Tuesday, November 16, 2021

A Very Candid Conversation with Michael James


Michael James at work (1999)

Michael James got his start in music when he was nineteen years old. He started as a recording artist and then became interested in the recording process. Michael started off working for Ethan James, keyboardist for rock band Blue Cheer, who owned a recording studio. Ethan had noticed Michael’s interest in recording. He gave Michael an opportunity to learn recording by leaving Michael alone in the studio at night until the morning. Michael’s first break in producing music came when Ethan, who was producing alternative rock band Too Much Joy, asked Michael to sit on a session. The band was so impressed by Michael that they ask him to produce their next record, Son of Sam I Am [1989].

After working with Too Much Joy, Michael began his career as a recording engineer/producer. He also worked for Sub Pop, the record label that began grunge, where he produced L7 and Hole. Some of the other artists Michael has worked with are Edwin McCain, Robben Ford, and Chicago. His biggest credit as engineer is the New Radicals’ platinum album Maybe You’ve Been Brainwashed Too [1998], on which Michael also played guitar. Michael has been very prolific as a producer/engineer. From 1994 to 1997, he amassed more than 100 credits. Today, he either produces or mixes (Mixing is the process of optimizing and combining multitrack recordings into a final mono, stereo, or surround-sound product ) more than 250 songs a year. In addition, he has written for Billboard magazine, critiquing a lack of innovation in the music industry.

Michael has released two solo albums. The first was the instrumental album Marchesano (2015). His most recent album, Shelter in Place (2021), reflects a variety of themes such as loneliness, racism, and drunk driving. In addition, it has covers as the Beatles’ “Something” and the Frank Sinatra classic “Fly Me to the Moon.”

In this candid conversation, we look at Michael’s prolific career as a producer/engineer, as well as his new album. I want to thank Nichole Peters-Good from Get Good PR, but most of all, I want to thank Michael.

Jeff Cramer:   What got you interested in music?

Michael James:  One day when I was a teenager, I was listening to a Joe Walsh album called You Can't Argue with a Sick Mind. It was recorded live, and instead of just hearing the song as a whole, I actually started hearing the component parts of the songs. I found this really cool countermelody down at the bottom of a really big sound—it was moving around, outlining the chords, providing a foundation—and it turned out to be the bass guitar, and it was played by Willie Weeks, I believe. And I thought, Wow, that's cool. I just became fascinated with the way that so many things could fit together and help tell a story on an emotional level. And then I discovered Steely Dan, and I analyzed the way their songs came together, and I just loved the puzzle pieces.

Then I started writing poetry with no idea that I'd ever be a musician myself, and some of my buddies taught me a few chords on guitar. I started putting my words to music and stuck with it. When I was nineteen, I was on a full scholarship to UCLA, and I was recording my own music in a recording studio. The guy who had the keys to the studio was a junkie and he needed a fix, so I paid him $15 to use the studio for three hours—that's my understanding of the story, anyway. The owner of a record company walked in and heard what I was doing, and he said, “Why don't you do a deal with me? I can get your song played on KROQ; I'm confident in it."

KROQ, by the way, was a premier radio station in Los Angeles for what they called “alternative rock” or “new wave” back in the day. And I said, "Naw, I'm not really interested. I'm not a musician. I'm a student." He said, "Yeah, student? When that gets old, just give me a call and I’ll make a record with you." A few months later, I thought, Shoot, I may never have this opportunity again.  I was nineteen at the time, and again, I just went for it, and forty-plus years later, here we are.

JC:      So what happened when the owner gave you your shot?

MJ:      I was a recording artist for a few years. It was myself, Michael James, and then I was in a band called Waves of Grain, and when neither of those panned out the way I expected, I did sessions as a guitarist for various local bands in LA and took an interest in the recording process. There was a guy named Ethan James—no relation—who was the keyboardist in Blue Cheer, and actually I think his name back then was Ralph Burns Kellogg.

Ethan owned a studio, and he knew I took an interest, and he gave me the keys and said, "The place is yours from midnight until 8:00 a.m.," and so I became a self-taught recording engineer.

JC:      Your first break was doing Too Much Joy's second album, Son of Sam I Am

MJ:      Yes, that was my first major label break. Do you want the story behind that?

JC:      Sure.

MJ:      Kinda fascinating. Ethan—the guy I just told you about—had three days booked with Too Much Joy. Ethan couldn't make the middle date, which was an overdub [overdub is defined as recording additional sounds on an existing recording] date. Day one was the basic tracks, day two was the overdubs, and day three was the mix.

Since Ethan couldn't make it on day two, he said, "Well, I think you're ready now to run a session, and even if you're not, you have to be because I can't make it, and this is important. So, show up, do a great job, and call someone if you get stuck.” Turns out that the session pretty much ran itself and I was doing good work, but they got stuck on some background vocal arrangements, so they turned to me. When you're an engineer, you really need to remember that there's a reason that God gave you two ears but only one mouth, and if you open your mouth, it should be in a way that supports the artist or don't open it at all. 

So, the band asked, "What do you think?" I said, "Well, I really love your songs, and I think that the one that you're working on right now could be cooler if you added these background parts."

They got around the mic, they sang the parts, and they said, "Really cool. Got any other ideas?" I said, "Yeah, I think this guitar part could be a cool countermelody." And all of a sudden, the songs took a new life. The band asked, "Can you come mix us tomorrow?" I said, “Sure.”

The next day, Ethan called me and said, "Hey, good job yesterday. I got a great report, but you can't mix the band. I need to mix them." The band liked the mixes that Ethan did, but they loved working with me. So, the band asked, "When we get our major label record deal, will you produce our album?" I said, "Sure," thinking, Yeah, that's going to happen. It never happens. Because you play the odds. Nobody ever gets a major label record deal.

Sure enough, it sort of, kind of happened. Too Much Joy got a deal with Alias Records, which was a well-funded indie label, and we did the entire album on a $12,000 budget, and that's ridiculously low. They wanted to pay me $1,500 to do the album, and they wanted to do it over the course of four weeks. I made a deal with the studio: "Why don't you go on vacation? I'll take all of the money and I'll give you this percentage of it, and my paycheck will be whatever's left." The band agreed to it, the label agreed to it. It was one of the first all-in deals that I knew about.

