Interview: Mark Howard – Songwriting Magazine

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Mark Howard

Mark Howard: “I spot the genius in people’s songs”

Legendary music producer, mixer and engineer on his new book and working with icons Bob Dylan, Neil Young and U2

Knowing from a young age he had a desire to get involved in music, early in his career Mark Howard served as a mixer and toured with King Biscuit Boy throughout Canada. After he was in a motorcycle accident, Howard secured an entry-level job at Grant Avenue Studio, which quickly turned into a lead position in recording music. It was here that he met a longtime collaborator, Daniel Lanois, who introduced him to the Neville Brothers. Howard contributed to the group’s 1989 album, Yellow Moon, as well as their subsequent release, Brother’s Keeper.

Howard has gone on to work with a number of iconic artists over the years such as Bob Dylan, Neil Young, U2, Willie Nelson, Joni Mitchell and more. In 2019, Howard published a book called Listen Up! which revisited his experiences of teaming up with those legendary musicians. Now, he’s returned with a follow-up, Recording Icons / Creative Spaces: The Creative World Of Mark Howard. The book displays photographs captured by Howard that offer an inside look at the recordings of Dylan, Young, Mitchell, Iggy Pop, Tom Waits, and Sheryl Crow, among others.

Howard has consistently set up recording equipment at beautiful and inviting locations, and the pictures in the book showcase several of these spots like Kingsway Studio, the Paramour studio, and the Teatro studio. Using time-lapse photography, Howard has been able to shoot images that are intimate, yet unintrusive as they present the performers in their artistic state. The legendary producer recently spoke with us about his approach to creating relaxed atmospheres for making music, how his producing intersects with songwriting, and how he felt while reviewing the captivating photos in Recording Icons / Creative Spaces.

Mark Howard working with Asaf Avidan at Raven's Eye, Malibu

Working with Asaf Avidan at Raven’s Eye, Malibu. Mark Howard: “When you’re working with an artist, the thing that’s really important is that they trust you”

When did an interest in the music industry start for you?

“I was probably 13, and my brother answered the phone one day. It was the Ontario Conservatory of Music, and they were calling to see if any of the children in the house wanted to learn an instrument. So my brother called, ‘Hey, Mark, you want to learn an instrument?’ And I said, ‘Yeah.’ He goes, ‘Which one?’ I said, ‘Drums.’ I ended up doing drum lessons at the Ontario Conservatory of Music in Hamilton, and then I got a drum set. It was in my bedroom, and then that turned into taking over the basement, and that was a whole other thing.”

What were your plans or goals in the early days of your career?

“Well, it’s funny – I’ve known I wanted to do this my whole life. I remember there was a magazine called Mix magazine. I would always get that just to look at the gear and read about making records. This was way before I got a job at Grant Avenue Studio. I remember sending in – you could win something or whatever – and they always asked you what you want to do in the music. I said, ‘I want to be a record producer and record the music.’ As a kid, I’d always wanted this pathway, so I started off working in live music. I worked for a PA company in Hamilton, and they put me out on these gigs. I’d go out and set up PAs and lights and stuff like that, and I ended up going on tour with King Biscuit Boy all across Canada.

“As soon as I was 19, I was on the road travelling all over Canada. It wasn’t until I was 20 when I got in a motorcycle accident in Hamilton, and I couldn’t go out on the road anymore. I ended up getting a job making coffee at Grant Avenue Studio. Within two weeks, I’m the chief engineer for recording bands. They gave me the night slot. They just wanted to work daytime over there, and so I became the engineer at night. They put me with all the night sessions. I was doing syndicated radio shows and all kinds of country records. I cut my teeth really pretty quick.”

Mark Howard (left) with Robert Plant (right)

With Robert Plant (far right). Mark Howard (far left): “I’ve had many A&R people come into the studio, and they’ll throw a brick into the system and mess it up”

When was that?

“It was probably ‘87 or ‘86, Daniel Lanois came through, and I had no idea who he was. They said, ‘Oh, he’s the producer. He used to own the studio, but he went off to Ireland to make records with U2.’ So Dan came into the studio with Bill Dillon, another guy from Hamilton, and then they started Dan’s first record called Acadie. I was on that session, and then [Lanois] saw how fast I worked, so he invited me to come to New Orleans with him. He said, ‘Only for six weeks, and we’re going to make a record with this band called The Neville Brothers.’

