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THE PRODUCER'S CHAIR: MARSHALL ALTMAN

THE PRODUCER'S CHAIR: MARSHALL ALTMAN

By James Rea www.theproducerschair.com

When Marshall Altman moved from Los Angles to Nashville in July, 2010, he was hopeful that he would be able to earn his way into community of musicians, songwriters, and producers in Music City.

Prior to his move to Nashville, where Altman has a Berry Hill studio that is part of the House Of Blues compound, he had several careers in the music business. One of his first was a record deal as a solo artist in the early 90's on Capitol Records. That deal was his introduction to the music business, and eventually led to his first record company job in the Sales & Marketing department at Capitol in the mid 90's. Once a part of the major label establishment, Altman again pursued the artist life, as his band Farmer was signed to Aware Records in the mid 90's, and several years of touring the country followed. While on the road, Altman began talent scouting for Capitol Records, and was instrumental in the artistic development of Citizen Cope, with whom he is still a frequent collaborator today. This relationship led to his first A&R position at Capitol in 1997, and subsequent A&R gigs at Hollywood and Columbia/SonyBMG.

Marshall Altman
Marshall Altman

Starting in the late 90's, Altman began developing his skill set as a record producer, and in 2007, he left his A&R job at Columbia Records to pursue producing and songwriting full time.

Altman has more than 50 cuts as a songwriter, including #1 songs for Cheryl Cole ("Parachute") & Shawn Mullins ("Beautiful Wreck"), as well as top 10 songs in several genres with Marc Broussard, Ingrid Michaelson & Matt Nathanson. He currently has the debut John King single "Tonight Tonight (The Best Night Of Our Lives)" steadily climbing the Country radio charts.

His discography as a producer is as eclectic and varied as his songwriting, having made records for Matt Nathanson ("Some Mad Hope," which had 3 platinum singles including "All We Are," which Altman co-wrote), Eric Paslay (his self titled debut album), Amy Grant ("How Mercy Looks From Here"), Frankie Ballard (his debut album "Sunshine & Whiskey"), Will Hoge, Marc Broussard (the definitive album "Carencro," on which Marshall co-wrote "Home"), Brooke Fraser ("Albertine"), William Fitzsimmons ("The Sparrow & The Crow" (which was iTunes US and Australia Singer/Songwriter Album Of The Year), Gabe Dixon, Kate Voegele ("Don't Look Away"), The Almost, Tom Morello, Virginia Coalition, Natasha Bedingfield, Audrey Assad, and many more.

And for Altman, moving to Nashville was just about having the freedom to make music that interested him, with artists that inspired him.

Marshall 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...."

And he was obviously right...it didn't take Altman long to break through country radio with two of his productions earning #1's almost back to back. First with "Friday Night" by Eric Paslay (Capitol) from his self-titled debut album and then with "Helluva Life" by Frankie Ballard (Warner Bros.) from his debut album, Sunshine and Whiskey. And these successes come on the heels of producing Walker Hayes (Capitol), which was Altman's first foray into country and Amy Grant's critically acclaimed (Sparrow Records) album, How Mercy Looks From Here, which was her first studio album in twelve years.

Currently, Marshall has productions on the country radio charts at #12 (Eric Paslay's "Song About A Girl"), #25 (Frankie Ballard's "Sunshine & Whiskey") and #47 (John King's "Tonight Tonight (The Best Night Of Our Lives)").

Growing up in New York, Marshall describes himself as a fat kid with curly hair and glasses who played a lot of basketball and sang all the time.

"I remember writing songs really, really early. I mean, childish dribble. But I think I had my first band as a 10 year old. Like first recordings, talent shows, you now, neighborhood gigs. My sister Jessica, who was 7 years older than I was, 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 for them when I was maybe 8 or 9 years old. That was my first show.

Marshall 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, 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.

After music school, it was about delivering pizza, and making music for whoever would listen.

