Interview with BRIAN BACCHUS, A&R for Norah Jones (US Top 10) - Sep 3, 2002
“A great record is not always a success, it depends on whether it has the right company behind it, a company that can really deliver.”
As an A&R Brian Bacchus has worked with Norah Jones (US Top 10), Brooklyn Funk Essentials, Omar, and Cassandra Wilson at labels Verve, Antilles, RCA, and Blue Note.
He is also a producer that has worked with Monday Michiru, Randy Weston, Terry Callier and Ronny Jordan, and he has recently started a new production company, SoulFeast Music, with Joe Claussell.
How did you get started in the music business?
While I was in college, I worked at various record stores in New York. After college, I was pulled out of one by David Weyner, who later went on to run Polygram Jazz and Classics, and now heads RCA Victor, to work at the jazz label Verve. There I worked first in retail and radio marketing for about two years, before I did a one-year stint in A&R. After this, Chris Blackwell got hold of me and brought me in to run his jazz label, Antilles.
I then worked at RCA, where I created a new funk and R&B label called Groovetown, to which artists like Omar and Brooklyn Funk Essentials were signed. Later on at Blue Note Records, I signed Richard Leo Johnson, an amazing twelve-string fingerpicker from Arkansas, and the urban contemporary jazz guitarist Ronny Jordan. There were also lots of different acts to work with at Blue Note, like Cassandra Wilson, and Joe Lovano, as well as young acts like Stefon Harris, Jacky Terrasson and Diane Reeves.
What experiences have been important to you in developing your skills as an A&R and as a producer?
Watching other great producers and engineers work. Seeing Arif Mardin work with singers, particularly when he produced Norah Jones, was really influential to me. In general, I think that being around musicians and engineers and learning your way around the studio is important, as well as working with people who really have that gut instinct, like, for example, Chris Blackwell and [President of Blue Note] Bruce Lundvall.
I probably had my best experiences at major labels. But as they became parts of conglomerates, they have less and less to do with actually being record labels and many times the music suffers. They are at the whim of the shareholders and when the stock price goes down, the record label side will feel the pressure, unless they can sell off other assets. So, down the line, they’re not just record labels anymore, in the way that Atlantic or Blue Note Records were when they were independent, which I loved - they are entertainment and media companies.
How did you sign Norah Jones?
Norah had done some background vocals for a singer signed to Atlantic, Victoria Williams, and the producer of some of the tracks was a talented artist named J.C. Hopkins, whose wife, Shell White, worked in the royalties department at Blue Note. She asked Bruce and I to listen to Norah's 3-track demo, which had two jazz standards and a song written by singer/songwriter Jesse Harris on it.
We knew right away she had the goods, although there was a question of what direction her music might follow. So we let her find her own direction. We were a jazz label, but we knew that if she could develop her songwriting and we could find great songs, it would work.
What did you see in her that made you want to work with her?
The quality of her voice; she is just a natural singer. I went out to hear her sing live and her phrasing was great, her intonation impeccable, and the tone of her voice really beautiful and endearing. Often you work with singers who have to do punch-ins, but she’s not like that. She’s a one-take singer.
How did you go about getting her ready to release records?
It took about six months before we signed her to an initial demo deal, and I first teamed her up with Jay Newland, a great engineer who has done jazz, rock & roll, blues, country, and folk, because I thought he would really have a feeling for her sound.
We went in and cut about nine demo tracks, of which four or five became part of the album, and six formed the sampler, ‘First Sessions’, which was sold on her website and at live gigs, before she went in to start “Come Away With Me.”
It was then a question of what producers we were going to use. We went through a lot of different people and then she decided she really liked Craig Street, so we went in and recorded stuff with Craig. I think it was a real learning experience for her, because it was the first time she had worked with a producer and it didn’t work out as she had hoped, although we still used some of Craig’s material.
Then Bruce and I thought Arif Mardin would be great, because he had previously worked with many great singers whose sound was soulful. Norah was initially hesitant, because she felt that she wouldn't be able to find her voice and stand up for her vision with someone as accomplished and renowned as Arif Mardin.
He’s worked with some of the truly great singers of our time, like Barbara Streisand, Aretha Franklin, Roberta Flack, and Chaka Khan. But we convinced her and they got along fabulously.
How did you go about choosing songs for the album ‘Come Away With Me’, and what were your thoughts behind the selections?
She had demoed a lot of different songs and, in the end, it was just about narrowing down what was recorded. Some of the demos were just great and we realised there was no sense in trying to fix something that wasn't broken.
Also, Norah and her bass player, Lee Alexander, really began writing during this process, and both came up with some real gems. Then there were some songs by Jesse Harris who was a good friend and a great songwriter.
Did you have an idea about the sort of profile that you wanted to present to the media and the audience?
Just someone as natural as possible. We wanted to avoid any hype, which was hard to do because when people heard her, they started comparing and calling her the next this or that. But she’s very down to earth, she has an idea of who she is, and it’s very simple in terms of how she performs, just piano, bass, drums and guitar.
There’s certainly marketing in terms of how she was presented and it’s certainly easier to get media exposure for attractive artists, that’s the reality, but she’s a beautiful woman without any make-up, and a charming personality to boot.
Do you think unsigned artists are knowledgeable about the music industry, or is it something they need to learn more about in order to stand a better chance?
