Interview with RICHARD NILES, producer for Cher, Pet Shop Boys, Take That, Tina Turner - Apr 23, 2007
ďI base my opinions not on what I like, but what I know has worked from a deep study of popular music from 1910 to the present day,Ē... which might sound a bold statement coming from anyone else, but not from Richard Niles.
Niles had produced, arranged and wrote for so many giants of rock, jazz and pop, the list is endless: Paul McCartney, Ray Charles, Kylie Minogue, Cher, Pet Shop Boys, Take That, Tears For Fears, Wet Wet Wet, Tina Turner, Joe Cocker...
He shares with HitQuarters his criticism of the way majors are working these days, the ignorance of classic rock and pop leading to bad songwriting, the disappearance of artist developement and the sacrifice of good music for business interests.
How was it to grow up in such a creative musical environment?
I was very lucky to grow up with a father [Tony Romano] who was a singer/songwriter/arranger and someone who was heavily involved in the music of the Great American Songbook. I remember as a child going over to Bing Crosbyís house and playing table tennis with his kids. I had people in the house all the time who were well-known people of that era. Bob Hope was a guest at my parents wedding. My dad worked with Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, and all these wonderful people. I heard that music all the time.
Orally I was getting a great training, not only from him playing the records all the time, but also from him actually singing the songs. I had Joe Venuti and my father playing in the living room. As a result I was very well versed in jazz before I could speak.
My father was a fantastic musician but not necessarily the greatest teacher in the world. He could do it, but he just expected everybody to be as talented as he was and therefore able to pick up the guitar and play brilliantly. Of course, I didnít have that ability.
My parents divorced when I was 8. I came to England in 1962. During my entire teen years I grew up with my mother and stepfather. They were very negative about me becoming a musician at all. They didnít want me to be anything like my father. However, the good thing was that my stepfather was a brilliant writer, poet and playwright.
From my stepfather, who was Jesse Lasky Jr. , I got this education in writing and film history. Thatís why, as a songwriter, Iím fascinated by the lyrical side just as much as by the musical side.
My mother taught scriptwriting for many years. That also helps me because I write and present music documentaries for BBC Radio 2. When Iím writing my scripts, Iím writing it with a background of prior information. I didnít just come to it by accident.
Being so versatile, what do you like best?
The childish side in me says that I just enjoy playing best. I have concentrated much more on my jazz playing in the last ten years. For the first time in my life Iím practicing and doing lots of gigs. Somebody calls me up and says, ĎIím playing down at this bar, come on down and weíll play standardsí. That is the most fun for me.
On the other hand, thereís nothing more fun than what I was doing a few weeks ago. I was standing in front of a string orchestra recently doing some string arrangements for a wonderful Scottish jazz pianist called David Newton. Itís really fun when youíre standing in front of an orchestra and you bring your arms down and it all sounds beautiful and fantastic.
I find all of it fun. Thereís nothing thatís really more fun than any other part. I find it fun when I discover a new artist, and I can bring that new artist into focus and show them which way is a good way to go. I can suggest things to them that can actually help them progress as an artist.
What was key to finding your own vocabulary?
I was fortunate to go to the Berklee College of Music in Boston between 1971 and 1975. I had probably the best teachers anyone could ever pray for.
Herb Pomeroy, who taught classes in arranging in the style of Duke Ellington and contemporary big band arranging. That was the No.1 technical help that I got in terms of being able to manifest anything that I want to. The great thing about his teaching was that he didnít tell you to write in any particular style. He gave you the tools, which allowed you to write in whatever style you wanted but with intelligence.
I also studied with a great composer named Michael Gibbs, which was a wonderful experience. And I studied with Pat Metheny, which was the beginning of a long friendship. I studied with Gary Burton, who apart from being one of the most innovative players in jazz, is also a brilliant teacher. I studied Composition and other classes with him.
Do you remember the first song you wrote?
I began writing songs when I was about 15. I had to sneak a guitar into the house and under my bed, because my mother and stepfather didnít want me to be a musician at all.
I bought a guitar from a friend of mine for 4 pounds. Whenever my parents would go out I would get the guitar out and teach myself to play it. The first songs that I wrote were as a teenager in the 60s. They were influenced by that creative poetic kind of desire for self-expression.
