Peter Asher, Paul McCartney, Linda McCartney, Linda Ronstadt
photo courtesy Peter Asher
Asher signed Taylor to Apple and produced his 1968 self-titled debut. When Apple went rotten with infighting and financial problems, he became Taylor's manager and helped him secure a deal with Warner Bros., where they delivered his breakout album Sweet Baby James in 1970. At this time, Taylor was in a perpetual state of near-implosion, with a penchant for motorcycle mishaps and heroin. Asher helped keep him upright and gave his songs a framework to flourish.
Ronstadt, whose biggest solo hit had been the #25 "Long, Long Time" in 1970, had her breakthrough when Asher became her manager and produced "You're No Good," a #1 hit in 1974. He stayed at the helm for most of her career, including her groundbreaking orchestrated standards albums and Canciones de Mi Padre, a 1987 album of Spanish-language Mariachi songs that sold over 2 million copies.
Asher has won Grammy Awards in three different decades: Producer of the Year for both 1977 and 1989, and Best Spoken Comedy Album for Robin Williams' Live 2002. He produced the 10,000 Maniacs albums In My Tribe (1987) and Blind Man's Zoo (1989), and did several songs with Cher, including her hit take on "The Shoop Shoop Song (It's in His Kiss)." His recent productions include Steve Martin's work with Edie Brickell and the Steep Canyon Rangers, and eight Elton John covers for the 40th anniversary reissue of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, including Ed Sheeran's "Candle In The Wind" and Miguel's "Bennie and the Jets."
Peter Asher: Not necessarily. I usually don't ask songwriters what songs are about. I think it's fine that we all form our own view of what a song truly means. So, I may have an interpretation in mind, but do I enquire specifically what it's about? No. I think it's fine that our reaction to the songs is generally a subjective one.
Songfacts: When James Taylor delivers a song to you, what do you have to work with?
Asher: It varies. I've worked with James for a long time, several decades. I would hear the song in the form in which he wrote it. He might have some arrangement ideas in mind, and I certainly would have some.
I usually live with a song for a bit and just imagine it different ways and form an opinion. Then again, it can change in the course of working on it with musicians, as well. But, what I have to work with is the song.
Songfacts: I'm trying to figure out if it's a sheet of music, if it's a demo...
Asher: It varies. Sometimes James would play me a song live and I would just kind of learn it in my head. In the case of the very first album we did, he had some of those songs on tape because he had cut a demo tape deliberately, so I lived with some of those songs on tape. But sometimes it was something he had just come up with and the first time I'd hear it was in the studio when we got there in the morning.
Songfacts: What informed your decision on whether or not to orchestrate a song?
Asher: On the first James Taylor album, I orchestrated a lot of those songs. It's part of the overall process of listening to a song, talking to the artist and deciding what's going to be the best framework for the way they sing and/or play that particular song.
In the case of the Apple James Taylor album, I did specifically think about some kind of orchestrations because I really wanted to establish the fact that he was not just another long-haired folkie with an acoustic guitar. I wanted people to take him seriously as a composer. That's why that album, compared to its successor Sweet Baby James, is considerably more orchestrated. That was based on a desire on my part to make people take him seriously as a composer because I thought he was so good.
Songfacts: That's interesting, because he had not established himself at that point, so you were framing his image. You were also his manager at that point, I believe.
Asher: No, actually. When we made that first record, I was not yet his manager. When we decided to leave Apple was the moment we decided I would become his manager.
Peter and James Taylor. Photo by Henry Diltz, from the same photo session as the cover shoot for Sweet Baby James
Songfacts: Did you ever do any of those four-hour, three-song sessions?
Asher: It's the other way around - a standard session is three hours. Yes, would be the short answer. I have done several songs in a session. Getting four down would be very ambitious but a couple is doable. It depends on the nature of the session, the nature of the production. For example, the Linda Ronstadt/Nelson Riddle records with a big orchestra, you absolutely tried to get two or three songs done in a session because you've got 80 people sitting in the room with the meters running.
