The Producer’s Chair: Marshall Altman

Marshall Altman

Marshall Altman

Don’t miss Marshall Altman on The Producer’s Chair on Thursday, July 31, 6 p.m. at Douglas Corner. Details at www.theproducerschair.com.

By: James Rea

When Marshall Altman moved from Los Angles to Nashville in July 2010 he was already well-established in the music business. He relocated so he could have the freedom to make music that interested him, with artists that inspired him. Altman recalls, “My wife Lela said, ‘You don’t make country records. Why Nashville?’ And I said, ‘I want to live in a community where music matters. Nashville is about music, not just Country music, and if I’m lucky enough to meet a Country artist that wants me to produce their record, great, but Nashville’s more than that.’”

It didn’t take Altman long to break through at Country radio, producing the No. 1s “Friday Night” by Eric Paslay and “Helluva Life” by Frankie Ballard. Currently, Altman’s hits climbing the charts include Paslay’s “Song About A Girl,” Ballard’s “Sunshine & Whiskey,” and John King’s “Tonight Tonight (The Best Night Of Our Lives).” Altman’s studio is part of the House Of Blues compound in Nashville’s Berry Hill neighborhood.

His discography crosses multiple genres, having made records for Matt Nathanson (Some Mad Hope, which had three Platinum singles including “All We Are,” which Altman co-wrote), Paslay (self-titled debut), Amy Grant (How Mercy Looks From Here), Ballard (Sunshine & Whiskey), Will Hoge, Marc Broussard, Gabe Dixon, Kate Voegele, Tom Morello, Natasha Bedingfield, and many more. Producing Walker Hayes was Altman’s first foray into Country.

Altman’s career began as a solo artist signed to Capitol Records in the early ‘90’s, and continued as part of the band Farmer, signed to Aware Records. While on tour he began scouting talent for Capitol, and was instrumental in the artistic development of Citizen Cope, with whom he is still a frequent collaborator. This relationship led to his first A&R position at Capitol in 1997, and subsequent A&R gigs at Hollywood and Columbia/SonyBMG.

In the late ‘90’s, Altman began developing his skills as a producer and in 2007 left his A&R job at Columbia to pursue producing and songwriting full time.

Altman has more than fifty cuts as a songwriter, including No. 1 songs for Cheryl Cole (“Parachute”) and Shawn Mullins (“Beautiful Wreck”), as well as top 10 songs for Broussard, Nathanson and Ingrid Michaelson.

The New York native says, “I remember writing songs really, really young. I had my first band as a 10-year-old, playing talent shows and neighborhood gigs. My sister Jessica, who was seven years older, set the standard for music for me. The rule in our house was that she could pretty much go anywhere as long as she took me. So, I got to see Queen with Van Halen opening when I was 8 or 9 years old. That was my first show.”

Altman moved to Los Angeles at 16 with his mother to be closer to his father, a successful criminal attorney who was appointed to a Federal Court position by Jimmy Carter. There he finished high school, and received a scholarship to the University of California, where he studied business economics and music. He then studied composition and arrangement at The Grove School of Music (Dick Grove) in Los Angeles.

The Producer’s Chair: Tell me about your first studio.
Altman: When I was 22 or 23, I got a phone call that this artist needed a Notator Logic (now called Logic) programmer for an album that was in production, and I ended up getting about $500 a day to work on this record that was being cut at The House of Blues in Los Angeles. It was a ton of money back then. I saved up all my money from that project and had a bunch of other money saved as well, and after borrowing $10,000 from my dad, I took over the lease from a studio I had done some work at. I opened a little recording studio in Hollywood named Willie & Selma Sound after my grandparents.

Was the gear still in the studio?
No, it was empty. And I walked down the street to Project 1 AV and called a couple of mentors that I had. I was friendly with Dave Hecht who was SSL’s tech back then, and I called my friend Tommy Dimitroff, who is a big live sound guy now, and said, “Hey guys. I just signed a two-year lease on a studio in Hollywood. What should I do?” And after they stopped laughing at me, they told me. That’s how I learned. I didn’t know what I was going to do with it, but I hung my sign, and recorded rock bands, salsa bands, industrial film scores and voiceovers.

