Glen Ballard

by Carl Wiser

On co-writing and producing Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill, and his work with Dave Matthews, Aerosmith and Annie Lennox.

Alanis Morissette met with several producers when she came to Hollywood in 1994 to make her Jagged Little Pill album. She was 19, a former pop star in her native Canada looking for a fresh start. Her search ended when she met Glen Ballard, whose hitlist includes Michael Jackson's "Man In the Mirror" and three #1 hits from Wilson Phillips. "Musically and cerebrally Glen and I were so on the same wavelength," Alanis told Phil Sutcliffe. "It was all very visceral – and fast."

Over the next several months, they met 20 times and recorded 20 songs, 12 of which ended up on Jagged Little Pill. They would spend afternoons talking about life and love and our place in the universe (and the OJ Simpson trial, which we were all talking about at the time), then build a song into the wee hours. Ballard gave her the emotional space to speak her truth on songs like "All I Really Want," "Perfect," and the incendiary first single, "You Oughta Know."

Ballard went to Los Angeles in 1975 just days after graduating from the University Of Mississippi. He got in with Sunset Sound Studios, where he worked with Elton John's band before landing a publishing deal with MCA and entering the Quincy Jones universe with a song for George Benson called "What's on Your Mind." His song "Nightline" almost made Thriller, but got bumped when Michael Jackson came up with "Billie Jean" and "Beat It." In 1985, Jones made Ballard a house producer at his Quest label, the pinnacle of recording. "Man In The Mirror," written with Siedah Garrett, made Jackson's Bad album and went to #1. Since then, he's written and/or produced for Paula Abdul, Sheena Easton, Toto, Aerosmith, The Corrs, Van Halen, No Doubt, Annie Lennox and many other luminaries. When we spoke, he was in Manchester, England, working on original songs for the stage production of Back To The Future to complement songs from the movie like "The Power of Love" and "Johnny B. Goode."
Carl Wiser (Songfacts): How's it going with Back To The Future?

Glen Ballard: Oh, it's going great. We're officially in previews - we open the 11th of March. We do it in front of an audience every night and then come home and rewrite stuff. But it's really going great. The audiences are loving it and it's Back To The Future on stage, no doubt.

Songfacts: Are you writing songs decade-specific, like when it's in the '50s and then when it's in the '80s?

Ballard: Absolutely, because we have this wonderful perspective now. When the movie was done in 1985, they were looking back at the '50s. Now, in 2020, we're looking back at both decades and it just gives you this wonderful opportunity from a stylistic standpoint to do an '80s thing and a '50s thing, so it's been a delicious project to be involved with.

Songfacts: You had Benmont Tench come in and play songs of his choosing from Jagged Little Pill, which I thought was a really interesting approach.

Ballard: I have such a solidarity with my brothers and sisters who are musical. We had all these songs that we had done as demos with me playing everything. We had Benmont, so we said, "We'll take you to dinner tonight, come in in the afternoon." I had played keyboard and organ on some of the songs, but I wanted him to replace it, so he came in, listened to everything, and picked six or seven tunes to play on. He did two or three, we went to dinner, and we came back and he did a few more. So he did it all on one day, which is the spirit of this record, and he did it for dinner. He is such a beautiful player and such a beautiful human being, so it was great. He was the first outside musician we had on this stuff.

Songfacts: Have you done that with any other musicians on your productions? For instance, Joe Walsh is on the credits to the first Wilson Phillips album.

Ballard: Exactly the same. We were at Cherokee recording studios on Fairfax in L.A. He came in at 10 o'clock in the morning. He didn't even have an amp - we had to borrow an amp from somebody. The song was "Hold On." We already had a lot of stuff on it, and I don't even know how he got involved with it, but I was just thrilled to have him in the studio, so I just said, "Do your thing."

I started my career working for Quincy Jones, who would get the very best musicians in and just let them do their thing, and then edit it and figure out how to integrate it into what he already had. It's a wonderful way of empowering really talented people rather than trying to micromanage it. Sometimes I have a very specific thing that I want, but in so many cases, giving a great musician a little bit of freedom is golden.

Songfacts: It seems like you give your vocalists a fair amount of freedom too. Many producers will talk about trying to coax these vocals out of singers, but I don't hear that very often about your work.

Ballard: Well, when you're working with Alanis Morissette, all you need to do is turn on the microphone, I promise you, because she is so distinctive and so completely tied to the lyric with her vocal approach. If there is something that's not right musically I'm going to make a comment, but for me it's about uncovering what somebody really has in there, and if they are starting at good then what I'm trying to do is just get the great out of them.

