Producer’s Chair: Mark Bright

By James Rea

Mark Bright.

Mark Bright

Shortly after Mark Bright left his position as Pres./CEO of Word in 2010, I quoted Mark in my 2011 P.C. interview as saying: “The more time I spent in the studio, the more I felt like I might be jeopardizing the jobs of all the people I was responsible for. My resignation was like a new lease on life.”

Clearly it has been. In two short years, Bright’s body of work with engineer Derek Bason has been remarkable. In 2011 Carrie Underwood was nominated for ACM Top Female Vocalist and Sara Evans’ “A Little Bit Stronger” was nominated for CMA Single of the Year. 2012 brought a CMA Album of the Year nomination, Carrie was nominated for ACM Vocalist of the Year, and Carrie & Brad Paisley were nominated for ACM Vocal Event of the Year for “Remind Me.” Carrie also received a Grammy nomination for Best Country Solo Performance in 2012 and Scotty McCreery won ACM Best New Artist. This year, Mark received nominations for CMA & ACM Album of the Year, Carrie earned another ACM nomination for Female Vocalist of the Year and Bright’s production on “Blown Away” did just that when it won a Grammy for Best Country Song of the Year for writers Josh Kear and Chris Tompkins.

And the hits just keep on coming.

Mark and co-writer Tim James received an ASCAP “Most Played” Award for co-penning George Strait’s 60th No. 1, “Give It All We Got Tonight.” Bright’s new publishing deal is with Delbert’s Boy Music. Bright and Kirsten Wines at Chatterbox Music have already had cuts with Tim McGraw, Little Big Town and others since the name change. Staff Writers include Jason Saenz, Mallary Hope, April Geesbreght, Clark Kelly and others. 

There’s more…Along with Carrie’s new album, Mark produced a record on the Texas-based group The Wagoneers this year and signed New York-based Allison Veltz to a publishing deal, a development deal and a record deal on Blaster Records out of Cleveland – distributed by Warner Bros. He also signed pop artist Clark Kelly and is currently producing Spanish/English, singer-songwriter/dancer/producer/choreographer/model/The Voice coach: Shakira. I must remember to ask Mark how he finds time to go fishing with Luke Bryan.

How did you wind up producing Shakira?
Bright: Since she was a judge on The Voice, Shakira has been around Blake & Miranda and really seeing where the genesis of a Country song starts and becoming inspired by that on her end. So she started checking out country records and she like the ones I was producing. So her A&R guy from New York called me when I was in England and said, Shakira wants to write and record with you.

Is the creative process different from artist to artist?
Yes, and what makes it different is the relationship that the producer has with the artist. Carrie has such an incredible handle on who she is as an artist. She’s very savvy in the studio but she had to learn how to get there. On her first album she had a lot of people around her and she did a lot of listening so she could get her feet under her. She goes out and she sells a gazillion records but more importantly, she learned a lot in the process. The second record comes out, all of a sudden she knew what snare drums make what kinds of sounds, she knew what kind of guitars made those particular sounds and she had an utter command of the types of songs that she wanted to record. She’s always said publicly: “Mark doesn’t tell me how to sing and I don’t tell Mark how to produce.” And it’s been a magnificent relationship.

An artist who has had hit-or-miss with their career will clearly have a little bit of insecurity about how there are perceived in the studio, so you have to just read it in the moment. And where an artist wants to assert himself or herself, you make sure that the players – the engineer and the producer –  are listening because it’s their record.

When pitching a new artist for a deal, do you have a better shot with a label who already has someone you produce, on the label or, one who doesn’t?
I don’t think I could perceive it as having a better shot. I just have special relationships with certain labels that are going to think Mark Bright is doing this; we should give this a special listen. That doesn’t mean however that, Mark Bright is doing this, so let’s sign it. That’s a big distinction.

Do you ever go out on the road with your artists?
With Carrie, it’s such a big tour with so many moving parts that I only take care of the music aspect. I rehearse the show with the band here in Nashville including sound designs for some of the segways between songs, for instance with the show opener, I produced that and it’s my arrangement. Then I’ll go out and we’ll rent out an arena for two weeks and put the show together. When this tour with Carrie started, I was out for two months. But in my world, I’m just taking care of the music part and Raj Kapoor takes care of how the sets come together and how they work, etc. But it’s a lot of fun and then I’ll go back out and make sure that, as we make subtle changes with the tour, maybe a song here and a song there, and check to see if we’re getting the right kind of response. 

