Artistic Isolation vs. Collaborative Production: Lessons from Maurice White

Photo of Earth Wind & Fire from Columbia Records

by Madeline Lessing

I don’t think I realized that I never knew what a music producer really does until I started working with one in 2018. Watching Cam Hawkins work with my music has made production, the process of overseeing the creation of music and guiding it towards a successful destination, seem like a super power. Production is so stunning that it feels cheap to even try to put it to words. It is the ability to listen to a song first written on a ukulele and know it is destined for a piano. It is so much like fetal development. Though inherently miraculous, music and babies need to develop so many different parts before they can truly function in the world. Recording music is a grueling process of faith and recalculation. Like a pregnancy, there is no instant gratification, it is an often expensive, drawn out, nerve-wracking process. This is especially true if you are as new it, as I am.

Having the opportunity to record my music in a studio (shout out to The Record Company in Roxbury!) and observe production, engineering, and other musicians, has fostered a huge admiration and curiosity in me, for the parts of music that the average person dismisses. I wonder about what, in the music that I have listened to for so long, was a kept accident and what was intentional. I wonder who decided on the exact instrument, rhythm, effect, tuning, emphasis, or concept that turned a regular song into an undeniable hit. I wonder how many microphones Carly Rae Jepsen recorded on before she or her producer picked one. I wonder all of this after watching my producer, Cam Hawkins, wonder these things, and use their creativity to shape my music into something closer to the feelings I am trying to elicit, closer to a sonic image I can’t yet fully picture.

Writing about this is important to me, in part, because I feel so lucky to be let in on this special world, but also because art, too often, feels like something we have to achieve alone, and that is a MONSTER LIE. The marketing of artists as the sole creators of their art is an idea as widespread as it is false, and frankly, shitty. The most concrete way that this idea damages people is by validating popular artists’ failure to acknowledge and credit the people involved in making their art. When a bandcamp page for an EP fails to list the drummer, the engineer, the background vocalists, who designed the cover, and other contributors, it disrespects the time and effort of those involved, while also prohibiting them from using that work to get more opportunities. I understand that there’s something really attractive and profitable about making artists seem like polished geniuses who thought of and did everything alone, but 37 people make up the string sections of three songs on Beyonce’s Lemonade. Had this information not been well documented and easily available to the public, it would be a huge erasure of the rich, fascinating culture of music production, a beginner’s map to discovering how the complexity of great music is achieved.

Cam Hawkins’ path leading towards music engineering and production makes a lot of sense knowing that Hawkins grew up worshiping Maurice White, who formed the band Earth, Wind, & Fire. Maurice White was a gentle, highly intentional, collaborative genius. A quilter of transcendent sounds, White meticulously handpicked members of Earth, Wind, & Fire to birth and raise effortless-seeming bops such as “September” and “Shining Star”, as well as gift humans with one of the most innovative, genre-bending discographies ever. One reference to understand how truly convoluted the musical makeup of this band is can be found here.

What I think was really admirable about Maurice White was both his understanding of collaboration as a necessity, and his individual contributions to music. His 1985 solo album had about 40 contributors. “I bet half of them were percussionists”, Cam said to me. I counted 18 after that comment, one that really highlights Maurice, a drummer, as the ultimate architect of his art. Other trademarks, such as production, kalimba, and sweeping falsetto make Maurice’s solo album undeniably his, and a simple joy to listen to.

I’m not saying forty people need to be involved in art for it to be meaningful, I’m saying that art is undivorceable from connection to other people, and the world around it. I think producers are magicians for their ability to know what a song needs, all by themselves, as well as for their willingness to work with as many people as they require in order to get it right. That level of talent and humbleness is something we can all aspire to.

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