working with artists

This interview with ZiG originally appeared on SongwriterInfoPage.com. in April 2000

Gary: You’ve produced many CD projects with various artists. What does producing an artist involve?

Zig: It involves me learning who they are, and what they want to say, and how they want to sound. Then helping them decide on the songs – If they wrote the songs, that can mean listening to their songs and helping pick the best ones to record. Or if they don’t write, that means finding songs or even writing something new for the project.

Gary: And what are the guidelines for picking songs?

Zig: What fits the musical style, and what the artist’s voice sounds good singing, and what the songs say – do they say something the artist feels good saying?

Gary: Ok, you’ve agreed on the songs, what else do you do?

Zig: Well, sometimes I play the songs and work with them – usually with the artist to get the right key, and tempo, and song structure – sometimes it’s simple and obvious and other times you can make a song more special with the arrangement. Next I would start to line up musicians and schedule the session. If the artist is a band then it’s just picking a date. If it’s a solo artist this could mean using the artist’s band or session players.

Gary: Is the recording always done at one of your studios?

Zig: Usually. Through the years I’ve done projects at most of the big studios in Nashville, several in Dallas and Ft Worth, and a few in Muscle Shoals, Austin, and Orlando. So I’m open to the idea of working whereever the artist wants to. I like to work n all kinds of studios – big, nice ones and small ones too.

I’ve even done a few things where I went to the artist’s home studio because it was where they were most comfortable and it was less expensive for them, but they still wanted a producer to have a second opinion so they wouldn’t get lost in their own little world. There are lots of great records done on marginal gear, and also plenty of terrible records done at big studios on the finest equipment.

The studio doesn’t make the record. The artist is the substance – the songs, the musicians, the notes, the voice, the performance, the content, the message, the poetry, the art. The studio and the gear are the tools to work with to get it a project done.

But usually for the kind of projects that I produce I can give them the best price and the most value for their money by going to my own studio, ’cause I don’t have to always watch the clock and keep track of every hour and I don’t have to worry as much about having to fit into someone else’s available schedule.

Gary: What kind of artist do you work with?

Zig: Well, as far as style or genre anything and everything – rock, bluegrass, blues, pop, folk, country, jazz, gospel, latin, r&b….  I can get a “mainstream” sound but I really enjoy working with artists that are unique and different and strange.

Gary: Are they independent artists?

Zig: Some are on small indy labels, some on their own label or no label. Usually they perform regularly or occasionally and want a CD to sell at their gigs. Some pitch themselves to the majors.

Gary: Do you shop them to the major labels?

Zig: Most of the artists I work with have already ruled out going to a major label for a variety of reasons – their style is not mainstream – folk, blues, bluegrass, …or they’ve already been on a major and hated it or they got dropped, …or they are just into being independent because they’re not willing to conform and compromise in the ways that are necessary to be on a major. Sometimes they’re 40 years old and they don’t feel that they are an artist that a major label would be intersted in trying to market even if the label liked the music. Sometimes they are making the CD to document and present their songs. They are not really a performer – the CD is more of a promotional tool for the songs.

Gary: With all the people you know, could you shop an artist to the major labels?

Zig: Yes, I’ve gotten a few people signed before – I’ve had artists on 3 different major labels and I’ve done demos for a few others.

Gary: Why should a band or artist use a producer?

Zig: Mainly to make them sound good and make their CD sound good. But a good producer can help you with the whole CD making process – planning, scheduling, goals, …help with picking and arranging songs, finding and communicating with players, the sound of the recording, …keeping the direction of the project on track, mixing, mastering, …sometimes even some input or ideas on how to market and promote the CD when it’s finished.

Take into consideration that as far as the musical, ‘in the studio’ recording and mixing part of the project – I’ve done it thousands of times over 15 years, so I’ve seen most of the problems that can arise and I know how to solve them….tuning, timing, feel, getting great vocals, what mics to use, drum sounds, guitar sounds, background vocals, etc, etc.

An artist may have some studio experience or they might be doing a project for the first time, so it helps them to do it with a producer who’s been through the process start-to-finish many times and learned from each session. And I can also be helpful in the other parts of the process like planning, budget, packaging, artwork as well.

Another good reason to use a producer is to have another opinion, outside the band, independent and objective from the artist. I want your CD to sound great, but I’m not inside your head hearing it from your biased point of view. It’s very helpful for an artist to have a second opinion – someone to bounce ideas off of. A good producer can see and hear things in you that you don’t always notice, and then bring them out, or not. A good producer can bring out the best in you and help hide or improve your weaknesses.

Gary: What makes Zig a good producer?

Zig: Well, I’m a writer – I’ve written for the big and small publishers, and I’ve written very commercial songs and also jazz and folk and non-commercial songs, so I have a good grasp on what a ‘hit’ song is – and I like songs that have substance and good content.

Also, I’m an engineer….and I’m a musician. So I know how to communicate with the engineer about the sound, and with the musicians about the parts and arrangements…

….and I can relate to the artist as well because I’ve played a bunch of gigs and I know what it’s like to perform in front of crowds…

….and I have many years of experience playing and recording all kinds of styles of music…

….and I’ve worked with a zillion artists and players and engineers and I can relate to their quests…

….and, I don’t know, that’s all I can think of right now – my brain’s tired – but that’s plenty….

Gary: Do you have a style or a sound that you do best or that you’re known for?

Zig: I like live drums and warm, organic sounds…and I’ve also done tracks with loops and samples. I don’t really have a sound that I try to go for all the time. I think my goal is to find out who the artist is and then help the artist achieve a sound and style that they feel represents them the way they want to come across. Sometimes that final product can be a little bit of MY version of who I think they are, but mostly it’s who THEY think they are – or hopefully it’s who they KNOW they are – and it’s so obvious that we both know who they are.

When an artist is really solid on who they are then I just have to help them capture it and I feel like I’m good at that. If they’re uncertain or confused I have to try on different things to let us both learn what fits and what doesn’t – once we know what works we can zero in on it.

I know what you mean, though. Some producers have a sound, like Baby Face, where everything he does sounds very similar – the instruments, the bgvs, the verbs he uses. And that’s cool…he’s good and his sound is good and he does that on purpose. The only thing I do that’s ‘my thing’ is my ‘wide-pan’ mixes and that’s only upon request – I don’t do it unless you’re into it.

IMG193  IMG_1881 IMG_0617 27   tori zig hg (3) Billy  with bj on gmt IMG_0582 IMG_9942 Photo05302115 bj zig good dat 540831_401464846566065_777707863_n sana y zig