The legendary producer talks studio secrets & GC Singer-Songwriter III.
If this were still the Paleolithic era, Don Was would be one of the ones sitting at the fire, beating back the dark and summoning up the spirits with music that bypassed the liminal mind and cut straight to the deepest emotional connections.
But, thankfully, it’s not the Paleolithic era, and all of us get the benefit of Was’ commitment to presenting genuinely honest music, whether through his work as a performer, as a record producer, or, in his most recent incarnation, as record label president. With multiple Grammy Awards (including Producer of the Year) and hits with his own iconic ’80s band, Was (Not Was), under his belt, Was is now tasked with taking Blue Note Records—a label that has often been cited as the first to recognize jazz as a genuine American art form, rather than as simply what was then referred to as “race music”—forward into the 21st century. Under Was’ oversight, Blue Note continues to release new recordings from jazz artists like trumpeter Terence Blanchard and vocalist Gregory Porter, but also artists who might be considered somewhat subversive, like hip-hop-tinged pianist Robert Glasper and folk/soul singer/songwriter Amos Lee. Although some jazz purists might take umbrage, Was is unapologetic, citing label founder Alfred Lion’s fondness for Prince and other contemporary artists in the final decade of his life. As a matter of fact, Was distills Lion’s well-known “mission statement” for Blue Note down to a very simple concept: create authentic music.
With Was, carrying such enormous respect for musical authenticity and for capturing the artist’s intention, teaming up with Guitar Center for the next Singer-Songwriter competition, helping select the best competitor and producing an EP for him or her, the winner will have an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to connect to the world with their music and jump-start their career. As Was puts it, “I think human beings have a very important need for music. It’s built into our DNA—it’s neurological. There are areas where conversational language completely fails to communicate the depth of our emotions, and that’s where we need art, because symbolically we need to express some intense things that are going on. So, I’ve always felt it was important, as a musician, as a record producer, to create music that addressed that need—that dealt with genuine emotion, genuine feelings. As a musician, you get that off your chest. You express yourself. And for the listener, you help them understand their lives. Life is confusing, man. We drive around here in these cars, we get fired, we get divorced—there’s very little you can count on. It’s very tough to make sense out of life. I think great music helps you contextualize your own existence. I’ve always been attracted to musicians who helped to do that, and I’ve been very fortunate to work with some of the very best singer/songwriters around, from Bob Dylan to Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson Bonnie Raitt, John Mayer, the Rolling Stones, who are amazing songwriters, and all of them are acutely aware of that responsibility to people. You know, there’s a pact between the artist and the listener, and all of them have done a magnificent job at addressing that. It’s a great service that I think singer/songwriters provide to humanity.”
It’s precisely that pact—that concept of giving back—that’s helped drive Was to get involved with the Singer-Songwriter competition. “I’ve been making records for 35 years or more,” he says, “but it feels like it was just yesterday I was back in Detroit, really scuffling—scuffling to find gigs, making my own recordings—which was not quite as easy, since there was no such thing as home recording back then—just trying to get little cassettes to people, and it was very hard to get a break. I remember the frustration. I can taste that frustration that I experienced in my twenties. You know, eventually I got lucky. I got a few breaks, but I do remember that hopelessness and I feel very strongly that anybody who can help people in that position … I wanted help back then … if I can do that as a producer—if Guitar Center can do that, that’s a really great thing. And that’s what’s attracted me to the competition.”
In all of his different incarnations, Was remains committed to the concept of “authentic music.” The belief that emotional honesty should lie at the core of great music is a thread that seems to tie all his creative life together, surpassing the purely technical requirements of modern recording. “The most important tool in making a record, a good record, is having a great song, okay?” He expands, “There’s no microphone… there’s no priceless microphone, there’s no priceless console, there’s no magic box that’s ever going to turn an ‘okay’ song into a great song. There’s actually no great arrangement, there’s no great beat that’s going to turn an okay song, a song that leaves you cold, into a song that gets under your skin. So, the one tool, that I think is indispensable, is to have great music to offer. Beyond that, to be honest with you, even though I’m a gear-head—I love all this stuff, and I can sit and play with any box and eight hours go by and I don’t even realize the time has passed—in the studio, I leave it to the engineers; whatever they want to work with. I don’t even know what microphones we are using half the time. If there’s a problem; if we’re not getting the sound, there are things you can always go back to: a dbx 160 [compressor/limiter] is a great piece of gear, a Shure SM7 is great: it’ll make any vocalist sound amazing. Even a [SM] 58 sounds great: you can always fall back on it. But, you know, there’s all kinds of great gear. Even in terms of guitars—what’s the most important part of the guitar? Your left hand. How are you coming down on the strings? That’s going to make it a great guitar or not a great guitar. Technology in general, to me, is a neutral shape—it’s neither good nor bad, it doesn’t matter. You have to make music that’s got some feeling to it. And I understand that there’s a whole generation of people who make music through technology. My kids use Ableton, and they’d be lost without it—that’s their instrument, that’s their axe. They learn to express genuine emotion through Ableton. There’s a lot of cats who can do that, but it’s still got to come from a place of feeling.”
