CONVERSATIONS WITH PERFORMERS: Steve Fishell (Part 1 of 3)

Author: | Filed under: Interviews, Musician Resources

I’m pleased to present Part 1 of my interview with Grammy®-winning producer, former A&R executive, and veteran musician Steve Fishell.

Steve’s highly regarded work as a musician includes a 10 year stint touring and recording as Emmylou Harris’s pedal steel guitar player in her Hot Band.  As a studio producer, with over 20 years of experience producing hit records for top labels in both the major and indie worlds, Steve’s wide-ranging resume includes projects with Little Richard, Willie Nelson, Mavis Staples, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and The Dixie Chicks.  Steve has earned many distinguished awards, including multiple number one records, gold and platinum albums in both the U.S.A. and Canada, a Grammy in 2005 for Beautiful Dreamer: The Songs of Stephen Foster, numerous Grammy nominations and a Canadian Country Music Award for Album of the Year for Charlie Major’s chart-topping The Other Side.  His work in 1994 with country vocalist Pam Tillis on her In Between Dances CD helped guide Tillis to a Country Music Association (CMA) award for Best Female Vocalist.

Steve is also the founder of the Music Producers Institute, which he runs while maintaining his busy producing and performing schedule.  As regular readers of this blog know, I had the opportunity to attend MPI’s Todd Snider sessions at the legendary Sound Emporium in Nashville.  While I was there, Steve spoke with me at length about performance from his unique perspective as a successful musician and producer.  This conversation will be posted in three weekly installments.  –VA

You have a very multi-faceted view of performance, having been a sideman, and a producer, and you’ve done A&R.  Given all that understanding from all those different areas and angles, are there any universal characteristics of a great performer that you’ve been able to identify?

Steve Fishell:  Yes, but it’s difficult to describe in words because it’s always almost a physical response.  When you hear someone’s voice combined with incredible lyrics and a great melody, putting all those things together and having it be so overwhelmingly good that you’re just humbled by the strength of the performance – I think it’s really difficult to have a template for what that greatness is.  I think you actually just have to experience it.

I think we all sort of have universal excitement standards.  Whoever your favorite artist is, you can apply this to them.  I happen to be a fan of Stevie Wonder’s voice, but also his harmonica playing – and whenever I hear a harmonica solo by Stevie Wonder, I’m just in awe of his ability to put notes together in a new and different way that I would never have thought of.  The timbre of someone’s voice will do that to me.  Patty Griffin is one of my favorite singers, and I’ve heard some of her new music recently, and it just staggered me how she’s able to not read words off of a page but actually tell a story with her voice, singing heartfelt lyrics that she has written, and have them come right through to you rather than just someone mechanically sort of walking through a song.

So we all have different ways to describe that moment that reflects a high standard.  I don’t view myself as any sort of music critic – it’s a very gut response.  My response to good music is, it’s real obvious, and when I hear it, I know it.  I can read myself.  I can tell how it affects me.  And that doesn’t mean anybody else is going to like it, but it gives me enough confidence to feel like I should share it with somebody else.  And that’s the response I have:  I like this so much that I want someone else to hear this, too, because they’re going to maybe get something from this like I did.

I do remember one of the earliest concerts I ever saw that really affected me, and I didn’t know it at the time, that it was going to have such an impact.  I saw the Allman Brothers Band in Santa Barbara, in early October of 1971 – October 3rd, in fact – and the band was so tight and so powerful, and had such an incredible way as a unit, not as a group of individuals but as a band.  Beyond having known The Beatles before that point, I was aware of what a band could be, but not fully until the first time I saw a real band onstage, and that was that night.  And I was amazed that this guitar player, Duane Allman, would share the stage with another guitar player – that was unusual, there’s no ego here.  And the power of that rhythm section was just undeniable.  It just had a visceral effect on me.  And I was also really blown away by Duane Allman’s slide playing, and that influenced me to get into finding out what that whole string movement thing was about:  what’s this slide thing, and how could anyone have it sound so much like the human voice like Duane Allman does?  Well, it turned out that three weeks later, Duane Allman died in a motorcycle accident, sadly, and so I didn’t realize at the time how lucky I was to be able to see the band with him, and it left a lasting impression.  Now I know what a live performance standard is, because that’s ingrained in my memory.  That never fades.  I know exactly how that felt.  I was 18 at the time, and it just branded in my brain what live performance is.  So that’s a standard that I refer to a lot.

