Itaal Shur on Songs, Business and life -2/2

Itaal Shur on Songs, Business and life -2/2

This is part 2 of 2 of a 2010 interview with Itaal Shur, Grammy Award winning songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and producer.  The first portion of the interview covers his early career and how he came to write and produce several of the great songs he has been involved in.  If you missed part one you can read it here.


Music Consultant:

So you’ve been down in Rio recording a record of your own for a while?

IS:

Yes. I’m basically done.  I’m an actual resident of Brazil now.  I love Brazilian music. The first time I came here I said, “You know, I’m going to start coming here more. I think I need another country to call home.”  ***Editor’s note – Itaal has recently re-located to NYC***

 

Music Consultant:

What are you going to do with this new album? What’s your strategy?

 

IS:

I made another solo record that was on my site in about 2003-2004. The thing is, I had such success with “Smooth” and other songs that I’ve always run a dual life. I’ve always wanted to do my own thing, but I’ve always had more attention from things with other people than with my own things. I get more immediate gratification. But I was always a real artist inside all this time. I am kind of an entertainer on stage, so what happened is, I made this record, but then I wasn’t getting the reaction I wanted from the “business.” But then I realized they are kind of looking at me as a songwriter/producer, and not as an artist.

 

Music Consultant:

My two cents is that in this climate, if they’re looking at you at all, you’re doing something right.

 

IS:

Yeah, exactly.  For about two years after Santana everybody was calling me. The Santana record I think was the last mega selling record.

 

Music Consultant:

Yeah. There probably won’t be another Diamond Album.  There are too many channels.

 

IS:

Santana sold 25 million records. That’s a lot of records. That’s it though. That time is over. It’s done. Norah Jones was the biggest success of the 2000s with her record- older people bought them. People now think that’s crazy, as far as albums are concerned and buying a whole physical CD.

What I’m doing right now is this:  I needed to express some very deep parts of myself through music in a way I’d never done before. I play piano a lot and sing and my music is very harmonic. I have two records, and each record is 6 songs, because they are two personalities. One is a very upbeat, fun, funky, good time, jazz, a little bit of everything mixed in. The other one is like Peter Gabriel ballads. They’re very deep and exploration of the spiritual and the heart side.  What happened was, I called one of my best friends, who is an engineer in Brazil, and said, “I want to start working with you” because he is one of my great friends and a great engineer. We worked on Lucy Woodward’s album in L.A. I said, “Let’s do this project together”.  He flew to New York a couple times to take advantage of my studio, and we started rehearsing all the musicians, and we recorded most of it. And then I packed up my studio of ten years, which was a whole month of hell, and I came to Brazil and just started finishing it. But it took me about a month just to even think about music again, because I had closed my whole world down – the whole complex. Then we got here and started finishing, and we started to change a lot of things. And it’s harder here in Brazil, because things don’t run as fast as New York.  There were just a lot of setbacks that I wouldn’t have had in New York. But it’s been really good for me to be down here and be out of New York so I could finish this record.

What I’m going to do first is, I’m doing some mini movies. I’ve documented a lot of the making. I’ve filmed a lot, so I have the “making of” and the “story behind it.” I’m doing little mini documentaries. Then I’m updating all the Facebook and the Myspace and the blogs. I’ve also done shows here.  I’m accumulating a lot of visual information of me performing, and the story behind the music so my website or blog and Facebook and Myspace have enough information so people can go there and really get what it’s about. I want to explain it, and not just say, “Hey, I just put out some music.” There’s a story behind it, and I want to emotionally be able to get people to be sympathetic to what’s going on too.

 

Music Consultant:

Are you going to be self releasing?

 

IS: I’m going to be self releasing in the beginning. Basically what you’re doing is paying independent marketing. That’s all record companies do. They’re just taking a lot more because they have to pay their employees and take their cut. Yes, I’m self releasing right now.

 

Music Consultant:

I understand.  I do freelance product management – there are tons of gifted freelancers out there if you know where to look.

 

IS:

A lot of people give you a big plan and say, “We can do this and this and that and that.” And then you say, “Cool, but I need to know what you’ve done before I can accept this.” Because everyone can say the same things, but can they actually pull a lot of things off?  It took me a while to finish this record. I changed a lot of things. This record was really me saying, “Fuck everything. I’m going to be an artist for a while, and I need to get back into that.”

 

Music Consultant:

Good for you. It’s a really hard thing to do.