So, yeah, I definitely have a more encouraging approach - a more positive approach in the studio. I've worked with certain dictators in the studio, and then I've worked with a more beautiful approach, and I prefer the beautiful approach, the Quincy Jones approach.

With Quincy, I spent a good decade in the studio with him from about 1980 to 1990, and he was always positive. Even when something wasn't going right, he never made anybody feel bad about it. I saw how he grew things with encouragement and nourishment as opposed to berating people, so that's my natural approach. I can't work under those other circumstances, or I prefer not to.

Songfacts: How did you get the great out of Wilson Phillips?

Ballard: The first time I met them, they came in and sang a song a cappella for me and it completely blew me out of my chair. They'd been singing together since they were like 4 years old, and the Wilsons were blood sisters, but Chynna was their sister too in the sense that they had grown up together. They sang a million songs together and had already worked it out, so I didn't really have to do anything in terms of their sound - I just had to find a vehicle to put that sound in.

I just loved the way they sounded together. I hadn't heard anything like that since Crosby, Stills & Nash. They had different timbres to their voices, but when you put it all together it's one voice. So, for me, it was just listening to them and writing the songs that showcase that. I just loved working with them because it was a ready-made sound for me.

Songfacts: Talking about putting the vocals into a vehicle, when Alanis Morissette did "You Oughta Know" in one take, you had this searing vocal that you had to build a song around and keep that impact. How did you do that on that song?

Ballard: Well, most of it was there already. The way we worked, we wrote 20 songs for Jagged Little Pill and that happened in 20 days. We had 20 individual daily sessions. We would start around 11 o'clock in the morning, have lunch, and then write all day into the evening, maybe take a dinner break, and then by 11 o'clock at night, we'd been working out her lyrics and her vocal approach all day.

The most wonderful thing for me as a writer is to hear someone's voice in the room, and she was constantly auditioning how to do it, so at the end of the night on "You Oughta Know," we had a track, and she just went out and sang it one time, and since I was the engineer too, I was hoping I'd got it. It's not the best recorded vocal in the world - some of it is too hot - but that's the only time she ever sang it in the studio. Even when we were getting ready to put the record out, all those vocals were the original vocals. I've never done anything that authentically live. Really, that's what it was, a live vocal, but she's so damn good that she could pull it off. There was some talk about refining things and re-doing things, but she was adamant that there was something about the moment of creation when we did it. None of those songs were over eight or nine hours old when she sang every single one of them, so that's one of the most remarkable things about all of it.

Songfacts: When did you know that the song had to start and end with a vocal?

Ballard: It was all done completely by feel. There was no planning to any of it and there was no premeditation - it was literally improvising every single part of it, so that's just the way it worked. Whatever seemed to work at the exact moment is what happened on every single song, and we were so completely untethered from the mainstream - no record company, no supervision - so we were all really just doing it to please ourselves. I had no idea where or when it would come out. I knew I had a brilliant artist in the studio with me and that's all I cared about. We weren't listening to stuff to try to make it sound like what was on the radio.

We were afforded a purity and freedom because we didn't have a budget. It was a home studio and I couldn't even get an engineer in there. I'm not the greatest recording engineer, but I recorded so much of that record. I don't ever want to do that again because it was so stressful for me, but I was so in the moment with her. It was like, let's just do it ourselves. It was the most hand-made thing I've ever done, without any doubt.

Songfacts: I didn't realize the definition of irony is so complex until people started talking about the song. What's your take on that?

Ballard: I have a degree in English. I did my dissertation on T. S. Eliot, so I understand that the way we used irony was a much more conventional use of it and it wasn't technically right, but I think it's wonderful that everybody sort of jumped in on it and wanted to really define it as a literary term. So, I'm fine with that. I think it's really funny and I just enjoyed the hell out of it, for sure.

Glen Mallard (not to be confused with Drake)Glen Mallard (not to be confused with Drake)
Songfacts: Other than live instruments, where did the sounds come from on Jagged Little Pill?

Ballard: I programmed drums and I used loops as a basis for the groove on every single song. I had a Linn 9000, which is like a dinosaur now, but it was this box that you could create beats in and you could also put other sounds in there - you could integrate it with the musical sound. I was playing guitar on most of it to start with, which was unusual for me - electric guitar most of the time, sometimes acoustic. We would just start grooving on something, and that was how it all started. It was just me, my Linn 9000, my guitar and my keyboard sounds.