You work with so many top-flight artists, and I’m curious about what you’ve noticed – in personality traits or presence, or some kind of tangible or intangible thing – what you find, if anything, that ties all these people together?  What are the common things in those people who give you that kind of visceral response in a performance?  Because you get to work with people in a different way as a studio producer – you can crawl inside people a little bit more than the people who are seeing the show.

 

SF:  Well, that’s true. I think, though, that audiences should feel that they’re probably seeing the most exciting moment for an artist, in terms of performance, and that is the live performance.  Because that’s the standard that you apply to the studio.  You try to reach that level in the studio, which is a very sterile, clinical, microscopic environment, and it’s very difficult to get a live feel in the studio, quite often.  So that’s the standard that artists apply to their recorded work.  But I think that seeing somebody in concert can be as exciting as anything you can imagine, and I understand why people tape live shows and share them.  That’s why, you know, Bruce Springsteen in 1985 at such-and-such a place is thought of as the great night, because it was, it’s never going to be the same.  That’s going to set a new bar.  The point I’m trying to make is that audiences should feel that they’re connecting with their artist through the live concert.  The studio is just another breed, another animal.  We’re only trying to recreate that audience/concert impact.  The studio makes you a bit self-conscious, because you know that one performance will be heard repeatedly, as opposed to a live performance, which is here-today-gone-today.  Except, of course, when it’s recorded live…

…and ends up on YouTube…

SF:  …and ends up on YouTube, yeah, that’s true.  So much for that idea!  But the other part of your question, which was a good one, was about what common threads have I seen between artists.  The people that I’ve worked with that I most respected, and continue to respect, seem all to be able to tap into a place in their minds where they’re not thinking about economics.  They’re not thinking about anything to do with acceptance.  They’re driven.  They have no choice but to output this information, this music, onto the recorder.  They can’t help themselves.  If they don’t have an outlet for it, then they might go crazy.  The artists that I most admire tend to go into the studio for all the right reasons.  They’re not thinking about audience acceptance, they’re not thinking about radio acceptance, they’re not thinking about record sales, and they’re not thinking about money.  They are really artists.

The term artist is a generic term that is applied to anybody that steps in front of a microphone, but that’s really an unfair definition for many, because many recording entertainers are not artists.  I know that seems elitist.  But I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to be in the studio in the days prior to electronics and computerized tuning and all of the devices that are now used to help artists sound like they can sing, and so I know the difference between a singer and a non-singer, and I prefer to work with singers who are not “software singers”, that actually can step in front of a microphone and deliver.  It doesn’t happen all the time, and I don’t begrudge anyone who uses a little Auto-Tune when the artist is 1,500 miles away and the delivery date is Friday and they’ve got a deadline to meet.

What other kinds of personality traits, or ways of being in the world, have you found in common between artists?

SF:  I haven’t found too many similarities in artists.  It’s actually surprising that the people that I’ve worked with have all pretty much had different personalities.  They’ll be really different people, and they’ll have a different way of going about things.  That’s why you can’t walk into the studio and apply a standard template to the plan that day.  You have to go with the flow and let them lead you, and help enhance what they want to do, rather than apply what you think your criteria or schedule ought to be.  However, they’re all driven by the same motivation to make something that’s good, and somehow feel like they’ve shown a little bit of their heart or their soul when they’ve made this music.