As we got near the end of the album, we realized that another $4,000 could make it a great album—make it sound, in our minds, like a $250,000 album instead of $12,000. And I called up the record company after speaking with the band, and I said, "Hey, can we have $4,000 more?"

And they said, "Why?" And I pled my case, and they said, "You want to do it, pay yourself." I told the band, "The label said no. We gotta spend our own money to make it happen." So, they said, "Well, if you want to make it happen, let's figure out a way to make it happen."

I threw $800 on the table, so then the other guys grabbed their checkbooks and did the same. One of the guys said, "I need to call my mom." And so we scrounged up the other $4,000.

It ended up getting a very favorable review as an indie band in Rolling Stone. Irving Azoff [manager of the Eagles] took notice, and apparently Warner Brothers had just given him $30 million to start Giant Records. Too Much Joy was one of the first bands that he signed.

My fee went up exponential when the A&R [artists and repertoire] man called and asked how much I needed to get paid. I misunderstood the question and told him what the whole album cost, and before I could finish explaining, he said, "So your fee is $16,000 a song?” And I kept my mouth shut, and all of a sudden, I was in business, and I was a major label producer, and had a fee. [To hear Too Much Joy’s single “That’s a Lie,” click here.]

JC:      You would be working with Sub Pop, the label that began grunge. [Grunge pioneers Nirvana got their start by recording for Sub Pop] How did that come about?

MJ:      There was a local band called Seizure Salad, which I did the best job that I could with them, and we had fun in the studio. Seizure Salad had some friends who were hanging out in the back of the studio. There were four young women who had a grungy look. I got a phone call from one of the women who said, “Hey, I have a band, and I was hanging out when you were working with Seizure Salad, and I loved the fun that you guys had and the energy and stuff. Would you produce our new album?” And I said, “Depends. What is it?” And she said, “We’re a band called L7, and we’re pretty heavy. We’re a girl band.” And I said something like, “I don’t believe in girl bands. I believe you’re either a band or you’re not a band. It has nothing to do with girl or boy. So, are you a great band?” And she said, “Yeah, I think we’re a great band." I'm like, "Great, then I’m interested."

And so, we got together. I loved what L7 was doing, and I ended up doing half of the album called Smell the Magic [1990], which was released on Sub Pop. [To hear L7’s “Fast and Frightening,”click. here.]

Jonathan Poneman at Sub Pop liked the work I was doing there, so the next thing he had me doing was Hole. When he was pitching Hole to me, he said, "Hey, we have this band called Hole, and I think that you'd be a really good fit for them. It's a priority for us. The singer is Courtney Love."

And I thought he meant Whole, so I asked, "Wow, how did you know that I'm into holistic stuff? I wear Birkenstocks and eat granola and stuff.” He said, "What are you talking about? No, there’s no w. it’s not holistic." “Okay. So, they have a little attitude, right?" He said, "Oh, yeah."

Do you want me to tell you the story of my first session with Hole? It's a pretty good one.

JC:      Sure.

MJ:      So, the first time I meet the band, it looked like there were four women in the band. And then I realized it looked like one of the people with long hair was a dude, and it was Eric Erlandson, the guitarist. Eric had this rat's nest of effects pedals. There was no pedal board under it. It was just pedals and wires and stuff, just this mess on the floor. Eric asked me, "Hey, do you want to use your fancy studio effects ’cause they got a cleaner sound?" I asked him, "Do you like your sound?" He said, "I love my sound." And I said, "Well, let's hear it." By the way there was a big lesson in this: let’s hear your sound.

And he played me something that didn't make any sense to me, but he loved it, and I said, "Let's record that because maybe it'll make sense in the track.” He said, "Wow, you're awesome. No other recording engineer or producer has ever let me do that." "Do what?" I asked. He said, "Record with my stuff. I love my gear; I love my sound."

Eric was able to convey an emotion with his pedal. We get sounds on all the instruments. Courtney is actually a really solid rhythm guitarist. She has a good style, a good groove, and the band was actually quite good. Anybody who says Courtney was all about Kurt Cobain or Billy Corgan, they’re mistaken. She had something before she was even connected with those guys. I digress.

They’re playing this ambient, textural, moody thing, and then all of a sudden, boom, there is this scream, and the loudness, and I thought I was gonna launch off the chair like a rocket right through the roof. I was so startled, and that’s when I understood the dynamics and the intensity that was Hole. And by the way, Eric’s sound in the context of the song fit it perfectly. [To hear Hole’s “Dicknail,” click here.]

Sub Pop, circling back to them, really loved the results, and they then asked me to record and produce the Reverend Horton Heat, which was a psychobilly [psychobilly merges punk rock and rockabilly] band. I really don't remember how many records I did with them; it was just great working on them. I remember them like it was yesterday.

JC:      One of the things I guess which would have been your biggest record, was the New Radicals record, Maybe You’ve Been Brainwashed Too.

MJ:      I think that sales-wise, at least in the US, it was probably the biggest. It went double platinum, and most of the records that I do tend to be more cool than big sales, but that's just my opinion. So, New Radicals was totally serendipitous. On paper, Gregg Alexander [frontman of the New Radicals] is the producer, and technically Gregg is New Radicals, but I did have a large hand in the production of it. Gregg and I, we had a rolodex, and we worked on a bunch of tunes together at EMI Demo Studios, courtesy of his lover at the time, Danielle Brisebois, who had a publishing deal with EMI. Danielle would call us down to the studio to listen to a couple of tunes, and say, "Oh, yeah, just like I remember, they sound good."

Gregg and I would work on tunes. And he's 100 percent the songwriter, but I was definitely his wingman on quite a bit of it. I played guitar on it, engineered, mixed. Thought I was actually going to get a production credit, but he said it was important that he had the full production credit, and that was fine because we made a deal otherwise that compensated me for that. Feels like this happened all the time.

