A co-writer and producer for Massive Attack and collaborator with the likes of David Bowie, Damon Albarn and Primal Scream, Neil Davidge released his own album Slo Light earlier this year featuring vocals from among others Cate Le Bon. In a guest column for Q he explains why having a solid plan is not always the best plan.
Before producing and writing three albums with Massive Attack I had an up and down career as a ‘pop’ producer/writer. At that time, the late 80s / early 90s and coming from Bristol I considered myself lucky to be earning anything from making music. I earnestly checked whatever was happening, what drum sounds were ‘current’, what groves were hip, the types of melodies that were being used and tried to emulate/squeeze them into the stuff I was doing. The assumption that had been drummed into me by the industry is if it sounded like a someone else’s hit record then I had a shot…
It’s not as though I had absolutely no success doing this, I’ve always applied myself 100 percent to whatever I’m doing and have the ability to still believe when most give up. A remix would top the US dance charts for a week, a song would hover just inside the top 30 for a couple and there was never a shortage of wannabe stars knocking at the door. But that ‘big one’ was as elusive as ever, the one that would change my life and secure me a career in music. More importantly, I found myself saying all too often that I ‘appreciate’ a song or ‘appreciate’ some artists ingenuity, which translated for me that I have no fucking idea what I actually like!
I was losing a piece of my soul with each overdub of a singer who had nothing to say and nothing to give. I should probably mention that It was punk and new wave that inspired me to pick up a guitar and make noise in the first place, a musical movement that was in direct opposition to everything I seemingly stood for by making the music I was making.
The last straw for me was a house cover of McArthur Park… I spent nine whole days trying to get a meaningful vocal out of some forgettable singer with zero subtlety. Nine days listening to her shouting down a microphone attempting to sound like Whitney Houston. Even now I get a sick feeling in my stomach thinking about it. I had to get out, I had to do something else, I didn’t know what I wanted to do or what kind of music I liked anymore but I knew I hated this.
By chance a mate of mine had a rock band and wanted me to help him out. With no better idea of what I was going to do with the rest of my life I agreed to produce a bunch of tracks. I was so out of the loop when it came to rock music, Nirvana were on the radar but I hadn’t a clue how to make that kind of record. All I could do was try to locate my gut and follow it, make it up as I went along, try stuff out, see what felt good and go with that. And somewhere along the way I realised this was what got me into music in the first place, making shit up and doing what felt right. He got a record deal off the stuff we recorded and from there we set about recording a single. It was on these sessions I first met 3D (Robert or Dee) from Massive Attack and we talked enthusiastically about music, about the first albums we bought and gigs we’d seen. Me, being enthusiastic about music… I’d located my gut and found my passion again.
Those conversations led to me being asked to help out on a Massive Attack session, which led to me being asked to help the guys throw down some ideas for their next album, which lead to me producing that album which became Mezzanine. Even during the making of Mezz my gut was challenged by the industry. I was told we didn’t have a hit single on it, my newly restored faith in my instincts was still shaky but I pushed through. I recognised the music we were making was good and more importantly I was fired up and didn’t want to lose that clarity I felt.
Ironically, being in touch with my instincts makes it easier to collaborate, it centres me, allows me to relax and let other peoples useful ideas penetrate whilst enabling the not so useful ones to wash off. I’m always open to new ideas, I love to be surprised and I love to be challenged.
Today I still try to stay true to my gut, when I’m challenged by the music industry or a big Hollywood film studio producer telling me how it is, I listen, take in what’s useful and do what feels right. It isn’t easy but it’s the only way I know how. Simply, if I don’t believe with all my heart in what I’m doing then how the hell can I expect someone else to give a shit?
For more head to NeilDavidge.com.