Interview with KELVIN WOOTEN, producer for Earth Wind & Fire, Bee Gees, Kelis, Mary J Blige - Oct 13, 2008
"I make a track, send it out to an artist, he or she sings to it, and then we have a hit. Itís really cookie-cut that way."Producer Kelvin Wooten has numerous credits for working with all-time giants like Earth Wind & Fire, Bee Gees and Al Green, as well as more contemporary stars like Mary J Blige (No.1 US), Kelis (Top 10 US) and Josh Turner (Top 10 US).
He talks to HitQuarters about getting discovered as a player through being heard accidentally over the phone (!), about his joy of producing for an artist in real time as if making a suit made to measure, and about the kind of artists he likes working with.
How did you become one of the hottest young producers, songwriters, arrangers and musicians in pop, R&B, and hip-hop?
It all started out with a guy by the name of Eddie "Spanky" Alford. He co-produced the latest Al Green record. He was an excellent guitarist.
Iím a Huntsville, Alabama native. He was residing in Huntsville at the time, but originally from Philly. I used to share a lot with ďSpankyĒ. He showed me as a musician everything he could on a guitar. I was a keyboard player. He translated his guitar ideas to keyboard.
We were just practicing every single day when I was at college. And it was just one of these freaky days where Raphael Saadiq gave him a call. This was for the Higher Learning soundtrack.
He was calling Spanky with regards to that song, ĎAsk Of Youí. They were looking for this gospel guitarist, and they finally caught up with him. I happened to be there that day when Raphael Saadiq called. I was playing keyboards in the background and Saadiq inquired who was playing.
Spanky was like, ďthis is an 18 year old kid that comes over every day to practice.Ē Saadiq insisted on talking to me and offered me a job on the spot. I went up to Sacramento, California the next week, and we began working together.
That one phone call was the beginning of my career with Raphael Saadiq and ten years of steady work as a player, producer, arranger and composer with a lot of other people. Because a lot of my production stuff went through him.
Where and how did you learn to play all these different instruments?
It was a kind of self-taught thing, as well as doing stuff with Spanky. I had a band director in high school that turned me on to a lot of stuff. He was an organist, a saxophone player and a flute player.
I played tuba in the Alabama A&M University marching band. He showed me some things on the keyboards. Thatís how it all started.
And what was significant in learning producer skills?
At that point I had never played in a band. If you play in a band youíve got to know how to play a part in the music instead of just playing by yourself, instead of being just a skilled musician on your own.
Spanky showed me how to play with other people. So that was the foundation of my production career. Basically, if you are a keyboardist, you can do synch and programming, drum programming etc by yourself on one machine.
I learned how to put an emphasis on playing music together from Spanky. But a big part was also working out stuff on my own. It was always interesting to do all this by myself.
I used to play in church too where I learned a lot of extra things just by the absence of other musicians. You get on the drums and you tee and tah a little bit and you learn. Like an intern, I learned to play the guitar, the bass and the drums.
How did you develop into a Ďone-stop shopí kind of guy?
I grew up as an only child. I learned a lot of ways to entertain myself by myself. My mum and dad always supported me in what I did musically. They would buy me all the meanest gadgets.
Then I started working in a music store. I was able to get a lot of those gadgets and take them home and work with stuff like that. Thatís how it all started. I had a little room up on my mum and dadís attic and had all the support. I had mics, a drum machine, etc.
I remember way back, Raphael gave me a SP12, an old hip hop drum machine. And he gave Spanky a MPC3000. Eventually, I had all this stuff in my room and just working it all out from there.
What makes you different from today's typical cut-and-paste producers?
What makes me different is being organic. If you could speak of the days when music was being played from the beginning to the end, Iím one of those guys that can still do that nowadays.
I do in fact do a lot of cutting and pasting. I do a lot of the stuff that a lot of producers do nowadays, but just the ability to do that isnít enough, you couldnít paste a drum program all throughout a song. Youíll have to be able to play the guitar and the bass all the way through.
Those are the things I learned from Raphael. They kept the music that was current. You have that current thing under there, but at the same time there was a musical thing, an organic element that stayed consistent throughout the music.
Can you give some insight on how you map out a project?
Back in the old school where you were doing a project it was like writing the songs first and producing them later. A lot of the production now tends to be that we write it, produce it and arrange it all at the same time.
