EMP Pop Conference 2010 — Thursday keynote presentation with Nile Rodgers, Janelle Monae, Joe Henry

Okay here we go! Liveblogging to begin shortly!

7:01 — general EMP introductions hooray

7:04 — Eric Weisbard‘s introductory remarks — “Nine years old, whew!” As for me, sitting in the audience with Mackro and the ever glamourous Wendy Fonarow.

7:05 — Ann Powers takes the mike to introduce Nile Rodgers, Janelle Monae, and Joe Henry!

7:08 — good spirited introductions, Nile taking a phone photo of Janelle, Joe looking very relaxed…

7:09 — Ann to the group: at what point in the creative process do you think about the tools? Do you write from an instrument?

JH: don’t play anything really well! I like to be disoriented. I would expect to pick up a guitar and a song would fall put of it. Trampoline was the first time i used the recording process as a writing process. Had a drum machine, didn’t know how to program it, will write to the presets, this is how Sly worked! Would work with it until something stuck! Keep loving back and forth between recording to write and working with an instrument.

Ann then plays Chic’s “Dance Dance Dance.”

7:14 — mass applause! So many ideas in the song, how were choices made?

Nile: Here’s the truth! That song was the B-side of the New York Board of Tourism single! Improvised by Bernard, I wasn’t on the session! Gotta bring him in to finish the song, a Micromoog is playing a counterpoint melody Nile wrote, Bernard edited it to that, Nile didn’t want to lose the melody! We’d do duets like the Allman Brothers, Luther Vandross is singing the song! Kept adding to the groove, the strings, the first time Bernard and I wrote together. Knew it would be a club record, clubs wired in mono, snuck into the studio to record, got Bob Clearmountain to mix, wanted a hit! Bernard and I had seen They Shoot Horses, Dont They and we vibed on the long breakdowns, we wanted to be Count Basie, Duke Ellington. So TOTALLY calculated, Chic megaphones for radio stations!

And now Janelle Monae’s “Tightrope” video! Nile goes to the audience to watch! Great, great video. Joe and Janelle chat a touch, Nile records it on his phone!

7:28 — Ann: went to that video after “Dance Dance Dance” due to nostalgia in the present. Your thoughts?

JM: I love James Brown, funky music, did my research since I was born in the late eighties, went back into time to study those artists that inspired me where present artists rarely did, wanted the song to be encouraging and empowering, and about having fun! When I’m dancing freely, everything’s going to be okay. I’m in tune with what makes me unique, and that gives me my superpowers!

7:32 — Ann to all: what were those perfect moments in a studio that inspires you?

Nile: Everything we do is a workaround! I go into the studio with a big beautiful thing and then it would change. We’d play video games if we got in a rut! (Ann: “Ms Pac Man was behind all that great stuff?” Nile: “You have NO idea!”) Recording engineers have the stressful job of finding the moment!

Joe: True but there’s not necessarily one magical moment. But Louis Armstrong’s “West End Blues” is that kind of moment! Everything as an extension from that…. I don’t ever think there’s just one way a song goes. I don’t know how to imagine the one thing a song might be, my job is to set a table and invite people to it. It’s pretty easy to look around a room and see what happens. Radio never gave me a chance so that led me to embrace music that is emotional, personal, people in a room playing a song, and would do anything to a song to make a reaction, to be nourished by it like the songs I love (Charlie Parker, Blind Willie McTell). Only when it’s in the air is it music.

Ann plays a Joe Henry song, “Richard Pryor Addresses a Tearful Nation,” slow and VERY moody. Kinda Bark Psychosis! Great sax parts in the break especially. Extremely great keynote so far, as you might guess!

7:44 — JH: Began writing the song in the first person, then thought it might be Richard Pryor’s voice, a character presenting a point of view, representing a conflict in thinking about the country he is in. Wanted a languid Ellington blues, orchestration, then if so some chaos at the heart of it, an Ornette Coleman! So I approached him respectfully and he was immediately interested — that’s his actual solo! He took the job seriously, a remarkable and generous thing. If it didn’t work, then it was my idea that didn’t hold water, but it worked, everything that the lyric says was really said in the music, the lyric was only scaffolding. Amazing to hear to it — and he was just one of many amazing sidemen, though his session was done separately, so everyone knew the song didn’t live without his presence.

7:48 Ann asks about collaboration!

JM — the Wondaland Arts Society serves as “an orphanage for artists” in many media, fearless, preparing for the next generation of artists to come. (Joe adds that fearless is the greatest word!) You have to write out the bad songs to get to the good stuff!

Nile on working with Bernard: we first properly met on a telephone call! Mentions the connection being his girlfriend’s mom! Nile talks about classical musicians, Bernard goes “Brother…lose my number!” No real connection then! (Nile imitating himself as a flower child is hilarious, Bernard was hardcore r’n’b.) They properly meet at a pickup gig and after that they were inseparable — but they only realize they were on that phone conversation months later! Janelle’s reaction: priceless. Says he will release tapes of himself and Bernard in the studio swearing at each other “with love” — it was the way to make everything better. David Bowie didn’t know a person in the room, it was all about giving one’s best in the moment.

Ann plays a bit of “Modern Love” — still great!

