Music production is a funny old game. Too slick, overly accomplished and glossy and you risk sucking the life out of a record. Too loose, laid back and dirty and you end up with something that can struggle to rise above demo level. A good producer can bring to life even the oddest of hidden gems in a songwriter’s armoury; a bad one can all but destroy your best work. All the classic producers – George Martin, Glyn Johns, Rick Rubin, Phil Spector, Brian Eno – recognised (some of them still do) that somewhere a balance has to be struck. Steer the ship with purpose and poise, but don’t be afraid to venture into choppier seas – that’s where the magic can happen. But above all, make sure you let the songs speak for themselves.
That being said, the best producers are often booked because they have a certain way of working (ranging from shouty, neurotic and controlling to polite, helpful and quietly judgmental) and a distinctive style all of their own. Indeed, artists will actively hunt out those who can help widen their creative palette beyond the usual five-guys-in-a-room schtick, and help to carve something exciting and sonically progressive from their latest big ol’ block of songs. Veering off course doesn’t always go to plan of course, but at least it’s interesting – legendary Canadian folk troubadour Ron Sexsmith’s recent album “Long Player, Late Bloomer” saw him work quite unexpectedly with Bob Rock, the man behind Bon Jovi and Aerosmith records, with the acknowledged aim of scoring him the biggest hit record of his career. And guess what? It worked. The direct result, however, has been a much more stripped down affair in Ron’s newest record “Forever Endeavour” which is equally as strong but for entirely different reasons (we’ll be investigating more fully over the next few shows).
One man who has been at the forefront of practically all the great singer/songwriter (and the odd band) records of recent years is Ethan Johns – son of the aforementioned Glyn. Following in his father’s footsteps, Ethan very much favours the back to basics approach and with a drum sound that has become all his own (a trick borrowed from his old man using a couple of vintage mics strategically placed in the sweet spot of the room). I first became aware of his name on the back sleeve of Ryan Adams’ “Heartbreaker” – an album that got me through the numbing hours of dissertation writing in my final year at University – and then just about every record of worth that I bought after that seemed to bare his stamp. Ray LaMontagne’s “Trouble”, Kings Of Leon’s “Aha Shake Heartbreak”, Laura Marling’s “I Speak Because I Can” and more recently Tom Jones’ “Praise And Blame” and The Staves’ “Dead & Born & Grown” have all been of his own shaping. His is a sound that doggedly sticks to classic production techniques and real instruments, with the odd bell, whistle and creaking door here and there for good measure. Quite astoundingly all of his records end up starkly honest – as if each act has quietly bled on the floor with quiet surrender whilst laying down the tracks. Ethan Johns’ great mastery is to make it all sound so effortless.
Which makes our Record of Note on the show this week very interesting. Not only is it produced by Ethan Johns, it’s also by him – his first solo record ever, aptly titled “If Not Now Then When?”. His trademark sound is still there, but it’s a brave producer who puts his own songs and voice under the spotlight. It could have been a disaster, but thankfully it’s not. In fact, it’s quite the thing. Judge for yourselves when we play three tracks from the album during the course of the show.
As for the rest we’ll be listening to music from Jim James, First Aid Kit, Rilo Kiley, Besnard Lakes and more, plus our Undercover Writers Talking Heads (not to be missed) and Live On Arrival with Lisa Hannigan. Can’t say fairer than that. The place to be? BBC Radio Scotland this Thursday at 10.05pm. How’s that for slick production.