What trait do all great songwriters have in common?
“I often think about that,” says Don Was, when presented with the question. “And the answer is, none.” He laughs and continues. “Actually that should be encouraging to aspiring songwriters. If there’s anything they have in common—the greatest ones—it’s that they have no idea where the songs come from. It seems to be fairly random, where this gift lands.”
Was should know. Having amassed a body of work that seems astonishing even to himself, he has manned the boards for some of the greatest songwriters of our time: Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Elton John, Willie Nelson, Bonnie Raitt, Brian Wilson, Kris Kristofferson … the list goes on and on.
Was sat down with Performing Songwriter to share his views about what defines a great artist, and offer insights into the state of the music industry. He also draws a vivid analogy between the Rolling Stones and a sports team.
Let’s start off by talking Kris Krisofferson’s This Old Road. You took a really spartan approach for that.
Yeah. Kris had started playing solo shows, and when I saw him do that … you know, I’ve made two other records with him, and the thing that became apparent was that his singing jumped out more when there were fewer instruments being played. I saw him at South by Southwest a couple of years ago, when he had just started doing a tour where he was accompanying himself on guitar, and his singing sounded great. He’s one of those guys who—even though he’s a powerful character—the nuances of his interpretation can be obscured by something as simple as a snare drum. That was pretty clear. He was in favor of this approach, although I think he needed some encouragement that it was okay to make a record without a band.
The album really goes beyond just being spartan. There’s an unpolished quality to it as well.
It’s a pretty raw record. In addition to being sparse, you can hear cars driving by, you can hear an air conditioner going, and a refrigerator running in the background on some of the songs. It took some real restraint not to say something like, “There’s a car driving by; let’s do the song again.” But I’m really glad we didn’t touch the stuff. It’s an intensely personal sound, which I think matches the nature of the songs.
You also produced Jessi Colter’s Out of the Ashes. How did that come about?
I was friendly with her and Waylon [Jennings], and I had just gone to see her. She played me some songs, and they were amazing. That was a unique situation, where you have an artist who, in the ’70s, was really overflowing with creativity. In my opinion that never stopped, but Waylon cast a pretty long shadow. I think she was just kind of swept away, as was everyone who worked with him; he was such a giant. But I’ll say this: When it came time to do it—when there was no longer that shadow to stand in—what came out of her came out with incredible intensity. Maybe it required that buildup of 20 years of tension. It’s powerful music.
The music on that album brings to mind a number of blues icons—people like Koko Taylor—on some songs.
Well, she doesn’t feel the groove where most white people feel the groove. Her piano playing is so funky. That comes from going to church in the deep South, and really listening to a lot of black gospel music.
You’ve also produced several albums for the Rolling Stones, including 2005’s A Bigger Bang. Can you talk a bit about what you’ve learned from watching the way they work together?
There’s something in particular that struck me while we were making their last album. We did most of the recording in France, and at the time I was following the NBA, on the Internet. I had also recently read Phil Jackson’s book, Sacred Hoops. And what started to dawn on me is how a five piece rock ’n’ roll band is in many ways identical to a basketball team. That’s true of the Stones, especially, where you’ve got a center, and two forwards playing guitar, and guards on bass and drums. The Stones are like the Detroit Pistons, who are such a superb team. It’s a joy to watch the Pistons play, because of the interplay that goes on between them. It’s as if you reach a near-Utopian condition, or a rare moment when men cooperate together because they know it’s in their best interest as a group—and as individuals—to work together. The Pistons are always passing the ball, and they’re extremely generous with one another. No one’s trying to hog the ball. And the same thing is true of the Stones when they’re at their best.
So the idea that great things sometimes come out of Jagger and Richards because of tension between them is really a fallacy?
Well, there’s something else I discovered about the Stones. I’ve worked with them for about 13 years now, and what I realized—especially on this last record, because they were really cooperating as a band—is that although people think of them as this sloppy, drunken rock ’n’ roll thing, it’s not sloppy. That’s what I discovered. If you just go for sloppiness, then that’s all you’re going to get. What happens is this: Keith Richards is a rhythm guitar player whose rhythm guitar parts are often the melody of the song, just by virtue of the way the Stones write their songs. The rhythm riff for “Start Me Up,” for example, is also the melody of the song. And that’s true even in instances where Mick might have written the riff—on “Miss You,” for instance.