We were recording on ADAT, which was an early digital format that was on SVHS tape. It was eight tracks per ADAT and I think we never used more than two ADATs so it was usually about 12 tracks on there. It's none of the density that you hear on records today where you can push a button and get this multi-temporal thing. We were really just building it from the ground floor up and there was never any over-embellishment because we didn't have time or resources to over-embellish it. Whatever we could do in the room that day was the way it worked out.

Songfacts: When did you start working with the Linn 9000?

Ballard: Probably whenever it became available. I was working on the early Linn iterations of the 9000. I lived then in the San Fernando Valley, and Roger Linn, who made the Linn drum, had a factory out in I think Northridge, so I was constantly going out there trying to get software updates for it, and at some point, he went bankrupt and they closed the factory. And so, I had a friend named Bruce Forat, who got out of there with some of the software and literally, it was like doing drug deals - I would meet him and get these chips to keep my Linn 9000 going.

There were many early iterations of it around '88 or '89, but it was early days of being able to do that in a digital format, so I lucked into that. And then when they came out with the Linn 9000 it had pads on it. It had like 16 pads, and you could actually sit there and play it like you were playing drums, which was great for me because I could play drums but I much preferred doing it on the machine because I'm not that good. I know what the parts are supposed to be, so I would just sit there and hit the kick-drum, the snare, the hi-hat. The Linn 9000 had this wonderful five-position slider for the hi-hat which was closed, slightly open, open, open and all-the-way open, and you just moved it up and down. It was really rudimentary digital stuff. So, it was a combination of the new digital technology and just me playing stuff, mostly guitar.

Songfacts: And all that was innovated in a lot of ways by the Quincy Jones style, so I'm assuming you did a lot of that on "Man In The Mirror."

Ballard: I completely programmed "Man In The Mirror" on a Linn 9000, or the early version of the 9000. There are no real drums on that - that's my programming.

Songfacts: As your career has gone along, are you building a library of sounds that you can pull out anytime you need them?

Ballard: Quite honestly, no. All those sounds, they live someplace on some probably defunct digital format like the Linn 9000, which is over. The ADATs that recorded an Alanis song, nobody ever would use that - I don't think they know what that is now.

What's happened with sonics, you can buy a computer right now and it has a million great sounds in it, so my focus now is really less on that and more on songwriting, because it's still really about the writing. I've been doing a lot of other writing but it hasn't been necessary in the pop format. I've just written 75 jazz songs for a project I'm working on, so that's where my head is right now. That and theater.

Songfacts: So everything you do is original. It's not about building off of something that you worked on before.

Ballard: Exactly. I want something new. I'm trying to listen to my muse and obey her.

Songfacts: There's such a striking contrast between what you did with Wilson Phillips, which is so soothing, and what you did with Alanis Morissette on "You Oughta Know," which is very jarring. It's strange to think it came from the same guy. Can you talk about that dichotomy?

Ballard: It's very easy because it depends on the artist sitting in the room with me. I don't have a template - I don't have a set piece that I'm going to. I really, first of all, want to hear from the artist that's in the room with me. With Wilson Phillips, it was these three beautiful harmonies, and it was always about that. With Alanis, the first song we wrote I heard this kind of feral quality to her voice. She was 19 years old but I heard something bristling in there that seemed to contain all of her intelligence and her questioning.

You just follow where it leads you. So, for me, it's not about me imposing anything, which is something I learned from Quincy: Just listen to the artist, and if you do it right, the artist is driving it and not the producer. I know that's not really the case now, but it really depends on what the artistic quotient is from somebody that comes in the door. And, I much prefer working with people who have a strong point of view, who have a distinctive style, and then it sets my tone.

I've done so many different kinds of music in my career, and I feel blessed that I never get pigeon-holed because I love all kinds of music styles and the fact that I've been able to make all of it and finally get to my jazz phase right now is kind of remarkable for me. But it's always about who I'm working with. I'm not trying to make anybody be something they're not, because that's fundamentally not really what an artist is. So, that's what I'm always looking for: People who have a strong point of view and who are willing to collaborate and let me bring something else to the table.

Dave Matthews brought Ballard in to produce his 2001 Everyday album after sessions with his longtime producer Steve Lillywhite stalled. Up to that point, Dave Matthews Band songs were typically written by Matthews, refined through live performance, and worked out in the studio with more improvisation. For Everyday, Matthews and Ballard wrote 12 songs together in 10 days, which the band heard for the first time when they flew from Charlottesville to Los Angeles to record them. This more focused approach got the band back on track; the album went to #1 in America, where it sold three million copies. The lead single was "I Did It," one of the more unusual songs in the DMB catalog and one where Matthews played electric guitar at Ballard's urging.
Songfacts: Do you have any insight on the lyrics to the Dave Matthews Band song "I Did It"?