No, I don’t think so. In my experience as an A&R, there’s always a learning curve with unsigned artists. In terms of trying to get signed, what really matters is to find a label that is the right fit for you. Look at what a particular label releases, where its success lies, what the A&R people deliver. A great record is not always a success, because it depends on whether it has the right company behind it, a company that can really deliver.
What do you think of the US media when it comes to playing smaller genres like jazz and world music?
It’s limited and there are more press outlets than radio outlets. I don’t know if that could actually be changed. I think it’s a matter of educating an audience, widening its scope from childhood.
How do you think the internet will affect record companies' business model?
I think the Internet has, in some ways, already outdated the record company business model. Obviously, it’s going to get to the point where people are streaming. The concept of the CD will probably become obsolete, because kids would rather invest in hard drives than in CDRs.
Do you think that the Internet will offer an alternative route for artists, so that they might sell their music directly from their site?
Yes, I definitely think so. You’re cutting out the middle man. If you can sell 10,000 CDs or downloads at $15, it’ll cost you anywhere from $1 to $2.50, and you’ll make just as much money or even more than a major label selling 100,000 records.
What is SoulFeast Music and what are your activities?
SoulFeast is a co-venture I started with Joe Claussell, who also has his own label called Spiritual Life Music, but is mostly known as a DJ, producer, and remixer. We had worked together over the years on various projects, and we felt a mutual admiration for what we did as producers. When I left Blue Note in October 2001, Joe thought we should start our own little production venture, which I thought made sense.
What is the vision behind the company?
We’re into good music that’s not necessarily straight-up dance music, but that we can introduce to the dancefloor. It would probably get radioplay in Europe and Japan, but I don’t see it getting major radioplay in the US, other than from some mix shows. We want to introduce artists and their music via the dancefloor, to a new and growing audience that wouldn’t necessarily hear about them or be exposed to them through another medium.
What are you currently working on?
We’ve got a project called The Groove Master, that's come through Chico Hamilton’s manager. Chico gave us a bunch of his drum grooves, so we decided that we'd produce an EP of dance and electronica grooves around his drum sound. We used MKL and Soy Sos, DJ Smash, and a young guy named Still Phil to round out some of the mixes that Joe and I are currently working on.
We’ve also just finished a killer remix of Brazilian singer/pianist Eliane Elias for RCA Victor and, are about to start a remix of a track from the Malian group Amadou & Mariam.
Do you release your own records?
We’re just about to release the first Chico Hamilton remix EP project to retail and clubs.
How much do you normally charge for doing a remix or a full production?
It all depends on the project. Sometimes small labels come to us and if we really love the music, we may do it on speculation where we retain the right to release it ourselves, or we try to make it reasonable for them. The cost, though, depends on what we are actually going to do with the project and, of course, every project is different.
Do you accept unsolicited material?
Yes. I probably get about three packages per week and I get email from people telling me to check out MP3s on their site. Some things are great, while some things I might recommend to someone else. Because of my work with Norah, I’ve received a lot of country stuff, but even though I like a lot of country, there are better producers out there to do that.
What are the key lessons you’ve learnt since you started producing?
When working with singers, to really pay attention to the phrasing of the lyrics and how they fit in the overall song.
In production terms, my style is to trust the artist and let him/her find his/her voice, to try to be helpful and not impose my view on the work. I let them know what my vision is, but it’s really about discussing it and trying to hear what is it that they’re trying to get to.
Often you find very talented artists and you have a vision for them, but they have a vision too, only they can’t get it out. What you really want to know is what their vision is, what they're trying to say. I’ll even tell people to sing the song into a tape recorder, the way they hear it, without any music, because when things are really stripped down you can really hear where a song is headed sometimes.
Do you have your own studio or do you work in other studios?
I have a little home studio in terms of mastering and editing, but most of the time I work in different studios.
Does your company plan to use the internet in any way?
We’re currently developing our website, but in terms of streaming, no, although we have subscribed with a new company called Track 22, that basically links up producers and remixers to A&R people. If A&Rs are looking for a particular type of sound, they can look for it there or put forward a question and people can send their tracks to them. It’s a very hip site created by a friend of mine, Kenyatta Bell, who used be an A&R.
If you could change any aspect of the music industry, what would you do?
I would start from retail and have individual buyers at stores, instead of computer buyers. Now somebody makes the initial purchase, but then computers make the re-orders. The computer looks and says, “Well, it sold five, maybe I’ll order another three.” It’s the concept of centralised buying that I don't agree with, because I think you really have to respond to your local situation and the more hands-on and consumer-oriented a record store can be, the better.
What has been the greatest moment of your music career?
Several records I made with Randy Weston are major highlights for me. One was “The Spirits Of Our Ancestors”, where we worked on some of Dizzy Gillespie’s last recordings with Pharaoh Sanders.
Norah Jones is certainly a highlight, because I really love her and obviously it’s a commercial success. Also working with Omar from the UK, who is incredibly talented, but who has still not really broken the way he needs to. He’s what I call a triple treat, a great songwriter, a great singer and a great musician.
What do you see yourself doing in 5-10 years?
I think I’ll be doing exactly the same thing I’m doing now, searching for great projects to produce, and hopefully the SoulFeast Music label will take off.
Interviewed by Kimbel Bouwman
Read On ...
* Norah Jones' breakthrough manager Brian Bacchus on building an artist's career