 

IS:

I’ve been very blessed. I made good money. What happened was a couple years ago I’d written with so many people and did so many different projects but I’m not the kind of writer like Dr. Luke. That guy has a sound, and he has the guitar riff and synths. He was able to parlay that into tons and tons of co-writes that amounted to millions of dollars. I wrote “Smooth,” which is a Latin rock song.  It’s the most un-formulaic song. It’s a Latin rock song with Matchbox 20’s singer. I came off that, and I couldn’t sit there and repeat that song, because it didn’t fit any format. And the Latin thing wasn’t going to last forever.

 

Music Consultant:

And you needed an artist of that stature to launch something that original as a crossover. I understand. Was that actually in person, or did you do that session via FTP?

 

IS:

Rob and I wrote it together. I brought an instrumental to the record company, and they loved it. They liked some of the melodies. They just didn’t like the lyrics. So Rob and I got together, and he changed a lot of the lyrics, and then we did the demos, and they liked it a lot. The thing is, the guitar solo at the beginning is my guitar solo. Santana copied it.

 

Music Consultant:

Wow. Not many people can say that…

 

IS:

So, right now where I’m at is, I’m going to get back into going into songwriting and I want to get into film composing and other things. But I realize I need to have an outlet as me as an artist. I need to have that to keep my sanity going and be able to express myself. I don’t care anymore if ten people like it or 10,000 or 100,000; I need to do what my heart wants to do. Because I can get together with someone and say, “Hey, let’s make a song and let’s do it in the style of a pop dance song.” I can do that for two days. I can put on that hat. It’s part of me. It just might not be what my heart wants. But my brain likes it a lot.  I’ve been compared me to Todd Rundgren in that way.

 

Music Consultant:

That’s certainly a nice comparison.

 

IS:

Todd was a killer artist, very soulful singer too, and he produced some of the biggest records of all time but he’s a very strange dude, you can’t pin him down. You can’t put him in a box. There are some weird people in the music biz. Like Thomas Dolby, who started as an artist and then went on to invent media file formats…

 

Music Consultant:

Yea – he founded a technology company…

 

IS:

I grew up in a real, musical, art, intellectual background, but I understand popular culture as well. I just have limits for each of them.  I’m not a purist, I’m a populist. I like popular things. One of the things I like in Brazil is sitting around with my friends and playing popular American and Brazilian songs and drinking beer. I like that communal thing, which has kind of died. You think about back in the day, you had James Taylor and all these folk artists, and hippies would sit around and play the songs of the day. Nobody really does that anymore because many kinds of music can’t be played on an acoustic guitar anymore. That’s something I like too. Music is not only your career, it’s music as well. It serves a bigger function and connects people together. You could have a sing-along at your house, and have more fun than you did for something that made you a lot of money. I think what’s happened with me is that I went on a lot of personal searches and spiritual searches, and I had to restructure the way my brain was working, because I’d had a lot of success, and I pressured myself to always have success.

There are remnants of that because everyone has that pressured feeling, but we have to always remain inspired, and if we do something that maybe isn’t as inspiring – like a commercial that makes money – have a time limit. Say, “I’m doing this commercial for someone, and it’s making me money, but it’s done in a week.” The thing is, if you make good music that’s inspiring, even if it’s some weird shit, some crazy, weird instrumental shit, you’re going to get some attention. That attention might not be widespread attention, but underground attention. And that underground attention is what can make things popular, and you can apply that. That’s what’s happened a lot in music. A lot of electronic music has become popular sound.  If you think about a lot of pop music now, a lot of it comes from indie bands, the sound of indie. It’s popularized a little bit. You have to experiment to come up with a sound. Do side projects. For example, Gnarls Barkley – that was never intended to be such a big success. And really, they’ve only had one song that was successful.

 

Music Consultant:

We should all have one song that’s that successful.

 

IS:

But what I’m getting at is, that was a cool, creative project between those two. I don’t think they thought it would blow up that big. They wanted to collaborate and do some good music.

 

Music Consultant:

You’ve experienced that yourself though. You just never know when you sit down to collaborate. There really is an energy that’s created in that.

 

IS:

But I know a lot of people that think, “I want to make hits” all the time. I’m just not one of those people. I respect that. Their whole idea is that they don’t get off until it sounds like a hit. That’s the kind of music they like. It’s like saying, “I only like to surf 8-foot or 10-foot waves. 3-foot waves don’t interest me.” I see you have the waves here on your thing. You know what I’m trying to say. But you could be like, “I like all waves.”

 

Music Consultant:

I know what you’re trying to say. I am an all waves kind of guy.