After about 18-months I thought, “I can write better songs than these people I’m recording.” So I wrote some songs. I got the A&R Registry and sent out demo tapes to maybe 700 people. Only two people called me, Lenny Waronker from Warner Bros. and Bruce Lundvall from Capitol/EMI. I got signed to a small solo artist deal with Capitol and they let me make my own record. It was a disaster and I got dropped not long after turning in the album. But that lead to my first job in the music business. I’d made a lot of friends at Capitol and I ended up being an assistant in the sales department.

On the side, I put together a band called Farmer, which signed with Aware Records. My band didn’t sound that much different to me from what artists like Jason Isbell or even Darius Rucker are doing now. We toured with Vertical Horizon, The Verve Pipe, Guster—that was our scene. I signed a publishing deal with EMI. I quit the sales job at Capitol, but I convinced the heads of A&R Perry Watts-Russell and Kim Buie, who now works here in Nashville at Thirty Tigers, to keep me on the payroll as an A&R scout. I was making maybe $400 a month. I would look for bands on the road and come home and listen to tapes for the A&R staff—cassettes and DATs. This was maybe ’96 or ’97.

Did you scout any artists that Capitol signed?
The first artist that I got involved with was Citizen Cope. I was driving to Santa Barbara for a wedding. My girlfriend at the time was sitting in the front seat with two huge boxes of cassettes. She pulled out cassette after cassette, we’d listen for a moment, hit eject and toss them into the junk pile. She pulled out a blank cassette with nothing written on it and was about to toss it, but I asked her to play it, just to be thorough. I pulled over to the side of the road and listened to the entire cassette. It was like hearing something that had always existed and would always exist. I was blown away. But there was no contact info on the cassette. In the box I found a scrap of paper with a phone number. So I got to a pay phone and called and said, “My name’s Marshall Altman. I’m an A&R scout for Capitol Records. I’m the lowest man on the totem pole, but I’m going to get you a record deal. Please call me back.” That was how I met Cope (whose real name is Clarence Greenwood).

I convinced Kim Buie to give me $5,000 to cut three songs on Cope. That was really at the urging of my friend Loren Israel, who was a great A&R person back then. They offered to sign Cope, but he wouldn’t sign unless they gave me an A&R job. It was a competitive deal because there were a couple of other labels that heard our work.

I put being an artist on hold. I did A&R for Capitol for two years, then did A&R at Hollywood for almost three years. And then I quit in real frustration over the few bands I couldn’t get the label to support me in signing. Ultimately, it was blessing though. It made me realize that I wanted to work with artists more than I wanted to be a label executive, and that was important for me to figure out. I committed to building my craft as a producer and songwriter. I vowed I would never do A&R for a major again.

Later, I was in Lafayette, La. producing the first Marc Broussard record and Tim Devine (GM of Columbia / Sony BMG at the time) called to offer me an A&R job in LA. Steve Backer, who was my publisher at EMI, encouraged me to take the job, but to tell them I was going to produce records on the side. And that’s what I did. I was with Columbia for about six years. So altogether, I had about a 10 year A&R career.

How did you wind up producing Amy Grant’s first album after her 12 year hiatus?
I’d lived in Nashville for almost two years when I had a meeting with Brad O’Donnell and Peter York about it. They played me a few songs that I thought were great. From there, Peter and Amy and I met at my studio and talked about the kind of record Amy was hoping to make, and we just clicked. That record was really a game changer for me. Working with Amy taught me so much about the process of creating, about patience, and about trusting yourself and the people you work with. I look at my career as pre and post How Mercy Looks From Here. That record changed the way I approach making music.

How does Nashville differ from the west coast?
I’ve chosen to live in Nashville because it feels more real to me here than anywhere else in the world. In Nashville, I feel like the best song wins no matter what. I can’t speak to how it works in L.A. now because I’m not there anymore. Honestly, I didn’t move here to make Country records—that is an amazing byproduct of being here. I moved here because I felt like I would have the freedom to make a metal record in the same year I made a singer/songwriter record, if I wanted to. In Los Angeles, I always felt that the music community expected you to do what you were known for, but not more than that.

Autumn House, who does A&R at Universal, was incredibly helpful and made me really believe that this could be a great home for my family, first of all, and a great place to make music. I met Autumn on a panel and we stayed in touch. She called me and said, ‘I’ve got an artist that I’m working with, and I’d love to get your perspective on it,” which was Walker Hayes. One thing led to another. I came out here and I ended up getting the record. I lived in Nashville for about three months while we were in production, and I fell in love with the town, the way music is made, the players and the people here. Tracy Gershon was a great friend to me. Brad O’Donnell, who is head of A&R at EMI Christian Music Group, was a great friend along with Peter York, Tim Lauer, Shannan and Rob Hatch, Gary Bells, and my attorney Kent Marcus.