Another part that you may not know is that I actually shopped the band. I just knew that if I found a band I loved and wanted to work with, I'd be able to get them a deal, but it didn't happen with these guys. I'd taken it to A&M, RCA—I don't even remember where else I took it, but basically everywhere, and even though I had the credibility, I couldn't get ’em a deal. And Ken Hertz, an attorney, stepped in. Ken said, "I can make this happen." Ken went over to Michael Rosenblatt at MCA, and Michael just got it right away. He gave the band a good deal.

I think there's only one bonafide guitar solo on the record on the song “Crying like a Church on Monday.” It's the last song on the album, and actually you'll notice I played two solos on it. When we were recording it, Gregg asked, "Do you play slide guitar?" And I said, "I have a slide in my toolbox." He was like, "Great, put it on."

I really don't know what I'm doing; I get lucky and come up with something cool. Gregg said, "All right, let's double it now." I'm like, "I don't even know what I just did. That was luck." And so, we picked it apart, figured out how to double it pretty much exactly. And what you’re hearing on the album is actually a double track solo on it, and that particular tune, by the way, we never even did the proper mix. That was just the demo mix because I had to get on a plane and fly to Boston to produce another band. [To hear “Crying like a Church on Monday,” click here.]

JC:      In addition to producing, you also wrote for Billboard in 1998.

MJ:      I wrote an op-ed piece on Billboard where I basically I said, "Stop chasing everything else because by the time you chase and emulate what's already out there, it's too late." With all due respect to certain other bands, Jeff, I'm sure you know Nirvana, right?

Michael James at studio (2009)


JC:      Yes.

MJ:      Do you remember Candlebox or the Afghan Whigs?

JC:      I remember them, but I can't say I've listened to them recently.

MJ:      Right, and that to me is precisely what the point of the article was. It's a metaphor for it, in that Nirvana was first. So, with Candlebox or the Afghan Whigs, they probably had their own thing, but everybody was chasing that quiet-loud-quiet-loud crazy dynamic sound that Nirvana was doing. Smashing Pumpkins and Soundgarden were also lumped into that grunge category. They had their own thing. They weren't copying Nirvana.

And thirty years later, you still know Nirvana songs, but I can't remember an Afghan Whigs or a Candlebox song to save my life. And again, I really got to stress this is no disrespect to either of those bands. I'm just using them because they come to mind as a good way to illustrate my point here. Yeah, so with the presence of the Billboard article, I just saw that it was a losing battle to keep chasing stuff that was already done.

Now, I actually don't think that was totally the reason for the collapse of the music business. Long story short, I think that free music more killed the industry than the innovation versus emulation. But the innovation would have helped.

Michael James at studio (2015)

JC:      Before we get into your new solo album, is there any artist that you worked with that we haven’t mention here in this interview?

MJ:      A blues artist named Robben Ford. Are you familiar with him?

JC:      Yes, I am.

MJ:      I remember the way I connected with Robben was that I ended up producing an album for AJ Croce, Jim Croce's son, and when I was going through some of his previous catalogue, I asked, "Hey, man, what was it like to work with Robben Ford? He's one of my favorite guitarists . . . actually one of my favorite musicians." And AJ said, "Oh, Robben’s great. You guys would be like two peas in a pod. He's a very spiritual cat. He moved to Ojai [California] so he could help give a Zen Buddhist community a start there. He's just a good dude. Here's his number, call him." Eventually I did call him.

Robben and I clicked, and next thing we were writing some tunes together, mixing some of his records. On the first mix he came right into the control room. He walked right past this wall of guitar amps and guitars that I had there, and went right over to my producer racks, which is where I have all my compressors and EQs [music equalizer]. We listened to the first tune that I mixed for him, and he was grooving, standing up at the console. He asked, "Can I turn it up?" And I said, "Yeah, turn it up." I was behind him thinking, Slam dunk, he loves this. This is cool.

And then he turned around afterwards, and he had this huge smile on his face, and he said, "Can I hear it again?" He listened to it again. Track finished playing and it was quiet, and he turned around to me and he smiled again, saying, "Wow, it's so clear, I can hear everything. I don't even remember playing some of those parts. I don't know what to listen to." I just said, "Huh, very interesting. What do you want to hear and what don't you want to hear?" And he said, "I think I would just turn my voice and my guitar up and leave everything else the same. It'll put the focus more on them. I'm a blues man. I sing and I play guitar." I turned them up one decibel louder—just one, which is the least that you can for sure hear a difference, according to some people at least. And turned it up, played it for him, and he was like, "That's it. Now everything is focused, it's in place. Now I'm feeling the guy singing and playing." And it occurred to me, "Don't make a record to impress your engineer friends. Make a record that's gonna make somebody feel something."

I just figured I had to name drop Robben on that one, because the lesson for me was huge, and if I could give any lesson to people who aspire to do what I do, not as an artist, but as a producer and a mix engineer, I'd say that. Focus on telling the story and focus on making that story have the right emotion. [To hear Robben Ford’s “Don’t Deny Your Love (Remix),” click here.]

Michael’s home studio (year unknown)


JC:      Let’s now talk about your album, Shelter in Place. You came up with this during the pandemic. And so, tell me the beginning of what inspired this.

MJ:      About ten years prior to the pandemic, I had my studio set up so that I could livestream my console and I could look at you on FaceTime video, or some equivalent to that, even if you're sitting in Melbourne, Australia, and I'm in San Francisco or Los Angeles. You could look at me, and you could listen to my console with a live stream of music, and we could bring a mix across together, or I could play guitar parts for you, and you could tell me what you want to change, and I'd do it right there on the spot.

I had no difference in terms of my workflow and my schedule did not slow down during the pandemic. I decided I was gonna write a song and call it "I Tell Myself that Everything’s Okay." Pretend that everything's okay. I did a quick demo and I thought, I'm just gonna put this up online and I'll make some crazy name, not Michael James, but maybe I'll make the band called something like, Music for Vacuuming. Something like that. I played my buddy, Aaron Durr, a song and asked, "What do you think?" And he said, "Man, that's a riot. It's hilarious. I think people need to laugh right now." I said, "I agree. It'd be nice to laugh. Pretend that everything's okay." And I asked, "Would you sing it?" And he said, "I'd love to sing it, but that doesn't really suit my brand as an artist, so if you want to rewrite it and take the good parts and tell the story about it, yeah, I'd be happy to sing it for you." I said, "Well, you got any ideas? Why don't we do the rewrite together?" And he said, "Yeah, I do have some ideas."

