Name: Jesse Saunders
Occupation: DJ, Producer
Current Release: Buy/listen to Jesse Saunders' Kaleidoscope EP (ft. remixes by Stacy Kidd, Paul Johnson and Demarkus Lewis) here.
House Music The Real Story
My new release:
Kaleidoscope (feat. Dani Ivory) by Jesse Saunders
If you enjoyed this interview with Jesse Saunders, keep up with him on Facebook.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What what is about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I starting editing records with a pause button cassette deck when I was 14 years old. I always felt that tracks didn't present the best of what they could be, so I made them that way myself. I wrote my first song when I was 21. It was the culmination of years of musical training, and being at the top of my game in Chicago. I always had an ear for melody and creative writing. But it wasn't until I got the vision to forge a new genre of dance music that I put the two together. That vision came from being able to watch, feel and anticipate where I needed to take them as a DJ.
For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice? What is the the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?
I've always had an original sense of what I want to do. No matter how hard I tried, I could never actually copy what someone else has done. There's always a twist as in the case of “Love Cant Turn Around”. Although, Farley (Jackmaster Funk) wanted to copy Issac Hayes “I Can't Turn Around”, not only my conscience, but my musical feel just went in another direction. I wanted to make the production it's own song with new lyrics and melody. The rest is history!
Artists and songs that influenced me in my early years were Earth, Wind & Fire, Chaka Khan and Rufus, The Isley Brothers, Fleetwood Mac and The Eagles. I studied their use of melodies that seeped into your soul and stuck with you for a lifetime. It's hard for me to detract from that when it comes to chord structure and melodies. I know that resonant chords present a feeling of happiness and euphoria. Dissonance creates chaos and darkness. I never want to be dark!
What were your main compositional- and production-challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
My main challenges were instructing a band to play exactly what I wanted. In those early days we didnt have software programs and self correcting functions that help the non-musician create tracks like today. You had to be on top of your music theory, arrangements and musicianship.
You had to know musical notes, chords and progressions, key changes, crescendos and decrescendos, counterpoint and time signatures. There was no faking it. So when I wrote “Fantasy” it took me months to get it to a point where I felt the arrangement was correct! To this day it remains one of my best arrangements!
What was your first studio like? How and for what reasons has your set-up evolved over the years and what are currently some of the most important pieces of gear for you?
The first studio I recorded in was Solid Sound in Hoffman Estates, just outside of Chicago. A friend of mine, Kevin Richards, was doing his final for his sound engineering class. He invited me to a free session to record “Fantasy” to complete his final exam.
I found a local band, then spent months rehearsing them for the big recording session. They had just won a talent show and I thought they were my best option for learning and playing my song. Learning the musical parts, bass, guitar, keyboards and vocals went well. But when we finally got to the studio to record, nothing was as I expected. The drummer couldn't keep time, because he was so excited and it through everyone else off! After that session, I decided to find a drum machine.
I went back to the drawing board and rethought my production of “Fantasy”. I first bought a Synsonics drum machine made by Mattel. I saw it on a TV commercial and the light bulb went off in my head. I then graduated to a Roland TR-606, then added the TB-303 (bassline). These 2 synchronized together to form a rhythm section. It was the first time that I didnt have to play the bass on my piano. I now could play the most important parts of the song by myself! This was a major improvement in songwriting for the times. The next time I recorded “Fantasy” went much smoother and it is the classic that you hear today!
With the advent of midi the game changed dramatically. Synthesizers and synth modules that could be controlled by midi sequencers made recording less expensive and faster. I to this day have racks of these that I still use. The advent of software like Ableton and Logic have taken that to new heights. But I will always be a hands on writer and producer. You cannot capture the feeling that comes from the soul with a digital source. You have to actually play and not quantize to get that ‘human’ feel. It's the difference between limitation and being limitless.
How do you make use of technology? In terms of the feedback mechanism between technology and creativity, what do humans excel at, what do machines excel at?
