By Danny Echevarria | 10/12/2020
I’ve often thought that if I hadn’t decided to pursue music production as a career, the only other thing I might approach with the same level of passion is cooking. Even in my life as a music maker, preparing food is an important part of my day, and something I get a lot of satisfaction from.
I’ve talked to quite a few similar-minded music producers/amateur chefs who not only share those twin passions but agree with me that the two disciplines have a lot in common. Both could be called a fusion of art and science. Both involve bringing together various elements and combining them in a way that showcases their individual strengths, while also creating a whole that is greater than the sum of those parts. Both require a discerning palette, or ear, to make snap decisions on the fly in a process that can be extremely time-sensitive.
Though I could make comparisons like “EQ is like salt,” or “butter and oil are like reverb,” I don’t think those sorts of analogies hold up in all cases. Rather, the similarities between music and cuisine have to do with the spirit with which we approach these crafts. Will this article help producers be better cooks or vice versa? Probably not! Even so, I take inspiration from the time I spend in the kitchen (and at the grill) into the studio, and my hope is that you can find some inspiration there too.
There’s no substitute for working with high-quality ingredients – whether that’s a thick, fatty piece of salmon or a killer vocal take. But that doesn’t mean we need to work with top-shelf ingredients in every instance! In fact, sometimes cheaper ingredients are really what you want: chances are your favorite pizza place is using canned tomatoes, not fresh ones, to make their sauce.
The important thing here is to understand the role each ingredient plays in the recipe. Top-tier ingredients typically need less seasoning and usually deserve to be showcased. Lower-quality ingredients — and instruments, performances, and processing — still have a place in the kitchen, but will require different sorts of treatment, and will often be featured less centrally.
From the Kitchen to the Studio:
Don’t drown a great vocal in ketchup-y reverb
If your session includes the equivalent of a prime ribeye, make it the centerpiece! Use processing to accentuate its character, rather than trying to transform it — like a subtle rub of salt and pepper before it hits the grill.
If your centerpiece needs to be made from lower grade ingredients – like when a singer struggles to deliver good takes on the mic — seasoning (processing) will play a bigger role, maybe even transforming the part entirely.
Other times, lower quality ingredients don’t need to be masked but will serve a more supporting role. Are you working with pitchy backup vocals? Maybe each track doesn’t need to be tuned and polished — instead, treat the part as a garnish. Let it stay rough and “rustic” to add character.
You could look at websites like this one as being similar to your favorite sites to find recipes – a place where pros share tips and tricks they use in their own kitchens and studios. Learning from people who have honed their craft can absolutely help us make more informed choices, but in reality, it’s hard to replicate the conditions of a recipe writer’s kitchen: maybe you’re missing spices, or the recipe calls for a bone-in cut of meat, but all you have is boneless.
You can’t expect to follow a recipe to the letter if your ingredients or kitchen don’t match the chef’s intention. Great cooks and great producers alike know how to work with the tools and ingredients that they have. Adapting to changing conditions is a must if you expect to get a great result every time.
From the Kitchen to the Studio:
The most important tool in your kitchen and your studio is you! Pro tips and best practices will take you far, but you have to be able to discern when things are working as planned, and when they require a different approach.
Developing the ability to know when and how to adapt to shifting circumstances takes practice, but it’s a crucial difference between a master and an amateur. Don’t expect to call up a plugin preset or slap on some settings you saw in a tutorial video and be done. Use your ears to make sure your mix moves are working as intended, and be brave enough to admit it when they aren’t.
Always there for you when you need it
In cooking, this principle applies to cooking temperatures and times as well as seasoning: overcooking a piece of meat until it’s dry, or undercooking it and leaving bits raw; forgetting to add salt to make other flavors pop; drenching a stir fry in soy sauce, and then hoping that smothering it in sriracha will fix things (don’t act like you haven’t been there).
In the studio, you could apply this concept to everything from doing too many or too few takes, to leaving in ugly, muddy resonances, or dialing in too much compression. Just like you can’t “unbake” a burnt loaf of bread, you can’t “uncompress” a track that got slammed during tracking; similarly, adding salt when serving a dish is not the same as salting properly while preparing it.
From the Kitchen to the Studio:
Stop me if you’ve heard this one (from me), but the only thing that can guarantee you don’t go too far or not far enough is your judgment as a producer. To that end, approaching production with a clear sense of intention can go a very long way.
Know how many takes you need to get a solid comp — and stop there. Continuing to do unnecessary takes can be the sonic equivalent of leaving something in the oven after it’s done, each take getting dryer and more flavorless. Know when processing (like seasoning) needs to be overt and when it needs to be subtle, and learn how to tell when enough is enough.
If you’ve never had this, there’s still time
Remember my point earlier about how your favorite pizza place probably doesn’t use fresh tomatoes? That’s not laziness — the pizza we’re used to is supposed to have the flavor of canned tomatoes. On the other hand, can you imagine ordering a caprese salad and getting a canned tomato slopped onto some mozzarella?
The point here is that there is no absolute “right” or “wrong,” in cooking or production. Sometimes cheap ingredients are crucial, and nicer ingredients might be wasted in the same application. Other times, cheap, low-quality ingredients just taste … cheap, and low-quality.