And so, we started banging out stuff and that one song turned into “Come Back, Lover,” which is not a joke song. I personally think “Come Back, Lover” is a beautiful song. Aaron and I wrote the song in the same way that I made the album, which is just like, “I want to hear what this song or this album would sound like, and nobody has made it before, so let's just make a cool album so that we can listen to it and enjoy it.” Make a custom playlist with new material. So that's how it all started. [To watch the video for “Come Back, Lover,” click here.]

Shelter in Place cover (2021)

JC:      One of the instrumental tracks “Scraping the Guardrail” actually reminded me of Jeff Beck.

MJ:      Jeff Beck, he's amazing. He's another Robben Ford to me. So, yeah, you just made my day. Are you looking for the story behind that?

JC:      Yes.

MJ:      My friend Warren Wellen and I were making up scenarios that would fit a “shelter in place“ lockdown theme. With “Scraping the Guardrail All the Way Down,” we were thinking of a scenario of somebody who actually makes out in the pandemic, workplace changes, and they get a promotion. Picture this newly minted corporate executive at a dinner party in the Hollywood Hills off Mulholland Highway, which is very torturous, it's very windy, bunch of hills up and down. People often drive off it when they they’re a little tipsy, and they land down in a ravine or something.

So, we were talking about that, just picturing this person having a little too much to drink, not taking an Uber to get home because they figure that they can drive, and then in the process of driving, basically scraping the guardrail. "Yay, they took out a few guardrails, but they made it down the mountain . . . woohoo, everybody lived."

We were trying to create the image of . . . how do I say this? Snowflakes delicately pirouetting on the smoldering wreckage below. Not that anybody's dead or not dead, but just the juxtaposition of someone taking out a guardrail, the car's down at the bottom of a ditch, it's smoldering and it's snowing, and they don't even know which side is up. That's where we were going with that. Of course, nobody who ever listens to the song is gonna have that as a takeaway. But yeah, we were going for that, and sometimes, I just wanted to convey a feeling without using words, and that's how that happened. [To hear “Scraping the Guardrail,” click here.]

JC:      What made you decide to cover the Beatles' “Something?”

MJ:      I really don't know. I always liked the song, but if I'm ever gonna cover a Beatles tune, I need to turn it inside out. And rather than focus on the implied lyrics, “Oh, she's beautiful, there's something in the way she moves,” I figured that I would focus on the bridge part where Harrison sings, "You're asking me will our love grow. I don't know.” I liked the melody, and I thought it would just be kind of cool to change all the chords and give it a different take.

JC:      You also have “Fly Me to the Moon."

MJ:      Well, "Fly Me to the Moon” . . . that's not my own song. That is the Bart Howard song. I wanted to have a good time. I wanted to basically be able to laugh at myself. You needed some uplifting stuff for this album because some people who've actually given it the time of day said they cried when they heard it. One guy actually called up and said, "Michael, are you okay?" "Yeah, I'm doing great, actually,” I said. He was like, "Wow, there's some heavy subject matter, but then there's also some really light stuff.” I was like, "Yeah, it's balanced. You need some yang to go with your yin." “Fly Me to the Moon" was me just wanting to have some fun and thought, Wouldn't it be really cool to play the Count Basie orchestra brass section on a guitar with a Brian May tone. I then had Aaron Durr, who sang “Come Back, Lover”, sing it. [To hear “Fly Me to the Moon,” click here.]

JC:      You also have “I Can't Make You Love Me"—that's the name of a famous Bonnie Raitt tune.

MJ:      I loved the melody from the Bonnie Raitt song, "I Can't Make You Love Me," which by the way she didn't write, but everybody associates the tune with her. By the way, I heard that the tune was written by some Nashville writers who would get together with coffee, bagels, and the newspaper, and they'd look for stories that would inspire their creative juices to flow. I don't know if this is true, but I really hope it is. And two guys are like, "Oh my God, look at this article. This dude is suing his wife for not loving him." And then they ended up turning it into a beautiful song even though they were laughing at the lack of machismo of the guy.

I worked up a beautiful arrangement of that tune that I was gonna do instrumentally, and then I thought, I'm intrigued by the idea, so let me just add a few more words to the title and make a new song. And I had some friends that I wanted to play on it. Kenny Bräck, the race car driver who won Indianapolis 500—he actually didn't end up playing on it, but he was sort of a spiritual guide and helped with the production of it.

And Chris Hesse, the drummer from Hoobastank, and of course, Warren Wellen, the keyboardist who played on “Scraping the Guardrail.” Frank Aledia, the singer who I met when he was singing in Kenny Bräck’s band maybe fifteen or sixteen years ago. We got together, and we did that.

So, yeah, I just made a new song. I actually wish the title was different, but those words just fit the song so perfectly. It's like, "Okay, add a few more words and it'll be a different title." That's the story there. [To see the video for “I Can’t Make You Love Me," click here.]

JC:      I'm guessing George Floyd inspired “Color of My Skin.”

MJ:      Yeah, so that's an interesting one for two reasons. One is that it initially didn't fit the concept of the album to me, and the second thing is that I knew it was going to be perceived as a political song, even though it has nothing to do with politics. It's about humanity and it's not gonna solve racism, but the start that most people could do, which is to open up your heart or open up a conversation and just listen. Open up your eyes, your ears, and your heart, and start talking, and it might lead to something. Not talking and making assumptions is not gonna be a good thing.

Circling back to the first part of it with it not fitting the arc of the album, I had conceived the album, and I knew everything that I wanted to do. I knew the titles that I wanted before I wrote the songs. The end of the album for me was supposed to be “Rise Up into Light.” “Color of My Skin” was actually a very important song,  but it was not part of Shelter in Place. But a couple of the coproducers on the album said, "Like it or not, Shelter in Place has turned into a time capsule of an album, and you have to put it there. You have to put that song on the album."

