Berklee Today

Arif Mardin in His Own Words
By Mark Small

Spun Gold: Arif Mardin in the study of his apartment.
Photo by Mark Small

After decades as a hit maker at Atlantic Records, Arif Mardin '61 continues to produce hits at a new label and is taking time to work on his own music.

When multi Grammy-winning producer Arif Mardin '61 reached the mandatory retirement age at Atlantic Records, key folks in the industry knew it was premature to put this race horse out to pasture. Bruce Lundvall (president of Blue Note Records) and Roy Lott (deputy president of EMI Recorded Music, North America) offered Mardin and fellow industry veteran Ian Ralfini the newly created positions of covice presidents at EMI's reinstituted Manhattan Records imprint. The emphasis for Mardin and Ralfini is producing music for the adult music market.

Mardin, whose first chart-topping hit came in 1966 with "Good Lovin'" by the Young Rascals, has produced some of the biggest artists of the past four decades. The roster of talent with whom he has worked: Cher, Aretha Franklin, Roberta Flack, Hall and Oates, the Bee Gees, Chaka Khan, Phil Collins, Bette Midler, Manhattan Transfer, Stevie Wonder, Eric Clapton, Diana Ross, Jewel, and more, is a testament to his musical skill and knack for creating classic pop songs that resonate with a multigenerational audience. Not surprisingly, in his new capacity at EMI, Mardin continues to add to his legacy with singers Daniel Rodriguez, Norah Jones, and others. Since its release in February 2002, Jones's debut CD, Come Away with Me, earned several Grammy nominations and has surpassed platinum sales.

The day after his return from a trip to his native Turkey, Mardin took time to chat about his current and future activities at his Manhattan apartment. Although Mardin is 70, he shows no signs of slowing down, and his passion for diverse music is as strong as ever. Since you joined Manhattan Records, it seems you've shifted gears musically. When I reached the mandatory retirement age at Atlantic, which is part of AOL Time Warner, this new offer came from EMI. Manhattan Records is a part of the EMI label. My focus at this job did shift; we are doing music for an adult audience. I can't do youth-oriented pop music now. I'm too old for that. There are young producers who specialize in hip-hop and other current styles. I'm not into that. This label will record cabaret music and adult pop.

I have been enjoying the Norah Jones album. The production is very spare, different from the work that you are best known for. I have been known to add a lot of strings, brass, or background vocals, but this album was an exercise in self-restraint. Nora is an idealist and didn't want to add too much to the basic sound she was working with. We did add things, but the approach to this production might be compared to a woman putting on makeup in such a way that she would not look made up. Norah had never harmonized with herself before, but she did it so beautifully on this record. We would add one violin here and some organ or accordion there. Basically, it is four or five people playing together. That's a bit rare nowadays.

My job was to help the band put it all together. I produced about 80 percent of the music. We added very little reverb to keep the intimacy of her voice. Apart from three covers, all of the songs were by Norah or her friends. This album is very organic. Norah's mother used to listen to Aretha as well as jazz around the house, so Norah grew up hearing great but eclectic music.

Norah is young. Will Manhattan feature artists of all age groups? Yes. In addition to people like Norah, we have signed Art Garfunkel; he recorded a new album for us. Another artist, Melissa Errico is a tremendous singer and a beautiful girl. She is a Broadway star who has been onstage since she was 16. She played several roles in the revisiting of plays like My Fair Lady and the Sondheim musicals. We made an album with her that comes out February 25. We did not record Broadway material though. We used original songs by Randy Newman, Amanda McBroom, and RickieLee Jones. Melissa made these songs all her own and again the record is basically four or five musicians playing together. There is no electronic trickery. We used strings and some woodwinds, but it is a light production.

Would you like to see more productions with people playing live in the studio? Yes - back to humans.

Do you think the new technological developments that have facilitated file-swapping activities and have cut into CD sales influence the way labels operate these days? I am sure they do, and some people are having a hard time dealing with it. I think there should be new laws to protect artists and songwriters. I think the downloading and file-sharing phenomenon reflects the way that the youth are thinking. They are saying, "We don't care about record companies. Prices are too high, so let's just download the songs we like." In this kind of leftist thinking where they despise the big companies, they don't realize that they are actually stealing from the artist, songwriter, and producer as well as from the label. When they read about the salaries of the CEOs at big companies or of the high price it took to sign a certain artist, they say "who cares?" They have to be educated. Do you think the practice of downloading one song from this artist and another from that artist and then burning compilation CD might lead to the loss of the concept of an album as an artistic whole?

