Roy Salmond was the keynote speaker at Under the Radar’s Escape to the Lake music conference this past August. He is a record producer living amongst the exceptional beauty of British Columbia—a mythical land with real autumn that makes us Southern U. S. folks envious. Working with artists such as Carolyn Arends and Kelley McRae, Roy’s approach to production is less dictatorial and more prophetic, and his light creative touch brings out the best in the recording artists. He’s also a lover of the poetic works of Malcolm Guite and Scott Cairns. Roy was kind enough to sit down and answer a few of our questions.
FH: What do you see as the interpersonal role of the producer when putting a record together?
RS: The answer depends on how a producer defines “interpersonal.” If the producer is relational like I am, then the relationship of the artist with the producer comes into play. I like collaboration and serving the artist—I want to help him or her achieve their vision. I see myself coming alongside and cheering them on and saying, “Watch for this!” or, “Have you thought of this?” I also ask a lot of questions from “What is a sonic template we can use as a starting point?” to “What are you trying to communicate here?” Usually in the course of an extended album, I’m not only the sonic documenter, but also the priest, the psychologist, the friend, the fan, the lover, the antagonist, the parent, the theologian, and the musician. A healthy relationship usually involves some intimacy, some risk to reveal, and this is so important in the producer-artist relationship. So there has to be trust—on both sides.
FH: What is the value of the creative wrestling that goes on when you put two artists together?
RS: The push and pull of two artists together yields a fruit that is different than when an artist is working alone. The old adage, “Two heads are better than one,” holds up here. Also, when you co-write, there is more focus and discipline to get the job done, especially if you both are invested in it. I’m a big fan of listening, not waiting to say something, but really listening. When you are in a creative wrestling with another, it is a good thing to listen to each other and help pull out nuances that might have otherwise go unnoticed. That way you participate in something that isn’t reflective of each of you, but is something new and different. A musical love child!
FH: When do you, as a creative person involved in a group process, back off and let the other or others fully take the reins?
RS: As a producer I feel it is my job to help the artist realize their vision, not mine. I always make suggestions, musically and lyrically, but I always say I’m paid for my opinion, not for them to agree with it. Some artists go with their “I meant for that line to be vague” [approach] or, I really want this musical passage to chill here for sixteen bars (I’m being a bit extreme here), and I have to let go of what I think it can be and let them chase it with my help. The writer Annie Dillard has a lovely phrase: “Don’t be afraid to kill your little darlings”, meaning don’t be afraid let go of what is precious to you, if it makes your song or art more substantial.
That’s helpful for the artists as well as the producer! Also, it’s important to remember that someone else’s musical or lyrical taste not only doesn’t define me, it doesn’t have to reflect me.
FH: Is the recording process unpredictable? What is the value of that unpredictability?
RS: Ahh, good question. Yes, the recording process is unpredictable, and this can be a pain, or a wonderful opportunity depending on whether you embrace unpredictability. The studio is so much a classroom of life because there is so much unpredictability that happens. The artist has saved all their money to do a decent album and then gets a cold during vocals.
The expensive mics and recording show up the bad habits of one’s playing that the artist had no idea they did. Fear is a big guest at recording sessions and is not easily controlled. Fears of who we really are, and fears of what others think are the two biggies that threaten to sabotage recording. Again, this is where trust comes in, not only from the artist, but the producer to build trust. So this is unpredictability wreaking havoc on the recording process.
But, unpredictability also can bring about happy accidents, where you play something, or sing something that is off the grid you planned and it works wonderfully! When, in the embrace of trust, one takes a chance that is honest and real and creates something moving. I can’t tell you how many times this has happened and the artist and myself are elated and humbled at the beauty of unpredictability!