From the Kitchen to the Studio:
Your favorite plugins, pieces of gear, and mix tricks will never be guaranteed to work equally well in all applications. There’s a reason a vintage U-47 might go for $15k — it’s a great mic — but that doesn’t mean it will sound great on every voice. It will simply be too dark and wooly for some, even if it is a coveted high-end piece of gear. Some voices are going to be better suited to other mics, even substantially less expensive, less “nice” ones. The mark of a good recording isn’t the value of the gear you used, it’s the sound coming out of the speakers.
Wild, previously unthinkable stylistic fusions and flavor pairings have become something of a standard in cuisine in recent years. Some of those unlikely combinations may seem to come totally out of the blue, but the ones that really work often follow tried-and-true formulas, even if they are executed in an unconventional way. Pay attention to the root flavors — or sonic elements — being combined, and you can see how fundamental principles are being observed.
Free your mind and the rest will follow
LA’s Kogi Korean BBQ offers a great example of this idea in action. On the surface, the fusion of culinary styles from different ends of the globe (Korean BBQ and tacos) may seem kind of wild, but consider the fundamental flavors at work.
Tacos: marinated meat, often fire-grilled, served with salsas that add a mixture of sweetness, acidity, and spice.
Korean BBQ: marinated meat, fire-grilled, served with kimchi and sauces that add a mixture of sweetness, acidity, and spice.
The specific ingredients and nuances are different, for sure, but the root flavors at work share important similarities.
From the Kitchen to the Studio:
Every piece of music succeeds or fails on the terms of the genre or tradition it belongs to. If you’re pulling together ideas from opposite ends of the record store, consider what sonic qualities you like most in those influences, and which ones might work together well.
Are you bringing together sounds from one genre that is driving and loud with another that is subtle and dynamic? Or one that is abrasive and noisy with another that is catchy and danceable? Combinations like the ones I just described have surely been done millions of times. The thing the good ones will have in common is a clear sense of what will be rewarding to the intended listener.
Over the course of this article, I’ve mentioned a handful of times that great chefs and producers alike rely on their judgment daily to make decisions that will get the best result out of the ingredients in front of them. Though talent and good taste are certain factors that influence someone’s ability to work at a high level, none of the greats started great on day one.
The ability to know when something is working and when it isn’t, and then to know what to do to fix it, is something that can really only be honed over time, after repeated failures and successes. Even someone else’s proven recipe will have serious limitations in the hands of a chef who isn’t prepared to make those sorts of calls.
The takeaway from this is that real practice in the studio, and finishing projects, are extremely important for any producer or engineer looking to sharpen their skills. There’s no way to tell if your recipe worked if you don’t take a bite (or listen) when it’s done … and you can’t take that bite if you don’t get to “done” in the first place.
Danny Echevarria is a producer and audio engineer born, raised, and based in Los Angeles. When he isn’t tightening his mixes or sawing a fiddle on the honky tonk stages of the greater LA area, he can be found chasing ever-elusive fresh mountain air. Get in touch at dandestiny.com.
Megan Thee Stallion: Why I Speak Up for Black Women
I’m not afraid of criticism, and “Protect Black women” should not be controversial.
By Megan Thee Stallion
What does it mean to be a woman of color? [INTERPOSING VOICES] She’s got to be strong, because that’s just the expectation. Loving herself, but not too much, because then she’s conceited. Being his lady in the street, but his freak in the sheets. Inheriting her grandmother’s love, but always loving the wrong one. Twerking for her man, but not with her friends? Being constantly told she’s too much or not enough. “The most disrespected person is the black woman.” Constantly having to prove she’s a victim, because society sides with a man. Not being able to express her traumas, because she can’t show no weakness. Is constantly told that she’s too dark, too thin, too thick, too much of a bitch. Being murdered, beaten, abused, then questioned if she evoked all of it. Is left out on the street, but becomes the flower that grows from the concrete. “Who taught you to hate yourself from the top of your head to the soles of your feet?” She marches for everyone else, riots for everyone else, dies for everyone else. She loves for everyone else, lives for everyone else, but when it comes down to her, it ain’t a [BLEEP] in sight. “The system as a whole has failed her. You’ve never been shot. You don’t know her panic. Say her name. 18. Women of color.”
In the weeks leading up to the election, Black women are expected once again to deliver victory for Democratic candidates. We have gone from being unable to vote legally to a highly courted voting bloc — all in little more than a century.
Despite this and despite the way so many have embraced messages about racial justice this year, Black women are still constantly disrespected and disregarded in so many areas of life.
I was recently the victim of an act of violence by a man. After a party, I was shot twice as I walked away from him. We were not in a relationship. Truthfully, I was shocked that I ended up in that place.
My initial silence about what happened was out of fear for myself and my friends. Even as a victim, I have been met with skepticism and judgment. The way people have publicly questioned and debated whether I played a role in my own violent assault proves that my fears about discussing what happened were, unfortunately, warranted.
After a lot of self-reflection on that incident, I’ve realized that violence against women is not always connected to being in a relationship. Instead, it happens because too many men treat all women as objects, which helps them to justify inflicting abuse against us when we choose to exercise our own free will.
From the moment we begin to navigate the intricacies of adolescence, we feel the weight of this threat, and the weight of contradictory expectations and misguided preconceptions. Many of us begin to put too much value to how we are seen by others. That’s if we are seen at all.
The issue is even more intense for Black women, who struggle against stereotypes and are seen as angry or threatening when we try to stand up for ourselves and our sisters. There’s not much room for passionate advocacy if you are a Black woman.