What projects are you working on at the moment?
I recently did some arranging for Kylie Minogue. Iíve been working with her for years. She usually comes to me when she wants anything in the jazz vein. Iíve done a big band jazz arrangement of ĎBetter the Devil You Knowí and ĎThe Locomotioní. These were for her live shows, which are very over the top affairs.
Iíve just done three arrangements for an album that she has been putting together of jazz material. Itís going to be very interesting.
I tend to do a lot of little projects in my studio. I recently did a bunch of demos for a very good songwriter. I do albums for people in the jazz and pop area. Iím doing two new series for BBC Radio 2. One is called ĎPat Metheny Bright Size Lifeí, which is the life of Pat Metheny and his work. Iím going to go to New York in May to interview him for a few days.
And the other series is called ĎWhat Is Melody?í, where Iím interviewing a wide selection of classical, pop, rock and jazz people to ask that question. Why is one group of notes different from another group of notes? What are the different ways we play melodies? What are the different ways we perceive melody? Itís going to be a fascinating project.
How do you choose your projects?
I really enjoy working with any creative people. Especially people who are doing something new and innovative and trying to do something different.
One of the things that characterizes popular music to a certain extent over the last fifteen years is that for the first time in the history of popular music itís okay for a record to come out and sound just like another record. Itís perfectly okay for a singer to come out and sound like a third grade version of Aretha Franklin. Thereís not much originality these days, although certain successful artists are very talented. Itís hard for people to point to me and say: Well, this is something absolutely new.
Whereas if you go back even as near as the 80s there were groups who were trying new concepts, new sounds and new ways of writing songs. You had tremendous innovation and breakthroughs. But today that has all changed.
Record sales have dropped by about 10% a year over the last ten years. Most people are looking to do something which is going to be financially sensible to do.
It would be my artistic desire to just work with anybody who is talented and wants to make a record, which I did a lot during the 70s and 80s. But after the 90s I donít think many of us can afford to do that anymore. It has to be a budgeted project. I hate to bring in the ugly face of money, but most people need to earn a living these days.
My primary concern is creativity, but itís always nice to be paid as well. Itís always a balance for any creative artist to be able to be solvent.
How could aspiring artists get that vision back and discover that magic and power in music?
Iíve done a lot of teaching over the last ten years. And Iím just about to finish my PhD. I speak to a lot of people from the ages of about 18 to 30. Iím shocked to hear that they have not listened to any music thatís more than maybe five or six years old. I ask them if theyíre familiar with The Beatles and the reply is ďOh, well, weíve heard one tune.Ē This is a crime!
I give them lists of the most essential music that they should at least listen to. You have to be inspired by someone. Apparently, Clark Terry once said to his students, ďAssimilate, imitate and innovateĒ. If you havenít listened to Ella Fitzgerald, then you donít know what that was and what she achieved - you canít be inspired by it. If you havenít listened to Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, Pat Metheny, you canít be inspired by their great artistry.
The second level is to imitate. And when you have assimilated a number of influences and youíve learned and given your art the hard work that it deserves then you can start to innovate and make your own thing.
All innovation is a synthesis of two or more elements that have come before. Gary Burton completely revolutionized the way that he played the vibraphone. Moreover, the music that he played and his style of improvising combined country music with jazz. You could say the same thing about Miles Davis, Paul Simon, any brilliant creative artist. Theyíve taken what theyíve heard before and theyíve synthesized it.
What I would say to any new artist trying to create a career for themselves and trying to turn themselves into artists instead of just musicians, is that they need to listen and analyze. They need to listen actively, not passively. Itís not enough to just listen to something and say, yeah, man, thatís great. You have to sit down with a piece of paper and a pencil and you say, whatís that thing? Let me figure that one out. Iím going to write that down.
How do you educate musicians to not be lazy anymore?
I tell them to go listen to these 30 things. Then I come back in a few weeks and I find out whether theyíve bothered to listen to it. All they have to do is go to the Internet. They donít even have to pay for it. In my day I had to go out and buy all those records or steal them from my friends.
