is seemingly endless. However, occasionally you may hit a best case scenario, in which you get the right show, and it’s featured the right way, and you get an ad card at the end of the show. If all that happens, then an indie artist can turn that use into some nice additional record sales. However, for every one of those, I can point to a thousand or so licenses where it was just a use in a show, that simply resulted in a license fee and a bit of performance income.

Story Links
Thom Monahan’s Wikipedia entry:

Hear some of Thom’s production work at:

Universal Music Publishing Group:

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