04/06/2012 02:38 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Don Dixon: Songwriter, Producer, Musician in Living Stereo

Don Dixon has shaped many lives. If you think of the trickle down, it is millions of people. Producer, player, singer, songwriter, no question, he's been a groundbreaker. I first learned of him in the early nineties (I caught on late), reading a book of producer interviews. Everything Dixon said resonated. I reached out to him, again and again, mailing cassette tapes to a PO Box. One day, his manager Harry Simmons called me and Dixon helped me make my first record, Fools and Kings. Looking back, he had very little to work with ... I was far from developed, but he asked me questions I have never forgotten and started a journey. Over and over, he has uncovered and helped to develop so much talent in the world including REM, The Smithereens, The Counting Crows, Hootie and The Blowfish. Who would we not know, if it weren't for Don Dixon? It's hard to say.

Ruth Gerson: Early on you asked me to think about not who I am or who I think I want to be, but who am I NOT? This stuck with me and helped me identify myself. Do you remember the question? Do you ask everyone this?

Don Dixon: I use a variety of approaches when I'm working with a solo artist.  Often they've existed and created in such a vacuum that they have trouble with perspective.  It's difficult to step outside oneself enough to see the big picture.  One way I try to help lend perspective is by emphasizing the simple fact that no one appeals to everyone.  No matter how successful one becomes, millions either don't know about you, don't care about you or even actively despise you.  The ones that actively despise you are valuable because it helps define to whom you do appeal, so trying to understand who you are not is a big step toward understanding who you are and who your fans might be.  I'm not sure when this occurred to me, but probably at some point when I realized how Madonna's detractors helped define her and how hard she tried to piss people off!


RG: I remember you saying that even if ten million people buy your album, that means, in this country alone, there's two hundred and fifty million who don't know about you, don't care about you or they hate you. I've shared that with many students.

For some developing artists who spend their time practicing and writing (and may even have parents who think listening to music isn't as valuable or necessary as practicing), it can be daunting to figure out where to start listening. How important is it in the development of an artist, do you think, to listen to music? What percentage of time would you allocate to it?

DD: Because I still work in the studio a lot and tour solo as well as play shows with Marti [Jones] and as bassist for Mary Chapin Carpenter, I spend a lot of time listening to the songs I'm supposed to know for any given show!   And I don't listen that much when I drive because I like to write when I'm moving.  But when I do listen, it's often to jazz or other types of instrumental stuff.  I hate to call it "Classical" because for the most part I'm less interested in the music of the 18th Century than more modern stuff.  I love Penguin Cafe Orchestra, Donald Erb, Samuel Barber, Dvorak, Phillip Glass.  So if I'm doing the dishes, that's what's on in the kitchen.  Shane, my 20 year-old daughter, will come in and say, "What's that weird music you're listening to?" and I'll say "Oh, 'Red Hot Duets for Contrabassoon' by Donald Erb." "Creepy," says Shane.

But I think I might have missed the point of your question.  You asked me how much time an aspiring songwriter should spend listening to music.  In Bob Dylan's recent biography, he talks about absorbing all these 78s that were in this apartment he was crashing in.  I can't remember whose apartment it was.  Anyway, he soaked all this stuff up early and then went on to create his own persona.  I think that's the way to go about it.  Soak while you're a young sponge then squeeze all that out through the filter of your own, unique voice.   A time to reap, a time to sow.

RG: The first albums you mentioned to me were Rubber Soul and Revolver. It's a big question, but one I'm asked a lot. What would be on your summer listening list for a person who has nothing to do the entire summer but listen, write and practice?

DD: Well, one of the great things about Beatles records is how simple yet sophisticated they are musically.  The writing and the arrangements have an economy that gives them accessibility.  They are terrific distillations of the pop music lexicon up until that point and those two records in particular are a wonderful precursor to what was to become "the singer/songwriter" ... but without so much of the personal expose of those that followed like Joni Mitchell and James Taylor. I mentioned those particular records to you because I felt you could benefit from trying to conceive two minute songs. My list of records for someone else might be entirely different but I don't know many writers that don't benefit from some judicious editing.  "Yesterday" is 1 minute and 56 seconds long.  What would you add to improve it?

RG: Right. Nothing. I still write too long. I recently cut a twelve minute song down to seven. I did write my first two minute song -- and it seems to be everyone's new favorite. (It only took fifteen years.)

