This interview was conducted at the University of Western Ontario, where June Millington was artist-in-residence. The conversation was largely unstructured, but revolved around determining June’s personal approach to production, and examining her career as an influential musician, songwriter and recordist. Along the way, June discussed encounters with Skunk Baxter, John Lennon, Todd Rundgren, Geoff Emerick, Barbara Streisand, and a host of other respected musicians and recordists. This discussion took place in February of 2011.
Do you have a personal philosophy of production? What is record production, in your opinion? What does a producer do?
June: A producer… would be the interface between the artist and the technology. That’s the bare frame of it. As you fill in that frame, though, you get into tasks like time management, organization, dealing with the artist ahead of time, determining the actual content of the album, the keys of each song, arrangements, sequencing (why should one song follow another), et cetera….. Production is keeping track of…. details like that. It’s a ‘big picture/little picture’ kind of thing.
Pre-production is key. I feel that pre-production is the key to a successful album. If I am going to start a record, and I’ve got the studio booked, the artist ready to go, and a great engineer, I’m going to get two basics a day. If I’m not going to get two basics a day, I’m not even going to start. I’m not going to spend a week on the snare sound. Sorry, it’s not going to happen! To me, the key to doing an album, if you’re producing it, is to have everything so well prepared [before basic tracking] that the forward momentum itself instils a sense of confidence.
The producer directs the energy of the whole project…. It’s gruelling work. A lot of production is psychological. In a way, you’re babysitting everyone. You’re channelling their ideas, their creative thoughts, and part of that is to give everyone the illusion that they’re ‘in control’… [laughs]… and that everything is their own great idea. The drawback of this approach, for me, is that… a lot of the time it looks like I’m doing nothing. I get slammed for that. “Well, she’s not doing anything. What is that asian lady doing? What’s she doing sitting over there just every once in a while saying something?” In fact, I’m keenly aware of everything that’s going on. That’s why I’m not saying anything…. I have my antennae out, I’m making sure everything’s going well. If I have to say anything, certainly I will do so.
Ok, so it’s a very involved process. You’ve observed and participated in it from both sides of the glass. You’ve produced, and you’ve been produced, right?
Let’s start with being produced, then. And from the very top. How does the connection between producer and recording artist happen? You worked with Todd Rundgren at one point, for instance. How did that happen? Did you request Todd Rundgren? Did your label tell you, “You’re going to work with Todd Rudgren”?
June: These days, with the net, it’s easy [for musicians to connect on their own with producers]. Back in the day, though, I think probably what happened was our manager sent out the word, “Fanny’s available to be produced.” We got some really good responses. For example, Bernie Taupin wanted to produce us, along with Todd [Rundgren], and there were a couple of other fellows who were well known at the time who were interested… We decided to work with Todd because we loved “Hello it’s Me”. We LOVED “Hello it’s Me”. We just thought, “Oh, well that’s the type of sound we want to go for, and it’s a very organized, concise kind of rock-pop thing.” It didn’t hurt that he was big, too.
How do you know when you want to be produced versus when you want to produce yourself?
June: I suppose it comes down to whether you feel that you can organize things in a dispassionate way. Can you look at yourself as a client while you are the artist? That’s very hard to do. You just have to be very honest with yourself. So much of production is detail oriented, and the artist shouldn’t really be in that world all the time. The artist should be performing, should be ‘the artist.’ She shouldn’t be worrying about if the mic is in the right place. I don’t want to think about that if I’m the artist. I really don’t. YOU think about whether or not that mic should be moved a half inch up the neck of my acoustic guitar; I’m not going to worry about that.
When you’re hearing a sound source, and you’re thinking about the array of things you could do with it, how specific is what you hear in your head? Do you think, like, “Oh, I want to hear this through this, this, and that?”
June: That’s funny. That’s a little bit of the cart ahead of the horse. I’m hearing the finished product in my head. The problem for a lot of people who haven’t really recorded a lot is [laughs] they don’t really understand what they’re listening to. So, let’s say you do a basic and you’re already getting frustrated because it’s not what you want. But, you know, you can get what you want if you do everything in an incremental, organized manner. It’s not always going to be exciting. You have to know what the ‘layers’ are. I already know if there’s going to be sweetening; I hear the sweetening in my head. If there’s a stop on drums, I know if I want it to be a crash or if I want it to be an open/shut high-hat. You know, these are very detail oriented decisions, and a lot of production is around making decisions like these.
You have to be able to listen intelligently, and you have to be able to understand what you’re listening to. So, one of my pet peeves is someone who doesn’t know about the recording process [interjecting during recording]. They go, “Well, I don’t hear my voice and it doesn’t sound right.” And, it’s like, ‘you know what? That’s the mix.” If we want to take 20 minutes out of the overdub time right now to check out reverbs for your vocal, we can do that. But that’s going to take away from the momentum of this other thing, it’s going to take away from the momentum [of the session]. It’s like a horse race: you’ve got like ten horses that all want to be first. For example, the bass wants to be loudest, you know? “Oh, but you’ve recorded a Rhodes, and it’s masking part of the bass!” “Well, why aren’t I hearing my Rhodes?” And you have to have…. answers. As a matter of fact, it would be great if you didn’t have to answer that because you planned it well enough. It’s really good, if you’re going to have a producer, to have one of those sort of instructional phases where some of that is kind of laid out, so you’re not asking questions that are impeding the project.