And so, the deal I made with my team was, "Okay, fine, I'll put that song on there after the natural spiritual arc of the album ends with “Rise up Into Light." The two conditions were that we needed some sort of an orchestral piece that kind of takes you back in time from the pandemic of 2020 to 1863, because the “Color of My Skin” starts with a field song, a blues spiritual. I started thinking, "Let's go back in time. Hey, you already let the soul go out of the body, so let's let it float back to 1863."

The George Floyd murder triggered it, but it's the reaction to the shit that I see all of my friends of color going through all the time. I’ve been able to see some things that a lot of people who do not look like me don't.  I don't want to get political here, and again, it's not political. It's humanity. Whether you want to believe in white privilege or not—let's forget about whether you believe it—but I'm just gonna say that I get the benefit of the doubt more often than my friends of color do. So, “Color of My Skin” was just thinking about stuff that happens and pointing out the differences of why I'm able to think about having a self-realized life. I'm not worried about different things that are more basic survival level. I'm worried about how can I be a better person? How can I be more productive in society? How can I be kind to my fellow humans? How can I basically have purpose?

I talk with Morris LeGrand, one of my best friends, who cowrote the song with me, who is Black, and he loves the song. It's very interesting that when he listens to Shelter in Place, he hears that I have the privilege of being able to think about different things, when I'm in vacation mode. He's thinking about how civil rights are taking a step backwards, and I'm thinking about how I can make the most out of the remaining years of my life.

I didn't want to end the album on that note because I know I'm gonna take heat for that song, because you can't please everybody. You can't cure racism with one song. But I did something, and even though people told me there are all different ways that I can get flamed for this, I thought, Well, there are ways you can get flamed for everything, and if somebody doesn't stand up and at least throw the first pitch, the game is never gonna get started. [To was the video for “Color of My Skin,” click here.] I had to end the album with—I hate to use this term, but a kumbaya moment, “Let's Connect Our Mind.” I just wanted to make sure that I ended on something that was very positive, very upbeat, very inclusive. [To hear “Let’s Connect Our Mind,” click here.]

JC:      When you look back when you started first as a musician, then as an engineer, and then as producer, and now today releasing an album, what would you have to say about it?

MJ:      I would have to say that from my perspective, I'm the luckiest guy on the face of the earth. I'm surrounded by love; I love what I do. One of these days is gonna be my last—I don't mean to sound morbid too. I don't know if that's gonna be forty years from now or forty minutes from now, but I'd have to say that even though there are a lot of things that I would like to do and wish I could have forever, I've had a pretty good run for now, and I just can't believe some of the things that have happened.

I get to spend hours of my life doing stuff that I love, and even if it wasn't the most pleasant thing at any given moment, you find a way to look at the good stuff. Look at the serendipity. I really hope I can continue doing this thing until my last day, right? Because it doesn't feel like work. Really to sum it up, if I had to put it all down to one word, it's just gratitude.

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

A Very Candid Conversation with Kaylin Roberson


Kaylin Roberson (2020)

From a young age, Carolina native Kaylin Roberson loved playing music, but it wasn’t until she was fourteen when she found her own voice. At age nine, Kaylin was the victim of a brutal dog attack, which required facial reconstruction. After the accident, Kaylin used music as a way to heal and then ventured into songwriting. By the time she was in high school, she joined the Teen Nation Tour and visited high schools throughout the country to speak about bullying. In addition, she had toured with her band in the Carolinas where she played guitar and piano. Her first single in 2018, “Christmas Everyday,” was featured in a Christmas movie for the BET Her network . 

In 2019, Kaylin moved to Nashville to pursue a musical career. While in quarantine during the COVID-19 pandemic, Kaylin was busy writing songs in the pop country genre. Kaylin’s music speaks on several themes about love, hometown life, and moving to a city. In 2021, Kaylin released two singles, “Big Fish” and “When He’s Been Drinking,” with more to follow.

In this candid conversation, we cover the beginning of this promising young artist. We start with Kaylin’s childhood to her recent move to Nashville. We discuss her musical inspiration and her goals for her musical career.  I want to thank Nichole Peters-Good of Good Public Relations for setting up the interview, but mostly I want to thank Kaylin.

Jeff Cramer: So what got you interested in music?

KR: I actually started playing music when I was 14, and I started writing my own songs. My dad always kind of pushed me into music a little bit. He put me into piano lessons when I was six. That's kind of where it started. And, of course, I dreaded going to my lessons, but I'm really thankful that he put me in them because as I got older, I wanted to pick the piano back up and learn how to write my own songs on it.

Then, I formed a band in the Carolinas, and we started playing both North and South Carolina venues. It just kind of started from there, and it grew. I've been in Nashville for two years. And now I'm just really trying to become a better songwriter and put out quality music because I don't just want to be another voice in Nashville. I want to be a voice that people want to listen to.

JC: I understand that you had an accident when you were nine years old.

KR: Yes. When I was nine, I was attacked by a black Lab—it was actually a family dog. And he ended up ripping off the right half of my lip and splitting open the side of my eye. I had to go into surgery and get facial reconstruction and the whole nine yards. It took a toll on my family.

Going back to the question about what inspired me to get into music, and that incident honestly played a really big role in my music career.

After the accident, I was home for a couple weeks recovering and my dad was like, "I have to go to work. Here's a camera." He set it up and said, "Here's the Record button. Have fun." ’Cause he knew that I was always the kind of kid who could entertain myself. I was out of school, so I didn't see it as an issue, but I started just recording covers of who knows— KIDZ BOP or Hannah Montana, whatever you do when you're nine years old.

Later in high school, a company reached out to me and wanted me to join them on an anti-bullying tour. They're called the Teen Nation Tour. We went from California, to Texas, and my hometown, and we just talked to kids in schools about bullying. I always tried to preach self-confidence, because in my mind, if you don't let yourself get bullied, you won't be. So, I try to preach just loving yourself for who you are, things happen, and that's part of my story.

I actually got homeschooled after that. I missed too much school because I was going to other schools to talk to kids about bullying. One thing led to another, and I think it helped the transition of me moving to Nashville go really easy. I mean, I had already given up so much. I'd given up public school and things like that. So it made it easier and just kept inspiring me to want to do the music thing. And now I'm here.