Picking your brain, say I'm ten years old, and I got the Beatles Complete Box Set on iTunes for Christmas and have since memorized it, and I have grown up with my mom addicted to Bob Dylan, so I got that -- what's next on your list for a potential singer/songwriter who hasn't written a word yet? Harry Smith Anthology? What?

DD: It might just be my age but I grew up playing songs by Johnny Mercer, Henry Mancini and Cole Porter as well as Bob Dylan, Willie Dixon and Ray Charles.  And speaking of Ray Charles, one his earliest proponents was Peggy Lee who as it turns out was a huge influence on me as a singer.  In the late 50s and early 60s she recorded his songs and talked him up every chance she got.  After I had already been singing for decades I realized that I'd picked up a lot of little things from Peggy Lee, so I suppose that I might encourage a young man to listen to some women singers ... Butterfly Boucher or Imogen Heap for example.  Sarah Vaughn.  Ella Fitzgerald.  

RG: That makes me feel good, because I suggest the same thing to students. Pick somebody far away and channel them, because they're going to be unrecognizable through you. I pick Roy Orbison a lot for myself, and Elvis Costello -- it helps on stage. If I'm nervous, I pretend I'm Elvis for a bit and it's gone. What else?

DD: I also think a kid could learn a lot if they study the lyrics to "Moon River."  There's no plot, but the imagery in this simple lyric is so powerful and clear that you feel like you know the whole story ... longing, anticipation, wanderlust ... eternal themes.  And Mancini's melody is masterful.  A complete circle without a sense of here-comes-the-big-chorus nonsense, just a beautiful float down that metaphorical river.

If you write on piano you should listen to songs by people that write on guitar.  If you write on guitar, listen to someone that composes at the piano.  Or try what I've been doing most of my life, especially my adult life.  Write in your head.  Make yourself keep it in your head until the important stuff is done -- the melody and lyrics -- I usually don't decide on the chords until the very end when I sit down with a guitar or at the piano and determine the best harmonic approach.  That was one of the things I liked about you when we first met.  You wrote on piano as well as guitar.

RG: It's helpful to play many instruments, because you may write differently on various instruments. You play a bit of everything, which must affect how you play bass, and makes you one of the most esteemed bass players out there. When you write songs yourself, do you always wait for the inspiration and hit it when it comes, or do you keep a writing schedule and have techniques to writing?

DD: I am a bad person.  While I have tremendous discipline in many areas of my life, I'm a streaky writer.  I would probably be more successful if I could make myself sit down regularly but I have so many interests, it's very difficult to live a life that gives me time to devote to writing daily.  I'm more project oriented.  Give me a time frame and I will create.  Ruth, you must have a tough time yourself with all you've got going on!

RG: You are an amazing and inspiring person. I have a new regimen, one week a month -- no teaching and minimal "work," i.e. no Singingbelt, almost no email, stay off the computer -- I concentrate on creating something and also make sure I have a special adventure or experience with my daughters.

What's the significance of the lava lamps?

DD: I must give credit where credit is due.  Richard Barone brought a vintage Lava Lite to Mitch Easter's studio back in the 80s.  I believe it was yellow wax in blue oil with a brown anodized aluminum base.  Of course after that, we all had to have one so that's when the little lamps became part of my arsenal.  

RG: Do they help you concentrate? Do they help you create? Or just kinda separate the studio space from the outside world space?

DD: I've never really thought about it!   Back in the 80s, it was just something different and kitschy, but now that you ask, I suppose there is something soothing about the movement.  Most light sources that move are distracting but a Lava light is more like sunlight filtering through a tree that's gently swaying in the breeze.

RG: OK, I'm gonna put one in the studio. Before you go, it's very exciting that you and Marti Jones have created an album together. It is a long awaited and sublime album. The voices, both your actual voices and your writing voices come together cinematically.   How did Living Stereo finally happen -- what took so long?

DD:Marti Jones & I have been married since 1988 but we've been working together since 1985 and though we've recorded a few songs together on each others records and played hundreds and hundreds of shows as a duo, we've never done a proper duet record until last year.  I felt it was time.  She had a few songs tucked away and I wrote some duets that I hope fit the nature of our relationship which I think is like a lot of modern relationships -- complicated!

Photo by Daniel Coston. Courtesy Don Dixon.