I recently used the stage at “Saturday Night Live” to harshly rebuke Kentucky’s attorney general, Daniel Cameron, for his appalling conduct in denying Breonna Taylor and her family justice. I anticipated some backlash: Anyone who follows the lead of Congressman John Lewis, the late civil rights giant, and makes “good trouble, necessary trouble,” runs the risk of being attacked by those comfortable with the status quo.
But you know what? I’m not afraid of criticism. We live in a country where we have the freedom to criticize elected officials. And it’s ridiculous that some people think the simple phrase “Protect Black women” is controversial. We deserve to be protected as human beings. And we are entitled to our anger about a laundry list of mistreatment and neglect that we suffer.
Maternal mortality rates for Black mothers are about three times higher than those for white mothers, an obvious sign of racial bias in health care. In 2019, an astronomical 91 percent of the transgender or gender-nonconforming people who were fatally shot were Black, according to the Human Rights Campaign.
Beyond threats to our health and lives, we confront so much judgment and so many conflicting messages on a daily basis.
If we dress in fitted clothing, our curves become a topic of conversation not only on social media, but also in the workplace. The fact that Serena Williams, the greatest athlete in any sport ever, had to defend herself for wearing a bodysuit at the 2018 French Open is proof positive of how misguided the obsession with Black women’s bodies is.
I would know. I’ve received quite a bit of attention for appearance as well as my talent. I choose my own clothing. Let me repeat: I choose what I wear, not because I am trying to appeal to men, but because I am showing pride in my appearance, and a positive body image is central to who I am as a woman and a performer. I value compliments from women far more than from men. But the remarks about how I choose to present myself have often been judgmental and cruel, with many assuming that I’m dressing and performing for the male gaze. When women choose to capitalize on our sexuality, to reclaim our own power, like I have, we are vilified and disrespected.
In every industry, women are pitted against one another, but especially in hip-hop, where it seems as if the male-dominated ecosystem can handle only one female rapper at a time. Countless times, people have tried to pit me against Nicki Minaj and Cardi B, two incredible entertainers and strong women. I’m not “the new” anyone; we are all unique in our own ways.
Wouldn’t it be nice if Black girls weren’t inundated with negative, sexist comments about Black women? If they were told instead of the many important things that we’ve achieved? It took a major motion picture, “Hidden Figures,” to introduce the world to the NASA research mathematician Katherine Johnson. I wish I’d learned in school about this story as well as more earthly achievements: that Alice H. Parker filed the patent for the first home furnace, or that Marie Van Brittan Brown created the first home security system. Or that Black women, too often in the shadows of such accomplishments, actually powered the civil rights movement. It’s important to note that six of the Little Rock Nine students whose bravery in 1957 led to school integration were Black girls. And that Rosa Parks showed incredible bravery when she refused to move to the “colored section.” I wish that every little Black girl was taught that Black Lives Matter was co-founded by Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi.
Walking the path paved by such legends as Shirley Chisholm, Loretta Lynch, U.S. Representative Maxine Waters and the first Black woman to be elected to the U.S. Senate, Carol Moseley Braun, my hope is that Kamala Harris’s candidacy for vice president will usher in an era where Black women in 2020 are no longer “making history” for achieving things that should have been accomplished decades ago.
But that will take time, and Black women are not naïve. We know that after the last ballot is cast and the vote is tallied, we are likely to go back to fighting for ourselves. Because at least for now, that’s all we have.
Megan Thee Stallion (@TheeStallion) is an entertainer, philanthropist and entrepreneur.
A brutal childhood, a traumatic marriage, decades of racism: the singer has overcome it all on her way to the top. She lets rip about the people who have wronged her and the self-belief that sustains her.
It is a rainy Thursday afternoon and Mariah Carey is talking to me from her home in Los Angeles, her voice coming through my laptop. Is this the real life or is this just fantasy? (Sweet, sweet fantasy …) “Hello, good morning, good afternoon, this is a little unusual,” says a gravelly voiced Carey. You’re telling me, Mariah.
We are talking by video chat, but – as specified by Carey – without the video turned on, so it is pure chat. Despite her ability to hit the high notes, Carey has always described herself as an alto. Yet even taking that into account, her voice today sounds pretty husky. Is she feeling OK?
“It’s 6am here, and I’m awake in the bright light and it’s fabulous and I love it,” she says and makes an exaggerated groan.
I’m sorry you had to get up so early for this interview, I say.
“Well, darling, then let’s not book interviews at 6am if you’re worried! But please, it’s not you,” she says, and indeed it isn’t. The time and date of our interview have moved around so many times to accommodate Carey’s ever-shifting schedule that, for a while, it looked as if it wouldn’t happen at all. But at the last minute, it was decided we would talk at 6am her time, which I was promised would be fine because Carey is a self-described “nocturnal person”, so that would be 6pm for her. Alas, for reasons too complicated to get into, for one night only, Carey was a non-nocturnal person, so now 6am is just 6am.
“Typically I would have been working [all night] until now, but we had a situation and I couldn’t. Then I tried to get some sleep, but actually I watched the interview I did with Oprah. But it’s OK, it was just one night [of no sleep] and here I am,” she says. You don’t become one of the most successful singer-songwriters of all time – she has sold more than 200m records, and only the Beatles have had more US No 1 songs – without being a trouper.