So, you try to do as much pre-production as you can. You know what you're doing, you've been over the arrangement with Nelson and with Linda, and so by the time you actually get a gigantic orchestra roaring away, you try to get it done quickly in order to be in budget.
Songfacts: "Fire And Rain," I always thought that you brought in a string section to create that sound, and then I learned that you didn't, that it's actually an upright bass that is doing that.
Asher: That's correct, yes.
Songfacts: Is that because you couldn't afford a string section at the time?
Asher: No, not at all. We didn't want a string section. It was James' idea, actually. We didn't have a bass on the track and it was James' idea to try bowed upright bass to create the drone of the bottom note. So, we asked the studio for a player because I was not familiar with most of the LA musicians. I'd put together a little rhythm section already, which was Carole King, who I'd got to know and loved her piano playing, and a drummer called Russ Kunkel, who I had found. But at that point, we had not found the perfect bass player, so we used different bass players on different songs.
And, on that one, James' idea was to use a bowed upright bass, so we asked around and they recommended this guy called Bobby West. Bobby "Wild Wild" West, we discovered he was known, which clinched it for us. We thought that was such a cool name. So, we hired him and put the bass on and then I doubled the bass to give it that weird, slightly flangey effect, playing the exact same notes. And, those are the only strings on that whole album, I think.
No, I didn't want a string section, it wasn't supposed to be that kind of song.
Songfacts: Can you tell me about producing the song "Your Smiling Face"?
Asher: I loved the song. I think that was Clarence McDonald, Lee Sklar, Russ Kunkel and Danny Kortchmar. I think Danny Kortchmar played the guitar lick, which James may have already written on his guitar as a part. I just remember trying to get a great take that rocked. It was a tune where I was really looking for some kind of R&B, irresistible groove to it. Nowadays, that's the kind of thing one would very often build by programming things, but these were the days when you just looked for the great take.
I do remember taking pieces of vocal from another take, which I loved. He'd done some falsetto stuff at the end that was a slightly different tempo, so we had to do some extremely elaborate miniscule tape editing to make it all fit, which now would take two seconds in Pro Tools but then took a day with a razor blade.
Songfacts: Yeah, the reason I brought that song up is because it has this incredible production that has held up so well. It's also an example of a track that Kortchmar played on where it's not this mellow kind of thing. It moves along quite well.
Asher: Oh, Kortchmar is never mellow. He would hate you if you called him mellow. His favorite guitar player when I first met him was Steve Cropper. He's a rhythm & blues guy by nature. He ended up playing on a lot of California records but that was not his given style.
Songfacts: You talked about how the technology today would allow you to do that quite differently and that's what you do today. Can you talk about how you worked with Ed Sheeran doing his "Candle In The Wind"?
Asher: Yeah, we just did a new version of that. I re-did it for this new Elton project that's coming out in a couple of months. What about it?
Songfacts: I would to like to know how you went about producing that song and how that differs from how you produced a song back in 1975.
Asher: Well, in that case, Ed and I were the only musicians on it, as I recall. So, we decided we'd put down his guitar part to a click track and then build it from there. He played the bass, I played some percussion. He did the background parts. I played something else, I think. And then on this new version I did add a keyboard player playing some stuff, and we did that in New Mexico a couple of weeks ago. That was it. There was no band, as such, assembled.
Songfacts: How did you develop the concept for what you were going to do with that song?
Asher: Oh, Ed and I sat down and talked about it and he had a tempo and a feel in mind. Just listening to him and his guitar, essentially, was where the idea came from.
A lot of it was him. He's an incredibly smart arranger and composer himself, and he had a clear idea of what he wanted to do.
Songfacts: How did that compare to, say, the Fall Out Boy production you did for "Saturday Night's Alright"?
Asher: That one I worked with Patrick Stump, who's someone I greatly admire. He's, of course, a very good producer himself. He's produced a number of successful bands himself, so that was really just me and him, sitting down over in his house here in LA and talking through the song and trying out some ideas and so on. Then, the rest of the band came in, and we did record that with the band because we wanted the live drums and stuff, but we had a sketch already recorded of some programmed stuff that he and I had done at his house.
