David-Kahne-Issue-No27DAVID KAHNE

A studio maestro shares the secrets to some of his timeless collaborations 

By Michael Gallant

“Somebody once asked George Bernard Shaw what a great play was,” says David Kahne. “He said that it’s when you go to the theater, and you know what’s going to happen—but when it does, you’re still surprised. That’s a great description of a single as well. You can hear it over and over again, but it still gets you every time.” Kahne laughs and leans back in his chair at Manhattan’s Avatar Studios, a formidable wall of Retro Instruments, Shadow Hills, Dangerous Music, and other high-end analog gear to his right. The veteran producer has built a career capturing similar elusive magic for artists like Paul McCartney, Kelly Clarkson, the Strokes, Regina Spektor, Sublime, the Bangles, Renée Fleming and Tony Bennett. It was Bennett’s 1995 MTV Unplugged smash comeback album that earned Kahne a Grammy Award for Album of the Year. He has also produced songs for movies like Vanilla Sky and The Beach. And he served as vice president of A&R for Columbia Records and filled a similar role at Warner Bros.

Born into a military family, Kahne moved around the country as a child. In high school he discovered his love for creating music, landing a record deal after college. “I was signed to Capitol Records and hated the music I made,” he says. “I heard one of my songs on the radio and thought I wasn’t good enough. I decided I’d be a producer, because I didn’t like the producers I’d worked with. They seemed slack.”

In the late 1970s, Kahne took a job answering phones at Wally Heider Studios in San Francisco, a gig that offered valuable recording studio access that allowed him to hone his chops as a producer and engineer. “The first time I recorded drums, I picked mics by what they looked like,” he says, laughing. Kahne was a quick study and soon was producing for “seemingly every band in San Francisco,” earning credits with acts including the Bangles, Romeo Void and Translator. Decades later, Kahne’s impressive resume speaks volumes. He shared with us some of his hit-making secrets.

What attracted you to music?

Because we moved around so much when I was a kid, I never felt like I was doing much except surviving. But when I found music, I realized I had a knack for it. My first instrument was banjo, and I taught myself guitar pretty quickly. The guys who were the real studs at my school had a folk group, and one day I was over at one of their houses. They wouldn’t even talk to me, but I noticed that they were trying to figure out a song. I said, “I think that’s a D add 9. Try lifting your finger.” My suggestion worked. They were amazed and asked, “How did you do that?” I didn’t exactly know—but that was the first time in my life I felt that kind of power and control. I’ve been working in music literally every day since then.

Tell us about working with Tony Bennett.

A lot of my job was going through the artists who were chosen and discussing the overall sound. It was a new thing for him—not recording live but working with other artists in the Unplugged format. I also produced his album Here’s to the Ladies, which was a lot of work, since Tony was singing live on most of it with a full orchestra. Seeing Tony with the orchestra was intense and fascinating.

How did you first come to work with Paul McCartney?

He was looking for producer ideas, and someone who worked at his publishing company brought my name up. Paul liked the variety of artists I’d worked with—he particularly liked Sublime and Tony Bennett. I was a Beatles fan as a boy and thought it would be amazing to work with him. But as a producer, I remember asking myself if I could do a good job, and if he could do a good job—just like I would with any other artist. If I got the chance to work with him, I didn’t want to screw it up.

What was your collaboration like?

He hadn’t played for a long time with his old band and didn’t want to use them, so I put together a new band. He came into the studio, met everybody, and within 20 minutes we had a track. He immediately liked playing with those guys and still plays with most of them. I just produced his son, James. Paul came in, and they did a track together on a great song that James wrote.

What did you learn from him?

I asked Paul why the Broadway song “Till There Was You” was on Meet the Beatles!. He said that they had to learn songs like that to play at gigs early on. People want to sing songs they know, and show tunes were those songs. But in learning show tunes, I assume Paul had to learn diminished, passing and extended chords, which would have given him fascinating experience with deep music theory. He thinks like an arranger and orchestrator, and you can hear passing chords on songs like “Yesterday.” He and the Beatles really expanded the vocabulary of what pop music could be.

Were there others?

I learned a huge amount by working on an album with James Brown that never came out. Working with him was literally like earning a Ph.D. Just listening to that guy made me physically get it. At one point in the studio, he didn’t have any lyrics and was just saying “Hey!” and “Ha!”—and even though he wasn’t saying anything, it sounded like he was. There was so much meaning in his tone and placement that it made me hear words that weren’t there. I’m fascinated with how even tiny changes to things like a breath can make a big difference

Similar with the Bangles?

I met the Bangles right before I got my job at Columbia, and we got signed at about the same time. I did their first two albums and produced “Walk Like an Egyptian.” That song had an important breath in it, right before the hook—but there was no breath the first time [vocalist Susanna Hoffs] sang it. I tried to punch it in, but the ones that we tried were too long and sounded phony. I ended up recording her doing a bunch of breaths in a row, and then just flew them in on tape, and one of them worked. I have a distinct memory of sitting there working on this and the drummer coming and asking Sue, “What’s he doing?” and Sue saying, “I don’t know. That thing he does …” (laughs) But I’ve had people mention that breath to me. When it wasn’t there, that part of the track just didn’t work.

Even a breath can be important?

Breaths say so much. There’s a massive difference between short and long breaths—you can tell if somebody is lying to you by how he or she breathes. Sometimes in advertisements an actor will breathe out and not take another breath for 10 seconds, so you automatically start to get slightly anxious, you want to take a breath for them—and end up paying more attention to the ad as a result. On a record, when you take the breaths out, so much emotional content gets lost.

Why is nonverbal content so effective?

Imagine you’re walking through the forest at night and hear a baby cry from somewhere off in the bush. You’d have 100 stories come into your head, but the baby didn’t say anything. It’s just a sound, but sound carries so much meaning that all kinds of ideas and feelings start to go off in your imagination.

Any happy recording accidents?

Kelly Clarkson sang the vocals for her song “Irvine” into the lid of her laptop when she was on tour. She was lying down on her side, singing along to a track she’d been sent. The vocals were just beautiful. I told her that we had to use that performance, even though it was just recorded on a laptop microphone, and she went along with it. There was one line we did need to re-record, so we had to go into the studio and have her lie down on her side and re-sing that line through her laptop.

What has technology affected the most in production?

What’s exploded due to technology is orchestration. I think of it classically, with composition, orchestration and arranging as separate things. When it comes to composition and arrangement, the Roland TR-808 [drum machine] kick drum is really no different than the kick drum in Philly Joe Jones’ kit when he was recording with Charlie Parker. But every week, there are four or five new complex electronic instruments coming out. They all use the same notes. But instead of using strings, I’ll use some sound of a cat dying that’s been sampled and filtered—that’s my instrument to orchestrate a certain section. So orchestration is what’s evolving rapidly.

So you see a link between classical composition and modern production.

If you look at the dynamic markings on scores by composers like Stravinsky and Beethoven, you see that those guys were thinking like master mixers. They might say that they want the sound of the violins to be darker, so the musicians need to play closer to the fingerboard. By telling parts of the orchestra how to play, they were basically moving faders, adding EQs, or saying to play with harmonics. A lot of engineers and producers don’t think that way, but we’re all doing something that’s very much in the same tradition of composition, arranging and orchestrating.


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