5 Lessons I Learned as an Artist That Helped Me as a Producer

by Will Dailey
Posted Aug 18, 2014 at 7:17pm

Before anything else, I am a songwriter, performer and guitarist.

But it's my role as a producer that this three-headed hydra is fed in a way the artist's path could never.

The role of producer removes me from the soft cocoon of the self-absorbed singer songwriter. This is simply because, for lack of a better word, I'm dealing with other people’s s---.

Though the schedule is a lot to juggle, I couldn't imagine removing it from my routine. In quarterbacking a recording project, I’m consistently and constantly engaged in the process. Always learning. Yet it has been my career as an artist that has informed my production style the most.

Here are five important lessons about production I have learned while being the artist:

1. Just Make a Decision:
In the studio, if all is being done right, there are thousands of these choices being made in a minute -- technical ones, soulful ones and even whimsical ones. I've made countless recordings with producer and mix engineer Tom Polce. Through all these musical efforts with Tom at the helm, not once did I feel like the process was out of control or unfocused. Tom is a machine. He doesn’t sit down, never mind leave the control room. It took me a while to understand why.

There is a world of difference when there is someone - a single person - making determined and educated decisions consistently and decisively. These choices are happening in every single second of recording music. They're coming from multiple angles that require immediate attention. Someone has to be the end-all decision-maker while remaining mindful of the overall objective. It all has to lead to a killer track. Bottom line.

I suppose this all sounds simple. Though I know we've all been in that void of no decision making and it's terrible. It's important to recognize the need and value of that role of making immediate, intelligent decisions while being confident. By going with your gut, being honest and taking responsibility for the session, the song is being served.

2. Let Your Players Play:
I've been fortunate enough to do a couple of sessions led by legendary producer, T-Bone Burnett. As you can imagine, these are stacked with players. Much like with the coach of a great team everyone present is inspired to play and make their best choices. The players have been asked there for a reason. They are each serving a crucial role.

When I'm in with a band it's because, collectively, they are a team that together make one whole. When it's a solo artist, it's likely you'll bring in additional people to elevate the session to a whole new level. Finding ways to inspire your players to express themselves freely is the key. Burnett is superb at leading an amazing team of performers to tape. That's is why it feels so good.

Now more than ever the goal should be to capture a performance on tape. In relying on assembling the take later you’ve lost the magic, the spontaneity, the reason that particular player was asked to be there in the first place. Again, this might sound simple but too often we are assembling songs instead of seeking out the best players to give performances. Capture performances with musicians that rise to the occasion and a recording will be timeless.

3. The Magic Lies in the Extra Mile:
I was doing vocals for producer Ted Hutt. I had just done a dozen passes. I killed it on pass 4, or so I thought. Ted said, "Okay, you just sang it correctly, but now I need you to sing it incorrectly." For the next thirty minutes, I hit wall after wall that I had in no way met before. Walls I never thought I could get through were soon being kicked over and before I could look back in celebration at their wonderful ruin, I was instead being pushed towards another even more imposing one before me. Take after take took form and finally served as my own personal reawakening.

An hour later the walls were in a pile of rubble and we had a triumphant vocal take after 30 or so behind me that was from another world. On my own, I would have stopped. I would not have known I could have pushed further. I would have broken like a marathoner with nobody cheering or no pack to run along with.

We are capable of far more than we think we are. Have a coach. Push harder. Pass through the breaking point and go the extra mile. You never know what lies ahead.

4. Who Are You?
Eddie Vedder is Eddie Vedder. Adele already does Adele. I recorded my first song in my friends’ basement when I was 17. I was beyond hooked. I enthusiastically gave the recording to a family friend who made records for a living expecting my life to change - this was it. He was my only connection to the reality of being a professional musician. This individual shared that the track was “nice” and “a great start.” I was told, "You need to find your voice so that you can eventually find your own real-estate.”

Since then, I've done vocal sessions for singers who have told me that I don't need to hear each word because, “You can't understand what Eddie Vedder says and he's done well.” Or that pronouncing vowel sounds the way Adele does is a sound that is popular. I now make the argument similar to the one that family friend did years ago.

Latching on to a sound can be comfortable and safe, but these sounds have been spoken for. To stand out you need to find your own voice, your individual and unique sound, and your own market. The only way to find it is to strip away all those safe tricks you’ve adopted and return to the discomfort of a truly honest and vulnerable space. That’s where you find your sound. I'd argue that it is where you find freedom. That’s where you’ll discover, artistically, who you are.

5. Always Be Learning:

Have a mentor. As I have had in those mentioned above. I am seeking it at all times. I want to get in the room with as many people as possible. Remaining open and flexible to change creates room for development. This will ultimately make me a better artist. Always be looking up and all around. Always be learning. Always listen. Sometimes the simple answers are the most paramount.

Will Dailey's National Throat comes out on 8/26

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Album Trailer: http://youtu.be/6BCgjCe2Zns
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Will Dailey is an independent, Boston-based recording and performing artist. He is the 3 time winner of the Boston Music Award for Best Male Singer-Songwriter in 2006 and again on December 2, 2009 and December 2, 2012. He has released albums with Universal, CBS Records, Wheelkick Records and JS Music Group. Dailey is releasing his new album National Throat in 2014 on Wheelkick Records. The first single, "Sunken Ship," is a finalist in the 2013 International Songwriting Competition. On June 9, the album was released exclusively on vinyl for three months prior to official release date. Find out more at www.willdailey.com