“I left my job at Grant, and my boss, Bob Doidge, he said, ‘Well, if you leave, your job’s not going to be here when you get back.’ I said, ‘I’ll take a chance. This could be a good move.’ I moved to New Orleans to make this record with The Neville Brothers, and I never came back, for 30 years. I went from that record into Bob Dylan’s Oh Mercy record, and then that turned into another Dan solo record and all kinds of things. It just never stopped, and it’s still going on. I can’t believe it.”

How does your role as a producer overlap with songwriting? What does that collaborative process look like?

“I’m more of what’s called a spotter. I spot the genius in people’s songs and then create those and use the strongest parts. I do help them with melodic information. I really like to make sure that it’s not just all strumming. We’ve got to have some kind of melody in there, in place, and lyrically I’ll make suggestions like, ‘Your first verse is not as good as your second verse; why don’t we put the second verse in where the first verse is, and then we’ll move stuff around?’”

“I learned that from working with Dylan. He kind of moves his verses around a lot. So I just always go for, ‘What’s the strongest opening line?’ and make sure it’s nice and clear. I like songs that create images in your mind when you listen to the words. It’s not like pop songs where it’s just repetitive, but when people name certain cities or bring people’s names into it, it conjures up images in your mind like a little movie. I try to work with songwriters that are great. So that’s my perspective on it.”

Mark Howard remixing Joni Mitchell's 'Songs To A Seagull'

Remixing Joni Mitchell’s Songs To A Seagull. Mark Howard: “I’ve got these beautiful shots of Joni Mitchell just sitting there on the couch…”

That in and of itself is such an amazing skill. So that’s what you look for when identifying the parts of a song that really stand out – those evocative lines or melodies?

“Yeah, exactly. Like working with U2, Bono would have maybe five chorus ideas, and he thinks they’re all great, but there’s only one that is great. I would say, ‘That’s the one right there. That’s your chorus.’ And he would listen to me. So it’s good. When you’re working with an artist, the thing that’s really important is that they trust you. That kind of thing goes a long way. Once you have their trust, then you can take things into outer limits and where they may have not wanted to go or may have never known they could go.

“I’ve just been making a record with this band from Canada called The Trews, and they’re a rock band. I’ve stretched their talents out where – they’re really great players and really great songwriters, and so I’ve just picked all of the best stuff. We made a really cool record together. I’m coming up there next week to finish it up. To take them out of what they’re normally used to doing in a studio, to be more creative and come up with new sounds, I think that’s an exciting thing for them to do right now in their career. I’ve got a feeling it’s going to be a big one for them.”

All of the pictures in Recording Icons / Creative Spaces are really beautiful. Can you walk me through the process of narrowing down your photo collection for the book?

“Well, some of them are very close to, and a lot of them are, undeniable: ‘That has to go in the book.’ Then there were other things – I was in Russia, and some of those shots were so beautiful, but they never made the book. I do a thing, what’s called time-lapse photography, and I just put a camera on a speaker or a road case or whatever in the room. Then it takes a photo every 30 seconds. So I’ve got a lot of photos from those session days. I’ve got these beautiful shots of Joni Mitchell just sitting there on the couch while doing overdubs with this drummer, Brian Blade, and she’s chain smoking. When you look at all of the photos, it’s hard to give up because there’s so many great ones. She’s just turning her head, and you get this ghost thing with her face in smoke. It was just so many cool shots. They said, ‘Pick four.’ It was hard to cut it down, and I feel like we missed a bunch of stuff.

“I’m going to be doing some book signings. I’m going to project photos from the book and even ones that didn’t get in the book, and I’m going to do a commentary. I’ll just sit in the chair and talk about each photo. I have music all lined up for each one of those installations, from Kingsway and the Teatro … I’ve got little snippets of music so people can hear what music was made in those places.”

The Teatro Studio

The Teatro Studio. Mark Howard: “Definitely a beautiful location helps. But for me, to work in a room that has very high ceilings, three-story high ceilings … the Teatro had high ceilings…”

What emotions come up when you look at the photos now?

