Performing Songwriter - Boz Scaggs Interview
A hallmark of a truly great artist is the ability to instill a sense of adventure into his or her work every once in a while. A musician who has done that, to great effect, over the years is Boz Scaggs. Although, like contemporaries Jackson Browne and Bruce Springsteen, he takes his time between releases, when he does decide to go into the studio and record something, he always comes up big time. He's done exactly that with "Dig" - a panoramic, breathtakingly soulful musical journey where the lines between soul, jazz, R&B, pop and rock are obliterated and redefined - and in great measure thanks to a generous sprinkling of techno and dance-grooved nuances. After more than 40 years in the business, Scaggs still continues to push the creative envelope, engage listeners, and matter.
Boz Scaggs was born William Royce Scaggs on June 8, 1944, in Ohio, and was subsequently raised in Oklahoma and Texas, where a constant exposure to the region's rhythm and blues-oriented radio stations would have a profound impact in shaping the youngsters musical destiny, particularly in the vocal area. While attending Prep School in Dallas, Scaggs hooked up with another like-minded musician, guitarist Steve Miller, and soon joined his band, The Marksmen, as their lead vocalist in 1959. After graduating from High School, the two musical soul mates attended the University of Wisconsin together and played in blues bands such as The Ardells and the Fabulous Knight Trains, where Scaggs got the chance to further hone his voice, which was becoming increasingly soulful and expressive.
In 1963, Scaggs and Miller went their separate ways, the former hooking up with an R&B group called The Wigs, which tried making a go of it in England. When that didn't pan out, Scaggs headed for Sweden where he recorded a solo album called "Boz". In 1967 he returned to the States and set up shop in San Francisco, where he ran into his old buddy Steve Miller, who asked the vocalist to join a new group he was putting together called the Steve Miller Band. Scaggs said yes, and the rest is history. Two critically acclaimed albums for Capitol Records, "Children of the Future" and "Sailor", put the Steve Miller Band and Scaggs on the progressive rock map with a clever amalgam of blues, rock and British pop. Despite the success of the two back-to-back releases, Scaggs nevertheless, felt that a solo career would provide him with the outlet he felt he needed to realise the full potential of his vocal abilities. So he exited the Miller Band in 1968, and, with the help of Rolling Stone magazine publisher Jann Wenner, captured a recording contract with Atlantic Records.
His first release for the label, "Boz Scaggs", featured Muscle Shoals, Ala's crack rhythm section, which at that time included a young hotshot guitarist Duanne Allman. The album earned Scaggs instant notoriety but didn't fare well commercially. In 1971, he switched over to Columbia Records and, with producer Glyn Johns (The Rolling Stones, The Eagles) behind the boards put out the rock-and-R&B-flavoured "Moments". Subsequent releases for the label, including 1972's "My Time" and 1974's "Slow Dancer", continued to garner critical acclaim but no chart action. That came to a screeching halt in 1976 when the singer, who now began dabbling in jazz as well as R&B - and with a killer crooning voice to spare - released the stunning "Silk Degrees". In addition to reaching No. 2 on the album charts, the record spawned the Top 2 hit "Lowdown" and the smash hit single "Lido Shuffle." Subsequent releases included 1977's "Down Two Then Left" and 1980's "Middle Man", which featured two more hit singles - the hard rocking shuffle "Breakdown Dead Ahead" and the cool and funky "JoJo."
As the "new wave" movement of the early 1980's began spreading, it became clear that R&B flavoured music would be taking a back seat - at least for the time being. As a result, Scaggs went into semi-retirement and opened up a San Francisco-based nightclub called Slim's, where he performed at the club's annual black-tie New Years Eve concerts. In terms of concert appearances, that was pretty much it.
Scaggs returned to the music scene in 1988, however, with the album "Other Roads," and then teamed up 3 years later with Steely Dan alumnus Donald Fagen for a string of concert appearances known as Donald Fagen's New York Rock and Soul Review. In 1994, he released "Some Change" and followed up in 1997 with "Come On Home". And now there's "Dig" - a stylistic tour de force that brilliantly show-cases Scaggs' skills not only as a songwriter, vocalist and guitarist, but also as a synthesizer of diverse musical elements running the gamut from jazz and rock to R&B and hip-hop-tinged loops, grooves and samples.
Produced by Danny Kortchmar, James Taylor's brilliantly understated lead guitarist, and David Paich, formerly of Toto and who also collaborated with Scaggs on the breathtaking "Silk Degrees", the album also features a stellar cast of supporting musicians on a few of the tracks, including guitarists Kortchmar and Ray Parker Jnr, bassist Nathan East, keyboardists Paich and Greg Phillinganes, percussionist / drummer Robin DiMaggio, backing vocalist Monet, and horn player Roy Hargrove Jr.
