Excerpted from Unlocking Creativity: A Producer’s Guide to Making Music and Art, Michael Beinhorn (Soundgarden, Red Hot Chili Peppers) talks about a record producer’s obligation to get to know the artist and the music before entering the recording studio.
It never fails to amaze me that many people who identify themselves as record producers commence work on recording projects without knowing anything about the songs or artists they’re going to record.
Yep, you read that right. There are people getting paid cash money to make records who start a recording without knowing a single note of the music they’re going to be working on. It’s as though they think that everything will just magically happen while they leisurely sit back, dispense a few sage platitudes, and let the Pro Tools guy fix what doesn’t sound right.
Even more bizarre to me are those record producers who have actually listened to the music they’ll be working on and have no ideas or thoughts about how to improve any of it. I can’t help but wonder if this sort of cavalier attitude would be permissible in any other business or type of work. How would you feel about having a surgeon stand over you, scalpel in hand, and as the anesthesia starts to kick in, he ever so casually mentions that he has no idea what he’s supposed to be doing for you?
The fact is, nothing great has ever come from anyone passively sitting back and making neither a conscious effort nor contribution to what they were supposed to be doing. Especially not when their agreement to work on a project also represents a commitment to giving it their very best efforts.
All recordings need some degree of prep work. This may be as simple as listening to the songs you’ll be working on and getting to know them. Personally, I feel it means getting immersed in them to the point where they become part of my DNA. And yes, I’m aware that by saying this I’m admitting that I develop a personal relationship with, and thereby a proprietary attitude toward someone else’s music. For better or worse, that is how I work when I’m wearing my record producer hat. As a result, I must constantly be aware of when I’m becoming too proprietary toward someone else’s music.
The way I see it, an artist is coming to me for guidance and I’ve represented myself as being the man for the job. I might as well sit down and listen to what she does. It also won’t hurt if I take note of what feels right and wrong to me about it. Since I have connected with it and decided to work on it, I can invest myself in cracking its code and help make it feel as right as possible.
If you can detect that something in a piece of music doesn’t feel right to you, sit with it and try to develop a deeper understanding of what feels wrong. First, it helps to identify what exactly is making you feel uncomfortable. For example, is there an issue with the song structure? If so, is it in the melody, chord selection, or chord sequence? Is there an arrangement or orchestration issue or is there an issue in the performance? Next, consider a solution that might improve this issue and how you can best put it into effect. It is always helpful to establish a baseline standard for both good and bad elements. For example, by combining your feeling for the artist’s body of work with your personal aesthetics, you can establish a baseline for what you consider to be the best and worst ideas she has presented. Once you have established a baseline standard of the artist’s best work, you can use that as a general point of reference. From there, you can help the artist to maintain everything he does at that baseline or attempt to surpass it.
Concentration and focus are necessary to assess and prep an artist’s songs, and you should be prepared to spend as much time as possible in order to do this effectively. If you can’t or won’t invest yourself in working with an artist’s music at this level, you have no business trying to produce it.
This stage of work doesn’t end once pre-production begins, or even when the project goes into a recording studio. Well into the recording process, I have constant flashes of inspiration regarding new instrument parts, arrangement and performance ideas, and other embellishments. By remaining completely open to inspiration, the creative well never runs dry. Often, ideas and parts bubble up from my unconscious while I’m listening to something else I’m currently working on. An idea may pop into my head when I’m doing something completely mundane and meditative, like washing dishes or driving. Frequently, ideas come at night when my brain doesn’t want to shut off and needs an excuse to keep working. This always reminds me of how excited I was as a little boy to stay up late. It hasn’t really changed.
After listening to a song a few times, I generally have the entire structure memorized and can listen to it at will, using my mind as a playback device. I’ll often work on music this way, focusing on what doesn’t feel right and imagining a fix, a new part, and/or sound. I’ll assess whether the music is speaking clearly to me and delivering all its emotion. Whenever the emotional content is lacking, I instantly lose my connection to the music. The same thing happens if the artist isn’t connected with his own performance.
The interview process
Prior to working with a producer, the artist should get to know the producer and the producer can begin evaluating the artist. This is where the relationship between the producer and the artist begins. This doesn’t need to be a formal interview, but that’s basically what it is.
I feel it’s important for me to get to know the artist as an individual while also becoming familiar with his work and process. Taking time to find out about his life, his background, likes, dislikes, family, what influenced him to become an artist, what/who inspires him, and so on, helps me to understand him and relate to him as an individual. Knowing about the artist’s background can provide deeper insights regarding what motivates and drives him and generally makes it easier to work effectively with him. This may sound a bit too involved, but we are forming the basis for a very intimate relationship, and the better I can serve this relationship, the better the creative process will likely be.
Before meeting, I will sometimes ask the artist to write a paragraph on why he wants to do creative work. This is another way to see how he feels about what he is doing and what compels him to do it. It also helps focus his intent, because through this exercise, he’s essentially being asked to concentrate on identifying what it is, thereby, making him consciously aware of it. This part of the process is optional and I only do it if it feels appropriate.
The initial meeting process is ideally conversational – relaxed and informal – and generally doesn’t feel like an interview. Here are a few questions I might ask an artist when we meet:
- What exactly are you looking for by doing creative work? If you haven’t considered this question before, how does it make you feel now?
- Would you be satisfied working in a big corporation or serving drinks in a bar, or is creative work something you couldn’t imagine not doing?
- Do you seek success?
- Do you seek fame?
- How do you define success?
- How do you define appreciation from others for the work that you do? Is appreciation from others absolutely necessary? What would it feel like/look like if you were to attain what you are striving for?
- How do you view yourself?
- Can you find positivity in loss or rejection and work through them?
- Can you transform the experience of loss or rejection into something that inspires you to achieve your goals?
- Can you see yourself moving beyond your present boundaries in order to achieve things you can’t imagine at this moment?
- What is a formative experience in your life that taught you about loss, or about pain?
- What is a formative experience in your life that taught you about success, or about happiness?
- What is a formative experience in your life that demonstrated to you that you needed to do creative work?
- Do you have any specific questions you want to ask me (the producer) about how I work, my feelings about your music, or how I feel about anything else?
Post conversation, I often write down my thoughts about the experience of meeting the artist and the feelings I got from it. I consider how I felt speaking with him—if the experience felt good or if there were any weird or uncomfortable moments while we spoke.
Reviewing and analyzing my feelings helps me decide whether or not the artist is a good candidate to work with. These feelings are often a very accurate barometer for predicting what our relationship will become in any future creative collaboration.
Unlocking Creativity: A Producer’s Guide to Making Music and Art (Hal Leonard Books), is written by record producer and Grammy Award nominee Michael Beinhorn (Herbie Hancock, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Soul Asylum, Hole, Soundgarden, Ozzy Osbourne, Courtney Love, Marilyn Manson, Social Distortion, Korn, and Mew). This unique book reveals how to deal with interpersonal issues record producers face when they work with artists one-on-one or in small groups, which can make the difference in a good recording or a great one.
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