There Is Plenty Of Room At The Top: Transcending The Rat Race With Ronan Chris Murphy

Hunter S. Thompson purportedly stated, “The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side.”

One aspect of the negative side is the constant struggle for position and power. As we were coming up in the biz, many of us believed that we could not take a breather because, if we were to even briefly take a foot off the gas pedal, someone else would slither into the gap, possibly taking our place. Fourteen to sixteen hour work days were common. At times it felt like we were all throwing elbows to cram our way into an overpacked bus on a perilous mountain road to success.

As the years passed and my discography blossomed, I no longer felt the stifling pressure of being packed in a tin of sardines.  The air became more clear as I climbed the hill, and I could finally see clear skies and vast horizons. There was room to spread my wings, and my veteran colleagues were actually friendly and supportive, in stark contrast to the treacherous thugs, thieves and liars crammed at the base of the climb.

During the 1990s and early 2000s there seemed to be plenty of work for accomplished record producers and engineers in Los Angeles. Records and demos were being recorded at commercial facilities, tape was being manufactured, pro audio rentals were booming, money was flowing, and an entire industry was thriving. Even if you spent three days a week on the phone or in meetings to hustle two days of paid work in the studio, you could live fairly well.

By 2008 the money belts had severely tightened, thanks to both internal and external factors. Music fans felt like they were getting shafted by major labels who released 12 song albums that contained one or two singles padded with ten tracks of filler. Relative to alternative choices of how to spend $16.98, an LP CD no longer seemed like such a good value. Piracy also contributed to the demise of the record business, as did the collapse of Wall Street, which incidentally cost me one of my indie labels, Fresh Baked Music LLC.

Freelance producers and engineers, along with recording studio managers, took extreme measures to get jobs in the pipeline. Fees took a nosedive as supply abruptly ballooned inversely to the declining demand for services. Fewer major label albums were being made, and recording funds shrunk. I clearly recall Interscope A&R man Tony Ferguson and I chatting over lunch about how new rock bands might get an $80,000 recording fund instead of the formerly  commonplace $250,000…or sometimes $400,000 if the deal was competitive (i.e. a bidding war). Even superstar artists who might be worthy of a $1,000,000 recording fund were feeling the pinch by getting $250,000.

Needless to say, the neo pros at the bottom of the totem pole were getting squeezed out of the game. Meanwhile, the veterans were scrambling to reduce their cost of doing business and to get as many gigs as possible, including those that would have previously been too small to consider. Some guys went as far as saying just about anything (i.e. lying) to get a gig, unscrupulously damaging the careers of others along the way. Even though it is wrong, it is no surprise that desperate people become ruthless and conniving if that is what it takes to put food on the table. Therefore, it was quite refreshing whenever I saw potential rivals band together to create a rising tide that would cause all boats to float higher.

My friend Ronan Chris Murphy personifies this enlightened attitude of working with each other instead of against one another. Although his discography boasts such luminaries as King Crimson, Tony Levin and Ulver, Ronan has always remained indie friendly with respect to accessibility and flexible pricing. He shares his knowledge generously via his Recording Boot Camp workshops. He also created one of the first audio blogs and he enthusiastically hosts occasional recording expos that bring together top producers and engineers with aspiring pros looking to acquire knowledge and expand their networks.

Ronan and I organically evolved into fans and champions of each other. We have shared techniques and advice, we have recommended each other for jobs, and we modestly promote each other s special events on social media. While you, the reader, may perceive us as rivals, we think of each other as support. We are not worried about losing clients to one another. We have our own unique sense of aesthetics, so it is unlikely that an artist would pit one of us against the other.  Instead of competing against each other, we focus on the positive, specifically rising the tide so that we rise with it. After all, there is plenty of room at the top

As a special treat, I was able to interview Ronan for this blog post. Enjoy the read! And if your star is rising in the record biz, remember to make friends instead of enemies, and to build bridges instead of walls.

MJ: Tell me about your enlightened way of thinking. Why are you so generous with, and supportive of, colleagues like me, who might appear to be rivals to an outsider?