Songfacts: There's not any familiarity if you're working with an artist for the first time. Some producers will tell you they need to spend a day or two with the artist before they can do anything. What is your take on that?
Asher: I've very rarely worked with people I didn't know at all in advance, that I can remember. Ed Sheeran and I had become friends from the moment I first heard him back when "The A Team" was first out. I heard that and wrote him a note saying, "I know a good singer-songwriter when I hear one and you're it."
I kept telling people he was going to be the biggest thing and not everyone believed me. So, Ed and I knew each other.
I'm trying to think if I've ever worked in the studio not knowing anyone at all. I can't really think of such an occasion. It certainly helps to have some kind of basic friendly relationship before you start, and I don't think I've ever met someone in the studio for the first time.
Songfacts: Had you worked with Miguel when you did "Bennie And The Jets"?
Asher: No, that's a good point. We had met, but we had not worked together. That's a very good point. He was pretty new. I had met him, I think, at Clive Davis' party at the Grammys, which is where Elton and I first heard him. We were hearing him sing and we went crazy - we said we've got to get him on our record. I'd met him through his manager and we had talked briefly but, no, you're right, I didn't really know him.
But in that instance, I'd actually cut the track without him. I'd said to him in conversation, "I have an idea of what I can hear in my head as the Miguel version of that song, and would you mind if I put something down?"
He said, "Fine, go ahead."
So, I worked with a keyboard player that I know out here, a guy called Stephen Hilton, who's very good at all the analog synths and stuff, which is Miguel's territory, and I put down a version.
And then there was a period when I was hardly in touch with Miguel. I ended up meeting with him backstage at an Alicia Keys concert he was opening, and I said, "Did you ever get a chance to listen to the demo I sent you?" He said, "No, I'm sorry, I don't know what happened to it."
So, we sat backstage and listened to it for the first time. He plugged in his in-ear monitors into my laptop and I played it to him and he said, "I love it. That's great. Go ahead." And he just arranged time to come into the studio and sing it.
And then, he made some suggestions and changed some stuff and added some brilliant background parts and so on. So, it ended up being a combination of the ideas I'd started with, with some ideas he had on top.
Songfacts: Well, it's a very contemporary production and very ambitious production. It sounds like you had free-rein to do what you wanted on this. Is that correct?
Asher: Yes. I said, "Do you mind if I put down my ideas?" and he said, "Fine."
So, at that point we had had no consultation whatsoever. I based it on hearing his brilliant record, the Kaleidoscope record, and so it was basically taking his ideas and applying them to that song, as I felt it. And luckily it was successful in his eyes.
Songfacts: Many musicians will try to revert back to the '70s to go after that sound that you achieved so well, and here you are working in the digital age with the most modern equipment. What is your take on the analog versus digital sound?
Asher: I think there's virtually no difference in this day and age. In the beginning, digital was guilty of being a bit thin and crispy and lacking a certain depth and warmth, but I don't think that's honestly the case anymore. I consider tape far more trouble than it's worth.
Peter behind the console in the recording studio
photo: Henry Diltz
Songfacts: So, if you had an artist like James Taylor or Linda Ronstadt that you were to produce today, do you think you would be able to get the same results?
Songfacts: When you are doing a song that has already been established, as you did with so many of Linda Ronstadt's songs, what approach do you take?
Asher: It depends who's singing it and how they want to sing it. The arrangement is a framework for how the artist does it. So, it's all based on Linda singing the song, so we would always sit with the guitar or piano or something and try out the song. And then I'd start thinking and bounce the ideas off Linda, who has brilliant ideas herself of how to do it.
Asher: No, I don't think so. She used to sing it sometimes, but I never recorded it. I only did it with Cher.
Songfacts: And how did that develop with Cher? I'm wondering how that song was chosen and how you went about doing that.
Asher: The song was already chosen. They were going to sing it in the movie anyway and they just wanted a proper record version for the end titles.
That one I cut without Cher's input entirely. I just did it the way I thought she should do it. I had one conversation with Cher about the key, and that was it. And then she showed up and it was all done. She liked it, luckily.
