Like a cat with nine lives, Peter Collins’ career has had multiple incarnations. He’s a pop producer. He’s a rock producer. He’s a folk producer. You’d have to look long and hard to find anyone who’s worked with a more diverse group of artists.
Though he started out as a jingle writer in his native England in the ’70s, Collins soon found himself in demand for his studio abilities, eventually pairing with talent-spotter Pete Waterman, with whom he co-produced a number of U.K. hits for pop singer-songwriter Nik Kershaw and comedienne Tracey Ullman. A move to the United States in 1985 and a fortuitous meeting of the minds with Rush re-established Collins in the world of rock, leading to several platinum albums with the Canadian power trio as well as with Queensrÿche, Bon Jovi, Alice Cooper, Gary Moore and retro-rockabilly cat Brian Setzer.
At the same time he was cranking out hits for the gods of stadium rock, he was also beginning a long-term collaboration with the decidedly folk-oriented Indigo Girls, leading to yet another career transformation and a shift to working with artists like Jewel, Nanci Griffith, Shawn Mullins, Beth Nielsen Chapman, Lisa Loeb and LeAnn Rimes.
The secret to crafting hit records regardless of genre, according to Collins, is the strength of the material. “It may be a cliché, but the song is where it all begins,” he says adamantly. Turns out this was a lesson he learned the hard way. “Early in my career, I remember getting together with this young English pop band at the mansion they’d rented in L.A., where they were about to record their second album,” he says. “After watching them splash about in their swimming pool and sitting with them for a magnificent catered dinner, I finally said, ‘OK guys, now let’s run through the songs we’ll be recording.’ There was nothing but stunned silence—it was a real Spinal Tap moment,” he remembers with a laugh. History almost repeated itself a few years later when Collins agreed to produce an album for a guitar hero who’d sold millions of records on the basis of his image and playing, but had precious few songs. “I ended up doing the album with him, but it nearly derailed my career!” he exclaims. “Ever since, I’ve made it a rule to insist on hearing the material before I commit to a project.”
Sound advice, and only one of the many nuggets offered by the soft-spoken Collins whose most recent project is the new Indigo Girls’ Beauty Queen Sister.
Why did you relocate to Nashville? There aren’t as many transplanted British producers based here as there are in L.A.
Originally, it was because my ex-wife came from the area and wanted to raise our children here, but I’m glad I stayed, because this is one town where the song is king. In that respect, Nashville is a gold mine, especially since the line between pop and country has become so thin. Shania Twain changed the whole landscape of what is country and what isn’t. There have always been great writers here, but ever since her success, the city has attracted more diversity. There were different criteria as to what made a song “country” before Shania, and a lot of the L.A. or London transplants, as I was, were deemed to not truly know what a country song was. And we probably didn’t. But it doesn’t matter so much now. After all, a good pop song can be easily adapted to country, just by overdubbing a pedal steel guitar or a banjo.
What special production tools do you feel your background has given you?
For one thing I have a pretty good British pop sensibility. When I became a rock producer that was quite an asset, because I was able to bring some pop elements to the music subversively, without the listener realizing it.
Actually, I think one of the reasons I’ve had success is that I have a very low attention span, so a song has to keep me interested from start to finish. Every part of a song has to be compelling for me. That’s accomplished through arrangement—not so much by bringing in new elements as by taking elements out. It’s like baking a cake: If you’ve got fabulous basic ingredients, you don’t need to put a ton of stuff into it.
I’m always amazed at how often producers bring up the cooking analogy.
(Laughs) It’s true. I love to cook, and it is very much like a production. If you have a few quality ingredients, you don’t need a lot of them. Same with making records: If you’ve got a great song and great musicians, you don’t need much more. I find the older I get, the more I want to hear “simple but good.
One thing I’ve noticed is many singer-songwriters kind of strum through their songs; for some reason, they don’t pay much attention to guitar arrangement. I want to hear parts; I want to hear musical hooks, not just strumming. Too many artists think, “Oh, I’ll just strum a few chords for the intro and off we go,” whereas they could put in accents and come up with lines; there’s a ton of stuff you can do in the accompaniment to enhance the song, even at a very basic level.
What techniques have you come up with to get artists to focus on their arrangements?
Very often I’ll have them sing a song a cappella, and then I’ll ask a few key questions, like: What is actually needed to support this vocal line? Are there points where the song starts to get boring or one-dimensional? What do we need to do to keep the listener involved? That kind of approach is valid for everything from voice/guitar to full-blown arrangements.
Can’t a great song survive a lackluster arrangement?
Of course it can. But producers and writers have a responsibility to try to make things as good as they can possibly be, every inch of the way. Imagine “Fire and Rain” without that guitar arrangement. Sure, it would still be a great song even if James Taylor had just strummed his guitar, but those signature hammer-ons are what provide the magic. They give an added dimension that really makes the record stand out.
And then there’s the importance of the lyrics. Mary Gauthier is a dear friend of mine, though I haven’t yet had the opportunity to produce her. She spends a lot of time really making sure that every word sounds right and says what it needs to in an incredibly simplistic form. Songwriters sometimes forget how every single word of a song is important. It’s up to the producer to draw attention to any weaknesses in a song, though I don’t think it’s necessarily their job to make the fixes themselves.