Well, this practice is not new. Many years ago, when I would visit Greece or Turkey, I found that the local grocer would buy one copy of records by various artists. His customers would come in and give him a list of the songs that they wanted and the grocer would make a pirated cassette with the songs and sell it to the customer. It was similar to what is happening now.

Was Manhattan's decision to cultivate adult listeners influenced by the fact that many adults still buy CDs rather than download MP3s as the kids do? We are concerned about that issue, but we were not motivated by it in this venture. We had a lower goal in going in this direction. My wife was very happy that I was going to retire from Atlantic thinking that now maybe we could take some time off and travel. My partner Ian Ralfini and I kind of conned our wives by saying we'd have a small label doing cabaret and jazz and that we'd take them out to these cabarets. They were very excited about this, but it hasn't worked out like that. We are back in pop music.

Targeting the adult audience requires that you have a marketing plan. It is not the same as working for the youth market, where you make a video and promote the music through radio. It is very difficult for these adult records to get through to pop radio. There was an overlooked segment of the record-buying public that I think came to our attention after the 9-11 tragedy.

This cross section is being heard from. Look at James Taylor's most recent album [October Road]. After one month it was a gold record. Norah Jones got an avalanche of responses after her album came out - and not only from young people. A big audience between the ages of 12 and 80 seems to love this girl. This might be an exception, but she has captured older listeners too. She won't take fans away from Britney Spears. There was an existing segment of listeners yearning for simplicity and good melodies, and these listeners are buying the records.

The Norah Jones disc has a very peaceful feeling to it. Do you think this aspect is luring people to her? Yes. And we hope the Art Garfunkel record will catch that too. Rod Stewart is known as a rocker, but his latest album has songs by Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Rodgers and Hart, and entries from the American Songbook. Even though the 45- and 50-year-olds grew up listening to rock, they are listening to melody now. Can you listen to a really great hard-rock song that you loved when you were 20 years old and still feel the same about it now?

In the process of signing talent to your label, are new artists being pitched to you, or are you picking from demos too? We do listen to some demos, but most artists coming to Manhattan come through the company. The first artist that we signed, Daniel Rodriguez, a New York policeman with a great voice who we first saw on television, is an exception. He sang at a lot of events after the 9-11 tragedy and was later brought to us by saxophonist Tom Scott. Daniel is now touring to sing with orchestras everywhere. He is doing very well and has a great voice. It was not just because everyone got to know him through the tragedy; he's got a following and a big career ahead of him. I wrote one arrangement for his album, and my son Joe also wrote one.

I have read that when you audition songs, you prefer a bare-bones demo rather than a heavily produced one. If the melody and lyrics are great, I don't want to hear other people's production ideas. On rare occasions, if it is a groove song and the writer tells me that a certain hook is important, that's fine. I'm not saying that every demo should be just guitar or piano and voice: sometimes you need a rhythm section to give the idea of how it goes. What I don't want are elaborate, finished masters as a demo.

However, a songwriter might not trust the A&R people, and maybe some of them are not equipped to judge. If a songwriter is worried that his song may not be appreciated, he may make a more complete production. For someone to make a demo that's like a finished record might work fine for some producers, but not for me.

In the Berklee commencement speech you gave in 1985, you told the new grads, "When you feel pangs of nostalgia, try to resist, and, without rejecting the music of the past, always look toward the future." Is that still your philosophy? Yes. We should take whatever was good from the past and build something new on it. When you see trends in music where styles or sounds come back, they are never exactly the same. The cycle is like a helix, it is circular, but always moving forward. The disco you are hearing today is similar to the disco of the 1970s - it maybe even up to 80 percent the same - but there is something new in it.

As you approach a new project, are you able to put aside any personal stylistic biases to recognize a great new artist? Or do you pass sometimes, saying, "I know this is a great artist, but the music just doesn't hit me." If it is a great artist, the music should hit me. If I don't believe in the singer or the style - even when I know it is going to be a hit - I'll pass on it. I am not the kind of cynic who can work with an artist or on a project that will be a moneymaker but give me no musical pleasure. For me, an artist must be sincere, so I work with someone like Willie Nelson. He is an American treasure. He's not Pavarotti, but he has a distinct style and is a wonderful, sincere person.

