The Producer’s Chair: Frank Liddell

Frank Liddell

Frank Liddell

By James Rea

Don’t miss Frank Liddell’s fourth appearance on The Producer’s Chair on Thursday, Dec. 11 at Douglas Corner at 6 p.m. It’s the last show of this year. (Doors open at 5:30 p.m.)


Frank Liddell has staked his claimed as one of Nashville’s most respected artist advocates and trusted creative partners. The 2014 MusicRow Producer of the Year has a growing trophy collection which includes winning CMA Album of the Year twice, and ACM Album of the Year three times, as well as wins for ACM Producer and Single of the Year—all largely due to his work with Miranda Lambert. But Frank’s less interested in talking about trophies and more interested in talking about music, artists, songwriters, and musicians—proof of the dogged focus that paved his path to success.

Along with serial collaborators Chuck Ainlay and Glenn Worf, Frank also co-produced David Nail’s well-received third album I’m a Fire, released in March, and his wife Lee Ann Womack’s anticipated masterpiece The Way I’m Livin’, released in September.

In the early ’90s, Frank moved from Houston to Nashville, where his first two career stops were Bluewater Music and Decca. He pitched songs, scouted talent, and helped creatively direct careers. At Decca, he also began producing.

Then came his own Carnival Music, an embodiment of his fully formed music-first philosophy. Frank launched the company’s publishing arm in 1997 with partner Travis Hill. Today Carnival has 14 staff writers: Adam Wright, Aubrie Sellers, Brent Cobb, Dani Flowers, David Nail, Derik Hultquist, Hailey Whitters, Logan Brill, Mando Saenz, Scooter Carusoe, Stephanie Lambring, Stoney LaRue, Troy Jones, and Gretchen Peters. Since its inception, Carnival has published the first No. 1 singles of eight songwriters’ careers, and diligently shepherded songs as they circulated for a decade or more waiting for the perfect performer and perfect time. Carnival Recording Co., the record label division, is currently developing Cobb, Brill, Hultquist and Saenz. The dedicated staff—Brittany Hamlin, Courtney Gregg, Matthew Miller, Emily Schiraldi, and consultant Dale Dodson—are like members of Frank’s extended family.

Frank is an ACM board member, CMA member, and serves on the board of The Recording Academy, where he is part of the Advocacy Committee and the Producers & Engineers (P&E) Wing.

The Producer’s Chair: How did you and Miranda meet?

Frank Liddell: She heard a record I’d produced on Jack Ingram called Electric. She bought it, listened to it, and hated it. Then she listened to it again, and it inevitably grew on her. She looked at who produced it and said, “That guy’s making my record.” She never wavered—even when I tried to talk her out of it. Before she had anything going, she had decided that she wanted me to produce her record. She was in Texas at the time. She talked a little bit about her career goals, but for the most part all we ever talked about was music. And that was all she ever wanted—that was the most important thing. Like, “Let’s just come make a badass record.”

Miranda has won the CMA Award for Female Vocalist of the Year five times—more than any other artist. Now that she has conquered Country music, does she have movies or TV in mind?

I stay out of that. The most important thing to her is to be an artist. Not an entertainer or a celebrity. Everything stems from her artistry, not from the entertainment factor. And she’s Country. We’ve never remixed or done a radio mix for her to crossover into pop music. She’s comfortable with the success she’s having as a Country artist. She touches a lot of lives and a lot of people. She has a lot of respect across a lot of genres.

Has Miranda changed over the years and if so, have those changes affected your job as her producer?

She’s exactly same. When making her records, we’ve always tried to take a picture of who she is at that time, with each record. She’s not an 18-year-old girl anymore. She’s a 30-year-old woman. So, that’s the difference in the picture. It’s not that we changed the lens. She’s always had great instincts—spot on—and that’s hard to find. She doesn’t weigh opportunities. She just tries to take the best song, and when you’re working on arrangements it’s either right or wrong. For this record, my gut was, “Let’s not change a thing from the last record.” These musicians have been with her ten or twelve years. It’s the same band on every record, which I dig, because instead of changing a sound, the change was from within—adopting her own. I feel in a weird way like everybody, including Miranda and the musicians, felt the pressure this time. It was a blast, but it was really intense. [Every record has been critically acclaimed and hard to follow.] And every time, we would just talk. I’d say—and I got this from Richard Bennett—“You just get the right songs and you treat every song with the respect that it individually deserves, and everything will turn out OK.” So, we’ve taken that approach from the beginning.

Do you still work with artists and writers in Texas?

I still do that a little bit, and I always will because I’m a big fan. Stoney LaRue is a perfect example. His music really inspires me. It’s not flavor of the month. And it’s going to be hard, but if he can stick with it, sooner or later something good will come his way. When you’ve finished a record, it’s hard to say whether you got it right or wrong, or you would have changed this or that. And with Stoney, we got it right. Moving forward, it’s going to take some holing up and some belief in what we do, because there’s not any compromise in that record. Stoney LaRue just needs to build his fan base.

In our last interview, four years ago, you said, “I feel like there’s a bigger gulf than ever between the creative and the business side.” Do you still feel that way?

Here we are today, and it’s probably bigger. I’m just hard-wired differently. I love this town. I love what people do. My goal for our future is for me to do what we’re about, not to follow or chase [trends]. It’s not always easy. Miranda’s a perfect example. Her career was born out of her music. I still think that there’s a lot of music in this town that, to me, the marketing plan exists and the music is just sort of dropped in it.