7:58 — Ann asks about that sound, different from Chic sound yet related, how do you connect with an artist to a new place?

Nile: I walked into a nightclub with Billy Idol and we saw Bowie. (His imitation of Idol walking to say to hi to Bowie and vomiting on him: priceless.) Nile and Bowie bond over jazz, look over photos, says he wants the record to be like a photo of Little Richard (“with the pompadour!” — points to Janelle!) getting into a Cadillac. Nile gets a slew of black and Puerto Rican musicians, they attack it, done and delivered in 17 days!

Ann: Joe, working with Solomon Burke, Allen Toussaint?

Joe: Allen is Yoda! Working with a “legacy” artist (currently working with Harry Belafonte!), the balance is: how do you do something authentic, but not made by them before? Music is in service to their voice. I try not to think about someone’s history! How do you say, “Don’t worry about this, Harry?” You do feel out of your element sometimes! If you get lost in reverence for it, you lose forward momentum. I’ll have Aaron Neville and Allen Toussaint in my basement on Monday, it’ll be something Aaron’s never done. Talks about Solomon’s reaction to hearing his record, pretty funny! Gives musicians skeletal demos to start with, then a film assignment! Watch a movie then you don’t have to talk about it (for Burke, Children of Paradise, Neville, Killer of Sheep).

8:10 Ann plays “Call the Law,” one of her Outkast collaborations from Idlewild, how was that like?

JM: very humorous, art matters to them, they’re at the studio, nowhere else in Atlanta! We produced the music, they never really accept that but they were big supporters and wanted to help out.

Ann: how was the back and forth?

JM: Brian Barber invited her to see the film, she was playing a role on the soundtrack… And the mikes have just died! Circuits might have just blown out, power out upstairs? JM continues: try and do something to stay true to the twenties and still in the now. It was good to step outside myself, do Broadway harmonies!

Questions! Jody Rosen: about “Good Times,” the bassline and the story behind it!

Nile: wanted a walking bassline, went to Studio 54 with John Deacon, went to the studio, worked on the song, Bernard walks in and asks Clearmountain what it is, gets in, everything starts, did one take, done!

M. Matos: drum sound on the Bowie record?

Nile: copying the Peter Gabriel record! When Peter approaches a record, he’ll do something arbitrary — “No high hat at all!” Nile liked that, wanted to make his musicians do that, Bowie turns up and hey! Bowie had to fund that record himself, no double scale, made on a budget…friction but it had to make it work!

JM: making records on a deadline is always intense (hard to hear cause of the mic loss but she was frustrated with some Outkast work, upset, PMSing, but it worked)

8:26 — Janelle still telling a great story but I am missing chunks of it — sorry folks! She is damn sharp in general and has easily held her own with the other panelists. Great panel but the tech failure has knocked the wind out of it a touch.

8:29 — well we did all learn Nile is all about the Soundgarden reunion!

8:30 — power is back! Question: how does your music feed back into your communities? JM: it’s very important, knowing who you can rely on — she had a very rough upbringing in Kansas, so she doesn’t want to waste the opportunity to inspire others, to lead by example, to have a sober mind. Nile: it might be more of a question of a structured way to help? JM: her group has internships, ways to assist upcoming artists in Atlanta. Nile: you can be the leader, you can start something! (referring to the questioner and his online abilities).

8:34 — Ann asks Joe to talk about Our New Orleans, his New Orleans project work.

Joe speaks about efforts post-Katrina via Nonesuch to give scattered artists a place to record in New York, “shockingly easy.” Set up a core group of musicians and went for it.

Nile speaks some on the power of stepping up and doing some work.

Questioner asks about the Jeff Beck album Flash, Nile speaks about Beck being a hero when he was young, wanting the Beck Group back together but that wasn’t going to work… Wanting to push artists because he wants to be pushed. Talks about playing 30 songs for Bryan Ferry’s new album in two days! As for Beck, turns out he wanted Nile to produce a cover of Vangelis‘s “Chariots of Fire!” Man oh man, can’t capture this story in words! Pure hilarity. “I should have told him, ‘Go watch Black Like Me, go watch Shaft!'”

8:44 — Ann asks Janelle about her visual aesthetic, she speaks of the influence of Dali, associating colors with songs, bringing in the Moog, Disney, Bowie, dreams! A combination of inspirations.

8:46 — last question! Any big failure of tech that led to something wonderful?

Nile: Joss Stone! He gets a call from Betty Wright, plays on Stone’s record, singing while they’re playing. As soon as the tape is finished, BLACKOUT in NYC! Never had to rerecord it!

Outro music is Joe Henry’s production of an early 1800’s song by the Carolina Chocolate Drops, we’re done!


7 Responses to “EMP Pop Conference 2010 — Thursday keynote presentation with Nile Rodgers, Janelle Monae, Joe Henry”

  1. erin Says:

    Thanks for this, Ned!

  2. Grindle Says:

    Wow you filled in some blanks, impressive. Who needs EMP archives when your in the room?

  3. humanizingthevacuum Says:

    Wish I was there!

  4. And final thoughts on the EMP Pop Conference 2010 « Ned Raggett Ponders It All Says:

    […] EMP Pop Conference 2010 — Thursday keynote presentation with Nile Rodgers, Janelle Monae, Joe Henr… […]

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