It was decided – I don’t remember how, why, or by who – that I ought to start making demos of the songs I was writing. I had done one or two  before, when I was around 9, but at 12 I was writing several songs a week and it was time to start doing something with them. This is one thing that I’m very glad I did – going to the studio gave me a lot of experience, and as a writer there is nothing like hearing your music brought to life and reduced to tape or CD (though in those days, it was tape). The first few songs I did by myself – they were simplistic, and I was able to knock several out in just a few hours. I played piano myself and sang on them. Conversations were had between Mom, Russ, and myself, about picking a genre of music and sticking with it. At the time, I was writing literally everything – I wrote Reggae, I wrote Pop, I wrote Rap, Rockabilly, whatever came to my mind. In the early 90’s, Country music was enjoying a bit of a boom – Billy Ray Cyrus was dominating the air waves with Achy Breaky Heart  and I think Cotton Eyed Joe had come out around then too (if you haven’t heard it, do yourself a favor and don’t). I remember having a conversation with Mom about which genre I should focus on.

Mom: You should do Country. Joey Lawrence will never go country in a million years. That way, he can have Pop and you guys can both be successful.

I didn’t really care, and I thought Country was pretty good (some of it still is, but let’s face it – most modern music sucks regardless of genre). Somehow, Mom got it into her head that Russ should produce my demos. Initially, he was reluctant – I honestly don’t think he wanted to spend any more time with Mom than necessary – certainly not in the close proximity that a studio would have demanded. Eventually, though, she won him over with the thing that rules us all – the checkbook. She offered him a ridiculous sum of money to produce me. She paid him for lessons he’d miss on either side of any studio gig, plus gas and expenses – in addition to whatever she paid him for coming into produce. Between paying Paul (the studio tech) and Russ, each demo probably cost around $1,000 – easy. That’s not counting if we needed to go back in and remix, either, which we usually did. So the final product was probably a bit more – maybe closer to $1,500.

Don’t get the wrong impression, here. Russ was (in my opinion, anyway) a top notch musician and producer. He may have also been a top notch bullshitter, but anything involving music was relatively bullshit free – at least in my estimation. My feelings about him are complicated – especially looking back over the years with the benefit of hindsight – but my respect for his talent has never waned an iota. Watching him work in the studio was a learning experience in and of itself, and it went a long way to making me the musician (and producer) I am today. He’d come in to Paul’s studio and sit in the “Captain’s Chair” (a rolling desk chair that he commandeered specifically for his use – no one else was allowed to sit in it). He’d rock back and forth, listening to a take.

Russ: No, no. More strings. They need to swell.

Paul played the strings with more swell.

Russ: No, Paul, like this!

And he’d draw an illustration in the air of what he wanted the strings to sound like. Paul got it. If you’re a musician, you can probably understand this too. There’s a secret language among us – a nod, a raised eyebrow, a fist above the head waving in time to a beat. We get it. We know what it means, even if others don’t. From my perspective, Russ looked a bit like a sorcerer – throwing invisible bolts of magic at some unseen enemy. He’d look over at me and grin, smoothing his hair back into place.
Russ: You feel that!?

Me: Yeah!

And I did. I could feel the strings, but it wasn’t just that – the Muse was in the room with us. That’s what he was talking about, I think. It was a trip.

Russ would pack that song with so many tracks it taxed Paul’s systems. Paul used to joke that Russ would look at a blank track sheet and start to go snow blind – he needed to fill that sucker up. Brilliant arranging and producing aside, it always irked me that Russ and Paul never let me play on my own recordings (the ones Russ produced, anyway). As a kid, it pissed me off to no end. They’d let me sing on it (who else would sing on it, anyway? Hiring a studio singer would have just been more money) but Paul played all the tracks via a Midi keyboard. I argued with Russ that I could easily play it live – a real guitar or piano would sound so much better. He waved me off every time. I get it now, though – it was just easier and quicker for Paul (who knew his own keyboards) to jump in and play. Although granted, I did know my own songs better. Having someone else take and mold your songs into something other than your vision can be a horrifying experience – and of the hundreds of demos I recorded with Russ, that happened more often than I can count.

Me: Uncle Russ, the drums shouldn’t do that.

Russ: Oh, okay.

Then he’d tell Paul to keep doing what he was doing.

I’d be furious – I’d spend the whole session glowering at Russ’s turned back. But in the end – when I listened to the track objectively, I’d hear that Russ made the better call. It wasn’t what I had in mind, maybe, but maybe what I had in mind wasn’t quite as good.

I am of two minds about this whole process. Firstly, it didn’t make any sense to do things the way we were doing it. If Russ argued about it (and he surely knew better than Mom or myself) I never heard it. Maybe he just knew that Mom wanted what Mom wanted and there was no point in standing in her way (he’d have been right about that). The way things normally work (at least in Nashville) is that songs go through a process – you bounce it off a lot of people before it becomes the final product you hear on the radio. So, for instance, if I bring in a demo that I just spent $1,200 on, and the head of Capitol Records tells me the chorus needs to be changed totally, I’ll have to re-record my song. Thus, $1,200 down the drain. It ended up locking me into some songwriting decisions I might have rethought otherwise – when hearing from different publishers (or artists, or whoever) that such and such a thing ought to be different, I would realize that the song could have been made much, much better. But to redo it would be too costly, so instead I went on to the next one and tried to make it “perfect” without the benefit of industry opinion (spoiler alert: it never was). The way things seem to be done is you record something simple and relatively cost effective, bounce it off of people, and then do a “final demo” once everything is basically all tightened up song-wise. So I can make a pretty convincing argument (and have, at least to myself) that a small fortune was flushed down the toilet. On the other hand, it was worth every penny to learn the things I learned in the studio. I would be nowhere near the producer I am today (or the writer, for that matter) if I hadn’t watched someone who really, truly knew their craft as closely and often as I did.

On studio days, Russ was either early by half an hour (or better) or late. If he was on time it was a true rarity. Paul, ever sarcastic, called him the Guru of Soul. Tim and I laughed a good bit at that. But you know what? He did have soul – quite a bit, in fact. Sometimes, in my head, I am back in that room – the one that smelled like Yankee Candles and inspiration. I am a child sitting on a couch watching The Guru of Soul work his magic.

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