RCM: Ha! I am not sure I get to call myself enlightened, despite the Buddha belly, but I have been around long enough to know that being a good member of a community is better than trying to go it alone.  I think you and I virtually met years ago on the Gearslutz forum and we sort of bonded because we both had a really similar disposition of trying to share knowledge in a way that cut through the BS and approached advice from a practical real world perspective. Once we got to know each other in the real world we found that we had common approaches to music and work ethics and mostly that we could trust the ethics and the quality of each others work. As pros, we would love to do every project, but some of them might not be right for me that might be right for you, or one of us is too busy at a certain point. We are able refer gigs to each other and we even have clients that hire both of us at different times.

I guess the take away from all of this for people starting out is that you want to be competitive with other producers and engineers, but you also want to be supportive and not adversarial.  My biggest gig this year was a referral from some one that I am technically a direct competitor with. He was offered the gig, but had some important family commitments at the time, so he recommended me because he knew I could do good work and that I would treat the client well. Right now I am working in Iceland and had to turn down a gig, but referred it to another engineer. It was actually some work that did not really have the budget for some one at our level, so I passed it to a younger engineer whose work I really trust.

You and I both do a lot of educational outreach, and there is nothing but good that comes from people learning from both of us. It is funny, you have been doing these cool events with our friend Rob Chiarelli (Will Smith, Christina Aguilera, P!nk). Rob and I both lecture every year at something called the Taxi Road Rally. He and I seem to have polar opinions on a few concepts and people will come up to me confused that I said something enthusiastically and Rob said the opposite enthusiastically, and they expect that to be some kind of drama. I always just tell them that that Rob is a bad ass mixer!! Go back to your studio and try both our ideas and see which one gets you the sounds you want or fits into your workflow better.

MJ: That is truly great advice. Rob and I did another event just last night with Jared Stansill at Pro Audio LA, and were laughing out loud because we answered a series of questions from opposite workflow perspectives! We were concerned that we would totally confuse the audience, who fortunately shared our amusement. The crowd was mostly pros, so they understood that there are many roads that lead to the same destination. You, Rob and I share the philosophy that education must train students to think analytically so that they are better equipped to make confident artistic decisions. Apropos of that…

Your powerful Recording Boot Camp workshops (even the ones in the beautiful rustic Italian villa!) are much more affordable than folks generally assume, probably due to the perception created by another well known mixing retreat that happens at a beautiful estate in France. Your Boot Camps provide a lot of value and they are empowering for anybody who wants to record themselves or others in the comfort of their own space, without the pressure of a ticking clock at an expensive commercial studio. Please briefly tell my readers why they might consider attending and where to find out more than this space allows.

RCM: Thanks. Yeah, I started one of the fist one week recording programs, and I have always tried to keep the rates really affordable. The truth is that my company can make fair money while keeping the prices down and I want to keep the classes small enough that students can get personalized attention. Most boot camps have a maximum of 4-6 students and we are cheaper than many options that allow 15-25 students into a class. I do not see any reason to make it harder or a lesser experience for the students if I am already making decent money.

But all that aside, the course I developed is all about mastering fundamentals at a deep level and the classic techniques that the great producers and engineers have been using for decades. We spend an entire day on compression because it is such a massively important creative tool that can do so much more than most people think.  Some less experienced people do not realize that if you master a pretty small set of core concepts, you can move between jazz, pop, metal, country, etc with ease. It is all the same concepts applied differently. When I started the program back in 2003 I thought most of the students would be home recordists, but it is far more than that. I get a cool mix of hobbyists and pros and even some producers with major label credits.

People that want to learn more can check out http://www.recordingbootcamp.com/ and contact me through that site.

MJ: Do you have any words of wisdom for aspiring recordists trying to catch a break, or for veterans who want to remain relevant in a constantly changing industry?

RCM: I think the biggest piece of advice I could give would be the same for both of those. In the end, this is a people business, and that is the case now more than ever. Especially these days when every other house has a studio in it, people no longer find a “studio” to book. People search out a guy or gal that they trust to do a good job taking care of their music. So, as much as we all love getting a new pre-amp or software updates, those are not the things that really get us clients…although they help us do better work once we have the clients. Having a connection with people is what gets clients. Get tapped into your local live music scene, or local houses of worship, or online communities. Anything you can do to get people to know and to trust you. Even though I do not get out to live shows as much as I would like these days, I have always been really active via online forums, Recording Boot Camp, Ronan’s Recording Show, Facebook, and by going to conferences and other events whenever I can. In an industry that is in decline my business is still fairly solid. I have friends that have bigger credits that I have, and in truth are probably more talented than I am, whose careers have completely died. I feel it is because they did not actively work to stay involved in the communities where jobs come from these days.