The great thing is it’s still the songwriter capitol of the world. There are great songwriters here, old and young, and it’s the musician capitol of the world. And as long as it’s an artistic center where artists have the opportunity to make new art and for that art to grow—I hope that opportunities increase for some people. It used to be that you could have a great artist that had a brilliant career and they wouldn’t even go Gold but could make a lot of money touring, earn a lot of respect and have a great career. Now, everything’s gone. So, people aren’t really giving anyone a shot unless they think it can go Platinum. I would hope in the coming years as perhaps the copyright is monetized better, that we would be able to open up some doors to some more younger artists, more thoughts, more opinions, more creative ideas. I’ve been here a long time. I’ve seen the artists that labels got in bidding wars over—they were going to be the hot new thing. I’ve seen them disappear. So, basically I was standing here four years ago, and I thought the same thing I think now.

Four years ago you joined the Grammy P&E Wing. What are some of their biggest concerns?

There are a lot of things we talk about on the P&E Wing. We discuss a lot of the future of monetizing music: defending and sticking up for the producer and engineer, protecting and making our contracts better, and strengthening the business side of things for us. There’s also the sound quality and the protection of the copyright—protection of your sound and original ideas. I sometimes walk into the studio and say, “We’re going to make a record.” And it’s pretty simple. But you go into the meetings and you realize how intense the situation is. From the future of recording records, to what they’re stored on, to how they are archived, to what they’re going to sound like in years—and to making sure that as a producer I’m protected and somebody can’t just come out and remix something. There are a ton of concerns.

In another interview you said, “There are a lot of great writers out there whose work is being overlooked because they don’t know how to play the game.” What game?

I’ve always thought that. It’s now a business game. Years ago, the art of this business was getting two great writers together, or for one great writer to write a great song. Now, everything is like, “Let’s stick this writer with this writer and the artist.” So, a lot of publishing these days is managing calendars and trying to get your writer with artists. It’s less about, “Hey, I want to go get a great song for people to fight over,” like “The Dance” or “I Hope You Dance.” It’s become more political. I know very few people out there who aren’t writing most of their songs with other people. There’s a business objective behind it and not necessarily the objective of making the best music.

Can independent writers play the game or do they really need a publisher to play the game?

I think for the most part independent writers struggle, and they always have. I know a few who are doing OK now. They have help. I’ve always felt like publishers earn every dime they make for the most part. You know the old saying about the attorney who represents himself in court has a fool for a client.

How should they play the game?

I don’t know. I look at where Carnival is right now and where we need to go, and, to me, I just want to get better at what we do. I don’t necessarily want to play the game. I don’t hate the game. I have friends in the game, and I respect the hell out of them, but I came here because I love music. The longer I’m here the more I just want to make sure that every bit of music I’m surrounded with is music that I love and I would have loved in my gut when I got here. So, to me, it’s how do we design our own game to succeed with that philosophy? It’s not easy.

Someone was telling me we have a song on a new record and it’s the only song on there that had only two writers. I found that interesting. We also have a song on the Garth Brooks record. It’s 100 percent. Adam Wright wrote it by himself. That takes the place of three cuts. You write a great song by yourself and somebody acknowledges it. Good things happen.

What are your thoughts on signing writers?

At Carnival the first two writers we signed were Bruce Robison and Luke Reed. Bruce had a few people sniffing around but he had never lived here and no one would give him a shot. And Luke was already an established writer and had some cuts. Never on a huge level, but he was a good guy for sure.

Today I’m still hoping that age and gender have absolutely nothing to do with it. If I were a writer and I went and listened to Gretchen Peters speak at her Songwriter Hall of Fame induction, I’d think, “Buddy, I better step it up.” She’s a genius. If somebody walks in my door who’s 22 years old and has the promise of being able to do what Gretchen does, I’m going to be excited. I’m not going to be excited about working with an established writer who has made it and who is dabbling in it now. Gretchen is touring a lot and making records. We represent her and help her collect her money. But when she plays a song it will kill you. She’s damn Gretchen Peters, and she sets a mark in this building.

If this stuff never matters again—well then, it’s over for me. And if that’s the case then I’ll go home. But if it still matters then I don’t see how Gretchen is not relevant. Take the song “All Kinds of Kinds,” which is ours that Miranda cut, written by Phillip Coleman and Don Henry. It was at least 15 years old. My goal is to be able to work with music that is as good as or better than music that inspired me growing up. That’s a tall but simple task. And to help our writers make a great living makes it even better.

How has 2014 been for Carnival, compared to 2013?

Carnival has always existed on one hit a year. We’ve gotten lucky and had two before. We’ve gone six or eight months without anything on the charts, which is not unusual for Carnival. The problem is [sinking album sales]. Fifteen years ago we had a No. 1 song with The Dixie Chicks and the album sold 10 million records. Today, the $900,000 you’d make roughly off of that copyright would probably exceed the performance money. So there was never a problem that a handful of good cuts weren’t going to take care of. We’ve got a bunch of album cuts right now but they don’t sell anymore. If those things can be fixed we’ll be fine—if we can get compensated for the things we’re doing. But I don’t think [consumers] are ever going to buy disposable music. I know what we’re good at and we have to get better at it. If you have a boutique store on the same block as Walmart, you better have something they don’t have or you’re going to get killed.

Tell me about your musical family: Aubrie Sellers and Anna Lise Liddell.

Aubrie is in her early 20s and we’ve been working with her in the studio finishing things up. She has both a mother and a father from whom she can draw a wealth of experience in the artist world, and a stepfather who has been a publisher and A&R guy and a producer. She’s covered! She’s in Texas right now playing some shows and my wife is leaving tomorrow night to go on the road in the Northeast. Anna, who is 15, is going to go and play guitar with her.


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