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Blake Morgan - Interview

  by Lisa Torem

published: 29 / 10 / 2012

Blake Morgan - Interview


Lisa Torem speaks to New York-based musician and producer Blake Morgan about his ECR label and his as-yet-untitled forthcoming next album

Recently Blake Morgan, owner of ECR (Engine Company Records), and his colleagues celebrated a decade of success with a label launch in New York City. The event was well attended by artists, producers and other key players in the industry. Blake Morgan’s background is diverse and his skill set includes producing, performing, songwriting and playing a variety of instruments. By managing his own label, he is able to utilize these skills and collaborate with artists with whom he shares an artistic vision. In a comprehensive interview with Pennyblackmusic, he explained how his musical background prepared him for a career in the industry, how he approaches tapping into his own creativity, his as-yet-untitled forthcoming next album and how he has attracted such a wide circle of friends. PB: Hi Blake. It was incredible meeting so many creative individuals at your launch. They all seemed excited to be there and to work with you. How would you describe your mix of friends and colleagues? BM: Thanks. It was quite a night, both professionally and personally. I feel honoured to have the colleagues and mentors in music that I have, and fortunate to have the friends in my life that I do. The magical part for me is that so many of the people I'm close to are in both categories at the same time. The sense of positivity and artistry at the event was palpable, and without a whiff of pretension. The best thing I can say is it was a party I'd actually want to go to! PB: You studied piano as a very young child, but later became a multi-instrumentalist. Was your piano training helpful when learning guitar and bass? BM: Dizzy Gillespie once said that every musician should learn to play the piano regardless of what their primary instrument is, because it is the only instrument where you can see all the notes. For instance on the guitar, there are many ways to play "middle C," but on the piano, there's only one. It's been very helpful as I evolved into a multi-instrumentalist, for exactly that reason. The piano is in my thinking, like a roadmap, regardless of what instrument I'm holding at the time. I was on a serious path to become a concert pianist before my parents’ vinyl Beatles collection changed, well, everything. PB: What classical music inspired you when you were young and what pop bands inspire you now? BM: Wow, okay, so how much space do we have for this interview? Well, let's see, I was the kid who fell asleep each night listening to Bartok and Bach, Chopin and Mozart, Stravinsky and Satie. I still listen to that music all the time, and have this crazy idea that someday I'm going to make a record of all 24 Chopin Preludes. But, I remember when I was six, picking ‘Meet The Beatles’ off the shelf and saying to my mother, "I know this one is Ringo," pointing to his photo, "but what are the other one's names?" In mild horror she stopped what she was doing and explained, "Listen, no son of mine is going to walk around not being able to name all four of the Beatles. Sit down." That was definitely the beginning of a new musical chapter for me. But there's so much great music right now–maybe more than ever. I've just seen shows of some of my favourite bands and artists this year, including Bjork, Radiohead, Punch Brothers–in fact, I just saw two incredible, moving solo shows of Chris Thile at Rockwood Music Hall here in NYC that made me want to both practice for 100 straight hours and also kill myself. PB: What themes tend to trigger your imagination for songwriting and what comes first-melody, lyrics or instrumental hook? BM: I've always been a melody-first guy. But actually having just said that, I'm also a title-first guy sometimes. I often have sort of a bank of melodies, a bank of lyrical snippets (like a thought or a line I love but don't know what to do with it), and a bank of titles. There's a song on my new record that I'm in the midst of finishing called ‘Suspicious Bliss’. It is a title I've had banging around for years but haven't had the right melody or fully formed thought to marry to it until now. Themes for songs in the past have come from anywhere and everywhere, but these new songs are about this most recent period of my life. Following a difficult break up four years ago, I said to someone recently that I pulled on the thread of my relationship, and the sweater of my life unravelled. Fortunately since then I've managed to knit a new one that fits me better. And that's what this new album is about. PB: You signed a multi-album deal with Phil Ramone’s (N2K Sony/Red) label in 1996, but then opted out of the contract, even though you were considered one of the label’s most successful artists. Some people would have considered that contract a done deal and would have been reluctant to make that move. How difficult was that decision? BM: It was the most difficult and painful decision of my life. I had seemingly won the dream scenario: a multi-album deal with a huge label and security for my musical