MJ: Thanks for taking part in this blog post, Ronan!

RCM: My pleasure. It is always a blast to do anything with you!

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Hidden Gems: The Building Blocks of a Good Story

  

Life is full of surprises. Some are profound, while others are merely amusing. You almost certainly encounter both types over the course of recording an entire album.

Good stories almost never come without a price tag. Legendary ancestors of whom we sing songs of trials, tribulations and conquests, paid a heavy price. If they didn’t have to earn their status, their stories would not be compelling.

Fortunately we’re talking about the art of making records, not giving birth to nations or winning wars, so the stakes aren’t as high. Nonetheless, musicians can be colorful characters who have a knack for finding themselves right smack in the middle of a good story. 

Producing a record is a very intimate experience. The producer and artist cannot help but become very close to each other. Each goes pretty far upstream, or should I say down the rabbit hole, into the other one’s artistic fantasy world. For several weeks or months, you become each other’s confidantes and BFFs. Needless to say, you end up truly caring for the other person, even if at times you want to beat some sense into him.

Roy Ashen, pictured above, is the founder of a music licensing company named Triple Scoop Music. Prior to that, however, he was a wunderkind prodigy who pioneered eight-finger tapping technique and wrote columns for various guitar magazines. He was poised to rule the recording industry, with multiple labels clamoring for a piece of him. 

Before I go any farther, perhaps I should explain the presence of Amy’s Kitchen Pad Thai lurking behind the CD package in the photograph. 

Outsiders have the illusion that recording music is a very mysterious process, fraught with tortured artistry and constant struggles to tap into fleeting moments of inspiration. While this is sometimes true, the other part of the reality is that the entire team has a series of pragmatic milestones that must be reached. Everybody is always looking out for each other to ensure that the entire team is operating at maximum productivity. The photo symbolizes the goal of the finished product, along with the hidden gems we find along the way. (In reality, the hidden “gem” of the next part of the story is a leftover burrito, not a sweet and sour noodle dish.)

Roy and I arrived separately at Westlake Audio Studios for a 10 AM downbeat. Before engaging in the ritual bro-hug, I placed my keys, sunglasses and grilled vegetarian burrito on the credenza adjacent to the console. Roy pointed to the burrito, and asked, “You went to Baja Fresh this morning?” 

“No,” I replied. 

“Huh… Then where’d you get the burrito?”

“I found it.” 

“You found it? Wait a minute! Put it down right now!! What do you mean, you found it? Where did you find it?”

“In my car. Under the LA Weekly.”

“Whoa, MJ, you can’t eat that thing just because you found it under a magazine in your car. How did it get there? When did it get there? Who put it there? You can’t just go around eating found food without knowing the answers to these questions. You could die from food poisoning, dude!”

“Stop worrying, Roy. Irina (my wife) and her mother probably went out for dinner last night, and picked up an extra burrito for me. The temperature was cool (it was winter… in Los Angeles!), so I’m not worried about it not being refrigerated overnight. I appreciate your concern, but you’re making a big deal over nothing. I’ll call Irina to confirm, if it’ll make you feel better, so that we can get on with making rock ‘n’ roll history.”

I’m pretty sure that Roy’s concern kept me out of the hospital. At first, my wife didn’t know what I was talking about. She had forgotten all about the burrito because she left it under the magazine about a week earlier. I never noticed it because the cool weather must have prevented any aroma from being apparent. This isn’t the most compelling story ever told, but we were both amused by it, as was the staff of Westlake Audio, for months afterwards. Plus it is very comforting to know that your friends have your back. Temporary nickname: Burrito Guy. Love is welcome in any form that it takes.

