10 Questions with ... Michael Knox
January 12, 2014
BRIEF CAREER SYNOPSIS:
Few people in Music Row history have turned creativity into chart success quite like CMA, ACM and Grammy-winning producer Michael Knox. While an executive for Warner/Chappell Music (1992 - 2002), Knox was responsible for writer and artist development and song placements that left his stamp on more than 150 million records. Knox has proven himself to be one of Nashville's most original business minds and one of its most successful groomers of talent. With monster hits as a songplugger by Faith Hill, Tim McGraw, George Strait, Reba, Gary Allan, Collin Raye, Tracy Byrd, Lonestar, Clay Walker, and many others - more than 300 cuts in eight years - all reflect his pivotal role in bringing together artist and song. In 2004 Knox moved to another chapter in his career by producing Jason Aldean's music. He has since teamed with Aldean for 11 #1 singles and gone on to work with numerous other artists as well.
1. Michael, first let me say thanks so much for taking the time to answer 10 questions. Looking at your background, there is so much to cover! But let me start by asking, what exactly is the role of a producer? Are you like a movie director? The musical conscience of the artist? The referee? What are you doing behind that ginormous mixing board anyway?
Yea this is great, thanks for including me. Man, I'm more of a team builder. So I find songs and people to put around the artist that can help them achieve the goals they are after. I've always been good at building teams. It's been something that is a strong part of my ammunition. Finding the right type of musicians, background singers to the right type of mixing engineer, it's all very important to getting something unique. That allows me to step back and be a fan of what we are doing and not get caught up in the little things.
2. I don't want to take away from the diverse number of projects you're worked on. but Jason Aldean is the guy people most quickly associate you with. What happens in those soundproof rooms that makes him such a superstar? And talk me through the process you two have developed in evolving his sound over the years.
We just don't over think it, really it's that simple. He knows what I do and I know what he does and we don't get in each others way. He's the rock star, the main attraction and I just make sure he has the right tools around him to kick-ass. The other thing is that he is a very diverse singer; when you get an Aldean record it takes you to a lot of different places. You really go on a musical journey and don't get bored. We do a lot of work before we go in the studio finding the right songs. So when we hit the studio we are ready to go and just have a blast doing it.
3. Can you share a situation where you and Jason absolutely disagreed on something for an album where you turned out to be right?
Man the only thing we have ever disagreed on would be songs. And that doesn't happen too often. I wish I had a great story about us putting each other in their places but I just don't.
4. Let's take a slightly broader view of Country as a format. What is making this music blow up so big right now? Is it the songs? Production value? Are we witnessing an unprecedented era for new artists? Is it all of the above - and why?
We are cutting the best songs right now. Well, we are actually cutting songs and not 30-second laptop commercials and repeating it several times. Country music is the heart and soul of this Country, we are speaking for and to the next generation. I don't hear real instruments hardly anywhere but in Country music. Real drums and guitars are hard to find these days. People like things that are real and believable and Country music is that in a nutshell. It's cool to be Country, it's cool to be from the country. Small town America is making a comeback and we need it.
5. And yet, if there's an Achilles for Country right now, it would appear to be our lack of success in developing and breaking more female stars. You've worked with a lot of female artists, so why can't they break through, even though it seems there is no shortage of talented ladies out there?
It's funny, a male artist can take a lot of chances but when I cut a female with attitude or southern roots like a male might have, they always want me to make them more pop sounding. I don't know, it's definitely something we need and are missing in the format. The only ones that get the shot sure do sound a lot like each other.
6. You've been a song plugger and developed a lot of talent over the years. So look into the crystal ball and tell us where the format is headed now. What's the next big thing for Country music?
Well the drum loop world is here and very relevant in the format. Pop style recording is flavoring our radio right now. We need to be prepared for that to get old. People grow up and the next generation wants something else. The next big thing is to start cutting records again and break artists and stop cutting singles. You can have a great singer singing a great song and people will buy that song but if we can't sell records how are we going to sell out stadiums? I don't see 40,000 people showing up at Wrigley Field for a few good singles. But if you build a few great records, they will come.
7. Maybe this dovetails into the previous question, but looking at the format's current success and momentum, I like to ask people in your position this question: How do we keep from screwing this up?
We are as good as our creative leaders in town. Make sure the right people are making the creative decisions. It's that simple. We need to develop artist that can sell records not singers that sell singles.
8. I want to circle back to artists for a minute. In general, have younger, newer artists you're now meeting been more influenced by Country artists they listened to when growing up, or pop or rock acts?
They are all over the place, I get out to clubs a lot to see new talent and they play everything form Jimmy Rogers to Guns & Roses to Justin Timberlake, it's crazy. The only way you can define a country artist these days is the lifestyle they lead. Small town America is country music. This group of new artists is influenced by a lot of different music, and that's not a bad thing. It's actually exciting, a new country is coming to the front. They don't hate old school Country, they just have another way of expressing themselves. It's exciting right now.
9. You've done work with cast members of "Nashville" too. Is it challenging to make a record that is supposed to end up sounding like a hit song, when you're working with talent who are actors first and singers second? What's the first thing you have to teach them in a studio setting?
The first thing I have to do is to remember that I'm cutting something to match a script for a show and not necessarily something for Country radio or an album idea. It's a lot of fun keeping the actors in character when they are singing. Some of them don't talk like the character does on the show, so that's fun to put that together. They might pronounce words differently than the character would on the show and singing it is even harder. So far it's been fun and the cast has been great to work with.
10. Where is Country radio on your radar? Do you listen? Are you a fan? Does radio in its current state ever enter into the creative decision-making process in the studio?
I'm a big radio fan; I listen to it all the time. I channel surf a lot, I'm not a one station loyal guy but I love hearing what people are playing. I don't ever pick songs or make creative decisions based on radio - you would be six months to a year behind if you did that. Those records were made last year. When I'm picking songs I just rely on my gut feeling about it. I don't cut a project on anyone that I don't like; Hell, I'm a fan of what I'm working on and if I don't want to listen to it, why would anyone else?
Connie Britton and Hayden Panettiere both ditch acting to make a serious run at Country stardom. Which one makes it?
Both are great but Hayden has a better shot as a new artist.
What's the bigger conversation starter at the house when guests visit: An ACM, CMA or Grammy Award trophy?
Most of my family know the CMA stuff, just because they have heard that and watched the show before.
Favorite all-time Jason Aldean single?
That's a real hard question for me. I have a lot of songs that I love or elevated me as a producer and some that make me proud of the accomplishments that they brought. With that said "Tattoo's On This Town" would be the one that came to mind first. The lyric, how the music kicks hard but it also has a very peaceful sense about it. There is just something about that song that feels very personal to me. It's the best sounding track I think I have ever cut. If someone wanted to know what I do as a producer best, that would be the song I'd ask them to listen to first.