And now we get into this hugely, vastly important issue that is at the centre of production, and that is the word “trust.” OK? First of all, you shouldn’t hire somebody that you don’t intrinsically trust…. You do not want to be talking with your producer, in the middle of the project, about stuff you could have talked about and ironed out ahead of time. As a producer, I’ll give you the reverse of that, which is at… on a certain project with a really good singer, I said, “Well, look, I’m going to want to make most of the decisions, but if you really disagree with me, let’s set up some sort of formal procedure.” The procedure was if she and I disagreed, her management team would be the tie-breaker. We would bring them in and say, “This is what I like, and this is what she likes…” Now what the big thing we had to make that big decision about was I wanted her lead vocal, on one song, to be a triple vocal, and she wasn’t sure. And oh, by the way, she also had to try any idea I had so she had to try the triple vocal. We didn’t do the whole song, we just did the first verse or a line or something. I loved it She wasn’t sure. So we brought in the managers and [laughs] they voted for my side, it just so happened. You know what? If they would have voted the other way, that’s fine. I would have lived with it. You just have to move on forward, and you have to have a mechanism for moving forward…. without having the friction and acrimony. Actually, most of these decisions, when you listen to the product later on, you can’t even remember what the fights were about. That’s what’s so weird! I had a conversation with Roma Barron, who still in part produces Lori Anderson, and there was this tune called “Go Superman” that they worked on. It was big. Now this was back in analog days. You didn’t have “save as” and things like that. Very far into a fade, there was a bird tweeting. They had discussions, and they had to redo the mix several times. Now, [Roma] says, no matter how loud she turns up the track [during the fade], she can’t even hear the bird tweeting! So what was that, two to five hours of mix time? Whatever! I was on the floor when I heard that. I was just rolling with laughter, because that exactly typifies the things that people get hung up on that you’ll never hear. But, of course, the producer needs to know which are the things that are important, that really count in terms of hearing.
It reminds me of, what is it, the serenity prayer? “Grant me the wisdom to know what I can change, what I can’t change”….
June: Yeah, you just have to know when to stop. Hopefully it’s the producer who knows. You need to be able to say, “I think we got it. Those vocals, we can comp…. That one word was flat, or you didn’t like… you know… we got it. Don’t worry, let’s move on.”
Here’s what I’m finding fascinating: it seems that you’re saying the producer is not just mediating and orchestrating the technical and musical components of a record, but the emotional life of the project as well. Do you find that there is — so now, I guess, we’ll slip into gear a little bit — a vast change in the way that you think and work when you’re dealing with primarily analogue, ‘out of the box,’ verses with computer? I mean, I assume you’re running a hybrid studio now….
June: Yeah, well, I mean, we have some outboard gear…. That’s not my real focus [as a producer]. My real focus is in the pre-production. It’s all contained in there. If I do the preproduction right, I’m hearing the sounds in my head, and if I’m hearing the sounds in my head, I know I can get them with the gear I have. I’m not guessing about that.
I’m really more concerned about whether an artist can play with a click, for example. That’s much more important, because a click is needed. That’s much more important to me than worrying about what I’ve got in the box. If you do your preproduction right, then you know your mics, you know your rooms… You basically can record it without having to do too much guessing.
Alright. Then, when you have that conception worked out, when you can hear the final production, are the sounds… I don’t want to say “finalized,” because obviously you’re going to experiment a little bit, but do you have a general idea, then, of what you want to hear in terms of each track? Like, “I want the drums to be really punchy”? And, then, if so, are you thinking through the technology at hand? I don’t want to assume that you’re listening and you’re thinking, “Oh, I’m going to send that through this pre,” but are you thinking…
June: Oh, definitely… I’m thinking about the room I’m going to capture a track in. It’s already got a sound in there; and it’s already got emotional content, because I know how the person’s going to feel playing or singing in that room. For example, at the IMA [the Institute for Musical Arts] studios, if I’m going to have the drummer out in the big barn, I know I’m going to have that big barn, high ceiling, wood, warm, honkin’ sound…. But I also need to think about how is everyone going to see the drummer, how’s it going to feel? So I always add the visceral, emotional component in there, to make sure that what was so great at rehearsal is still going to be great on the record, because a lot of times you get that recorded thing and it doesn’t have that little extra je ne sais pas, that thing of how your stomachs are, you know, your centres are actually vibrating with each other. It’s just from the fact of doing it together, and you know that can be lost very easily [in multitracking]. I’m much more concerned about that. I mean, I know I can capture it cleanly. Let’s just say that I know that I have the gear to capture it cleanly. Now what about that other x-factor, which really makes it great? How do I capture that?