Carey, 50, has spent lockdown with her nine-year-old twins, Monroe, named for Carey’s hero, Marilyn Monroe, and Moroccan, named partly for one of her favourite rooms in one of her houses, the Moroccan room, “where so many creative and magical moments have happened, including Nick presenting me with my candy bling”. Nick is Nick Cannon, the twins’ father, and “candy bling” is Carey’s term for her engagement ring, which Cannon hid inside a sweet before proposing. Carey liked Cannon’s proposal so much that she even wrote a song about it, called Candy Bling. The marriage proved less enduring and the couple divorced in 2016.
“Honestly, I don’t miss anyone outside, so I don’t care about lockdown,” she says with a throaty laugh. “But it’s difficult for the kids, because they’re used to three-times-a-year Disney World moments and stuff like that, and that’s just not the current state of affairs.” It is not. So Carey is conducting the promotional tour for her memoir, The Meaning of Mariah Carey, from her kitchen table, and if she has her way – and who would dare to argue? – this will be the last round of interviews she ever does.
“No offence to doing interviews, but what would be the point? I can’t articulate it better than I already have [in the book]. From now on, I’m like, ‘Please refer to page 29,’ you know what I mean?” she says. Carey’s deliciously shady put-downs are legend: her “I don’t know her”, when asked almost two decades ago about Jennifer Lopez is still the internet’s most beloved diss. Speaking of Lopez, her name is notably not in Carey’s memoir. Instead, when recalling the hoo-hah that led to their fallout, when a sample Carey had planned to use on her single, Loverboy, appeared on Lopez’s I’m Real, Carey refers to her as a “female entertainer (whom I don’t know).” So is her official position still that she has never heard of Lopez?
There is a pause, then stifled laughter. “Oh my gosh, can you hear that music in the background? It’s Sam Cooke! It’s fantastic!” she giggles.
Not only has Carey not heard of Lopez, she cannot even hear questions about her, it seems.
Carey’s memoir is about a lot more than score-settling (although she makes time for that, too.) “I don’t think anyone could have known where I was coming from, because I was always very, I don’t know if it was protective, but I was cryptic about the past, let’s say,” she says. No more. The youngest child of an African American father and a white mother, Carey was three when her parents split up. Her childhood was threaded through with neglect and violence, not least from her older siblings. When she was six, she says, her older brother knocked her mother unconscious; when she was 12, her older sister allegedly drugged her and left her with creepy men.
“I think my staying up all night started from having such a dysfunctional family. Oftentimes, whoever was in the house was doing whatever it was that they were doing, and that felt kinda unsafe to me, so I started staying up,” she says. Another legacy of this time is Carey’s obsessive adoration of Christmas, because her childhood Christmases were so miserable. When she wrote the monster hit All I Want for Christmas Is You, she wanted, she says in her book, “to write a song that would make me feel like a carefree young girl at Christmas”.
As a child, her biracial identity made her feel she did not belong anywhere: she was so self-conscious about not being black enough that she wouldn’t even dance, as she associated that with black culture; meanwhile, white girls at school taunted her with the N-word. In one of Carey’s – and my – favourite chapters, she describes how her mother did not know how to look after her young daughter’s textured hair, so it was often matted. Carey would look enviously at the white women in shampoo adverts on TV with their flowing hair. “I am still obsessed with blowing hair, as evidenced by the wind machines employed in every photoshoot of me ever,” she writes.
One of the most painful moments in the book comes in 2001 when Carey is having what the press described as an emotional breakdown. (Carey writes that she did not have a breakdown, but “was broken down by the very people who were supposed to keep me whole.”) During this episode, she rages at her mother, who calls the police. The police take her mother’s side: “Even Mariah Carey couldn’t compete with a nameless white woman in distress,” Carey writes. Is that how she experienced it at the time, or is that how she feels generally, that not even she is safe if a white woman complains?
There is the briefest of pauses. “Those are my words, so please refer to page 29,” Carey says.
Race is very much the running theme in Carey’s memoir. This might come as some surprise to those who know her solely from the mega pop hits such as Hero and We Belong Together, as opposed to the more revealing songs, such as 1997’s Outside, which addressed her feelings of racial ambiguity (sample lyric: “Neither here nor there / Always somewhat out of place everywhere”). “I can’t help that I’m ambiguous-looking,” she says, “and most people would assume that it’s been to my benefit, and maybe it has in some ways. But it’s also been a lifelong quest to feel like I belong to any specific group. It shouldn’t have to be such a freaking thing – and please edit out the fact that I said ‘freaking’. I’m not very eloquent right now.” I ask if she was at all influenced during the writing of her book by the rise of Black Lives Matter. She dismisses the question: “Interestingly, this book predates everything that’s happening now, and the book just happened to be very timely.” In other words, Carey hasn’t caught up to the times, the times have caught up to Carey.
Despite her omnipresence over the past three decades, it is possible that you have not thought about her ethnicity. This, Carey says, has been part of the problem: from the start, she was marketed by “the powerful corporate entities” in a way that played down her racial identity. What made this even more complicated for her was that the most powerful corporate entity in charge of her career at the beginning was her first husband, Tommy Mottola, then the CEO of Sony Music.