“It’s crazy when I look at them because it takes you right back to that spot, and it’s almost like I can taste it in my mouth, those locations. It’s weird, you know? But it makes me feel good, definitely, and excited, like, ‘Oh, wow, I forgot about this shot. This one’s really great.’ It’s almost like looking back at your childhood … It’s amazing because I never really stopped. I did get cancer, and I did take some time off. But I’m well now, and so I’m back at it. Everything’s all good. It’s definitely a trip-down-memory-lane type of feeling.”

Throughout your years of working with artists, what environments have you noticed are the most conducive to creating great music?

“Definitely a beautiful location helps. But for me, to work in a room that has very high ceilings, three-story high ceilings … the Teatro had high ceilings, Kingsway had pretty high ceilings, Raven’s Eye, the glass window one that looked over the Pacific Ocean – they’re all amazing places to record, in those types of environments with really a lot of air around.

“If you record in a room that has low ceilings, the sound just gets spit back into the microphones. And it’s hard to get away with a lot of stuff that I do, because I like to do a lot of vocals with speakers on, just with a handheld mic. It’s the only way I can do vocals with Bono, and that’s the only way he’ll sing. I’ve taken that on, and I do that with a lot of artists. You’ll get feedback in a big, huge room. I really like dense-sounding rooms that are huge, like soundstages or the theater or those kind of places, [whereas] some studios can sound spitty because it’s all too much plaster and stuff like that. I don’t like to work in conventional studios because you’re behind glass, and you’re always trying to communicate. And that’s a difficult thing, just to express the simplest little thing to ask a musician, ‘Can you just try changing the chord to this one?’ or whatever.

“I tend to work in the room with the band, with all the recording equipment, and I’ve got big speakers with 18-inch subs. When we play back, it sounds like you’re at a live concert, or you just get this really beautiful impression of what you recorded, and you sound better than you thought you did. That hypes the musician and excites them. In headphones, you can only get so excited because you don’t have the sound pressure of speakers. I just like to work with the band, altogether. I always have the speakers on loud so the band doesn’t have to wear headphones if they don’t want to. I find I get better performances this way than people in glass booths, isolated. It’s definitely become part of my scene. So that’s how I make ‘em.”

Raven's Eye, Malibu

Raven’s Eye, Malibu. Mark Howard: “When you’re working with an artist, the thing that’s really important is that they trust you”

It seems like you’ve always had a natural ability to find wonderful settings for recording sessions that are also really comfortable for the artists…

“Yeah. As I look back, as a kid, I’ve always been doing this. When I took over my parents’ basement and took the ping pong table and turned that into a drum riser and had couches and posters down there, I always had this knack of making it comfortable and a good place to hang out. I’ve done that with studios because recording studios are very intimidating. They’re almost like dental offices or hospital waiting rooms; you’ve got to go through a receptionist, and also, the air conditioning is always freezing cold in those places. I’ve got to wear coats, and they won’t turn it down.

“So if I create this environment, and then the people walk in, it’s comfortable for them already. They can just hang out, there’s a kitchen, we can have food. I’ve just developed a way that makes it unintrusive equipment-wise, because that can be intimidating too. You walk into a recording studio, there’s a console with buttons that go 20-feet long. It’s just like, ‘Oh, God, what does all this do?’ I try to keep everything hidden so all that you’re doing is, you’re hearing. I don’t like to have visual monitors because people listen with their eyes now with Pro Tools, and I use a thing called the RADAR, which is a Canadian machine. It’s like a 24-track tape recorder, but it’s digital. But you don’t have to look at the screen or anything like that. So I make records old school, but using new technology, and I’ve got a niche for it. It’s crazy.”

Tell me more about your latest projects.

“Right now I’m in the middle of making a record with a band called The Trews from Canada. They’re one of Canada’s biggest rock bands. And I’ve done the same with them, taken their normal rock things – there are rock things on the record – but I’ve expanded their sounds and their songwriting. [What we] made has not been as obvious to them as it was to me, again, as a person that’s always looking for the best in people. I was able to pull that out of them. They’re excited about this whole new record, and it’s got a completely different sound than their other records.