Anyway… A few days later, we overdubbed some keyboard parts and did some mix preparation at my private studio. I was playing a Wurlitzer electric piano part on a MIDI controller, using a Pro Tools virtual instrument named Velvet. The MIDI controller doesn’t make any sound on it’s own; it merely controls the software, which produces sound within the Pro Tools application. If it’s not connected to a sound generator, all you can hear when playing the keyboard is the click made from physically depressing the plastic keys. No music, just percussive hammering of fingertips.

About halfway through the song, ironically titled “Goodbye,” Roy stepped out of the control room to grab a glass of water from the kitchen. When he came back, there was no audible music playing through the speakers, but I was still banging out the keyboard part in perfect tempo with the song. He asked what I was doing and why I looked so focused.  I told him to stand by because I was finishing the overdub performance. There was literally no music playing – the only sound was the aforementioned percussive banging of my fingers on the keyboard. The surreal moment reminded me of the scene in the Mozart movie, Amadeus, in which the ballet dancers were performing without music after the emperor censored part of an opera. The emperor walked into rehearsal hoping to witness something sublime, but was instead bewildered. (Spoiler alert, in case you haven’t gotten around to seeing the film in the past 30 years: the emperor uncensored the music so that the opera would make sense and he could enjoy it. Very funny scene!)

About a minute later, I finished the part and suggested we take a listen. Roy was laughing his ass off because he thought I had lost my mind. I explained that I forgot to remove the fade-out automation from the master fader. The song continued for a minute or so beyond the time that I could no longer hear it. I was in the groove, so I elected to continue playing the keyboard part. Next, I made sure that the automation was turned off when we listened to playback to evaluate the new keyboard part. Lo and behold, by a stroke of either genius or sheer dumb luck, I did indeed perform the part flawlessly, in perfect sync and pocket with the track and the metronome! Revised temporary nickname: Groove Master MJ. Much better. 

That same day, Roy squinted at my Apple Display, which gave him a headache, and remarked that it was inhumane for me to work with it. Apparently it was too small for his liking.

A few days later we returned to Westlake Audio to begin mixing the album. Roy asked if I would like to go out for lunch with him. I accepted the invitation, and he told me that he needed to quickly stop by the Grove, an upscale marketplace off Fairfax. The grove was the home of the first Apple store in the Los Angeles area. It was my first time visiting Mecca. The store featured an enormous poster of a Gibson ES335 semi-hollowbody guitar. I was drawn to it like a moth to flame. 

Roy asked, “Do you like that computer?” I told him that I did. He said, “Dude it’s yours! You’ve earned it. Go get your truck and let’s load it up.” I interpreted the statement to mean that he was pressuring me into buying the latest Mac tower and a larger display. Man, did I misinterpret that one by a mile! We were in fact at the Apple store for Roy to pick up a new Mac and cinema display that he already purchased for me as a gift. Holy cow, I was surprised!

I did the obligatory attempt to say that I could not accept such a generous ($4000-ish) gift, but in the end Roy prevailed, saying that I had been his only constant and unflappable advocate and champion, plus he reminded me that I got him an $80,000 part time consulting gig a few weeks earlier. He refused to allow me to deprive him of the joy of giving me that gift. I understood what he meant. There are many people who are good at giving, but not at receiving. I’m not talking about moochers and con artists; I’m talking about good people with good souls. Fortunately I’m pretty comfortable with giving and with receiving other people’s generosity. Win-win. 

Remember the beginning of this piece, when I stated no good story comes without a price tag? Roy and I both believed strongly in his artistry, so we bootstrapped the making of his album, Sugar and Gasoline. As expected, the major labels came around and offered record deals. Although we had options, we really wanted to make a deal with Tony Ferguson at Interscope Records. Tony and I had a solid, proven working relationship, and we had become pretty good friends. Plus Tony goes way back with Jimmy Iovine, who at the time ran the label. Everything added up to success.

I introduced Roy to my entertainment attorney, Seth Lichtenstein. They made a deal, and then Seth helped us through the process of finding the right management. We settled on Dandy Fooled (name changed as a professional courtesy), who was at the time managing __________ …oops, I mean Robbie Zombotomy…yeah, that’s the guy’s name. Best to change it so you can’t connect the dots and learn Dandy Fooled’s true identity.  

