It didn't take long for Larry Klein and Blake Mills to start talking shop on a recent morning at EastWest Studios in Hollywood. That's where the two record producers, both nominated for producer of the year at Monday's Grammy Awards, had gathered to compare their perspectives on their trade — and to exchange insider gossip.
Klein, 59, is an industry veteran best known for his collaborations with Herbie Hancock, with whom he won a Grammy for album of the year with 2007's "River: The Joni Letters," and Joni Mitchell, to whom he was also married. In his nomination for the producer award, the recording academy recognized Klein's work on recent records by Lizz Wright and JD Souther, among others.
Mills, 29, started as a guitarist in an early version of the folk-rock band Dawes before he became a session player favored by the likes of Neil Diamond and Fiona Apple. At the Grammys, he's also up for an album of the year prize thanks to his production of "Sound & Color" by the Alabama Shakes. These are excerpts from our conversation.
Technology has widened the producer's job. You both started out as players, but Diplo, who's also nominated in your category, basically works on a computer. Has that changed what artists look for from you?
Blake Mills: I think asking what artists are looking for is sort of like asking, you know, "What are women looking for?"
Larry Klein: Every artist is coming to you for something different. There are artists who come to a producer to build a landscape for them to occupy; they want you to do it, and they'll show up to sing. Some artists need someone to act as a focusing agent, whether it's with the songwriting or which musicians to work with. And then there are artists that don't really want a producer at all; they think they should just be doing it themselves, but maybe the record company says, "Listen, you have to have someone with you." So you're basically a —
Klein: In those situations, which are quite difficult, you have to almost make every idea you have into the artist's idea.
How about the third partner in any recording project? At a moment when it's possible to make a record on your phone, what do record labels want from you?
Mills: Rough mixes.
Klein: Yeah, exactly.
Mills: They want to try to get the odds in their favor, as much as they can in this weird, unpredictable time.
Klein: I find that the best people at the top of record companies, what they're looking for is something that's gonna distinguish itself from the masses of other releases that are coming out. And it's a very quick thing with the best of them: Does this feel authentic? Does this resonate in a way that's gonna grab people's attention? And I think it's our job to spot that little flame inside an artist and say, "OK, that's the magical element here. Let's fan that flame."
That can take time, though, right? Time seems less plentiful now than it used to be.
Mills: I've noticed that labels and people who are paying for the record understand how long it can take; they don't wanna stand in the way of that process. But there are some artists, maybe they have a lot of buzz around them, and there's this feeling that they can't let the fire die. Sometimes you have to sit down with them and say, "Look, I know you're better than this. Maybe you should go back to the drawing board." That's really hard for some people to hear.
Is it hard to say?
Klein: Well, there are a lot of ways to say something like that. For me, it usually comes down to presenting possibilities — "What if we try this?" — rather than being the voice of judgment who says, "You get an F."
Something that unites your work is the way you can both make an ordinary sound — say, a singer accompanied by acoustic guitar — seem unfamiliar.
Klein: I always think of it in the same way that movies are life condensed, made into these moments that bring out the poignancy. It's taking a song and finding a way to communicate whatever's being expressed in a more intense way.
Mills: The document aspect of film is similar to recording. Even if it's an acoustic guitar and vocal that gives you the impression of being in the room, you're not, you know? You're experiencing a depiction, and the way it's recorded is a forced perspective.
And you're not afraid to point out the artificiality of that perspective. To you it's an advantage.
Klein: One thing I love about making records, and it's the same thing I love about films, is contrast. I think about the film version of "Slaughterhouse-Five," where he's living his life, then all of a sudden he's back in wartime Germany. Whenever I see that film, and I've probably watched it 50 times, I always think, "God, that's just like life, isn't it?"
Even though it's a manipulation.
Mills: But only to emulate something that happens internally — the human flashback. It's not artificial, and it's not necessarily untrue. With regards to making the Shakes record, they felt their first one was too much a document trying to capture what they sound like live — which because they're a great band, most people, myself included, would be compelled to do. But who they are as music listeners is much more experimental, and they wanted to make a record that embodied the sounds and colors they were in love with. So what we did was a more accurate depiction of where they were. It's not attempting to be odd; it's not trickery. It's: How do I get across what I'm feeling right now?