If you thought that wasn’t enough…he’s worked with Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin, Soundgarden, Madonna and the Rolling Stones – not to mention music for movie blockbusters such as Return of the Jedi, End of Days and War of the Worlds.
After 7 Grammys and 150+ platinum, diamond and gold records – he’s still going strong, still passionate about creating innovative music.
Steve, thinking about the singer alone with a mic in a sound booth, is there any advice you would give them to release a great vocal performance?
I have a couple of prerequisites that I like to see happen. I would like singers to know their lyrics before they come in, because I want human emotion. There’s a difference if they sing from the page or sing from their heart.
I guess you’ve seen this difference many times…
Make them believe it with your feelings. I like vulnerability in a voice. This is what I have seen from Whitney Houston to Aretha to KoЯn. When I worked with Jonathan Davis from KoЯn, his vocal performances were so powerful that he would literally pass out after a performance in the studio.
You are talking about a complete emotional investment by the singer.
You want them to sing from the heart and give that sense of vulnerability and command – this can easily get lost in a perfectionist society where people go through Pro Tools and use Auto-Tune to make everything perfect.
“Command and vulnerability” – that’s an interesting combination of words.
I like songs that are dynamic – sometimes you have to be vulnerable in some passages and then command in other moments. I like peaks and valleys – I often want a chorus to live like you wouldn’t believe – but you aren’t going to get that if you start at 10 and stay at 10 for the entire song. As a singer, you need to know when each applies.
Do you think that we sometimes hide behind technology?
Music is a human emotion. When a vocal is great you have 70-80% of the whole performance. You want to get that raw emotion out of a singer – turn off the machines and get that powerful performance.
You’ve worked with some pretty amazing vocalists like Whitney Houston & Aretha Franklin. Are there any lessons that would apply to all singers?
Each artist is different and I hate clones. Yet there is something to learn from the great artists who often get their music in one take. I worked with Whitney Houston’s mother, before I worked with Whitney on “I Wanna Dance With Somebody”. My partner Michael Barbiero worked with Whitney as well – “How Will I Know” was done in one vocal take.
Isn’t getting it in one take rare?
I remember when Luther Vandross was working with Aretha Franklin on “Jump To It”. Luther wanted her to sing it again and Aretha said, “Hey, Bro, I’ve done it. That’s me. I’m not doing it again.” She’s the queen of soul, so she’s allowed to say, “That’s it.” Sinatra also comes from the ‘get it in one take’ mold, and with Sinatra it was often with the orchestra doing it live. They would literally put the needle on the record and Sinatra responded with a heart-felt performance. That is when music is great.
Let’s turn to songwriting. How do you know you’ve got a good song?
A great song is very memorable. The big thing I tell people is, first, know your target audience. Are they 12-24? Are they 30-50? Then, it is all about the lyrics; you have to communicate in a language that relates to your audience. The Beatles wrote, “She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah…” If you wrote that today, you would be laughed out of town.
Do lyrics have to be simple to reach today’s audiences?
No. You can have an involved song, but at least in the chorus you need to summarize that song in a way that people can remember. People’s attention spans are short, so you got to hit them right away.
How do you know you have a good song on your hands?
If I can listen to it for 18 hours straight, I know it has something special.
Are there any lyrics that stand out for you today?
In today’s music it seems to be a singles market and the pop market seems very one-dimensional lyrically. But I do love the attitude and vibe of Iggy Azalea – I don’t analyze every word – but she has a vocal “bratty-ness” and just commands it.
Yes, there is a narrow range of themes going on in today’s lyrics…
Well, there is so much to talk about. Sure, you have love songs. But this “entitlement-me” generation really is missing everything going on around the world. Think about Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?” with its anti-war message. Think about when Hip Hop first hit the scene. The Hip Hop generation was basically talking about the environment around them. Really look at the world and your situation in it.
Are you saying that artists can get into more themes than they currently address?
I think they need to expand in light of what is going on today and enlighten their audience. Lyrics should not be all about me, all about the booty and how much money I have. Music has got to be exciting, dangerous – it has to grab you. It is not the fault of the bands; the record companies are not embracing it. I like making music for the world. I am sick and tired of regurgitated stuff – don’t be safe with it.