Reflections on Making an Indie Album
By Terry Wollman '81
The year was 1981, which seems like a lifetime ago but actually feels like a blink of the eye. After graduating from Berklee, I moved to Los Angeles with everything I owned: two guitars, a degree in arranging, my juicer, a few books, and some clothes. I was on a mission fueled by pure desire and ambition. That move was the second culture shock of my young life. The first occurred when I moved from my hometown of Miami, to Boston, to study at Berklee. In both of these moves, I was exposed to a new level of musicianship achieved by merging natural talent with hard work. Being exposed to so many gifted musicians changed how I perceived what was possible to achieve in my development as a musician and artist. I saw the extraordinary level of talent in the musicians around me, and more important, how high the bar had been set for excellence.
Toward a New Horizon
My cross-country drive from Boston to Los Angeles was a metamorphosis. As I drove toward my yet-unborn career, my past faded with each mile and the future grew closer with every new day. I moved to Los Angeles with the singular goal of creating the highest-quality music that I could possibly make. I know many other musicians with a similar story. One of my first jobs was working with the Crusaders, assisting pianist Joe Sample with arranging and orchestrations, and eventually playing guitar on one of the band's albums. That first year, I also toured with Billy Preston. Through the years, I've gotten to know some of the top studio musicians in the world.
Along the way, I've toured with other artists, worked as a session musician, and written and recorded music for film and television. I released the albums Bimini and Say Yes under my own name. I also cowrote and produced an album called Shall We Dance? for the pop-electronica group Baila, and collaborated on Sleep Suite, an album at the opposite end of the musical spectrum.
I'm continually writing and recording vocal and instrumental songs. The inspiration for my latest album, Buddha's Ear, came when I was working with Keb' Mo', who has become a good friend. We were sitting on his back porch passing an acoustic guitar back and forth when he asked me when I was going to start my next album. I told him I had been thinking a lot about it but was uncertain of what musical direction to take. He simply said, "I think it's time." We grabbed a second guitar and wrote the song "Mandela," which ended up being my first single on radio. We wrote it right there on the porch with two acoustic guitars-old school. We wanted to write something that would set the tone for my new album and thought it would be fun to also feature another friend, Mindi Abair '91, on alto sax.
I took some time to think about what kind of album I'd make, what I wanted it to sound like, and who I wanted to play on it. I also thought about how to pay for it and promote and market it without label support. When I shifted from thinking about it to doing it, I knew that it would be important to allow some creative time, and to let the music guide me to which instrumentation would work best on each song.
I had a clear picture of which musicians I would bring in and left the space for them to add their own touches to the music. I am a big believer in casting the right player for each song. My recording band of world-class musicians included Abraham Laboriel '72 (bass), John Robinson '75 (drums), Greg Manning '92 (keyboards), Luis Conte (percussion), Gerald Albright and Mindi Abair (saxophones), as well as special-guest vocalists Keb' Mo', Melanie Taylor, and Melissa Manchester. I also recorded a string quartet at Capitol Studios in Los Angeles and a cello quartet in my studio.
I consider myself a pop musician with a jazz background. The music that I write is a direct response to what I hear and see around me. It's always been important to me to become exposed to different cultures, styles, and perspectives. Growing up in Miami gave me a good start in seeing the musical connections that bind all of us together. The more I get around, the more clear that connection becomes. I love to write when I travel, and when I return home, my own take on the experience comes out in the solitude of my recording studio. Once in a while, I'm awoken or tapped on the shoulder by a melody or a lyric. And when that happens, I make it a point to give a warm welcome to these unexpected visitors.
Some songs like "Mandela," "Buddha's Ear" and "Gettin' Ready to Get Ready" target the smooth-jazz market, but others like "The Blue Pearl" and "Tulum" clearly fall outside the format. The only preconceived idea I had for the album was that I wanted it to sound great. I wanted to make an audiophile album with some extraordinary musicians and capture what I hope others will feel are memorable melodies, played with a lot of heart.
The music for Buddha's Ear was written and recorded over a period of two years, from writing the first song on the back porch to mastering with Bernie Grundman. During that time, I brought in a lot of amazing musician friends to record their parts. I chose each one because I enjoy the music they make. Having my own studio allowed me the luxury of layering the guitar and keyboard parts striving to create an organic live feel for everyone else to play to. Since I know these musicians really well and because they are all so gifted, I was able to imagine what they might play and leave the space in the arrangements for them to do it. The sessions were a blast.
Tradition might have dictated that the foundation of the tracks would have been recorded first. But after recording the guitars, horns, and keyboards, I took the tracks to John Robinson's studio to have John and Abraham Laboriel record live drums and bass. That was a day I won't forget. It was a long, but very musical, day. Magic happens when those two play together. A few weeks later, I went to Luis Conte's studio to record percussion and, from there, to Hollywood's iconic Capitol Studios to record the string quartet. We finished additional overdubs at various studios, mixed everything at my studio with engineer Peter Kelsey, and completed mastering with Bernie Grundman.
My intention was to document my new music and a moment in time, and I hope people around the world will listen and be moved by it, and then talk about it so others will buy it. After extensively researching my options, I decided to focus my initial marketing efforts on developing a radio presence by hiring Gorov Music Marketing to do the radio promotion. The first single, "Mandela," debuted as a #1 Most Added on the Billboard smooth-jazz chart. Now I'm focused on playing live and getting out to promote the music.
The record industry as we once knew it no longer exists, and many of the old rules no longer apply. If you choose to be an independent artist, you have the power to make your own artistic and financial decisions. The music is the still the most important part of what you create. But without a strong presentation, you might not get the attention you deserve. Start thinking about your artwork during the recording process. Your album cover needs to jump off the page on iTunes even when reduced to the size of a postage stamp. Pay attention to the smallest details as you keep your eye on the big picture.
Time passes quickly, and I've learned that we should do what's in our hearts and do it well without apologies or excuses. I recommend creating music in your own unique way and expressing your artistry with joy and abandon. Be willing to work uncompromisingly for what you believe in. Success will have a better chance of finding you when you live your life with integrity, focus, and passion. Be selfish with your discipline and selfless in your performance. And have fun. Remember, it's called playing.
Instrumentalist, composer, and producer Terry Wollman has worked with many top artists and in the television industry. His first album, Bimini, topped the jazz charts. Wollman's Buddha's Ear recording is available through iTunes where listeners are invited to post a review. For more information, visit www.terrywollman.com.