Lee Townsend: Creative Music from the other side of the Glass
As you mentioned, I guess I am known for working with a lot of guitar players. But that was never an intentional plan. It just kind of worked out that way. Those players happen to reflect the multi-faceted sensibilities that I am drawn to in music. Scofield is a perfect example of it... even someone I would call a master of it. And in a way, Bill is the embodiment of the cross-genre approach to a lot of the work I do with other artists - singer/songwriters, composers, improvising musicians and what people like to call "World" musicians. His composing and his playing are so unfailingly lyrical in any context that it seems more like working with a singer-songwriter than an instrumentalist.
In recent years I have had the opportunity to work with some extraordinarily talented singers from all over the world like Shweta Jhaveri from India, Vinicius Cantuaria from Brazil and Gabriela from Argentina. We were able to place all of them in situations where they are playing with cross-cultural collaborators. And that has been very stimulating for me - and them too, I am sure.
AAJ: Why did you leave ECM?
LT: Basically I wanted to put more energy into developing my craft. And I wanted to broaden the types of music I was involved with in order to better reflect my other interests beyond the ECM aesthetic. I had been there for four years, which was a great experience and even a dream come true, at the time. And while Manfred Eicher was kind enough to allow me some plum producing opportunities, most of my time was spent running the U.S. operations of the company. So I decided that it was time to stick my neck out a little and risk coming up with my own approach to production outside of the protection and limitations of such a prestigious and influential company.
AAJ: What makes a good producer, would you say?
LT: Well, one analogy for the role of the producer that I hope isn't too corny or overused would be to that of a midwife. Obviously making a record involves musicians playing music, but it is not only a documentation of that. It is also about sculpting something together that will hold up to repeated listenings and have a reason for existing beyond the moment it is being made. So in that sense, the objective is for it to have a life after the birth. And in another sense it shares characteristics with a birth in that there are often difficult and painful moments in the recording process as well as exciting and even euphoric ones. My feeling is that the producer needs to recognize those moments and use them in a way that is constructive for the goals of the project, empathizing with the musicians at those moments while at the same time maintaining a perspective about the overall outcome of the endeavor. One thing I have learned is that the inherent tension of being in the studio with time pressure and what not does not necessarily need to be a negative thing. Rather it can provide an edgy sort of energy that, if harnessed, can yield some interesting and unexpected results.
One other thing is for sure. You have to find inspiration and satisfaction in collaboration. It's important for a producer not to not have his or her ego invested in such a way that you forget that you are primarily there to help artists realize a vision for their work. Obviously it makes the most sense to work together when there is a shared vision for that work. Or better yet, a vision that a producer can help steer in ways that keeps it fresh and surprising rather than too insular and self-absorbed. The last thing that someone needs is a yes-man. So I do think it's possible to challenge an artist to go in a different direction and still be supportive of their overall aesthetic purpose. But even though a project is shared and collaborative in nature, the producer can never forget that it is still the artist's music that is being showcased rather than one's own production approach.
AAJ: Do you have certain studios you prefer over most?
LT: In San Francisco, I like recording at M'bius and mixing at Different Fur, both of which are small operations that are run by the people who own them. And that is something I like to support. These are folks who have been in it for the long haul and have carried out a commitment to developing something unique and strong in an area that they have consciously chosen to specialize in. Oliver DiCicco basically built M'bius himself. He use to do most of the engineering, but in recent years has moved in to doing his own artwork. It is a very comfortable tracking room with the right complement of vintage gear. And Susan Skaggs and Howard Johnston at Fur have developed a very fine mixing and editing room that just works great for me. The other thing about Fur that is very telling is that they always have an excellent staff who stick around for a long time. The Site, out in Marin county, is also a special place, although I have only had the opportunity to do a couple of projects there.