Ramone, Phil

By Dominick A. Miserandino,
Phil Ramone has worked with luminary artists, such as Billy Joel, Paul Simon, Kenny Loggins, Barbra Streisand, Barry Manilow, and Frank Sinatra. Almost every one of their landmark albums has been produced by Phil and in this interview he describes some of his secrets to success.

DM) What album do you feel is the one that you've done the best job as a producer?

PR) Billy Joel's Nylon Curtain album. I think the challenges were a little more like a Beatle's record. I think he was coming to a place in his life, which meant more adventure; certainly songwriting was as critical as it always is, but we had the chance to expand the arrangement more.

DM) Do you feel the best albums are from a mature artist honing their craft or from somebody trying something a bit different?

PR) No, I think if you take an album like "Still Crazy After All These Years" by Paul Simon, you would say that in the Paul Simon world, he was 10 years into making records but he made a new landmark in his life. I think certain artists who have been fortunate enough to have been accepted by the public... fail all the time. It's critical for people to understand that artists create all the time, and if they have a spell where they're not in the top-10 people write them off and say they need to "come back". When there's a new artist, you set the pace and I often worry that the sophomore jinx will happen and eventually you go back to repeating the first album.

DM) Is the sophomore jinx theory just public perception?

PR) I think it happens out of reality. The scenario is simple. You start with something you've built up from the age of 13 until you're in your 20's when you record your first album. You've had a plethora of songs and ideas; you go out and do an unbelievable amount of press and work and possibly a lot of personal appearances. Then they say it's time for a second album.

The thought process is different, you are perceived as a big star and your perception of yourself and how to write a better album is probably the toughest thing in the world. If you reach into your back pockets for something you didn't use in the first album... you might go there, you might be fresh out of new ideas. It's quite hard. It's not like a novel where you spent quite a bit of time running around the world and ideas come in the middle of the night.

DM) So what advice do you usually give to those artists that you work with who've already suffered from the sophomore jinx and are trying to get them back to do the high quality material that they used to create?

PR) If it's just one on one, the two of us will talk about how good the good songs are and if songs five and six are showing some weak signs, you keep writing until you get to the point you do have enough for an album. Some songs are good in pieces and some are not as good others. Sometimes the lyrics are weak, because there's not enough time for the poetry to come out. You simply have to be straight on about your criticism.

Now if you're faced with a September release date and it's late June you have to release that material and say, "This is it." The label's not going to let you be late.

DM) I would imagine telling an artist these things is a tough thing to do, considering how close the material is to their heart.

PR) Yeah, you don't tell your child that you're ugly or things are not good. This is not the way to do work. You're dealing with a very sensitive environment, and sometimes you're adding 10 or 12 people to the equation in the studio that were not there when you originally wrote the song. The criteria of your relationship is so dependent on being warm, completely intelligent and completely truthful to the point of helping and not truthful to the point of destroying. That's a fine line between the two but that's true of everybody's relationships... romance, business and all.

"I really don't like the way that song sounds." is the worst thing that you can say to somebody. I would put up all of my defenses if somebody said that. I hear it from my side as a producer myself. When the artist is first working with you it puts even more factors into the equation.

DM) Has your job as a producer been a balance between the psychological job of working with people and the technical job of the craft of producing a record?

PR) I think it is both, I think if you bring to the craft something that's technologically easier and more comfortable for them and make them the only interest that you have. If you're a good producer you have a good relationship with the engineer, and all the technology that you have to be demanding with what you know. It's good for you and your artist, so if they're experimenting with something new and I say that we're going to try it, everybody loves that, but it can't interfere with your day.

But of course, every good producer uses the world of psychology with everything they do. Sometimes you're the friendly uncle; sometimes you're the lover, of course not a physical lover... but we're sharing the same idea and loving that idea.

DM) Do you need the judge of an audience to determine whether something is a hit before it's a release?

PR) I think there's an unwritten way in which people work in a studio and every once in a while a song sounds like one you hear on the radio and it's a hit... so you dare to say that about it. Nowadays people are so cautious it's almost politically incorrect to say that. It's like when a person's playing in a golf tournament when the ball flies straight out people knows the way it is. Everybody knows how fragile the industry is and everything can change.

We don't do what movie companies do with sampling various audiences. The record thing is a bit of a "feel" thing. In the old days people got excited by a record and they started playing it a few dozen times a day and suddenly you have a hit. I've had records go out and get sent back by the record company and when it's released later it's a hit.

DM) Have you ever worked on something that you thought was going to be a hit and it just flopped?

PR) I think we all have. Like for "American Tune" by Paul Simon everybody swore that was going to be a hit, but the hit was really "Kodachrome". Or a song like "Goodnight Saigon" we never thought it would be a hit, but we knew it meant a lot to Billy Joel and to the people we lost in Vietnam. Then later, when he does it once in a while in a show, the place just comes apart. I think that happens a lot that we don't think something will be as powerful and it turns out that it does come out powerful. That's why I always tell young people, "Don't try to produce a record that sounds like what's on the radio now as it's already six months old in some form. That's a bad thing to do."


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