Before I write something I probably shouldn’t, i.e. the truth, I must say that Dandy had the reputation of being terrific manager. If you are guessing that I’m about to describe a major fuckup, you are correct. I generally make it a rule to either say something positive or nothing at all when I’m talking about other people, but I’m breaking the rule in this case for educational purposes. You may arguably be the best recording artist ever to walk the face of the earth, but you’re still going to have to deal with other people. Humans, even the good ones, can make mistakes. And they do. We all do. So, if you want to be in the record business, you better grow some super thick skin very quickly and be willing to immediately bounce back from setbacks without dwelling on them.

We took a meeting at Dandy’s office, where he sat us at the conference table with his entire staff. They showered us with praise and painted a picture of how rosey Roy’s future was. During the meeting, Tony Ferguson happened to phone in, and Dandy took the call on speakerphone, indicating that we should be quiet while he talked. I guess he was trying to impress us with his power because this is what happened:

TF: “Congratulations, Dandy, on signing Roy Ashen! I want to formally offer you a deal because all the pieces have fallen into place. You were the missing piece of the puzzle. We like Roy, we like Michael, and we like you. The whole company is excited, and we are ready to move on this right away.”

AG: “Thanks for the offer, Tony, but with all due respect, you know I need to go over your head on this. I need to make the deal directly with Jimmy. The stakes have gotten higher, and there is more competition involved.”

TF: “I understand. No offense taken. Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help expedite the process.”

Afterward, we reminded Dandy that we in fact wanted to make a deal with Tony because we liked him and wanted him personally to be the A&R guy. Dandy assured us that he had a plan, that everything was under control, and that he needed Roy to burn 100 CDs for him ASAP. This was in the early 2000s, when burning CDs meant that Roy stayed up all night with a couple slow, cumbersome machines that occasionally worked, if he was lucky. Every time Dandy sent an email requesting documents or products, Roy responded and delivered within 24 hours.

The flipside of this apparent enthusiasm is that Dandy completely dropped the ball. Never returned a single one of Roy’s calls. Blew at least two legitimate major-label offers that were exciting to us. He took a couple of my calls and asked me to let Roy know that he would return his calls soon. 

Baffled and disappointed, Seth tried to make sense of it. He called Dandy “El Schmucko.” Roy and I liked hearing that nickname because it was the first time we laughed out loud since signing with the guy. Unfortunately Dandy killed all of Roy’s momentum, and tied him up for over a year. 

Lesson learned: When good news becomes old news, the ship has sailed. You only have one chance to make a first impression. 

Unless he were to reinvent himself by forming a new band or changing his name and his sound, Roy’s major label career as a solo artist would be over, just when it was about to begin. It’s not fair, but hey, whoever said life was fair? It simply is what it is.

Life may not be fair, but it has a way of giving us what we need, when we need it. Although Roy had dreams of being a rockstar, he has gotten far more satisfaction from being a father to his robot-infatuated son, who just may be the reincarnation of the astronomer Carl Sagan. Plus Roy’s independently released music, which is truly some of the best rock and singer-songwriter stuff I have ever heard, continues to have a positive impact on the lives of many listeners. 

I recall one particularly heavy, yet heartwarming, story about “Goodbye.”  Roy initially had no plans to include it on the album, but I lobbied for it because it resonated with some of my personal experiences. After the album was released, somebody on the other side of the planet was about to commit suicide, and wanted to hear that song one more time before pulling the trigger. “One more time” led to another listen… And another listen… And yet another listen. 

The person emailed Roy, thanking him for saving her life. She said the song gave her hope, and she wanted to wake up another day to hear it again. I saw the email. It was heavy. Roy said that it was much more profound, rewarding and meaningful than selling a million albums. I feel the same. Hidden gems, where you least expect to find them. 

Chain Reaction

Photo by Frank Bevans

Boom! At first, you see nothing special. Then you open your mind and see that everything is connected, perfectly balanced, ripe with endless possibilities.

I sat down to write a post about a valuable life lesson that I learned from Robben Ford while mixing a tune for him.  In order to put myself back in that moment, which took place approximately 15 years ago, I thought about the chain reaction that brought us together.  It’s inherently interesting enough to deserve its own post, independent of the lesson, so here we go!