Or, I make a track and I send it out to an artist, he or she likes it and sings to it, and then we have a hit. Itís really cookie-cut that way.
"Producing is like being a coach and all the players are the musicians." How does this work?
You just call in a shot. Even if youíre a producer that plays all the instruments, and if you want a certain element of music to happen a certain way.
Take Quincy Jones, and all his early Michael Jackson records. Quincy was an excellent musician himself, but he knew what he wanted the guys to play, he knew what parts to give them, and make that stuff happen.
He just called it a shot. The team just got out there. The musicians just executed it. They made a lot of great records that way.
When youíre working with other people in the studio, do you just become a member of the band?
Yes. A lot of the times I do. Depending on what part Iím playing.
If Iím a bass player on a session then Iím just that. I just call out a shot in the beginning like hey guys, Iím going this way, or this tempo doesnít work, and on the bridge weíre going to do this, etc. But when the tape is rolling, I just become a guy in the band.
Everybody has their freedom to create the music from their instrument.
On the radio, in the last couple years especially, there has been a pop soul revival. Was it something in the air? What's your take on that?
What goes around comes around. Nowadays itís kind of hard to recreate stuff. Weíre trying to be as creative as possible, but we always wind up taking back from the generations before.
We take back and we leave in the elements of what we have prior to taking back from that previous generation. We keep some stuff that is now and it matches and makes a certain kind of mix.
I like it. As long as the music is in there, I love it. If we werenít moving forward and taking music out that way, then Iíd be concerned about the state of music.
Do you feel like the kids today might buy those records and like that music, but not realise the history behind it?
I hope that they do realise it has a history. But I think itís Ok in some regards even if they donít. As musicians and producers, we are the ones who should definitely know where it comes from.
I can remember growing up listening to Tony! Toni! Tonť!. I didnít have a clue about where half of that stuff came from. But as I grew as a musician I understood where their inspiration came from as well.
If they donít know it, itís fine. We just have to be on the forefront and make sure that they are listening to something other thanÖwell, thereís a place for everything out there, but we have to make sure weíre still making some good music.
Did you always write songs?
No, I didnít always write songs. My first desire was just to be a musician, and my motivation was to improve as a musician.
A lot of the stuff that I did with Raphael Saadiq and Anthony Hamilton, was just me being a musician. Songs were already written. I was just playing them.
Do you prefer to write solo or co-write?
Either way works for me. It really doesnít matter. I really like working with artists that are lyricists. I like an artist that knows how to sing and knows what s/he wants to say. I like that more than anything.
Like a tailor making a suit, I like doing that as opposed to making some music on my own and giving it to artists hoping that they like this suit. I like making the suit right while theyíre there.
How long does it take for you to write a song?
It could take as little as 30 minutes and it could take as much as a week. For the most part, the inspiration usually Ďarrivesí within 15 to 30 minutes. The rest of the time it takes is just to execute and play it.
Sometimes it may be 1 or 2 oíclock in the morning and Iíd done all the basic elements that I could do musically but I need horns or strings. Itís going to add another day to the whole process.
What story do you want to tell in your songs?
Just the real stories. There are so many stories in life. When Iím producing I like for the artist to tell their story. I like when they tell the stories of the hardest struggles in life, the hardest things for them to have accomplished. Stories you can relate to and say to yourself, I know that feeling. I felt that.
What is a hit song?
One that makes you feel very good. One that makes you feel like you could listen to it tomorrow and forever.
So, I donít just mean a hit for a few weeks or even several months on the radio, but one that you can play again ten years later and itís like: ďMan, this feels exactly how it felt when I heard it ten years ago.Ē
What is important to keep in mind with placements for film and TV?
Naturally, you always want to add your own creative element to whatever this film or television project is about.
At the same time, you know thereís a whole other set of artistry at work with the film or TV show. You can not to go beyond their vision the way itís already set out. You go in there and youíre limited in what you can do. You just canít create it all yourself from scratch.
Unless it is a case of you creating a musical bed, in a situation where the production build the film around what you created musically. Then itís a different story.
What gear you canít live without?
I cannot live without ProTools. Iíve used a lot of other stuff alongside it, but if ProTools was not there then Iíd have a problem.
