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THE PRODUCER'S CHAIR: DOUG JOHNSON

THE PRODUCER'S CHAIR: DOUG JOHNSON

By James Rea www.theproducerschair.com

Although many prefer not to work 'inside', Doug Johnson is one of a small handful of legendary producers, who prefer to be at the pulse, where A&R, artist development and writer development collide. And for good reason...at the heart of it all, is a songwriter, with well over 100 cuts, including 10 top 10s and 10 number ones. Interestingly enough, Doug Johnson has the distinction of being the only 'Hit' songwriter in Nashville, to 'ever' maintain three successful careers, 'simultaneously'.

In the past 25 years, as President of Giant and VP of A&R at Epic and Curb, Johnson has signed, produced, written with, nurtured, launched and overseen the careers of, countless stars, from Patty Loveless, Collin Raye, Doug Stone, Joe Diffie, Ty Herndon, Sons of the Desert, Clay Walker, The Wilkinsons, Blake Shelton, Joe Nichols, Neal McCoy, Tim McGraw, Leann Rimes, Rascal Flatts, George Strait, Trace Adkins, Kenny Rogers, Wynonna, Rodney Atkins, Lee Brice, Clay Walker and Heidi Newfield, to Kelsea Ballerini. And you only have to be in his presence for about 1 minute, to realize that, Black River's growing pains are officially over.

Doug Johnson
Doug Johnson

Listening to Doug talk about the joy and the significance, of having the opportunity to sit in a room and write with Kelsea Ballerini and Gordon Kerr while they go through that vital process of discovery, speaks volumes to, his passion and the keys to his success...And he has plenty to say.

"There's never been a time, where hit records made and who an artist is, needs to be more genuine because singles lasting as long as they do on new artists, can last 40 weeks. Lee Brice's song Love Like Crazy lasted fifty six weeks. It's good for me as a writer but, for a record company, cost of promotion but, also trying to put a name with the face like, who is Lee Brice, you know that brand. But I guess we all know what it means. I think that, the fact that for us, Kelsea Ballarini is totally Kelsea Ballerini. She has not tried to be Kelsea Ballerini. And luckily for us, Forrest Whitehead and Jason Massey who co-produced it, basically went in and made a record that, the three of them love. And thankfully we weren't dumb enough to find anything wrong with that. They made the record they love, personally, that she loves.
Sam Hunt is genuine. There's an amazing group of songwriters around him that have great material, and a great record but he's genuine. Chris Stapleton is genuine. None of the above are anything alike but, you know what you're getting pretty quick."

Lee Brice's massive hit Love Like Crazy written by Doug Johnson and Tim James broke the record established by Eddie Arnold, for the longest chart run in the history, of the Hot Country Songs charts.

"Radio is not the enemy. I've always said that radio can't play what we don't send them. I think it's a matter of just great music. The biggest artist in the world, Adele...it's just great music. She's a great singer and it's hitting a nerve. She said in an article that, she thinks it's the fact that, she's a little overweight, and she might be a little ordinary. I'm not sure exactly her words but, the essence was that, she thinks it helps her success because, she's just another one of the people out in the world, with a few pounds extra. If they are moved, I think the hair on the back of their neck and their arms matter more.
I think it's good to have a look. Jack Nicholson has a look as an actor. And we, as A&R people and producers and people in our format...it's always tempting to listen with our eyes sometimes or, to let that be part of the equation and the truth is...in the world of media, record labels are going to spend a million plus dollars to give a new artist a real chance. So you want everything to be as good as it can be.
Another challenge to me...the track guys in town. Which are some brilliant talent but, if we're not careful because so much of the sounds are similar, we're going to end up with a lot of male artists sounding similar.

The Producer's Chair: Has that not, already been the case?

Johnson: If a guy comes to town and that's who he is genuinely, then genuinely 'Be that'. Be loud and put 10 truck songs on your album. But, it just better be mighty great. So I think we got to make great music and try to make records that, immediately there's something about that record that sounds unique to the artist and hopefully there's something unique about that song to that artist. Hopefully it's relatable, hopefully we respect the fact that radio is conscious if they play Keith Urban and then they play the next record. The three or four hits that that fifth thing they play, they are worried that it sounds like the listener has changed radio stations. They are afraid to lose that whole thing. So how do you fit in, and stick out all at the same time? Number one is...if you have a great song then, you're 60% there. If you've got a great emotional singer that, has a unique sound and is believable. And hopefully it's genuine so that artists can continue to do, whatever that is.
For us, our format is so beautifully broad that it's incredible. I can't wait to hear the Brandy Clark that she's done with Jay Joyce because he is one of my favorite producers and she is tremendous. There again. Girl Crush...No jumps, spring reverb on the guitars, all the air in this space. The Cam record...no drums just an amazing song obviously written with that guitar as part of the copyright and her incredible voice. It's a great song and it's working at a time where you feel like every time you would hear; well we need tempo we need energy, anything is possible. That's what's so great about this crazy business. Three and half minutes could make a liar out of any of us.
What about If I Die Young? Me as a songwriter...I don't know I've ever had a hit song that sounded like it fit whatever was going on right then and certainly Three Wooden Crosses didn't sound like...Boy that sounds like radio.
I just think we all have to do number one, what we love, whether you are the artist, the writer or the producer. If we feel like God put us on this crazy planet to do it, then I think he gave us the mechanism of, the hair on the back of our neck to let us know if we are going in the right direction. We just need to stay the most passionate relatable real life format there is.