If I come back in three weeks and I hear that most of them havenít listened to anything that I suggested, I tell them, ďYou people are despicable. You are lazy and youíll never get anywhere, and I hope you enjoy working at McDonaldís. I donít see how you can look in the mirror and have any self-respect. Donít bother coming into class to these lessons. Iíll give you an ĎAí anyway, it doesnít matter to me. Grades mean nothing.Ē
Do you have any tips for aspiring artists who want to get a professional career?
Absolutely the most important thing about any kind of professional work is getting breakfast, lunch and dinner. The seriousness behind the humour is youíve got to be healthy. You canít be a maniac. Youíve got to organize your days. Youíre not just some kind of a hermit living in a studio.
Youíve stated that not all A&Rs own the most receptive or trained ears in the world. Does that mean that not everyone gets a fair chance for recognition?
Absolutely. Up until the 80s, A&R executives were people who were musicians - usually arrangers. They were people like George Martin, Quincy Jones, Arif Mardin. They understood songs, singers and artists.
When the multinational conglomerates took over and brought all the independent record labels, the record labels were no longer owned by music loving entrepreneurs like Ahmet Ertegun. You donít have guys like Jerry Wexler running record companies now. What youíve got now is huge multinational companies where most of their A&R staff are businessmen. Theyíre people who look at music from the standpoint of marketing, not from the standpoint of music and talent. They will say, ĒGo out and get me anything thatís popular now.Ē
I interviewed Arif Mardin before he died. He said that when he first decided to sign Norah Jones, many people in the record business sort of laughed at him. A girl sitting at a piano, singing? Thatís not commercial. Once she became successful and had a No.1 record, all A&R staff all over America were instructing their people to go out and find another Norah Jones.
They think from a marketing point of view, but they canít tell whatís talented or not talented because thatís not their field of expertise. This is our problem.
How should aspiring artists approach the business with their material?
They have to have a very clear vision of what it is that they have to offer as an artist. If they can get advice from anyone in the business whoís had some success, rather than their uncle, then they should try to get that advice.
Most young artists donít have a lot of money, which is a problem. I recently presented an artist to Universal. I was told by the A&R man, ďThis is really great. This song is a hit. But youíve only got two tracks here.Ē I said that thatís all this girl could afford to make. But he said, ďWe can no longer sign anything unless it is a completed mastered album. We also canít sign it unless you already have a manager in place whoís a top manager.Ē
Record companies today are no longer in the business of artist development. Right now, record companies are losing so much money that they have to make sure that all the elements are in place. So preferably the artist should be from an already successful band or their manager should be Simon Fuller. And theyíll also need top quality photographs and a video. That puts it out of the reach of most aspiring artists.
Unfortunately, there are no places to play live. Thereís not a circuit like there used to be of clubs and pubs to play live in and build up a following. Thatís all gone. Itís very rough for new young artists.
What is it that makes songs the singles for ĎMr. A&Rí?
My job as an arranger is to make the record more commercial. First of all I have to see whether itís commercial to start with. Most pop songs follow a pretty similar format. An introduction of some sort, or else they just begin straight with the verse. They may have some introduction that uses a melody of the chorus or the verse.
Then they usually have a verse, what is called a pre-hook (the section of music that rises up into the chorus), and the chorus. The chorus has to be the highpoint of the song. It has to be a catchy, memorable melody. Then weíll have another verse, pre-hook and chorus.
Then perhaps some new material which is called the middle-eight or the bridge. And then go out on the chorus. This is the general form. The first thing that any listener who is not a musician and is just a music lover can hear is melody. I ask myself: Is this melody either a) interesting, or b) catchy? Because there are a lot of melodies that are not interesting at all. Catchy means you canít get it out of your head.
I also listen to the lyrics for any particular meaning. You can have dumb lyrics like Ďna-na-na-naí that can be catchy and successful. But you can also have a brilliant lyric like any song by Joni Mitchell, which is going to captivate the listener.
Itís a technical thing, but an emotional thing as well. I base my opinions not on what I like, but what I know has worked from a very deep study of popular music from 1910 to the present day.
What is it you tap into when youíre writing?
