Dave Carlock: Songs worth doing

Published 6:55 am Friday, June 28, 2013

From time to time, people will ask me about the songwriting process and what it’s like. Songwriting is the core of popular music, and my position as a producer is to first look carefully at the songs. The reason is wrapped up in this little axiom I tell people: Great singers are responsible for  great performances, great producers are responsible for great records, but great songs are responsible for great careers.
I’ve produced projects for several artists where we did everything “right.” The band sounded great, the singer sounded great, they looked at least decently marketable, the record sounded great, except … the record label didn’t like the songs. No signing.
Having had songs placed on Columbia, WTG, Epitaph and Atlantic, a key shift occurred in my career when I realized I had had more success as a songwriter than the artists I was producing. Yet as a  songwriter and artist, I felt the songs were their baby and held my tongue to respect their  creativity. Here I had spent a lot of time producing bands looking for a shot and wanting to make a great record, but I was doing them a disservice by allowing them to record songs that just weren’t very good. And as a business model, since those artists weren’t getting deals, it really made no sense for me to work with them because, while studio fees keep the lights on, getting a three-party deal with the records I produce is the only thing that moves the artist or myself forward.
I’ve always had a heart for helping develop new artists, but I realized I couldn’t continue being the most successful songwriter in the room and spend all my time polishing someone’s turd of a song because I was polite. So I started stepping up to collaborate on the writing on projects I produced.
Here’s what was weird: The better songwriters didn’t mind and the artists who weren’t open to it usually needed a lot more help so it was easy to walk away.
History shows my point of view is shared by several great producers who are writers. In fact, writing collaborations between artists and producers have resulted in some of the biggest rock records in history. Todd Rundgren co-wrote with artists such as the Tubes, XTC and Grand Funk Railroad. Robert John “Mutt” Lange’s co-writing was all over AC/DC’s Back in Black album, Def Leppard’s Pyromania and Bryan Adams’ Waking Up the Neighbours.
Desmond Child co-wrote Bon Jovi’s biggest hit, “You Give Love A Bad Name,” as well as Ricky Martin’s injection into the public consciousness, “Livin’ La Vida Loca.” The outside perspective of a great collaborating writer can make all the difference in an artist’s success.
Writing producers can be a dangerous hit crafter because production and arrangement experience is all about problem solving. Like myself, they cut their teeth on making bad songs listenable while holding their tongue and holding their nose. Put that problem solving around a great song and the sky’s the limit. Include the writing of people who see the whole picture in their heads from start to finish as they write, and the results have the potential to be explosive. Great producers are visionaries who go galaxies beyond someone tweaking knobs, they essentially become the extra member of the band while you’re making the record. When they write, too? They become the person you wish you could have in your band.
But finding yourself in a band of strangers and getting to know them at light speed can be a little eye opening, as you potentially land yourself into the middle of a den of barely concealed dysfunction.
Amateur bands could be ready to implode at any minute. Drug and alcohol abuse in bands contribute greatly to the destruction. As I’ve written before, partying and work need to be kept sequestered from one another. I’ve talked to young musicians locally and heard stories of a lead singer getting so mood altered that he couldn’t perform on mic in the studio, which led to one of the other band members choking him out in a rage. Think that band lasted long? Nope.
Fortunately, I haven’t had to deal with t many situations like that first hand, but one band I co-wrote with and produced had an alcoholic control freak bassist who was verbally and even physically abusive to his male lead singer. After hearing the playback of a vocal session we had cut, the bassist
was highly critical — not warranted, the performance was great — which led to the singer leaving the session — warranted — and the bassist chasing him down and tackling him. My response was to ban the bassist from the rest of the sessions. If I refuse to work with horrible songs, why would I work with horrible people? Think that band lasted long? Nope. Singer was a great guy though, talented, and I’d love to see him succeed outside of such a wretched band environment.
Come to think of it, maybe I’ll give him a call and see if he wants to write some songs. Hmmm. The mind of a songwriting producer at work …


Dave Carlock is a 26-year veteran of the entertainment business whose work as a recording engineer and producer, touring musician, and songwriter made him Googleable.
His continuing work as an Independent Content Creator of Sound and Image has earned him a Grammy Award certificate, two Platinum Record Awards, and a Paragon Award in advertising. Currently, he brings national and international artists to make records and music videos at his production studio in the Benton Harbor Arts District.