The genesis of the chain reaction was simple enough.  It’s similar to the “begats” of the Old Testament: someone begat somebody, who begat more children who begat even more kids. In my case, I can connect the dots all the way back to 1993–and they’ve come full circle in 2015. I was in a meeting with music publisher Jan Seedman, who played me a demo from an indie rock band out of Boston.  I was immediately smitten with the band, who were known as Sidewalk Gallery.  They were influenced by The Beatles, they had a cellist, and they were fronted by twin brothers David and Brian Charles.  I asked Jan to make an introduction because I was convinced that I could develop the band and get them signed to a major label.  Brian, was–and is–a musical genius who inspired me to hop on several redeye flights from Los Angeles to work with him.  I could write a book about our exploits in the studio, about getting deals with A&M and Interscope, about getting backstabbed by duplicitous management, about accidentally being “invited” to dine with the mob in Boston’s North End, etc., but I’ll try to remain on the chain reaction track.

Having shared a wealth of experiences in a relatively short time, Brian and I became good friends.  We decided to produce Zen Lunatic’s Eleven Days In May album at Charles’ Zippah Recording studio in 1997.  During the recording sessions, the band’s publicist Elissa Rogovin visited the studio to facilitate an interview with The Boston Globe.  Seizing the opportunity to leverage my discography to increase the buzz, Elissa convinced The Globe to interview me for a special sidebar feature about being a hotshot “L.A. record producer” working with Boston’s local heroes.  Needless to say, I was grateful to Elissa for generating the good press.

Elissa was friends with an L.A. manager named Mark Lampe, so she introduced us.  Mark was representing A.J. Croce, son of the legendary Jim Croce.  A.J. was a Blues and Americana critical darling, but still hadn’t scored the elusive Pop or Rock hit.  His new label, Higher Octave, was a joint venture with Virgin Records, who had the infrastructure to support a hit.  A.J. and I were confident that we could credibly expand his horizons to incorporate a tip of the hat to his influences: The Beatles, Zombies, Elvis Costello, et al. We cowrote some new songs (that still to this day generate royalty revenue!), made a terrific album titled Transit, and became friends.

One day I asked A.J. how it was to work with his previous studio guitarist, Robben Ford, who happened to be one of may all-time favorite blues/jazz artists.  Michael Bizar (Croce’s fantastic live guitarist) and I (a producer who happens to play guitar) had the intimidating privilege of filling Ford’s unfillable shoes, so we wisely chose to sound good doing our own thing instead of struggling to emulate the living legend.  Anyway… A.J. tells me, “Robben is great! You should call him–you guys are two peas in a pod. He’s a spiritual cat who practices his beliefs.  You’ll love each other!”

Meanwhile… A&R man Jed Ojeda and I are in a meeting at Hollywood Records.  He plays me a demo tape (that’s right, tape, as in cassette) of a San Diego band named Everyday Joe.  Although the recordings sound spectacular, the label wants the insurance of having a “name” producer attached to the album.  As much as I dig the music, I honestly believe that the demo producer nailed it–plus he was able to manage Joe’s idiosyncratic personality, which is a big deal, given that Joe chooses to be homeless because he enjoys the pure, surf-infused lifestyle!  I tell Ojeda that the demo producer should keep the gig, and that the guy (the producer) was so talented that I’d like to meet him.  Ojeda then tells me that I confirmed his own feelings, and that he would pass on the compliment to the producer, who happens to be Nicklas Sample, son of one of my musical heroes, Joe Sample of the funky jazz unit, Crusaders.  As the meeting ends, Ojeda invites me to be his guest at a Robben Ford & Larry Carlton gig, where my wife and I ultimately shared a table–and a good rapport–with Robben’s wife, Anne Kerry Ford.