JC: Your first single was a Christmas song “Christmas Everyday.”

KR: Yes. Actually, it's really funny. I had a drummer back home in the Carolinas, and he knew a lot of people in music. From him, I got this opportunity to write a song for a Christmas movie. I thought it was really cool. So we wrote a couple of Christmas songs together, and it actually got put in the movie, and it plays on BET Her, the female one, every Christmas. So it's really funny that you said that because I do have Christmas songs out. A lot of people don't know that. [To listen to “Christmas Everyday,” click here.]

JC: There’s another Christmas tune, “Grandma Got Lit.” 

KR: Oh my goodness. Yes.

JC: Let's talk about that one.

KR: That was part of the Christmas songs we did. It wasn't in the movie, but they wanted to have an extra bonus track thing that was fun. That was probably the most fun I've had in a long time for sure. And my grandma loved it. [To listen to “Grandma Got Lit,” click here.]


“Grandma Got Lit” cover (2020)

JC: During the pandemic of 2020, you wrote a good deal of songs.

KR: Yes, I definitely did. At first, going from in person to using Zoom didn't mesh with me well. I was like, “No, I'm going to wait this out.” I think a lot of people thought that about the whole COVID situation anyways—they thought that it would just blow over and we wouldn't have to change our entire lives around it. But we did end up having to do that. So after a month or two of just being like, “Oh, I'll wait it out,” I was like, “I'm going crazy. I have to keep writing.” So I started writing songs. Luckily, now the world's open again, but yeah, it was a lot of songwriting for sure.

JC: You were living in Nashville in 2020, and the first song you wrote and released was “Out of My Town, where you talk about how your hometown can never be replaced no matter what happens to it.


“Out of My Town” cover


KR: An Uber driver inspired that idea because he was telling me all about how Nashville is his home and a lot of newbies like me keep coming in. Not that he has anything against it, but it just made me really reflect on my hometown and how it would feel when I would go back and little things that happened. Actually, part of growing up is moving away from your hometown. But I also met a lot of people in Nashville who made me realize that this is their hometown. The city is tearing down their homes and rebuilding them, and doing all that really changed a lot of this town. But to them, it's still their home.

So I wanted to capture that with my buddies, Clayton Mann and Bryce Mauldin. They helped me write that song. I'm glad that it was my first release. [To hear “Out of my Town,” click here.]

JC: Then you get into falling in love and wanting to know someone better with your single “Know You Like That.

KR: That one is super fun. Actually, I think it might be my most streamed song. I just wanted to write something fun and upbeat, but it's harder to write those types of songs, like love songs that are happy. It sounds bad, but it's a lot easier when you're upset to feel inspired to write about a breakup or something like that. [To listen to “Know You Like That,” click here.]

JC: Then we touch the theme of breaking up in your Break Up Proof EP. There are three songs on the EP, but they all carry the same theme. 

KR: It does. I really wanted to tell a story with that EP. Obviously, you can tell I'm glad you noticed. I kind of wanted to tell the story of someone who fell in love because it starts with the “I See You” [To listen to “I See You,” click here]  and then the breakup happens and that's “Break Up Proof.” And then “Right About Now” is kind of like the phase of getting to know somebody new again and having to deal with the moving on and stuff like that.

JC: I thought it was a good choice to have piano as the only instrument for “Break Up Proof.”

KR: I really wanted “Break Up Proof” to be stripped down. Who knows, maybe I'll rerecord it later and do some production on it. But I wanted to showcase the lyrics of it. [To listen to “Break Up Proof,” click here.]

Break Up Proof EP cover (2020)

JC: Then there’s “Right About Now. In the song, the narrator is still remembering her past lover, but the lyrics also say, “I should be over you right about now.” It's like the lyrics for “Break Up Proof” and “Right About Now” could be narrated by the same person.

KR: I really wanted to just capture that moment of trying to get to know somebody new and it was kind of hard to do. Because when you put too many “yous” and “he” and all that in a song it's like, “Who are you talking about? Who is she with?” But I just wanted to really capture moving on and getting to know someone new is always really hard because it feels like you're pressing restart. You have to come up with new inside jokes, and you almost become like a new person in that way. [To listen to “Right About Now,” click here.]

JC: I wonder if the single “Big Fish” has something to do with your move from North Carolina to Nashville because the lyrics are about thinking you’re big but once you go to another town, you're not as big as you think you are.


“Big Fish” cover 2021

KR: Yeah. What I love about that song is it just started when my mom has said growing up about just people in our town that thought that they were on their high horse all the time. But I experienced it as well on the other side of things. Being the big fish, then coming here realizing there's a lot of other people doing the same thing as me, which is very comforting and also really just inspiring.

And it makes you want to work harder. But yeah, I mean, people can take it either way they want to. And what's cool about it is you can take it as maybe there's someone you know that needs to hear that song. Or maybe you've been there, and you're like “Oh, yeah, people told me that and look where I'm at now.”[To listen to “Big Fish,” please click here.]

JC: We're slowly starting to reopen. You've put a bunch of songs together. What's your plans now for 2021? 

KR: So I actually have two more singles coming out. I have one that came out on August 20 called “When He's Been Drinking,” and I'm super excited about it [To hear “When He’s Been Drinking,” click here.]. Then sometime in November I'm going to release another song with the vibe like “Break Up Proof.” People seem to love my sad-girl country songs.

JC: Any chance you be going taking the singles out on the road?

KR: I've been playing a lot around Nashville. I mostly do a lot of songwriter rounds. Every now and then I play on Broadway. [Note: In this context, Broadway is referring to the major thoroughfare in the downtown area in Nashville, Tennessee.] I opened up for Chris Janson recently. I think I'm playing one festival so far in October, but I don't have any major things planned yet. Right now my big focus is getting music out there, and I'm completely independent. So the goal is to just keep building my team up and hopefully one day there will be some one who can help me and my band figure out how to get on the road more because I love doing that. So, hopefully we get back to it soon. But right now, you can catch me playing in Nashville for sure.