Still the king of cool, in the following interview Scaggs discusses his songwriting process, home studio, "Dig" and the role technology has played in its making.
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Rick: How did your new record "Dig" come about ?
Boz: How it came about and the conception are kind of two different things. How it came about was I started showing some of my ideas - some little musical sketches and pre-production things - to David Paich, a keyboard player, arranger and producer who also collaborated with me years ago. So in showing these sketches to him, he had some interest in them and then gave me a few ideas as to how to proceed with them musically. He just played them back, and we started feeling them out. Basically, it was two people feeling that they had made a musical connection. We had some success 25 years ago in terms of hit songs, but we hadn't worked together since then. And it just clicked again.
So that's how the project started. And that led to putting together half a dozen or so pieces of things that we began to concentrate on. But we felt we were missing an element. We began looking for something that had a little more edge - a little more of a guitar oriented groove. And I'd been listening to some recent work by Danny Kortchmar. David and Danny had worked together a fair amount in the past, and David was very encouraging about my getting in touch with him. I'd certainly been aware of his work as a guitar player-producer over a number of years.
So the three of us made a date to get together at my studio in San Francisco, and we spent three days going over some material and putting our collective hands to the task. We decided right then and there the chemistry was good and that we had some work to do. We fixed a date, which was sometime last August [of 2000], to go in the studio and start working. We gave ourselves a schedule, which involved a period of about 2 1/2 weeks. We did round one at David's studio in L.A., where we got all the basics together. Round two was done at a place back east in a studio where Danny does most of his work. That entailed doing some overdubs with some people in New York. And then round three was done at my home studio in San Francisco, which involved mostly vocals and tidying things up. We finished up in early December.
I really didn't have any preconceptions as to what the album was supposed to be. It was more - I think - what I didn't want it to be. I wrote the lyrics to all the songs during the three-month period that we were recording. When I reached down to figure out what the lyrics were that the music called for, that's what I came up with.
Rick: Like your previous records, there's a cool rhythm-and-blues/jazz flavour. Yet, there's also a strong technology bent, with loops, samples and hip-hop grooves. Let's talk about that for a minute.
Boz: Okay. Most of the songs that have Danny Kortchmar's name on them as music writer were done in his pre-production studio where he works with loops and samples and then puts together these groove pieces. Other pieces on the record were a little more organically derived. In other words, they just started with a sketch and then got filled out by David Paich, my engineer and myself. We did a lot of pre-production work on the music. We had set up all the rhythm tracks using standard digital drum machines and so forth.
The real work took place when we got together for round one in L.A. when we brought in all the individual elements that went into the pre-production work and loaded all that into Pro Tools. Although we had all worked in that medium before, none of us has ever actually begun a project in Pro Tools. And it became apparent during the first couple of weeks of recording that we were using Pro Tools as an instrument in itself - as a creative tool. I think what surprised us all was that after a couple of weeks of work, we had pretty much nailed down the entire record. Because of that, we were able to experiment with this sort of lightning speed that would not have been possible with a small bevy of engineers and four studios running simultaneously. We were free to arrange and rearrange all we wanted. And in the hands of those two veterans, we went a long way very quickly.
But what's interesting is we used analog techniques in the digital world. We didn't try to perfect anything. We didn't get into cutting a lot of tracks. We did one-pass solos, one-pass performances and left mistakes in. We really tried to keep the feel of the record alive and to keep the basic recording as clean and clear as we could get it.
Rick: Did you enjoy working out of your home studio?
Boz: I did, my speciality is vocals, and so I spent a lot of time setting up my room with microphones and pre-amps and cable and so forth so that I felt very, very comfortble. It was nice to see the room at work in full production, and at the same time be able to do this stuff that was so personal to me - stuff that I find difficult to do in rooms that I really haven't been able to work in so much.
Rick: I noticed that you've been playing a lot more guitar on this record.
Boz: Yeah. Its been an off-and-on thing. I have a very limited range as a musician. I never really developed much outside of a basic bluesy, R&B kind of feel. But I have, over time, gotten down a little bit of what I consider my own style, which allows me to place my guitar playing in a sort of realm. My co-producers, Danny and David, were able to recognise that, and they set up a platform for me as a guitar player so that within a given song, within a given passage, there was plenty of room for me and my style. Part of what makes them so great at what they do is being able to recognise what I could do and then making a place for me.