Songfacts: What are the challenges in producing 10,000 Maniacs, which has a very distinctive way of writing?
Asher: I didn't think of them as challenges. I loved the songs they wrote, I loved the way Natalie [Merchant] sings, loved the way her voice sounded, and Natalie and I got on really well. So, it was the same process.
The challenge I suppose was, working with a band is a bit different than working with studio musicians because you make suggestions, in a way, more tentatively. Studio musicians expect that they will try out ideas that were yours rather than theirs, as well as their own. With a band, you never know. People might get offended if you go, "I don't like that guitar part, can you try something different?" Or start singing them parts to play.
I think there was a point in the Rolling Stone interview where the guitar player in that band did express some annoyance where I did keep telling him what to do. But, essentially, I think of it in the same light, just trying to frame the song in the way that the singer sings it, correctly.
Songfacts: What is your greatest strength as a producer?
Asher: Oh, I don't know. The ability to listen to the artist, I suppose - certainly in the case of someone brilliant like Linda. You know, she had a reputation of being slightly difficult, which was completely unjustified. What she was, was opinionated, but her opinions were correct. So, the trick was to actually listen to what she had to say.
Songfacts: You came into her ambit a few albums in and were the one who really brought her to that great success. What did you and Linda do that got her over the top?
Asher: I think we chose the right songs and we did them the right way. The process by which we achieved that was a conversation. We would both suggest songs. She would usually suggest the slow ones and I would suggest the rock and roll ones – those were not her favorite. And then we would try out arrangement ideas until we found what seemed to suit.
And I may have listened to her with a bit more attentiveness than others had in the past. There was, particularly back in that era, an element of, "Don't you worry your pretty little head about that, I know what's best." Linda knew a lot and was not given credit for it.
Songfacts: I think of your recording on her with "I Will Always Love You" and how Whitney Houston turned that into this massive hit later on. Neither of those singers wrote songs in particular. Why do you think that is?
Asher: I don't know. She never particularly was inclined to write. She was brilliant at spotting songs that were already in existence that she could identify with, that she felt emotionally attached to almost as if she had written them. I think when Linda found a song she loved, like "Faithless Love" or "I Will Always Love You," it was a song that she felt she could identify with as if she had written it and didn't feel the need to do so.
Songfacts: When MTV came around, you and she did "Get Closer." Can you talk about that song and if there was any particular motivation for getting on MTV or the radio with that one?
Asher: No, it had nothing to do with MTV or the radio, we just liked the song. We liked the fact it was in a weird time signature and thought it was cool, so we recorded it. That was basically it.
Songfacts: Are there any challenges in recording a duet, like you did with her a few times?
Asher: Well, yes. It's different because you've got to figure out the logistics of it, for a start. She and James Ingram when we did "Somewhere Out There" never actually were in the studio at the same time, which is more common now but was a bit less common then. And getting it all to fit together, matching their vibratos and the last note and stuff like that, which again in Pro Tools would be two seconds, took quite a while because I had two separate takes of each of them separately. But, for reasons I can't quite remember, they weren't in town at the same time.
So, yeah, duets, you've got to figure out who sings what and all those obvious challenges and get two great vocals that fit together, ideally at the same time, but often not. I think she and Aaron were together at the same time on "Don't Know Much," but certainly she and James Ingram on "Somewhere Out There" were not.
Songfacts: How do you go about producing a comedy album?
Asher: You go on the road with Robin Williams recording every show and taking notes, telling him which bits worked the best, which bits you had a really good take of, and which was the best version of the golf story or whatever bit you're talking about. So, a lot of it consisted of note taking and choosing. Robin didn't really have the patience for that, so he relied on me to advise him on which bits were best in what cities, and that's what we put together: the "best of" the tour into the album.
Songfacts: You talked about working with 10,000 Maniacs and how it's different working with a band as opposed to session musicians. Steep Canyon Rangers is a completely different kind of band. What did you do there?
Asher: Well, they are terrific musicians and have a more profound knowledge of bluegrass than I do, and it's a fairly constrained tradition. But, at the same time, we wanted to push it slightly out of the bluegrass range.