Fast forward a year or so… Tim Torgerson, frontman of The Invisible Man, and I take a drive and listen to Ford’s Supernatural album.  Tim, who’s a total Ford geek, says, “Man, Robben had a heavy spiritual thing happening!”  The album resonates with both of us, and we imagine how awesome it would be to work with the master.  The next day, I’m searching for a contact in the “F” section of my phone book, and I see “Robben Ford” and his phone number.  I’m just about to erase it because there’s really no reason for me to call him, but instead I dial the number.  I leave a voice message, saying, “Hey, this is Michael James, A.J. Croce’s new guitarist… A.J. told me to phone you because we’re apparently two peas in a pod… I love Supernatural, so give me a shout if you want to hear why… I promise I won’t stalk you.”  I don’t expect to hear from Ford.

A few hours later, Tim and I are at FedEx picking up my four new Empirical Labs EL8 Distressors. My hands are full when my cell phone rings, so I ask Tim to check the caller ID. He says, “Dude, it’s Robben Ford!” I said, “Dude, gimme that!”

Here’s the way the conversation with Robben began:

MJ: Hello.  RF: Hi, may I speak with Michael James?  MJ: This is Michael.  RF:  This is Robben Ford.  MJ: Cool. (More accurately, “Coooooooool!”)

After I switched away from fanboy mode, the conversation got real, and we booked some writing and mixing sessions, but that’s another story altogether.

Re: this story, it interests me not only because the genesis of the relationship was a mundane moment, but also because of all the many tangential serendipities and connections.  Jan Seedman became one of my A&R reps at Warner Music Discovery before getting me the gig that led to my work with New Radicals; he later founded Cadium Music and, in 2015, became my manager.  Mark Lampe, along with Interscope VP of A&R Tony Ferguson (who introduced me to Gwen Stefani and No Doubt with the goal of having me produce the first album before he signed the aforementioned Sidewalk Gallery), jointly managed me in the early 2000’s. Nicklas Sample brought me in to cowrite and produce Monroe, Alison Sudol’s predecessor to A Fine Frenzy, and he later toured the world with his father.  Coincidentally, I happen to love the song “Chain Reaction”, which was written by Joe Sample.

Connections are the currency of opportunity.

While none of this may seem earth shattering, the truth is that connections are the currency of opportunity.  If folks don’t become aware of you, they won’t have the chance to witness your talents.  There’s a good chance that none of these events would have happened if I wasn’t in the right place at the right time.  You never know when an ordinary everyday moment might become pivotal, so I guess it’s important to be in the right place enough times to get lucky.

As a postscript, I will share another moment of beauty that arose from that business-as-usual meeting in ’93 with Jan. Around 2002, shortly after the release of Transit, A.J. and I were dining at his mother’s restaurant, Croce’s, in the historic gaslight district of San Diego. We shared our table with Waylon Jennings and his ex-wife, but steadfast companion, Jessi Colter. Waylon told us all the reasons that he loved Transit, that he thought we made an excellent team, and that he would like us to produce his next album. His words resonated with us. We were blown away.

That alone would have made the evening memorable, but the true beauty was in what happened next. Sure, the thumbs-up from the big guy was a nice pat on the back and it had the potential to put some more dollars into my bank account, but the real reward was witnessing a moment of tenderness that would remain with me for the rest of my life.

Waylon had a habit of calling everyone “Hoss”, presumably inspired by Dan Blocker’s character from the old school TV Western show, Bonanza. On the surface it was both amusing and pretty cool because, if you think about it, Hoss was a great wingman, exactly the type of person you could count on if you needed some mojo on the Ponderosa. To me, it was a term of endearment, but when Waylon slipped up and called Jessi “Hoss”, she sternly replied, “Hey! I’m not Hoss, I’m your wife!” She then smiled, kissed him, and cut his food into smaller, more manageable pieces.

Jessi was a force of nature in her own right, but there she was, regal and elegant in her role as caretaker for the legendary but feeble country music Outlaw, who unbeknownst to the rest of us, would die shortly thereafter. She was a country music star, but her higher purpose, her servitude, is what resonated with me.

Sometimes these seemingly ordinary, mundane moments ultimately prove to be pivotal, and can set in motion a chain reaction that can change your life. In spending just a couple hours with Waylon and Jessi, I got a glimpse into the true meaning of life. It all comes down to the connections we make and the bonds we forge with our loved ones. At the end of the day, the importance of your trophy case pales in comparison to the importance of love. All the money in the world cannot buy you another minute when your time is up, but love can make a single moment feel like an eternity.