Technology is good for simplifying tasks, and getting you from one point to another quickly. But in music nothing can replace the timing, feel and soul of actually playing the notes. Robotic music does nothing for me. It has no feeling, no soul. I can pick out a song done exclusively in Ableton or sequenced (even with quantizing) in Logic immediately. There's this push and pull feel in the song because it never quite gets where it should be.
As a songwriter, musician or producer you should learn to use technology in your favor, not as a crutch. I'm certainly glad that I was born in a time when we had to actually learn and play music. It has given me insight that is invaluable and lasts a lifetime.
Production tools, from instruments to complex software environments, contribute to the compositional process. How does this manifest itself in your work? Can you describe the co-authorship between yourself and your tools?
All my tools are specific to my simple needs in my productions. One thing to note is that one cannot reinvent the wheel. Every month you see a new keyboard or piece of equipment that is supposed to do this and that better than the last. To be honest they all really do the same things. It comes down to sounds and manipulation these days. Your ear is always your best tool, and if you have musical education and engineering skills, you can pretty much make any sound your own.
Being an engineer with thousands of songs recorded and hundreds of releases, plus being a DJ who plays for tens of thousands of people - I have a distinct advantage over most other producers. Not only do I get to play my work and use those software and hardware tools to capture, record and track music in a human feel type of way, but I also get to play it for a captive audience that already appreciates my work. This enables me to see and hear instant reaction, which lets me know what to go back and tweak, or if I should consider it finished.
One of the most important assets to have as a good song-writer or producer is to know when a song is finished!
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
On my 1st collaborations with Vince Lawrence, Farley Jackmaster Funk, Wayne Williams and others we were always in the same space with each other as we wrote and I produced.
In 1998, when I produced the Chicago Reunion album it was the 1st time that I did a session without being in the same studio. We cut Tyrie Cooper's vocals in London, produced the track there as well and then screaming Rachel sent vocal parts and I chopped it up and put it all together. That was a prelude for what was to come in the tech age of the 2000s.
In recent years I collaborate via the Internet and Skype. Dani Ivory, the featured vocalist and Co-producer of “Kaleidoscope”, and I send parts back-and-forth with each other through our shared dropbox all the time. We've gotten to a relationship where I trust her instincts and the choices that she makes vocally and instrumentally and we work well together. I can't say this works well with everyone, because it takes a certain rapport to be able to work with and trust another musician or singer in this manner. I'm very much a perfectionist when it comes to chords, melodies, inflection, creativity and the instinct to master a vocal.
Could you take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work? Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
A day in my life can encompass everything and nothing all at the same time. I've never had a job, so I've never had to be on a schedule. Which means that my schedule is my own and wherever my spirit takes me is where I go. I'm the epitome of a free spirit!
Sometimes I travel a lot, sometimes I just like to chill and do absolutely nothing. Don't ever schedule a meeting with me at the time you'd like to actually meet. You must always tell me at least 30 minutes in advance so that I will make it on time lol. Of course this is no disrespect to anyone that I am meeting with, but a by-product of time not being important to me. To me accomplishing goals are what's most important and deadlines do not mesh well with creativity.
If I'm working on a project, my schedule is usually to awake sometime between 9 and 10:00 a.m., wash my face, brush my teeth, stretch, then have a cold pressed, organic vegetable and juice drink and a banana. I'll then check my phone, which is my lifeline, to see what's going on and if my agents, manager or PR agent need me to do anything. After answering anything that needs to be answered, I will then venture into the studio and pull up my current project and do whatever is necessary to complete it.
After a few hours in the studio I'll usually get up and head out to my favorite place, which is the District in Green Valley Ranch, located just outside of Las Vegas. There you will find me either writing, or putting a plan together, or working with partners on business ventures, or having a meeting. I love this place because it is everything that most people want on a vacation and the beauty of the blue skies, Palm trees, warm weather and sun, with leisurely seating scattered around it, is my kind of place!
Next I will eat a healthy vegan meal and meet up with some friends before heading back home. I always end my night watching my favorite TV programs, which I usually fall asleep on! All of this only happens if I'm not on tour, speaking at a college, University or conference or exploring this beautiful world we live in!