Rick: Lets talk a little bit about your songwriting process. What's it like?
Boz: I set aside a period of time - maybe its a few weeks - where I need to come up with material, and my way of doing that is not by what I call writing. It's done by simply having a guitar or a piano around and taking some pot shots at it every once in a while and then putting it on a very rudimentary four-track or eight-track recorder - just to get down an idea, a little groove, a little sequence of changes and a basic melody.
I don't have a very systematic way of doing it as an ongoing thing. What I do, though, is at some point I gather up those bits and pieces and then begin to flesh them out musically, either on my own with a drum machine or with some multiple-channel machine, or I'll get together with a musical collaborator. And then I take the music as far as I can.
The way that I come up with the words and the concept to a song is perhaps similar to the way that a novelist writes. It's very much a fictional process. I have to find the characters in each song individually. I have to listen to what each song says, plus what the attitude of the singer is. Then I find the voice and create the character that can perform that song. And sometimes the music is so suggestive that I can pretty much write it in a few passes. At other times - and more often than not - it's a matter of trial and error and trying to find that voice. In doing that I use a little multi-track hard disk recorder just lay my voice into it. I then listen back and see if that voice is really resonating with that particular version of the music - until I find a voice that I think is the right voice. Then I listen to what that voice is saying and try to fill in the blanks. I don't dwell on melody much at all. That comes in the very beginning. I'm primarily a singer, and where my voice goes is where the music's going.
Rick: Does technology enter into your songwriting process?
Boz: I use guitar-modeling devices to conjure up a mood or an attitude on the guitar. And I use the multi-track hard disk recorder on my voice to easily add reverb or limiting or compression to come up with different attitudes and voices and styles.
Rick: A really cool, atmospheric track on Dig is "Vanishing Point", and I noticed that you co-wrote the lyrics. Do you often do that?
Boz: I don't generally do that. It's very rare, and it happened three times on this record. And in this case, "Vanishing Point" was one of the most challenging tunes I had ever written. I had written pages and pages [of notes], trying to find the theme of that song. David Paich wrote the music to it, and its more a song from his idiom than mine, although I liked a lot of things about it. I wanted to complete it, but I just couldn't get a handle on it. I couldn't find the key to it.
Anyway, I was expressing my frustration concerning the song to my wife, Dominique Gioia, over the telephone. She's a book editor, and I told her of my dilemma and started reading specific lines to her. I had the character in the song going to Nepal or some high place, and I said to her, "I'm sick of trying to elevate this song. I just want the guy to go to Vegas or something." And she said, "Well, there you go. That's where your song needs to go. That's going to tell your story." And that was the key. She was obviously right. So I finished the song, and I got stuck a little later on the bridge and she helped me again. She swooped in after I had a rough idea and filled in the blanks beautifully and understood, subliminally, where I was going. She was surprised [afterwards] that I wanted to give her co-writing credit, but there really was no question that she had made a significant contribution to that song.
Rick: What was the inspiration behind "Sarah"?
Boz: The inspiration was Danny Kortchmar's musical track. He had sent me a few pieces to consider writing words for and putting melodies to. And this one was a bit strange. The first time I heard it, it was unsettling to me as a musical piece because it had these unresolved chords that were very irritating. As a matter of fact, I played it for David Paich, and he had the same impression. But because it came from Danny, and knowing that there's a genius behind a lot of what he does and presents, I gave it another couple of listens.
And I found in listening to it again - and in humming and singing into it - this wonderful character. I found this wonderful dark beauty in the song and in the changes. And in singing it, a comfortable, easy little melody kept coming out, and I fell into the idea of a Southern girl. I'm not from the Southwest, but I've been close to the South in my upbringing and because of my fathers heritage, but there's something so easy and familiar about falling into the style of a beautiful Southern girl, and that seemed to marry up with the way I was feeling about this little melody that came out of Danny's song.
Rick: Boz, you've been making music for more than 40 years. What keeps you going?
Boz: I think most artists can relate to a moment or a time in which they were just so intensely and viscerally involved by something that they heard or saw or read. In my case there was a lot of music around me as a 10 year old kid. I was passionate about the music that I was hearing on the radio. And then a few years later, I was able to see music performed live. I saw Ray Charles perform live in an auditorium that held 3,000 people, and I got electrified. I had an awakening. Something stirred in me. The intensity and beauty of that music and Ray's performance and his style lit up my circuitry. And he wasn't the only one. But a good part of what I'm [going] after is trying to recharge that energy. If I can recreate for an audience what it felt like to get hit with some of that great stuff, then it makes my day.