Kaylin Roberson (June 2020)


Sunday, June 27, 2021

A Very Candid Conversation with Lyle Workman

Lyle Workman (year unknown)


Lyle Workman has had an extensive musical career that stems from the mid-80s to the present. He first got his start playing guitar with the rock band Bourgeois Tagg in 1986. Todd Rundgren produced their album Yoyo in 1987. Their 1987 single “I Don’t Mind At All,” which Lyle co-wrote with the band’s founder, Brent Bourgeois, hit the Top 40. After Bourgeois Tagg broke up, Lyle became a session musician, both in the studio and live performances. Some of the musicians Lyle played with include Sting, Sheryl Crow, Beck, Shakira, Norah Jones, Todd Rundgren, Frank Black, and many others.

Lyle’s résumé doesn’t end there. He has composed the film score and/or produced the music for many well-known Hollywood comedies such as Superbad, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Forgetting Sarah Marshall and several others. In addition to films, he has written the music for TV shows such as Love and Good Girls.

Yet despite Lyle’s busy schedule, he has found time to release four instrumental solo albums since 1996. He released his latest solo album Uncommon Measures in 2021. Uncommon Measures is a jazz fusion album that features orchestration by John Ashton Thomas, who was the orchestrator for the Black Panther and Captain Marvel films. Guitar legend Steve Vai has praised Lyle’s album.

In this candid conversation, we cover Lyle’s extensive career beginning with Bourgeois Tagg, his session work, his film and TV work, and Uncommon Measures. I want to thank Billy James of Glass Onyon PR for setting up the interview, but most of all, I want to thank Lyle.

Jeff Cramer:  So, what got you interested in music?

Lyle Workman:  The Beatles. My dad played guitar as well, so I wanted to do what my dad did, but I also wanted to do what John and George of the Beatles did. He bought me a little guitar and taught me the basic open chords. Then I had a record player in my room, and I would play the Beatles’ music and play my guitar simultaneously. I was hitting on chords that they were using and, in the process, teaching myself how to play Beatles songs. That process pretty much just continued for the rest of my life [laughs] learning things from records. As my tastes expanded and I grew up, so did my taste in music and learned a lot by ear. I went to a college and studied music, and I still am.

JC:  How did you wind up playing with Bourgeois Tagg?

LW: Just from playing with local bands and club bands in the Bay Area. That's how I met the central songwriters of Bourgeois Tagg—Brent Bourgeois and Larry Tagg. They saw me, I saw them. We were playing in different bands. That’s how that started.


Bourgeois Tagg (Lyle, far right, year unknown)

JC: What’s interesting about the video for Bourgeois Tagg’s single, “I Don’t Mind,” is that it’s directed by future film director David Fincher.

LW: This is the first time anyone’s ever mentioned this. [To watch the “I Don’t Mind” video, click here.]

JC: Oh.

LW: Yeah, at the time, David Fincher was in his mid-twenties. We were all young. He was a pretty big music video producer at the time. I think he had directed music videos for Sting and Madonna. But yeah, I remember working with him. He was great, really fun.

JC: Did you have any idea that he would be doing movies later on?

LW: No. Neither him nor me. [laughs]

JC: Also Todd Rundgren produced Bourgeois Tagg. You would later work with him. Talk about how that went from Bourgeois Tagg to eventually working with him.

LW: Yeah, it was a big thrill for us to have him produce our record. Shortly afterwards, our band disbanded.

Several of us went on to play, tour, and record with Todd, which was a huge treat. I was a gigantic fan and continue to be.

Lyle in Todd Rundgren’s band (1990)

JC: And now Todd’s been inducted into Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2021.

LW: Yeah. It's about freaking time. It's kind of a no-brainer. But, yeah, I mean if there's anyone who belongs there, he sure does for all he's done in music.[To hear a live performance of Lyle and Todd
Rundgren playing “Parallel Lines” click here.]

JC: After Todd, you worked with Jellyfish.

LW: Jellyfish was something that happened right afterwards.I recorded a record with them called Spilt Milk [1993],  which is a fantastic record.[To hear Jellyfish perform “Glutton of Sympathy,” click here.] Then I went on the road with an artist named Jude Cole, who had a hit single out at the time called “Start the Car.” That was one tour. Then I did a more substantial tour with Frank Black..

JC: I understand that you worked with Frank a lot because you even arranged some of his songs in addition to playing with him live.

LW: It was about five years of touring and recording with Frank. It was a great gig, personally and musically, yielding several records that I’m very proud of being a part of [To hear Lyle perform with Frank Black performing “Headache” live, click here.] This went on from the early to the late ’90s. At that time, I moved to Los Angeles and I've been here ever since.

JC: Around that time, I guess you also worked with Beck.

LW: Yes. That was another fantastic experience. It was almost three years of touring for his Midnite Vultures album which was a lot of fun. [To hear Lyle perform with Beck performing “Debra” live, click here.]

JC: Then you worked with Lazlo Bane.

LW: [laughs] Yeah, a good friend of mine, Chad Fischer, that’s his band. We're very good friends. Also, another composer. [To hear “Buttercup,” a song that Lyle wrote with Chad, click here.]

JC: You've performed live a lot of with artists. You had to cover a lot of other guitarist’s parts. How did feel playing guitar parts that were not originally yours?

LW: Well, you know, when you work with a number of artists and number of bands, you learn how to be a chameleon. You learn how to play other people's music and guitar parts if that's part of the job. It's part and parcel of being a session musician. It's great in that it helps widen your scope of interpretation of music when you learn other people's material.

JC: Is there anyone who stands out during your session musician time?

LW: Well, they all stand out for very different reasons. I would have to list a few of them. You know, Todd Rundgren was a huge influence on me before I started working in his band and recording with him. The most substantial are Todd Rundgren, Beck, Sting, and Frank Black. They all had a huge influence on my music and my versatility. You know, they don't sound anything alike and through their vast differences, important to my growth as a musician. It was and still is rewarding to work with such a wide range of artists.

JC: So how did you go from being a session player to writing music for movies?

