#49. A Conversation with Bill Champlin

Jason Anders: So let's talk about your new album, No Place Left to Fall; your press release on the new record states that you have been so fed up with the music industry that you haven't released a solo album in the past ten years. What have been your experiences and thoughts on the industry for the past decade, and what finally inspired you to release a new album?

Bill Champlin: The record business has gone the way of the rest of the economy, cars, banks, insurance companies etc., it’s just that the record business started earlier. A lot of things happened that the companies didn’t see coming: Downloading, I-tunes, MP-3, File Sharing, and, what I think is the main reason for the failing, bad music. All the experts decided at some point that how you looked meant everything and how you sounded meant nothing. Anyway, enough of that. My new solo album No Place Left To Fall is about my songs being cut with good musicians, all at the same time, in good studios, with an album, rather than a collection of singles, in mind when it was mixed and sequenced. I wanted to make it like it was one big multi-faceted song. I think I got close.
JA: Speaking of your thoughts on the music industry, what were your views during the time that your album Twenty 1 with Chicago was released back in 1991, during the birth of grunge music and the shifting of musical trends?

BC: I think that grunge was kinda’ cool in that the guys were actually playing the stuff. It was a little hard for me, but some stuff was awesome: Stone Temple Pilots, Soundgarden, and Alice in Chains. It was the hip-hop thing that changed radio so much. Cool beats, but melody was forgotten for a good while. It seems to be coming back lately.

JA: Back to the production of your newest album, what was it like getting back in the studio after so much time away, and how does this new material compare to recent work you have done?

BC: I have lived in a studio since 1986. It’s always cool being in there. I hadn’t done a full album since the Sons’ Hip Li’l’ Dreams and that had been a while. Lots of songs just sitting in my playlist on I-tunes. I just sent them to Mark Eddinger, my co-producer, and between us we picked some songs and we rehearsed them with Billy Ward, Drums—Bruce Gaitsch, Guitar—George Hawkins, Jr., Bass—and Will Champlin—keys on two songs. We arranged the stuff together and then went to Barber Shop Studios in New Jersey and recorded them with Jason Cursaro, a major league engineer and great guy. Pretty easy formula but you wonder why more CD’s aren’t made that way, who knows?

JA: Some reviews of the new record have raved about the slick production, the celebrated presence of your B3 organ, and your use of rhythm guitar, primarily on an acoustic guitar-based piece "Look Away", the same song that went #1 in 1988; what are a few of your favorite recordings on No Place Left to Fall, and why?

BC: I like the title song a lot ‘cause the vocal is a scratch we put on right after we cut the track, and the song is way cool. George kinda’ suggested the eighth note move, and it made the song wake up just right. I’d have never thought to do it that way. Thanks, George! I think other albums I’ve done are more “slick” than this one. These songs are more about band and vocals than a lot of my CD’s. Granted, I got into the vocals, but that’s what you’re gonna’ get with my stuff. Tracks? Well, gimme’ some. I wanted to make the CD a “swampy” album, like blues, but I got talked into just finding good songs and recording them whether they’re blues, jazz, or whatever... rap, polka? It’s coming.

JA: Speaking of favorites, what are your top three favorite albums of all time?

BC: Lou Rawls' Tobacco Road, Stevie Wonder's Songs in the Key of Life, and James Taylor's October Road.

JA: Do you remember what originally inspired you to become a musician?

BC: My mother played and wrote, and it just seemed to rub off. I had some great teachers along the way, mainly my high school music teacher, Robert Greenwood; he taught me about so much more than music. He taught me about getting people excited about their own music.

JA: Do you plan on doing a solo tour to promote the new record, and also, what do you enjoy most about performing for a live audience? Do you enjoy being on the road?

BC: Yes, We’re gonna’ do some stuff in November on the West Coast. I’ll be using mostly the same guys I used on my last tour, in the mid 90s. I like the road when the band is enjoying the music. I don’t like it when the band is not enjoying the music.

JA: What was it like being joined in the studio by special guests and past collaborators such as Michael English, Jerry Lopez, Peter Cetera, and even your wife and son? Also, how did the album grow from its original concept of being an all-blues record?

BC: I love to bring in somebody to the project when it’s already defined. That way the guests can easily see what’s going on and you can see them go, inside their heads, “This is cool. I’m gonna’ bring my “A” game.” Like I said before, we decided to just pick good material rather than just look for “swampy” stuff. It was cool having a record company telling you to be yourself, or, in my case, “yourselves”.

JA: Let's talk about your standards of what makes a great album, and what key elements do you incorporate into your studio work that you don't find in the majority of records produced by major labels today?

BC: I think drawing a fine line between what we call “art”, and what we do everyday as “craft”. When I’m doing a background date it’s about craft, which I’ve kinda’ honed into something that’s pretty cool. Applying that to my “art”, songwriting and lead vocals, is a trick. I gotta’ make sure that the art isn’t covered up by the craft. Sometimes it is and should be, and sometimes it is and shouldn’t be. The difference between my CD’s and others is that I’m on mine and I’m not on others that much. There’s a lotta’ good music out there; you just have to find it.

JA: Finally, if you had to sum up your career with one word, what would it be?

BC: Occasional.