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Producer, Songwriter & Arranger Glen Ballard on How He Got His Start

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 how he got his start in music, and the steps he took that set him on his way to success.

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[Ballard: Background]

I got started as a songwriter. My passion from an early age was really about writing songs, and so everything that's happened in my career as an arranger and as a record producer really has predicated really on what I learned in terms of how to write songs, how to create material.

I was a musician as a child, as a piano player from an early age, and I had an affinity for it. But my big problem was I was much more interested in being a composer than in being a performer, so it's very rare to find just local music instruction that encourages composition over the basic structure of music, which by all accounts one should learn all the fundamentals before you go off and try to write. But I think I was doing it simultaneously. I was writing probably before I really knew how to, but that's the impulse of a writer, of course.

I decoded the piano at an early age. I mean, it just made sense to me. So I could read music, but I wanted to write my own music. So that wasn't particularly encouraged. I think it's much more possible today where you can really sort of separate your music students from those who are gonna be performers and those who are composers, and as it turns out, I'm a performer now, too, because I play on a lot of the records that I produce. But it all started with this song for me.

I have to say that when I was growing up I had no sense of the possibilities of making music for a living. And so my sense of it was I was just having fun with it. It was a passion that really could only be satisfied by doing it. I mean, and so I wasn't thinking of it as a career.

And as it turns out, it has become my career and it's, as it turns out, the thing that I loved the most. So all of those things are – I feel very lucky that all of my free time was spent trying to write songs and trying to record the songs that I'd written, or record other people. Just the whole idea of capturing sound after you'd written a song, to me, was – I wasn't even aware of how you really got on the path to do that professionally. And growing up in Mississippi, there weren't all that many opportunities. I mean, there was only one or two recording studios in New Orleans at the time, which is a great tragedy.

So it was kind of like you figured it out on your own. My parents were very supportive, but they never thought of me as being a professional musician for the rest of my life and so not that they didn't think it was necessarily a good idea, but for them, they probably saw me doing something else. But a true writer has to write, and as it turned out, I had enough of a gift musically and lyrically to be able to express myself relatively well at an early enough age where people would say, "Well, that's a pretty song" at least.

So the real encouragement was just that the songs kind of stuck with me, and so I knew I was going to be doing it anyway. So you learn relatively quickly when you're a writer that one thing that you like is to communicate something to people and you get the feedback, 'cause it can be a very lonely profession. But having people respond to music was my great motivation.

I was very lucky to grow up when I did, where I did, in the South where I was hearing every kind of music imaginable. There was the British pop music coming from the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, but they had in turn been influenced by the very music which I kind of grew up with, which was R&B, Jazz, Zydeco, some Country Music, and just about anything else. Local radio at the time was really local radio, when you could hear local artists. And there was a real sense that you could discover someone. I mean, I grew up ten miles from Jerry Lee Lewis, who lived in Fairview, Louisiana when I lived in Natchez across the river. And when I was a kid, we used to see him perform and it was one of the more astonishing things. And this was after he was a superstar, but he would still play gigs around there and it was wonderful.

And so there was a real sense – music hadn't become this sort of big international monolithic thing. It was music that everybody made music and you could hear it everywhere. It was in the air, so I sort of like steeped in that pot. You come out with something, I think.

Listen, I came to Hollywood when I was 22 years old, the day after I graduated from college. And I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. So the only encouragement I had was the vague sense that I had to keep writing, and so I came out to Hollywood and got lucky enough to land a job being a gopher for the Elton John organization. My first job in Hollywood.

And for three years, I answered phones and did whatever needed to be done, and then they found out I was a musician and they gave me an opportunity to work with some of their artists. Elton had a label. Kee Kee Dee was one of the artists. I wrote some songs for her. And the first song I had recorded, called One Step, it was a mid-chart hit and that was the moment when I felt like, "Okay, this is real. I actually made some money on this." So the first time you just hear a song on the radio that you've written, I guess you could call that the epiphany.

Although, I had had songs on the radio before when I was in high school, again, because of this local radio phenomenon. People would play my stuff. But to have it on a national stage and an international stage, I saw the power of radio, I saw the power of really the next level of how your music can reach people. I think I wisely made the decision early on that I was not going to be the performer and I really didn't have the impulse to be the performer. Although, singer/songwriters generally during that era didn't have to be particularly pretty or have to be able to dance. It was I think a little bit more of an interest in just the music.

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