Does an artist’s road band ever have difficulty with the song arrangements that were established in the studio?
I think it happens, but it’s rare. What’s more common is that we encourage and particularly in the Carrie camp, you’re going to be playing these songs every night and hopefully the way they play it, by the middle of the tour, is going to be better than the record. I want people to say, That show is better than the record. I love that comment.

If a great song comes in at the last minute, does the lack of time with that song require a different approach in the studio?
That’s a complex question. It happens fairly frequently but in every case that it has happened with me, we have all of those resources in place to be able to handle that. In that event, we already have 4 or 5 drum kits and twenty guitars on hand, so we’re prepared for it. Generally when a new song is that important, we’re excited that we had one come in here that’s going to be a game changer.

In our last interview, you said: Producers are working 5-6 times harder to make the same money. Has your method of doing business changed?
Dramatically, everything in our lives can be scaled and this is no different. We have to scale it to meet the market’s expectation. On a new artist, you can no longer spend anywhere close to the money you used to spend making a record. You’ve got to make it as good but you’ve got to do it with half the money and sometimes less than half the money. And that means, where we used to spread the mix out on the console, a lot of times we’re mixing the whole thing inside the box meaning, in Pro Tools because it’s just so expensive to spread it out. Maybe we’re using more players on the session, so we get a more complete picture of a song. After the date, instead of having to think, let’s get a bunch of these overdubs and sort of build an actual tracking date. In my world, there’s a lot less of that going on.

We try to get the artist to sing one or two or three songs in one session during the day, instead of one song per day. But the idea is, you can’t let the quality compromise. We’re under the same constraints that labels are and how much they can spend going to radio. I love the good old days, but this is what we’re in now and to me it’s all about making great music. It is what it is and we’re going to be happy with it and maybe do a lot more pre-production before we ever go into the studio.

Why is it that many producers and engineers in LA, NY and England have representatives and in Nashville they don’t?
Culturally, we just don’t do that here. We speak for ourselves if we need to talk. And I’m telling ya, that’s one of the biggest attributes of our culture in this town. Producers and engineers don’t have reps, because we don’t need them here.

Are the big studios still dwindling?
It hasn’t changed as much here for Starstruck. Over the past twelve years, I’ve been the primary user of the rooms. I keep one room booked out probably 85% of the time. Other large studios have shut down. It’s tougher for the multi-room studio owner to make a living at this point.

You are on the NARAS and Leadership Music Boards. What have they been up to in the past couple of years?
The Recording Academy has a tremendous amount of programs for high school and college students. We have a thing called GRAMMY U. in colleges. People like me talk to college students in an up-front and honest way to look at what their odds are of getting a music-related job. We’re being honest with them. We also have GRAMMY CAMP, which has high school students going in and getting really concentrated instruction at a very high level from the greatest musicians, engineers and producers in the world. The fruit of that was on the last American Country Awards, when Keith Urban came out and performed with these kids. It was unbelievable how talented these kids were.

The other significant thing that we’re doing at the Academy is building a fully functioning studio at Pearl Cohn High School here in Nashville. They also have a fully-functioning record label that is mentored by John Esposito and Warner Bros. That warms my heart. Now they have a program that is second to none as far as getting a recording education at the high school level.

Leadership Music quietly goes about teaching young and sometimes not-so-young people what the lay of the land looks like, in minutia. Leadership Music does the best job I’ve ever seen in equipping a music professional to understand how to navigate these rather muddy waters that is the music business today, and it does it brilliantly.

Does the direction of a new album generally revolve around what is going on, in the artist’s personal life?
Yes, a lot of times either directly or psychologically. With Carrie, she’s in a very happy place because got married a couple of years ago, so her life looks different. So she typically wants to do songs about happiness and family instead of old boyfriends.

Carrie has had a lot of award nominations. How important is it to her, to win?
Greatly. She’s one of the most competitive people I’ve ever known. You can’t be a successful artist and not have that competitive spirit.

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