Saturday, June 21, 2014

Musings on the Value of a Truly Good Producer

[The May 2014 issue of Recording Magazine featured a long and technically detailed cover story about the making of my album Two Pines, written by my producer Sven-Erik Seaholm. I was invited by the editor of Recording Magazine to write a guest editorial about the artist's perspective of the whole process. This is that piece.]
Making an album is not for the timid. It’s going to cost you some sleep, and more than a little money. It’s going to occupy your every waking moment for months. It’ll damage your health, your serenity, and your relationships. Some days you’ll be gripped with self-loathing and the compulsion to throw in the towel. Other days you’ll secretly entertain the thought that you might be a genius and your record a masterpiece. Then your sanity returns and you get back to work.
A journey this treacherous should never be taken alone. You’re going to need a great producer.
A producer is many things. A friend, a technician, a guide, a strategist, an organizer, a cheerleader, a shaman, a mom, a barista, a host, a roadie, a therapist, a confidant, a diplomat, a savant, a maker of sandwiches—but more than anything else, a producer is a trusted collaborator whose decisions at a thousand forks in the road could mean the life or death of your record. Sure mic placement matters. EQ, preamps, signal paths, and compression settings are all important. But the single most important element in any successful recording project is the relationship between the artist and the producer. If you don’t trust, rely on, respect, and admire your producer, you’re doomed.
I hadn’t made an album in seven years. Life got in the way. My day job as a philosophy professor and the demands of my expanding work as a writer and speaker pushed music off of center stage. I’d even fired myself from my own band The Coyote Problem. It was just all too much. But the songs kept coming. Seven years is a lot of songs. I had to do something. It was time to make an album.
As the song list came together I realized I needed a title song, one last piece to tie all the themes of the record together. I tuned my Taylor to a double drop D and wrote “Two Pines.”
I decided to call Sven-Erik Seaholm, the producer of The Coyote Problem’s two albums, Wire in 2005 and California in 2007. We’d worked well together, we had exceptional rapport, and most importantly we got great results. The two trophies for Best Americana Album from the San Diego Music Awards didn’t hurt. Art contests are weird but hey, I’ll take it.
At our first meeting we talked about what kind of record we wanted to make. Like Stephen Covey says, begin with the end in mind. I wanted a raw, warm, open sound. I wanted three things front and center—the holy trinity of acoustic guitar, bass, and drums. We talked about Neil Young’s “Out on a Weekend.” We talked about Tom Petty’s “You Don’t Know How it Feels.” We talked about Nashville vs. Austin, hi-fi vs. lo-fi, and Steve Earle. We talked about the nearly impossible goal of getting a recorded acoustic guitar to sound like an acoustic guitar. Sven listened carefully, took it all in, and found a way.
As our first scheduled session grew near I upped my practice schedule. I wanted to be ready. I searched deep and long for the soul of this album. In any artistic project or process, the most important question is always the same. What to leave in and what to leave out? The pressure began to build.
I wasn’t nervous in front of the mic. I know how to play my songs. In fact, recording is really fun. It’s the editing that’ll get you. Especially when it came to guitar overdubs...
I’d do nine takes of Dobro on a song, and then Sven and I would start editing. It’s agonizing—which licks of which takes to put where. Thankfully, Sven has the uncanny ability to remember all of the moods and feels of all of them, and deftly moves through the song mousing and clicking and splicing and blending and bringing the best of the best together into one seamless performance. I’m always torn by indecision and haunted by the takes not used—what if there’s a gem in there we’re leaving out? Watching your producer edit is like handing him a scalpel and closing your eyes. This is why trust is so important.
I came to rely on Sven to do the right thing, and nine times out of ten we agreed. When we didn’t, he’d listen and either change his mind or gently make his case. It often felt like we were one person, one man with two heads and four hands, and we were making music together. People who don’t make records have no idea how deeply embedded a producer is. I was there for every edit, but there isn’t one note on this album that Sven hasn’t touched, nurtured, birthed, and brought to life. Sure, I sang it and played it. But in a very real sense, so did he.
In the end, that’s the greatest gift a producer gives an artist—a safe place to be who they really are. It’s the little things. Having the coffee ready. Knowing when you need another take and when you don’t. Supporting you through a thousand decisions, sometimes leading, sometimes following, until you don’t know who’s in charge. You just know that something good is happening, and you’re thrilled to be a part of it.
Peter Bolland is an Americana artist, writer, and educator who lives and records in the San Diego area. Keep an eye on for information about the upcoming release of his new album Two Pines.

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