So, capturing the band dynamics and the feeling of playing it live.
June: Yeah. Your hope is that you’re going to capture the feel of their best night playing the song in front of two to five hundred people… You know, you don’t want to have to go, “God, I wish we would have gotten that one!”
So, when you do track, do you do a lot of live off the floor in that case?
June: You know, it really depends on the song. If it has an acoustic guitar with a vocal, with a rhythm section, you’re going to want to decide how you’re going to mic the guitar, if there’s going to be a live vocal, or not. You know, there are just vastly different approaches. So you really need to do it song by song.
When you’re running a session, I know you have to be totally in tune with the musicians, you have to be in tune with the technology…
June: And by the way, tempo’s really important. Small details!
Well, you know, let’s talk about that, then. It’s really interesting. I find that discussions of production get so caught up in technology that they often ignore those sorts of things. So you mentioned the click, and tempo. Let’s talk about tempo. How do you know what’s the ‘correct’ tempo for a song? You know, one of the very famous stories here is George Martin hearing “Please Please Me” really slow, and saying, “That needs to be faster.” How do you develop that skill? How do you train yourself to…
June: Well, if you’re doing preproduction, then you’re actually checking all that stuff off to begin with. Actually, you’ should be taping preproduction sessions. A lot of times, I have everything at the ready that lead up to that, so that we can refer to it right away. Maybe the band is playing, and they’re saying, “Ah! This feels so good!” But it’s three ticks above where you rehearsed it. If you’re taping, you can check that out. ‘Let’s see…. why did that feel so good in rehearsal? Do we really want to do it faster now?’
A lot of times, I create the click with the drummer or percussionist… playing one or two, or maybe three, pieces of percussion, so that it has breath, but it’s in tempo.
So, when you’re preparing the click —
June: Well, you decide on a tempo. And, then, maybe I start off with a shaker. That’s really easy. And, then, maybe I do an agogo….. You know what that is? It’s two pieces of metal used in Africa for dancers. So now you have to decide: is it going to be on one, two, three or four pieces of percussion? Just do it! Just execute, and maybe there’ll be a woodblock; woodblock works really well. You know, so just a couple of interesting percussion bits, and you also kind of think, “Well, maybe we’re going to keep this,” so think about timbre, and how it’s going to fit in with everything that’s going to be in the final track. A lot of times it becomes an integral part of the musical-slash-recorded composition, because you’re playing to it on your basic track and you’re responding emotionally to that. So, you can be intelligent about those decisions as well. So I’ve found that to be so much better than a click, number one, and, number two, it has a breath to it that can be added to the final, whereas a click, you’re not going to want to put that in the mix.
Well, I know a lot of performers feel a lot more comfortable playing along with something that sounds a little more natural, rather than something that sounds like a computer.
June: Well, yeah, especially if you did it. It’s all part of the soul of the thing.
I know it all changes track to track, but do you have a basic workflow as a producer? You have to decide all these little details… Is tempo, since we’re talking about it, something that you’ll change later…. or do you set this in stone right off the bat?
June: Oh, you should be really close to [setting it in stone]. Like I said, when you start recording, as far as I’m concerned, you should get two basics a day or maybe more.
So how do you do that? Do you set up the rhythm section? Do you create a basic setup and then in the musicians go and…?
June: Really planning where everyone’s going to stand, and how they’re going to hear, is a big part of producing. That really adds to the momentum of the whole thing. Ok, so you know your songs, you know the tempo, you know the key — great! Now, how’s it going to feel? How are you going to see each other, and communicate, you know? “I can’t hear you!” Just the fact that you’ve said that could ruin the whole day. It’s frustrating when you can’t talk to your bandmates, or whoever you’re playing or singing with. So you’re just trying to get all those complications out of the way when you’re producing. And you’re working with the engineer, by the way, on all that. So those discussions I have with the engineer before sessions. You see, saying that I’m going to get two basics a day, that’s a given. But how do you do that, is what you’re asking. Well, I have meetings with the engineer and maybe the engineer is in on some of the rehearsals.
Wow, you know, it’s really interesting: the one thing that’s coming through loud-and-clear is that you feel there’s an emotional content to absolutely everything, and that you, as a producer, are in charge of that, of ensuring that it’s “good” emotional content.
June: Well, microphones work in part on a magnetic basis. I believe you’re capturing people’s magnetic emotive qualities, how they feel, when you track. if they’re in a bad mood, I really believe that it gets picked up, that you can feel it. And if it’s flowing, it’s just ‘AHHH YEAH,’ you know, like liquid gold! You can feel it.
You’ve talked about trust between musicians and producer. How do you develop trust, then, between producer and engineer?
How do you decide on which engineers to use, then?
