Songwriter/producer Glen Ballard has had a fairy tale career: Over the course of more than two decades in the L.A. music industry, the Mississippi native has worked with some of the biggest names in the business, topped the music charts many times, won Grammy Awards, started his own record company and co-founded an independent film company. Though he is perhaps best known for his recent triumphs producing Alanis Morissette’s multi-Platinum Jagged Little Pill (more than 28 million sold) and new disc, Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie, Ballard has written songs for and/or produced a wide range of artists through the years, including George Benson, the Pointer Sisters, James Ingram, George Strait, Michael Jackson, Paula Abdul, Barbra Streisand, Van Halen, Celine Dion, Aerosmith and Earth, Wind & Fire.
Never one to rest on his laurels, the indefatigable Ballard is always looking for new singers and songwriters to work with, whether they’re established talents like Billy Idol, or little-known groups like the genre-bending Boston band Splashdown. In 1996 he formed Java Records, a co-venture with Capitol Records, where he acts as producer, writer and A&R man. Artists on the Java roster include Splashdown, Lisa Marie Presley, Terence Trent D’Arby, Brendan Lynch, Block and singer/songwriters Judith Owen and Celeste Prince. Meanwhile, Ballard’s film company, Intrepid Entertainment (started with record producer David Foster and cellular giant John McCaw), is releasing its first feature, Clubland, directed by Mary Lambert, in April. The soundtrack to the film, which consists entirely of new artists, will be released on Java in March.
We caught up with Ballard shortly before the new Alanis Morissette album was released.
You wear so many hats creatively-producer, songwriter, musician, A&R man. Is there one area you feel closest to?
I started off as a songwriter really, and I’ve always approached everything from the standpoint of songwriting and arranging, and it has led naturally to my being a producer, and on some level doing some engineering, recording and programming. All of the things that I do technically are really an outgrowth of me starting off writing. So I really think of myself as a writer first, although I by no means only produce what I write. I produce a lot of other things and enjoy that process, too. I find that the hardest part is the writing. So it’s always kind of a relief if you’ve got a good song because it’s almost impossible to ruin it. Or at least you’ve got a good chance of not ruining it just because good songs are hard to find. They tend to rise to the top and make a producer’s job easier.
As a producer and musician, how do you approach the creation of an album? When does the producer take over and when does the musician or songwriter take control?
The lines are so blurred with me that I think I’m functioning on some level in every capacity as I approach any project. In a lot of cases, I’m writing material with an artist. So what I find is that I can build a lot of the production into the actual writing of it. That’s been a very exciting thing for me because a lot of times there’s a certain magic that happens when you’re creating something, whether it’s a sound, a groove, a vibe. What I’ve always tried to do-since technology in the last decade has allowed me to do this-is basically try to think of everything as a possible record, even in the writing stage. So I’m constantly thinking of stuff from a song standpoint and also an arranging and production standpoint. It all really does bleed together for me.
Do you like to develop things in the studio?
Yes, very much so. Being in the studio, I have a workshop that has all my tools there for me. It’s really easy to reach into the paintbox, as it were, and try blue or try green. When you have guitars, synthesizers, drum machines and samples-and an ability to manipulate all of that, whether it’s in Pro Tools or in a sequencer-then it just enhances your ability to get more than just a sketch of what you’re doing. I definitely love to work in my studio.
Was a lot of Jagged Little Pill developed in the studio?
All of it was.
Alanis had done some pop stuff before, but this was a different approach for her.
And it was a different approach for me, too, in that we didn’t redo anything on that record. We would record something and that was basically it. We later added some overdubs to what we’d already done, but all of her lead vocals are from the day they were written. So we largely preserved what we were doing as “demos.” It turned my head around in that the sort of conventional way to approach that record would have been, “We’ve got these wonderful demos, now let’s really cut the record.” But we felt from the beginning that it was important to not try to gild the lily, and really let the rawness and the freshness of what we had captured in its initial form speak for itself. And it certainly found resonance out there in the listening public. Some of the comments I’ve always gotten is that there’s an energy to it that seems somewhat spontaneous. The fact is that it was completely spontaneous. [Laughs] It forced me to be a better player, because I would play my part one time, and that was usually the take. I didn’t fix much of anything. She certainly didn’t sing a song more than one or two times. We were challenging each other to do it in the spirit of a performance and to own that. It was wonderful.
Was it a challenge for Alanis to reproduce her first album live on tour?
No. She’s so smart about everything. She never tried to. She said, “You know, this is how we do it now, with two guitars, bass and drums.” There wasn’t a moment of anxiety like, “This doesn’t sound like the record.” It was like, “This is how it sounds here,” and she did it with passion. It was an amazing act of courage on some level, and it was also amazingly smart to not try to get in that trap of using loops onstage and special effects. The songs had their own personality live.
How did you approach doing her new record? I assume there was some pressure, given the mega-success of the past album.
If we had considered that some expectation on the part of the industry and the public was important enough to bring into the studio with us, I think it would have been pressure. Once she was ready to write, and had gotten off the road for a year-plus, it was like we intuitively knew that we just had to do what we do. So the pressure was really more internal than external-how can we be as true to what we do as we have before? She always takes the lead in terms of being courageous about that sort of thing. She set the tone. We certainly didn’t design a record for the marketplace. We just did what we did last time, which was make a record, and not be self-conscious about it. When we first got started, she was basically working out her own internal compass. When she did that, we wrote 25 songs in 25 days, and she had written a bunch of songs on her own, and then we had an album. It was pretty straightforward.
You’ve been working with a hip band from Boston called Splashdown.