“I’m going back up there next week. I’ll be working in Toronto mixing it. I will be in a normal studio for the mixing, but I usually mix at home. I have a whole setup at home, which is the same rig that I carry around, where it’s all in road cases. I just put it on the plane with me, and hopefully it shows up these days. It’s been crazy, my gear not showing up, and I’ve got the session the next day. It’s been madness.”

Mark Howard (right) with Neil Young at Bella Vista

Working with Neil Young at Bella Vista. Mark Howard: When I made the record [Le Noise], he said, ‘Us guys in this room, we’re going to not play this record to anybody; no management, nobody’s going to hear it. We’re going to make a record that we love…’

Also, congratulations on your 2023 East Coast Music Award nomination for Producer of the Year. How does it feel to be recognized for your work?

“It feels great. I’ve had success all over the years – Grammy nominations and winning. Bob Dylan’s Time Out Of Mind won Album of the Year. That was a big, huge plus and exciting. You feel like that’s your reward, like, ‘Here you go – bang! The record is noted as one of the best records in the world.’ Then you hear it on the radio, and you get another kind of charge, like, ‘I’ve heard that before. Oh, I did that.’”

“When you’ve been working at it your whole life, it’s funny when it happens, and it kind of comes sideways. I never thought Bob Dylan’s record would be a Grammy-nominated record, never mind winning three Grammys from it. Those things, you don’t think about when you’re making records. You’re just trying to make something that you and the band like, or love. When I made the record [Le Noise] with Neil Young, he said, ‘Us guys in this room, we’re going to not play this record to anybody; no management, nobody’s going to hear it. We’re going to make a record that we love, and once we’ve done that, we’ll put it out. And if people don’t like it, OK, but if they do, great.’

“We’re pleasing ourselves, we’re not pleasing other people. That’s all you can do, is to make records that you like. That’s a good approach because I can tell you, I’ve had many A&R people come into the studio, and they’ll throw a brick into the system and mess it up. I made a record with Sam Roberts from Canada, and the A&R guy came in, and he hated it. Then the record company hated it, and it turned out to be Sam’s biggest-selling record. So you never know – same with the Tragically Hip in Canada. These records I make that are not what they normally do, it’s refreshing to people to hear, and then that way it becomes a bigger success for them. It’s pretty amazing when you look at it.”

Mark Howard (left) working with Bob Dylan on 'Time Out Of Mind'

Working with Bob Dylan on Time Out Of Mind. Mark Howard: “I never thought [it] would be a Grammy-nominated record, never mind winning three Grammys from it.”

I saw that you were on Jeff Beck’s last tour before his passing, which also featured Johnny Depp and Max Gomez. What was the experience of being involved in the tour and interacting with Jeff like?

“So I jumped on the West Coast tour; I’d just finished making [an upcoming] record with Max Gomez, and they invited him to open the shows. … I was in New Orleans making a record with Shawn Williams, and I finished that, flew back and then jumped on the West Coast. I did two shows before the L.A. show and then carried on all the way up the coast. There was hanging out with Jeff, and I got to tell him that he made one of my favourite records called Blow By Blow. As a kid, that was a staple record for me that I always listened to. He was really appreciative over that.

“I showed him the book, he went through the book, and he saw all the photos of Dylan. He goes, ‘You see that polka-dotted shirt he’s wearing? I have the same one. It’s right over there. Look at that!’ He got all excited about it. It was really great. Bob Dylan’s one of his heroes too. I gave him a signed copy, and he just loved it. He was just really appreciative for it. We all hung out.

“I never thought he was going to die. He was in good shape, and he was at the top of his game, guitar playing. It was so beautiful. You never know who’s next. It’s a crazy one, but musically, it was a beautiful tour. I’m happy Max got to do that and he invited me to come and mix part of his show. I’ve got recordings of some of those shows from Max, so he might put out a little live record from those shows, maybe just The Orpheum [Theatre] and a couple of other ones. It might be another little added thing for him to put out, so it’s cool.”

Learn more about Recording Icons / Creative Spaces: The Creative World of Mark Howard at amazon.com

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