Do you prefer the Nashville session players way of recording, or recording the artist/band themselves?
I don’t have a preference one way or the other. If I can’t get what I want from a band, I’m honest with them, and sometimes that means compromising the musical goals for the recording or compromising the feelings of the band members. There’s an energy that comes with recording a band that is really cool, though, and sometimes that energy eclipses whatever shortfalls might be in there chops. When I work with session players, I try to have them understand who the artist is and have the artist understand who they are. I always want the session players to feel like they are part of creating something as opposed to just doing a session. I spend a lot of time trying to fashion that prior to getting in to the studio.

Do labels prefer to sign artists who write?
I think labels prefer artists who sell records and artists who will be around for the long haul, more than anything. Writers or not, they want stars, and that makes sense to me. If an artist is signed to a 360-deal, the label participates in some of the earnings from the artist’s songwriting, but really, they want big hits on the records they own, regardless of who’s doing the writing.

The best way to get a label’s attention is to have hit songs, but sometimes that takes a while. Building a solid fan base, selling some records independently, making really great music, those things get the attention of labels.

Is your Galt Line Music a functioning indie label at this point?
I partner with some of the artists I produce, then they, or we, put out records. My logo is on the record, but I don’t handle label services like radio promotion or retail. If I partner with an artist, it’s about making a record, period. Once the record’s done, I help by calling my friends who are music supervisors or artists or booking agents.

What are some of the biggest challenges that face indie labels, specifically in the Country genre?
I think the toughest part in Country, with my limited exposure here in the Country marketplace, is that it has been a radio driven market for so long. With The Highway on satellite radio, there’s a big opportunity for indie Country acts, and I also think that the internet has opened up opportunities. Ten years ago you couldn’t make a record and have national distribution. Now you make a record, hit up Tunecore and your record is on iTunes, Amazon, and all the digital outlets. Just because it’s on there doesn’t mean it’s going to sell.

One of the most exciting parts about Country music is that the indie artists haven’t had their day yet. Florida Georgia Line, Colt Ford, and the Civil Wars are examples of successful artists that either started as indies or are still indies. If you make something great, people will notice. When I was an A&R person, artists asked, “How do we get signed? How do I get my music to you? What do I need to do to get signed?” And I would say, “Just be great. Make music for yourself. We’ll find you.” If it’s great, the people who program radio, they’ll find it. Record labels will find it. Your fans will find it.

When you arrived in Nashville, what was your first order of business?
I came here to make great music and to hopefully prove that I could be an asset to this city and community. Seriously. It’s easy to come to a town and look for what you can take out of it. I was hoping to find a way to put something into it that might add value, and I’m still trying to do that, every day. And it’s easier said than done. The level of talent here is so high. It has made me better at what I do because I had to raise the level of my game just to feel like I could hang in the room with some of the people who’ve been here a long time.

Aside from the artists you produce, who are the Nashville songwriters that you co-write with?
Dylan Altman is my regular—he’s amazing. Also Rob Hatch, Kylie Sackley, Brice Long, Topher Brown, Nick Sturms, Doug Johnson, Phil Barton.

Who is your A-Team?
For drums, Shannon Forrest, Greg Morrow, Aaron Sterling and Jeremy Lutito. Tony Lucido on bass. Tim Lauer and Jeff Roach on keys. For guitar, Rob McNelley, Tom Bukovac, Jerry McPherson. For engineering and/or mixing: Craig Alvin is a huge talent,and a good friend. Also, Reid Shippen, Steve Marcantonio, Justin Niebank, Joe Zook or Eric Robinson, in L.A.

What advice would you give someone who is thinking about moving to Nashville?
This is a welcoming community, but it is a community where you have to earn your way in. I want to be worthy of this town. My wife Lela and our children Alex and Stella love the city, and I want them to feel proud of what I do. We realize how lucky we are to live here, and I realize how lucky I am to be able to make music here. So my advice is this: if you’re thinking about moving to Nashville, make sure you bring your A game. Yes, we’re nice and polite, but don’t think for a second that this is an easy town. Bring your best, and be prepared to get schooled a bit. If you survive that, you’ll be on your way towards making it work, and hopefully towards making some great music here.

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