Even though I have writing skills, I made a conscious decision early in my career not to do any writing on the records I produce. That’s because I’ve sensed that artists sometimes feel that the producer is trying to muscle in on their writing when they make suggestions about melody or chords or lyrics. Of course, if I’m asked to do so, I’ll jump in, but I feel I need to be invited. If I’m not invited, I’ll say things like, “That line needs to be stronger” without making specific suggestions. That way, the artist will feel that I’m coming purely from a production standpoint without trying to get more credit or take some of their publishing income. Hopefully the producer serves as a catalyst to the writers, to achieve the greatness that is in them.
What if the artist doesn’t have the songwriting skills to make the changes you want?
In that case, it’s generally better to involve another writer altogether rather than to try to do it yourself. It’s important to not have the artists feel intimidated by any perceived incursions into their realm. That said, I’ve actually decided to get back into writing, so hopefully I will begin collaborating with artists on that level when the opportunity presents itself.
Have you ever done any engineering, or do you see yourself purely as a producer?
I started out at Decca, where there was a very strong delineation between the engineering staff and the production staff, so I come from that tradition. Of course, I’d sneak in after hours and fiddle around, and later on I had my own four-track demo setup at home, so I know how it all works. But I much prefer having a great engineer sitting there twiddling the knobs so I can concentrate on the music and the performances. It just doesn’t thrill me to mess around with that stuff. In fact, I find engineering to be a total distraction when I’m producing. I take great pride in just being a producer, even though, with today’s economics, we “pure producers” are becoming a dying breed.
What are your thoughts about the loudness wars?
It’s absolute nonsense. What’s wrong with the listener just turning the volume up? I never understood that, and the older I get, the less I like compression, so I find that I’m using it less and less. I still love it on a lead vocal, but I’ve pretty much stopped using [stereo] bus compression to vibe everything up. I’d rather give the ears a rest and hear some space in the music.
Is that why listening to a whole CD from start to finish can be so fatiguing, compared to listening to music off vinyl?
That’s partly why, but another reason is that there’s too much material on the average CD. In vinyl, you were limited to 15 or 20 minutes a side, so it was a much shorter listening experience, plus you had to get up to turn the record over, which gave you a break. In addition, you couldn’t easily skip or shuffle tracks, making listening to a vinyl album much more of a cohesive experience. I still remember the thrill of buying a record you’d been waiting for on the day it was released and sitting and listening to it carefully from start to finish.
So are you saying there’s more filler material on CDs?
Sure. We all know that because you can fill up 80 minutes or so on a CD, you usually do fill them up. I often ask artists at the start of a project, “How many songs do we really want to do? Because we’re going to dilute the effort if we record more songs than we actually need.” Unless we have the luxury of a lot of time and a huge budget, I try to force the artist to focus on the 12 or 13 songs we really need. I’ll work on more songs in preproduction and in rehearsal, of course, because that allows you to weed out the ones that aren’t working. But once we get into the studio, I like to keep it to the bare minimum. Personally, I love 10-song albums.
Do you do a lot of preproduction?
To me, preproduction is where the record is made. It’s essential to spend at least a week in a rehearsal studio working out the arrangements before recording a single note. Not long ago, I had the pleasure of talking with [’60s producer] Fred Foster, and I asked him how the arrangement of “Pretty Woman” came about; I knew that they probably didn’t rehearse it much because in those days they had to get two or three songs done in every three-hour session. Fred told me that Roy [Orbison] would come into his office with his 12-string acoustic guitar once or twice a week, and they worked out the entire arrangement there: the drum parts, the main guitar lick, everything.
Yet preproduction is almost unheard of in Nashville.
It is. From what I can gather, when country records are made here, the musicians come into the control room, listen to a very good demo, write out their number charts, and out they go into the studio to play it. Paul Worley, who I’ve worked with, is one of the few producers here who has bucked that trend.
The beauty of preproduction is that you’re not under any pressure in the rehearsal studio; you can just kick ideas around and not worry about making an idiot of yourself. Plus the musicians don’t have to worry about getting it right the first time, so they can experiment. Preproduction frees you up to create greatness. It takes a lot of the stress out of recording and lets the musicians play and enjoy themselves and have confidence in what they’re doing.
Surgical perfection seems to be the goal of a lot of today’s recordings. Is that a goal you aspire to?
No, because perfection is not only boring, it’s unachievable. It’s totally subjective. From my point of view, unless there’s a blemish on a track which the listener would find distracting from the music, it should be left on there. What’s wrong with a track speeding up or slowing down? I love that because it’s natural. Unless the music starts getting noticeably sluggish, I don’t get paranoid about that sort of thing.
It’s really only in rock music where precision equals power, anyway. With bands like Rush and Queensrÿche, the tighter the music was, the more powerful it sounded, so I can see the merit in that for those genres. But, in general, no, I don’t aim for perfection. I just get good players, let them play and let it be human.
Personally, my goal is simply to make each recording as great as it can be. I feel that my responsibility as producer is to create a masterpiece if I possibly can. My mentality is that I don’t want to put my name on a record unless it’s great, and it’s a philosophy that’s worked pretty well for me throughout my career.
—By Howard Massey
Photo by Kay Williams
From Performing Songwriter Issue 116
Category: Producer's Corner