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

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The following is the final installment of my 3-part 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.  For the rest of this conversation, please see Part 1 and Part 2.  –VA

When you were Emmylou Harris’s sideman, I’m assuming you did hundreds of shows over those years.

Steve Fishell:  I was with her for 10 years.  And we worked, usually, summers – usually about three months out of the year – but we would go pretty full-tilt.  We did 10 weeks – June 15 to Labor Day was usually the schedule.  And that’s how I got into producing, by the way.  I’d go, oh, well, I’ve got nine months off, that’s how you look at that, and that’s a privilege to be able to know your schedule’s pretty safe, and you can actually go do other things.

And you had a pretty constant group of folks that were in the band over that period of time.

SF:  Yeah.

So you would get that telepathy going.

 

SF:  Well, it was a band experience, yeah.   You didn’t feel like you were a sideman, you felt like you were part of a group unit.  Because she was selfless enough to share the billing – she would call it Emmylou Harris and the Hot Band – just as Bruce Springsteen does.  That really made you feel like you were part of a team, rather than just sort of a side person.  There’s nothing wrong with being a side person – I’ve done that before and I’ll do it again, I’m sure.  But for her to be that gracious to share billing with us and to allow us, most importantly, to play on the recordings with her – that really made us feel like we were part of something extremely rare and special.

That’s a big deal.

SF:  Yeah, that’s a big difference.  And thus, our goal every night was to try to recreate the recordings, and to try to present something if not as good, then even better, so that the audience would hear it and go, oh my god, this is the band that played on this record, and this is the voice that we heard on that record, and this is all firing on all four cylinders in a cool way, live.  And you know, you’d have good nights and bad nights, but some of the highs were just remarkable, and I can tap right into the way it felt onstage at certain times.

Tell me about that.

SF:  Well, you know, you just remember certain shows and you remember how you feel in the moment.  You know, a voice is a human entity, it’s not a machine.  Emmylou and Stevie Wonder and Neil Young, these voices are not machines, they’re human, and will sometimes have a momentary flaw.  And Emmylou, whose standards are really high, personally – she’s singing at a Grammy-level performance at all times.  There’s no “I’m tired, I don’t feel like it”, or any of that.  This is a religious experience for her to be able to come out and sing in front of people, and so she’s 103 percent all the time.  But occasionally, you might draw a breath in the hot Colorado air or something, or a fly might go into your mouth or something weird will happen, and she might miss a note.  The amazing thing about the truly great masters is that when that happens, rather than being stunned and thrown off for the rest of the song or the rest of the night, the very next line is stunning, and at a record level, at an absolute Grammy-winning level that blows you away.

And I can remember that happening many times, where Emmylou would miss a note, and then the very next line would be so staggering that the musicians, we couldn’t even look at each other because we knew, we were all gasping, having just heard this incredible recovery.  We probably would have welled up in tears if we had looked at each other, because we had just heard her true gift and greatness for ourselves, even though we’d hear her every night.  So that’s a special gift, as an artist, to be able to not have your confidence be blown by a mistake.  And that’s advice to anybody out there.  If you bobble a note or if you miss a line, just move on.  Don’t look back.  What was his name, that African-American pitcher, he had an expression:  “Don’t look back, something might be gaining on you.”

Satchel Paige?

SF:  Very good!  Satchel Paige – thank you! – said, “Don’t look back, something might be gaining on you.”  Playing live, if you make a mistake, move ahead.  Make the next line the very best that you can be of yourself, and use it as something that motivates you rather than something that intimidates you.  And that’s one of the great things I learned from Emmylou – recover and keep going.  And that’s what she does, probably better than anybody I’ve ever heard.  It’s amazing.  Because those next lines would just be, like, oh my god, I can’t believe I just heard that!  We’d all kind of look at each other, you know, it was like, “Whoa!  Oh yeah, we’re playing with Emmylou Harris.”  Because you know her offstage as Emmy, you know, and privately she’s a much different person than she is onstage.  But then you remember the artistic side of her, and it’s all right there, and that’s a gift from the heavens.  That’s just pure musical genius coming out of the speaker.

Were there times where you felt like things weren’t flowing, things weren’t working, you were all burned out or whatever?

SF:  Oh, you always have bad nights, oh yeah – you know, I can’t say how often, but, I don’t know, once a year – where it was just horrible.  It usually has to do with a combination of energy and timing.  I’ve found that after about three weeks on the road, people just don’t get along.  You have to break off a tour for a few days after three weeks – there’s no way to keep going.  The fourth week, people are going to fight.