Carey’s discovery by Mottola is the stuff of music industry legend. The then unknown aspiring singer gave him a tape of her music at a party in 1988. Mottola tracked her down, signed her and, a few years later, married her. She was 23 and he was 44. Within just a few pages in her memoir, she goes from wearing her mother’s busted shoes to work to living in a $30m mansion with Mottola, which she decorated with enthusiasm: “Though by no stretch do I like a rustic look, I do have a preference for tumbled marble on my kitchen floors,” she writes. Adjusting to the high life was not difficult.
The hits – I’ll Be There, Emotions, One Sweet Day – were unstoppable. The Mottola-Carey marriage did not fare as well, imploding in 1997. Carey expands at some length on her previous allusions to Mottola’s controlling tendencies, claiming he would spy on her and that she was effectively a prisoner in the house. In his 2013 memoir, Mottola admits his relationship with Carey was “absolutely wrong and inappropriate” and adds: “If it seemed like I was controlling, I apologise. Was I obsessive? Yes, but that was also a part of the reason for her success.” Carey points out that she went on to have nine hit albums without Mottola’s controlling obsession. She writes that Mottola tried to “wash the urban” off her, recoiling at Carey’s increasing leaning towards hip-hop and collaborations with African American artists such as ODB. “I believe I said ‘urban, translation black,’ just in case anyone thinks I don’t know,” Carey corrects me. Does she think that was just for commercial purposes, or was something else going on with Mottola? “In my opinion there was a lot of other stuff going on there,” she says.
It must have been pretty upsetting to revisit that period during the writing, I say.
“Yes it was traumatic, but was it harder than some of the other things I’ve gone through? Maybe yeah, actually,” she says with a rueful laugh. “I don’t know if I’ll ever fully recover from the damage of that emotional abuse. But in my school of thought, you have to be a forgiving person.”
Carey is extraordinarily honest in her memoir, but the book is almost as striking for what she does not include as what she does. A lot of attention has focused on her confirmation that she did, as long rumoured, have a fling with the former baseball star Derek Jeter (“I’m not being shady, but he had on pointy shoes,” she recalls a little shadily of their first meeting.) But there is no mention of other boyfriends, such as her former fiancé, the Australian billionaire James Packer.
“If it was a relationship that mattered, it’s in the book. If not, it didn’t occur,” she says.
But you were engaged to Packer, I say.
“We didn’t have a physical relationship, to be honest with you,” she says.
And that is that.
Carey’s singing voice made her famous, but her penchant for being thrillingly, hilariously high-maintenance played its own part in shaping her legend. On an episode of MTV Cribs, she explained that she had a chaise longue in her kitchen because “I have a rule against sitting up straight”, and she has talked about bathing only in milk. Does she think she is high-maintenance – and, if so, does she think it is because she came from nothing?
“You know what? I don’t give a shit. I fucking am high-maintenance because I deserve to be at this point. That may sound arrogant, but I hope you frame it within the context of coming from nothing. If I can’t be high-maintenance after working my ass off my entire life, oh, I’m sorry – I didn’t realise we all had to be low-maintenance. Hell, no! I was always high-maintenance, it’s just I didn’t have anyone to do the maintenance when I was growing up!” she says and cackles with delight.
By now it is almost 7am for her and she is wide awake. I tell her I enjoyed all the references in her book to her enjoying “a splash of wine”.
“Oh, do you? Do you love a splash for yourself?” she asks, pleased.
I do, but I was intrigued by her description of a night out with her friends, including Cam’Ron and Juelz Santana, when they were all “high” on “purple treats”. What were these “purple treats”?
“A legal substance in California known as mari-ju-ana. It’s called purple because that’s the particular weed they liked,” she says.
And did she like it?
“Are you enquiring for yourself or are you asking if I enjoyed it?” she says, mock coy.
I am asking if you enjoyed it, Mariah.
“No, I hated it,” she deadpans, then laughs. “I’m sorry, but it’s obvious!”
I have been interviewing famous people for a long time, but talking with Carey is the closest I have come to how I imagine it would have been to spend time with Bette Davis or Aretha Franklin. There are lots of ridiculous modern celebrities, but Carey is not like that. With her mix of slightly self-parodic ridiculousness undercut with no-messin’, true-to-herself honesty, she is a proper grande dame of the old school. A diva, in other words. It is a term she has laboured under throughout her career, and it is unlikely she will escape it, even if people now finally know where she is coming from. Does she mind the D-word?
“No! Who the fuck cares?” she laughs. “Honestly! ‘Oh my God, they’re calling me a diva – I think I’m going to cry!’ You think in the grand scheme of things in my life that really matters to me, being called a diva? I am, bitches, that’s right!”
The Meaning of Mariah Carey (Macmillan, £20) and The Rarities (Sony Music) are out now.
• This article was amended on 5 October 2020 to clarify that it is in the United States where Mariah Carey is second only to the Beatles in terms of having the most No 1 singles.
“Sultry Singer Aaliyah On Why It’s Cool To Be So Hot.” Jet Magazine, Vol. 100, No. 6, July 23, 2001, pp 60-63.
Carefree Black Family Vibes
Jazz musicians have always placed a premium on “saying something.” Technique, training, and theory will only get you so far, and may even lead you in the wrong direction; what matters is the ability to hit on an emotion or an idea that feels at once familiar and revelatory—to speak a common language in a decidedly uncommon way.
