The Studio Influence (and the Matt Nathanson Effect)

The more I read about the making of my favorite albums, the more I find that music is really a big collaborative effort, an evolution. No new music can exist without borrowing somewhat from the music that came before it.

Case in point: I was just reading a beautiful tribute to the late, great Chuck Berry, written by none other than Keith Richards. As he put it: “Chuck is the grandaddy of us all. Even if you’re a rock guitarist who wouldn’t name him as your main influence, your main influence is probably still influenced by Chuck Berry.” Not only could no truer words be written about Chuck and rock & roll, but the same holds true for all musical influence. When you borrow an from another artist, you’re not just borrowing that artist’s idea, your borrowing from all the influences that inform that artist. I feel like I’m getting circular here, but in the making of this album, I’m experiencing this so strongly right now.

I’ve read all these accounts from artists and producers in the studio, talking about the inspiration of this one part in a song, or why they decided to use a particular instrument, or structure the bridge a certain way. Almost every one of them talks about getting to a point in production where they pause the making of music, and start the listening part again. They pull out their favorite records: Howlin’ Wolf, The Chiffons, David Bowie, CHUCK BERRY, Van Halen, you name it. They sit down with their team and listen. And analyzeWhat about this record makes me love this record?

In the making of my first full-length record, I find myself doing the same, and I find myself coming back to one particular artist time and time again: Matt Nathanson. Some of you may know him as the “Come On Get Higher” guy. But since the early ’90s, he’s put out 9 full-length albums (all but 2 self-produced), and is currently working on his 10th. Not only is he probably one of my biggest songwriting influences, but he’s also kinda the impetus for this album, which has been a long time coming…

In 2013, my girlfriend and I took a trip up to San Francisco where Matt was doing a live acoustic show for the release of his penultimate album to date, Last of the Great Pretenders. Apart from it being a great show, he did a meet-and-greet/record signing afterwards, during which I told him what a huge influence he was on me and my songwriting. He nerded out and told me he’d love to hear some; he wrote my name down on his arm in Sharpie and told me to tweet him some of my music. I walked away stunned, on a cloud, that one of my favorite musicians (after telling me I smelled really good) wrote my name down on his arm and told me to contact him. It wasn’t until a while later that I came down from the clouds and realized something very disappointing: I had never once recorded any of my own music…

I had received as a birthday present a couple years before a nice condenser microphone, but never had a proper interface with which to use it and record with it. I decided, for Matt, that now was the time to get to work. I got some more equipment to record myself and my guitarist friend David, and began posting pictures of our rehearsals on social media. I was soon getting inquiries from friends asking if I had the means to record demos for their bands. Excited by this new opportunity, I got to work recording bands of all kinds, most recently one whose album I co-produced charted twice in Billboard. While I wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything (for I know now that producing music is one of the most enjoyable things I do), this resulted in me bookshelfing my own music for quite some time.

Now, almost exactly 4 years later (and getting back to the point at the start of this post), I’m waist-deep in the production of my first real album (outside of a couple of very rough demos). And as I’m converting these songs that heretofore have only been played acoustic with maybe one or two other musicians, I’m reaching to my favorite albums for inspiration: particularly those of Matt’s. It seems so fitting: he inspired much of the songwriting to begin with; through that trip to SF, he unknowingly inspired a career path in music production; and now he’s continuing to inspire me in the production of this album.

Some Mad Hope has been practically on repeat for the last couple of weeks, as I analyze drum beats, arrangement, the usage of keys and electric guitars. Then I go back and listen to his live acoustic album At The Point, hearing how those songs exist stripped down before he and his producers built them up to the album versions, trying to connect all the dots along the way.

I’m sure it goes without saying that I’m not trying to make a Matt Nathanson album. I never could, and I wouldn’t want to try. So I’m obviously listening to other music too. And as I mentioned earlier, by pulling from his work, I know I’m borrowing from his influences too.

But it somehow delights me to be engaging in this practice of listening to favorite albums that I’ve always read about being part of the process, but never had the experience of until now. Matt will probably never hear this album of mine, but if he happens to stumble across this post in the flurry of the internet, thank you.

Hope y’all are having a magnificent Music Monday. Gonna get back to creating this record. Working on a song that seems to have a real “Sooner Surrender” vibe.

Cheers,

Paul

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