June: Well, you know that’s really on a trial-and-error basis. You work with them. What I really appreciate in an engineer, number one, is that they know the gear. But I also need a stable personality. A Capricorn is preferable! You know what I’m saying? They have that ‘tech’ thing, but they also don’t get ruffled. They don’t bother to listen to people fighting. They don’t listen to the discussions. They’re focused on what they need to do. How is the headphone balance? You know, they don’t have to be worried about the guitar player all of a sudden wanting to try a new lick, or whatever. So, an unruffled type personality I put way high on the list.
Just knowing your stuff is important, too. It’s important to know that they’ve spent so many hours checking everything out, experimenting, which is what you have to do. I’m not going to work with somebody who goes, “Wait a minute, should the kick drum be two more inches in and should we cover it with blankets? I read somewhere that you can cover it with a blanket and that would be good.” I mean, that’s NOT what I want to hear!
Do you want them to go out there and do that, then, without any discussion? In other words, if they’re hearing that something needs a bit of damping, do you want them to go out and lay that tea towel on the snare without asking your thoughts?
June: Yeah, well, in the old days, people don’t know that we used to use menstrual pads on the snares. They worked like a charm.
June: No, it was just their absorbent qualities. You always use masking tape anyway. Geoff Emerick did it at Apple. It was standard procedure! Well, especially with an all girl band!
But, yes, that’s something that I want the engineer, or the engineer’s assistant, to do. At Skywalker, Leslie Ann Jones…. when she does sessions for, like, a movie, and the sound is working for them, and they know the director might come back and want that same sound, they have tape measures, and they have everything recorded: what microphone, how far from the cymbal, what was the exact trajectory? They have that all archived. Well, of course she has at least two assistants. But, you know what? It works! If you want consistency in sound, notice what works and write it down. I take pictures of setups. I just want to reference what mics did we use, and approximately where, and that kind of thing. Don’t be ashamed to be into the details in that way, if you want to engineer. But it does take a lot of time with trial-and-error. These thorough types are the type of engineers that I want to work with. They have taken the time to notice, and they’re not afraid to go out there and bend over. It kind of a drag if you’ve got to go out there and attach things. But having taken the time to do that, and really knowing that, ok, if you did an xy array, you know, how different is that to two microphones that are close to each other? That kind of thing is important. Well, they know that. I have confidence in them, which is nice. The confidence factor is just HUGE, on every level.
You played us some tracks in the lab, before, and one thing that I really noticed was that there was a lot of depth on those tracks. Are you in tune with depth as a producer, is that something that you really care about?
June: I’m really interested in exposing dynamic range. Certainly one way we do that is microphone choice, and choosing the right mic pres. On “Play Like a Girl,” we had two different drum kits. One was a Craviatto, and one was a Yamaha recording kit that’s vintage 20 or 30 years old. We used the vintage kit out in the big room, with different mic’ing, to capture “I Love Your Hair” because I wanted a live recording. I wanted that to be like the best night we did it in front of an audience. It was so well planned that we got it on the first take. We did three takes, and each take you could say got “better,” but better in what way? So that’s a production decision I made, the decision that I was going to keep the first take because it had the best ‘feel.’ There might have been some notes that I sang that weren’t perfect, but it didn’t really matter because it had that feel, and that’s what’s going to be conveyed. I sang it live in the control room and…. Jean was standing in front of me, and her bass amp was in an iso-booth, and Lee was playing in the big room beyond her. We could all see each other. It was a joy but, you know, that was like a four or five hour setup.
So let’s get to you, then, as a producer. How did you fall in love with it? I How did you get your start?
June: I think the first time we [Fanny] heard ourselves come back through studio monitors, we were enthralled. And, then, I saw our earliest producer for Fanny, Richard Perry, come back from London with tracks that he had recorded for Ella Fitzgerald. I saw him keep the strings and replace the bass and drums. I couldn’t believe the magic that was involved: magic and skill. He was working very closely with his engineer and I saw that, also. Every chance that I had to be in the studio anywhere, I went. I had a lot of chances. I’m very grateful for that.
Did that access come from being on contract?
June: No, it just came from being on the scene. Just asking to attend, and following the rules, which is: (i) no unsolicited opinions ever; (ii) be a fly on the wall; (iii) do not get in the middle of the process; and (iv) just absorb. And that’s what I did. I mean, I spent literally thousands of hours just watching people recording.
Are there any sessions that stand out for you as having been particularly instructive? I mean if it was instructive in a negative way you don’t have to name names or anything…
June: I think that one of the sessions that was most interesting to me, because I didn’t know what it was, was the tune that I eventually heard as “Oh What a Night”. There I was hanging out with this great recording engineer, Dave Hassinger, at his place, and these guys all walked in. They said hardly two words to him, or to anyone else. They just set their gear up, very quietly. I don’t know if they even said anything to each other. They had charts (we haven’t talked about charts yet). They just played the tune, and not very many times, because Dave, oh my God, his drum sound is to die for! And then they walked out. That was it. I didn’t know the song. There wasn’t a guide vocal. They were just doing their job. They came in, they did it, and obviously the preproduction had been done. It was complete. And, then, when I heard the final thing, I was like, “Ok, I get it!”