So, if the rhythm guitar player is also playing melody, that’s a pretty unique situation. Normally the rhythm guitar player plays in the holes, where the singer isn’t singing. In their case, however, the rhythm guitar player is doing what the lead guitar player normally does, and he’s playing the melody that the singer is singing, simultaneously. However, there’s a little disparity in where they feel the phrasing. Mick is more or less a rhythmically straight, up-and-down singer. He’s in the grid, whereas Keith has a more languid approach. That’s how Keith sings, as well. The place where they clash—where it gets a little messy, and they don’t land on the melody at the same time—is what the Rolling Stones’ sound is all about. It’s not messy. Basically it’s a duet—a duet of the melody, by Keith and Mick. And if you don’t have that, you don’t have a Rolling Stones record.
Is some of that also a function of the fact that many of the songs are written in open tunings?
Well, that’s given them distinctive sounding riffs, but I think it’s really a function of having riffs that are highly musical, that make you want to sing them.
What is it that keeps the Stones hungry to keep doing it at this point in their career?
They’re just like every other musician, on every level. They love to play more than anything else in the world. They riff off each other. It’s like a jazz group, really. And when you have a band like that … there’s not enough time to achieve that sort of thing twice in your lifetime. If they don’t have the Rolling Stones, they can’t do that. That’s why they go on. I know for a fact that they’re not sitting there thinking, “Let’s go out on tour and make another $200 million.” They get approached by people who come and say, “We think you can sell tickets again. Are you willing to come out and play?” Everyone would like to make a couple hundred million dollars, but that’s not why they do it. They’re timid about it. They’re like, “Are you sure people are going to come out? Are you sure they still want to hear this?”
Throughout your production career, you’ve tended to work with people who have really strong personalities.
You know, Chris Blackwell from Island Records has a theory that in the case of real stars, you should be able to draw caricatures of them—like the Al Hirschfeld New York Times caricatures. His theory was that you should be able to make cartoon characters out of people like that—people like Bob Marley or Grace Jones or Cyndi Lauper. And that’s true. If you can’t do that, then you probably don’t have someone who’s a star.
And there’s another quality about people like this, too—something I’ve come to be aware of. Jagger has it, but actually the strongest example I’ve encountered is Garth Brooks. The first time I recorded Brooks’ voice, it blew my mind. It’s about how far in front of the speakers the voice appears to go. Garth Brooks can jump out about 20 feet in front of the speakers. You just bring the fader up, with his vocal, and you don’t have to do anything to it. It’s some kind of gift. Mick Jagger has the same thing, where you just barely bring the fader up, and he’s out in front of the band. Mick and I have talked about this a lot. He’s aware of it, and he has no idea what it is. You can factor in something like frequency response to the voice, but it’s also some kind of crazy vocal charisma. It’s something no vocal teacher can teach.
Let’s talk a bit more generally about production work. You’ve said elsewhere that every producer has a different interpretation of what a producer’s role should be. In your case, however, is it true that you like to remain as invisible as possible?
Yes, I think that’s true. I don’t think people go out and buy a Stones record because they want to hear what I was thinking at the time.
I would imagine that that approach—staying invisible—is just as much a challenge as, say, what a producer like Giorgio Moroder does.
Yes, but Giorgio Moroder is an artist-producer. The singer on his albums may as well be a saxophone or something. That’s not a criticism; I think that’s a perfectly legitimate way to make records. Burt Bacharach is that kind of writer-producer. Dionne Warwick might as well have been a sax. And a lot of the R&B guys are like that. Babyface is like that. He lays down the vocal, and then you sing it like Babyface. Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis are like that. Those guys are artists-writers, but they also produce. That’s a legitimate way of doing it. If I were a better artist, I would probably do it, too.
Still, isn’t the challenge to not leave an imprint just as great?
There is an art form to that. But then it’s easier to be humble around, say, Bob Dylan, than it is with maybe Janet Jackson. So in that way it’s kind of built in.
I remember the first day I ever recorded with Dylan. The assistant engineer ran a cassette of the session, and there’s a moment where Bob is standing at the piano trying to tell me what he wants to do next, and I’m arguing with him. I had a preconception about what Bob Dylan should sound like on a record. I hadn’t even heard the song, so what preconception could I have? It was just some stupid, amateurish thinking. Bob Dylan is telling me what he wants to do, and I’m thinking, “Well, this goes against the way I’m hearing my imagined Bob Dylan record.” I was arguing with him about why it wouldn’t work before we even tried it. Even as I recount that story now, it gives me a knot in my stomach. I waited my whole life to work with Bob Dylan, and then I wouldn’t let him be Bob Dylan. It was gracious of him just to continue working with me.