Marshall: One day, 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 somewhere close to $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 thenI 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 opened a little recording studio in Hollywood (Willie & Selma Sound, which was named after my grandparents).

I think I was 22 or 23.

The Producer's Chair: Was the gear still in the studio?

Marshall: No, 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 essentially hung my sign, and recorded, you know, rock bands, salsa bands, industrial film scores and voice- over's. One of the biggest parts of my business was messages on hold. Very exciting stuff, you know...

After about 18 months of doing all this stuff, I thought, you know, I can write better songs than these people I'm recording can. So I wrote some songs. I got the A&R registry and sent out demo tapes to maybe 700 people. Only 2 people called me, Lenny Waronker from Warner Brothers 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 during my deal and a couple of years after I was dropped, I started as an assistant in the sales department at Capitol Records.

Being an assistant at Capitol wasn't enough, of course so I put a band together on the side. We were called FARMER. We ended up signing a record deal with Aware Records and I signed a publishing deal with EMI. We made the record and as soon as we booked a tour I quit the sales department 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, that they should 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. Like cassettes and DATs. This was maybe '96 or '97.

My band didn't sound that much different to me from what artists like Jason Isbell or even Darius Rucker are doing now. That was the kind of music we were making. We toured with Vertical Horizon, The Verve Pipe, you know, Guster. That was our scene

The Producer's Chair: Did you find any artists while scouting that they signed?

Marshall: The first artist that I really got involved with was an artist named 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, fed them into the player, we'd listen for a moment, hit eject and toss them one by one into the junk pile. She pulled out a blank cassette with nothing written on it and was about to throw it in the junk pile, but I asked her to play it, just to be thorough. I remember it to this day. I pulled off 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 the cassette cover was blank. No contact info at all. So, I start digging through the box and I find a piece of loose leaf paper, a scrap, really, that said "If you like these, I will send you my hits" and it had a phone number on it. So I got to a pay phone and I called and I said, "My name's Marshall Altman. I'm an A&R scout for Capitol Records. I'm nobody. 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 (who's real name is Clarence Greenwood).

My next FARMER tour went through DC. And Cope was in DC. We met and I came back to L.A. and I convinced Kim Buie, who was my boss, to give me $5,000 to do something. That was really at the urging of my friend Loren Israel, who was a great A&R person back then. He kind of kicked my butt, pushed me in the office, and said, "Marshall wants $5,000 for Citizen Cope". We cut 3 songs. They offered to sign him, but he said that he wouldn't sign the deal unless they gave me an A&R job. It was a competitive deal. There were a couple other labels that heard the work we had done. And Cope wouldn't sign the deal unless they hired me.

At that point I was kind of done with the premise of Farmer as a band. My mother was going to lose her house. I thought, maybe I should do this for a little while, get my mom back on her feet, give this gig a shot for a couple years, and then I'll go back to being an artist.

I did A&R for Capitol for 2 years, then did A&R at Hollywood for almost 3 years. And then I quit in real frustration over the a few bands I couldn't get the label to support me in signing. it was blessing though, really. It made me realize that I wanted to be able to work with artists more than I wanted to be a label executive, and that was important for me to be able to figure out.

I took about a year and a half off from the A&R thing and really committed to building my craft as a producer and songwriter. I vowed I would never do A&R for a major again.

Famous last words...

Marshall: I was in Lafayette, Louisiana producing the first Marc Broussard record and Tim Devine (GM of Columbia / SonyBMG at the time) was calling me to offer me this A&R job in LA. I kept thinking, "No. I don't want it. I'm a record producer." But my friend Steve Backer, who was also my publisher at EMI Music Publishing (and head of the West Coast office then), called me and said, "What are you, an idiot? Take the job. Just tell them that you're going to produce records on the side." And that's what I did. I think I was with Columbia for about 6 years. So altogether, I had about a 10 year A&R career.

The Producer's Chair: How did you wind up producing Amy Grant's first album after her 12 yr hiatus?