I believe in what I call Ďtarget writingí. I always have a target in mind. What am I trying to say? Who is the audience that this is aimed at? Is this aimed at kids, intelligent adults? Is this music for a film or a jingle?
Luckily, because Iím very adept in writing in many different styles, I can make those choices and then focus my entire writing on that thing.
Do you stick to structures?
There are existing structures that you do stick to. There are sequences of notes. There are different chord progressions. There are different harmonic voice patterns and melodic techniques that you can use.
There are different melodies that appeal to you or generic melodies that work in a certain genre. But I really draw on my background. Iím lucky I have this fantastic frame of reference that Iíve been given both from my father, my stepfather, my teachers and my own self study.
When I graduated from Berklee, I spent my first year doing nothing but transcribing arrangements that I liked. I transcribed many things by Dave Bruson, loads of James Brown and Earth, Wind & Fire.
I sat down and really figured out what those guys were doing, so I could reproduce it at the drop of a hat. Thatís why when somebody calls me for an arrangement and they say: We want this to sound like The Carpenters or Tower Of Power, I know exactly how to make it sound like that. Because I figured it out.
Can you give an example of what doesnít work for you when writing a song?
What doesnít work is having a bad starting place. If you donít have a target, you canít hit the target. Thatís really what itís all about. My only bad writing experiences have been when I write and Iím not quite sure what Iím aiming for, which isnít often.
Iíve had some great experiences with co-writers, but also really bad ones. Where Iím sitting there and I feel like Iím having to squeeze blood out of a stone to get the other person to come up with any ideas. Thatís a very unpleasant thing. Thatís why I donít do a lot of co-writing.
Can harmonic richness be an obstacle to reaching a wide audience?
Not at all. Did it stop The Beatles? Did it stop The Carpenters? Did it stop Earth, Wind & Fire?
The first thing that an average listener whoís not a musician can hear is melody, the second thing they hear is counter-melody and the third thing they hear is rhythm. The fourth thing that they can appreciate is harmony. Itís way down the list, but that doesnít mean itís not important or that itís going to hinder you. If itís that unimportant, itís not going to hinder you.
What is going to hinder you is if you donít have a good tune and if you donít have a good way of presenting that tune. I have been paid a great deal of money through the years to make a silk purse out of a sowís ear. At the same time, Iíve also been paid to make a really great song into a mega hit. Itís much easier to arrange and produce a great song.
How do you write material for an artist?
When Iím writing for a specific artist, I consider: 1) the genre, how do they sing? 2) their range, and 3) the lyrical content. What kind of subjects will suit this kind of a voice?
And then you write the song. You do your best. Youíre inspired by a certain kind of emotional connection that you get with the material or with the person that youíre writing the material for.
Why did you do Nucool Records?
Only to release things that I couldnít get released otherwise. I signed an artist in 1988 called Silje Nergaard. Sheís a Norwegian singer. She was introduced to me by Pat Metheny. We made three albums. We had a No.1 record in Japan with a song called ĎTell Me Where Youíre Goingí. Sheís still doing very well as a jazz singer now.
Everybody sets up their own labels because they want to release their own material, and they want to release it in their own way. Right now, the major record companies have something to offer, which is called Ďmoneyí. But they donít have a lot else to offer.
Because thereís no A&R anymore, thereís no artist development anymore. In general, youíre not going to get fantastic artistic advice from people in record companies.
Usually artists would do best to go to a producer, who they have a connection with and where they can gain an understanding, and try to do it that way.
Most people are forming their own record labels, because you can market yourself pretty well on the Internet now. Itís not quite there yet. You have to be very clever. Thatís what most young people need to do. A lot of people are bypassing the record companies.
What are the tools you canít live without in Nucool Studios?
Iím not a super technical guy. I use Digital Performer, which is a nice little system that works. I have the Mackie D8b desk. Itís not the latest gear or anything.
The thing I couldnít live without in my studio more than anything else is a beautiful piano. I have a lot of people who come in and use my piano just because it sounds so fantastic. Itís a very warm beautiful sounding Yamaha C3.
I set up my studio mainly to record real musicians playing real music. For that reason I probably point to my piano as being my absolutely essential tool. I love the interaction of live music.