I hope I haven’t made that mistake since then. If anything, I err to the opposite, which is to say that no matter how crazy an idea might sound, I’ll chase it down with an artist. And if we waste two days, then we waste two days. I’ve probably wasted two years of my life chasing down things with artists that never came to fruition.
But on the other hand you might not have gotten other stuff—good stuff—had you not done that. So in that sense it wasn’t a waste.
No question about it. You chase down 29 goofy ideas for the one that’s going to make all the difference in the world. And it’s absolutely worth it.
Another interesting artist with whom you’ve worked is Iggy Pop. Does part of the chemistry that exists between the two of you come from your shared Detroit background?
Yes, that’s made a huge difference. We basically grew up in the same little egg. The Stooges actually played at my high school. I remember going to see them when they were the Psychedelic Stooges, although I didn’t meet him until 20 years later. Iggy is a really unique cat. It’s really in his songwriting. I’ve done two records with him. On Brick By Brick, all his personalities come out in the songs. He’ll say something that’s really naïve and optimistic, and then he’ll say something that shows that he’s actually not naive, that he is really well read. All these personalities blend in a way that’s unique to him.
Brick By Brick was a commercial success, but the second album you made with him, Avenue B, got much less attention. That album might be the most adult-directed album he’s made.
Yeah, no one knows that record but it’s a great album. It’s a brilliant way of documenting a combination of Jungian mid-life transition issues. That album is just a great chronicle of turning 50. Making an album like that is a brave thing to do in rock ’n’ roll. Record companies don’t want you do that; they want you to pretend you’re 18. For Iggy, especially, to do something that was intimate when he’s got this core audience who expects something else … that’s really hard for him. That album didn’t sell a lot and people didn’t respond to it the way I felt they should have. And all it takes is going out to a couple of clubs and having a couple of drunk guys yell at you on stage—“What’s with the acoustic guitar stuff?”—to put you off of ever doing something like that again. It’s unfortunate that that album wasn’t better received.
Are there other albums you’ve produced that you felt were exceptionally great, but that didn’t get the attention they deserved?
Sure. There are a number of them. The one I did with Paul Westerberg [Suicaine Gratifaction] is one of them. That’s a wonderful record. I think Paul and Iggy had a very similar situation, where they were in bands when they were young that were seminal bands, and when they go out and play live, they have to face this core audience that wants the Replacements and wants the Stooges. These guys had to deal with being older and more mature, and being good artists who experienced growth, and yet having to face an audience that demanded more of the same from them. I think that’s something that’s plagued both of them.
How do you remedy that?
One way you could remedy it is to have a record company that would go out and win you the right audience, instead of just counting on selling to Replacements fans and Stooges fans. They could be like, “Hey, you’re writing adult stuff.” People who listen to Bonnie Raitt could be listening to Paul Westerberg. Why not go after those people? I think it’s a real failure. I think it’s criminal the way Virgin Records marketed Avenue B. You can’t even call it marketing, really.
One thing that might help is to have your peers talk about you, peers who are already in that adult arena.
Yeah. Prior to when we made Bonnie Raitt’s Nick of Time album, no one thought that anyone over 40 bought records. There was no contingency built into any record company for selling rock ‘n’ roll to people who were over 40 until that period of time. And I must say that that record was just a case of being in the right place at the right time. Had it not been that album, it would have been one of Sting’s albums, or something like that. But all of a sudden you had people over 40 who still had that rock ’n’ roll mentality. Music for people over 40 didn’t mean Frank Sinatra records any more. Once you’ve established that that audience is there, then you know it can be done again.
Can you see a time ever coming again where major labels will nurture young artists the way they did years ago?
It’s pretty tough. My son was in a band called Eve 6 and they had two big albums. One went platinum and the other went gold. And then the third album came out and the first single didn’t do anything, so RCA dropped them. You would think that after having a platinum album, you could at least fail five or six times.
You know, I have no predictions. I used to have thoughts about the future, but it’s totally up for grabs. I have no idea how people will generate money from music five years from now. What I do know is that you’ve got to have music. I’ve divested myself of all interests in these things where people were wanting producers to be in start-up ventures to make a new style record company. The one thing I know how to do is make records. As long as I keep making records, and keep making the best records I can make, someone will find a way to make money with them. There’ll always be a need for good music.
—By Russell Hall
Photo by David Goggin