The most recent Steve and the Rangers album was recorded pretty much as a live record, whereas the Steve Martin and Edie Brickell records were entirely constructed track by track. I started with just the banjo and added everything.
Songfacts: Which track that you produced for any artist was the most ornery, the hardest to get done?
Asher: Oh, the ones that didn't get done. I couldn't even name them because the hardest are the ones we gave up on. You spent two days trying to get a song and if it really wasn't working, the concept was wrong, the song was wrong, something happened. So the ones that were the orneriest I don't remember because they didn't work.
Songfacts: Which of your productions is the hidden gem - the album or song that didn't get the attention it deserves?
Asher: Amanda Marshall Everybody's Got A Story. Really good record that had some success in Canada but nothing in the US. I'm proud of that record. It sounds great to this day.
Songfacts: She's a terrific vocalist. Her songs in the '90 were incredible.
Asher: Yeah, and we were hoping for that kind of success, but we did not achieve it.
Peter with John Lennon, George Harrison, George Martin
photo courtesy Peter Asher
Songfacts: This is the only Beatles question I have for you, I promise.
Asher: Let's hear it.
Songfacts: From a production standpoint, what's the best Beatles song?
Asher: Oh, I suppose I'd go with "A Day In The Life." It springs to mind, but there's so many, between what they did and what George Martin did. But "A Day In The Life" certainly combined Beatle ideas and George Martin ideas very effectively.
Asher: I don't know. You learn something from everything that goes right. You also learn something from everything that goes wrong. I can't identify one particular experience.
I think learning is a cumulative effect rather than a burst of sudden light: This was my biggest learning experience. When you work and explore and work with different people, you learn something new every time. Working with Miguel or working with Ed Sheeran or working with incredibly talented people like Linda and James back in the day, I learned something from everybody. I think the willingness to learn is the most important aspect.
Songfacts: How was it making that transition from the analog age into the digital age with modern artists like Miguel and Fall Out Boy?
Asher: Oh, it's brilliant. I was always wanting more technology. The minute someone said, "Oh, now we've got eight tracks, now we've got sixteen tracks," I was absolutely: Yes, good, bring it on, give me the new machines.
Every technological advance that was made, I wanted to make use of it, and nine cases out of ten it's something you'd wished you could do in the first place. When they suddenly said, "You can keep that vocal and just fix the one note that's out of tune," it was like, "Yes, fantastic, how brilliant, I've dreamed of such a thing."
So, I was enthralled with every new development. I tried to be careful not to overuse it and not to rely on it and still try to get the best vocal and the best take and the best version. But the sheer fact that you can fix things that you couldn't fix and make things the way you really wanted them to be instead of an approximation is exhilarating.
Songfacts: What piece of equipment do you spend most of your time working with today?
Asher: Just a computer. You sit with an engineer, in my case, because I'm not that good myself in front of a computer. And that one piece of equipment contains every plugin known to man, which is about 5 million pieces of equipment. It used to be that a piece of equipment only did one thing. Now you have a computer that does all those things.
Songfacts: In the old days, would you be behind the mixing console most of the time?
Asher: You mean when the record's being mixed? Yes.
Songfacts: When it's being recorded, where would you be for the most part?
Asher: Sometimes when we're doing tracks I would be out in the room with the band, conducting or playing or something, but probably the majority of the time, yeah, sitting behind the desk next to the engineer. It varies. Quite often I end up out of the room.
Songfacts: You spoke about Linda Ronstadt getting the "Oh, don't worry your pretty little head," kind of thing. Why don't we see more female producers these days?
Asher: No idea. It's a good question. I don't know the answer. I think it's the same as all the movie director stuff and everything else that's going on.
At least now, unlike the old days when you couldn't even try being a producer without a budget and a studio, let's hope there are a million brilliant women sitting at home on their laptops making incredible music, which is about to take over the world. I think that would be a good thing. I'm sure they're out there and I hope whatever impediments they're encountering disappear.
March 29, 2018
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