So a significant performance is about what you connect with, what’s a profound experience for you, what resonates for you…

SF:  You look for a connection, you look for a buzz, you look for a response when you hear something.  We all want to be transported someplace else, away from our humdrum lives.  Most of us work, day in and day out, and music is a bit of an escape.  It’s like Hawaiian music was in the ‘30s, an escape from the drudgeries of the Depression.  And we turn on the radio or we put on our MP3 iPods to be able to be transported somewhere else.  And there’s a lot of music out there, so there’s a lot to weed through, but when you hear a voice like Patty Griffin’s, it just rips right through you in a way that’s indescribable.  Or if you hear a set of lyrics by Richard Thompson or someone who has a mastery and a command of the language that’s way beyond your ability but that you recognize and appreciate, you are inspired by that to go out and do good things, whatever that is.  If that is a healing process for you in your life, if music serves as a comfort or just as a rhythm to your life, then that’s why we use it.

It’s pretty primal.

SF:  And it’s entertainment.  We all get something different from music.  Some people only care about being entertained, and other people want something that’s entertaining but also has more depth below the surface – lyrics with meaning, and great melodies that are fetching and that take you back to your Irish roots, or whatever they may be.  We all respond to music in a different way, and it’s very, very subjective.

One of the things I find interesting about seeing a great performer is when people say, “It’s a way for me to let go of needing things to be a certain way, or needing me to be a certain way, because I can look at a truly great performance and know that I could never do that, so just forget about it, don’t worry about it, just enjoy the specialness of that, because it’s so beyond anything I could do.”  And it’s not even always about superb skills – there are very rough skills involved, sometimes, in truly moving experiences.

SF:  Sometimes it’s just miraculous that a person found their own voice, and developed it to the point where they took a shot a making a living at singing.  I saw Ray LaMontagne live – this guy has the most incredible voice, you know?  But think if he hadn’t had the opportunity to develop that voice and ended up doing something else with his life.  It would just be a loss.  It’s a miracle, and it’s chance, and it’s luck, that often plays into whether or not a person becomes a popular artist with a broad constituency.  And there are people everywhere who have great talent and are able to artistically express themselves, but don’t get that chance.

People talk about [mandolinist] Chris Thile that way, that if he hadn’t happened upon the mandolin, you know, what would have happened to him?

SF:  He’s like the Charlie Parker of the mandolin.  He’s brilliant.  Not All Who Wander Are Lost is one of my favorite all-time records.  I’m amazed by his talent, and I look forward to the future with what he’s doing.  The Punch Brothers are fantastic, and he’s a true talent, and it would be a shame for him not to have found his voice and to have not picked up the mandolin.  He certainly has taken it to new levels, and that’s exciting when that happens.  That’s why I compare him to Charlie Parker, because Charlie Parker took the saxophone to new levels that had not been reached before.

Sometimes I think there’s a quality to the true artist that you’re talking about, the transformative artist, that it’s almost like they’re kind of not entirely “of this realm”, you know?  They’ve got their foot in another realm somewhere, or they’re able to reach through that barrier that the rest of us can’t.

SF:  You’re right.  I believe in genius.  I believe that there are people who have such a brilliance in their mental capacity that they are able to take in everything about a particular subject and master it, and then, with that mastery, elevate it.  That’s genius.  How did Steve Wozniak develop the desktop computer, you know?  I don’t have the brains for that kind of stuff, but boy, he certainly did, and it certainly changed the world.

And it often seems that these people have a difficult time being in the world, because they’re not really supposed to be entirely in this world.

SF:  I’m sure it must be difficult being a genius, at times, in a sometimes unappreciative world.

It’s like information is processed differently, what you do with that information is processed differently, their brains are firing differently, you know?  There’s access to different frequencies.

SF:  Thank god, though!  Thank god it comes together at times where John Lennon and Paul McCartney meet, and they write songs, and they record, and that’s no accident.  That’s incredible music that will live on forever, and it’s a great gift.  It blows me away when I think about the things that people have written and recorded.  Those high standards are what you try to apply to what a person does in the recording studio.  It’s not fair for you to expect everyone to be Charlie Parker, though – that’s just irresponsible.

To be their own Charlie Parker, maybe.

SF:  Sure, well, you want everyone to feel like they’re doing their best.  That’s the goal in the studio – you want to feel like we’ve taken a snapshot of a moment that is their best foot forward.  And then, hopefully, it’s something that’s contributed to the arts in a good way.

To be continued…