Photo by Andreas Werner
Wilson Pickett. Alex Chilton. B.B. King. Frank Black. What do these musical giants have in common? The guiding production hand and songwriting skills of Jon Tiven! Coming up through the trenches of writing reviews for the likes of Rolling Stone, Tiven got the itch to write and record and has worked for forty years behind the scenes on many of your favorite records. Tiven was kind enough to respond by email to discuss his latest album with Steve Kalinich, what inspires him and the song that bought him a house...
I understand that you and Steve Kalinich wrote roughly 700 songs for your new album, “Every Soul Has A Voice”. It’s such a beautiful, soulful record – there are moments of profound, almost ecstatic joy while also maintaining a very humanist streak throughout. What was your songwriting process like? How did you possibly whittle down which tracks made the record???
Stevie sends me a lyric fairly regularly – when we’re anticipating a project it’s rarely less than one a day, sometimes more – and as long as I’m not actively engaged in producing a record, I am spending my time writing and recording musical pieces. I marry what he does to what I do with as little compromise on either of our parts so each of us is allowed maximum creativity. When it came time to pick out the songs, we had a few from the distant past that we’d earmarked for the album, but tried to take our final choices from the most current creations.
Your partnership with Steve has been very fruitful. How did you and he get together and when did you realize that this particular partnership was so fertile? What does each of you bring to the mix?
Thanks, I was thinking it was at least low-carb vegetarian. P.F. Sloan introduced him to me. I don’t know which of us he was trying to get taken off his hands, but that part didn’t work – he still talks to both of us regularly. I bring the musical pot-smoking free-being with a family, he brings the carefree 9and drug free) bachelor point of view.
You are incredibly prolific and have had an almost “Zelig”-like presence in the career of many seminal rock, soul and blues bands (the Rolling Stones, Big Star, Steve Cropper, Wilson Pickett)? What attracts you to particular artists as collaborators?
Their talent. I would hope what attracts them to me is the same…few have accused me of getting by on my charm and good looks. Not to say that I am charmless and ugly, but I usually save my best self for my friends and my recordings, so those who don’t know me and meet me casually may find me irritating and unlikable. There’s only so many hours in the day, and I get tired of smiling and don’t want those ugly lines on my face.
Alternately, what are some of your musical touchstones, those things that you heard and loved and go back to?
I have a wide variety of musics that I like. What they have in common is their greatness, intelligence and soul. I love stuff that some people might find incompatible: Otis Redding and Jim Carroll; the Move and B.B. King. I am less drawn to straight pop, but I try to keep an open mind.
You came to writing, performing and production from the world of music writing and criticism. How did your background in rock writing inform your creative spirit?
I got to see just about every performer I wanted to and got to meet many of them. That gave me tremendous insight as to what kind of lives they led, so when I was forming my idea of what I wanted my life to be, I had a very educated way of approaching this.
What continues to inspire you?
Artists of all ages who continue to dig deep within themselves to create greatness. I find most contemporary music dismiss-able, but there are exceptions – Dylan LeBlanc is one of my current favorites. When I was forming my own musical persona I had a much bigger palate to choose from.
You’re probably as renowned for your production work as you are your songwriting and have been behind the boards with some incredibly notable musicians – what are some of your most memorable production experiences?
Producing B.B. King and Wilson Pickett was like a dream. Totally off the scale. Steve Cropper is always a joy and I’m very fortunate to have been able to work with him as much as I have. Chrissie Hynde was a treat, as is my neighbor Bekka Bramlett. Frank Black and I have a created a body of work together that is extraordinary and the making of those records were always full of beautiful challenges. I have been incredibly fortunate to have been able to work with such greats, and for forty years I have had the privilege. Pretty great.
I imagine your songs are like children – it’s tough to choose one above the others. But let’s say you are asked to make a “Sophie’s Choice”; is there one that you are particular proud to have written or one that is particularly special to you?
Outside of my work with Stevie, if I had to pick one I think it would be “River Of No Return”, which I wrote with my wife and lyricist Keith Reid and was recorded by the Jeff Healy Band on their first record. And not just because it is my biggest seller! I love Keith’s words, and my Semitic blues sensibility was fully formed when I came up with the music – not to toot my own horn or be too self-analytical, but that musical style I have had great success with, the harmonic sense of it is pretty definitive and unique and this is a great example. And it bought me a house.
What’s on tap for you next?
I’ve produced a solo record for Stevie Kalinich that’s outstanding – duets with Black Francis, Bekka Bramlett, Dylan LeBlanc and a few others. And I’ve got to find me a label for that. So, if you know any, send them my way.