Ballard: I think it's a metaphor. The conceit is, I committed a love crime - the love bomb. I set off this thing called love and I'm gonna claim that, and if I have to do the time for trying to spread love - a love bomb - then I'll do my time. It's saying a negative thing to say something positive.

Dave and I got in a room for a week and we wrote like 12 songs. So, between him, Alanis Morissette and maybe Shelby Lynne, those were the few times that there was such a confluence of our intention, even though we weren't quite sure what that was, but we would just manifest it every day. So, that was another beautiful experience for me, the week we spent together when we wrote all these songs. We were supposed to write one or two, but we ended up writing a whole album. It was just a natural thing in the exact same place where we had done Jagged Little Pill. When you have the right two people in the room, anything can happen.

Songfacts: Can you talk about "The Space Between" and what that means lyrically to you?

Ballard: It's probably an apology - that's the way I see it. It's telling the person who is most vivid in your life, whenever we've been apart, I want to make sure that we're back together.

We never really talked about what anything meant, we just wrote it. We were writing it just like playing tennis, and that one kind of wrote itself. In fact, all of them did, because we wrote so many so quickly. He is such an adept lyricist and I think I am too, so we didn't have any struggle figuring it out.

What I love most about songwriting is a kind of specific ambiguity. You can provide people with a lot of imagery, a very strong point of view, but everybody might take their own view of it.

Songfacts: That Shelby Lynne album [Love, Shelby] you did was great, but I don't think many people heard it for whatever reason.

Ballard: It was released on September 11th - that's exactly why nobody heard it. Literally that day - our release day - New York was attacked, so it fell into a black hole and it's really never been heard. I'm so sorry about that because I loved that record. It was done exactly the same way.

Songfacts: Would you be able to pick out one song on that album and talk about the meaning behind it?

Ballard: Yeah. There's a song called "Bend":

Bend just a little bit
Break just a little bit

I love that song so much, musically and lyrically. It's about what you've got to do to be in a relationship. You've got to be willing to bend and be willing to break, and I won't let you fall. So, it's about being vulnerable, but being with somebody who will protect that vulnerability. I just loved, loved that song, and someday hopefully some people will hear it.

Songfacts: One of the songs that sounds a little different in your whole catalogue is "Falling In Love (Is Hard On The Knees)," which just comes on like a bomb. Can you talk about putting that song together?

Ballard: I wrote that in Miami at the Marlin Hotel, Suite 205, with Joe Perry and Steven Tyler. We were down there for six months making a record and I had this whole set-up in my suite at the Marlin. Steven Tyler, talk about hearing somebody sing! He could sing for 12 hours straight when we were writing and never get tired. I don't think I've ever been around a singer who never gets vocally tired. I mean, cast-iron pipes. His range is utterly tremendous - he's one of the greatest singers and it goes unrecognized just how many things he can do.

We were just trying to be funny. We were just having fun that day, and it's Aerosmith, so of course I'm not going to do a Wilson Phillips song with Aerosmith. We started off with a riff and we made it right there in that hotel room. That was some of the most fun I've ever spent, and the guys were all sober then, so I was getting them high on coffee all day long. I had an espresso machine in my room and Steven was totally into it. We would drink like 10 cups of coffee and write. It's a coffee high for the whole album.

Songfacts: On that song specifically, I love how you get all those Aerosmith elements in - you get the Joe Perry guitar licks and then you get the classic Steven Tyler scream. Like you're getting your money's worth out of these guys.

Ballard: Oh yeah, no question. I loved that one, and it was just really fun. I picked Suite 205 in the Marlin and I loved it. My six months in Miami were really quite magical.

Songfacts: What was your approach to producing Annie Lennox?

Ballard: My approach was to sit back and listen. Annie, first of all, is such an incredible singer. Annie is the kind of singer who will come in at 11 o'clock in the morning and do her lead vocals, and I never have known of a singer that would sing in the morning. Annie didn't care - she would lead the warm-up and she had extremely strong opinions about everything, so basically, I was just trying to make sure she was happy every step of the way because she's strong-willed, so smart, so musically gifted, and it was really just stand back and let Annie do her thing.

But her vocal approach, her range is so incredible. She can do background vocals and sound like men singing, and then she can do really high stuff, soprano stuff, and it's just incredibly beautiful. She's probably the most complete singer I've ever worked with.

So, I didn't have a whole lot to contribute, I just really wanted to make sure that we got it right for her. We did it with a live rhythm section, which she had never done, and she was a little skeptical of that but she ended up really loving it. My band was always terrified every day when we were in there with her because we wanted to make sure that she loved it. She's incredible - I just love her so much.