LW: It was through session work. I was working with a film composer named Ed Shearmur, and his wife was an executive at Universal Pictures. Harry Garfield, who was the executive Vice President of Music at Universal, needed a guitar player for a personal project. I gave him a CD of some of my music to take with him, and that's how I ended up with Judd Apatow. [Judd Apatow is the director of Knocked Up and The 40-Year-Old-Virgin.] It was through that connection. Judd had his own take on comedy, his own formula—his own brand of heartfelt comedies—and it was great being part of that scene when his films were exploding, it was very fortuitous to be in his team.

JC: What's the difference for you musically as being a session player as opposed to scoring the music?

LW: I’m not writing the music as a session player. I'm not hiring musicians, working budgets, working with directors, film studios, and music contractors. It's a big responsibility being a composer as opposed to being a session musician where you essentially show up on the day. Most often you’re hearing the music at the beginning of the session and by the end of the day, you’re done. So, it’s a gigantic difference. Maybe the same difference as farming to being a chef. [laughs] It's somewhat related, but it's a different aspect. Again, it's a much bigger responsibility being a composer, I feel.

JC: Yeah, okay. Is there any particular film score that you've worked with that you're super proud of?

LW: Super proud of Superbad.

JC: Okay. That one particularly?

LW: It was an R&B and funk-based score, and Sony was okay with financing and bringing the architects of that music into the fold. So, we flew out Bootsy Collins, Catfish Collins, Clyde Stubblefield, Jabo Starks, and Bernie Worrell. That kind of legitimacy in that genre was brought to my music. [To hear Lyle’s music for Superbad, click here.]

JC: Also, I understand you've worked as a producer as well.

LW:  Yes, but to be precise I produced the original score for soundtrack, I was not a producer of the film. My largest scale music production was for the film Get Him to the Greek with Russell Brand and Jonah Hill. Twenty-something songs that had to be written, recorded and produced for the soundtrack. We whittled down our favorite ones to be in the movie and then which also appear on the soundtrack CD. That was great fun. [To watch the “African Child” video from Get Him to the Greek, click here.]

JC: What is the difference between producing a soundtrack as opposed to composing it?

LW: Well, there is overlapping in the two. Being a composer, I’m automatically the producer of the music. When I’m producing a soundtrack, I’ll bring in musicians and follow through to mixing – that’s the same job between the two hats.

JC: You released Uncommon Measures in 2021. Your last solo album was released in 2009. Why did this one come out much later?

LW: The reason it came out much later was due to my workload composing over the last decade. To add to that, it takes a long time to make a record of this scope; just the preparation and planning of orchestral recording alone took a good amount of time. I worked on the record when time permitted, within a four-year period. That's why it took so long.

JC: Uncommon Measures is a jazz fusion album. That’s very different from what you’ve played on before. How did you decide on jazz fusion?

LW: I think there's a thread of that kind of music on all of my solo records. For this record, jazz fusion only applies to certain aspects, whereas other some are neither jazz nor fusion. There are elements of rock, classical, soundtrack, prog rock, funk. All the tracks are instrumental and feature high levels of musicianship. This record was an opportunity to express various sides of who I am as a musician.

JC: You brought in John Ashton Thomas who had done the music orchestrating for Captain Marvel and Black Panther.

LW: Oh, John’s an orchestrator, arranger, conductor and composer. A brilliant musician all around. We've worked together within thirteen years on some of my movies. We’re kindred spirits in music, loving jazz, progressive rock, the music of our formative years. I knew I wanted him to be involved because he's such a great orchestrator and arranger. It’s a real joy and for me, each time a learning experience in the orchestral domain.

JC: Now, had you used an orchestra on your other solo albums?

LW: Yes, on my previous record I had some strings, miscellaneous woodwinds and brass, but recorded in piecemeal fashion. hadn’t booked a studio with a large orchestra for my own project, although I have several times for my film scores.


Orchestra playing on Uncommon Measures (2021)

JC:Is there a particular favorite for Uncommon Measures?

LW: I like them all quite a bit, but I would say that “North Star” is akin to the “greatest hit” of the entire record because it features the orchestra, has fantastic solos with drums, violin and guitar. It has a section that’s purely orchestral and dynamic. That piece alone is a pretty full meal. [To watch the “North Star” video click here.]

JC: Have you ever toured behind any of your solo albums, or are you planning to tour behind this one, Uncommon Measures?

LW: I haven't toured any of my music primarily because I've been busy working for other people. That has been my primary focus in making a living, and quite frankly how I was able to self-fund such a record as Uncommon Measures. It was not done on the cheap and was a huge expense out of pocket. Additionally, it's very to expensive tour without the support of a label. I've got a family and need to be responsible and keep the money coming in. So, at least for the time being going on the road—especially with an orchestra—is not in the works.

All that said, if an orchestra in Europe would finance to have me over to do some shows, that would work.

JC: In addition to recording Uncommon Measures, what else have you been doing the pandemic?

LW: I worked through the whole pandemic. I write music for Facebook, which is another job that I have. They have a program called "Facebook Sound Collection."

JC:  Oh really?

LW: It's essentially what they call "library music." It’s license free music for Facebook and Instagram users to accompany the videos they post. It’s a free service.  The music can be downloaded from the Facebook Sound Collection web site.  I’m one of many writers for the program, and was writing music for it during the pandemic.

Also last year, I released twelve records on iTunes, Apple Music, Spotifyetc. They’re my favorite collections of songs written for the Facebook Sound Collection, in a number of styles, also all instrumental. They're available for streaming and downloading on all the popular formats. 

JC: It’s quite a musical journey you had. You first started with Bourgeois Tagg, then a session musician, then you're a film composer, then a soundtrack producer and in addition you do these instrumental solo records. It's quite a lot of destinations along the way. How would you describe the whole journey?

LW: Yeah, it's been a physical manifestation of all my interests along the way. I feel very lucky to have had these experiences in such a broad arena. We all put our energy into the areas of life we're most passionate about .My musical interests just happen to vary widely and so it was natural for me to sidestep into different genres with different kinds of artists and then into the world of composing. The key is to say “yes” to any opportunity, even if it feels like a stretch. For me, that’s what led to other projects, and those to other projects. Through dedication, persistence, and perseverance through good times and bad, I was able to sustain a career over the long haul in this ever changing music business, and feel very blessed that things worked out the way they did.