Tony Visconti is an American record producer, musician and singer. Since the late 1960s, he has worked with a vast number of artist on an incredible discography spanning decades. His lengthiest involvement with any artist is with David Bowie, and from the 1969 album Space Oddity to 2013’s The Next Day, Visconti has produced and occasionally performed on many of Bowie’s albums.
1. So why make records?
For me it’s like ‘why breathe?’ I’ve been recording since I was 13, starting with my father’s Revere reel-to-reel tape recorder and using the stairwell as an echo chamber (sitting inside it, mind you). Recording is documenting history, mainly music and spoken word, but not excluding nature and other environmental sounds that will someday cease to be in the world. Making recordings is vital.
2. Can recordmaking be a politically and/or socially significant art form?
Of course. Alan Lomax!!! He has traveled the world making field recordings of the local folk music of unique artists (mainly Delta Blues musicians) who have long disappeared. We would never have known about them (and Eric Clapton and Keith Richards either). There are many other pioneering sound archivists as well. This should really be encouraged because today many ancient world languages are dying with their last speakers.
As for protest music, long live Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie and, of course, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. Songwriters with ‘something to say’ are shifters in public consciousness. Dictators have had music composed and played at rallies since ancient days (oh how I would have loved to have heard a Pharaoh’s marching band). I don’t hear many protest singers today. There are those charity songs like “We Are The World” that obviously made a difference. Rap music certainly addresses the plight of minorities, and boasts of the rise above oppression. Sadly, today the most skilled music makers in Pop are concentrating only on making money and not making much of a social difference. Amy Winehouse raised the bar. Arcade Fire makes music that communicates on many levels, very entertaining with social commentary. It’s nice to see artists like those getting financial rewards for such great music – they deserve it. Young women shaking their booties and displaying copious amounts of cleavage, singing vapid, notes-by-numbers carefully calculated Pop songs are perhaps their own biggest enemies and have certainly marred the way women in Pop are viewed.
3. Why do you think so few women are record makers and audio workers?
Women in general hold a small percentage of top jobs in all fields. I hire women all the time and I find their sensitive ears and feminine energy very welcomed in my sessions. Women have climbed a long way from traditional roles as nurses, school teachers and of course mothers. More women are now in top positions once exclusive to men. In music there are women who are now tycoons. The chance of becoming a tycoon in the music business is very small, equally for men, but women are doing it! When considering a career in music recording, or any other career that requires 100% dedication, I think young women and men have to start making biological choices about reproduction in relationship to their career goals. There is pressure distraction from two ends – raising a family is a BIG job, that’s one. With the world population expanding at an uncontrolled rate, is it really necessary to have 2 or 3 kids? — that’s the other.
4. What do you imagine record making will be like in 100 years?
Not very different from now. Of course technology will be flawless and more intuitive. But, just as musicians today love to own very old instruments, microphones, preamplifiers, etc. so will it be 100 years from now. I hope those future musicians and singers will still continue to practice rather than rely on technology to polish their performances. We’re awfully close now to ‘polishing a turd.’ I’d hate to think that future artists will succumb to the easy fixes. I’ve lived long enough to see there is always a backlash. Today I am meeting a lot of very serious young musicians who are striving to be virtuosos.
5. If you could change one thing about the field of record making, what would you change?
Today? Nothing. We have more stuff to play with than ever before. The problem is we have too many choices. A year after a new keyboard comes out its signature sounds are out of date. Funny, that never happens to a Stradivarius. I think artists have to make committed choices like: I am going to stick with my instruments and create my own sound and style. I heard the term ‘ear candy’ a few times in recent years. Guess what, too much candy rots your gums!
6.What was the last record you heard that truly blew your mind or touched your heart? How so?
“Into The Past” by Nero. I got The Great Gatsby soundtrack CD as a voting member of NARAS (The Grammys) and it had the usual suspects submissions, like Beyoncé, Jay Z and will.i.am, but this track by an unknown (to me) British electronic music group literally took my breath away. I researched them and found that they consisted of two male DJs and a female singer. The song is passionate, very sexual with very heavy breathing. The singer is almost out of control but keeps reining it in every so often. The sound is crazy, just crazy. It is compressed so hard it made an engineer friend of mine wince. It will not appeal to audiophiles. It is pumping, it is breathless, it is grand, very grand.
On a more organic level I am absolutely in love with the Sun Kil Moon album, Benji. It’s a beautiful, sensitive homage to many people in his life who are all passed away. It chokes me up, it makes me sad – in a very good way.
7.What is your greatest fear when making a record?
At the beginning of a new project I get very nervous, very insecure. It’s like looking at a big block of granite and wondering which part to chip away at first with a hammer and chisel. I always strive to make something new and refreshing when I set out and it’s very important to bring everything out of the artists I work with to get there. I would say that 90% of my fears are assuaged by the end of the first day in the studio. My first day is usually a very good day.
8.What is your greatest joy when making a record?
As a producer and arranger who works with great artists, and as an artist myself, I think I get very excited by creating something that didn’t exist before and now that it does, if it’s really, really good it will survive me when I’m gone.