Songfacts: When you say a live rhythm section, do you mean that the drums and bass are playing while she is singing?

Ballard: Absolutely. We cut that record with a real rhythm section at Westlake Studio D. So that's real drums - maybe one track it isn't, but mostly that was done with a real band, and that was a new thing for her. We kind of had to talk her into it because the records that she and Dave [Stewart] had made, which are some of the greatest records ever made, were not done that way. She ended up loving it, but it was a little different.

Wowed by his work on Jagged Little Pill, Katy Perry sought out Ballard in 2002 when she was 17 and still known by her birth name, Katy Hudson. She had released a gospel album a year earlier, but was looking to make the move to pop star. Ballard recorded some songs with her and introduced her to his fellow University Of Mississippi alumnus Bradford Cobb, who became her manager. Through Ballard, Perry connected with P.O.D. and sang on their 2006 track "Goodbye For Now," which she performed with them on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Her teenage dream was finally realized in 2008 with her album One Of The Boys.
Songfacts: Can you talk about the Curtis Stigers song "I Wonder Why," which you wrote with him?

Ballard: When I first saw Curtis, he was playing on the Upper West Side in Manhattan in a little club, playing jazz, not on a stage, just standing right by a table. So, I went up and heard him, and when he played the sax he played really well, but when he opened his mouth to sing, I said, "This is the reincarnation of Ray Charles." His voice was incredible.

On that song I was trying to reference something I might have heard from the TSOP guys - The Sound of Philadelphia - or Teddy Pendergrass records, so I needed something soulful. And it's actually done in 3/4 time, which is really unusual, so we did this kind of soulful waltz that no one thought even had a chance, and thank God for Clive Davis because he loved that song and he pushed us to make it into a hit record, and we did. I revised it several times for Clive - he's such a genius.

I love that record, and Curtis, his vocal was just astonishing. Incredible texture, and he was playing sax on it, so it was really fun.

Songfacts: Lyrically, it evokes that '70s Philadelphia soul. Is that what you were going for?

Ballard: Totally. It was an homage to that sound for sure. Thom Bell and those guys.

Songfacts: What I learned from them is that you don't have to have your heart torn apart to write a song about having your heart torn apart.

Ballard: Oh no, you don't. But we've all had our hearts torn apart and everybody remembers what that feels like, so you just reference it when you need to - you know what that feeling is like. Because if you've lived at all, you've had your heart broken.

Songfacts: What's a song by another producer that you listened to and tried to figure out just how the heck they did it?

Ballard: The standard for me is probably the Steely Dan albums Aja and Gaucho. They had the best players in the world on those and it was all done live.

But then you have records like the Talking Heads' "Once In A Lifetime." That song can't be touched. I listen to it like once a month because everything about it is so perfect. The bass line [scats the bass line] - just perfect.

Seal's song "Crazy" is one of the great records of all time. I had to redo it with Alanis once and it was terrifying for me because I knew I couldn't beat that record.

All the Beatles records just blow my mind considering that they had very few resources like we have now, and it was just all about being smart and inventive. There are so many records that are great that I'm leaving out, but those are some that really stand out to me. I'm sure when I hang up, I'll think of about 10 more that I've loved.

Songfacts: You did Seal's "Crazy" with Alanis?

Ballard: Yeah, we re-did it. I did my best to re-create that record, and of course she sings the shit out of it, but I had this looming, genius record that I had to live up to. It's very hard. We just had to do our own version of it, which I'm very proud of, and I'm very proud of what she did with it. But yeah, that was a hard one to beat. [This version appears on Morissette's 2005 album The Collection.]

And all the Prince stuff, all of his records are just so damn good that you just take your hat off. "Raspberry Beret" is one of my favorite records - it's just incredible. I'm a huge Prince fan.

The last album David Bowie did, it was called Blackstar, and he did it with a jazz band. It's transcendent to me, and the video that he did with it when he was like two days from dying or something, it's actually the most inspirational thing I've ever encountered because he was an artist to his last breath. He never complained about it, he didn't look for sympathy. Instead, he used all of his energy to make one more work of art.

Songfacts: You said you are working on a jazz project. When will we hear that?

Ballard: I've got a series opening on May 8th on Netflix called The Eddy that's my jazz songs. I did lots and lots of jazz songs for that, and it's a series that I produced. Damien Chazelle directed the first two episodes. It's really quite remarkable.

March 11, 2020
See the trailer and learn more about Back To The Future The Musical
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