Nashville producer/instrumentalist/songwriter Jon Tiven has been involved in the music business since the late '60s, when he began writing articles for such publications as Rolling Stone, Fusion and Melody Maker. His list of accomplishments in multiple areas is impressive, ranging from writing more than 400 songs to producing acclaimed releases from artists as diverse as Wilson Pickett, Steve Cropper, P.J. Sloan and Frank Black. Tiven is also quite outspoken about the changing direction of the music industry.
The Scene recently caught up with him on the occasion of his latest project, soul legend Steve Cropper's salute to the pioneering R&B group The "5" Royales, Dedicated, which comes out Aug. 9.
What was your first session as a producer?
I did Alex Chilton's solo album The Singer Not the Song in Memphis in 1975. I'd worked for a while at the New York office of Chess Records and discovered that being on the inside of a record label wasn't really how I wanted to spend my life. I had known Andrew Loog Oldham (noted Rolling Stones' producer among many other things) since 1970. He took me under his wing. He really showed me the ropes in terms of taking a track, building and getting new life into it. I played on a couple of recordings he produced as well. But the Chilton LP was my first session as a producer.
How did you become proficient on so many different instruments?
I began as an alto saxophonist when I was 15. That was really what I loved, until I had an accident playing baseball. After getting 15 stitches, I couldn't get my embrochure back. So I then turned to guitar and keyboards. But I recently started playing tenor sax, and am really enjoying it. I've been playing with musicians like Chuck Mead and Webb Wilder, and now enjoy playing the tenor as much as I once did the alto. I think I really wanted at one point to be a jazz musician and wail on the sax, so it's brought back an aspect of music I really enjoy.
At one point you were a bandleader and session musician. What made you decide to switch gears and concentrate on producing and songwriting?
Ultimately I felt I could make more of a contribution in terms of stretching the envelope as a producer. The Yankees and the Jon Tiven Group were bands I enjoyed, but I wasn't happy being manipulated in terms of what you have to do to get your songs played and your music distributed. I also wasn't that keen on being an American version of Mick Jagger, which is the portrait most of the record labels and executives envisioned. I was more interested in being something like the next Otis Redding or Bob Dylan, but that wasn't going to happen as a vocalist/bandleader.
You have a long and happy marriage that is also a professional partnership.
(Bassist) Sally and I were married in 1979. It has been musically enriching as well as personally fulfilling. We've done a lot of great work with many people, and she's someone I greatly admire and love. Once we had our daughter (Lucy, now 20) Sally had to back off some of the live gigs, but we don't see Lucy as much now since she's attending college in Ohio.
What are some of the sessions you've enjoyed the most?
Wilson Pickett became a great friend and it was a fantastic experience working with him. Frank Black, P.F. Sloan, Howard Tate, Garnett Mims. Don Covay was a true mentor and friend. He gave me a lot of wonderful advice in terms of the business. Andrew Loog Oldham is a great inspiration. He's not only produced a tremendous body of work, but is someone I really enjoy being around. Ellis Hooks is another person I've really come to enjoy being around and think is a great musician. He's going to be playing at the New York release party for Steve Cropper's new CD. The relationship with Steve is one of the most rewarding I've had with anyone at any point since I began playing and working regularly. He is an incredible player and person, and someone with a lot of innovative ideas.
What do you consider the biggest change in the business over your career?
I would say the dominance of the digital format. It's something you can't fight, and I understand that you can't cater to the few people who still prefer vinyl and cassettes. But I came up in a time when music was valued, and the album was the medium where you had artwork and liner notes, and sonic quality was paramount. The rise of digital has contributed to the devaluation of music and packaging. Now music in more and more instances is something you throw on in the background. The industry didn't really see this trend coming and didn't understand how the phenomenon of downloading would play into the devaluation of music until it was too late. There was a time when 30,000 sales of an LP would be considered pretty bad. Now that's a hit record. They also didn't realize you couldn't solve the problem with litigation.
Now the good aspect of the digital revolution is it has made it easier to gain access to music. The consumer who wants to find good music can certainly get it from a variety of sources. You don't have to do the things you used to do with a new artist to get their music to people. Websites and the Internet have brought a populist trend to the business. But it has also greatly reduced the scope and importance of a label.
You began your career as a journalist. How do you view contemporary music journalism?
A lot of it is focused on the celebrity culture. It's become very subservient to the tabloid world. The people who came into music journalism in the '60s and '70s were trying to introduce people to artists who were then on the margins. Now you have a lot people who are more concerned with following the exploits of the popular, and that's fine. It's just not what I'm interested in seeing, either in terms of writing or music.
It is much harder now for those artists who aren't doing disposable or trendy things to get profiles and coverage. The music business is so concerned with its own survival that they don't really support those entities that aren't part of that tabloid/celebrity culture, because they see that as vital to their survival. Websites haven't really helped in that way because so many are obsessed with snark and venom rather than music. Again, I'm not opposed to trendy music, nor people who write about it. It's just not what I want to do as a producer, or read about as a consumer.
Are you a fan of such shows as American Idol or The Voice?
A lot of these programs contribute to the notion of the singer being the most important person in a musical situation. I have a lot of respect for singers, but for me being a musician should be the most important thing. These programs are celebrity and television events, and they have discovered some really good singers. But they aren't fostering a climate of discovery or exposure for significant new musicians. One of the things about my sessions is that the musicians rule. We certainly want input from the singers and we get a lot of great suggestions and comments. But if there are musical decisions to be made, they are made by the musicians.
As someone who has produced many outstanding soul and R&B dates, have you tried to experiment with or incorporate hip-hop influences into your productions?
Well, it is something I would like to do, but honestly I'm not really a part of that world, and am not as familiar with it. There are people I know who are doing a great job of bringing that into the traditional R&B sound, but at this point it's something others do much better than me.
You've lived here now almost a decade (2002). Do you consider yourself a Nashvillian?
We really love it here. For one thing, New York was starting to get very difficult from a fiscal standpoint. Then, after 9/11, we really decided it was time for us to make a change. We've found a community of musicians and songwriters here and it really feels like home. We have a wonderful studio setup and a lot of musicians love coming here to record and play.
What things are you planning for the future besides the new Cropper CD?
The poet and spoken word performer Stephen Kalinich and I are working on several songs, and it's been a real treat and education to work on songs with someone that accomplished in terms of the language. The singer Dylan LeBlanc is a major talent and I've been working with him. There's a soul singer in Detroit named Willie Jones whose new LP is really going to shake some folks up when they hear it. Those are the main things, but I'm always interested in doing anything that's going to stretch boundaries and maybe surprise audiences.
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