The Producer's Chair: Have you been writing, as much as you'd hoped, since we last spoke?

Johnson: I have been. Most of its late afternoon or evening writes. I haven't had time to be demoing as much as I should be but, I don't know it's what keeps me sane. It's what I love. It reminds me of how hard it is to find a song that really is worthy of everything else. That has to happen to have money spent and the many, many people that work hard to make that successful. Math is not our friend. Nothing about math is our friend. We have to try to do it within three and a half minutes or so. There are way more records than can be played. Record sales are way down, for all the obvious reasons.

The Producer's Chair: Are you mainly writing with artists on the label?

Johnson: Normally, early on with an artist I will write with them because, it's a great way to get to know each other. It a wonderful way to sit across the room from a young artist, just to know what they're passionate about but, I've never felt like a writer that was very good at target writing. I'm kind of, if I'm lucky enough that God sends something to the room and I happen to be the recipient, I'm good with that. So yeah I do but more as they get to know each other because you'll never know an artist like you can sitting in a room going through the writing process. And seeing what moves them and what they get excited about and what melodies stand out for them and asking the questions...What's your favorite feel? If you were to do a show tonight and you were doing 60 minutes, halfway in the middle of that show, what do you wish, if you had that song, that great song, what do you wish it felt like? That you just wish you could nod your head and say now's the time to go into that one. And what do you want to say? For me as an A&R record company guy in a writing situation with an artist; to ask that question; what is it that you want to say? And it cannot be; whatever it takes to get on radio. I think that's the kiss of death.

The Producer's Chair: What has been the biggest challenge at Black River?

Johnson: The challenge is proving to the town that, we can have success as a record company at radio. Because no matter how many people love us, if they don't feel like we can take their songs and their records all the way, then in this format, you're last on the list, of where to shop. So that challenge of the staff, getting the staff right and being in a place where, we can start building our foundation and go from there. I think our staff is there now and absolutely great. Gordon Kerr who is CEO and part of the family is just tremendous. He is a music man. I tell him at least once a week thank god you got great ears because if you didn't, you'd still be my boss.

The Producer's Chair: When you made the decision to leave Curb, was Gordon's musical savvy part of the reason?

Johnson: I probably didn't know it then. His light and his enthusiasm and even then grant's enthusiasm and even then I hope that every year it grows but even then when I walked in, the air, it felt good, really good. It was something exciting but as corny as it was there again I probably said it before but, the mission statement; We want to leave the world a better place than we found it. And hey that's corny but that's me to a tee.
Music can do that. Music can have a tremendous, tremendous effect. I've been lucky enough to be part of records that have changed some lives or have been used for purposes bigger than just music. And so yeah, it was obvious that felt like a God thing.

The Producer's Chair: When you're signing a new artist to Black River what is the most important consideration? Is it their writing potential, voice or abilities to connect with fans?

Johnson: That it Factor which is as you know that unique interpretation so yeah hopefully a great voice but that ability to interpret something in a way that street noise fan noise all of these little noises all the sudden just colliding and when that that one person sings in a magical way it grabs your attention and you're there inside that song with them, inside that performance. And then the ability to imagine that person in front of 20,000 people and knowing that that person, while they are wanting to evolve, that they have a true sense of who they are. And they would rather play down on Broadway for the rest of their life then do something else. And the writing yes if they can be part of. Kelsea Ballerini co-wrote everything on her record and some songs she wrote by herself. If we had to go out and find those songs, I don't know if we could have. I'm not knocking anyone. We are in a town of some of the greatest songwriters in the world but that are so tailor-made for her that, its incredible when an artist is a great songwriter.

The Producer's Chair: What is it about new artists that, inspires you the most?

Johnson: There is a beautiful thing in not knowing any better. Rock and roll music would not exist if it weren't for that. Maybe our format wouldn't exist. It's like hey...they tell us this is wrong but it feels good to us so we're going to do it. We're just going to figure out a way to make it louder.

The Producer's Chair: When you said bend the rules what rules are you talking about? Production rules, radio rules?

Johnson: I think we're talking about the Cam record for Cam. I think the Florida Georgia Line, when they came out. I think The House That Built Me, I think Chris Stapleton. The rule is 'this is how we do it, this is the only thing that will work' is the most dangerous thing to great music. If you're an artist or a writer/artist, if you're doing what makes the hair on your back of your neck stand up, you are thrilled, you have better a chance to do the same thing, to somebody that hears you. And if you're guessing what will work at radio and what will work for those people and you know what there have been some writers and do that beautifully and they make it sound like an art and that's OK too. Why does the artist want to make a record to begin with? That's got to be more than, I just want to make a lot of money.

