The Next One

fortunate to wear many hats during my career: artist, writer, manager, A&R head, label boss, and producer.” The venerated John Owen Williams, who has worked with artists as diverse as Petula Clark, Robert Plant, Barrington Levy, The Cure, Loudon Wainwright IIII, and Jethro Tull, became a session producer for BBC One, a senior A&R manager for Chrysalis, a director of A&R at Polydor, a senior Vice President of A&R for Sanctuary Records, and a record label owner for Viper Records. With a longstanding history to the music business, Williams shares his nearly 40-year musical journey and thoughts with our readers.

Jacqueline Perrin: In a four-decade career, what are some special memories from your musical career?
John Williams: There have been many highlights, but each musical journey and episode has been joyous and fun. That's not to say that it has always been plain sailing. I have been fortunate to wear many hats during my career: artist, writer, manager, A&R head, label boss, and producer. I am happy to help other artists realize their potential, and I am someone who provides the assistance. I made a couple of records myself as an artist for Mickie Most's RAK label, but quickly realized that I was better at being at the other side of the microphone. Each record-making venture is special, but having No. 1 records is an essentially gratifying experience. My first one was with The Housemartins with “Caravan of Love,” which hit No. 1 in the UK in 1986. That was a great buzz. Managing Blancmange was full of happy moments. Producing BBC Radio 1 live sessions was where I cut my producer teeth and is a rich vein of memory.

Collaborating with diverse talents such as Bob Marley to Sarah Brightman, which artists helped you grow in a creative way in music?
They all teach you different things, and they all help you grow. It is a privilege to work with real talent, and I still pinch myself that so many great artists have entrusted me with their music - for brief periods of their own journey. Their passion is infectious - from Petula Clark, The Proclaimers, Simple Minds, The Waterboys, Debbie Harry, Level 42, Alison Moyet, Jimmy Webb, Beth Nielsen Chapman and to some artists who weren't so successful - they all contribute to an understanding of how music works. I have learned from them all.

Is there an artist you wish you could have worked with?
Nick Drake. He was such an innovative guitarist and singer. His songs were sublime, and he was the first artist that inspired me to create music. I am still in awe of his records, and just wished that he had left a larger legacy.

Can you tell us about some of the hard work you had to overcome as a record producer?
Making a record is like shooting a movie: you need to have a plan, a timeline, and keep to a prescribed budget. You need to have 90% of the material in place before you begin. The record making process has changed so much. My early records were all about capturing the very best performance of a song by a band, capturing them in full flight- or constructing a track with live musicians for a singer to vocal over. A lot of time would go into rehearsing arrangements, keys, tempos etc. I always thought that creating an ideal atmosphere where the artist felt comfortable with the environment they working in were important. Clear communication, equipment that works - to try and get every vocal performance on tape - is important. Sometimes the best performance comes first when the vocalist is fresh. Also, I like studios with daylight.

Of course the change from tape to digital has meant that more and more records are made on a computer in a small room, so the process has changed. The producer has to be aware and on top of so many variables. Essentially, they are responsible for booking the right studio, with the right engineer, hiring the musicians, arrangements, making sure that the artist is happy with the results, mixing the record, mastering the record- interfacing with the record label and management. Delivering it finished. It involves immense patience and long working days.

I have learned that whilst the drums, bass, guitar, and keyboards all hold their importance, it’s the vocal that carries the record. No one ever says, I love your kick drum, or high hat sound- they listen the vocal performance. The human ear can only register one thing at a time; you can’t be subtle and hope that people discover that violin or guitar line. If you want people to hear something, you have to feature it - be bold!

What do you believe makes for a good A&R leader?
Listening to other opinions and then making an informed judgment with the facts you have. That and gut instinct! And not taking it too seriously, conversely taking it very seriously!

What do you think about the current state of music?
Music is more accessible and buoyant than it ever has been. It used to be an exclusive club for a very small minority. Now it is open to everyone. Music technology has made it less private and less the enclave of the few who were given record deals. The downside is that there is so much music that it is difficult to be aware of everything. But it’s wonderful that anyone can make music.

Do you have any future hopes or plans still in recording?
I still hope to make that “great” record. It’s always the next one.

Where does your love of music come from?
Several records made me feel different when I was a kid such as Booker T. & the M.G.’s “Green Onions,” The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me,” The Who’s “I Can’t Explain” – I have always loved music that made me feel.

by Jacqueline Perrin