From this standpoint, few musicians have said more than the saxophonist Pharoah Sanders. Born in Little Rock, Arkansas, the son of a school-cafeteria cook and a city employee, Sanders moved to New York in 1962, at the height of jazz’s postwar avant-garde—also known as “free jazz” or “the new thing”—which was spawned by the late-fifties experiments of the saxophonist Ornette Coleman and the pianist Cecil Taylor. Sanders’s début album, recorded in 1964 for the ESP label, garnered little attention, but his playing caught the ear of John Coltrane. Coltrane invited Sanders to join his band in 1965. The following year, Impulse!, the label that had been exhaustively documenting Coltrane’s evolution, gave Sanders another chance to record as a leader. The result was the surging and expansive “Tauhid,” an album that positioned Sanders as both Coltrane’s foremost disciple and an artist with ideas of his own.
Coltrane died in 1967, and Sanders recorded some with his widow, Alice Coltrane, a multi-instrumentalist and composer, before returning to the studio for Impulse! two years later, with his own group. The resulting album, “Karma,” set the template for a remarkable five-year run. While remaining as fiery as ever, Sanders had developed an interest in soaring, magisterial melodies, and the rhythms of his recordings, while dense and multi-layered, often hewed toward a steady groove. He also incorporated unexpected elements: non-Western instruments, yodelling by the sui generis vocalist Leon Thomas. As the title of “Karma” suggests, Sanders, like Coltrane, felt that music had a spiritual dimension. “The whole musical persona of Pharoah Sanders is of a consciousness in conscious search of a higher consciousness,” Amiri Baraka later wrote.
Subsequent Impulse! releases, such as “Jewels of Thought,” “Thembi,” and “Black Unity,” extended a musical quest that has now, in one form of another, lasted more than fifty years. But for someone who has said so much through music, Sanders has said very little to the press, doing only a handful of interviews in the course of his career. I spoke with Sanders earlier this fall, in Los Angeles, where he had just celebrated his seventy-ninth birthday by playing two shows in the area. Sanders still projects a distinctly Southern brand of soft-spokenness, one that’s equal parts humility and aversion to fuss. Although he is an acknowledged master who has been honored at the Kennedy Center, he speaks of himself—and seems to sincerely regard himself—as just another working musician trying to make a living.
We talked about his beginnings as a musician, his approach to recording over the years, and his collaborations with jazz legends. But Sanders was more inclined to reflect on the challenge of finding a good reed than to dilate on his legacy. What really mattered, it seemed, was his feeling that he could never get it right. Over the course of the conversation, it became clear that he wasn’t being compulsively hard on himself or willfully oblivious. Rather, he was still searching, possibly for something that he knew he would never find.
The interview has been edited and condensed.
You just had your seventy-ninth birthday—happy birthday!
What keeps you going, musically? Why are you still out there touring?
Well, I still try to make a living. I haven’t retired. I’m not working that much, but, you know, jobs come through.
What are you trying to accomplish artistically at this point?
Right now, I don’t even know myself!
Your sets these days touch on all the different things you’ve explored in your career. I saw you play in Portland earlier this year, and you played some standards and ballads as well older, more open-ended material, like “The Creator Has a Master Plan,”1 from “Karma.”
I just play whatever I feel like playing. It’s hard to keep a band together these days, so I never know most of the time who’s going to be in the band. Whoever I decide to use, if I can use them, well, that’s it!
Let’s go back to the beginning. Before you took up the saxophone, you played the clarinet in church?
I started playing drums first.
Oh, I didn’t know that.
Then I wanted to play clarinet. I went to church every Sunday, and there was this memo up in church that someone had a metal clarinet. That person just passed away maybe a few days ago. He was about ninety-three or ninety-four. That’s how I got my first instrument. Seventeen dollars!
When did you switch to saxophone?
Well, in high school I was always trying to figure out what I wanted to do as a career. What I really wanted to do was play the saxophone—that was one of the instruments that I really loved. I started playing the alto. It’s similar to the clarinet—if you can play the clarinet, you can play the saxophone.
Why did you switch to tenor from alto? What did you like about the sound?
Tenor was the most popular instrument at that time to get work. I would rent the school saxophone. You could rent it every day if you wanted to. It wasn’t a great horn. It was sort of beat-up and out of condition. I never owned a saxophone until I finished high school and went to Oakland, California. I had a clarinet, and so I traded that for a new silver tenor saxophone, and that got me started playing the tenor. The minute I bought it, I wanted an older horn, so I traded my new horn for an older model.
I read that you went to Oakland because you were studying art and you were going to go to art school.
I was painting all the time, pictures. I got into music very late. I used to do all that kind of work.
Have you painted at all since then?
No, I haven’t done anything for many, many years. I’ve wanted to go back into it, but I just haven’t.
After just a couple of years in Oakland, you moved to New York. Had you decided to focus exclusively on music?
I had to get it all together. I didn’t know enough about lots of things—basic things. I knew I needed to get some studying in, in order to get into playing saxophone, because I wanted to play jazz. So I had to cut out a lot of activities that I was doing and spend more time practicing scales and stuff like that.
Is it true that you were homeless when you first moved to the city?
I didn’t have nowhere to stay. Everybody was talking about, “You should go to New York.” They said, “That’s the place to go!” So that’s the reason I went to New York. I hitchhiked a ride to New York.
What year was this?
So, when you get there, the avant-garde—or whatever you want to call it—is in full swing. It’s been three years since Ornette Coleman’s residency2 at the Five Spot.3 Sun Ra has moved the Arkestra4 from Chicago to New York. Were you following all of this?
