Lee Townsend: Creative Music from the other side of the Glass
“ You know, part of what keeps producing music interesting is that every project is different and each one requires something different from me. My responsibilities range from helping develop the idea for a project to planning the logistics of it all... ”
Many of us who love music have been guilty of thinking less than positive thoughts regarding those dwelling behind the scenes in the recording industry. They have often been a catchall for artistic criticisms, sound quality, release holdups and anything remotely related to greed and cheapness regarding music production.
Lee Townsend, on the other hand, represents a new breed of producer at work today that genuinely cares about the artists and how they come across both onstage and when we run our lasers through their latest efforts. This has seemingly come about, in part, due to more indy label producers having actually been musicians and thus having better ears and an empathy for the lives and challenges of those of us who've chosen music as our life's work.
As testament to his commitment he brings us quality works by guitar (and bass) icons, Frisell, Metheny, Scofield, Abecrombie, Holland and Charlie Hunter; most of which require only a single name at this point for us to know who we mean.
All About Jazz: How did you get started in production and are you a musician as well?
Lee Townsend: I studied piano first when I was in grade school, then I played trombone in the Junior High School Band. I was in kind of a hokey singing group for awhile, too. Then in High School and College, I played around a little bit with guitar, but I never really considered myself a performer. It's not something I ever felt really drawn to. Since I took up record producing, I have found it to be such a challenging and absorbing endeavor that I have pretty much let playing go by the wayside, which has not been too frustrating since I am still concentrating on finding ways to get better at it. It's a lifelong process, really. So it feels like I have my hands full.
AAJ: It really is. What is your background?
LT: As far as growing up and all that, I was born and grew up in Southern California.
My mother played the piano beautifully and even some accordion all throughout my childhood. Prior to that, she had been first violinist in the Los Angeles Youth Orchestra. We were always singing songs and listening to records. My brother played trumpet around the same time I was playing the trombone. And my Dad, even though he was not a musician, listened to music a lot. Altogether they provided an atmosphere where a lot of joy and inspiration came from music. So I guess I ended up with some sort of blending of my parents musical interests.
In High School, I got into rock and popular music, just like everybody else. And to this day, I still haven't lost interest in it. When I went to college at Univ. of Calif., Santa Cruz, I studied Psychology. I even went to Berkeley for a year of graduate school in Clinical Psych. But all through these years, I just became obsessed with investigating Indian music, jazz, blues, reggae, classical music, African music, 20th century composers. I had a radio show, hung around studios, etc.
At some point in there, it dawned on me that there was at least a craft, if not an art, to producing records. I think the first time might have been between high school and college when I heard Stevie Wonder's "Innervisions" on a good stereo for the first time. I just couldn't believe it. I pretty much flipped out at that point. But, in the 70's, I also heard something special and deep in the work of Manfred Eicher, Teo Macero, Brian Eno of course, and on Glenn Gould's, Joni Mitchell's and Bob Marley's records - to name only a few. From that point on I was pretty much ruined in terms of my prospective career in Psychology. Music and the idea of producing it became such a driving interest that all of that other stuff just took a back seat.
Finally, the year my Dad died (1981), in the midst of a lot of pain and sadness I came to the liberating realization that life is too short not to pursue one's passion. So I started down this path.
AAJ: It's true...whatever causes us to come to that realization happens for a reason. What attracts you to a prospective artist?
LT: Originality, commitment, honesty and soulfulness above all, as well as a certain sense of the music flowing out of them or even through them. So execution is obviously a part of it. But a singularity of sound or voice is much more important to me than ostentatious virtuosity. And even though originality is the essential component, I also appreciate when an artist has a sense of history so that they know what kind of legacy they are a part of and trying to bring something fresh to.
I am fortunate to work in a number of different genres with many different kinds of artists. But some qualities which many of the musicians I work with share are a gift for conveying melody in a memorable way, a strong sense of lyricism and rhythmic vitality, regardless of whether they are an instrumentalist or vocalist. These are talents and musical values to which I am truly drawn.