Oh, God, they’re wonderful! They basically made their record on their own, with me as a creative consultant. They’re working with an engineer/producer named Brian Carrigan. They just made this record that is amazing. It’s just exquisite. They’re so musical, and Melissa [Kaplan] has such a distinctive voice, I just fell in love with the whole vibe of the band. It’s just an exotic flavor that’s unique to them.
It’s like rock, dance and jazz all wrapped up.
It’s completely their own thing, and yet I think they’ve made a very compelling record. I think that we will find a large audience for this music, and I think it will be a refreshing change. It’s kind of hard to categorize it. It creates an initial problem in terms of the traditional marketing niches that you try to find at radio and retail. But at the end of the day, people are just going to think it’s good. We’re going to fight hard for them to find their audience, and I think they will.
There’s a dark undercurrent to a lot of their music, which gives it an edge.
It’s slightly unsettled. It’s got this almost Hitchcock quality to it in terms of there’s something not right in some of these stories and some of these moods. It’s really thrilling to me. It’s like Portishead meets The Cardigans. It’s got some pop, it’s got some trip-hop, it’s got some jazz, it’s got some progressive rock. It’s got a lot of stuff, but it all works for me.
You’re currently working with Lisa Marie Presley. I didn’t even know she was a singer. It seems like she’s avoided being in the shadow of her father’s legacy.
I think she’s always had a lot of music in her, and I think that she didn’t have an opportunity to develop it. It’s such a legacy to live up to that the natural process of somebody learning their craft and playing out or sending around demos-I think she was a little bit intimidated by the scrutiny that might have been brought on her before she was really ready for it. But she has been working on writing for quite a long time, and I think at a certain point in the last year she just said, “You know what, I do have music in me and I want to express it.” So I met with her through our mutual attorney, and I was convinced, number one, that she had a really interesting and good voice, and number two, that she was serious about becoming Lisa and not just being Elvis’ daughter. She doesn’t repudiate her legacy, but at the same time, this is her life. I think this record has really been an act of discovery and of affirmation for her.
What is the music like?
We’re just getting into it now. It’s hard to describe. It has a certain intensity to it that maybe people aren’t expecting, and a really passionate voice and delivery. It’s pop music, but it’s got a bit of an edge to it.
You’re also working with Billy Idol. Will it have that same pop-punk quality to it?
I think it’s a more mature side of Billy. He’s at a point in his life where people are interested in him, the real Billy. Not that the punk Billy isn’t the real Billy, but he’s 40 years old, and he’s survived a lot of things in his life, and I think he wants to talk about that. He’s got a distinctive voice, and he’s got some real songs. I’ve always thought he was a good songwriter. It’s just the next chapter in his life, but it’s not a punk record, nor should it be. He’s a very musical guy, and he’s been writing some songs over the last couple of years that really are from the heart and really do express something that’s beyond just the one-dimensional image that people may have of him.
Do you think we’ll see a Glen Ballard solo record?
I don’t think that’s gonna happen.
You don’t want to do it or you just don’t have the time to do it?
I suppose I could find time to do that, but I’ve never considered myself to have a distinctive enough voice. I mean, I can hit the notes, but to me it’s all about having a voice that’s compelling, that’s unique and wonderful. And I think my voice is pretty mediocre. [Chuckles] I like to tell great singers that God lets about 100 million people go by and then on the next one, he gives them a great singing voice. And it’s about that-a handful of truly great, distinctive voices on the planet at any one time. I didn’t get one; Alanis Morissette got one.
Who are some of your favorite singers?
Frank Sinatra. Alanis Morissette’s my favorite singer. I may be biased, but I think she’s the most expressive. There are no barriers between what she sings and feels and her ability to sing it. That really comes across to me. I love Chaka Khan, whom I’ve worked with. Aretha, of course. Billie Holiday. Those rank at the top for me. I’ve worked with so many great singers, it’s really overwhelming. I’ve been blessed as a songwriter to work with people like Barbra Streisand and Al Jarreau. It’s amazing to see when they get their hands on a song, how they make it their own. That’s what it’s all about for me. I think I know how to make good records, but still the vocal is at the heart and soul of it.
You’ve co-written a lot of the tunes with many of the artists you’ve produced. I’ve heard a theory that the reason pop vocalists aren’t as good today as they were 30 or 40 years ago is that too many people are actually writing their own material, whereas somebody like Frank Sinatra would sing someone else’s material but make it his own. Do you think that some of the newer artists suffer because they don’t look at the possibility of collaborations and someone else bringing something to the table?
You know, I’ve never heard it expressed that way. I think it’s a very interesting point to make. I think that most singers do write for their strengths. I think that Alanis writing her own material is an asset, but if someone has a certain comfort zone that they won’t get out of and they’re writing it all for that comfort zone, they may never stretch themselves in terms of intervals or range as they would if given a more challenging melody, one that may be more sophisticated than they may get on their own.
There are still pure singers out there like Whitney Houston, who doesn’t write very much at all and yet is an interpreter of songs. She certainly has an exquisite voice. Then you have somebody like Mariah Carey, who writes virtually everything she does, and yet I think she uses her voice profoundly well. Whether you love her material or not, there’s no question that she’s an incredible singer. Sometimes people are better singers than they are songwriters, and to get both of those things to be world-class, top-of-the-line is hard.
Even Michael Jackson is an underrated singer. I think he’s an incredible singer. He’ll spend two years making a record then go out and sing all the lead vocals in a week. He’s got such confidence and ability. I’ve worked with him sitting at a piano playing and having him sing, and it’s just a religious experience. The guy is amazing. For whatever reason, people don’t think of that first when they think of Michael, but he’s an exquisite singer. He’s expressive, has great pitch, does incredible backgrounds. His backgrounds are probably as good as anybody’s I’ve ever heard; they’re textures unto themselves.
As a songwriter, I was always interested in the best people singing my songs, then they would make the songs sound better.