Producing Singer Songwriters – David Kershenbaum’s work with Tracy Chapman

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By Music Producers Forum / Jomar, February 09, 2009

Producing singer/songwriters can be a double edged sword for the producer. A singer songwriter will have very firm ideas as to the sound of a song, when it comes to laying down the tracks and developing that final mix. In Tracy Chapman’s case, David Kershenbaum was the magic ingredients needed. David’s early experience with producing the legendary album “Diamonds & Rust” (1975) for 60’s/70’s singer songwriter Joan Baez, gave David the edge in producing what would be grammy winning and mulitplatinum songs & albums. “Building the music around Tracy’s vocals” was key. I spoke with David recently and explored his craft with him.

JR: With the broad catalog of artists, was Tracy Chapman your most successful artists?

DK: I think Tracy has sold the most records. I have had other multiplatinum artists and albums, but her record event to today sells catalog like crazy.

JR: It still stands up, I have her “collection” albums, its one of my favorites. One of the things I love about that sound is that it is so organic, and it feels like the band is in the room with you, and that’s one of the things I really appreciate with that production. It really feels like the band is playing together. Is that something that you aim for in producing?

DK: Yes and theres a lot of different ways to approach a production. I do it backwards from the way most people do, I start with the vocals and work backwards, where most people start with the music and work forwards, so I build everything around the vocals.

In Tracy’s case, it was an exercise in restraint. I wanted her to really be in the forefront. I felt like her songs and her message and the vulnerability of her vocals where what was going to capture people. Not a lot of sound and tricks, I just needed something simple to keep the interest going. The (Music)tracks were supposed to be much more of an undercurrent to Tracy, so that’s how we developed it. We put her up front, and built around her. And that’s the way I approach most singer songwriters.

JR: Did you use predominantly the same musicians throughout the albums?

DK: Yes, we did. And one of the things that I did that was fairly unusual, is that I realized that it was going to be for music that I had only heard on the guitar was going to change when I got it in the studio, so I tested five or six drummers and five or six bass players, and I had her recorded guitar vocal and I had each one of them play with that guitar vocal, and then I mixed and matched, so I thought I could try this drummer with this bass player till I got just the perfect combination. A lot of the time it’s the three piece that you’re listening to, and that had to be right on the money or that wasn’t going to work.

In the test part, I had Tracy record her guitar and her vocals on two tracks of a digital (I was using a Mitsubishi at the time on a digital recorder), and then I put drums and bass from different drummers and bass players on separately, not playing together and then I had them all in sync, so I could say I would like to hear this bass player with that drummer until we found just the right combination. And once we found them I pretty much used that drum and bass combination on the first, second and fifth album.

JR: So is that a technique that you just developed yourself or is that something you’ve borrowed from another producer?

DK: I’ve never heard of anyone doing that and I’m not saying that they didn’t, but it was something that I had the opportunity and the budget to do, and it was something I always wanted to do and I think that it contributed greatly to the overall impact of the record. That record was for the most part, bass drums and Tracy and her vocals recorded live, it was not a bunch of edits and things put together, it was coming off the floor just what you hear.

JR: So that was the final take, live with the drum, bass, guitar & Tracy live?

DK: Yes

Read the rest of the interview online

About Author

My name is Aurélie, I'm French. I maintain this website because I love Tracy’s music and back in 2001, I found that the Internet was missing an exhaustive website with the latest news and some archives.