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John Shanks

John Shanks


When John Shanks was announced as the judge for Guitar Center's first Singer- Songwriter Contest in 2011, he mentioned how the ability to write good songs was the most valuable asset a musician could develop. An astonishing number of contestants-more than 17,000 entries were received and evaluated-took advantage of this excellent opportunity to show Shanks how well-developed their songwriting skills were. After narrowing down the field to 10 very impressive finalists who performed live at Hollywood's Hotel Café, Shanks selected the winner: Josh Doyle of Nashville, Tennessee.


"The contest turned out great," says Shanks. "The entire experience was really exciting, although at first it was a little nerve-wracking because I wanted to make sure that I handled things in the best way I could. I wanted to make sure that I gave everyone a fair chance."


Like most producers, Shanks has a very well-developed ear, but he says that he wasn't as concerned with the sound quality of the demos he heard as he was with the quality of the songs themselves and the performances. "The exciting thing about judging the demos was finding the ones that I connected to emotionally," he explains. "Certain performances really resonated with me, but it didn't really matter how they were recorded. Some were produced demos. Some were slick videos. But some of my favorites were just a girl at a piano illuminated by one light or someone sitting in a room illuminated by their computer. There was something very real and honest about those demos that I connected with emotionally.


"It was really all about the song and the artist," Shanks continues. "If you were to look at the final ten submissions that were selected, probably over half of them were pretty lo-fi and not very fancy at all. You can't fake a great voice. You can't fake a great lyric, great melody, or great musicianship. The production values don't matter that much. It's nice if everything sounds and looks good, but it's not necessary. Josh's demo was a video that was shot with one camera and it showed him singing by the side of a lake. It looked good, but it was really just him singing and playing guitar. It wasn't overproduced or fixed. It was a performance."


Selecting the winner was only half of the task for Shanks. After he selected Doyle as the winner, he put together a band consisting of top-quality studio musicians and entered the studio with Josh to record a three-song EP. However, plans changed very quickly as Shanks discovered that Doyle already had an impressive body of work that made it virtually impossible to narrow down the choices to just three songs.


"We went from doing just three songs to recording an entire album because Josh was so well prepared," Shanks explains. "He came to the studio with 15 songs to choose from, and Josh was always in the corner writing in a notebook. But what really changed my mind was when he came in one morning and said, 'I finished this song this morning."


"Can I play it to you just to see what you think?' He played me the song, and it was one of those moments where I just knew that I had to record that song immediately. We went through it, came up with an arrangement, and tweaked a couple of things. Then we walked into the other room where the band was waiting, picked up some acoustic guitars, and taught it to them. We all learned it on the spot."


Part of the reason why Shanks and Doyle were able to work so quickly was because the band Shanks put together consisted of seasoned professionals- bassist Leland Sklar, drummer Matt Chamberlain, and guitarist Dean Parks. Shanks picked these musicians based on Doyle's demos, selecting players that he thought would provide the best complement to Doyle's music.


"As a singer-songwriter, Josh reminded me of certain artists," he explains. "In his music I could hear a little Jackson Browne, some James Taylor and Cat Stevens, and a bit of Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen. I immediately thought about getting Leland to play bass since he played on a lot of records by all of those artists. Dean Parks is a great acoustic guitar player, and I knew he could be helpful if we wanted to use alternate tunings. I've known Matt Chamberlain for a long time, and I've always been a fan of his playing. He's very versatile. Everyone I wanted was here in Los Angeles like me, so that made it easier to put the band together. Fortunately they all were available to do this. We all felt like a band by the end, which was exciting."


Shanks says that the band learned Josh's new song within minutes, and less than an hour later they started to record it. "The song is called 'Everyone's Alone,'" says Shanks. "I loved the title, the sentiment of Josh's lyrics, and the music. It was a complete package. We just worked it up right there on the spot. We recorded probably three takes and did some overdubs on it for a couple of hours. Then we went right back to what we were originally doing, working on this little list of Josh's songs that we were recording. You should always nurture that creative mindset in the studio and let your creativity lead the way. That's why you are there to begin with."


