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.

Cultivating Queer Utopia Out Of Queer Suffering: An Interview With Butch Baby

By: Madeline Lessing and Ari Toole

Photo: Ari Toole

Butch Baby is a rising, fiercely-honest punk band with front seat intensity, and hot glowing sax parts. The band is the brainchild and story of Shiloh Trudeau (they or he pronouns) who plays guitar and sings. Trudeau is joined by Fox Hillyer (they pronouns) on baritone sax, Madden Klass (she pronouns) on drums, and AJ Lawrence (they pronouns) on bass. Before playing the Democracy Center, they were kind enough to let us ask them about their mesmerizing new EP.

How does your astrological sign influence your music?

Shiloh: My sign makes me especially melodramatic. Libras are always melodramatic, always in love with somebody which is definitely a vibe in our songs. Typical dyke drama. I feel that each song represents a different way I have experienced love, which is very Libra.

Can you say more about why you named the EP Stoned Butch Blues?

Shiloh: It pays respect to Leslie Feinberg’s book, Stone Butch Blues. It’s about this person who is nonbinary and they go back and forth between identifying as a trans man and a lesbian their whole life. I very much relate to that… and I’m stoned… all of the time.

How did the instrumentation come to be? We are especially curious about the saxophone, given it’s really unconventional in punk.

Shiloh: Initially, I was writing music that sounded more like Big Thief but then, I met Madden, the perfect punk drummer, and was like alright, I can work with that. After that, I met Fox and loved them and thought to myself, I don’t know how yet, but we’re gonna figure this out. It didn’t take very long.

Fox: As a sax player I didn’t really know what was gonna happen. At the beginning, Shiloh and I would rehearse in practice rooms at all hours of the night just saxophone, guitar, and their voice.

Shiloh: We didn’t really become a band until I visited Fox in their hometown of St. Augustine. We were performing at an open mic there, and needed to come up with a band name on the fly, and I was like, “what about Butch Baby?”

Fox: We decided on that name because, as transmasculine people, we are often mistaken for either butch lesbians or 12 year old boys, hence the butch and the baby.

Gut-wrenching vulnerability is a lot of what makes your EP so spectacular. Can you speak to your experience channeling that vulnerability and writing really personal songs?

Shiloh: Until Butch Baby, I’d never been in a band where I felt comfortable enough with the people I was playing with to talk about what I’m going through. Being in a space with my closest friends who are all other queer people made it a lot easier to share my experiences.

AJ: Yeah I try not to get too attached to other people’s projects but I just feel much more protective over this one than others. Whatever Shiloh needs to get those hard feelings out, we just want to support them in any way we can.

Fox: It definitely gets really intense for me. Being Shiloh’s best friend, I care a lot. I’m really committed to this project. Every time we have a show coming up and life has been hard, I feel like I can survive anything if it means I get to play in Butch Baby.

What’s your favorite show that you’ve played?

Fox: My personal favorite is Trans Day of Vengeance.

Shiloh: You stole mine!!!

AJ: That was all of ours.

Fox: The energy that night was absurd. I had my saxophone up to the ceiling, nearly over my head.

Shiloh: It was the only time I’ve ever played a bill where every band was fronted by a trans person. There were so many queer people there. At one point, I was playing my guitar in the middle of everyone, pushing people around, nowhere near the rest of the band, it was really cool.

Who inspires/influences you?

AJ: These two people right here. I think I am gonna look back on this chapter in my life when I’m 80 and realize whatever good happened to me was actually because of my brothers. I am really energized by alternative, punk, and hardcore music, generally. I think that’s why Shiloh and I clicked.

Fox: Moon Hooch has been very influential. They’re the reason I started playing saxophone.

Shiloh: WIMP. That band is the sickest thing ever. They’re an all trans band and their music is the only music I’ve heard that sounds angry enough to be about what trans people are going through right now. Krill and Pile inspire me, especially recently. You’ll definitely be able to hear that influence in the new stuff. I also really love Dazey and the Scouts. Their songs are so perfectly vulgar in a way that is still charming and funny and makes you laugh. I think the best song writing is funny song writing. I think it takes another level of intelligence. It’s much easier to write a sad song than a funny one.

I think what’s most amazing is to be able to do both at the same time, which I think is what makes Dazey and Butch Baby so impressive.

Shiloh: Thank you. Yeah I think it’s like Bojack Horseman, where you take the humor and the miserable depression and you bring them together. Bojack Baby, that’s what we should call our band.

What can fans expect from Butch Baby in the future? Where is Butch Baby going?

Shiloh: Right now is a terrifying uncharted time. You might see new songs soon, you might not. I want us to put out an album. That’s my next goal for us. My dream is for us to live comfortably off of doing just this.

Fox: We’re still gonna be playing gigs. We’re still gonna be here. We want to make it bigger and we want to be authentic no matter what.

Shiloh: If some queer people go home feeling more comfortable at the end of a set, we’ve done our job. All of our songs are about my suffering, which is queer suffering, so all of our songs, are about queer suffering and for queer people. If cisgender straight people want to listen to our music, that’s cool and I welcome that, but it’s important to me that these songs are written for and by queer people. My dream for this band has and will always be to make queer people feel more seen and comfortable.