As an example of working to capture emotion and interplay, Was reflected on one of his recent productions. “This year Keith Richards and I produced an album for Aaron Neville on Blue Note Records, called My True Story, an album of doo-wop songs Aaron grew up listening to and singing in his formative years. Those songs, they’re like Hank Williams songs: they’re very basic and they’re all heart—very soulful and unadorned, raw and emotional. To capture that, we felt it best just to have everybody in the room, together. It was cast with the most tasteful musicians in the world, in addition to Keith: Greg Leisz, Benmont Tench, Tony Scherr, George Recile … They were chosen because they were going to listen to Aaron and react to his vocals. The players really held to a very minimalist kind of record. The way we did it, is that everyone was in a circle at Electric Lady Studios in New York City. Everyone’s in the same room. When people ask me, ‘How do you get that kind of old, authentic sound to it?’ It’s because the drums are as loud in Aaron’s vocal mic as Aaron’s vocals are. Which is how the old records were made—people weren’t that concerned with separation. Everything was bleeding into everything. You just tried to make sure that it was harmonic overtones, and not dissonant overtones hitting the microphone. So it sounds very much like people playing together.
“I think that, subliminally, people respond to that sound,” says Was. “People like that. People like bands. People like hearing musicians cooperating with each other; listening, feeding each other ideas and reacting. That’s one of the great things about music. That’s why we love bands. It’s like, that’s why we love basketball—we love it when people pass, you know? If you pass five times, you’re probably going to score. If you run down and try to hog the shot you’re probably not going to win the game. You might score. Kobe can score 70 points in a game and the Lakers can still lose—that’s happened. [laughs] I was there. So, we like interplay, because it’s a model for our lives; it’s symbolic for the way we would ideally like to live. We are tribal creatures, by nature, so a band that cooperates, even when there’s adversity, that means a lot to people, and I think you hear that in records and people like the sound of cooperation.”
Unlike many pundits, Was isn’t too worried about the future of music. “When I became president of Blue Note Records we tried to come up with a strategy for the company,” he says. “How do you run a record company, a successful record company, in the world today? You certainly can’t run it the way you ran it in 1964, certainly not the way you did in 1983. So what does a record company like this do? We really thought about it for a while, and I went back through my own career, just to see which records stuck with people and which records didn’t stick with people, and, as far as I could tell, it wasn’t that complicated: make good records and let as many people know about it as possible. That’s all you’ve got to do. No one’s got time for [bad] music. You’ve got to make really good records that come with good intention, and a serious effort, too. Express yourself in a way that other people are going to pick up on. Communicative. Communicative—that’s really important—you learn that in Art History 101. What is art? You have to communicate your feelings. The first part is turning your feelings into a painting, or a song, or a poem. The second part is someone receiving it. They’ve got to look at the painting and feel, if not what you felt, they should feel something—project their own inner life onto it. Same with music. So you’ve got to be communicative. You want to be generous, really. I think there’s two types of music: there is generous, and there’s selfish music. Selfish music is, ‘Look how many notes I can play! Whoa! Check me out!’ And a generous music is, ‘This is what I feel, and maybe it helps you understand your feelings too.’”
Looking to the current crop of singer/songwriters, Was offers one final piece of advice. “I think it’s very critical that in order to make generous, authentic and genuine music, you’ve got to be honest in all this. Don’t pretend to be something else. Don’t look at what’s out there selling today and say, ‘Great! I’m going to be Miley Cyrus, man, that’ll work.’ Miley Cyrus is Miley Cyrus. It’s a very competitive business. The only chance any artist has is to not just be themselves, but be the best version of themselves they can be. The thing that makes you different from everybody else out there is your strength, and you’ve got to play to your strengths. If you don’t play to your strength, you haven’t got a prayer.”
Submit your original song now for a chance to record with Don Was during GC Singer-Songwriter III. For more details, visit guitarcenter.com/songwriter.