Ask studio musicians what talent is most valuable to their craft and the answer you'll likely get is chops. Ask a producer a similar question and the answer probably will be a good set of ears. But if you ask John Shanks, who has enjoyed a highly successful career as both, his answer would be the ability to write strong, memorable songs.
"The power of a great song always amazes me," says Shanks. "There are moments when you're writing a song where you have to really trust your instincts and say this feels good and right. My experience with songs that have become successful or hits is that the good ones happen quickly because you're not editing yourself. It's basically a stream of consciousness, and it just seems to flow."
Shanks' ability to dig deep in the songwriting process with the artists he works with and pull out their best distinguishes him from many producers who are primarily concerned with capturing the vibe of a performance and how the record sounds. As a result he's become one of the most successful producers of the last decade, collaborating on 43 singles that have reached #1 on the Billboard charts and selling over 60 million records worldwide. Shanks has worked in the studio with a wide variety of artists, including pop singers (Kelly Clarkson, Colbie Caillat, Celine Dion), rock acts (Bon Jovi, Sheryl Crow, Chris Isaak, Liz Phair, Goo Goo Dolls), country performers (Keith Urban, Sara Evans, Rascal Flats, Big and Rich), and various timeless legends (Joe Cocker, Bonnie Raitt, Robbie Robertson, Rod Stewart). In 2005 he won the Producer of the Year (non-classical) Grammy Award, and since then A-list artists have lined up to work with him.
Shanks' impressive résumé and unique talents make him the perfect judge for Guitar Center's Singer-Songwriter Competition. Shanks will be selecting the competition's top ten songs for the finals and picking the winner, offering entrants a rare chance to be heard and recognized by one of today's most influential figures in the music industry. Considering Shanks' proven track record, his stamp of approval is an incredibly valuable prize that is certain to open up numerous doors of opportunity.
"The main thing I'm looking for is a simply great song," says Shanks. "I'll also be looking for a great singer who is a true artist that is captivating, earnest, filled with passion, and not afraid to put his or her heart on the line. I want to feel an emotional connection to the performance. That's the quality that distinguishes great performers from everybody else, that gives them individuality and makes them true stars."
While Shanks' impressive guitar playing skills helped him gain entry to the music industry—he toured as a member Teena Marie's band when he was only 17—his ambitions didn't stop at being a hired gun. Even as he worked his way up to bigger and better touring and studio gigs, behind the scenes he wrote commercial jingles and music for television, hoping to get a break as a songwriter.
Shanks eventually got a music publishing deal during the early Nineties while he was playing guitar in Melissa Etheridge's band: "I started to make the rounds as a writer because of the publishing deal. I learned that Brill Building or Nashville style of songwriting where you develop the discipline to have daily writing sessions so you're writing something every day. While I was playing guitar for Melissa I started to produce baby bands, and artists like Bonnie Raitt and Joe Cocker recorded some of my songs. Eventually Melissa noticed that I was growing as a writer and producer, and she asked if we could write a song together and if I could help arrange some of her songs."
The collaboration between Shanks and Etheridge eventually led to him taking the producer's chair for her Breakdown album, which was released in 1999 and earned four Grammy nominations. Shanks recalls, "When an artist of that caliber who has sold millions of records puts their trust in you to produce their record, and it does well, all of a sudden record companies and managers want to hire you. That was a very big step in my journey."
Having that level of success allowed Shanks to select projects where his role as a producer also involved his input during the songwriting process. "I'm happiest when I'm co-writing with the artist that I'm producing," he admits. "I've done four records with Bon Jovi where I've written two or three songs with them on each album. That's great for me because I feel emotionally connected to it as a writer yet I still learn a lot as a producer while going through people's songs. I'm still fascinated by the process of songwriting and observing how someone else approaches the chorus, chord structure, and arrangement.
"Sometimes an artist isn't certain about a song," he continues, "and they'll approach me to arrange it for them. Michelle Branch had a song that her record company didn't get when she played it for them. When she showed me her idea, I really loved it. We reworked the song together, developed it, and recorded it, and I felt like it could be a hit. When I talked to Michelle's A&R rep about it he said he still wasn't sure, so I told him to come to the studio to check it out. That song was ‘Everywhere,' and it ended up being the album's first single."
The best advice Shanks can give to a songwriter is to trust your instincts and resist the temptation to edit your work while coming up with ideas. "The best professional songwriters don't really edit," he explains. "They just write. Natasha Bedingfield's ‘Pocket Full of Sunshine' came to us so fast that we couldn't get the words down fast enough. It was almost like it wrote itself. She recorded the vocal an hour after we wrote the song. It was the same thing with Ashlee Simpson's ‘Pieces of Me.' We wrote and recorded it like boom, boom, boom.
"It's best to trust your instincts and not be afraid. You just need to stay in the zone. That's when the real emotions emerge. It takes a lot of courage to do that, but it's really exciting. Once I get into the zone and feel excited about something I'll sit there and work for 12 hours straight because I'm into it."
Shanks says that once he gets into the zone and the ideas flow, he'll eventually let his producer instincts emerge and concentrate on the finer details. "There are definitely songs that I develop and work on later, but that's after the initial purge, which is when the real magic happens," he says "Songwriting is an expressive process, but the producer side of me is always thinking five or six steps ahead, like I'm playing chess or tennis. It's frustrating, because sometimes I feel like I'm not moving quickly enough. I always try to make sure that there's some kind of hook from the very first downbeat to keep the listener's attention. That goes back to when I worked as a session guitarist and I only had an hour to layer 14 guitar tracks and come up with a lick or hook that translated. As a producer I'm always listening to the singer for lyrical, melodic, or emotional hooks that keep the listener engaged."
While Shanks acknowledges that the song itself and its hooks are important, he feels that a key essential element of a great song is a captivating performer. "Great artists are like songs that I want to listen to over and over again," he says. "I want to hear more of them. I will always buy records by certain artists like Peter Gabriel or Massive Attack without hearing them first because I'm interested in seeing where they are going. It would be amazing if we could find someone like that in this competition and open some doors for them to help get them started on their journey."