The other thing was my ex-brother-in-law Earl Slick. A lot of people know him from working with David Bowie but a lot of people don’t know for some reason that he played on [John Lennon’s] Double Fantasy. John Lennon wanted to meet me. He was the only Beatle that I hadn’t met by then. Since Earl was working on Double Fantasy, and I was in New York City doing pre-production, I managed to get an invite to the session. I hadn’t heard my client sing live at a show yet, so I flew from the West Coast to New York just to hear my client sing live one time, because that was an important component [of producing her]. I get a phone call from Earl saying, “John Lennon wants to meet you. Meet us at Mr Chow’s.” I went down, and the whole band was there with Lennon. We were both thrilled to meet each other, you know? I was able to hang out in the studio two or three times. If he didn’t talk to me, or if Yoko didn’t talk to me, then I was just there [not talking]. But Lennon wanted to talk to me. So we’re sitting there, chatting away behind the board, and the band, they’ve run through “Wheels Turning.”
Oh, yeah, “Watching the Wheels Turn”!
June: Yeah. So, of course, I was just hearing the track. Great musicians, but I knew most of the musicians from before. He [Lennon] and I are talking, and they finish like the second play through, and he pushes the talkback button and says, “I know you can play. Now play the song.” They hadn’t changed a whole lot but it’s that subtle thing where they knew where the heart of the song actually was, but they were just showing off for each other, or they didn’t think he was watching or listening because he was talking to me. “I know you can play. Now play the SONG.” That is at the heart of everything – simpler, simpler, simpler, just play the song, support the song, and I take that a step further, “support the vocalist” (who is representing the song). The simpler you can play, because you’ve got good sounds, the better — every single little hit says a million words, so you don’t want to be all wordy. “I know you can play. Now play the song.” That is my mantra. And, you know, I thought to myself, “YES! THAT’S EXACTLY HOW I FEEL! Now I can quote John Lennon and it has that superstar backing!” When I said it before, it was like, you know, Barbra Streisand, they always talk about how bossy she is. It’s like “HELLO?” She just knew what she wanted, and she said it. And because he was John Lennon, he wouldn’t be thought of as a b-i-t-c-h. A lot of times women get judged for just saying what it is that they already know. I take all that with a grain of salt, but it is true.
Sure, ok, well do you want to talk about that at all? I know you had said before that you were getting sick of being asked in interviews, “What’s it like to be a female musician” or “a female guitar player,” but it has to be a different experience when you’re a female producer. I mean, there’s so few known female producers. What has your experience been?
June: Well, what allowed me my foot in the door, really, was “[the] women’s music [movement].” That was the first time I felt really accepted as a female producer. The first album that I actually produced was a coproduction with Tom Sellers, in New York. Unfortunately, Tom isn’t so well known, but he was a great arranger. When he was in high school in Philadelphia, Gamble and Huff would have him do string charts. I don’t know if you know who Gamble and Huff are, but he was THAT good. So he and I became friends, having been introduced by a mutual friend, and we ended up doing an album together where I was actually the co-producer.
I learned so much about rhythm charts and string charts and how to organize things from Tom. With Tom, the preproduction was key, and the charts were key. Really the heart of the whole process was charting it. Everyone read the charts and it doesn’t so much matter, like… my sister doesn’t so much like to read charts but you know what? I’m going to put the chart in front of her! The thing about the rhythm chart method that Tom taught me — and he literally taught it to me, he told me he was teaching me so that I would know what I was doing — is that the least amount of information gets the most results. That’s what John Lennon was saying, you know, the least amount of information gets the most results. The name of the song, and four bars to a measure — that is a strict rule, four bars to a measure, so that it’s easy to read, right? If you want a crash put in a crash. Fine. But just let them know the number of bars, and chords, and every once in a while you might want to put a word underneath the beginning of a section, just so if someone gets lots they can find it. Very sparse, but just enough information so that somebody has something in front of them, and they don’t have the excuse of, “Oh, I got lost.” You respond: “No, there it is! It’s a hundred and twenty-six bars in, and I can prove it.” Not that you want to be saying that [laughs].
I can understand the logic behind that. It holds people accountable. And, boy, talk about building trust! The musicians know that you know what’s happening. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve walked into a situation and you piece together in ten or fifteen minutes that the person at the board has no idea what’s happening. They’re just hoping that you’ll come up with something good, right? [laughs]
June: Yeah, right! [laughs]
So, you would say that that (charting) is actually part of your production method then?
June: Yeah, because anything that happens after that, that’s a surprise, is going to be a great surprise. It’s not going to be, like, you’re going fishing the whole time. It’s like, “Look at that trout, sparkling in the sun! Where did that come from?” You know? So, again, the confidence level goes up.