I didn’t know what was going on. I was trying to survive some kind of way. I used to work a few jobs here and there, earn five dollars, buy some food, buy some pizza. I had no money at all. I used to give blood and make fifteen dollars or ten dollars or whatever. I had to keep eating something.
But you managed to establish yourself as a musician.
I always wanted to work with my own band, so I got some guys together and started working down in New York, in Greenwich Village. I could pick up a few little weekend jobs. You had to do something to survive.
Who was in that band with you, your first band?
I would ask around for some musicians, and we played—I didn’t even hardly know their names.
Was Billy Higgins5 in that band? I read that you two knew each other—and that he was homeless, too.
Billy Higgins, he would come around in that location a lot, in the Village. I met him, and I heard him play. On occasion, we kind of talked a little bit about the music, and I found out how great he was. I started listening to some of his recordings. Like I said, all the time, I was still trying to find some type of job or work—it didn’t matter whether it was playing music or whatever it was. There was one time I got a job being a chef, cooking, in order to survive.
You started working with the Arkestra in 1964, and then, in September, 1965, you joined Coltrane’s band.6 That was a lot of people’s first exposure to you. Do you know why he chose you?
I don’t even know the reason myself. I don’t feel like he needed me or another horn. I think he just felt like he was going to do something different.
What was it like to work with him? There’s an idea of him as this saint-like figure.
His whole demeanor reminded me of a minister. He didn’t act like a lot of musicians that I’ve met in my life. John, he was always extremely quiet. He didn’t say anything unless you asked him something. I never asked him anything about music.
But he was making a conscious choice to work with younger musicians.
He always had some kind of a way of looking to the future, like a kaleidoscope. He saw himself playing something different. And it seemed like he wanted to get to that level of playing—I don’t know if it was a dream that came to him, but that’s what he wanted to do. I couldn’t figure out why he wanted me to play with him, because I didn’t feel like, at the time, that I was ready to play with John Coltrane. Being around him was almost, like, “Well, what do you want me to do? I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.”
He always told me, “Play.” That’s what I did.
What was your relationship with him like?
I loved being around him because I don’t talk that much, either. It was just good vibes between us both. We were just very quiet. All the time that I’d been listening to John, I’m hearing something else, just being around him. He would never start some kind of conversation—he would say something, but it wouldn’t last that long. He never would elaborate, or go deep into it. He said a few words, and that was it.
Was he funny at all? Did he ever joke around?
He had a sense of humor about him, I think. One time, Jimmy Cobb was playing with him, and his stick got loose, and it went across to John and hit him, or something. John said, “Yeah, he’s just trying to get back at me.”
His sense of humor was in his music. Sometimes he’d remind me of Monk.7 John would play things Monk would play, but it was a little bit different, faster. I’d turn around and look and say, “Oh. O.K.”
Monk’s music is definitely humorous, but I don’t think many people hear that in Coltrane.
He got a lot of stuff from being around Monk. He didn’t sound like Monk, but he understood the humor.
After John passed away, you continued recording with Alice Coltrane.8
You know, her playing was amazing. I loved what she was doing. But I always felt like what I was doing wasn’t good enough. Maybe I was playing a little bit more dominant than what she wanted—she seemed more intellectual than I was. But I tried to play something close to the concept that she was doing.
At one point, I had told her, “I don’t know if you like the way I’m playing or not. I don’t know whether this fits, or what.” She said, “You’re doing O.K. Just keep on playing. Keep on blowing.”
Around this time you also start leading your own bands, and you start recording for Impulse! as a leader. Did you feel like you knew what you were doing then?
No, I don’t think I was really ready. But I had to go on anyway, and study while I was trying to get it all together. I knew I had to be better than what I was. I had to keep moving. I learned a lot from John. I remember I used to talk to Philly Joe Jones.9 I talked to a lot of different people.
On those Impulse! records, you’re experimenting a lot with non-Western instruments, finding ways to use vocals in a freer context, and getting into more groove-oriented rhythms. Were you thinking through things in advance or just figuring them out in the studio?
We just worked it out while we was there. That kind of spontaneous move.
You started working with some musicians who people didn’t know well at the time, like Leon Thomas,10 Lonnie Liston Smith,11 Sonny Sharrock.12 What were you looking for when you heard them?
I was looking for musicians who played with lots of energy. I wanted to be able to play that way myself. In order to do that, I had to find musicians to work with who had that kind of energy.
You were making incredibly intense music during this period, on albums like “Jewels of Thought” and “Thembi.” Was that just where your head was at that time—constantly in a kind of heightened state?
I don’t know. I was still trying to reach for something, I didn’t know what.
Today people call this music “spiritual jazz.” But it wasn’t like anyone sat down at a table and said, “Let’s invent this whole new kind of music.”
It just happened. That’s the way I look at it. It just happened. I was never satisfied with my playing, for a long, long time. Still sort of have problems like that.
Still? Do you feel like you’ve ever had a moment, or a record, where you’ve been, like, “I got this one right”?
I used to hear other bands, other groups, when they were making a recording. And a lot of musicians I’d hear would be working on one song maybe for, could be a week, or a few weeks. Make sure everything is right.
You, on the other hand, were recording two or three albums a year with Impulse! Was that how often the label wanted you in the studio?