But it can also simply be terrible acoustics.  You can be in the mood, but if you get up there and no matter what you play, it sounds half as good as you think it should – so you’re fighting to get tone or any sort of facility or any sort of texture to your sound, you can’t find it – then you get frustrated.  And then you stop working as a band, and you become this little individual who’s fighting to survive in this sea of wash-y sound.  Then you’re not connecting as a band.  It’s really important to play as a band, as a unit, as a team.  Everyone’s listening to everybody else.  It’s not just about the solo steel guitar guy showing off.  It’s, what’s the fiddle player playing right now and how do I embellish that, along with the keyboard player, all in support of this great song and this wonderful voice.  So yeah, you’ll have bad nights, you can’t help it sometimes.  But they’re probably not half as bad as you think they are.  One time we played the Seattle Kingdome opening for Willie Nelson, and if you’ve ever been there…

Yes, it was terrible for sound.

SF:  And the stage was in the center, and so the audience may not realize this, but there is a delay.  If you hit a snare drum in the center of the Kingdome, it goes straight up and hits the ceiling and comes back down, and it takes about a second and a half for it to go “BOMMMM”, and another a second and a half to go “DOMMMM”, and you hear it back really loud.  So if you’d play something, it would go up and hit the ceiling and come back down, and so you were constantly hearing yourself a second and a half later, and it was awful.  Mainly it was the drums.  So it just became this huge wash – it was like being thrown into a washing machine and being all mixed up.  And we would lean into our monitors and peer into our monitors and focus with all of our might, trying to find the beat, because there was no groove.  And we had to go for 45 minutes and it was awful, and it was just simply acoustics.  So that would’ve been a bad night.  Now, I don’t know how it appeared to the audience, it might have been ok, and they probably saw it on the big screen and it seemed ok, but boy, we were fighting each other, we weren’t working together as a team.

I want to ask you about the concept of being in the zone.

SF:  I love the zone.  I wish I could define the zone.

I assume you’ve had experiences in that, both as a musician and as a producer.  How do you experience it as a performer, and how do you experience it as a producer, and are those different things?

SF:  It’s simply a state of complete trust in your own instincts, no matter if you’ve been playing for two years or 30 years.  You don’t give a damn what anybody else thinks, you know that whatever you play is working right now – but you don’t state it in that way.  It’s simply a time when everything’s working, and it feels good, and it’s effortless.  We have an expression: turn off your brain.  You’re not thinking about what you’re doing, you’re just doing it.  You’re going on pure artistic instinct, rather than thinking, ok, I have to move this finger to hit this string.  You’re creating, you’re painting, it’s flowing through you and you’re not thinking about the technical aspect of it.

It’s really great when you actually hear the sound in your head, and you make the physical movement to create it and it comes out the way you’re hearing it in your head.  That’s the zone.  But the zone is mainly about being completely unselfconscious about where you are, being completely unaware of any outside distraction, and being right inside a line that goes right through the song where you’re part of that song and you’re adding a contribution to it – whether it’s as a side person, as a rhythm section member, as a singer.  It’s expression without effort.  And that is amazing.  That’s the zone.  Whether it’s good or not is up to somebody else to decide, but you know that it’s pure – in your mind it’s a pure moment – and it’s really a joyous moment.  It’s really a happy feeling.  It doesn’t happen very often, but boy, if you can get there, that’s a great time to have a recorder rolling, because you’re going to get something really good.  You’re going to capture something worth hearing again and again.

How do you get yourself as an artist to a place where you can access the zone more?

SF:  That’s hard for me to answer.  I’m not trying to dodge the question, but that’s too difficult to answer.   If I knew the answer to that, then everyone would be an artist!  Believe me, I can tell you there are times when I was asking myself that on a session when I was playing steel, because I’m lost and I can’t find the zone.  There are so many different factors to it.  It has to do with the environment, confidence, intangibles like what you’re hearing at the time, your mood, rest – but sometimes when you’re really tired you can get in the zone, too, so there are no rules about it.  But it’s impossible for me to define how to get into the zone.  I think that each person has to find that comfort spot themselves and learn, as they play more and more often, to find that spot more quickly.  Usually it takes a singer about three passes to get to the zone in front of a microphone.  But when I saw Bruce Springsteen two weeks ago, he was in the zone on the first song.  I’m sure of it, because the first song sounded like the encore.  It was remarkable.  So how do you do that?  It’s divine intervention, I think.  I wish I had the answer to that one.

Maybe there is no answer to it.

SF:  No, I don’t think there is!

Note:  Thanks again to Steve for taking the time to have this in-depth conversation with me.  Hanging out with him in Nashville for a few days was a real treat.  It is refreshing to encounter someone who has been in the industry so long and so successfully but who is still completely down to earth and altruistic.  Steve truly is one of the good guys, and I applaud the vision and the mission he brings to MPI.  -VA