Tom did — I’m now referring to stuff that were hits before a lot of people were born who might be reading this — but Tom did “Rock the Boat,” for example. That track was his entire arrangement of all the strings and everything. He was actually Clive Davis’ golden boy. Clive would send him everything he wanted to just kind of try out. I remember we recorded a version of “Somewhere in the Night,” which became Barry Manilow’s first hit. Well, I think that song was recorded something like 23 times before it became a hit with Barry. And it was Tom Sellers’ string arrangement Barry used; it was his string arrangement that made it. You know, Barry Manilow can write strings, he’s an arranger, but it was Tom’s arrangement that they used, that propelled that tune over the edge, in that way that a lush song needs to be supported. He knew how to write strings that just supported the song. And I learned how to write string charts from him… charts beyond the ‘rhythm chart’ thing. Tom taught me to look at a project, pull yourself back and just look at its components. Charts are your components: the keys, the tempo, the talking with the engineer, all that kind of stuff. And you know, certainly working at Apple with Geoff Emerick and working with all these people in L.A. …. they all added to that composite picture where now I just walk in and I know what’s going on.
It reminds of a story that you tell, where you asked Geoff Emerick how he got George Harrison’s guitar sound [on the so-called ‘White Album’], and he answered, “I recorded it.”
June: Yeah [laughs]. “George gave me the sound and I mic’d it,” is exactly what he said.
It sounds like your style of production: is very much about paring down, focussing.
June: Oh yeah, it’s extreme focus. Yeah.
Do you find that how successful this is depends on the “city culture” of the studio? I know that — who knows, I wasn’t there — but the story is that if you went out to L.A., sessions were going to be a bit more open and loose. If you went to New York, they were going to be more work-a-day…. I don’t know, is that true?
June: I don’t know if it’s true anymore. I know that in New York, part of the reason that they were so “work-a-day” is because people needed to step out and put money in the meters. It is just as basic as that. You know, the viola players are saying, “I’ve got twenty minutes before I have to put money in the meter! How much are we going to get done in twenty minutes?” Whereas in L.A., you’ve got sandwich girls walking in and out of the studio with baskets of fruit, and bagels and cream cheese, and whatever, so you’ve got a slightly different attitude. But, you know, you still have to get the work done. So it depends on the studio and the engineers, and the producer, and how they get things done?
And you were at Apple Studios in the late 1960s/early 1970s, right? How did that happen?
June: Well, we [Fanny] were becoming hot in the industry. Everybody wanted to hang out with “these chicks.” We had the same publicist as the Beatles, which was huge. Derek Taylor was our publicist, and he worked for the Beatles. Great guy, great guy. So, we played a lot in Europe, and they [i.e., the Beatles] totally “got” us, especially in England. They totally got us. So, they wanted us to come to the studio, and I actually saw Geoff a couple of years ago when his book came out, and I spotted him from across a crowded room, and his eyes lit up, and I went over to him and I said, “Do you remember me Geoff?” He said, “AW, I HAD THE BEST TIME, THOSE WERE THE BEST SESSIONS I EVER HAD!” [laughs]. We had a lot of fun.
OK – I’m sorry I’m jumping in here. So you go from co-producing with Tom, and then where do you go from there? How do you go from Tom to Geoff?
June: I got involved in [the] women’s music [movement], and I was given the opportunity. I’ll tell you what, I was the only one who knew what I was doing! I mean, they kind of needed me. So that was cool. It made me feel really wanted, and needed, and I felt really gratified to be able to deliver. I mean, that’s your job as a producer. You have to be able to deliver. That’s why, earlier, I mentioned I wouldn’t take a week to get a snare sound. They had started a project, and they were just not getting anywhere. They worked a week, and all they had done was work on the snare sound… So I took over. One of my methods is that if I’m going to do an entire album with someone, and we know what the material is, then I’m going to record it, the whole thing, in two days ahead of time, maybe just a stereo thing in the studio, and then we’re going to listen back to it. That way we can think about the sequence, and we can critique it straight away. So that’s what I did. I just stopped the process, and we went in, and we got our two basics a day, and the record company was just jumping up and down, they could not believe it. But it was just a matter of organization, and knowing how to approach it and get confidence levels up. It’s not really rocket science. You just gotta do it. You just have to know those few things. This is the idiot’s guide to producing the album! Get the job done. Make decisions, and get the job done.
It’s fascinating. I’ve read every textbook. I mean, it’s my job. Seriously, though, I think I’ve read every textbook on the subject and I’ve never seen mentioned a chart the way you describe it.
June: How is that possible? [laughs] It’s so basic!
Well, I’ve seen it in practice a lot. But what are you getting in textbooks? So often you’re just getting, “this is how an SSL console works.” It’s basic engineering.
June: We [producers] have a job to do. It just boils down to that. We have a job to do, so let’s just dig in and do it. It’s not easy. I don’t think recording’s easy. I always tell people recording’s not for wimps. Seriously, it is a big job, so just roll your shirtsleeves up and get to it. It’s not about how great thirty people told you you were two weeks ago. You’ve got to be great today, and in order to get that, you have to work with the technology, in order to be great that way, so when they put on the record (or the cd or the mp3, or whatever) it has that magic. Roll your shirtsleeves up.