What do you think of the trend of breaking new artists who look great and dance well but aren't particularly gifted as singers? These days, if someone is a beautiful young man or lady, they don't have to sing in tune, because you can correct that with software. Even if they are doing a live concert, the master is played and they lip-synch. People don't care. It is a sad situation. I understand that in the 1930s and 40s, the film industry was way ahead in this area. They had an extra track, and someone like the great Fred Astaire would sing first in the studio and then when they filmed him dancing, he was lip synching. That way, he wasn't panting. He had to lip synch because he was tap dancing. Today's pop stars do a lot of movement and dancing on stage. It's like aerobics. Someone like Madonna can't dance as she does and sing at the same time, so they play the master. But when an artist lip synchs to a ballad, it might indicate that there is something lacking there.

Do you think that the music business is getting tougher for new artists to get into or are the opportunities still there? It has always been tough. There are two different schools of thought. Big corporations concerned with bonuses and quarterly profits are not interested in a jazz record or something that will sell between 50,000 and 100,000 copies. Even selling one million copies is disappointing for big companies. They spend too much on making an album. They give a lot of front money to the stars, and then stars spend too much in the studio. But if someone running a smaller label spends $25,000 or $30,000 to make an album rather than a million dollars, and if they sell 100,000 copies and make 10 records a year, they make a profit and are enjoying themselves. Big labels can't dream of spending all of the time and effort it takes to sell only 100,000 records. They have too much overhead. If they are smart about things, new artists can make an album in two weeks without stupid expenses such as lavish accommodations and travel. That leaves more money for promotion and marketing, where the money will make a difference. A new artist can enter the business in that way, through the back door, so to speak.

What would you tell rising artists to be prepared for? Be prepared for heartbreak but don't give up: there is always the next chance. You have to be well connected with an agent or manager who represents you and believes in you. You also have to make the rounds and start building your fan base. I was reading Jewel's life story. When she was 16 or 17, she would take her guitar and go to these dangerous biker bars to sing. She got experience, though, and that pays off.

I understand that you recently premiered some of your orchestral music in Turkey. Yes. I have written a libretto and an opera that is titled I Will Wait. It has not been fully staged yet, although we did portions of it in a loft in New York with a scaled-down orchestration. Conductor Gurer Aykal of the Borusan Istanbul Symphony is a family friend and he had heard my pieces. He told me to orchestrate them for a performance. I procrastinated, and then around May of 2002 he called me up and, sounding like a Mafia don, said, "October 29 or 30, we're going to play your pieces," and then he hung up. I had to orchestrate arias from my opera and two art songs based on poems written by my wife, Latife, and my daughter Julie. I went to Turkey for some intensive rehearsals. Juliana Jaffe, an American soprano, who did the workshop performances with me, was invited to come to give them their world premiere.

Do you favor a modern approach to harmony in your personal writing? I do. In fact, after hearing this music, my son Joe was calling me "Alban Dad," comparing me to Alban Berg. One of the arias has a very complex 10/8 time signature. It has some Turkish or mystic influences. The others are very chromatic and modern sounding.

Do you think the general listening public will develop ears to accept more dissonance in the future? There was an article in the New York Times recently in which a music critic said that tonal composers are better and that 12-tone or atonal composers ruined things. Well, that writer doesn't know that Alban Berg's opera Wozzeck was a great piece of music. There were so many great 12-tone pieces - some unbelievable music by Webern and Schoenberg. However, I don't think that the man on the street will ever be whistling that music. Maybe it is out of fashion to write 12-tone music now, but people will always love a good melody. In one of my arias, I used an extremely tonal melody that is very singable. To offset that, I have hidden dissonances on the orchestration. That was my aim in the aria. Are you now finding more time to write music of this type for your own interest? I do have the time now, even with my new job. But, truthfully, I always found time to write my own music. I thought of it as moonlighting from my day job. I'd write a string quartet and then put it aside until I could get it played. I hope to record all of my classical pieces for a life's work CD. Then people will be able to hear them and decide if they want to perform them.