Are you signed to a publishing company?
Iím signed to a publishing deal with EMI Blackwood Music, Inc.
How do you choose your projects?
I choose a project based on whether it matches up with me. Morally speaking, there are a lot of things that I will or wouldnít do.
At the end of the day, I have to be able to live with that song. What that song is suggesting, what that song is saying; I have to be able to say itís something I can see myself doing.
Even if Iím not the artist on the project, Iím contributing to something thatís being said to the world. I have to be able to feel good about that. And that moral approach spans any genre of music.
Which artists are you currently working on?
Currently Iím working with Anthony Hamilton. Iím taking a lay back right now, getting some things personally together. But Anthonyís record is coming out very soon. And that was a very fun project to work on.
You perform yourself still?
Yes, I still perform. I do jazz gigs and gospel gigs playing bass and keyboards.
Whatís the difference between working with established artists and with new ones?
There is no difference. The money is different. But thatís pretty much it.
How much time do you spend on production and songwriting?
Nowadays Iím not spending as much, but when Iím really in it, it may be 16 hours a day. I spend enough time in order to also be able to get some sleep and then Iím back at it again.
What advice would you give upcoming producers and writers entering the market?
I would tell everybody that has anything to do with the musical process that he/she is an artist.
I heard some statement this week from a friend of mine. He said: ďWe are all artists. Why do we all want to paint the same picture?Ē
If we are artists, then weíre supposed to want to have something different to say. It is not so much about making an effort to be different, but about saying what you have to say. And itíll be different. Donít think that you have to fit with someone else to be real.
Is it wise for aspiring producers to knock on every studio door and try to find a job in this day and age?
No. At this day and age it may be a little bit different from when I started, when I financed a lot of my artistry. What I wanted to do was to create music. I wouldnít be doing it for a living. Even if it was just for media.
Maybe do some work within the industry, thatís not related directly to what you do. As long as those lead to the one destination that you want to be on. If working at McDonalds is just a part of your path, work there. If you have to work at a fast food restaurant and do beats at night, then do that.
How do you view the current music business climate?
It is in need of a facelift. It is in need of a heart change. A heart transplant. Letís not just change the outside of it, lets change it from the inside.
We must do something about it. And I think you must keep going if you produce really good music. It will eventually come back around. People are going to get tired of eating plastic every day, they are going to want a real meal.
If you could dramatically change some aspect of the music industry, what would you do?
If I had the power I would just make sure that a lot of stuff thatís on the radio doesnít get played.
What is it you would still like to achieve in your music career?
Thereís few artists out there I havenít worked with, that I probably would like to. But then I remember the day that I worked with Earth, Wind & Fire. I felt like thereís nothing else for me to do now. As far as an R&B producer, man, thatís it! Where do you go from there?
I worked with Al Green! That was also like, where do you go from there?
How did you work with giants like Earth, Wind & Fire, the Bee Gees and Al Green?
I had a very small part. These guys know what theyíre doing. The humbleness of everyone in the whole experience is just amazing. With Earth, Wind & Fire I maybe did a few lines of my own for horn arrangements. But their horn arranger guy was there.
And I was like: ďWhy do I tell you guys what to play?Ē But they just wanted to know my take on it, and I think that is just very cool.
They come to me for my talent and view on things, but Iím still learning. I never stop learning. I still go to the bookstore and pick up the music magazines, including the technical ones. EQ Magazine, Keyboard Magazine, Future Music. And I read them as if I donít have any equipment at all.
I always want to know whatís new in the music industry as far as creating music. I love to find out how I can effectively create something. When I happen to call a whole orchestra, what can I do? How can I do this alone? How can I make this sound contemporary?
What will you be doing in 5 to 10 years from now?
The same thing. I really like the way that it is going. But Iím not trying to get to wherever it is Iím trying to get too fast. If it takes another 5 to 10 years to get there, then Iím along for the ride. Iím sightseeing. Iím not trying to get there too fast.
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Interview by Kimbel Bouwman
Read On ...
* Interview with Andreao 'Fanatic' Heard, producer for Michael Jackson, Beyonce, Will Smith, Lil' Kim, Anthony Hamilton
* Mary J Blige and Al Green producer Kevin Wooten on being discovered over the phone