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Producer, Songwriter & Arranger Glen Ballard on Effective Collaboration

One of the defining pop producers, and a five-time Grammy® winner, Glen Ballard has penned hits and produced bestselling albums for Paula Abdul (Forever Your Girl), Wilson Phillips (Wilson Phillips), Alanis Morissette (Jagged Little Pill) and No Doubt (Return of Saturn), as well as written, arranged and produced with Aerosmith, Michael Jackson, Chaka Khan, The Corrs, Barbra Streisand, Aretha Franklin, and The Dave Matthews Band among many others.

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Producer, arranger and songwriter Glen Ballard discusses his approach to collaborating with another songwriter/artist, and draws on his experiences working with Alanis Morrisette and Dave Matthews to illustrate what he feels are the keys to a successful collaborative effort.

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[Ballard: Working with Artists]

I think it's important that a producer be patient, ultimately, and a good listener. I mean, we're in the business of listening critically, so to me, patience and really listening carefully is the first thing. For me, every time I start working with an artist, and I've – the most fun I've ever had writing, by the way, was in collaborations, too, even though I've written a lot of songs by myself. To me, there's nothing more fun than working with one or two other people, usually one, where something happens and you start building on each other's strength and you start elevating one another in this process. It's a wonderful process and some people don't like the idea of collaborating, and if you can do it all by yourself that's great.

But I've always felt that my work has endured and continues to evolve, and I've done so many different kinds of music. It was always because the person I was working with, I listened very carefully to where they were coming from and I try to really understand what their intent is, number one as an artist. It's very important. And it's a question I always ask, "Well, what is your intention? Do you wanna make a record? Do you wanna be a star? Do you wanna have a career? What is your intention?" And it's amazing just how revealing that one question will be when people honestly – if they say, "I just wanna have a hit record," then you understand what the goal is of the artist. If they say, "I wanna do this for the rest of my life and I wanna be as good as I can be, and I still wanna have a hit," I'd much prefer that answer, you know?

And, "Do you wanna make a record?" "Yes, but I want to have a career." The world is full of one-hit wonders. We see them all the time in the shows. "Whatever happened to –" For you to be able to sustain it, you have to want it more than just the fame. You really have to really want to be invested in it as an art form. And I've been blessed that virtually everybody I work with usually wants to go for it and if someone has something artistic to bring to the process, I try to get as much of that as I can. And I have been called a chameleon because of that, but for me, because I'm not the artist, it's really important for me to understand what the best of what they have is and where they wanna go, and then I feel like I can make a contribution.

What I don't like to do is simply say, "This is what I think it should be," and that's it. I mean, I always have ideas but I try to really build into the DNA of the whole process, really the intention of the artist. And I think it takes patience and it just takes time and listening. And then somehow being able to process what the artist has to tell you into something that could be compelling.

Well, I'll give you an example of one of my favorite collaboration with Alanis Morissette. When we wrote the The Jagged Little Pill record, she was not assigned recording artist at that time. She'd done two records in Canada and they didn't pick up her option. She was still signed to my publishing company, Universal MCA, at the time. And we got together to write a song for no particular purpose. In this instance, I sort of figured she was gonna be the artist, but we just wrote a song that was completely unpremeditated and it was as simple as me picking up my guitar and hitting a couple of chords, and she would go, "I like that." And she would sing a melody and I would hit it back to her, and then she would start writing, and it was literally like playing tennis with somebody and when you have a rally that goes on for an hour.

And it was like building it just like this. And we wrote most of the songs together in a day. In fact, every song on Jagged Little Pill was written in a day. But the chemistry is right. Sometimes it takes months to write a song, but in our case, it was a song a day. And it's because first of all, our tastes were similar enough that we intuitively sort of moved in the same directions together. And also, secondly, she had enough trust in me to empower me to do my thing. And I had enough trust in her to say, "Let's go there." And early on, she would frequently say, "Can I say this in a song?" And I would say, "Yes, you can. Don’t worry about it. Say what's in your heart, what's in your head, and that can't be diminished."

Well, I had no way of knowing that we were making a record that would sell 35 million records. I mean, if anyone who sits and says, "I'm writing an album that's gonna sell 35 million records," I would accuse – they would be guilty of the crime of hubris. Because you can't think that way. And there was a confluence of a lot of things in culture in that particular moment in the _____________ in a culture. But it was just a great collaboration and it was one that I was exhausted at the end of every day but I felt like I had left nothing on the table and she felt the same way. So having – I mean, the hardest part is to find the right person with whom you can do that.

A lot of times, if the chemistry isn't right, there's no way you can give everything to it because you don't feel like it's going where it feels like it should go. But when it's right, then it's really easy to just turn yourself inside out and put it all into the song. And when you have that kind of chemistry, that to me is why I do it, because it's intimate and powerful and really kind of a magical transformation. It's kind of like some sort of alchemy.

I had a similar experience with Dave Matthews. We were gonna write two songs for his record and we ended up writing 12 songs in ten days. And that probably, in terms of sheer joyful expressing, I have never had ten days like that in my life. In this case, he would play guitar, I would be at the keyboard, and we just wrote songs straight out of our subconscious. I mean, straight out of it. The first day he came in, I said, "Dave, I just wanna do something every day." He said, "Every day." And we wrote the song Every Day. The first song we'd ever wrote together. And then we said, "God, that was easy. Let's do another one."

So those kinds of collaborations are the ones you dream of. Absolutely dream of. And then there are others where I've sat with someone who just looked at me all day. So chemistry is hugely important, especially because it's such an intimate thing. I mean, there are very things more intimate than two people kind of being willing to make the first mistake or to look stupid, "Does this sound stupid? Is this a stupid line?" You have to have the freedom to fall flat on your face and go, "Okay, that's a bad idea. That’s a stupid chord; let's do this."

Once you get to that point, it can really happen quickly. But if you don’t feel the trust and you don't have the mutual trust, it won't happen that way and it becomes not as fun. I think listeners intuitively understand when something good has happened in a collaboration because I think it's there in the music. I mean, it has been said that there can be no great art without great conflict, but I think the great conflict comes in one's life and you draw on that to present it because life is not black and white. It's got every color and many extremes and everything in between.

And so I think what we're trying to do is really capture our experience in these vignettes of songs and I always find it a much more fruitful thing when we're all kind of happy and working together. So I think in my experience, the best collaborations thrive in a very positive atmosphere and one that's in no way negative.

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