Well, they wanted a certain number of records a year, being signed with somebody. The thing you don’t want to do is make them too close together, playing the same way as you were before. You’ve got to do something fresh. Some people like to wait for that kind of thing to happen.
But that’s not how you approached it.
I just felt like going in there and doing what I wanted to do.
Would the label give you any direction, or were they hands-off?
They tried to let you know how many songs to play. I just kind of ignored it. Sometimes, I would just play one tune for the whole side. I just kept on playing, like it was a suite. Looking from one thing to another. If you’re in the song, keep on playing.
Did you rehearse?
No, we never rehearsed.
Did you ever do more than one take?
Maybe on a few things we did, something where I didn’t really like the way I first got started up and started out playing. But whenever I heard it back, I kind of liked it, so I said, “Well, I should have kept it.” Anyways, it’s too late now.
It kind of taught me something else. It made me think, Why do I have to do it this way? Let’s keep on playing until it all comes together. That’s what we did. That’s what I always do. You know, try to keep on creating.
You’ve mentioned several times now having not liked how your playing sounded—this seems tied into the idea of your always searching for something new. Is there any recording where you’re happy with your sound?
I haven’t made it yet. Sometimes on my horn, a couple of notes, I’m feeling satisfied with it, but the rest of the notes just is not sounding right. So I’m still working on that.
I have a problem with finding the right reeds, and the right mouthpiece, the right horns. I used to buy boxes of reeds, and if they don’t play right I’d just throw them right on the floor, put them in the trash. Maybe a box of threes, or a box of fours. They never sound the same.
Do you think most musicians think this way? Are you all just perfectionists?
I don’t know. I know when I listen to other musicians, they sound beautiful to me. When I hear myself playing, I sound like… They sound beautiful. I just wonder, what are they all using?
What do you listen to these days?
I haven’t been listening to anybody.
Not even older stuff?
I haven’t been listening to anything.
I listen to things that maybe some guys don’t. I listen to the waves of the water. Train coming down. Or I listen to an airplane taking off.
Have you always been listening for sounds like that?
I’ve always been like that, especially when I was small. I used to love hearing old car doors squeaking…. Maybe it’s something you’re really into, then maybe you’ll get a sound like that. I just wondered, Would that be a good sound?
Sometimes, when I’m playing, I want to do something, but I feel like, if I did, it wouldn’t sound right. So I’m always trying to make something that might sound bad sound beautiful in some way. I’m a person who just starts playing anything I want to play, and make it turn out to be maybe some beautiful music.
When you were first in the public eye, with Coltrane, people didn’t get that.
I don’t know if I got it myself.
Do you go back and listen to your recordings?
Yeah, I look at them sometime. I’ll change it up if I’ve been playing something that I’ve maybe played before.
The goal is to never repeat yourself?
I try not to, but it seems like I do at times. Then I stop playing and catch myself and say, “Let me try something else.” It’s almost like I play one idea and then I just try to look at it, like, “O.K., I’m going to try to see if I can play it backward.”
People still associate you with the kind of music you were making in the sixties and seventies. But over the years you started doing a lot more traditional playing.
Well, I was trying to do a lot of things—like ballads. I was playing a lot of those before I came to New York, before I started recording. Maybe I just kind of slowed down a little bit. A whole lot.
What are your favorite ballads to play?
I like “Berkeley Square.”13 I feel like I haven’t played enough on it. Every time I play it, I try to play something different.
It makes me think of Coltrane’s “Ballads.” People were surprised by that record, because they didn’t think of him as that kind of player.
John always loved to play ballads. He played some ballads when I was working with him, when he kind of opened up more freely. On some jobs I did with him, he played a ballad every now and then. Then he got back in his spaceship and took off again.
That’s where he was. You never knew what he was going to do next until he did it. He just started playing himself, and we all just start coming in. Whatever time we felt like we were needed, we came in.
Do you still feel like that? Like you have no idea where you’re headed and are just going to see where the music takes you?
A lot of time I don’t know what I want to play. So I just start playing, and try to make it right, and make it join to some other kind of feeling in the music. Like, I play one note, maybe that one note might mean love. And then another note might mean something else. Keep on going like that until it develops into—maybe something beautiful.
Today in Hip Hop History:
Timbaland and Magoo released their debut album Welcome To Our World November 11, 1997
I bought this when it was new. Compact disc format. I would be surprised if it still played because I really wore this one out.
About to meet with the head of HR tomorrow about a social phenomenon in which people feel the need to correct my “attitude” and tell me to “relax” when I’m actually the sweetest cookie in the jar.
Does anyone know any good pages to follow about plant-based (aka “vegan” - I hate that word) dieting?
Something with an overall warm, uplifting tone? Something that doesn’t shame or condescend people who aren’t quite 100% meat/dairy-free yet? Something that won’t make people with eating disorders and other psychological illnesses feel discouraged, judged, and hopeless?
I know this is a longshot (which is unfortunate) but if you know any plant-based/“vegan” accounts that are owned and operated by people who are kind and mindful, who don’t exclude POC, who don’t exclude people who are not wealthy, who don’t hate women, who don’t have to put others down to make themselves feel taller, who genuinely want to HELP people cross the bridge, who understand that inflicting guilt and shame on people is divisive and destructive, who put their own egos aside and let people’s individual journeys be great, please tag me in.
The homie Anton 🖤
Prince (June 7, 1958 – April 21, 2016) 💜 (at Mr. Purple)