The Producer's Chair: How do you're and Celia Froehlig's responsibilities differ, when it comes to artist/writer development?

Johnson: I'm honestly A&R and looking artist-wise but when a new artist writes, Celia and Dave Pacula, who is over here too, who is great at artist development and writer development, we will talk a lot about ideas of where we're kind of, that love nudge, of where were kinda going and what writing opportunities. So yeah in a record company everybody's A&R.
Everybody has an opinion about the music and the number one opinion needs to be that writer and that artist. That needs to be the ultimate opinion. It can be a little different for every artist but creatively I think Cecilia, Dave and I and Gordon try to create opportunities for that artist and a writer, to find them-selves.

The Producer's Chair: In the artist development process, does the label hire performance coaches?

Johnson: We have, to help them be at their best, at their way of performing. I tell you we try to have copies of every video you can see of performances. I mean I can't imagine Garth Brooks didn't look at every rock and roll performance ever been filmed, to find out what worked and then what rang for him. And for an artist to not take the advantage of video and film and to look at live performances is like somebody wanting to play football and never watching the NFL.

The Producer's Chair: How is Black River different than other labels?

Johnson: We communicate here like crazy. Every Monday we have an executive meeting. Every Tuesday morning we have communications meeting. We go over every artist, every aspect of everything. We try to be on the same page, to make sure we're not missing anything. The level of communication, the level of defining and prioritizing goals in a timely fashion, where we are now, where we are going to be in 2 months, where are going be in 6 months, where we are going to be in a year. Who we are. How we're doing on individual artist growth and how we're doing as a label. I love it...a lot of communication and a lot of opportunity, for everybody to have creative results. It feels good.

The Producer's Chair: How many new artists and writers are you hoping to sign in 2016?

Johnson: There have been a couple new artists that we looked at that, we just haven't been able to make the right deal. We are looking for a few more new artists who will be part of our future. We have it right now. I would love to have that new artist. We are looking. But there again we are trying to hold ourselves to the level of Kelsea Ballerini of talent and our belief. Because we are gonna make sure, when we get involved with an artist, we are intending on being in a long term relationship.
The bar is high and it's really expensive and we are going to believe and not only spend a lot of money but there's a lot of passion at this label for the artists that we are involved with. And what we are trying to do. It's heartbreak when it doesn't work. Especially for the artist you know. So really the writer artist things are two separate things unless that artist is a writer. Then it might become both areas. But yeah we want to grow. We want to grow as far and as fast, as we have our foundation built now.
We are proving that the staff can deliver, given a great artist with great music. And now we are wanting to grow and there again, we will only be as good as our artist and their music. And I meet with artists ever week and every one of them is great. But it's finding that right fit, that it factor, that what they do and what we do fits together. There are a couple of artists that I have heard that I don't feel are necessarily right for us but that I would be glad to call another record label guy and say hey, you really need to take a look at this group because they are great but it's really frustrating when you are really excited about somebody but, you don't feel like you are the right place for them.
I love talking about our business from the writing to making records to hopefully it would help if young artists have a sense of how hard it is, the amount of money that is going to be spent, to be ready to do everything for themselves, to have success, number one by being true to them-selves which, is not an easy task. There are not many people in our business who if you ask a question will give you a completely honest answer. Most people will give you a somewhat safe honest answer.

The Producer's Chair: Is it not incumbent upon the industry, to inspire young artists, regardless?

Johnson: I like the word inspire but I am not sure if that's always the case. I think some people will tell somebody something, just so they don't say something negative but, they want to get done with the conversation and there again, you just got to remember, it's a betting area. Nobody knows all the answers.
I want to be proud of my failure when I was wrong and I know it sounds weird to say that but, I want it not to be because of the artists or their music but because it failed some other way. I would make that effort again with that artist or that writer or that artist and producer working together, go back and say; you know what...we did it for the right reasons. Things just aren't going to happen you know but I want to be able to look back and say; I know why we gave it a shot and why we believed and we won't ever stop believing. Maybe we couldn't make it happen, maybe we couldn't make it happen here, but we could make it happen somewhere else. And hopefully we all do really well and live happily ever after.
Radio is wide open to new artists. The towns open. Our format is broad so anything is possible. It's all very hard and it's all very expensive. Every label can only take so many shots because of it taking so long to set up in radio. And still, without radio, no artist is going to have the amount of success in our country format that, they would like to have. Radio is our friend.
I heard somebody say this week, if we focus too much on the results, we paralyze ourselves and I think that there's some truth to that. I think we have to focus on, the why we're doing it in the first place, if we really feel like we're meant to do it. Kelsea walked in here knowing who she was. She hasn't developed more knowing 'why' she wanted to do this. Knowing 'what' rang in her heart.

Read other Producer's Chair interviews:

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