Whatís the difference between working with new young artists and established ones?
New young artists usually have no experience. You have to teach them everything. The fact that most young people have very little humility and think that they know everything is a problem. When I look back at myself as a youth, I wish that Iíve had somebody older who could have told me things and given me the tricks of the trade.
I certainly got musical technical knowledge from people like Gary Burton, but I had nobody to really teach me the ways of the world and the business and how to work in a recording studio. But young artists can do things in new ways that you donít expect. You can learn from them too.
Working with established artists can be fantastic, because youíre watching a master at work. I was in the studio with Paul McCartney - there is no better experience. While we were recording something else he said, ďHey, Iíve got an idea, do you mind if I go and record something really quickly?Ē
He stands in front of the mic, we turn the machine on, and he sings this great song with the guitar. Then he said, ďI think Iíll just put a bass on this.Ē He picks up the HŲfner Beatle bass, slaps the bass on it perfectly. Then he goes, ďI think Iíll just go and play some drums on it now.Ē And he plays perfect drums on it. One take, all this stuff.
In 15 minutes he had a completed track. We were just sitting there with our jaws on the floor. And he said, ďOkay, letís go on with the session now, thanks for waiting for me.Ē Thatís the difference when youíre working with an experienced person.
How do you work in the studio when you create an album?
If Iím producing a record I donít want to produce songs that I donít think are good songs. I will certainly tell the artist: This one is great, this one isnít. I wouldnít say that Iím a fascist, but I make my opinion known and I give reasons for my opinion. If somebody wants to argue with me, they need to have reasons too.
What happens if the artist doesnít agree with the direction you take the song?
There are plenty of other producers they can choose that are much more famous than me. Iíve learned my lesson. I no longer try to force people to see my point of view. Theyíve come to me because they think the fact that Iíve had so much success and been involved in so many hit records and worked with people like Ray Charles and Paul McCartney is going to mean something.
My opinion might be valid because itís based on that. Their opinion is based on no success at all. You might as well take this as a learning experience.
Is it important for a solo artist to develop writing skills?
Today itís essential. Although it could be just as important for a solo artist to realize that they are a crap songwriter - not everybody is going to be a great songwriter.
The best thing to do then is to make friends with one. Or make friends with a publisher who has a great songwriter. Or go over and see BMI or ASCAP and say youíre looking for songs.
Can you give some words of advice regarding publishing contracts?
If you donít need the money, donít sign them. Most people publish themselves, if theyíve got any brains. Publishers no longer, just like record companies, do artist development.
Publishers are only signing writers who are also producers, or who are also signed recording artists. They donít want to take any chances. Theyíre not signing many professional writers at all. Thatís a sad thing.
One of the reasons why music of the 50s-80s was so great was because there were a lot of professional writers signed to publishing companies. Just look at the Brill Building: all professional writers sitting in rooms - Carole King, all those people. That resulted in some pretty great music.
If you could change some aspect of the music business, what would you do?
Iíd get rid of the multinational conglomerates. Iíd go back to the independent record labels that are run by music-loving entrepreneurs. Iíd go back to record companies like Atlantic and Motown. Record companies that were tremendous creative machines. All based on the ownersí love of music.
Which songs are you the most proud of?
Having Ray Charles sing your songs is the greatest honour you could possibly have. I co-wrote three songs with a writer called Phil Spalding and they were recorded by Ray. Equally, I guess most writers will say that theyíre the most proud of whatever they wrote yesterday.
What is it you would still like to accomplish in the music world?
A great deal more. I want to do a lot more live playing and big concerts. I want to do something to help promote some of the artists that I really believe in.
Iím going to be doing something soon with this wonderful British jazz pianist called Gwilym Simcock. Heís a huge talent and Iíd like to work with him. I have more music that I want to record on my own. I want to do some more guitar albums and big band albums. Iíve got a big band project with Pat Kane, the singer from Hue & Cry. Iíd love to record that properly some day.
I enjoy teaching a lot. I enjoy the process of bringing somebody out into the light, which is the meaning of education. I donít enjoy the business at all. Itís not the business that keeps me in the business. Itís the music.
Interview by Kimbel Bouwman
Read On ...