Marshall: Man, you know, I was still in LA and Brad O'Donnell called me and said, "Hey, we just did a deal with Amy Grant and she really liked your discography" and would I consider sitting down and talking about making a record. And I was like, "Wow. Amy Grant." I said, "Well, what kind of record is she going to make?" He said, "Well, we don't know." And I said, "I would love to talk about that. I'm a huge fan." It took a while for that next conversation to happen. I'd lived in Nashville for almost 2 years and Brad and Peter York called me and said, "Hey, do you want to come up to the office? Let's talk about this Amy record." 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 sort of clicked I guess. That record was really a game changer for me. Working with Amy taught me so much about the process of creating, and about patience, and about trusting yourself and the people you work with. I look at my career as pre "How Mercy Looks From Here" and post. That record changed the way I approach making music, and I'm still kind of in awe of the process and working with Amy.

The Producer's Chair: Do the west coast pop and rock worlds feel the same as Nashville...the best song wins?

Marshall: Look, it's complicated everywhere there are creative decision to be made. Obviously, I've chosen to live in Nashville because it feels more real to me here than anywhere else in the world. In Nashville, I do feel like the best song wins no matter what. I can't speak to how it works in LA now because I'm not there anymore. And as far as how it worked when I was there, well, I'll take the 5th on that one...

The Producer's Chair: What brought you to Nashville? Was it someone in Nashville that encouraged you, was it the direction of county music, or was it the want for your kids to grow up in a better place?

Marshall: I think it's a combination of all three. Honestly, I didn't move here to make country records. That is an amazing byproduct of me 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/EMI 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. How this move to Nashville happened was, Autumn 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 here in Nashville for about three months while we were in production, and I fell in love with the town. I fell in love with the players. I fell in love with the people here. I fell in love with the way music is made. Tracy Gershon was really 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 & Rob Hatch, Gary Bells, and my attorney, Kent Marcus.

The Producer's Chair: Do you prefer the Nashville 'session players' way of recording, or recording the artist/band themselves?

Marshall: I don't think I 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 members of the band's feelings. I trust that the way it goes down is how it's supposed to go down and like I said, I just try to be honest. There's an energy that comes with recording a band that is really cool, though, and sometimes, that energy eclipses whatever shortfalls there might be in chops, you know? 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 who I work with to feel like they are part of creating something as opposed to just doing a session. And I spend a lot of time trying to fashion that prior to getting in to the studio.

The Producer's Chair: Do labels prefer to sign artists who write?

Marshall: I really think labels prefer artists whose records sell and artists who will be around for the long haul, more than anything. Writing or no writing, they want stars, and that makes sense to me. If an artist is signed to a 360 deal, sure, the label participates in some of the earnings from the artist's songwriting, but really, they want big old hits on the records they own, regardless of who's doing the writing.

The Producer's Chair: Is Galt Line Music a functioning Indie label at this point?

Marshall: It's a functioning label in as much as I partner with some of the artists I produce, then they (or we) put out records. Sometimes I help, sometimes I just try to stay out of the way. My logo is on the record, but I don't have label services. I don't do radio promotion. I don't call retail. If I partner with an artist, it's about making a record, period. Once the record's done, I pick up the phone and I call my friends. I call my music supervisor friends. I call artist friends. I call booking agents. I do what I always do. But I don't really think of that as a label like Big Machine or Warner Music, you know? At some point in the future, I would love to have the opportunity to really develop artists in a more consistent manner and then have some sort of resources to, you know, help them more than I am able to now. At present, though, it's just about helping artists make records when they don't the resources to do it alone, or a label to help.

The Producer's Chair: What do you think are the biggest challenges that face indie labels, specifically country indie?