Ok, then I’m going to ask you one more question. Alright, we’ve looked at production, we’ve looked at engineering, we’ve looked at performing, and we’ve looked at all these things, so now there’s that final step, right, which is delivering your master. You always hear about this tremendous back and forth between the label and the producer. The cliché discussion is: “we don’t hear a single/we do hear a single.” So you’ve talked about the producer being a kind of interface with technology earlier. Does the producer also interface with the label? I suppose what I’m asking is, “what is the interest of the producer?” You know what the A&R person’s interest is, or was back when they existed. They want to sell records. Well, everyone does. But the band’s looking for the best possible translation of their songs, the engineer wants to get the optimal signal…. If you’re a producer, what is the artistic and career payoff?
June: The artistic payoff, not the business payoff?
Both! [laughs] I’m struggling to articulate the question, but it’s…
June: Well, what you’re really talking about is power. It’s really raw power. And that comes to the forefront of every project. Who has the power in that post phase, you know, right down to where is it going to be mastered. So in terms of making those kinds of decisions, it really depends on the project. Sometimes it’s the manager that has all the power to make those decisions, because they put up the money. In a perfect world, I think producers, managers and record companies would be on par with one another. Absent that, it would be the producer and record company. And, the top of the heap to me would be the producer.
That being said, the discussion, “I hear a hit/I don’t hear a hit” should be done in preproduction. The record company, in my world, would get the whole album in a stereo feed or something [before sessions start]. They would get a rough version of the entire album. All this stuff can be discussed ahead of time. Yeah, you’d have time to write another song if you wanted. You’d have that kind of time. This whole thing of hearing it afterwards, and there being no single, I don’t understand that because it’s so easily dealt with. You’ve got to be savvy and just know that all that’s going to come up.
So you let people in on the preproduction other than musicians and producers? Preproduction seems like it’s such a crucial component of the process for you. Is that unique to you? Is that the Millington method?
June: I grew up with it. It’s what everybody did. I guess I am talking about back-in-the-day stuff. I guess I was trained by the best. That’s what I saw anyone do who was any good. I just read an autobiography on Paul McCartney, and even though I knew him slightly, I didn’t realize the extent that he would go to, how upset he’d get, if his musicians came in and didn’t have an idea of what they were going to play ahead of time.
I’ll tell you a great story that Geoff Emerick told me about Paul that you’ll love. When they were doing the White Album, you know, I asked him a lot of questions about George, and I said, “Did George do his guitar solo to ‘Something in the Way She Moves’ live with the orchestra?” And, yeah, they recorded that live with the orchestra. But Paul wasn’t there, because they weren’t talking to each other. So, this is the best part of the story as far as I’m concerned, and I’m only telling what Geoff told me. He said, “Paul came in. We’d already recorded everything. It only remained to have the bass line.” Can you imagine? “Something,” just try to think of it without the bass part. I mean, they had to have a lot of confidence in the song to have recorded it live with an orchestra, you know? AS A BASIC! The basic was with the orchestra! And he [Paul] walks in in the middle of the night, by himself, doesn’t say a word to anybody, opens the bass case, takes out his bass, plugs it in, plays ONE take, doesn’t say a word, unplugs, puts his bass back in [his case], and out he goes. Paul knew what he was going to play. He had his parts together. He was not fishing. What a stellar part it is, too.
There is nothing wrong with getting it to the lick before, you know? You don’t have to be the amazing, creative artist who is just going to find everything in the moment when you’re playing. What about a chart, you know, with the transitions? Do your homework, roll your sleeves up, get to work! This is a job. Not everything’s going to be sensational. It’s often gruelling work. So, it’s like one of the best stories, in the way he did it, you know? Like, BAM, done, out! What did it take, fifteen minutes?
I think yesterday you mentioned a Steely Dan session with Skunk Baxter. The same sort of thing, right? Only they talked.
June: Oh, yeah, right [laughs]. No, he wanted to use my guitar in particular, on “My Old School.”
So that’s your guitar on that? I didn’t know that!
June: That’s my Stratocaster, yeah. That’s why I was at the session. I was just bringing my guitar and hanging with my pal [Skunk]. He did one take. He didn’t like the very end of it, so he did one punch in live, onto tape. This is how good these guys were — it was seamless. He just told the engineer where he wanted to punch in, and the engineer went there and he did it. It wasn’t like, “I can’t find the one” or “I can’t find that sixteenth anticipation.” So engineers needed to be very musical, too, you know. They had to be able to feel where that thing was to be able to do the punch. Nowadays, you mess up the punch and it’s, like, “AH, it’s alright, we’ll just nudge it.” Engineers were very musical back then. Actually, a lot of times engineers wanted a copy of the rhythm chart. The best engineers actually want a copy of the rhythm chart, because it’s the layout of the whole thing. They can write down numbers, the second a chorus starts at… whatever. It’s called being professional. Not everything is going to be like a creative genius moment. It takes a lot of hard work. And then those creative genius moments are just so great, because you recognize them for what they are, because you’re not diverted by the fishing. It’s focus. You’re absolutely right: it’s focus.