future. I wanted to be one of those guys who was with the same label for his entire career. Done deal. But. as things moved forward, it was clear that the label was, in fact, moving backward and my musical future was in danger. I felt I had to either break free or be washed out, so I did the former. Phil was–and is–a friend, and he wrote me a beautiful letter after the dust settled that I will always cherish. What happened back then had nothing to do with him. PB: You have said that on ECR that artists have control over their own material. How does this work? How closely do you work with your artists in the studio? Does this depend on whether the artist is working on a debut or a follow up?” BM: ECR is a company that is directly connected to our work in the studio. It's where we do the work to realize the vision that our artists have for the records they want to make. All of our artists–and our labels for that matter–own 100% of their master recordings. In the case of our artists' material, I work as closely as one possibly could. Pre-production, arranging, recording and producing, and mastering. Not in an effort to have my fingerprint–or any fingerprint for that matter–be more visible than the artist's. It's in an effort to make records where each artist truly feels that what we were after has been achieved. It can take months sometimes. I've never had an artist I've ever made a record with who didn't say they'd loved the experience, or that it wasn't the best album they'd ever made and that they'd want to make another one together. We don't stop working on a record until they do feel that way. I'm very proud of that. PB: ECR appears to be an eclectic label, as opposed to historic labels like Motown, which delivered a set brand of music. Your roster is diverse and includes classical artists (20th Century Duos), emo, pop and punk. Does this present a marketing challenge? BM: On the contrary. The best marketing strategy you can possibly have is to have music that captivates, compels, and resonates, regardless of genre. For all the cynicism, deep down people know when something's good versus when it isn't. You feel it in your bones. And that feeling is the best foundation for marketing you can have. For all the tools one can employ to market a work of art, they're all pretty useless if that work of art stinks. PB: In 2005, you released ‘Burning Daylight’, with co-producer Phil Nicolo. Did you and Phil find common ground in your musical tastes/styles? In general, are there more benefits in co-producing a project or going it alone? BM: Well I rarely co-produce, but when I have, I've been very fortunate. For my first album, ‘Anger's Candy’, I co-produced with the great Terry Manning. That experience, and our lasting friendship in the years since has changed my life. For ‘Burning Daylight’ I co-produced with Phil Nicolo, after having already made over a dozen records together with him. Sometimes mixing together, sometimes tracking, sometimes mastering. Always, always, laughing and laughing hard. In fact just this year, two of the records I'm working on right now had their drums recorded at Phil's famous Studio 4 in Philadelphia. He is a magical friend. The luck I've had to have two mentors like that. So yes, like-minded and much common ground to say the least. I rip them both off in the studio every day, and I'm utterly proud to admit it. The vast majority of the records I've made throughout my career I've produced and recorded on my own, at ECR's studio in NYC that I built. This new album of mine is also the first true studio record (‘Silencer’ was really live in the studio) that I'm producing and recording by myself. In fact, I'm playing all the instruments too, except for drums. PB: Every producer has a personal style. When you set out to produce a record, do you avoid listening to other records or do you keep an ear out for fresh ideas? BM: Well, Tom Waits says that you will inevitably secrete that which you've absorbed. I try to absorb everything I can, new or old. My "sound" as a producer has clearly been shaped by what's soaked in to my musical ground so to speak. Each record is different, and I'm a producer that's very committed to making sure that each one sounds like it needs to, not like what I need it to. PB: “In 2006’s ‘Silencer’, you displayed your acoustic talent, yet you’ve also made a name for yourself as an artist/producer who can creatively layer sound. Which approach serves your songwriting best and, as you’ve done both, what will we hear on your upcoming album? BM: That's a fitting question. ‘Silencer’ was sort of a palette-cleanser if you will. It was me kind of hitting the "reset" button, and trying to begin to figure out where I wanted to go next. This new record is different than my others in the past, in that it incorporates organic and acoustic elements with layered production in a way I haven't done before. Maybe this is me being a little more ‘Rubber Soul’ than ‘Revolver’ this time. Only my two favourite records, of course. PB: ECR seems to run in more of a democratic manner than many other companies. What are your expectations of your artists, creatively and contractually? Do you make business decisions on a case-by-case basis or do you have specific guidelines