Marshall: Well, I think the toughest part in country, with my limited exposure here in the country market place, is that it has been a radio driven market for so long. With The Highway, on satellite radio, there's a big opportunity there for indie Country acts, and I also think that the internet has opened up opportunities that you couldn't get 10 years ago. 10 years ago you couldn't make a record and have national distribution. Now, you make a record, you hit up Tunecore, your record's on iTunes, Amazon, & all the digital outlets.. Now, just because it's on there doesn't mean it's going to sell. I think one of the most exciting parts about country music is that the indie artist hasn't had their day yet. If you think about it, Florida Georgia Line, they started as an indie artist, you know? Cole Swindell started as an indie artist. Colt Ford. Indie artist. Civil Wars. Indie. If you make something great, people will take notice of it. That's really what I think. When I was an A&R person, artists used to ask me all the time, "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. Have it be great. 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. It's such a smaller world than it was in the 70s, you know?

The Producer's Chair: How do indie artists get label attention?

Marshall: The best way to get a labels attention is to have hit songs, really, but sometimes, that takes a while. Building a solid fan base, selling some records independently, making great music, and I mean great music, those things always gets the attention of labels.

The Producer's Chair: When you first arrived in Nashville, what was your first order of business? To develop relationships with labels, publishers, and the song writing community or the A team of musicians? Or none of that?

Marshall: That's a great question. I came here, and my first order of business was to try and make great music and to hopefully prove that I could be an asset to this city and to our 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 some 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's 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. I'm just hoping I can deliver, you know? That's my attitude, anyway. What I've done doesn't matter nearly as much as what I'm doing at the moment, and if I keep that attitude, I won't get lazy and I won't take what I do for granted. And hopefully I'll be an asset to our town.

The Producer's Chair: Is it easier to find session work in Nashville or LA?

Marshall: I don't know if I'd call it easy in either place, but I know that in LA, more and more music is getting made on laptops by one or two people, in spare bedrooms or small studios. If you're great at what you do, you're going to have opportunities to work wherever you are, but in Nashville, there's more music being made that is actually played by musicians.

The Producer's Chair: Aside from the artists you produce, who are the Nashville songwriters that you're co-writing with?

Marshall: Dylan Altman is my regular and a very close friend, too. I think he's amazing. Rob Hatch. I love Rob. Kylie Sackley. Brice Long. I love Brice. I also write with a guy named Topher Brown. I write with Nick Sturms a lot. I write with Doug Johnson, Phil Barton.

The Producer's Chair: When you do hire session players, who is you're 'A' Team?

Marshall: Let's see. Drums, Shannon Forest, Greg Morrow, and Aaron Sterling I also work with a guy named Jeremy Lutito on some of the more pop stuff. He's a brilliant and talented drummer. Those are my favorite drummers. Tony Lucido on bass pretty much exclusively. Tim Lauer, Jeff Roach, on keys. Guitar, Rob McNelley, Tom Bukovac, Jerry McPherson. Those are kind of my main guys.

The Producer's Chair: Who is your first call engineer?

Marshall: I work with a guy named Craig Alvin a lot for tracking, and he's definitely part of the equation when I'm planning a session. I work with Reid Shippen a lot as well when I can get him on a tracking date, but he's crazy busy mixing records. And he's mixed a bunch of great records for me, too. I've worked with Steve Marcantonio several times. He's great. And I've worked with Justin Niebank a couple times on the tracking side, and a whole lot on the mixing side, and he's amazing too, but crazy busy mixing and producing in his own right. Joe Zook, who's based in LA, is one of the best engineers working too, as is Eric Robinson, also based out there.I'd say Craig Alvin is my main engineer. The guy is a huge talent,and he's a good friend, too.

The Producer's Chair: What advice would you give to anyone who is thinking about moving to Nashville?

Marshall: This is a welcoming community, but it is a community that you have to earn your way in to. I felt like...if I could earn my way here, well, that would really be something.

I want to be worthy of this town. And as hokey as that might sound, I don't really care. This place matters to me. 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 that if you're thinking about moving to Nashville, make sure you bring your "A" game. Yes, we're nice and polite here, 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.

Read other Producer's Chair interviews:

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