Do you believe in keeping the production and engineering roles separate?
June: Yeah, and there are really good reasons for that. They are different headspaces. You see, I’m very goal-oriented. I don’t want to have to inhabit the engineer’s headspace, and the engineer shouldn’t be concerned with how I’m envisioning everything. I hear what the engineer’s getting, and I know how everything’s going to stack. The engineer knows that I know that. So once we make a decision that we like this sound, we like that take, we’re going to move on. Now comes the first overdub, the second overdub, the third overdub…. You know, these sounds stack on each other, but we have our individual jobs, and they’re completely individual. Each one of them is an entire universe unto itself. Essentially, most people can’t handle being all three: the artist, the engineer and the producer. You know, Todd Rundgren could handle it, he’s like… you know, he’s in his own world. And, in a way, I am too [laughs]. It’s very rarely that I want to do all three, though. I only do it if I’m working with somebody, maybe a young woman who doesn’t have much money, or maybe her mom and dad are putting up five-hundred bucks, or whatever, and I can’t afford an engineer, then maybe I’ll do it. I’ve actually done it a lot. It’s not my first choice, but I’ll do it because I’m in service to women and to the girls and their careers and that kind of thing, pushing it forward.
But you do still see, even in those cases, the role of the engineer and the producer as separate?
June: Oh yeah, I mean, it’s a permeable membrane for sure, by definition. But yes, separate, absolutely. I don’t want to have to look up at that screen and look at the waveforms. I’m not looking at the waveforms! I’m not worried about which input is it? Or, is it all-ready or not all-ready? In terms of all that stuff, I’m looking at a chart and I’m listening to the performance, talking to the musicians, making sure that they can see each other, all that kind of stuff.
Oh, and I bet that engineers must appreciate that.
June: Oh yeah. And they enjoy their job, and you give them space to do their thing. Happy happy, joy joy. Let’s play around!
If you don’t mind, I just want to ask you one more question. I wanted to ask you about working on the Barbara Streisand record (her eponymous 1971 album). What was that like? My understanding, and I could be wrong, was that you were kind of like hired guns at that point, that it was a session thing.
June: Well, we had the same producer at the time, so it was a concept thing. The record company was totally into it, because they thought that it would bring in more of that newer, younger audience for Barbara. And for her, she had come to see Fanny on dates. Fanny, to her, was like ‘date night.’ She would go out with someone, and they would go to the Whisky A-Go-Go and rock out. So we already knew her. As a caché, it just had all of the alarms going off: “HIT, HIT! GREAT THING, GREAT THING!” But the really cool thing was, of course, we had our homework done. We had the key chosen, and we knew what we were going to play. I remember rehearsing in a suite at a Holiday Inn in Madison, before we even got to L.A. I forget if it was two or three songs. But the wonderful thing was that since we knew everything, when Barbara walked in, she was singing “Funny Girl” and I don’t know if she was kind of acting, but she just walked in and it was that whole persona thing. She said “I’m so NERVOUS! I’ve never done this before and I’m so scared!” you know? I sat her down, and I said, “Look, Barbara, don’t worry.” I sang the song to her a capella. So, she goes, “Oh yeah, you’re right.” And, then, she just stepped up to the podium and [sang]; the idea was to sing live with Fanny. She NAILED every song on the first take. I mean, give me a break! She’s an incredible singer and we just had a lot of fun.
You were meeting in the suite. Was the producer there?
June: In that case he wasn’t. But I can’t remember if we had already gotten together, or if we had a meeting when we got to L. A. for a subsequent rehearsal. But believe me it was well rehearsed. We had everything laid out, we knew our parts… The studio was where we had auditioned with Richard in 1969, it was the same studio. There were only three great studios in L.A., though.
And those were?
June: Well, Sunset Sound, Wally Heider, Valley Sound, and then came, um, Larrabee, like that. And then a few others, but Sunset Sound – WOW! The drum room. All those great drum sounds of the 60s!
When you were out there did you ever run into anyone in the Wrecking Crew?
June: Oh yeah, what’s his name, the drummer…. Hal Blaine. Oh yeah, he didn’t just like us, he wanted to date us! [laughs]. Let’s face it, you know, we were like twenty and we were slammin’ babes and everyone wanted to be around us. The fact that we could play was very sweet, but they just wanted to hang out with “those four chicks [i.e., Fanny]” That was fun, you know. It was fine because nobody pushed themselves on us. It was like a big family, in L.A. We hit it just right, at the end period, when you could hang out with people, and you knew that people were attracted to each other, and whatever. It was just a lot of fun.