that you expect everyone to follow? BM: My expectation for our artists is that they grow, creatively and personally. That each month is a month they couldn't have imagined a month ago. It turns out that that's what makes really good business sense in the end. This isn't a democracy, but it is a collective. We push each other, artistically and individually, to be better. That was my vision for this label when I started it. The business decisions are always on a case-by case basis, based on the healthiest decisions that can be made with that artist. Each are in different places in their careers, and want different things. What I try to do is challenge them to identify what they really want. Musically, and otherwise. It might surprise you how hard a question that can be to answer if no one has seriously asked it of you before. Especially when it's being asked by someone who can deliver it. You have to identify what you're after, because you can't get what you want until you know what you want. PB: In terms of time management, how much time do you devote to being a CEO as compared to doing creative work? BM: There's a saying that "the shoemaker's shoes always get fixed last." Yes. indeed, it's the biggest challenge I face: running ECR, producing and recording multiple albums, and all while not losing myself as an artist. It's a challenge I face on a daily basis. I've, however, discovered something interesting about myself. I've discovered that the various facets of my career feed each other much more than they detract from one another. I'm a far better musician because of ECR. I'm a far better musician because of the other artists I work with, and produce. And the time and energy it takes me to run the company and deal with the business stuff is infinitely less than the alternative, which is letting someone else do it and screw it up–which I've already tried. As our success grows, and as my own career grows, this balancing act will get tougher. Ironically, it will also get easier. Figure that out. PB: Lesley Gore had a dynamic career before signing with your label, but some of your other artists are newer to the business. I’ll leave it to you to identify which artists you want to discuss, but what led some of them to ECR; at which point in their careers did they seek you out or did you encourage them to come aboard? BM: I think the great, lasting labels and music companies have always had both celebrated stars and emerging artists, and I wanted ECR to follow that model. The truth is, whether it's been established artists or newcomers, I've never really A&R'ed someone, or gone out and sought someone out. Each case, though very different, has come from a completely organic "accident" of sorts. Janita and I were sat next to each other at a gala event of around a thousand people. We got to talking, and that began a musical conversation we're still having three years later. Melissa Giges and I have a mutual friend who introduced us to each other and thought I might be able to give her some advice. And now, here we are making her second record with ECR. David Cloyd also came to me through a mutual friend, and I think the first time we met we sat in an Irish pub for about four hours talking about music. In each case, there was synergy, and chemistry, and I thought "I can do something special with this person." I would lie down in traffic for each of the three of them. PB: Let’s say indie artist X has written a few songs that she thinks are “hits,” and she can get a reasonable number of people out to hear one of her sets. What are the odds that you will give X a chance? BM: The odds are exactly as high or as low as how good artist X is. How committed, and how clearly that artist can demonstrate that they have vision. Everyone thinks they have "hits." I'm attracted to artists that think they have "art." By the way, it's only artists like that who have ever made true "hits" that endure. PB: What kind of growth do you hope ECR achieves in the next decade? BM: Someone recently asked me: if money were completely off the table, what would I do. I told them I would do exactly what I'm doing right now. Except it would be easier. I could never have imagined that we'd be where we are now when I founded ECR in a one-room makeshift office and studio and launched it on my laptop ten years ago. But the truth is…we're really just doing exactly what we did back then. Making music we believe in and building our artists' careers. Except, it's easier. So check in with me again in ten years, okay? PB: In one of your originals, you sing: “Better to make the break than take the fall…” and “I’m waiting for better angels.” This song sounds very autobiographical. Is it? Have the last few years brought you any better angels? BM: I think the most important line in that song for me is, "I wouldn't mind hanging on/If I could find out what I'm hanging from." It's a song about the beauty and burden, of hope. These last few years have been the most extraordinary years of my life. It's up to me to make what comes next, come next. I can't wait... PB: Thank you.

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Blake Morgan - Interview

Blake Morgan - Interview

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