 

IS:

But there are some guys that say, “Fuck the small waves. I’m waiting for the storm to come.”

 

Music Consultant:

I get it. You take gratification in the process as much as in the result.

 

IS:

Yeah. What it is, is that I like a lot of different kinds of music. It’s not all pop music. I like a lot of old Brazilian music, a lot of classical music. I really want to get more into composing for film. You’ll see on this new record, I have some really beautiful songs that are transcendental. They’re almost like a mix of Peter Gabriel and Milton Nascimento, and film soundtracks.  You have to go deep sometimes. You have to go where your heart wants to take you. But what I’m getting at is that going deep and being an artist, even if you come from success can lead to very successful populous things, because you open new doors, which can then help you discover new things. Discoveries of new sounds can lead somewhere. For example, the whole acid jazz things, we were just jamming with a DJ. How did that become Erykah Badu and Maxwell and Jamiroquai?  It was a whole thing. People wanted to play funky music, because grunge was happening at the same time, and we were on a whole other wavelength. We weren’t about suicide and all that. We were more into a 70’s groovy party, and everybody’s feeling good. Groove Collective never became pop music, but it influenced many things that did become pop music.

 

Music Consultant:

In the same way that the Velvet Underground weren’t a popular band, but they influenced every band that became popular in the years that followed.

 

IS:

And I don’t think they had an idea what they were doing. They were just doing their thing. They were in Andy’s world and in their scene. When you’re in your scene, you’re very insular. You don’t even know what’s outside of it. You’re just with your friends who like the same things, and you all take the same drugs and make this music. How long did the Velvet Underground last? Three years?

 

Music Consultant:

Very short, considering their influence.

 

IS:

Jimi Hendrix’s career was just three years as Jimi Hendrix. The Beatles were eight or nine years as The Beatles. The most successful band of all time in my opinion is U2, because they’re still making music that gets played in the popular media veins. The Stones had 20 years of songs, and then after the mid 80’s their songs weren’t played on the radio anymore, but they still toured. They were a karaoke band. But U2 can still put out a new record and it will be on iTunes and MTV and all the charts, and they’re 30 years into their career. No one has done that.

 

Music Consultant:

Even on a much smaller level, I always found it wasn’t always necessarily the ones that were talented. It was the people that were still around and still a band ten years later that were eventually the ones that got some kind of success.

 

IS:

I think Aerosmith for example, or U2 or the Eagles are a business. They know they’ve had tons of success, and they don’t like each other that much, but they’re a business. They all have enough comfort on the road to not be around each other all the time and play shows and go off their separate ways after the show. But they make tons of money.

 

Music Consultant:

You’ve been so generous with your time. In closing, is there anything you wish you knew when you were starting out that you learned the hard way?

 

IS:

Yes. Always get a lawyer. And then get another lawyer to see if that lawyer is trying to fuck you. When you get your manager, find another manager  – two people for everything. When you get your accountant, find another accountant. All these things. Don’t trust anybody in the business as far as money and contracts. Always double-check them and most importantly learn business. Learn all the terminology for songs. Learn how publishing works. Learn how contracts work and read your contracts. That’s really what it’s about. There’s no pipe dream. You really have to know what you’re doing. A lot of people lose money, and a lot of people don’t know how to keep following up. I’d also say, when you get successful at what you’re good at – and I’ve been guilty of not doing this because I have a lot of different things – keep hustling and hustle even more. Because there’s only a small window of opportunity where you can stay on top for a long time.

 

Also, if you’re a songwriter, write as many songs as you can, and find out what your strengths are. If you’re more instrumental, then work on tracks, and if you’re more lyrics, work with as many people as you can. I find that people that are good at top line writing do well even if they’re not as famous as the producers.  If you’re a producer, working directly with the artist always helps. One of the reasons music sucks a lot is because a lot of people that are wannabe songwriters shouldn’t be songwriters, but they are the artist. In other words, they have talent for singing or dancers, but their managers push them to be writers so they sit in a room with other writers and get a third of the song, and then they can get that publishing money. But they’re not necessarily good writers. They should be left out, and leave the songs to good writers so they can have more hit songs, and more quality hit music rather than their two cents. Not everybody’s a songwriter. Remember, Aretha Franklin barely wrote any songs and Chaka Kahn hardly wrote songs. Rod Stewart wrote just a few songs. These are mega stars. They could be okay at it, but they didn’t do it that much.

Learn More about Itaal Shur:  Follow him on Twitter and Hear parts of his new Album on Facebook.