From that point onward Shanks decided that he wanted to record an entire album with Doyle. "Every song was great," he says. "I had all kinds of ideas about what I wanted to do with each one, so then the challenge became trying to complete 10 songs during the time that I had with the band. It had to be 10 songs, because that's what you need for a complete album. Bands like Led Zeppelin may have done albums with only seven or eight songs, but for an artist like Josh, I knew that 10 songs were what he needed to do. I put myself in Josh's shoes and thought about what I would want my first album to be like. This album needed to be a statement and a time capsule that was as strong as it could be for the new journey that he is about to embark upon. This album was all about him."


Because Doyle was so well prepared, Shanks says that the entire album took only about six days to complete. Beyond the initial sessions, which took place over a four-day period, Doyle returned to the studio to put finishing touches on his vocal tracks and Shanks and keyboardist Patrick Warren laid down a few additional instrumental overdubs. Shanks then worked on each song individually, spending about a week per song on finishing touches and the final mix.


"I like working that way," says Shanks. "I recorded a few instrumental tracks after the fact. Once we did the tracking and basically had everything I went back through some of the songs and played keyboards and some guitar parts- pretty minimal stuff, subtle shading and overdubs like a cello part, a pad, or an ambient guitar that you don't even know what it is. Usually it was something buried deep in the mix, like me scraping strings, using delays, or manipulating keyboard textures, but no one would notice it until you took it away. But ultimately it's all about the music-the playing, the songs, and Josh's performance. Josh was in very good voice, and we just hit a stride. When that happens, you keep things flowing. It's almost harder to know when to stop. I really wanted to support someone on their journey, which is exactly what I got to do with Josh."


Now that process is starting all over again for Shanks as he has agreed to come back as the judge for Guitar Center's second Singer-Songwriter Contest. However, this time he'll also have the benefit of watching Doyle's career unfold and develop as he keeps his eyes (and ears) open for the next winner.


"Hopefully another year from now we'll be sitting here again talking about the next winner and where Josh has gone to," says Shanks. "I honestly think that Josh is going to have a very good run. He's made a great record. I've worked on a bunch of records this year, and I'm as proud of Josh's record as I am of anything else I've worked on."


Shanks is keeping his mind open for the next batch of contestants and isn't ruling out any style of music whatsoever. He says that the next winner could be similar to Doyle or it could be something entirely different, and he encourages contestants to submit work that they personally feel is their best instead of what they think he's going to like based on his previous work.


"I think it would be amazing if we found some unreal songwriter who is part of a band that sonically kicks ass and sounds fresh," he says. "I may be a guitar player, but I love all kinds of music. I also love things like Depeche Mode, Kraftwerk, and weird analog synth German/Bauhaus kind of stuff. I love new bands like Grouplove and Neon Trees that do dance-oriented alternative pop but also use traditional instruments like acoustic guitars. Those songs really work. They're commercial and have hooks, but they also work on an emotional level. I like to listen to anything that's cool. It doesn't matter where it comes from."


Because the music industry has changed so dramatically over the last few years, Shanks feels that new alternative means of getting noticed like the Guitar Center Singer-Songwriter Contest are more important then ever. He says that musicians can no longer expect to use the old methods of playing shows and hoping to get discovered and that aspiring artists need to use every means available to expose their music to the public. He also emphasizes that artists who are used to working hard from the beginning are the most likely to enjoy long, successful careers.


"Artists today pretty much have to do the jobs that record companies used to do for them," he elaborates. "You have to put in a lot of time and effort, and you often have to work for free or pay to make records out of your own pocket. Record companies aren't as willing to develop artists as they used to be. You have to be able to offer them the entire package right from the beginning. Things have become much more singles-oriented lately, almost like they were in the Sixties. Unfortunately people often lose connections with artists when they just buy singles because they don't appreciate the depth of an artist's work. I prefer to work with people who put as much time and effort into making each song on an album as they do on their singles.


"That's why I'm excited to judge this contest again," Shanks concludes. "I'm excited to see what's going to happen next. The first contest went even better than I dreamed it would. Josh Doyle is a very impressive artist. I want to emphasize that I think contestants should approach this as an open book. The next winner truly could be anyone. It doesn't necessarily have to be a guy with an acoustic guitar or a gal and a piano. It could be someone in a country band or a techno DJ who also sings. The song just has to be original and fresh. The contest really could go in any direction."


 
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